A true vacation. If autism allows – and especially if it doesn’t – a family must go on vacation. Home can sometimes feel confining. With therapy, homework, special diets, poop accidents, rituals, and more, a vacation provides a welcome remedy. Never mind that a third of the contents of our house comes with us. We are going on vacation!

Several summers ago, Lake Tahoe called our name. We had been there many times before and explored the area up, down, and all around. We’d toured the fall terrain, surveyed snowy hillsides, investigated verdant inclines. There isn’t a season or site in Tahoe that isn’t sensational. So, naturally, we had to go back.

With luggage packed tightly, tire pressure checked, and house locked for the week, we made the trek to lovely Tahoe. I had booked a suite in a family-friendly hotel in Olympic Valley which, according to Expedia, would have two TVs, a full kitchen, a queen sized bed plus a sofa bed, a DVD player, a balcony, and a whirlpool tub. Bonus: there were multiple hot tubs and pools from which to choose, an arcade, and a fitness center!

As the Sierra Foothills came into sight, a recent neck injury began to act up. When we stopped for lunch, I could barely turn my head. A few tears rolled when I thought of our precious vacation being ruined by misbehaving vertebrae. I iced and employed the physical therapy techniques given to me by the great George Lendaris Rpt. His exercises saved me many times.

By midday, we arrived at the enchanted hotel. The receptionist announced with a broad smile that we were in one of their nicest rooms. That does an autism mom’s heart good – let me tell you! But the glee was short-lived; the employee next to her whispered something, and they stepped away from the desk. She returned with a somewhat insincere apology: that room had been double booked and the guests in it arrived earlier than we had. Hello sinking feeling. Welcome back. You hadn’t been away very long, had you?

Rest assured, she said, they would get us a nice room. It’s okay, she said, it’s a great location. Have a great time, she smiled. With six Samsonites trailing our ankles, we trudged up, we trudged down, we trudged around and found our tiny room with one working TV, a kitchenette, a full-sized bed, a lumpy sofa bed, a cement pad out the sliding door (open to the public sidewalk), and a shower stall. Adjacent to the room – the fitness center. Across the sidewalk – a large hot tub.

Tahoe and the rest of northern California was on the brink of a heat wave that week, and the room was a warm 76 degrees. Umm, air conditioner, where are you? The front desk confirmed they had no AC but could provide a fan. Yes please.

Starting that Friday night and continuing for the week was the barrage of late-night hot tubbers outside our room. Because the fan squeaked and irritated Zach’s sensitive system, we tried opening the windows. Alas, the spa party proved too loud. There were early morning wake-ups compliments of the whoosh-thump whoosh-thumps coming from the fitness center treadmills. Did we ask for a different room, you wonder? Yep. But a mid-week pack-change rooms-unpack drill would not sit well with the young man. As a result, we stayed out as much as we could. Between this and my neck, I wasn’t happy.

One day, we ventured over to Virginia City, Nevada. Home to incredible 19th century Victorian buildings, Virginia City rose to fame with the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859. The heat wave burned hotter there but plenty of ice cream shops dotted the main street. Shops were closing randomly, probably due to excessive temps, and Zach’s tolerance for shopping was burning out. We decided to walk north of town and see what we could see. Two of the last structures in town were a mini-mart and a fire station. We grabbed water bottles and kept walking.

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Just before the road turned sidewalk-less, we came upon what looked like an entrance to some hiking trails. The view was panoramic. Ahead, we spotted an iron gate and a kiosk. The height of summer lent a crispy golden hue to the surrounding topography. Trail, brush, tree, rock, fence, and mountainside all blended together into a rusty, ruddy realm. Perhaps that’s why we didn’t see the gravestones right away.

As we ventured along this hillside, deeper into the mining town cemetery, we became transfixed by the stones and monuments rising out of the rocky ground. When you think about the history there and all the stories that filled the days of these people’s lives, it can be mind blowing. But what happened later was more mind blowing.


Our water bottles empty, the sun starting to set, and distant clouds coming closer, we encouraged Zach to pick up the pace. I heard a shuffle of pebbles, which wasn’t Zach’s sneakers. We hadn’t seen another person there. And then there was movement. I turned, and there was a large horse. It paused, looked at us, and huffed. Then a raindrop hit my head. And another. A wind kicked up. TIME TO GO!

Trouble was – we hiked a long way, and retracing our steps meant 45 minutes to the main road. I have the instinct of a homing pigeon, so I took my boys around a bend that I figured would cut our hike in half. Distant thunder quickened my step and my grip on Zach.

Decision time: continue around the bend, or climb a steep embankment that would save even more time? Drip drop drip drop BOOM. Embankment!!

I climbed first. Rocks gave way under my Reeboks. I grabbed a branch which snapped off…bone dry. I skidded backwards. But determination propelled me. At the top of the dirt wall, I motioned for Zach to come up. My husband stayed below to make sure Zach didn’t slide. And with the deftness of a squirrel, he scooted to the top, using his hands and feet and keeping low. So remember the mind blowing part?

When he was almost next to me, I reached for his hand. He didn’t give it. Anxious to leave, I touched his hand hoping to hoist him. He drew back. Our eyes locked for a moment. If it were a Hitchcock film, there would have been a black and white close up of our eyes. I couldn’t look at my husband scaling the slope because I couldn’t take my eyes off the ivory-colored needles inserted into Zach’s wrists like IV needles.

There was no blood and no crying. But there he stood with wide eyes and those needles. Not thorns. Not splinters. Needles. My throat made some sort of sound. I asked my husband to break off a branch that had needles on it. He looked around and did so, looking confused. My mind went into mom-on-a-mission mode.

Getting dark. Storm ensuing. Gates locking. Car far away. Potentially poisonous plant. No nearby hospitals. Child with autism with sensory issues.

Grasping elbows, we reached the road. The mini-mart wouldn’t do any good. So I marched us into the fire station. Yelling out “we need help” didn’t bring about people. I searched the station and found a first aid kit in the kitchen. Just then, a man entered and calmly asked if we needed help. He didn’t seem rattled to see three sweaty panicky people there. Yes, yes please….

And as gently and kindly as could be, the man took Zach to a chair. While I held each arm, the man guided the needles out of his wrists. Zach watched while I stared at the floor taking deep breaths.

“Hold on,” the angel said. “There’s more here, Mom.”

And as I looked up, he pointed to needles wedged in Zach’s thumbs. My stomach flipped. Smaller but still quill-like, one needle was under his nail. In the 20 minutes we were there, Zach showed bravery and cooperation. He let the man dislodge the spikes, clean his skin, and apply bandages. Surprisingly, there was little blood. I asked him if he knew of poisonous bushes in the area, and we showed him the branch. His reassurances calmed me. A little bit.

I must have stared at Zach all the way back to the hotel. I had hospital locations at the ready in my phone. The last rays of the sun sparkled through the pine trees along 395 as I held grateful thoughts in my heart. But guilt crept in too. I made him climb that cliff. I tried the shortcut that put those needles into him. I should have noticed the beastly bush on my way up.

It is easy to beat ourselves up about the things that unintentionally hurt our children. Easy to let guilt shower us. Easy to let that mental tape scold you. And for me, easy to stay pulled down by all of that.


That night, in the safety of the little room, as Zach lay on my lap, I heard the party animals at the hot tub. I listened to the squeaky fan spin. I saw the bumpy sofa bed made up with scratchy blankets. I felt the sweat beads on my back. My neck still hurt but who cared? Any prior irritation melted away. The little blond head before me was all that mattered. He was fine. He didn’t hold it against me. I whispered too many times I’m sorry. He cuddled in. I returned to gratefulness. For that is stronger than we realize. You can’t pack gratefulness in a suitcase. But you can fill your heart to the brim with it every day.

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