Sunday, July 31, 2011

Time & Travel

I began my day in Augusta, Georgia when Carolyn packed her luggage into my car and we set off with a cooler full of water and snacks. I entered Alabama for the first time since 1989 and as the day ticked away we made our way through Mississippi, Tennessee, and finally into Arkansas, over 600 miles of American highway. One of the most surprising things for me was just how empty those highways were, as a Jersey girl I am far more accustomed to traffic jams than I am to long stretches of lonely highway. There were never more than ten cars visible to me on the highway and the long stretches of fields broke suddenly into city scapes with very little warning. The signs along these highways were few and far between and as a result I wasn't able to do what I'd planned to do, take a picture of each state's welcome sign. I'm accustomed to several warnings, constant reminders of how many miles I have before I reach a certain point, 'Newark 15 miles, Newark next 3 exits, Last Exit before toll', in New Jersey there's always something to remind you of where to get off, driving route 20 and then route 78 west, things seemed to come suddenly from nowhere and then disappear just as suddenly into nothing.
One of my favorite parts of today's trip was when we slipped across the Alabama state line I caught sight of a sign on the side of the road that read "Now entering Central Standard Time" and just like that we added an hour to our day. It's amazing to me that just by crossing that invisible threshold I gained what I am always finding myself short of, time. If only it were that easy everyday to add the hour I so often need.

Today I've traveled through states I've never set foot in before and watched through the car window as the countryside slid by. One thing that struck me more than what is different about each state is what is so often the same. Highways in each state were littered with gas station signs, fast food chains, department stores, things I see every day at home. There was also the insistently blue sky and the patches of clouds I found myself trying to find the hidden shapes in. In state after state I saw the things that tie us together, the flags, the car dealerships, the road signs. I think I set out looking for what is different about each state and somehow found, at least today, the things that make us similar.

We've settled into our hotel here in Little Rock for the night. I must admit I found myself enamored with the receptionist's southern drawl, with the slow, smooth surety with which he seemed to move. The world is moving more slowly here, I'm a thousand miles away from the fluster of horns I've grown accustomed to on Route 9, I've distanced myself from the 'get out of my way I'm busy' attitude I've come to accept as normal and I'm eager to press on tomorrow toward Oklahoma City toward more people who smile and chat more. I wonder if maybe the highways here are less crowded because not everyone feels as driven to 'get things done' or maybe it's just that extra hour has makes all the difference. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Places We Don't Ever Leave Behind

How hard it is to escape from places.  However carefully one goes they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - like rags and shreds of your very life.  ~Katherine Mansfield

I just arrived in Augusta, Georgia after a week of vacationing with my family on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina all week. Hilton Head is one of my favorite place and though I haven't been there in several years, it remains a big part of my childhood because every summer my parents would take the family down for much of the summer. From the time I was 8 years old until the time I turned 20 I traveled the winding trails of Sea Pines Plantation and grew to know them in much the same way I knew my own neighborhood. 

My husband and children were eager to ride the bike trails and explore the beautiful places that surrounded us. Sea Pines has miles and miles of bike trails cut through the woods and as you ride you pass alligators sunning themselves beside lagoons, fish jumping from murky water, people on golf carts heading from one hole to the next. When I climbed back on that bike I found that the paths I had not traveled in years remain clearly ingrained in my subconscious. All week I lead them over these trails as if I'd ridden these routes all of my life. 

In some ways, I have. As we drive, walk, and bike this island I find myself collecting the shreds and rags that Mansfield is speaking of. I regale my disinterested teens with stories of the experiences I collected here. See that hotel on the right? That's where my sister's and I used to go to the beach every day.  See that bench over there? That's where I sat the first time I ate my favorite ice cream. See that treehouse? I used to climb it with your aunt all the time.
This beach is where your father and I got married twenty years ago. We had only five hundred dollars to our names, ate Taco Bell every day...  
I admit I've degenerated into a sort of tour guide pointing out the landmarks of my youth. Of course there's a lot I'm leaving out, the secret self I refuse to share with anyone. I see her lurking just behind trees draped in Spanish Moss, at the edge of the ocean where I buried a note I wrote to God when my grandmother died. I was only 12 but I felt certain that if God existed this was the place he'd chose to receive his messages. I can feel the girl I was then and in a way that is catching me off guard. 
In my own head the narrative goes more like this Down that road is where I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. here is where I met the boy who became my first 'boyfriend', the dock over there is where we snuck away to kiss. Remember the party you went to there? The boy who first broke your heart? Don't look down that road, that's the house where you made one of the biggest mistakes of your life...

I think the contrasting tour guides in me were especially noticeable because this year I had my own teenagers and somehow the sight of them wandering the twisting paths was both thrilling and terrifying. I always hoped that they'd never make the same mistakes I did. I hope my daughter never feels the need to dumb herself down in order to fit in, that she never lets a boy convince her to betray herself, that my sons don't climb into a car with someone whose been drinking or ignore that voice inside them that tells them to walk away. 
I also hope they come to love a place as much as I love that place, that the way I saw my memories gathering around me there, they will have place where theirs gather around them. I hope my sons look at the ocean and see the power of place, the way the earth wars with itself and still manages to be beautiful. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Day 1 Travel Troubles

I have had a day full of stories that will be funnier in the future than they are right now. My sister side swiped my car as she left the driveway knocking my side mirror off and scratching the passenger door. She looked so pathetically sad when she came back in the house to confess that it seemed ridiculous to be mad. Luckily my brother-in-law is very handy and he was able to buff out the scuffs and reattach the side mirror so that the scars are barely visible.
The car in order, I headed up, at midnight,  to sleep in my nephew's bedroom while my kids and their cousins huddled down for a night of chit chat, movies,and  swapping stories. I knew that for them this night would include little to no sleep. Half the fun of any vacation is the memories you make right? Let them giggle and be goofy, as I climbed into bed I was still on all systems go for a week of family fun followed by my trek across the south into New Mexico.
Funny thing happens as I'm changing into my pajamas, my younger son knocks on the door and when I open it I find an extended hand, cell phone lying flat on his open palm as if he expects it to explode at any minute. "It's Dad", he says in his newly baritone voice.
My husband, who is traveling in another car, has called to tell me that his car is smoking badly and that he will have to turn around and return home. Tomorrow he will either repair his car or rent another. Not exactly a part of my plan. Having traveled for years with kids I have learned that they hate being wedged between suitcases nearly as much as they hate me giving them fashion advice as they pack, so, in what seemed a burst of genius at the time, I declared that in order for them to be more comfortable their suitcases would be traveling with their father in his car.
Now I have three teens heading for a week's vacation with only two outfits each. Anyone who has ever parented a teenager  knows that this is a category 5 emotional hurricane. No choices of shoes for two whole days? No specially picked matching outfits and sneakers? As their brains fill with visions of fashion suicide, mine fills with the distant echo of doom. Wasn't this supposed to be bonding time? Why then do I hear the manacles of melodrama snapping shut? Why aren't things going according to plan?
I guess I'll need to reexamine my St. Augustine allusion, if this journey is a book, the first lesson must be learn to roll with the punches.
Cars can be repaired, a broken fan belt or a mangled mirror are annoyances but they have only the power I give to them. Tomorrow my husband will roll up his sleeves and dig his calloused hands into the heart of the machine that betrayed him today. He'll get dirty, when he pulls his hands from beneath the hood of that old Suzuki they will be slick with oil and grease, his aging hands will ache from the struggle to fit into tight spaces. He may fail. He may spend hours sliding fingers through the cramped corners of that engine and the fan belt may refuse to fit. He may have to rent a car, spending hundreds of dollars we hadn't budgeted for, but by Sunday he will show up for his family. Like he always has.
I was tempted, briefly, to see the events of this day as a harbinger, a warning from the universe that I should read no further. It would be easy enough to fret my minor misfortunes, to lament about the money all this will cost me, to slide my reading glasses back into their case and head home but then I remember the way the brilliant blue sky hovering over me as I drove across that small bridge outside of Richmond, the wash of music that filled my small car as we entered Durham, and I remembered how much I want to read further in this book. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summer Reading?

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

I'm about to set off on a journey of several thousand miles. As a fundamentally restless person, I find myself constantly drawn to travel. There is something intangibly satisfying about the simple act of moving, about the slick spine of the highway just beneath you, about the landscape yielding then slowly receding as you pass. All of my life I have felt the desire to see new things, to find and explore places I have only read about on the pages of the books that have for so long been my imaginative companions. I began to travel with my family as a child tagging along as my father crisscrossed the country as a baseball scout. My father's soul is not dissimilar to my own, he too seemed to be constantly pulled to explore, to travel, to see, to read, if you will, the pages of book to which St. Augustine is referring. I remember clearly sitting in the back of the family station wagon watching silos jut into the clear sky above the Appalachian mountains, peering through a rain-soaked  window at the jagged skyline of cities that seemed to rise miraculously from the landscape, and spending countless hours reading signs that helped me count the miles to the South Carolina state line.  As you might imagine, some of my siblings were less thrilled with our time confined in the car but I loved the fact that you could start your day in a crowded suburb where people drank soda and wore sneakers and by the time you laid your head on the pillow be in a place where people drank pop and wore tennis shoes. I found myself fascinated by the way a few hundred miles changed not only the scenery but the language and the people.
Once you crossed the Mason-Dixon line life seemed to yield to heat, the people moved more slowly and smiled more.
Despite all the travel I have remained a Jersey girl at heart. One of the things I have always loved about New Jersey is that it a place that is, indeed, many places. There are all kinds of people here from city slickers to farmers and the landscape is similarly diverse. I can get in my car and drive a short distance in one direction and find myself lost on winding country roads and then turn my car  around and drive an hour or two and be in country's biggest city. The faces that surround me daily come in various shades and are arrayed in anything from jeans and a tee-shirt to a traditional abaya. I love to travel to the various corners of my own state and discover its hidden treasures but it's summer and my rambling soul is itching to explore places unknown.
Seven years ago I made a New Year's resolution to see at least one place I'd never seen before each year for the rest of my life and thus far I have kept that promise to myself. I've traveled up and down the east coast and even once made it as far into the west as Las Vegas. My trip to Nevada, however, was made on a plane and so my 'view' of the American West was very limited and Vegas, being what it is, offered only the most commercial of Western culture. This year, I am packing up my car, picking up my best travel buddy and heading to Santa Fe. Together we will trek across several states and make our way into the west.
I've just finished reading On the Road, I've got my Route 66 travel guide and next week, we're off.
So what of St. Augustine's book? I hope that mile by mile I will be turning the pages of my own story, unraveling the plot and characters of my own life by looking both at the scenery and souls who populate the roads I will be traveling. I also hope to find a few minutes each day to blog about the people and things I've seen as I press through the country into the region so full of the rich culture of the indigenous people of the country I love. This will be my summer reading, reading the lines of the landscape, the paragraphs spread across the faces of people I will meet along the way. I am expecting this to be the best book I've ever read.