Monday, November 06, 2006

Great Expectations

If you had visited my house in August, you’d have received a tutorial on volcanoes. Regardless of your knowledge upon arrival, you’d have left our house swimming in a sea of volcanic factoids, pushing and moving them in an attempt to escape—half delighted, and half panicked—like a child in a ball pit. Later, chewing on the end of a pencil, trying to compose your grocery list, you might have found yourself absent-mindedly and involuntarily mumbling “active, dormant, extinct, active, dormant, extinct.”

Inspired by an energetic, creative preschool teacher named Rebecca, who helped the children learn about volcanoes by creating them—complete with a real volcanic eruption!—Eleanor’s passion for volcanoes now rivals Oscar the Grouch’s love of trash. If you care to listen, or even if you don’t, Eleanor will evangelize about the hot lava that bubbles under a volcano’s crust, how it grows and grows, and finally pushes out and explodes (“with a big BOOM,” she’ll say) when the volcano interrupts. With the excitement of a sports-fan recounting the stats of her favorite player—her voice racing, her eyes wide, her hands conjuring up mountainous images from mid-air—Eleanor will list off the many volcanoes in our area. When she sees a mountain range, or even a large hill, she’ll want you to determine whether it is classified as a volcano. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself nonchalantly covering your ignorance with “hmmm, let’s look that up when we get home, just to be sure.”

Given Eleanor’s enthusiasm, and with her fifth birthday approaching, it’s no wonder that the idea for the Volcanic Adventure Birthday Trip popped into my head. We gave Eleanor the choice: “would you rather have a birthday party at our house, complete with cake, entertainment, and unlimited guests, or would you rather invite one of your best friends and go visit a volcano for the day?” I might as well have asked her whether she preferred a mound of slimy, green vegetables or a bucket of Halloween candy for dinner. Eleanor danced around in circles, yelling “Volcano! Volcano! Volcano!” before the question had fully passed over my lips.

However, some ideas are better in theory than in practice. Problem one: our family drafted and signed the Covenant Regarding Intent to Experience Volcanic Adventure in early September, while the temperatures lingered comfortably in the 70s, when the Parties to the Covenant envisioned a warm forest foray, complete with picnic basket, Frisbees, and layers of greasy sunscreen. By the time the Adventure actually began, the temperature had dropped to the 40s, and we’d entered the Rainy Season in earnest. It is November in the Pacific Northwest, after all.

Problem two: I stubbornly ignored the “don’t-put-all-of-your-eggs-in-one-basket” adage and insisted that Eleanor invite only one friend. This seemed a reasonable restriction given that we have three children of our own, and the precarious adult-to-child ratio was already endangered. But sadly, the day before the excursion, Eleanor’s friend’s mom emailed me and said that the friend couldn’t come after all because her grandparents were visiting from out-of-town. Luckily, the friend’s mom had hinted at such misfortune earlier in the week and I had called my Dad, a.k.a. Grandpa—Eleanor’s favorite person in the world—the one whose picture she’s taped on her bedroom wall, right next to her bed, so “he can always be with her”—and he graciously agreed to travel five hours to our house on Friday after work in order to spend Saturday traveling six hours in our van.

Did I say six hours? Because mapquest predicted two hours each way, which only adds up to four hours in my head. It’s either because of my fuzzy math, (don’t you imagine numbers dressed in cashmere when you hear that phrase?) or because we forgot that mapquest usually assumes a 60 mile per hour speed limit, even when the road is windier than a snake preparing to strike.

Driving to the mountain, with the angry rain noisily pelting the windshield—each drop warning “Turn around! Turn around!”—Tobin and I discussed the possible scenarios that we might encounter at our destination. The worst case, we agreed, would be if it continued to rain when we arrived, since our clothes would hold up to only a few minutes of rain-play. “Did it? Did it keep raining?” I hear you asking. Yes, friends, it did, and it was windy, too. We bundled with mittens, hats, and winter coats, (and snow pants for some), and we still barely made it the 50 yards from our van to the visitor’s center without freezing.

The Mt. Rainier Visitor’s Center (at Paradise) is slated for demolition and reconstruction in the summer of 2007. If you go there before its demise, you’ll quickly understand why. Built in the let’s-make-a-statement-by-building-the-ugliest-structure-we-can era of the 1960s, the center claims neither beauty nor functionality. Essentially, it is comprised of one large, serpentine ramp, with exhibits at each landing (think 1950s), culminating with an observatory at the top. We worked our way toward the summit, stopping first at the auditorium for a Mt. Rainier movie (“When are they going to show the interruption?” Eleanor kept asking, the irony palpable as she disturbed the quiet of the theater), and then at the Stuffed Dead Animals Exhibit, left over from a by-gone era (“Is that bear really dead? Can it move its eyes just a little bit? Can that coyote move its foot? Why not?” Eleanor wanted to know). When we reached the observatory, Eleanor was confused. “Where’s the volcano?” she kept asking, not understanding that the shocking magnificence of Mt. Rainier was hiding right behind a layer of fog as thick as the sample of Mountain Goat Hide that was bolted to the wall in the previous exhibit.

I’ll skip the details of the part where Eleanor, in a fit of rage, threw her hat over the precipice of the observatory, and how she screamed as it wafted all the way down to the bottom. And how, unable to stop crying, she buried her head into the thick plastic covering of a lodge chair.

Let’s fast forward to the parking lot, where there was the tiniest strip of un-melted snow on the sidewalk between the van and a tall barrier wall. Hooray for snow! Because, after reconciling the fact that Mt. Rainier in November is no place for a picnic, we had foregone the Frisbee and packed the sled instead. Tobin, super-hero Dad that he is, spent the next little while patiently pulling the girls in the sled, up and down the sidewalk, all in the pouring, pelting, windy rain, until the Park Ranger arrived in her SUV and extinguished that bit of fun like Smokey the Bear stamping out a forest fire: “there’s no sledding allowed down here because we’re concerned for the safety of the kids,” she said, smiling apologetically.

Still, we were blessed by small mercies on the ride home. As the drum-beat of the rain continued on the windshield, I strained to overhear my Dad sweetly singing to my children in the backseat: “the head-bone’s connected to the neck bone, the neck bone’s connected to the shoulder bone, the shoulder bone’s connected to the back bone, hear the word of the Lord,” and many other songs not previously in our family’s repertoire. Later Eleanor asked, “Grandpa, tell me a story about when you were little,” and I heard intermittent patches of his reply: “chasing girls at recess/ sorting strawberries, tossing out the bad ones and keeping the good ones/ driving a tractor to plow the field…” I could have reached out, grabbed hold, and enjoyed a long, gentle ride on the love-waves streaming in the air between those two.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we experienced a Pizza Miracle at dinner time. As we drove through the Land of the Strip Mall, Dad asked, “Tobin, what’s the name of that pizza place you love?” and then Dad looked over and saw it, just as Tobin uttered the words: Round Table Pizza.

Finally, comforted by the rain’s lullaby rhythm and the movement of the car, Eleanor and Sylvia drifted off to sleep and the grown-ups sang along with Adult Music, in peace, while still-awake Eli improvised his own little baby song.

It’s hard to be five years old, with a limitless ability to anticipate, viewing everything through the lens of childish optimism and grandiose expectations. Because when things don’t go as expected, it is difficult for a five year old to express in words the feeling of disappointment. This is the theory that Tobin and I hypothesized after the children were tucked safely in bed, attempting to explain Eleanor’s fit and uncontrollable crying at the visitor’s center. “Well sure,” I surmised, “wouldn’t you be upset if you forfeited a birthday bash for an amazing Volcanic Excursion and it turned out to be a six hour ride in the van to see an invisible volcano, hidden behind a wall of cloud, that you couldn’t even see but that your Mom assured you was there?”

We went to bed agreeing that the trip was a bust, but trying to focus on the positive parts nonetheless (after all, it’s not every girl who gets to see a Stuffed Dead Fox posed as if eating a Stuffed Dead Snow Rabbit).

We needn’t have bothered with the forced optimism, because the next day, while eating a piece of Volcano Birthday Cake (after watching the volcano cake erupt—yellowish foam oozing from the toilet-paper-roll-crater in the center—), Eleanor asked, “Papa, can we visit a volcano every year for my birthday?” Tobin paused, stifled a laugh, and then replied diplomatically, “Um, well, it might be more fun to go to the volcano in the summer next time.”

And so, dear reader, you need not fret: in spite of a small spat, Eleanor’s volcanic love affair lives on.

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