It was the summer before first grade, and my parents decided it was time for a family road trip across what felt like the entire country. We drove for two full days from Arlington, Va., to Garretson, S.D. I saw things I had never seen - the blue ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, cornfields that stretched on for miles, tiny towns with old white steeples at their centers.
I had my nose pressed to the window during most of that ride.
But it wasn't until we arrived at my father's childhood farm, where he'd been raised by his mother, his uncles, and his deaf grandparents - all farmers - that the world around my young suburban self began to feel almost magical in its simplicity. I can remember skipping through the fields of corn and grain, gaining momentum with every step, opening my arms wide and twirling beneath the open blue sky.
I made up my own song, a tune I've never forgotten: "I am free," I called out, over and over and over again. "Oh, what a joy, I am free." The words just rushed out.
When I came in from that first adventure outdoors my father was sitting by the window. I was filled with joy and scrambled over to his lap. I remember being surprised to find tears in his eyes.
He looked at me gently, and after a moment's silence, said something to the effect of, "That is the greatest thing to be."
Looking back I can see that there were political overtones to his emotions. His grandfather had fought in the Great War, his uncles in the second, and he had served as an Air Force technician in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. Our lineage was colored with the realities of sacrifice.
But his response was also fueled by a very real appreciation for the quiet of nature, one that, five years later, would drive our family to buy an old farmhouse in central Minnesota so that we kids could spend our middle and high school years on the outskirts of a working-class town of 2,000.
I am reminded of my simple song of freedom from time to time as I witness my generation's choices of interaction. It doesn't matter where I live - in the four years since my college graduation, I have been in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Boston, as well as Springfield, Mo., and Portland, Ore. - our connection to the outside world is waning.
Some of my closest friends can spend an entire weekend bingeing on role- playing video games. They establish their own world of friendships and enemies among humans, elves, and the undead - the ambient noises of medieval forests breathing through their speakers into the wee hours of dawn.
We so willingly clock three hours of a sunny Sunday in the darkness of a movie theater to catch the cinematic versions of "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" or "A Series of Unfortunate Events."
The birds are singing, the trees are dancing, the earth is circling the sun, but we prefer to watch the entertaining lives of strangers.
Since our move to Portland, my husband and I have managed to see a great stretch of Oregon. We've gotten our feet sandy at Cannon Beach more than once, hiked for hours along Eagle Creek, and stood before the majestic waters of Multnomah Falls. On these minijourneys I rarely see children. In fact, the majority of hikers appear to be retired.
Perhaps I am simply growing up, becoming a part of an "older" generation who looks at kids today and laments the forces of change. But I have to wonder whether we as a society are distancing ourselves from the outside world more with each passing year, valuing our connection to the Internet above our own backyards.
When I look back on that trip to South Dakota, I can remember the feeling of boundless freedom as if it were a tangible thing. I don't think I realized fully what I was experiencing at the time. It just felt good - the smells, the quietness, the sun on my face.
My mother kept a picture from that trip. I am pulling my twin brother in a little red wagon, and we are covered in mud, our eyes brimming with mischievous joy. I have so much gratitude for my parents. I am so thankful that they took the time to encourage a relationship with the outside world, where messiness is more beautiful than order and where straight lines don't even exist.
Because it was in that messiness that I first found freedom.