At the freight yards, my mother, who hadn't grasped the nuances of hobo behavior, politely asked a railroad man which train was bound for Grand Junction, as if she had a first-class ticket tucked inside her purse. He snarled at her. "That one," he said, "and don't let me see you." She and the others jumped aboard and watched miles of wide-open western landscape roll by. After a few days, my mother hitchhiked home, but her appetite for adventure hadn't been satisfied, only whetted. She immediately signed up for a grueling wilderness rock-climbing course in Utah, then took off bicycling in Ireland, followed by a horseback trek through the Wyoming Tetons. The summer I was 11, she moved my three sisters and me to Mexico to experience another culture. The four of us always wondered why she wouldn't just play tennis or join the garden club like the other mothers.
But she couldn't help it: My mother got her restless spirit from my grandmother, who had an adventurous past of her own. Her husband left her when she was pregnant with my mother, and she raised her child alone, on a teacher's salary, during the Depression. But in the summers she'd pack up the two of them and explore the West, sleeping wherever they landed when night fell—a Navajo chicken yard, a desert gulch. They'd pull out the portable stove and eat pancakes every meal. "It never occurred to me that we were poor," my mother says.
Not long after hopping the freight train, when I was 6 or 7, my mother told me she wanted me to be more "independent" than my older sisters because she was soon going to be very busy. When she explained what independent meant, I decided it sounded like fun. Part of this new independence meant going along with my mother, who was looking for adventure closer to home. When she heard that realtors in our neighborhood wouldn't sell houses to African-American families, she got involved in the civil rights movement and brought me to demonstrations, meetings, and trials. I missed some school, but our outings made a much more lasting impression on me than some of my classes would have. One day we went to a church where I sat enthralled by the words of a compassionate man with a musical voice. Only later did I know how lucky I'd been to hear the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preach.
Years later when my grandmother went into a nursing home with Alzheimer's disease, my mother was outraged by the center's neglect of the elderly, many of whom were tied to their beds, their pleas for attention ignored. Distressed to see my grandmother's free spirit smothered, she made nursing home reform her new passion. She was hired under a federal grant to be the ombudsman for Colorado's elderly, fighting for residents' rights and taking nursing home administrators to task for their shortcomings. Recently, she received the state's Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award and was inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame.
I'm grateful that the lust for adventure runs in my family. But even when I'm island-hopping or riding a camel in the Sinai, I know—from my mother and her mother before her—that the riskiest, most important adventures in life aren't the ones that are physically daring and far away, but those that make a difference in the world close to home.
My mother is retired now, after 20 years of public service, though from the number of e-mails she returns, you'd never know it. These days she is mainly content to stay home and play with her grandchildren, but she's also itching for another trip. At 73, with Parkinson's disease, she wants to take a train ride through the Copper Canyon in Mexico.
Fine, I told her. But this time, get a ticket.
Laura Fraser is the author of An Italian Affair (Vintage).
Are You Ready to Take a Risk?