Transitions are hard, or, Our trip to Duluth

“Hey!” Isaac exclaims every 25 minutes or so, as if struck with some version of toddler amnesia, “Where we goin’?”

We’re in the car, navigating Highway 61.

“We’re going to Duluth!” Rachel or I answer brightly. “For a holiday!”

And then Rowan chimes in: “We’re not going to Duluth! I don’t want to go there!” And drums his feet on the back of my seat in protest.

“I really wonder how my parents managed to get us all to Virginia Beach in a Ford Cortina,” Rachel murmurs, while I breathe deeply and wonder how, precisely, my mantra “It’s the journey, not the destination,” applies to this journey along the scenic north shores of Lake Superior. Because I just want to get there already, to be out of the car, to silence the protests emanating from the backseat. I find myself wishing we had brought the movie player, biting my tongue to keep myself from saying things like, “Well, I guess we’ll just turn around and go back, then,” or, “If you don’t stop that, I’m going to stop this car and you can get out and walk.”

Rowan, it’s fair to say, doesn’t rush in gladly to the unknown. And Duluth, to him, is not yet a place, not even a city, but simply a vast, unquantifiable mass of unknowableness, a break from beloved routine. He hasn’t been on board with this weekend getaway since the beginning, not even with promises of playgrounds and aquariums and swimming pools and restaurants and cable TV and the like — although he warms slightly at the mention of ice cream. He wants to bring the cats with us, our own toilet and bathtub, actually, the entire house in the trunk of the car. We explain and explain, we acknowledge his feelings, repeat them back to him, and, finally, just shut up and stop talking about the trip, knowing that until he’s actually there, at the destination, it won’t make sense.

“Hey! Where we goin’?”

I get it — I do, really, that fear of the unknown. I like to know where I’ll be sleeping at night, hate arriving in darkness to unknown cities. I get how it must feel to be plunked into the car and told, “We’re going. You’re going. And you’ll like it.” Like what?

It’s just that maybe he could chill a little bit.

And he does, in minor spurts, falling hard in love with each new experience and yet seemingly unable to generalize and apply the idea that “new” might not necessarily equal “horrific.” He settles in immediately to the hotel room, jumping with Isaac on their king-sized bed before turning on SpongeBob. But it’s a battle to get him out of the room and onto the street, a battle to get him off the street and into the restaurant where he devours Kraft dinner and red pepper and a tiny ice cream sundae from the kids’ menu. Sunday morning’s itinerary proceeds something like this:

Doesn’t want to go to the Aerial Lift Bridge. Loves the Aerial Lift Bridge. Doesn’t want to leave the Aerial Lift Bridge to see the lighthouse. Loves the lighthouse. Doesn’t want to leave the lighthouse to go to the aquarium. Loves the aquarium. Doesn’t want to leave the aquarium to have lunch. And so on. And by “doesn’t want to leave,” I mean, “pitches a fit when asked to leave.”

Still, by the afternoon, following a swim while Isaac naps, he has mellowed a bit. Is excited from the get-go to go to the Train Museum and the Children’s Museum, and, predictably, doesn’t want to leave either of them, but does not pitch a fit. Tries pakoras and papadums and chicken korma — followed by mango kulfi — at the Indian restaurant we happen upon. By Monday morning, he’s actually thrilled to take another dip in the hotel pool, followed by a visit to the utterly charming Duluth Zoo, where we get to pet turtles and a ferret and watch the bats being fed and get within a foot of a real live kangaroo. At every stop, during every activity, there are moments of pure gold, utter delight: the scale model of the Great Lakes with working locks, an absolute fascination with a 14-ton ship’s propeller and the ancient anchors along the sea walk. “Mom, can you read me the story?” he asks, pointing to each plaque we pass.

Predictably, he’s exhausted by the time we pile into the car for the trip home, and, mercifully, both kids fall immediately asleep for the first hour and a half of the journey home, during which time I try to put as much distance as possible between us and Duluth.

Isaac wakes up first. “Hey! Where we goin’? We goin’ to Doo-loot?”

“We’re going home,” we tell him. But first we’re stopping for a break and a bite to eat in Grand Marais, a tiny, picturesque town about an hour and a bit from Thunder Bay.

By now, Rowan is awake. “We’re not going to Grand Marais! I don’t want to go there!” Drum drum drum drum drum drum drum. After a mediocre experience at dinner, he loves throwing rocks in the water along the beach, jumping from one boulder to the next along the shoreline.

And later, putting him to bed, his own bed, in his own house, with his own cats and toilet and bathtub, I ask him, “Did you have a good time in Duluth?”

“Yes,” he says, snuggling down under his blankets. “Can we go there again?”