We set off for eight days, car full of collective hopes, expectations and gear. We remember the mushroom-collecting baskets, the homemade pesto, one rawhide drum, 15 books among us, but 50 miles down the road, Rose announces that she neglected to bring a single pair of shoes. Including the pair she did not walk out of the house with.
Lunch stop and a few choice boletes on Red Mountain Pass.
Ridgway Thrift Store provides: flip flops and sneakers for $2.50, plus one more book and the books each kid picked out at the Ouray bookshop. New count = 18.
By mid-afternoon, at Ridgway Lake, the kids have already entered sibling vacation mode, in which geographic proximity, lack of outside social inputs, and commitment to fun melds them into something approximating friends. Dan and I sit against a tree, watching them splash and swim, sinking into that familiar role of being happy simply for their happiness.
That night, we introduce our sacred space (“our evening activity” we call it, as if we’re aboard the Love Boat) with drum, smudge stick and a bird’s nest we found on our property. The focus of our ritual time is recognizing their journey from nestling to fledgling, from homeschooler to child of the world.
The kids are wide eyed as we tell the story of how we decided to homeschool. Next, we ask them to identify the strengths they developed as homeschoolers.
“One thing,” Col says, “was getting to know my parents and my home better.”
We come up with a list of 12 strengths, pass the drum around to close the circle, eat a little chocolate, and climb into our sleeping bags. “Goodnight everyone, I love you all,” Rose calls out. I nudge Col and he replies with a resigned, “good night, Rose.”
We set up camp in the Slate River Valley outside Crested Butte. Col catches a respectable-sized brook trout and pops the tiny, raw gumdrop of a heart into his mouth, seemingly as an answer to a question the organ posed sitting in his palm.
The late-August sun feels like an old friend I’ve reconciled with after a summer of arguing; we all bask in its generosity. When Dan and I return from a run, the kids are sorting fishing lures, and Rose announces that they’ve been sorting “and just talking.”
“Not really,” Col counters.
At our evening campfire, Rose asks, “If you were starving in the desert and had only a wooden torch and an old rag what would you do?”
We try to parse it all out when Rose announces, “you cover the wooden torch with the old rag so it doesn’t burn you too much when you eat it!”
Things devolve from there into perma-hilarity. Col asks, “Would you rather eat me or Rose if you were starving and we were both dead?”
I eye up Rosie’s thighs and Col deadpans, “No, seriously. Which?”
Dan asks if this is a competition to be chosen or not chosen.
For our evening activity we each write the values we developed through homeschooling (identified the night before) on paper targets and then shoot them with our bows to symbolize staying focused on these values: independent learning, connectedness, rootedness, going at our own pace, family time, nest and rest, practical skills, belonging.
The kids love the archery game, which we play till the darkness kicks us out and into our tents. That night a deep rain polishes our campsite clean.
We spend the morning drying out, drinking coffee and watching animals across the valley like its a TV station broadcasting frolicking elk calves, meaty clusters of bucks, and one large, slow-moving bear.
Later, we cross the Slate River, and creep up the slope, north of where we saw all the animals. The kids flounce through the last flare of wildflowers, swat mosquitos, and are amazingly resilient about the Dan-led, trail-less bushwhack.
That night after our gratitude ceremony (in which we read pre-written notes detailing points of thankfulness from these past six years of homeschooling) we present the kids with watches, which I thought might be akin to getting a brick of responsibility thrown in your lap, but they’re thrilled and spend much of the evening synchronizing, “What time do you have now? How bout now?”
At night, Rose calls out to me and Col in our tent, “Goodnight. I love you Mom and Col.” Col looks confused, scowls and tells me, “I’m working my way up to that.”
We wake up in the Slate River Valley and watch the pre-sunup lightshow on the ridges. Fog fingers creep down through aspens, pink clouds recline on the western slope.
Rose shows up at campfire ponytailed and in pajamas that somehow seem like an outfit. Col shows up in yesterday’s clothes, but immediately chops wood and starts the fire. “I’ve got 7:12am Rosie, how ’bout you?” “Same.” Sigh of relief.
We slosh some Frangelico in our coffee and Dan mentions to me that someday we’ll have to do an Empty Nest Colorado Tour.
“Many,” I agree.
“What will the theme be?”
“Wildflowers, elk, coffee and scrabble.”
Col spots the black bear, humpy, lumbering and thigh-heavy, in the upper clusters of trees. The bucks fold their legs under them and settle in for a morning nap. The elk calves run literal circles around the herd and Dan says it’s their last burst of wild energy before settling into the trees to bed down for the morning. “Like how you guys get a burst of energy before bed.” We drink coffee, hot chocolate and pass the binoculars around.
We pack up camp, resupply in Gunnison, including a trip to Six Points Thrift Store, in which we pick up six more books and three pairs of shoes. Plus the book Dan surreptitiously bought at the Ouray bookstore for an anniversary gift. New book total = 25. Dan and the kids play soccer in the park while I take a walk, charmed by the flowing in-town ditches and subsequently, the greenest lawns this side of the Mississippi. We drive an hour southeast of Gunny to the Quarter-Circle Circle Ranch at 9,300 feet. The two male hosts (one of whom chain-smokes and packs a pistol, fascinating the kids) give us a quick run down on the wood cookstove, kerosene lamps and 1000 gallon/minute spring, which all serve as our domestic technology for the next couple days.
Evening appetizer. Plus, as Dan says, the siblings are now even. 1:1.
That evening around the campfire we hold a forgiveness ceremony, Quaker meeting-style, in which each family member has a chance to share something they regret from our years of homeschooling, while the others simply listen without commenting. It is profoundly moving to allow the words to be spoken, and then to let them go, absorbed and freed.
Dan and I go for a gorgeous and grueling sunrise run and then pack up for fishing on a nearby creek. I’m not prepared for how much I enjoy watching the kids fish. Maybe it’s because I’m sitting beside a meandering mountain stream without much agenda; maybe it’s because I’m with the family, though everyone is quiet and focused (so focused that Rose turns down a snack of chips, a historical first).
The sun peeks in and out of clouds, the plants are tall and seedy, and it’s perfectly quiet except for Dan coaching the kids: “Nice cast. Yup. That’s a fine place to put your hook. Eye on your lure. Start reeling in. Slowly.”
The kids catch nine trout between them. Col winces as he pushes his finger into each fish’s mouth and snaps their spine. Rose performs this task without flinching.
That night, our “evening activity:” decorating prayer flags that Col and his homeschool co-op made six years ago with images representing our homeschooling years. Next, we cook a multi-dish meal (including nine fresh trout) on the wood cookstove, which is an exercise in mindfulness as each burner’s heat is a byproduct of proximity to the firebox and there are no “off” switches.
After dinner Col pulls me out onto the porch and cries in my lap in remorse for the fish he killed.
“Is it sad to think of all those precious fish lives?” I ask, employing empathy as a tool to help him get closer to his emotions.
“Mom, you’re making me sadder,” Col sniffs, deflating into my arms. I trust that allowing that sadness can act like a fire to cleanly burn away emotion, but I back off and just hold him without words.
Later, the kids swing in the most picturesque setting I could imagine and then fight over who gets to light the kerosene lamps until Dan reminds them that there are two. Dan and I come back from a sunset walk to find the kids in the bottom bunk together. “We’re snuggle-wrestling,” Rose explains.
After breakfast Col says to Rose, “You can draw with me if you want,” which Rose is wise enough to realize is Col’s way of saying, “I want to be with you.” I love how these trips ignite their friendship; or maybe it’s that these trips strip away distractions and complexities, laying bare what was always present.
We’re sad to leave the Quarter-circle Circle Ranch and rejigger our plan to camp in Crestone in favor of heading north (through Salida: coffee and ice cream) to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs for the sake of fun, just pure fun for the kids.
Dan sets up our next campsite and I read poolside while the kids attack the water slide. Rose makes two girlfriends almost immediately and I worry that Col will be left out. When I approach the group Col tells me “These are our new friends Natalie and Lauren. We’re playing with them.”
Back at camp, the kids have a fierce throwdown over who gets to present the hat to Dan that I bought at the ranch. Twenty minutes later they’re sitting around the fire making up new swear words (with copious clicks, consonants, and yak-herding Mongolian sounds), laughing hysterically.
That night, as always, we bring out the drum, the smudge stick, and the nest, for which the kids have found small rocks and special flowers to place inside. We’ve come to love our evening ritual, and I can feel it sealing us together, marking our collective transition out of homeschooling, beginning to transform and ready us for what’s next.
Gathering at the start of a rock labyrinth that we find at our campsite, we hold hands and walk along the stones, recounting our lives together. We name aloud their developmental stages, the decision to stay home together, the names of people who’ve been an integral part of our journey, the kids’ accomplishments, and then we stop at a lodgepole pine where two presents await. They each find a necklace (made by my talented silversmith friend). On one side of the silver coin pendant a heart with wings is etched into the metal; on the other the word: soar. They put their necklaces on and walk over a stone threshold into our arms. “We are your nest, your home,” we tell them. “Always here.”
The kids sleep late. The morning is frosty and Dan and I linger, warming hands on coffee mugs, by the fire. Today is our 15 year wedding anniversary and I wake up feeling…is it happy? I don’t know. It feels deeper, steadier, more trustworthy. I recognize that in a different life, Dan and I would be backpacking in the epic Collegiate mountains surrounding us; the kids, if asked, might choose some sanitized hotel with its packaged entertainment. And yet, there is nowhere I’d rather be than here, the sun mingling in the tops of lodgepole pines, hummingbirds buzzing Col’s red swimshirt hung to dry, frying bacon on the cookstove.
I’m grateful for this trip, for the simplicity, the slow and open rhythm, the ease of so much time and space, the way it’s knitting us together as a family as we each play a different role in our shared story. (I can imagine buying a van and never coming home, looping through this extraordinary state until the kids are 18. But wait – we’re transitioning out of homeschooling.)
We pack up after breakfast and head south. We drive through the San Luis Valley, which is like a Hollywood depiction of the Mountain West: acres of sagebrush meadows rolled out to the foot of the lofty, imposing Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range.
In the car, the kids read. (Not owning hand-held electronics has been a great strategy in not needing hand-held electronics). We find a radio station dubbed “Hippie radio” and sing loudly along with The Who, Stones and the Eagles. Dan rouses the kids from their books to get them to listen to Jethro Tull. “The only rock band to include a flute,” he instructs. The kids are unimpressed but I’m delighted. My partner of 22 years, who prefers bushwhacking in the wilderness to concerts, knows these things?
Dan and I each find a shirt; Col snags a 2009 Oprah magazine, the rights to read it providing sibling fodder for at least 20 minutes of bickering.
We stop in Crestone for lunch (Desert Sage Restaurant, so good) and leave the kids in a park with ice cream while we take a walk.
“You know, in another fifteen years it’ll be our 30th wedding anniversary, and we’ll be sixty,” I tell Dan, as we take in the funky residential area, seemingly free of pesky building codes.
“We should be in good shape because we already live like 60 year olds. You know, how we enjoy Scrabble, plant identification, taking walks together, no coffee after 3pm.”
Later, heading towards the Sand Dunes, U2’s One comes on. We sing along. Yellow sunflowers blur past our windows and the lyrics almost bring me to tears.
One love, one blood/One life, you got to do what you should/One life with each other/Sisters, brothers/One life, but we’re not the same/We get to carry each other, carry each other.
One life/We get to share it/Leaves you, baby, if you don’t care for it.
The sand dunes are hot and wild. We climb and sink and slide and afterwards Col notices that when he blows his nose, grains of sand come out.
Tonight, our last night, in a lodge in South Fork, is bittersweet. The kids agitate to watch a movie and we acquiesce and head to the hot tub. Already a subtle layer of separation is erected between us and the natural world; between parents and kids; between self-made fun and easy entertainment.
We don’t let the four walls hamper our ritual. Out comes the drum, the smudge and the nest. Tonight, we write peptalks to ourselves, addressing the inevitable challenges that will arise as fledglings. My heart is pierced with the hope and vulnerability of everyone’s words.
Dan and I go on an early run, the chill air hinting at a new season. Rosehips are reddening, the plants are a tangle of late-season overgrowth. Back at our sweet lodge, we cook breakfast on easy appliances, and then write postcards of gratitude to the people who supported us in our homeschooling years. We pack for a final time, feeling the heaviness of endings, but also a tingle of anticipation to return home.
We stop on Wolf Creek Pass for a mushroom hunt, finding a few boletes and the stunning and stalwart gentians, flaring up in summer’s last stand. In Pagosa Springs we make lunch of the last edibles rolling around the almost-empty cooler, remembering how we could barely close it 8 days ago.
After lunch, we wade into the San Juan River holding hands. Together, we lower the nest into the current and watch it surf down the river until it fades out of sight. Goodbye homeschooling. And then, we pile into the car and drive back to our homeland.
- Our dear friend, Tara Frazer, life-cycle celebrant (trained in family and healing ceremonies by The Celebrant Foundation and Institute in New Jersey), and proprietor of Four Trees Life Coaching and Ceremonies provided unparalleled assistance in planning our ceremonies. She can be reached at email@example.com