Vacation is about choices, trivial and existential. Spend money on a $35 commemorative photo keychain where everyone looks like a serial killer or be sensible and use it to buy dinner at Checkers inside a lonesome rest stop somewhere near Buffalo? See more and do more—or retreat to the blissful refuge of an air-conditioned hotel room and take a nap? Post photos or savor the moment? Scroll Instagram while waiting in a two-hour line to pet a sting ray at Ripley’s Aquarium or study every contour of your 8-year-old’s face, knowing that he’ll never, ever be exactly this age again? (The answer, of course, is to do the former and then feel horribly guilty.)
Last week, my family and I went on a road trip through New York state and up into Toronto. I’m a reluctant flyer. Oh, yes, I’ll do it, but only with a ready supply of Ativan and comforting, tattered Agatha Christie novels that I’ve read a dozen times before. So the fact that this was a car ride eased my mind somewhat. I can always turn a car around. I can always recline the seat all the way back and watch YouTube Dateline documentaries about notorious upper-crust murders. I can always get out of a car.
Actually, I couldn’t get out of the car. This is because the New York State Thruway is approximately 13,408 miles long and, last week, was filled with every person on planet earth. The car became our transportation vessel and trash can, cafeteria and hotel room. I finished Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s “Fleishman Is In Trouble” before we even hit Albany.
But, as an adult with kids, vacation is as much about sacrifice as it is about fun. My 8-year-old (and, let’s face it, my 40-year-old husband) wanted to see the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, a place that holds about as much appeal for me as a vacuum store. The pleasure would be in watching him enjoy it.
And he loved it. He studied every player’s plaque. He gawked at the old-timey uniforms. He completed a scavenger hunt that earned him a Mookie Betts baseball card. (Fun fact: There are two Jewish players in the Hall of Fame, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.) He bought a powder-blue Bo Jackson jersey that stretched to his knees. Meanwhile, my increasingly irritable 2-year-old and I retreated to a wooden bench, where he took my phone into his stubby little mitts and managed to livestream blurry video of the floor onto Facebook.
Cruising into Canada was easy. The jolly Canadian agent inspected our passports and welcomed us through with a hearty wave. We wended our way into Toronto, parked at our hotel and checked in—only to discover that WiFi had been knocked out of the entire building, which meant that the current setup was about as slow as AOL dial-up circa 1995. I took this personally. I rely on old episodes of “The Golden Girls” and “Murder, She Wrote” to fall asleep every night, conveniently streamed on Amazon Prime. (No, I do not have many vices. Yes, I am approximately 95 years old.) And so I spent an hour upping my data plan with Verizon while my kids somersaulted off their pull-out couch.
Travel messes with my equilibrium, my sense of gravity. I have touchstones in my personal life: my books, my bed, my wireless connection, my car. But I’d read all my books. My bed was foreign. My wireless connection was broken. And my car was stashed in a downtown parking lot for $50 per day.
No matter. Again, family vacations are a lesson in sublimating one’s adult desires (in my case relaxation and reading) for kids. We went to the Toronto Zoo. We went to the aquarium. We went to a Blue Jays versus Red Sox game. (Lots of cheap and delicious poutine; very few Blue Jays fans.) Every time I felt tempted to scroll or zone out, I pulled myself back: You will never have this time again. Appreciate it. We are all mortal.
Speaking of mortality: We also went to the top of the CN Tower. I booked us tickets in the spirit of exploration, knowing that vacations are supposed to push boundaries. For someone whose comfort zone is couch-and-book, I figured an elevator ride to the top of one of the world’s highest towers in a tiny elevator would do nicely.
All was just dandy as we waited in line, inching along, safe on the ground, face-to-backpack with tank-topped tourists fanning themselves with maps. Finally, though, we reached the velvet rope. A kindly elevator operator with a walkie-talkie (um, why did he have a walkie-talkie? To communicate with paramedics on the ground while we were suspended mid-air by a fraying cable about to plummet to our death?) waved us into the elevator, which was charitably the size of a trash compactor. I froze at the entrance. I felt like Woody Allen in “Annie Hall,” afraid to boil lobsters.
“You guys go!” I said cheerfully as my kids and husband, who is deathly afraid of heights, stepped aboard. “I’m going to check out the gift shop!” I ogled a benign-looking stuffed otter with a “CN Tower” onesie.
My husband grimaced.
“What? This was all your idea!” he yelled. At this point, the elevator was full of sweaty passengers, eager to be yanked upward, toward certain doom. They all looked at me expectantly. What else could I do? I stepped inside.
Once aloft, our operator regaled us with the feats of engineering that enabled our journey and cautioned the queasy among us not to gaze down at the glass floor. (Yes. A glass floor.) One woman buried her head into her husband’s shoulder and began to shake. I wondered if I would live long enough to go home and enjoy the new plants around my patio. I fixated on the plants. Who would water them? Would they turn brown? Would they die? Who cares if they die, if you’re dead, too, idiot? Oh, God.
The elevator squeaked to a stop and we lurched out.
My 8-year-old refused to look out the window. My 2-year-old began to bellow. We posed for a smiling family portrait, briefly admired the 360 view and then began to hunt for the exit.
There were happy times. I ate delicious, silken lox at Schmaltz Appetizing, considered the Russ & Daughters of Toronto. My bigger boy even indulged in a bagel—chewy, firm, unyielding. We had a sumptuous Fourth of July dinner at Beast, complete with deep-fried gnocchi that tasted like doughnuts. I hunted down an authentic empanada in Kensington Market, a neighborhood dotted with food stalls of every persuasion (and a woman strolling down the street in nothing but a thong and a tiny plaid kilt). We rode the carousel at the zoo, my toddler squealing in delight, waving to the crowds like a baby Joe Biden.
But sometimes it’s just such a relief to come home again. It feels good to admit that. We were going to stop in Niagara Falls, but it was jammed. Hot. Humid. The scenic lookout was closed. Tour buses blocked intersections. Throngs of sour-faced people dragged across the street in search of scenery. Instead, we didn’t squeeze in one more thing. We turned our car eastward and began the return journey. And we spent the last day of vacation at the beach, salt breeze blowing, home just an hour away. We had lobster. We saw the ocean. My WiFi is working. I’m happy we went, but—ain’t no shame in it—I’m also happy to be back.