Dream Lake, Luray Caverns, Virginia
Traveling is harrowing itself and when it is a long-distance roadtrip that is crammed on the two days of the weekend? Not an idea of fun at all. But there were family obligations to uphold.
Luciana’s Tía Carmela was on her first visit to the United States. She had met her aunt twice when her parents had taken her to España for family visits, but they never stayed there long enough to connect. Now, she did not look forward to sharing her room with her Tía for the duration of two weeks she stayed over. But she had excuses to be busy during the week attending school and spending time with her friends after. She came home late as nine p.m. and listened to her dad talk about the New Jersey hot spots or day trips to New York City and Philadelphia he took his sister to.
Every night was the same. “Carmela, you enjoyed today?” Papá asked after giving the details of the trip to his daughter.
“Mmhm,” she’d respond, lost in her S7 scrolling through the new pictures she’d taken to share on WhatsApp.
When Luciana whispered to her dad how her aunt could afford the latest Android, he shushed her. “We save money.”
It was ironic. Papá had come to Chicago to further his studies when he was a young man and he’d worked very hard to settle in America and build himself a future. He always sent money back to España while he saved money in every manner he could here. But it was why Luciana did not connect with her primos: she did not have her cousins’ latest technological gadgets or frivolous habit of expenditures on food and clothes. Learning from the best, she knew having a grand savings account was better than a large checking.
She discreetly frowned at her Tía Carmela for not showing more gratitude to her brother for all the effort he was making to have her feel at home in this country. Lucky enough to not have to interact too much with her, Luciana went about her daily schedule.
Saturday and Sunday were sacred to Luciana. She was not one to sleep in, but they were her two days she could relax however she pleased before nighttime rolled in on domingo and she had to complete all her procrastinated assignments. But it was worth it.
Then the obligatory weekend arrived. She had promised her parents in exchange for not changing her typical juggle of school and social life during the weekdays, she would travel with them on her days off. She knew it had to be a reasonable distance – her mother had work on Monday just as she had school. When she found out they would be driving to Virginia and spending time in Washington D.C on the way back, just the thought of sitting in the backseat of the car with her aunt for fourteen hours round-trip filled her with dread. What was she going to talk about?!
On her fifteenth birthday she had put her foot down about family excursions for her birthday. Just her and her parents, it’d escalate into paramount disagreements over what activity to do on the trip. A fourth wheel wasn’t going to help.
Nevertheless Luciana packed. She woke up at 4 in the morning and mostly slept in the car. Her parents argued over the directions and Tía Carmela occasionally nudged her to make a comment about the number of trees next to the highway. Eventually the humdrum of the car replaced the silence between them.
The stretches of the highway were long peppered with few exits. Mamá pulled into Maryland’s Visitor Center upon entering the state. “Bathroom and food! Get everything in and out of your system here!” she declared stepping out of the car. She cast a sidelong look at Tía as if to imply she was incapable. Despite years of not being in touch, she had not forgiven Carmela’s disapproval of her marrying into the family.
Luciana’s father made the effort to point out where the bathrooms were to his sister. “El baño está a la derecha.”
“Talk to me in English,” her aunt hissed and marched to the left. When her mom made no effort to guide Carmela in the right direction, Papá cast a desperate look at Luciana. Understanding, she hurried over to lead her aunt to the right where the bathrooms were.
They met up with Luciana’s parents waiting in line at McDonald’s in the food court. Luciana’s mouth watered; she loved fast food. The greasiness alone made her happy she was young enough not to worry about what it did to her arteries. Her aunt, however, did not share the sentiment.
“McDonald’s? Why are we eating here? We have too many McDonald’s in Espana. I come all the way here to eat McDonald’s!” Her voice was loud and accent strong enough that people stared, and Luciana inched toward her parents.
Her father tried to explain. “We will eat in the car so we can reach our destination quicker.”
“Hermano menor,” Carmela said, the word dripping with the reminder Papá was her younger brother. “That is not the way to eat.”
Mamá nodded. “And this is not the way to travel. But we must all make alojamientos, accommodations, for each other, sí? We do not choose our family, but we choose how we treat them.” The insinuation of her tolerance of Carmela’s behavior left no room for backtalk.
Tía chose not to eat, but nibbled a few chicken nuggets from the box of twenty Luciana shared with her in the backseat of the car. The icy hush contrasted the increasing heat outside as the sun climbed higher into the sky.
By noon, they reached the furthest point of the trip, Luray Caverns, Virginia. Stretching their legs as they got out of the car, the mountain air was tinged with a mineral smell. Around them were little buildings of antique car and toy museums.
“Where is the cavern?” Carmela asked Luciana. She only talked to her now.
“It is underground. Let’s go, we have to get tickets.”
“Tell your Papá gracias.”
Luciana resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Her parents had done the same for years, put her in the middle, until she refused to talk to either of them. She wondered if it ran in the family.
Instead, the temperature was cool and Luciana was glad she’d decided to bring a light cardigan inside with her. They trekked downstairs on narrow steps leading to the heart of the cavern, Mamá then Papá, Luciana then Tía. There was a tour guide, but Luciana was too mesmerized to hear all of her speech.
It was not dank as she’d thought it would be. The stalactites and stalagmites – she could not remember the difference – had created an array of natural wonder including a bridge, hanging fish and Pluto’s ghost.
At each marvel, Carmela asked Luciana to take her picture. Both her aunt and mother did not invite the other in the photo with her. Luciana saw her father’s crestfallen face and wished they could at least pretend. After all, she was acting like she comfortable in the situation.
As if the caverns understood what was needed by the visitors, the path curved upward to the biggest lake inside. Eighteen to twenty inches deep at the center, Luciana thought she would be looking at an extra-large puddle. Instead, she had to look carefully to see the ripples to know water was there. The liquid had created a perfect reflection, as if the hanging calcium salt deposits were actually a little town below. The stillness caused the mirage to have the peaks’ tips touching.
Mamá stood next to Luciana at the railing. “I can’t take my eyes away.”
Carmela walked over to stand next to her sister-in-law. “Magnífico.” Mamá turned to nod in agreement. In the moment of tranquility in the cave and within her family, Luciana learned the power of beauty. There was hope yet.