Deep in the Highlands of Scotland, off the main road between Ullapool and Inverness, lies Rogie Falls, among the most picturesque sights in the region. The falls—more a series of cascades, really, both fearsome and delightful—are loud, rock-rimmed, and lined by deep forests. A bonny place, as the Scots might say.
The scene was so captivating, as viewed from a nearby bouncy footbridge, that my family was dead silent. And if you knew the Orwolls, you’d know silence isn’t listed among the skills on our family résumé.
There were five of us that afternoon, midway through an eleven-day driving trip around Scotland: me and my wife, Kathy; my oldest daughter, Kiki, who teaches high school in Japan; my “little middle,” Gigi, who lives in Hipsterville (Brooklyn) and leads an awesome rock band; and Moochie, my son and youngest child, who is just a year out of college, living at home, and an aspiring rock bass player. In other words, they were all adults, mostly out of the house and on their own. Throughout the trip, I had one overriding concern: Would this be the last vacation we would take as a family unit before the kids got settled, married, and had families of their own? And if so, wasn’t I obligated to make it perfect?
The Highlands weather that day was predictably overcast, with a threat of rain. The dark river (called the Blackwater, in typically gloomy Scottish style) ran fast and cold. And the salmon, swimming desperately upstream to get back home, had little hope of leaping up the stony watercourse and returning to the place that had nurtured them. It was a setting of harsh despair and timeless beauty.
Of all the glorious sights we came across on that trip, that was among the first ones Kiki mentioned when I asked her later for her recollections. “I really loved that short hike where we saw the salmon trying and failing to leap over the waterfall, over and over” she wrote me from Tokyo, which, if you don’t know, is approximately 3 million miles from home. “It felt like a metaphor. For something.”
PLANNING A TRIP WITH GROWN CHILDREN IS LIKE HERDING CATS
Organizing a trip with your adult children can be a logistical nightmare, not unlike trying to get nine or ten former co-workers to meet for a reunion over cocktails. Gigi was just starting a new day job and had several gigs lined up for her band in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. Rory had his own band to play with, plus get-togethers with old college pals on the calendar. And Kiki, when she wasn’t busy teaching, was taking every opportunity to travel throughout Asia.
Ultimately, we coordinated our travel dates, but even then things went haywire. Kiki planned to fly first to Amsterdam for a few days, then head over to Edinburgh, our meeting point—unwittingly, as it turned out, a day ahead of the rest of us.
“What do you mean, you’re not arriving for two more days?” she texted from Amsterdam. “I’m arriving tomorrow!”
I quickly Googled the names of some inexpensive but acceptable hotels and gave her directions. In the end, she stayed at what sounded to me like a horrifying youth hostel where someone was liable to steal your shoes while you were showering in the shared bath.
The last family vacation was not starting out quite as perfectly as intended.
HOW I NARROWLY AVOID A CONFRONTATION OVER A PIANO
We finally reunited, with relief and lots of hugs, at our rental home, within walking distance of central Edinburgh. The place was a charming lower-level flat with three bedrooms, full kitchen, and combo sitting room and dining room. There was even a piano in the hallway for Gigi.
That first night, Gigi played us some tunes on the piano, soon followed by the harsh sound of someone pounding on the upstairs floor with a broom handle. “Are you kidding me?” I thought. Gigi hadn’t been playing loud, the music was lovely, and it was only around 7:30 in the evening. Besides, who pounds on the floor with a broomstick?! I marched upstairs to confront the Philistine, the loathsome, vulgar roughneck who wouldn’t know beautiful music if it bit him in the…well, if it bit him.
The family attempted to talk me out of a confrontation, and thankfully there was none, because the lout upstairs, whoever he was, refused to open the door when I knocked, probably cowering in a corner, whimpering. It occurred to me at that moment, as my anger began to subside, that I would never stop wanting to protect these kids, even when they no longer needed (or wanted) my protection. Realizations like this creep over you in the strangest of places, at the oddest of times.
SEARCHING FOR HARRY POTTER IN EDINBURGH
All three of my children are massive fans of Harry Potter, so in Edinburgh we constantly looked for related sites, like the Elephant House café where J.K. Rowling wrote the first novel, and Greyfriars Kirkyard, the spooky Victorian cemetery where she lifted the names of several characters. The city’s dramatic Gothic towers and ornate Victorian façades made the kids feel like they were doing a deep-dive into the source of the books, and I was happy to go along for the ride.
And yet, despite their childhood delights and passions bubbling just below the surface, there was no discounting the fact that these youngsters were adults. One evening in Edinburgh, Gigi went off by herself to the Phoenix, a nearby pub. I walked down later, and found her engaged in a jovial conversation with three gentlemen all older than myself. “Oh hi, Dad,” Gigi said casually when I sat at the bar next to her. “What are you drinking? By the way, this is Eamonn and his friends.” And we chatted away for the next hour. Oh, sure, it was a pleasant evening “down the pub,” but this is not a scenario you foresee when you are changing your daughter’s diapers at the age of six months, or walking her to her first day of class in kindergarten, or any of the many milestones you will never forget.
HITTING THE ROAD TO THE HIGHLANDS
After three days in Scotland’s lively and handsome capital, we collected our rental car to drive to our next stop: Inverness. My kids are great travelers, and have been since they were small. They’ve done long-distance train trips from New York to Florida, hiked in the Puerto Rican rainforest, wandered innumerable villages in Bavaria, ridden endless double-decker buses in London from one museum to another, and endured long drives along heather-edged roads from the near end of Ireland to the far.
And yet they can’t sit next to one another, three in a row, without me having to turn around and say, “I’m warning you, if you don’t knock it off right now I’m going to pull over to the side of the road and we’ll just wait there until you’re ready to behave.” I felt a little silly saying that to three kids in their twenties, but some things never change.
A bit of the driving pressure was removed thanks to Moochie—a six-foot-one-incher who weighs about 135 pounds—who routinely, if reluctantly, agreed to take the middle back seat between his sisters. But his gallantry, I’m convinced, wasn’t fully appreciated by his siblings. “He’s the skinniest, and therefore Gigi and I decided that he would be the least bothered by it,” Kiki opined later. “He did not agree.”
“I hated it,” Moochie said. “It was horrible.”
But in fact, despite the occasional squabbles, they are the best of friends—something that still gives me goose bumps. Wherever we went on our Scottish idyll, you’d see me and Kathy walking together, and the Three Musketeers swaggering ahead of us, often arm in arm—at Culloden Battlefield, Stirling Castle, and the picturesque fishing village of Plockton. There they were at the ruins of Elgin Cathedral, at Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, and down the High Street of St. Andrews, giggling among themselves and saying, “Nothing, Dad,” when I would ask what they were talking about. They have a camaraderie, an intense and beautiful sibling bonding, that I envy whenever they are together.
BYE-BYE, KIKI: THE BREAK-UP OF OUR NUCLEAR FAMILY
The snafu that led Kiki to arrive in Scotland a day ahead of us also caused her to leave us early, while we were still in the Highlands. Reluctantly, we put her on a bus and, with more sorrow that I can express, I continued to wave good-bye even after her motor coach to Edinburgh Airport was long out of sight.
The four of us still had a few days left of our journey, and they were full days indeed. Scenic drives in the magnificent Cairngorms National Park. Tea and finger sandwiches overlooking the Falls of Feugh. More crumbling castles than you could shake a scone at.
Oh, we had fun. But it wasn’t the same without Kiki. Maybe next time it will be without Gigi. Or without Moochie. Or without any of the kids. Was that Scotland trip really the last of our family vacations? My family says not. But no one likes to think of good times coming to a close. At any rate, I learned a few things on this holiday.
TAKEAWAYS FROM A TRIP WITH THREE GROWN CHILDREN
Restaurants are expensive: Kids grow into connoisseurs, selecting high-end main courses, several appetizers, and even wine—just like, well, real adults.
We’re gonna need a bigger boat: Those mid-size (i.e., affordable) rental cars you used to book won’t do the trick with a carload of fully formed humans. You’ll need a full-size sedan, or maybe even a minivan.
One hotel room won’t cut it: We used to cram the five of us into a single hotel room, even putting Moochie on the floor now and again. No more. You’ll need an apartment or house from HomeAway, VRBO, AirBnB—or two hotel rooms.
Everybody’s got an opinion: It used to be that Kathy and I would plan our vacation itineraries. Now everyone has his or her own thoughts of where to go and how long to visit each place. So start planning early.
But the most important take-away is to cherish each trip with your kids, whatever their ages. Because if you treat every getaway like it’s the last family vacation, they’ll all be the best one.
Did you travel with your family when you were a young adult? Will your kids still want to travel with you when they’re adults?