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Letting It Go

On my first road trip up north with my mother in years, a drive to Northern Michigan feels like being alone together at the end of the world

Jenny G. Zhang is an Eater staff writer currently isolating at her childhood home in Michigan.

The worst part of going anywhere is usually, irrefutably, humiliatingly, needing to pee.

Rest stops can be few and far between; gas station facilities are almost always occupied by fellow travelers; stopping at restaurants and fast-food chains usually means buying at least a beverage, which then gets consumed, which then necessitates a bathroom all over again. Now multiply these difficulties by a factor of “pandemic” — in which many public bathrooms are closed, as flushing a toilet can create a potentially infectious plume of coronavirus aerosols that linger in the air — and your options whittle down to basically zero.

“What if we wear diapers?” I suggest to my mom four months into our COVID-19 crisis, as we consider this potential hurdle to our embarking on a weekend road trip. I’m joking, sort of, but the thought is apparently mutual — she has the same idea. It makes sense, in a way: After all, we already have a stockpile of adult diapers in the basement, left over from my mom’s previous road trip emergencies and my grandmother’s usage when she lived with us more than a decade ago. Moreover, it would just be me and my mom on the trip, no need to feel shy or embarrassed at the prospect of pissing our pants in each other’s presence. And at this point, what other alternatives are there?

Still, it is with some trepidation that I pull on a diaper one Saturday morning in July.

“Are we really going to just ... pee in the diapers?” I ask again as we pick at the last crumbs of our breakfast (frozen Costco croissants, warmed and eaten with strawberry jam, highly recommended). Soon we’ll begin double- and triple-checking our bags before loading the car.

“Of course,” she replies in Mandarin. “It feels strange at first, but I’m telling you, you don’t even notice it after.” She is speaking from experience, as a user of adult diapers on journeys past. I remember, when I was younger, feeling both envious of how my mom seemed so liberated from the tyranny of road trip potty breaks, as well as scornfully pitying that she had to resort to such tactics (as if I was somehow enlightened for holding it in for as long as I could).

But time makes fools of us all: Here I am, poised to follow in my mother’s footsteps — starting with discreet fit and maximum absorbency.

Our plan is simple: head 250 miles “up north,” a phrase that virtually everyone in Michigan knows. I heard it for the first time in elementary school, where, every June, my classmates would talk about their plans to summer with their families in their cabins “up north.” The precise geographic delineation is a bit fuzzy — in one Detroit Free Press article, a reader described “up north” as more of “a mindset” than a specific location. My north has always meant the northwestern edge of the state’s mitten, where pale yellow sand dunes meet the cerulean waves of Lake Michigan. My family drove four-ish hours up there, to the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Traverse City, every few years when I was a kid. Sometimes it would be just for the day; sometimes we would spend the night in a cheap motel, the four of us crammed in one room. We always returned to our home in the Detroit suburbs a little tanner and grittier, our shoes and the crevices of our car lined with sand that lingered for weeks.

Neither my dad (who lives and works in China) nor my older brother (on the East Coast) are here with us now, separated by the coronavirus and lives that diverged from ours years ago. But my mom and I can’t shake the desire to trace the path my family followed so many times back when we all lived under the same roof. To get out, to escape. To see anything beyond the walls of our house, from which we have rarely ventured since mid-March, when I returned home from New York for my birthday and never left.

A view of a coastline, with a wooden boardwalk and flight of stairs leading down into a evergreen forest and shoreline with lake beyond.
The Arcadia Scenic Turnout, one of our eventual destinations

Escape: a word of longing, and a temptation that has proven irresistible lately, judging from the prevalence of beach visits and shared cabins in the woods documented on my friends’ and acquaintances’ social media feeds. CNN reports that Americans made 32.2 million trips of more than 50 miles during the week before the Fourth of July, 300,000 more than this time last year, per Maryland Transportation Institute data.

But there are obvious risks. My mom and I have seen the notorious flesh-against-flesh footage from Michigan’s Diamond Lake; we have tracked the peaks and valleys of COVID-19 cases in the state and across the country. To avoid becoming two more tallies on a graph would mean meticulously planning each detail of the trip, mitigating as much risk as we could: masks on indoors or near other people outdoors, sanitizing constantly, no crowds, no dining inside (or outside of) restaurants, and for the love of God, no public restrooms.

Driving a cool 77 miles per hour, the radio blasting Hot 100 pop, it feels like nothing has changed. But outside the sanctuary of our car, everything has.

Some attractions, like our first stop, the Dow Gardens — 110 acres in the city of Midland — are now appointment-only, with reservations made online to limit the number of visitors at any given time. Supposedly we came here once long ago, when we lived in nearby Saginaw, but I have no memory of the lush greenery or the ponds thick with scum. (The garden also has a restroom that we use with some apprehension, thus breaking our “no public restrooms” rule within just two hours — but appointment-only means it isn’t really public.)

Meals, once opportunities to experience the local dining scene — or at least to wash your hands, sit still, and recharge — have become a largely vehicular matter. After Dow Gardens, lunching on takeout in the front seat while parked outside Basil Thai Bistro in Midland, I comprehend anew the one-handed appeal of fast-food staples like burgers and fries. Attempting to eat long noodles and loose rice straight out of plastic to-go boxes, using flimsy disposable utensils, is a game of trying not to splatter grease with each lift of the fork. I find myself missing tables with a passion I have never before mustered for basic furniture items.

Gas stations are a crapshoot of mask usage, despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s impending executive order requiring face coverings indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces. I grab bottled drinks and junky snacks — Cheddar & Sour Cream Lay’s, Sour Punch Bites, Gardetto’s, the more mindlessly processed the better — and check out as quickly as I can. One clerk, standing behind a clear barrier, moves lethargically, his bandana-mask slung around his neck like a scarf. At another station, the cashier is bagging my purchase from behind the countertop shield when the door’s bell jingles and then stops. An unmasked woman stands on the front step, reading the sign on the door requesting that customers wear masks inside. “Need a mask,” she mutters, before letting the door fall shut again and returning to her car.

“They always forget,” the clerk, a woman with a dyed-red ponytail and her own mask, comments as she hands me the plastic bag from under the barrier. “The new normal.”

Escape is apparently on everyone’s minds. I reserved our hotel, located across the street from the lakeshore in Traverse City’s East Bay, a few days ago online, and it was one of the last I could find in the whole city. We drove past at least a dozen hotels on the lakeshore road, most bearing signs proclaiming, “NO VACANCIES.”

“Has it been busy this summer?” I ask an employee standing behind an enormous sneeze guard that stretches across the reception desk. I’m using a pen to sign the receipt confirming the night’s stay.

“Oh yeah,” she replies, directing me to dispose of the pen in a basket on my side of the barrier. They have been completely booked almost every week, she says, and recites their new COVID policies: no pool, no breakfast buffet, no housekeeping unless requested. The hotel has a strict mask-on rule for public areas, like the lobby and elevator. Floor decals mark the appropriate six-foot distances to stand apart from other guests.

A lush green landscape with a river, tree, and barn.
A scenic view at Dow Gardens
Top-down look at a two plastic takeout containers, one filled with pad Thai and one with fried rice, positioned on the booster seat of a car. Two beverages with straws sit in the cupholders.
Takeout in the front seat from Basil Thai Bistro in Midland

Our room upstairs has been vacant for a day, long enough that we probably don’t need to worry about virus droplets suspended in the air. Still, upon entering, we immediately open the window and set to cleaning all visible surfaces, using disinfectant spray and wipes we brought with us from home. It’s that mindset, more than anything, that will linger long after SARS-CoV-2 becomes an unpleasant memory in the minds of the living: no longer being able to trust that anywhere outside home can be safe.

The modern road trip, in the American imagination, is inextricable from the idea of the past — the glorification of nostalgia for a different time, whether rooted in childhood memories or the fantasy of an idealized nation. The archetypal image is one of a white family in the postwar prosperity decades, cruising down the newly paved Interstate, stopping at roadside diners and motels, enjoying a freedom epitomized by open roads and mass consumption, whether of material goods, fuel, experiences, or the nation itself.

The whiteness of this vision cannot be expunged; as Candacy Taylor wrote for the Atlantic in 2016, “every mile was a minefield” for Black Americans, who were regularly denied access to food and lodging across the country’s crisscross network of highways. Up north, I can’t forget about the historical underpinnings of the road trip, as well as the so-called “blinding whiteness” of Northern Michigan. We pass by huge “TRUMP: KEEP AMERICA GREAT” banners — one surrounded by barbed wire on a rural lawn, and one on the back of a pickup truck — and my anxiety heightens, as I think of the anti-Asian attacks taking place across the U.S., fueled in part by the president’s blatant displays of racism and assignment of blame for the pandemic on Chinese people.

But despite the quintessential road trip’s origins in a white Americana, immigrant families like my own have continued to gravitate toward this mode of travel, lured by its comparative affordability as well as its promises of freedom, of openness, of the American Dream — all things, real or imagined, that have drawn immigrants to this land in the first place. The cracks in that myth have always been visible, but I didn’t recognize them for what they were when I was young. Maybe this trip, back to a place I loved so much as a child, is just my own manifestation of nostalgia for the way things used to be, before I knew any better.

A large sand dune with grasses.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes

The Sleeping Bear Dunes are a 45-minute drive from the hotel, located on the northwest curve of the Lower Peninsula, between lakes Glen and Michigan. It’s evening by the time we arrive at the famous Dune Climb, but the sun still blazes overhead, baking the sand till it’s hot to the touch. One of the best sensations, as a child, was burrowing my feet deep into the sand, seeking the cool beneath the surface.

Back then, the dunes seemed to stretch upward like mile-high walls, slippery and impenetrable. My family and I would climb them, our bare feet sinking into the sand, racing and stumbling and sitting and turning around to behold the expanse of blue that was Glen Lake in the distance. I was 2 or 3 the first time we went, my mom tells me, so young that my dad had to carry me up the dune on his shoulders. My brother was old enough to squirm his own way up; we have a photo of him crawling in the sand, shrieking with laughter. It was always so beautiful back then.

The dunes are just like I remember, in some ways: the public restroom and the vending machines at one end of the parking lot; the soft sand, still shifting beneath my feet; the grasses that inexplicably sprout from nothing in this dry landscape. The parking lot is half-filled with cars: people like us, seeking solace in the outdoors. We begin our journey to the top. The breeze is strong, and the dune wide enough that we can ascend and descend without bumping into anyone else.

But some things are different from the scenes in my memory. The dune feels so much shorter, for one. Was it ever a vast desert, or was that just in my mind, a scale from the eyes of a child? Today it takes just 20 minutes to trudge up the main face, and that is at the leisurely pace of an admittedly out-of-shape mother-daughter duo. We pause intermittently to catch our breath and pass back and forth a handheld misting fan. Below us, children scream and sprint down the dune as their parents play the indulgent audience. Ahead, endless dunes rise before us; two miles beyond them lies Lake Michigan, invisible from here.

The view of a lake shoreline with two docks and several small boats in the water.
The shore of Glen Lake, on the road to the Sleeping Bear Dunes

In all our visits, we have never followed the trail that leads from this dune all the way to the coastline. I want to, this time, in search of some clarity or epiphany or at least a new sight, but my mom stops me, says there’s no point in going further. She, with her chronic lower back strain, likely won’t be able to walk the four-mile round trip, and I have a cut on my foot that probably isn’t faring well buried in gritty particles. We are both overheated and tired, our pores leaking sweat. The bulky diaper, already uncomfortable after a half-day drive, even unused, feels like a damp furnace on my skin.

I’ll take you somewhere better, my mom promises, as if placating a sulky toddler. Another beach, a five-minute drive away. She says we used to wade in the water there, years and years ago, although I have no recollection of it.

“Okay,” I give in, and we slowly start making our way back down.

On Sunday, there’s one more place I want to go before we leave town: Frenchies Famous, a breakfast spot near the West Bay that I had found after scrolling through recommendations online. The restaurant is tucked away a few blocks inland, its small dining room closed for the time being. A path lined with daylilies leads to a to-go window on the side of the building, where we pick up an order of egg sandwiches and some truly stellar buttermilk biscuits with jam. We take our breakfast to a beachside park, wiping grease off our fingers and enjoying the lakefront view one final time from our car.

There are ducks. Not just one, but two broods. On the sand, near the water, five ducklings roost around their mother, nestling in close for a nap. She, too, tucks her head into her wing to sleep, but remains standing on one leg, alert to sudden movements. When I crouch down for photos, attempting to edge nearer, she whips her head up and gives me a look that is best described as “sentient.” I stop myself from going any further; when I was younger, I was once chased by a surprisingly buff mother goose for getting too close to her goslings. (This was when I discovered that geese have very sharp teeth). Since then, I’ve learned that it’s sometimes best not to tempt fate.

The second brood of ducklings is a little bigger, maybe older. Teenagers in the midst of hormone-driven rebellion, perhaps. As their mother shepherds them across the park’s greenery, two escape and waddle over a bicycle path, enticed by a roadside shrub. The mama duck quacks, like she is calling them back. But, again, teenagers — what can you do? She’s left with no choice but to take the rest of the brood across the path to join their unruly siblings, standing guard as bicycles and cars zoom past on either side of the shrub.

A view from the shoreline with several trees on a sand dune and a lighthouse.
Point Betsie Lighthouse on Lake Michigan. The lighthouse was closed to visitors, but the beach was not.

“Naughty little ducks,” my mom remarks fondly in Mandarin. Not like my brother and me as kids, she says. Unlike these ducks, we generally did as we were told.

It’s a little on the nose, certainly, encountering these mallards — children clinging to their mother until they outgrow the reach of her embrace — on this mother-daughter trip of ours, taking place four months after my indefinite move back home. Sometimes I feel like I’ve regressed back to childhood, living with my mom again at 20-[REDACTED] years old. She washes most of the dishes, brings me bowls of cut fruit, presses her fingertips to my forehead when I have headaches. Other times, I suddenly find myself feeling more like the adult in the room, wanting to take care of her as I notice her memory slipping more, how she tires more easily. I cook. I clean. I buy her new pots and pans, a vacuum, a printer, like throwing money will help reconcile the reality that my mom is growing older, and I won’t always be here for it.

We’ve had more arguments lately, I think, related to this tension. I know I can respond childishly, giving her a version of the silent treatment when I’m upset, like I did as a temperamental preteen. She thinks she knows better than me, which is often true, but not always. I still don’t know how to justify why I came home to Michigan during this pandemic, except: This is my mom. Sometimes it feels like we’re all each other has, together alone. I want to shield her from the danger carried in each new breath out there, just as much as I still want to be protected by her. As if I’m 3 years old again, hiding from a scary world behind my mother’s skirts.

After leaving Traverse City, we go to places we’ve never been before: the exceptionally unadulterated waters of Crystal Lake; the tiny, tourism-rich city of Frankfort (population: 1,288); the Arcadia Dunes’s scenic overlook, with one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever seen.

“咱们都是走新的路,” my mom says as we drive down a country road, largely empty in the late afternoon. We’re traveling a new road, is one translation. Or another: We’re all taking new paths.

She’s yawning nonstop, exhausted after driving all 350 miles of this trip so far. “Let me drive,” I offer repeatedly, until she finally acquiesces and pulls over. She’s dozing within 15 minutes of my taking the wheel.

It feels good to drive on these long stretches of road, hurtling past trees and farmhouses and pastures dotted with grazing cows. The only discomfort is the aforementioned worst part of going anywhere: needing to pee. Yesterday I could barely go three hours without looking for a toilet; today, by some miracle or curse, I have not peed since 11:30 a.m. Now, six and a half hours later, I feel the telltale signs that usually indicate either a full bladder or a UTI.

My mom — whose last bathroom break had taken place in her diaper when we were leaving the Arcadia scenic turnout, she informed me nonchalantly as we pulled out of the parking lot — finally stirs. At her request, I stop at a Sunoco off M-10 near Mount Pleasant. To put it in polite terms, we are both in need of relief.

“It’s easier if you stand,” my mom advises, so we get out of the car and walk to the back of the gas station. I’m hoping no one is around to witness my big moment, but nearby there are truckers sitting in their 18-wheelers, a gas station employee taking trash out to the dumpster, a couple getting out of their car. It’s hard to concentrate. My mom tells me that she has already peed again (“just a little”) in the time it took for me to survey our surroundings. No pressure.

I try my best, my back to the wall, my mom standing in front of me like a shield. Clenching, unclenching, I fix my gaze on the American flag mounted from a pole in front of the Sunoco. Gusts of wind beat at the fabric, rippling it against the blue sky. I think I feel something for a second, but nothing happens — I just can’t let go of myself.

As always, my mom tries to comfort me: it’s easier for her because she’s done it before; my older brother didn’t know how to go inside his diaper, too, as a newborn; go on, I’ll barely feel a thing. I have a vision of myself in the driver’s seat, speeding as fast as I can down the highway, unleashing a torrent into the adult diaper, warm and golden and free.

But despite all my mom’s coaxing, I know that it won’t happen. I still have so much left to learn from her. For now, though, I give up the driver’s seat, my bladder still full. We get back into the car, turn onto the highway, and head home.

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