On California’s famed 17-mile drive through Pebble Beach, the Lone Cypress remains one of the most popular photo ops. Defiantly jutting out over the Pacific, gnarled and bent by unceasing winds, the small, scraggly, scrub of a tree seems to grow from nothing but stone.
Every year, more than 2 million visitors pay the $10.25 per vehicle to drive past the Lone Cypress, just as my husband and I did seven years ago on a Highway One bucket list vacation. The wind whipped my hair and I wrapped my arms around myself to block the chill as I studied the iconic tree from the nearby overlook.
How did one tiny seed find enough soil in that barren spot to take root? It seems to defy logic, that a tree could grow from nothing. But the roots run deep—250 years and counting. Clearly, they found something to hold onto.
“This isn’t really about another baby. Or at least, not just that.”
Therapist No. 2 (we do not speak of the debacle that was Therapist No. 1) pauses as he studies me, taking in my confusion.
“You’re asking Jon to join you on an adventure,” he explains.
“An adventure? I’m, like, the least adventurous person I know,” I reply slowly. And this is true, except for Jon, my ever-cautious husband who installs car seats with military precision and watches our children like hawks in the pool.
The therapist smiles. “You feel safe. You trust your roots. You’re ready to branch out a little more, and you want Jon to step out in faith with you.”
“An adventure,” I repeat, tasting the flavor of the idea on my tongue. I nod. Maybe so.
Six months ago, Jon started a new job—his dream job. His company designs and installs complex, interactive technology systems for sports teams and athletic departments around the country. I admit I don’t really understand the details, but I do know that I’ve never seen him so happy in a job. He is driven and confident, and I mean it with my whole heart when I say I’m proud of him.
The only downside (isn’t there always a downside?) is the travel. He was gone four out of the five weeks in July, and the story was the same for August, too. He’s home on the weekends and for an occasional day or two during the week, but he spends most of the month bouncing between California and North Carolina, like a ping pong ball between time zones while we hold court in the middle.
I miss him terribly when he’s gone. Sure, I miss his help with the bath, books, and bedtime routine every night and his handiness when the dryer breaks or the air conditioner quits working. But I also miss his partnership. The way he doesn’t have to ask how my day has been; he can just look in my eyes. Our bed is too big when he’s not lying next to me. Our room, too quiet without our whispered conversations in the dark. We don’t need to whisper—three years have passed since a baby shared our room—but old habits die hard.
I’d be lying if I said this new arrangement wasn’t hard on our marriage. After all, so much of married life is the everyday stuff—starting the coffee, taking out the trash, picking up dinner on the way home from work when it’s been A Day. In the absence of the ordinariness of a life lived together, it’s easy to let too much space in.
Sometimes, the gaps happen by accident. We’re too tired to recount the stories and anecdotes of the day, so it becomes a day we lived separately instead of together. When that happens occasionally it’s fun and a little mysterious, but when strung together into a week or a month, those separate days start feeling like separate lives.
Other times, the distance is built more deliberately. We sidestep a hard conversation, because we don’t want to argue over the phone, and then we don’t want to discuss it in person either, because who wants to waste precious facetime fighting? This happens again and again, until our relationship becomes littered with conversational landmines—a No Man’s Land between us of Things We’ll Discuss Later.
One night, after another exhausted phone call in the day's last 10 minutes of wakefulness (“How was your day? Fine. How was yours? Fine.”), I remember the therapist’s words about an adventure.
This is not what I had in mind, I think wearily.
It’s like planting a seed amongst stones to try to grow a marriage in this season. The soil isn’t fertile, which means we must be vigilant and protective. If the gap grows too large, the wind and water await to sweep the seed away. It's hard work, protecting something so precious, and our hearts wear the proof in scars and calluses.
Right before I drift off, my arms wrapped around the king-sized pillow that my husband calls “Pillow Jon,” I whisper a prayer.
God, please. Keep us together. Help us hold on.
Jon and I lingered over a slow breakfast this past weekend, while our kids played in the next room. As I sipped my second cup of coffee, we chatted about trying to squeeze in a trip to Asheville this fall. Between Jon’s travel schedule and school back in session, we both knew it was unlikely to become a reality, but it was fun to talk about anyway—the adventure we wanted but wouldn’t have.
“You know, we should take the kids to Burgess Falls sometime,” I said, shifting topics.
Jon nodded. “That’s a great idea, actually. Want to go today?”
I glanced at the clock. I had plans for today. An essay to be written, a house to be cleaned, groceries to be purchased. I looked back at Jon, waiting on my decision, and let my eyes slide past him to admire the blue sky and sunshine out the window. It promised to be hot, but the humidity was low enough that you didn’t need gills to breathe the second you stepped outside. Mid-August weekends in Tennessee don’t get much better.
It was a perfect day for an adventure.
Fifty minutes later, backpacks were ready, a picnic lunch packed, and water bottles filled. We jumped in the car and drove the 90 minutes up I-40 to Burgess Falls, a series of three waterfalls in a state park on the Cumberland Plateau.
The hike was beautiful and scenic; everything we'd hoped it would be. It was also exhausting. At three, our daughter, Ellie, is neither big enough nor careful enough to navigate the narrow, rocky, tree root-riddled path, so she rode in the hiking backpack on my back. Her 30 pounds felt like 300 as I descended the steep staircase to the top of the falls. Gratefully, I lifted her out of it at the bottom and removed her shoes so she could clamber over the rocks and splash in the water with her brother, Nathan.
I sat down on a smooth stone and watched them laughing and playing. I took in the scenery: the water flowing over the rocks, Jon watching our children carefully from a fallen log. With him on sentry duty, I shifted my attention to the left and noticed a tree jutting out over the rushing river. There was no other vegetation nearby—the treelined bank was at least 25 yards away. But here this tree was, growing up from seemingly solid rock. How did a seed find its way here, and not get swept away by the quick-moving water? How on earth did it find enough soil to burrow into, and how did it hold on in the face of floods and drought? Did it start as one of many seeds and watch as, one by one, the others withered or washed away?
When the children were thoroughly soaked, we headed back up the steep incline. Ellie jabbered in my ear about throwing sticks and rocks and if there were salmon living in the river while I huffed and puffed my way up the path. As we climbed, Jon turned back periodically to assist me up a particularly steep section. I noticed that I never once had to ask—he knew on instinct when I would need a steadying hand.
As we drove away from the park in the late afternoon light, Ellie dozed in the backseat and I reached over to hold Jon’s hand. He lifted our intertwined fingers to his lips and gently kissed the back of my hand.
“Thanks for the adventure today,” I whispered with a tired grin.
“Anytime, love,” Jon murmured. “Anytime.”
I don’t think he knew my words were also a prayer.
Sixty years ago, someone set fire to the Lone Cypress. The tree was saved but heavily damaged. In fact, the only reason it still stands today is because of heavy cables, near-hidden from view, holding it in place.
I suppose for some this ruins the mystique of the Lone Cypress, to know that despite a stoic, solitary appearance, it’s actually quite vulnerable. To know that it doesn’t defy the elements alone anymore—that without support, this landmark would’ve fallen off the cliff and into the Pacific long ago.
Instead, I find myself reassured. The Lone Cypress is not a tree of mythical strength. It’s just a seed that picked a hell of a spot to try and grow, but managed to put down roots anyway. It grew into something beautiful, something worth saving, and is now held up with a strength that surpasses its own.