Should we have stayed at home?

Post #2. In which I go on an adventure—and something happens.

Kristin Prugh

4/16/202412 min read

Why do I begin here, at my kitchen table which is not the same kitchen table it was three days ago, after this unexpected adventure through the arctic wilderness on the edge of spring? Because something happened on this adventure that changed everything. It wasn’t an external event I could point to, but a change within, a change in my seeing, a change in my vision. It was the only kind of change that really matters, the only kind of change that can change everything.

In a play called The Family Reunion by T. S. Eliot, one of the characters says:

But how can I explain, how can I explain to you?

You will understand less after I have explained it.

All that I could hope to make you understand

Is only events: not what has happened.

And people to whom nothing has ever happened

Cannot understand the unimportance of events.

It’s the artist’s job to make visible the invisible happenings in an event. That’s really the substance of art, and the reason we turn to art to help us deepen our interior lives. Events as such don’t matter, unless something happens. And then, what matters is the happening for which the event is an occasion, an opportunity. Sometimes these events are big—natural disasters, wars, births, weddings, deaths, and the like. Other times, they’re small, like a sunset.

One of the most compelling depictions I’ve encountered of a happening that changes everything is in the 2003 film Off the Map, directed by Campbell Scott. The character William Gibbs is an IRS employee who goes to great lengths to find a family he’s supposed to be auditing, who live off-grid in the desert of New Mexico. Mr. Gibbs is a bit of a lost soul, and when he finds the family, he discovers a wholly different vision of life than the one he was trying to live in the city. A part of himself that has lain dormant begins to come to life out in the desert, spending time with people who spend time together, who grow their own food and build their own dwellings and live simple, quiet lives.

One afternoon he’s helping the mother of the family, Mrs. Grodin, to fix his car, the vehicle he arrived in and his only way back to the life he left. All of a sudden he stops what he’s doing and walks away from the car to stand, wrench still in hand, facing a wide-open desert plain with blue mountains in the distance. The camera pans to a close-up shot of his face, with emphasis on his eyes and his expression of discovery and wonder, and we see that he is really seeing for the first time. We watch him stand there all afternoon into evening as the sun sets along the horizon and the colors shift subtly in the changing light. As the sun drops over the horizon and the sky deepens to a night-blue, William drops the wrench from his hand without even realizing it. He is so transfixed by the landscape and the colors that he isn’t aware of himself or of time. Something has happened.

From this moment, nothing is the same for Mr. Gibbs. He finds some paints and a strip of wallpaper sitting out on the table in the house of the family he’s auditing and begins painting. He paints, madly, and keeps painting, trying to make visible the thing he has seen—to make it possible for us to see what he sees, to feel what he feels. He doesn’t go back to his life working for the IRS. He can’t, because he isn’t the same person he was before the happening that gave him a vision. He stays in the desert and paints until he dies while painting a few years later from unknown causes, out in the desert with an oil pastel still clenched in his hand.

These happenings and the things they make visible are what we’re here for. They’re the things we carry with us because the everything that they change is the only thing which remains when this mortal coil falls away. All the rest of it—events and inventions, buildings and activities and technical achievements, even the material trace of the spiritual in works of art and books—all of this falls away. But the happening remains, because it becomes part of the part of us which remains.

As a mother, it’s really easy to get caught up in the flurry of activity that is raising children: diapers and meals and messes and laundry and sports and school and doctor’s appointments and play dates and all the rest of the chaos that suddenly leaps out from behind every corner in the world at that first birth and keeps on going for decades. It’s easy because it’s expected, and suddenly life gets reduced to events. Life seems to be about nothing but events: first step, first day of school, boxes to tick, sports to play, grades to be completed, degrees to be earned, jobs to get, vacations to take, and the weddings and funerals along the way. But if these events sit on the surface of life, and if it becomes all too easy to lose Life in the living, to quote another work by T. S. Eliot, how do we learn to pay attention to what happens instead?


I began with my unexpected adventure in the arctic because adventures have a way of being occasions for the happenings we too often lose in the events we plan for and expect. Adventures are full of events, to be sure. And it’s easy to talk about the events that make up an adventure, but it isn’t the event that matters. It’s what the event reveals, what it makes visible, what it allows us to see. And I know it seems easy, but it isn’t everyone who can do it, this coming-to-see, this encounter with the happening which the event opens onto, the happening which is the substance—the heart and soul—of the event.

There are always people there to question your sanity when you start talking about such things, like the other characters in The Family Reunion. It isn’t easy to face things that happen, and it scares us: the happening scares us because the wilderness scares us, the wilderness within us perhaps even more than the wilderness outside us. Adventures have a way of bringing these two things face to face: the wilderness within and the wilderness without. It’s why I think most of us avoid adventures, most of the time, myself included.

My favorite description of adventures is Bilbo Baggins’ observation at the beginning of The Hobbit, in which he remarks that adventures are nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things that make you late for dinner. I’m married to a Baggins, and while my side of the family is rather more Tookish, nevertheless being a mother and a forty-something have converged to make me tend more and more in the direction of avoiding adventures—aging and raising children being enough of an adventure in themselves.

While our family has lived a rather adventuresome life over the past decade by almost any standards, that hasn’t exactly been the intention. We moved onto a sailboat because we couldn’t afford a house. It so happens that sailboats move, and eventually the winds picked up and the boat sailed off the dock and took us with it. The boat had something to show us, something about ourselves and about the world, that we couldn’t have come to see any other way. We had to go. We didn’t really want to go, we weren’t ready to go, but we went anyway, just like Bilbo went on his terrifying journey with the Dwarves after the wizard Gandalf kicked him out of his comfortable hobbit hole in The Shire. Bilbo probably would have been happier—or at least more comfortable—if he had stayed in The Shire forever. But he wouldn’t have become the hobbit he had it in him to become. Some part of him would have remained unfulfilled, incomplete.

I’m not exactly an adventure-seeker. I don’t get a rush from living on the edge, but the edge calls to me all the same. I can hear it in my dreams, in the vague emptiness of routines that seem to blur in my mind—a voice crying out in the desert, in the mountains, in the ocean, in the forest, a voice which speaks in a language I don’t yet understand but which seems familiar all the same. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have intentionally responded to this call I hear in the wind, but I have remained open to it, or have tried to, at least.

As a mother, this call is not without conflict. I once described motherhood as the condition of being afraid of everything—every cry is a potential emergency, every step is a potential fall. When I became a mother, it was suddenly my job to anticipate every potential hazard in every situation and to prevent my children from preventable injuries they never seem to see. This is hard enough to do in a house with a hospital nearby, let alone in a boat sailing through the ocean or in a car driving through the arctic wilderness with snow still falling and temperatures still regularly dropping below zero.

So when the phone call came to tell us that our car would only make it to Haines, Alaska, adventure was calling. There were 1,500 miles to drive whether we wanted to or whether we didn’t. My first reaction, naturally, was to try to find any way not to respond. I started to panic as my brain tried to process the number of potential hazards in undertaking such a perilous journey. I tried to find ways out—maybe we could just sell the car in Haines, or give it away, and buy a used car in Anchorage. Maybe we could leave it sitting there until summer. Maybe we could fly to Haines and just live there.

I go to great lengths to find ways out of adventures—and when it becomes clear that the adventure is really calling and won’t take no for an answer, I wake suddenly in the middle of the night in cold sweats, and my dreams are full of surreal twists and turns where everything goes wrong in ways that carry my worries far beyond waking logic. Eventually, I give in, say a prayer to St. Christopher to protect us on our way, and sail off the dock, or drive into the wilderness. The worries don’t end there, of course, but I resolve to go and try to avoid letting fear and doubt take the helm. I also think and question constantly, trying always to walk the fine line courage walks between cowardice on the one side and rashness on the other. I try to make the best decisions I can not to put our children in unnecessarily dangerous situations. I try to be prudent, to know when to go and when to turn back.

And when I have the traveler’s worry that I ought to have stayed at home, wherever that may be, I remind myself of the story of a family of three who took an amazing year to live in the remote northern wilderness of Alaska with their young son, who survived the adventure at age six and died asleep in his comfortable bed in their house in Arizona seventeen years later for unknown reasons.

I once met a mother on one of our sailing journeys whose daughter had died suddenly in her sleep at age thirteen from a brain aneurism no one knew was there. She told me this story standing in a park, where we had been looking through books in a little free library which she maintained in memory of her daughter, who loved to read. Our family of six reminded her of a time when her own family had numbered six, and she told me her story fighting back tears to encourage me to keep going, to keep fighting to spend time with my children and to find ways to really live together as a family—because she knew better than most that we only really live when we remain aware that we’re just passing through, that we are fellow travelers in search of something which transcends our fears and our sufferings here and now.

Whenever I ask myself, as Elizabeth Bishop does in her poem, “Questions of Travel,” whether I ought to have stayed at home, the only way I can resist giving the preferred answer to the question—that yes, I should have stayed at home—is if I hold onto what happens when you travel, to happenings that are possible when you allow yourself to be swept along on an adventure. Because our culture doesn’t value that kind of happening, the only way that I can remind myself that things do in fact happen and that the happenings are in fact real is to re-read the poems I’ve written—and could only have written—on the journeys we’ve taken to places I never thought I’d find the courage to go. The poems remind me of the happening because they speak out of the place of the new vision, the deeper vision, that I know I didn’t have before the happening.

When I fear that I’m being irresponsible taking my children with me to these places, one or more of them always pipes up with some genuine words of encouragement to light my way and give me hope again. Children know when things are happening far better than grown-ups do. You can tell because they are so often inconceivably bored at events and irrationally absorbed in the most ordinary forms of play. They know that things can happen when you’re playing with sticks in the yard, and that nothing is likely to happen at an elaborately planned event.


I needed encouragement many times on our three-day dash through the Alaskan and Canadian wilderness, where we escaped—barely—the sharp teeth of winter, skirting storm systems like a thief in the night. Our years traveling under sail had taught us enough to be able to recognize that the wild landscape of mountains is like the wild seascape of oceans, where the weather rules with an iron fist. You don’t go on a schedule—you go when the weather says you can go, and you know she might change her mind along the way.

Our car was slated to arrive in Haines on a Saturday, and we had planned to leave on Friday, the day before. But we woke up Friday morning and looked at the weather forecast in Anchorage, and it was terrible: 70-knot wind gusts with snow and/or rain and sleet and ice. Even though we had never driven the road before, we knew we couldn’t make it safely through the mountain pass in conditions like those. So we made a last-minute decision to cancel our rental reservation, knowing full well that we might not be able to get to our car before summer if the weather decided not to provide us with a sufficient window to make it to Haines and back. We lay in our beds that night listening to the wind blow so hard it was shaking the walls of the house and rattling the windows and were very glad we had made the decision to stay.

Twenty-four hours later, the weather looked more promising, and we found a more reasonably priced vehicle, which we rented for an extended period to give us plenty of time to make a slow journey in case April decided to be more winter than summer. Brian was on leave from his job at the Marine Highway in preparation for a seamanship training week in mid-April, which we knew we’d really have to make it back in time for. But we had hope that two weeks would be sufficient and would give us time to wait out snow storms and closed roads if need be. We loaded up the rental—thankfully a brand-new AWD SUV—with food and water and winter gear and emergency preparedness kits, and I took one look back at the warm, inviting apartment and all the happy hours I had spent not driving through the arctic wilderness in winter, closed the door behind me, walked across our snow-covered sidewalk and got in the car.

Near the beginning of the 1,500-mile journey, we had just driven out of Anchorage and were beginning the ascent into the mountains which would take us around curves with thousand-foot drop-offs and no guardrails. As we were making our way along the part of the road which our travel guide, The Milepost, marks in red text as a warning, I caught my breath and felt my face flush and begin to tingle. We were in the outside lane of the mountain pass, and when I looked out the side window of the car and couldn't even see the road for the chasm beyond it, I viscerally felt my body and the bodies of my children dangling precariously on the cliff edge. It felt like there was nothing between us and the fall, as though we were suddenly weightless, had lost traction on solid ground, and were only moments away from plunging into the void. In the middle of my vertigo, our timid but vibrant six-year-old daughter called out from the back seat, “Mom, this is the best time I’ve ever had on planet Earth.” She knew what was happening, and she helped me to see it. And I’m writing it down so that I don’t lose hold of it. It’s so easy to lose hold of what happens. We have to constantly remind ourselves that happening is possible and real and important, no matter what the naysayers say.