No Deep Roots

Sara Ohlin


I’ve done this before, I think. Maybe one too many times as my body denies the journey, tucked up in the front passenger seat of a car filled to the brim with the last few belongings that wouldn’t fit in the moving van, including two kids and a husband. This is the third move to a new part of our country I have forced upon my children. In my life I have a dozen moves stretched out behind me. I feel untethered.

I have no deep roots. Nor do my children. 

Or perhaps it’s simply our current spot along the highway, the Midwest, that makes my muscles rebel, I wonder, as we cross the border from Michigan into Indiana. A border hardly noticeable in the long, flat expanse of highway save for the signs thanking you from one state and welcoming you to another. No offense, you smooth corn-growing states of the Eastern Plains with brooding storms, heavy summer humidity, unforgiving grey winters, and the lakes that harbour family memories. I have never loved you the way you desired. You are merely points on my map that led me to my heart’s desire, the West Coast.

Always the Pacific draws me, and that is the direction we head again towards that gem of a place cradled in between mountains, Puget Sound. I have done this before, pull myself toward the water. The motion of water runs through my body, always that wave returning onto shore.

This time feels heavier. As a mother, I not only uproot myself but my children. Again. Perhaps every new move as mother heightens our concern, and I’m only now feeling the weight of our decisions. Will my children count this against me in their memories or carve it into their own maps as one more grand adventure?

We began this particular journey across the United States from Bangor, Maine, as far north and east as I have ever lived. Maine, a rugged state with forests and mountains and a wicked rocky coast. Old, beautiful, simple, so much of it still undeveloped. We quickly left the rugged behind. The first few hours all I saw through my windshield was a rainy slick pavement that led up over the mountains and into fog hiding the Taconic Range from my sight, although my heart felt the change in elevation, before descending into Albany, NY for our first night’s rest. For a brief respite, the stormy atmosphere and mist obscured my uprooted worries. Our home — longer ours — and friends left behind through the fog.

Do we always leave everything in our wake?

What do our roots carry with us? What will my kids wish for and what will they remember? Will the longing for deep connections stain their minds, or joy in discovery drive them forward? Can a person survive these many moves, pulling up roots in one part of the world to transplant into another with different weather and climate and people? Will my children anchor in with new friends and new neighbourhoods or will they hover always unmoored?

No deep roots mean more susceptible to damage, to worry, to bullies. We spend many holidays without family. We don’t have a network of lifetime friends in the neighbourhood for Sunday BBQs. My husband and I parent without a map of support. Loneliness and unconnectedness are our familiars. Outsiders.

The first time I uprooted my kids was not a long move distance-wise, but the change in scenery and air and beauty was radical to our souls. From a city far north in Washington State called Everett, located in a beautiful setting on Puget Sound and flanked by mountains. But it was a valley of apathy, with no mental health care, and crime everywhere. Instead of the majestic Cascades to the east or the Olympic Mountains to the west, I saw abandoned cars, drug houses, condoms left in the gardens. When we sold our house, we hooked ourselves and our belongings to a ferry ride to Whidbey Island. Vast, peaceful landscape surrounded by water. Everyday beachcombing, watching how far the tides go out, hopeful for a whale sighting. The sea air breathed new life into us.

Only four months later we flew above the clouds to Maine to start our new lives. From the Pacific to the Atlantic in a matter of five hours. The Penobscot River and grand old New England homes became our new neighbourhood. Weekend trips to the rocky east coast of the United States. My children learned to play in the snow, walk along safe, tree-lined streets, and ski down gentle humble mountains.

How quickly time flies.

Two quick years and we are driving back west, all 3,290 miles. A cutting-edge job calls. New adventures await, but tightly bound in our car, I can’t help but feel unmoored, unconnected. Because there are parts of my kids’ journeys, I cannot control. Essentially, I can’t control what happens to their roots. 

To be a mother in movement is to be a cartographer in training, fixing the compass, taking in the changes in landscape, following the sun, finding that best place to re-root, and drawing detailed maps for us, for our children. But a map is only part of the journey. 

We each bring our own breath to the adventure, our own hopes, and fears. We each take different things with us, and we place those layers on our maps. What will my children take with them from one place to another? I see them soaking up memories from each place. They loved the house they were born in and grew to be eight and six. The wide-open living room full of light, friends stopping by. To them, our backyard was fairy-like. While they reveled in the stone path, crumbling shed and random flowers, I groaned at the uneven bricks and the never-ending task of ripping bindweed out. They adored the low front fence and garden beds we picked Hood strawberries from all June. I cringed when the riot police showed up, knocking on our door—the wrong door—searching for the drug house behind us. My mother died in that house, me holding her hand as she moaned out each last cancerous breath, until there were no more breaths. I never wanted to see that house again. 

But their roots began in that house. How dare I snip them off.

The forest behind our rental house on that magical island of Whidbey where Jasper, six at the time, got lost. Like many explorers, he didn’t know he was lost until we found him. How much he missed those woods when we moved. 

My children see different things than I do. A fallen log splitting another dead tree in two blanketed in moss looks to my son like a sword. My daughter discovers hundreds of sand dollars washed up on shore as the tide smooths. Softly delicate and alive they break apart in her hands. My kids are disappointed when driving through low country plantations in the South to not see an alligator.

And now that we have left the blizzard after blizzard of Maine behind, will they miss those epic piles of snow too? Or those rapidly changing tides of Northeastern US? Their best friends a few blocks over?

Once our current drive takes us into Montana. I breathe a little easier, that big sky state, vast landscape, and mountains in the distance. Room to roam. Freedom. One step closer to my chosen coast. We dip down into the Northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park to visit the hot springs. My children are more awed by the giant bison, antelope, mountain goats, and elk. And I just love the landscape. Reminders of my own childhood growing up in Colorado, so much of my own map made up of travelling across the Rocky Mountains, the brawny majestic peaks, the hush of silence on a winter’s day, all the evergreen boughs heavy with snow, roads carved into rock. I basked in the sunshine of that wild western state. Like a million Aspen trees in autumn shimmering their golden light upon me.

My children know what it’s like to travel by ferry across Puget Sound to the gorgeous, quiet islands. They know what it feels like to stand on the gnarled coast of Maine and have the Atlantic Ocean spray winter waves onto their faces. How to toss their small bodies, covered in winter clothes into feet of snow. They’ve explored the low country under old oak trees drenched in Spanish moss in South Carolina and hovered over a volcano in Hawaii. They’ve slept through that stifling humidity of Ohio’s Lake Erie shores on a screened-in porch and caught fireflies dancing through the dark. Their feet have waded in Michigan’s lakes to catch frogs hiding in the mud. 

Their tiny toes had felt the caress of the Gulf, the Pacific, the Atlantic, Puget Sound. 

We arrive back in Washington, first farmlands then desert, and over the Cascade Range into the Pacific Northwest region, where the air lets you breathe in all the splendor from many months of rain and salty sea air kisses our skin. Will our roots be okay, sinking into familiar soil? Or will they shrivel up? The movement of the earth under our roots also changes with each replanting. We may be surrounded by beauty, but we are also in the quiet rumble of fault lines. Again. 

I have been here before.

Maybe I am the kelp, anchoring my holdfast to each new ground, supporting other newcomers, creating my own ecosystem, merely holding on until it’s time to move. Again. Kelp needs no deep roots to gather nutrients. She takes from the sun, from the water wherever she may be. And when she is unmoored, she floats waiting for the next place to be charted. I too always seek the light and the water. I anchor down merely to ground us for a bit until it comes time to wander again. 

My role as explorer changed with motherhood. Now I am traveller and guide, seeker and mapmaker. But aren’t all the best travellers, taking from the past to help lead into the future, constantly tweaking our maps along the way? And the truth is that the best traveller seeks a balance between having or discovering roots and consciously uprooting for new discoveries.

So many times I have traversed this country back and forth since my own childhood. I-70 I-90, I-80, I-5, 405, these many numbered highways. Mountains I have journeyed over, San Gabriel’s, Cascades, Rockies, Appalachian, Olympics. The rounded old grandmothers and young, stalwart peaks. My life began near the Colorado River but has meandered alongside the Mississippi, the Columbia, the Penobscot. I could make my way across this country mapless. I need no weirdly folded piece of paper or GPS with an automatic voice mispronouncing cities along the way. The path is in my blood, in my bones, in the atlas of all my travels, memory points along my life’s map. I know how it feels to drive Vale Pass in the quiet illusory beginning of a winter storm. I can smell the oncoming rain hitting the dusty parched ground surrounding Lake Erie, a cleansing. I have blasphemed the heinous toll roads, gotten lost in the back-mountain roads of West Virginia with my sister, and listened to trees cracking under ice along the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I have crisscrossed my own path over the states from West to East and all the way back again. I have lived in every part of this country.

For me the battle with motherhood, like travel, is finding a balance between being still, and finding home long enough to make memories, versus movement in order to learn the world. Even though I often long to be still, motherhood isn’t stillness. We roll with the constant waves. Waves are born with the knowledge that too much stillness can be stagnant. The soothing lullaby caress is the same mother song.

The truth is, maps will always be needed. I may not need one to guide me quietly, through the rolling roads of a sleepy island, or down the long drive from Seattle to Los Angeles, or through the haunting beauty of the low country, from Savannah to my father’s home in Bluffton, South Carolina, but I will always need one as mother. And as mothers we are continuously adding layers to our maps, our own, and guiding our children’s early maps until they begin to draw their own.

I am called toward the water. I will survive and nourish my children as long as there is light until they learn to nourish themselves.

Perhaps we search for different things, to create our own maps, our own histories to guide our future. We seek connection and belonging and home, even while we adventure and move and travel. I find it a beautiful irony that truly in every trip I’ve taken, my desire to move and change and see new things, is also always about connecting, rootedness.

Loneliness and longing may be etched onto my children’s maps, but they have also taken in such beauty. We’ve seen this country with our eyes wide open. Different landscapes, different weddings, different weather, different laws, even different cuisines. Across the many states, we’ve seen the different faces of the people. Different races, different skin tones, different sizes, different religions, different burdens to carry. Every one of us beautifully unique. All those nuances contribute to a richer, fuller map of empathy, of knowledge, of strength, of connection. Everything a good traveller seeks. Everything healthy roots need. This is a soul-deep knowledge I would never take from my children; it is the legend of all their future maps.

In travel, there is growth and seeking; there is taking and leaving behind.

Like sea kelp, I anchor down merely to ground us for a bit. I am no sailor or merchant marine. I am no fierce weathered lobsterwoman. Is it enough for me to find comfort in the familiar soothing sound of waves, the salty scent of the sea, the vastness of it all? I think so.

I let the sunlight soak over me and nourish me. I seek connection in the cycle of waves. Always I will return to the water. It is where our roots truly lie.

Sara Ohlin

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Guest Contributor for Panorama.