Tripping With A Botanist . . . by Karen J. McFarland

Too many fantastical notions make vacations – especially honeymoons – highly susceptible to gross disappointment. Yes, indeed, I freely admit it and am blowing the lid off the idea that honeymoons are all they’re cracked up to be. My first indication that this was not going to go as well as the romance magazines tout was when I suggested we go to the beach and he insisted on a trip to the mountains. I lost.  

Two trips come to mind as less than the perfect experiences of paradise I thought they might be. Both involve my beloved spouse of many years, even though these took place when we were young and foolish, and highlight our vastly different career interests, lifelong hobbies, and our favorite free time pursuits. He’s a forest ecologist, basically a sort of botanist, who are very careful people, plodding, and thorough. He looks for – and finds – minutiae.  Ironically, these same perfectionists are so focused on their discipline, they lose stuff, and forget stuff like car keys, wallets, and even small children, constantly. At a summer field station, students had T-shirts made up that said, “Vegetation sampling kills brain cells.” 

I’m a musician and theologian, a free spirit who loves to be spontaneous, creative, and sees the big picture. I’m impatient with the slow, precise, and perfectionist styles. I live like I type – fast and with a lot of mistakes.

The first of these trips was my honeymoon. You see, I had grown up in the rolling hills and mountains of West Virginia and their charms had worn off. But, I had never been to the beach. The Ohio River I lived on doesn’t have any beaches. At least, not that I’m aware of.

We drove to the Shenandoah Mountains and followed Skyline Drive onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and on southward into the Great Smokies. Although we did indeed stop at every point of interest – falls, rustic cabins, old grist mills, interpretive displays of all the possible various types of old wooden fences, mostly we spent hours and hours on trails and at waysides looking at trees, shrubs, and various ground plants and wildflowers, from skunk cabbage to fiddle head ferns. I stood around a lot, pretending an interest I didn’t feel for this level of detail. A green leaf may have many jagged edges, but I don’t have any desire to count them!

My next clue that I was destined to be second class on this trip should have been that my brand new, ecologist hubby packed a plant press in the trunk of the car! Believe me, there was no music instrument case or book of esoteric philosophy tucked somewhere in there. The only photos of me in our honeymoon pictures is my palm holding a beaked hazelnut or some such other “unique” species. (Unique to him. They were all unique – and Greek – to me!)

Occasionally I was thrown a sop with a dinner at a fine national park lodge, or a chance to quickly browse the sights and shops in touristy places like Gatlinburg, Tennessee. And yes, in two weeks, I was once in my bathing suit sliding down a rock formation in a popular spot on a creek in North Carolina. But that was a long way from my dreams of lazy days sunbathing on the beaches of Hilton Head just outside our imagined luxury hotel or exploring the Outer Banks of North Carolina that I pined for.

My second-worst vacation was the one I took from my school teaching job to join my husband on his annual summer research trip through the mountains all along the eastern spine of the country, from the Appalachians in North Carolina almost to their beginning up in New England. The summer before I had spent June through August alone and forlorn in our tiny university married housing apartment in Ann Arbor. I didn’t intend to be left behind again.

All I want to say about that part of the trip is that I endured tiny isolated cabins in the woods lacking electricity or running water, long days alone while he was out researching and collecting plant samples in the woods, and opportunities to meet bizarre people a la Deliverance. Bearded men in flannel shirts popped up in the window of the cabin as I was dressing, with a brazen “Howdy, ma’am!” or suddenly appeared on a quiet trail springing from the woody underbrush in front of me with a suddenness akin to a jack-in-the-box, loaded gun slung over their shoulders, a couple of dead, bloody rabbits or squirrels dangling from their belts. The list continues with weary nights of my notating and pressing leaves while he slept, food either burned or undercooked over charcoal in the waning sunset light, with the occasional outing to a local greasy spoon diner.  

My husband whizzed us quickly by any possibly fascinating scenic or historical landmarks of great interest.

“Oh, did you want to stop there?” he’d innocently ask with raised brows after we were already several miles down the road.

“Guess not,” was my glum response.

The “vacation” nightmare ended for me in Burlington, Vermont, where a planned overnight with friends, in comfortable beds, with hot and cold running water, went bust.  I had planned to soak for hours in a generous tub.  

Our hosts, we learned, had been called out of town suddenly for a family emergency. A pleasant visit with hot, savory, home cooked meals and scintillating conversation turned into a solo tenting experience on Lake Champlain. These so-called friends left no key to their door, but had thoughtfully stacked a tent, with no assembly instructions, and two sleeping bags, on their front porch for us. It doesn’t sound too bad until you know that it rained relentlessly for the three days we were there, and the humidity inside the tent must have been over 80 per cent. Oh, and did I mention the mosquitoes?

Until the end of his career, he continued this kind of field research, many times outstripping his graduate students. Needless to say, I never went on a research expedition with my husband again, but we are still amazingly and happily married to this day, fifty plus years later.

To paraphrase the New York humorist Fran Lebowitz, “When other people say, ‘Back to nature,’ I say, ‘Back to the hotel!’”

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After growing up and going to the in-state West Virginia University, Karen has enjoyed two “careers:” the first as a free-lance violist/violinist mostly in southwest Virginia, a little in Boston, MA and Berkeley, CA, with a couple of isolated appearances in surrounding states.  She also taught lots of students both traditional methods and using Suzuki techniques.  After that, Karen became a Unitarian Universalist minister from Utah to MI and Ill before retiring in 2012.  Now she sings, writes, reads, plays with grandkids, performs wedding, memorial, and child dedication services (again as a free lance) and copes with maintaining a regular exercise program and a retiring spouse.  Occasionally she cleans the refrigerator while staring out the window at another snowy day in Michigan, while longing for a trip to Malta.

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Read Seth Lanson’s story about his life partner — “Charm School.”