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The second time my mother and I went on a long vacation, we wen to San Francisco and then spent a few days driving around Napa and Sonoma in a neon yellow Chevy Aveo – the tiniest and cheapest car available. It had manual windows and locks, something that I hadn’t seen in years.

When we pulled up to the Ritz-Carlton valet in that Aveo, I thought that the guys in their uniforms did a pretty good job not laughing.

What do I remember from that one?

The geyser. That was the trip where, out of everything that we did and saw – the fanciest vineyards, the nicest restaurants in San Francisco, a fogged-in Point Reyes National Seashore, Golden Gate Park and the dizzying view from the bridge, a hot air balloon ride, a spa nestled into a hillside – my mother’s favorite thing was a geyser in Calistoga.

I remember she wore white pants and a white tank top. There was a little hut next to the parking lot with information about geysers, and about superheated water, and placards that explained how the San Andreas Fault related to the area’s seismic activity. Then we went out back to see the geyser. And we waited. For the first five minutes, when nothing was happening, I felt a low grade fury. But then, when it went off, my mother cheered – and it was as if the same pressure that had been ticking up in my blood was released at the same moment. We were the only two people in the little park. Everyone else was at the spas, or the vineyards, or at lunch in Yountville or Healdsburg.

Later, it would remind me of this one time that she dressed up as Minnie Mouse for my sister’s birthday. I didn’t want to believe that it was Minnie Mouse, even though I was about four years old. I wanted to ruin the fun and shout that it was her in the costume (she did a terrible job disguising her voice). But she had told me that she was going to be at work, and that she couldn’t be there to surprise my sister at her birthday party. I was so embarrassed to be hanging out with Minnie Mouse. My father drove her in the bed of his pickup truck to my sister’s school. When she walked in, everyone freaked out. They were overjoyed to see my mom – or whoever was in there – dressed as Minnie Mouse.

Who knows if I actually felt confused. What I remember is a deep feeling of confusion. What was preventing me from wanting to have a good time? What purpose did it serve to cross my arms, lower my head, and pretend as if Minnie Mouse wasn’t there, at the birthday party, for my sister.

The geyser blew again, and my mother cheered. There’s a lesson in here somewhere, I knew. There’s something about finding wonder in a roadside attraction, in simplicity, in restoring one’s sense of ticklish curiosity about the earth spewing forth hot water. I couldn’t find it. Not then. But it would come to me eventually.

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