Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Trip Down the Memory Interstate

Earlier this week, I was talking to a friend about an upcoming cross-country drive.  The conversation started with him mocking my inclination to meander along the highways, browse the truck stops and enjoy a leisurely lunch in some small-town diner in Ohio, but it ended with a somewhat surprising trip down memory lane.  I've done a lot of long-distance driving in my life, beginning with a trip from Illinois to Washington, D.C. in my early twenties.  On those trips, I've seen civil war battle grounds, visited major theme parks, sat in on arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court, window-shopped on Fifth Avenue, dined at Ninja just after it opened, watched fireworks over the ocean, visited old friends and staked out haunted cemeteries--and that's only the beginning.  But when I started thinking back over the thousands of miles of road I covered, it wasn't the Statue of Liberty or the White House that stood out in my mind.  It was a series of low-profile, objectively insignificant moments that I wouldn't have missed for the world.

1.  I crossed the Kentucky border for the first time well after midnight on a week night, my toy poodle asleep on the passenger seat, and the first thing I noticed was that the neon was a softer green than I'd ever seen in the midwest--even the lighting on the chain gas station where I stopped.  Everything, it turned out, was softer: the lighting, the quiet night air when I stepped out of my 1979 Mustang and the cool grass under my feet as I walked with my tiny dog by my side.  I've driven through Kentucky several times since then, good parts and bad, but the mere mention of the state always brings to mind the feel of that grass and the velvet night air just across the state line. 

2.  The beauty of the upper Ohio valley during the third week of October came as a shock; I'd expected Ohio to be as flat as Illinois.  Instead, Interstate 70 rose into gentle hills, valleys (I guess the terminology should have been a clue) painted red and yellow and orange and brown spreading out below like a vast impressionist painting. Twenty-four years later, the changing of the leaves still brings back the memory of that drive and I hope that one day I'll pass along that same road at just the right time of year.

3.  En route from Georgia to Chicago in August of 1990, my friend, my teenage sister and I agreed that we simply had to pop off the interstate in Clarksville, Tennessee and have a look at the train station--maybe snap a few pictures. We may or may not have sung.  We were nonchalant when we asked a long-haired, middle-aged man walking down the street for directions to the train station.  He laughed softly and shook his head when he told us that Clarksville didn't have a train station; it seemed like maybe we weren't the first to have come looking for it.

4.  A California highway in the summer at the wheel of a new, champagne-colored rental car and "Runnin' Down a Dream" on the radio.  That is all.

5.  Driving across the country to take my 12-year-old daughter to the ocean for the first time during the summer of 2008 meant working the phones.  That is, sitting in fast-food restaurants and coffee shops with internet access looking up hotels and calling to ask the all-important question: "Do you have the Disney Channel?"  I usually like to drive far into the night, but on that trip we were tucked into our Disney-equipped hotel rooms early each night because some version of Camp Rock was on television every night that week. We've both outgrown the Jonas Brothers in the intervening years, but the Camp Rock soundtrack will forever be our go-to road trip music...and I will forever be the parent who planned her vacation stops around the third and fourth viewings of a Disney Channel movie.

6.  On most road trips, the greatest problems I've encountered have been traffic-related, but in the spring of this year my daughter and I headed to Florida.  I was going for a seminar on the application of the Uniform Commercial Code to residential mortgage notes; she was tagging along for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Our second day on the road, I woke up in Manchester, Tennessee to find the window on our rental car smashed and some minor theft.  Though we'd fared better than some of the other guests, it was a rough morning.  We had to wait hours for the rental car company to send someone out to replace the glass and the combination of stress and being limited to vending machine food had my head pounding by the time we got back on the road mid-afternoon.  We were nearly a full day behind schedule and it was clear that I'd be paying for a room at the Embassy Suites that night that we wouldn't see before daylight.  Naturally, there was nowhere to eat except gas stations and fast food places.  We bought sandwiches and chips at a Subway in a truck stop, and when we walked outside found ourselves at the foot of a breathtaking mountain. "Let's eat here," my very wise teenager suggested.  I squashed the impulse to rush, knowing that half an hour wouldn't make a significant difference at that point in the day, and we sat on a concrete wall at the edge of the lot, backs to the gas station, and looked out at a landscape soothing enough to carry me through to our 5 a.m. arrival in Orlando.

Is it a waste to pay $250 for two days at the Universal parks and hold close the memory of a $4 sub in a gas station parking lot? Perhaps.  But those other moments, the purposes of the trip, aren't forgotten. We were enchanted by the world of Dr. Seuss; I braved the Spiderman ride in Orlando.  In Savannah, we stood by the ocean at sunset with a very old friend of mine and watched dolphins play in the surf. Though I'd be at a loss to explain why, I've toured Juliette Lowe's house twice. We took the boat to Ellis Island with another old friend and ate hot dogs on Coney Island.  My daughter performed at Disney World; she held tight to my hand the first time an ocean wave washed over her.  I spent an afternoon talking to Vietnam veterans at The Wall. The more dramatic experiences, the more concrete items on the "what I did on my summer vacation" list, have their own value.  But they don't preclude the everday magic that can come from just being where you are in the moment.

No comments: