If she weren’t going on the trip, she’d be starting community college in a couple of weeks. She was trading education for an experience, something not many in her small town of Vergennes, Vermont, understood. Except for her grandmother Nell. Many of Carly’s classmates and friends planned to attend UVM or Middlebury. A few of them were going to college outside of Vermont or joining the military.
She remembered the conversation that started it all. When they sat on the front porch of the wooden two-story house. Each of them drank tea and people watched, something Carly enjoyed doing since she was a little girl. Neighbors walking their dogs, waving as they passed by. Children playing at the nearby town square. Mothers with babies in strollers getting fresh air. It was getting close to the end of her junior year. Some of Carly’s friends were about to graduate and seemed to have plans: college, military, or work. The rest of her friends were busy with SAT prep, college visits, and applications. Meanwhile, she didn’t have a clue as to what was next. Not that it stopped anyone from asking her.
“From here until graduation next year, everyone is going to ask you what you want to do in your life,” Grandma Nell said, watching the snow melt into slush.
“But I don’t know…“
“You’re not going to have any idea and that’s OK. No one knows what they want to do in life.”
Carly turned and gave her grandmother a skeptical look. Everyone was supposed to know what they wanted to do with their lives, right?
“You’re not going to know what you want to do now, or ten years later, twenty years later.” She sipped her tea. “No one knows. When I was forty, I was a housewife raising children. I had no idea what to do then and I don’t know, almost thirty years later.”
It never crossed Carly’s mind to be okay with uncertainty. Everyone around her did something after high school. Friends and classmates chatted excitedly at lunch about their post-high school plans.
“Grandma, I think I want to travel.” She looked in her teacup, at the leaves collecting at the bottom in some water.
Grandma Nell sipped her tea and placed the empty cup on the saucer. A mud-splattered car drove by, spreading murky slush on the road.
“Where would you go?”
“I want to backpack Alaska. Go on hiking trails, go camping. Anyway, Jackson is already there, he knows all the good places.” Carly’s brother Jackson moved to Alaska for a job as a park ranger. He had maps waiting for her when she arrived, offered to pick her up from the airport, and keep an eye on her when she was hiking and camping through places like Denali National Park or Glacier Bay National Park. At their last breakfast together at Rusted Root in Shelburne, he promised her that if she ever visited, he’d help her have the adventure of a lifetime.
“I didn’t have the same choices you did, Carly. Go travel. The world is your oyster, isn’t that the saying?”
Carly nodded. Her grandmother was right. Back in Nell’s day, she was required to get married and have children without so much as a thought to her education or career. Being a wife and mother was an education and career.
It didn’t seem like much at the time, but it turned out to be the push that Carly needed. When she got home, she pulled out the notebook she hid underneath her mattress. She wrote this sentence: I will leave Vergennes next year. She began squirreling away money from her part time job at Three Squares Café on Main St. It started with two dollars she dug from the bottom of her jeans pocket, a tip from a slow day. She put her tips in a jar on her dresser and opened a savings account at Community Bank on Monkton Street where she divided her paycheck in half; some in her checking, some in her savings.
A month before leaving, her mom took her to the camping goods store in Burlington to buy her backpack. Carly’s mom patiently waited as Carly talked to the salesman. She picked out a dark blue 60-liter backpack, as per the salesman’s recommendation. The present seemed to override the silent disappointment. When Carly first expressed her ideas to travel, her mother suggested community college. Carly stood firm and insisted it was her dream. Why don’t you just go to community college, honey, was her response while she loaded the dishwasher. That was what Carly’s mother wanted for her. But that wasn’t what Carly wanted, at least not yet. Community college will still be there. Besides, Jackson’s already offered to help me, and he might not even be in Alaska for much longer, Carly replied. He didn’t like to be somewhere for too long, as evidenced by his jaunts to Boston, New Hampshire, and New York. Between those he’d come back to Vermont briefly. He moved to Alaska at the end of Carly’s junior year and while he was happy there, she knew it would only be a matter of time before he moved somewhere else. They’d had a heated discussion about it that night, not really broaching the topic again until her mom bought the backpack.
On the morning she was supposed to leave, the sunlight came in through the sheer turquoise curtains. Even though Carly set an alarm, she woke up before it, studying every detail in her bedroom from the dark green blankets on her bed to the hickory dresser with the empty mason jar. The cash was in an envelope in her purse along with a note Grandma Nell gave her that said, “Go hike.” Carly’s mom fixed her favorite breakfast: pumpkin pancakes with pumpkin butter from Daikin Farms, scrambled eggs, and Applewood smoked bacon. There was a pot of Green Mountain coffee next to organic orange juice from the co-op in Middlebury. Carly didn’t have much of an appetite but ate anyway. No telling when she’d have pumpkin butter again.
One hour to go until it was time for Carly’s bus to leave. They were getting closer to Burlington, highway seven becoming more populated. They were going through Shelburne, as shown by the denser traffic. Carly looked out the window and saw the country store, the cathedral, the restaurants where they used to eat. Rusted Root was Jackson’s favorite place to eat. They’d go there after wandering around the Shelburne Farmer’s market picking out fresh fruit, vegetables, maple syrup, and handcrafted items. Rusted Root wasn’t open yet, and it would open long after Carly’s bus left Burlington. Her bus was going to New York where she would catch a plane to Alaska. She’d stay with her brother for a couple of days before he’d drop her off at the beginning of a national park.
“So, this is it,” Carly’s mom said, as she opened the trunk of her Subaru. “Call me when you get there, all right, hon?”
“I’ll do that, love you, Mom.”
“Love you too, Carly.” They embraced, tight hugs where neither one wanted to let go.
Carly boarded her bus and picked a window seat in the middle. The bus itself was half full, so she could stretch her legs out on the seat next to her. As the bus pulled away, she waved to her mom who was still standing in the parking lot.