Last summer my family took a week-long holiday to Seattle, Washington. Our dear old friend, Holly, lives there. Holly is always happy to host us, even when she lives in a 150 square foot studio (disclaimer: that was before we had kids). Holly's housemate was set to go out of town for a while, so we were even going to enjoy a bedroom, but she wasn't schedule to leave until two days after we arrived. So we planned a trip to the San Juan Islands for the first leg of our Pacific Northwest trip - in order to find a spot for ourselves for a few days, and to satisfy a long-standing desire to see that area of the world.
We arrived in Seattle at the outset of an incredible heatwave. It was in the upper 90's, at least, every day. Overall, that was a fun way to experience Seattle - certainly much different than the coldest winters we spend every summer in San Francisco. And people in Seattle really know how to party when the weather is good.
The heat, however, provided an extreme backdrop for what turned out to be a really shitty few days. The first portend of doom was our rental car. I can't even remember the details of what made it so ridiculously difficult to get the car, but I have visions of the four of us, sweating, walking through miles upon miles of parking garage only to arrive at a car that was not particularly family friendly. Eventually, we got to Holly's (through rush-hour traffic), took care of business (food and a much needed drink and smoke), and then hit the road and headed north.
Before we left home we'd had little to no time to really plan anything for our San Juan Islands trip - I'd found a room in Anacortes, Washington that seemed neither ridiculously expensive nor totally skanky and that was about it. No guidebook, no plan, no time. A fun approach when traveling through, say, Amsterdam. Less reliable with two young kids and a heat wave.
Our room and spot within Anacortes was pretty nice, although it was immediately clear that in order to fully appreciate the wonderfulness of the San Juans you should really get off the beaten path. We never did.
The next day (our only full day in the area) was a complete disaster. Totally, fully, and completely. The continental breakfast served at our motel was shockingly, confusingly putrid. We drove into town to find a decent cup of coffee and everything was just weird and deserted and nothing tasted good. We eventually settled on taking a ferry to Friday Harbor, the only landing spot on the ferry line through the Islands that seemed to deposit us actually in a town. I was determined not to go through the hassle of taking a car on the ferry, having been traumatized by once waiting for TEN HOURS in the car-ferry line going to Martha's Vineyard, Massachussetts. That was the reason we stayed in Anacortes - we could drive there and I was damned if I was going to spend my two days in the San Juans waiting for ferries.
When we docked at Friday Harbor, hot and hungry, we got off the boat with about 95 senior citizens and quickly found ourselves in the kind of tourist experience we usually avoid at all costs.
It was after lunch time proper, and we searched for a decent restaurant amidst all of the overpriced selections of fried food and settled on Mexican. Even when it is not that good, Mexican food is usually OK, right? Not right. Not only was the food gross, but for some reason - God frowning down upon us or something - the waitress and the kitchen completely forgot about our existence. This was really weird, given that we kept asking about our food and our kids were loudly losing their shit. Seriously, we waited for almost two hours for our food.
After we left the restaurant we discovered that we'd just missed the ferry off the island and we had to wait almost four hours for the next one. What did we do? Got ice cream. Walked for a few blocks. Stood talking. Walked for a few more blocks. Found a toy store. Fought with the children who wanted to buy anything and everything inside (their version of binge drinking). Tried desperately to find a playground, and finally found one that was small, smelly, and mostly visited by what seemed to be meth dealers. And it was really, really hot out.
About an hour before the ferry left, we went into the local whale museum to look around. Ken and Holly didn't feel like paying admission, so I went in with the kids. The museum was actually kind of fun, albeit overpriced. There was that one five-minute period when my daughter screamed in terror because of the life-size model of an Orca scared the hell out of her. But other than that it was fine - the space was lightly air conditioned and being there helped us pass the time.
On the way out of the museum I noticed a bus schedule - turns out that every half-hour throughout the day we could have caught a free bus to the other, less-populated side of the island where people live, eat seasonally, and pods of Orcas are frequently spotted. That bit of information was merely insult to injury.
Hot, exhausted, irritable, dehydrated, we caught the ferry back to Anacortes, hoping to forget the day ever happened.
Despite the grody circumstances of our day, we maintained relatively good spirits. Relatively. I didn't yell at my husband or my kids. But I was pretty disappointed. I've wanted to visit the San Juan Islands for like 20 years.
At some point in the afternoon - toward the end - I had a revelation that not only saved my sanity on that day, but that has become a bit of guiding principle for me.
That day I realized that at any one time there is some percentage of families and couples travelling - my guess is around 15% - for whom everything is going wrong. We've all had it happen, right? The transportation problems when the kid has a fever. The bad restaurant experience at the gathering the day before the cousin's terrible wedding. The hotel room that is irreversibly cold with cable that doesn't work and you've just had a huge fight about whether to have a second child. Things going wrong in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We all have to take this on some percentage of the time. If at any one time 15% of families are getting the short end of the traveling stick, then about 15% of the time traveling is going to suck.
In my mind I think of that 15% as "doing penance" though we've mostly done nothing for which we need to repent. Except for procreate. Maybe that is enough.
More accurately, however, taking on our 15%, is really just shift work. Like we're all on a commune and someone has to clean the outhouse or wash the cloth diapers. It only makes sense that we'd spread around this crappy aspect of family life as evenly as possible. The rest of the time - the majority of the time - things are not that bad.
I think of this 15% theory when we have those bad times - car rides with whining children and no snacks, being the family at the campground with the screaming toddler, whatever - and it gives me comfort and puts it all in context. Often I am able to let go of the focus on how shitty everything is, and I'm able to get all Zen about it. We're just doing our shift. It will end and then someone else will have to be miserable.
Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, we had a superbly lovely day the next day. We took a hike in what seemed like it would be some ordinary city park in Anacortes but it was beautiful and woodsy and on the water and just perfect. The kids frolicked and the four of us enjoyed the stupendous company of our old friend. We stretched our legs and breathed the fresh air and came down off of our bad day the day before. We happily fulfilled that day's work - luckily we had the Orca-watching-and-laughing-a-lot shift.