American Vacations

Ampersand Brook

Paddling on Ampersand Brook, the Adirondacks

My partner sits at the water’s edge, crocheting a dusty rose sun hat for herself. Near the fire pit, our 12-year-old dog Max lies on his side, lifting his head whenever kayaks or canoes pass by our island campsite. Bears won’t bother us here, but we store his dog food in a bear-proof container. We just don’t hang it from a tree. Wind and red squirrels are the only threats.

We had crackers and venison jerky for lunch, instant oatmeal for breakfast, and a transformative five-hour paddle this morning and afternoon. We’ll go for a shallow swim this evening to clean up and cool off. Such is island life.

The air smells only of pine, reminding me of a childhood car vacation to Colorado and New Mexico. A dragonfly has landed near my wooded perch. Its brilliant iridescence comes and goes, whenever the sunlight can find its way through the pine boughs surrounding our spacious campsite. There are four on the island. Dark woods separate each with lonely patches of ferns struggling to spread. The forest floor is a mixture of pine needles, small cones, twigs, spiders, and tiny black ants, who are invisible until you leave your gaze in one place. In that stillness, their small, random voyages become dramatic, a lesson for any fiction writer—look close enough for long enough, and the story will emerge.

Vacations dwindle in size as you leave your twenties and do not return to their proper length until retirement, assuming you get that far. After college, I called them “trips.” The method was different too. Fly to a new continent and explore, spending as little money so that you can stay for months. Maybe stop somewhere to teach English. I collected deep, embarrassing thoughts in paper journals and read books I can no longer recall. I stumbled upon Marxism. And my oldest daughter was a born in Franconville, a northwestern suburb of Paris. It was a transformative time in my life.

I no longer wonder who I will fall in love with, the whiniest theme in my journals. She is sitting a short distance away. This morning, I watched her muscular back flex each time she sank her paddle into the unsuspecting water, rhythmically pulling us through fields of lily pads with singular yellow flowers. We’ll eat canned fish and drink bagged wine for dinner tonight, and it will be marvelous. Here she comes now.

In my late twenties, I took month-long vacations with my daughter to southern France, Portugal & Morocco, and a family tour of New Mexico, but I could only manage those with disposable employment. When you answer the call of professional life in America, when you accept a salary and benefits, you pay for it in leisure time. Your horizons reset. A stressful week of planning and recuperating bookend the affair. It feels like you are a planning a wedding. You can count the vacation days on one hand. You pile work onto the before and after weeks and, in my partners’ case, you burn vacation days to catch up on the insurmountable backlog of work. Yes, a vacation for most Americans is five weekdays and two weekends long. Half the nation has copied your plan to occupy overburdened coastlines and national parks. Cape Cod, Acadia, Yellowstone–you’ll remember the traffic jams more than the scenery.

We should no longer stand for the national anthem, just as we should no longer stand for so little time off. Our quality of life has been eroded or trampled upon to satisfy the myriad demands power and profit.

How did we come to expect so little? Why do we not spit when told a Republican or a Democrat shill for corporate America is the most pragmatic way to fight for working class interests? Professional politicians will not champion month-long vacations or free college tuition or universal healthcare. Like the Supreme Court, they will only concede to slake the outrage of an organized movement. The reaction to George Floyds’ murder has made this abundantly clear.

If we limit ourselves to grousing at the news, if we accept the limits of the American electoral system, we will continue to spend most of July and August working. But how will that organized movement take shape?