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Eye-Opening Journeys

Making Travel A Keystone in Our Children's Lives
Written by Barbara Rodriguez. Photographs by Michael Witte.

Illustration by Michael Witte

We teach our children to share our world by involving them in our interests. For this columnist that meant making travel a keystone in her son’s life.

Introducing my son to the joys (and tribulations) of travel has provided more than a few teaching moments. The first was a lesson in grace under pressure, delivered a mere two weeks after he was born, when I settled his infant carrier into the prow of a canoe and paddled across an Adirondack lake. The picnic was scuttled and the baby quickly restowed when I realized the muddy beach upon which we’d landed was pocked with bear tracks.

While I don’t intend to use my son for bear bait again, I do look to travel as a way to open his eyes – in ways both literal and symbolic – to all that is grand, exciting, and sometimes scary in the wide world around him. Faced with travel’s inevitable roller coaster, I’ve tried to model my best behaviors in the hope that magnanimity in dealing with missed connections, lost bags, and rude desk clerks might take seed in Elliott’s everyday life as the virtues of patience and adaptability.

By his fifth birthday, my son had seen New York, Rhode Island, Florida, California, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, proving himself increasingly intrepid. On a cruel 14-hour road trip in a cramped and decrepit Yugoslavian van, 3-year-old Elliott was the only person among five adults who didn’t cry at least once.

Knowing that the advent of school years would cramp our peripatetic lifestyle, I chose Fort Worth, my own hometown, as a place to settle, and slaked my wanderlust by filling weekends with road trips in every direction. It remained my goal to create adventures my son would share with gusto, but as first grade approached I wondered whether I had done enough to teach him travel’s greatest lesson: It’s one thing to look, quite a different thing to see.

By the time we launched a trip to South Padre the summer before first grade I was dedicated to improving Elliott’s observation skills. I bought him a journal and a disposable camera and suggested he sketch birds and flowers glimpsed on the long drive south. I told him to keep his eyes on the horizons and expect big discoveries.

It was a summer filled with roiling skies and in the Gulf, hurricanes destined to become infamous contributed to cloudscapes both threatening and beautiful. Often enough to annoy even myself, I called Elliott’s attention to nebulous shapes, variegated clouds, distant lightning flashes. In answer he would hold up his camera, squint into the viewfinder, click off a photo and return to drawing in his journal, a series of figures inspired solely by his imagination.  

I amped up my efforts to engage him. My breathlessness over every leaping fish and falling star felt like life support, as if I could will him to share my enthusiasm if only I was more insistent, more creative, in my solicitations.

On the beach, in that blazing white light that pulls everything into sharp focus, I asked him to count dolphin fins with me, pointed out the peculiar slow-motion lift of a pelican, suggested he keep a tally of shrimpers and tankers. From a fishing boat, I showed him the ripple of fish dashing across the sea, a zig-zag just below the surface that would change direction in a blink of an eye as seabirds dropped with a splash, like stones thrown from on high. The child who had always delighted me with his wit and wisdom and sass had little to say. His world seemed to be contained within his imagination and the books he constantly read. 

By the end of the trip I was exhausted and disappointed. I thought how soon the natural world stops amazing our children. I questioned my parenting skills.

And then vacation was over and we were caught up in preparations for first grade, not the least of which was Elliott’s first visit to an ophthalmologist. The visit began with the doctor’s request that he face the large E taped to the wall. Elliott’s response: “What E?” 

I have no idea why had it never occurred to me that my son – the child of parents who had both worn glasses since childhood – was nearsighted. I was as humiliated by my own short-sightedness as I was delighted to know the reason for the failure of my summer’s mission.  A few days later we returned to pick up Elliott’s new glasses. He put them on, blinked slowly, looked across the room, and let out such a delighted whoop that the entire waiting room was focused upon us when he said, “Mom, how did you not know I was blind?”

That was the summer that travel taught me a life lesson:  If you want someone to share your vision, you better make sure they’ve brought their glasses.

Babs Rodriguez is the editor of 360 West magazine and a longtime contributor to Texas Highways.

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