Author Archives: jamieellen
Like all good things, the land of cheese and syrup had to come to an end. The cool weather clung to the Vermontian hills as we rolled on and the valleys of upstate New york met us with bright sunlight and warmer air. Entering New York through the rural upstate regions was like starting a book by opening up to the index. There was no sign of the New York that is brought to mind with images of Sex and the City, the Beastie Boys, Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal loving the Mets. The weather was changing quickly and by the afternoon we were finally starting to see signs of life, that is if you refer to technology, pollution and traffic as life, disregarding the inherent contradiction of it all. The tri-city area of Troy, Albany, and Schenectady met us with a slap in the face of a warm, humid hand and mile upon mile of traffic congested streets. There seems to be a trend in our trip of approaching metropolitan areas during the peak of rush hour, leaving us only with the bitter taste of a fossil fuel spewing haze and the increasing desire to settle in the remote hinterlands of the country.
In full disclosure, once or twice me might have hoped for a vehicle with air conditioning. But there was nothing we could do about it now except navigate the open spaces between bumpers like a rickshaw driver in the streets of Calcutta (or Kolkatta if you’re more contemporary). Eventually we found our way out of city limits and onto the cold and impersonal expanse of the interstate. We were reunited with the 18-wheel semis and wide-load house movers, the behemoth motor homes and weekend warrior boat trailers. In case our confidence had become too overinflated we were reminded of how small and powerless we were in the presence of these monsters.
The finger lakes approached and with it the town of Syracuse. Night fell. We were tired and Eliot had had enough. The crying began. We pulled off the highway and wound up and over the steep Syracuse streets, desperately searching for a wi-fi hotspot to locate a place to sleep. Eventually we settled on the more primitive but much more reliable of gps devices, another human being. There was a Wal-Mart down the road a bit, and it was there we would spend the night. It was days like this that remind us of the toll the road can take on a person.
The next morning we continued west until Seneca lake. Descending south we skirted the eastern edge and landed at the very tip at Watkins Glen State Park. Home to the beautiful narrow gorge of Watkins Glen, where layers of rock jut out from the wall and waterfalls cut staircases into the earth. We claimed a spot at the campsite up the road and came back down to the entrance to the gorge, where we would begin our hike. It was a hot day, let me start by saying that. It was hot and despite the relatively short drive already I was pretty tired. Let me also start by apologizing to my eternally gracious and patient wife for putting up with (as well as she could) my grouchy and unpleasant demeanor. Combine my state of mind with a child learning to walk who insists on surmounting slick, sharp steps of stone, himself, and you may, indeed, have a day that turns out to be less enjoyable than you hoped. The heat and my character flaws aside, it was truly a beautiful place. There is nothing that can diminish the wonder of nature in a soul when she’s in her full glory. The mind, the heart, the attention span folds at the presence of such beauty and hesitates in its distractions to acknowledge without contest that there, beauty be.
We made it, somehow by the grace of God, to the top of the gorge, with Eliot screaming in our ears as I ran him up the last few steps to our finish line where there was a playground, a bathroom, a store and (most importantly) a shuttle stop, because there was absolutely no way I was going to repeat that hike while wrangling our son who was getting more and more tired (see:clumsy and uncoordinated) yet who continued to insist on not being carried. Relief was only temporary, though, because, thanks to a friendly Rabbi who had just completed the same hike and was probably enjoying an enriching spiritual experience, we heard that the shuttle would not run today. I would like to apologize to that same rabbi for my grouchy and unpleasant demeanor.
I might have had a mental break at that point. I don’t remember much after blacking out and waking up with turkey feathers in my hair, ice cream in my shoe and a face tattoo of Chinese characters the meaning of which I will never know.
With little other option we made our way back to the gorge, descending step after step, taking turns holding our son’s hands, keeping him from spilling over the low retaining wall, and alternatively taking slow deep breaths and repeating to ourselves “it will all be over soon, it will all be over soon.”
Later at camp we found a swimming pool and Jamie and Eli went for a much deserved dip while I sat down and took deep cleansing breaths. Later, after showers, while dinner heated up on Captain Kiwi’s stove Jamie hung the hammock between two trees and Eli pulled out his trucks and played in the dirt. The daylight faded into the pine needles and our little family settled down for another night beneath the stars. Showers, food and a swing in the hammock. It’s amazing what the little things can do for one’s state of mind.
West again. From the land of low skies and moist air, the highlands of the northeast, we turned from the coast and puttered through central Maine and into New Hampshire. We took small, two-lane state highways and backcountry roads and found ourselves in a number of quiet, New Hampshire hamlets and at the shores of many a placid pond. The country was so green and arboreal that the desert travel from home through Texas seemed like a decades’ old memory. The roads wound north and south and north again such that there was, in fact, no straight route from Bar Harbor to New York. But as the sun climbed and hung and then began its descent again we got closer and closer to our destination.
White River Junction.
The name may mean nothing to many people. Throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century it was one of the most important railway junctions in the region. Now, though, at 2,200 people an uninquisitive traveler while passing through might not take notice of it. The sleepy town rests at the bottom of a steep valley, thick with trees and life and winding streams. Though the middle of summer, we ached to see how beautiful it would be when winter came.
For me, though, the town is the home of the Center for Cartoon Studies. “What?!” You say. “Yes,” I say “read on.”
The Center of Cartoon Studies, a place that, apparently, most locals don’t even know about. When we stepped into a grocery store for directions we were met with blank faces like we were speaking Rapa Nui. The manager, fortunately, had gone walking in the town before and gave us some quick directions. Under a railroad bridge and around a corner we found it, a street straight out of the depression with old department stores, a post office and a bar with a sign that read “OPEN” but may or may not have been referring to a day 15 years prior when it was in fact still open.
And there, on the bottom floor of one of the old department stores, with a polished glass storefront and a clean black and white logo on the door, was the school. The sun had already fallen behind the valley walls and the streets were getting dark but I wanted a peek. I ran across and peered in the window, the lights still on but the halls empty. Artwork hung on wires against the far wall. The door was locked. After a few moments of taking it in, realizing my family was tired and hungry, I turned to leave. But then I heard the door open and I swung around and bumped head-on into a tall, bespectacled man with thinning hair and thick brow.
I excused myself and spewed forth my interest in the school hoping to justify my awkwardly creeping about on the sidewalk. He recommended I come back the next day for a tour and then dismissed himself with a humble “I’m just an old guy who likes to draw.” Later that night at a KOA, after we had set up camp, I was doing a little more research on the school when I saw the face of the man I met. James Sturm, epic cartoonist and co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies! Just an old guy who likes to draw. Right.
The skies opened up on us that night and we swaddled ourselves and settled in for some rest. The next morning we returned to the CCS and I managed to slip in with a personal tour. It was like a movie, or a dream, or, dare I say, Heaven?
How can a place like this exist, a place dedicated to the study and pursuit of cartooning, where one can learn from and be mentored by people like James Sturm, Alec Longstreth and Jason Lutes?! Everywhere around me was inspiration and hope and excitement, the nervous methamphetamine-like energy of creation. It felt safe and innocent and sweet, like childhood. It had been so long since I felt that purity of excitement over visiting a place. White River Junction is charming enough, with its old diners and coffee shops, cartoonists’ work pasted up on the walls, railroad tracks and stone masonry. CCS made it feel more home, somehow. A stranger in a strange land forgets their strangeness when they focus on the utterly familiar and endearing.
Vermont had more for us, though. As rain drizzled down on us we left the valley and wound our way over a flooded river and, by way of a pot-hole plagued dirt road, arrived at a farm. We had heard about this place that offered free cheese, jam and honey tasting. In the workshop of an old farmhouse we were led from one cheese to the next. Old ladies and young girls worked side by side, preparing orders to be shipped round the country. We picked up some genuine Vermont maple syrup, some wholesome cheese, and some jelly and said goodbye to a young cow tied up outside.
On we went, further into the wooded country, stopping for some cookies and a baguette from the King Arthur flour company, and veering north for a spell, through Montpelier. I somehow expected more from a state capitol. It was a beautiful little town, charming streets and buildings, clean and green with the sheen of fallen rain (you like that rhyming?). It definitely seemed like a nice place to live and put-put about but it’s hard to compare it to Sacramento or Atlanta. Maybe that’s why I liked, unassuming as it was. But at any rate, we kept on until we ended up (somehow, I have no idea how, really it was just a coincidence, we had no idea, just kinda happened) at the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Waterbury, VT!
- ( Before )Sample Time!
The tour was straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Bright murals lit up every wall. There were candies and statistics and souvenirs and history timelines and videos and ICE CREAM! At the end of the tour, having seen the conveyor belts and mixers and flavor dispensers, we got our samples. Never having been a fancy-ice cream fan I was hooked immediately. The gusty, wet weather outside did nothing to dampen our excitement over our ice cream. Even Eli had his first lick. His pupils dilated and a siren popped out of the top of his head, AAAOOOOOOOOGGGAAAA!!! And he was off! He ran around and around and swung under the hand rails and up and down the ramp.
- Eliot loves flattened-penny souvenirs
When the ice cream ran its course we got back into Captain Kiwi and started thinking about where to bed down for the night. We were met on the highway with beautiful, thick, grey clouds and serene sloping hills. Everything about the state made us sigh with relief. It was so good to be somewhere so beautiful. When would we have ever come here? What would have brought us out of the comfort zone of Pasadena to say “Let’s go to Vermont”? We were so happy to be where we were, with each other in our little bus, puttering down the highway.
We ended up, that night, at a small state park hidden in the backcountry and accessible by more than a few twists and turns of dirt roads and narrow streets. The first impression was “We will die here, tonight.” It was that kind of a woods. But after meeting the camp hosts and parking and throwing some dinner together we fell into a comfortable peace. The isolation was cathartic, the silence of the woods, broken but for a gust of wind or pattering of rain, was like a warm blanket over our spirits. We awoke and were only slightly surprised by the beauty that surrounded us in the dense forest. Eliot jumped out and played on the wet grass, we ate breakfast and poured ourselves some coffee.
Captain Kiwi was packed and prepped. Before we left, though, we went on a short walk, chasing Eliot through a field of open grass, feeling the crisp wet air on our faces. (Not to say we didn’t have moments when Eli was crying and throwing fits, when we were scared a mountain lion would attack us as we came out of the bathroom, or when we tried to reassure ourselves that the bus wouldn’t tip over in the night…but as a whole this is the experience we are left with, what was imprinted on our hearts and what we will remember as having more value.) The Captain rolled on and we returned to the highway.
Maybe it’s a southern California thing. Maybe it’s just that we’re used to having the sun in the sky most of the year at a certain angle. It’s always just less than overhead, but bright enough and clear enough to cut through any thought and interrupt any conversation with “Hey it’s me! Remember your pupils? I do! Sha-BAM now they don’t work as well!” And then you’re left saying to whomever “I’m sorry I lost my train of thought, it’s so friggin’ bright out here.” Maybe it is just a southern California thing, but when we crossed the slim strip of New Hampshire (That slim strip of New Hampshire, by the way, the only beach that the state can call its own, is strangely reminiscent of Myrtle Beach, and not in a flattering way. An hour crawl through traffic with temperatures easily breaking into the 90’s without an air conditioner and surrounded by drunken frat boys screaming about the things that would be possible to do with girls in a vehicle like ours, all with my child in the back seat and my wife at my side, are not factors that contribute to a fuzzy memory later on down the road.) into Maine the light dimmed a bit.
We’re both light people. We love and appreciate good light where we can get it and because of that we love dusk and early morning, rainy days and the Pacific Northwest. And just like the Pacific Northwest it felt like the ceiling of the world had been lowered to just out of our reach, like the sky, as we increased our latitude bent closer and closer to the North Pole until it would eventually touch and not a soul would be able to stand there for lack of room. Clouds had formed into a single grey mass, slowly slowly slowly pushing the oppressive heat further south so we would feel welcome. Pine forests had suddenly sprouted up from the ground and surrounded the highway. We passed through Portland and Augusta and ended our day at Lake St. George State Park. It felt like we were in the Truman Show and were approaching the end of the studio, where the images of trees and hills would prove to be only very successful artistic interpretations of real nature. But we were there, the Captain parked with a view of the lake, sun setting, the water calm.
We walked over and dipped our feet in, skipped stones and splashed each other as Eliot giggled below us. The world behind us was so far away. Fireflies awoke and started their dance from site to site so we eventually crawled up the bank onto the grass and back to camp for dinner. The next morning we woke up and broke camp. Jamie had been talking for a long time about wanting to canoe again and I had noticed walking around that the rangers rented canoes for campers so I surprised her with the news that we’d all be going out on the water. We pulled on our life vests and off we went. I hadn’t been in a canoe since I was maybe 12 years old in Boy Scouts. It felt good to float across the lake, to feel the splash of water on my arms, to realize how weak I had gotten on the trip as my muscles and joints almost failed me. There was Jamie to impress so I withheld my grimace and kept going. Then we took turns and I held Eliot.
Maine. This was it.
We went from Los Angeles to Maine and here we were, canoeing across a lake together. We wanted to go a little further so when we had both drained our arms of any life we pulled back in and hit the road further east. Past Belfast and Ellsworth, we were suddenly in Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park. It was one of the most beautiful places we had seen on our trip. Low lying clouds, scattered drizzle and trees reaching up to the sky. We stayed the night in the park and spent the next day driving around the island. In the town of Bar Harbor we watched the fishing boats bob up and down in the water, sat in the park as the rain drip-dropped around us, and slid in and out of the tourist shops. It was there that we had the best blueberry frozen yogurt in the history of man. (Think for a moment about neolithic cave people serving up waffle cones of blueberry and vanilla swirl frozen yogurt. It was even better than that.)
Acadia was our official turnaround point and the furthest north and east that we would make it on this trip. We didn’t want to leave Maine but we had more to see so we headed southeast to Camden Hills State Park. We stayed for two nights, long enough to warrant setting up the hammock, and had just set up camp when the clouds that had been hanging overhead for days finally stopped messing around and got down to business. The rain fell light at first, like we had had in Acadia, and then got heavier and heavier. Jamie and Eliot climbed into the van while I fiddled around with the mess of bungee cords and our big blue tarp so we could have a little extra shelter from the rain. I ran around a few trees with a line of rope trying to prop up the tarp and tried again and again to fix the bungees so the tarp wouldn’t sag but nothing was working. The rain pounded the top of my head and soon I was soaked. After I had rigged something so that tarp was more or less up and the van looked like it got caught in spider-web I climbed inside. Dinner was warm and delightful thanks to Jamie. The tarp, we later realized, was useless because it had been stowed in the luggage storage atop the van the whole trip and was so baked through and brittle that the water dripped right through it. Great.
The next day we crossed the road and climbed down the hill to a view of the water. The cliffs dropped off sharply below us to rocky coasts and choppy waves. We were the only ones out and it was a beautiful day. The sky had cleared and the air was fresh and Eliot was having all kinds of fun dragging monstrous branches along the trail.
After we left Camden Hills we meandered through more backcountry roads and narrow highways to a peninsula jutting south, with a lighthouse at its tip. Pemaquid lighthouse is small and out of commission but a lighthouse nonetheless and what is Maine without a visit to a lighthouse and a lot of Bah Hahbah-type accent jokes?
As we stood on the slick rocks that fell down into the water we knew that far enough south of us was the tip of Massachusetts and even further than that was the Dominican Republic. This was the Atlantic, from our first sight of it in South Carolina to our last sight of it here in Maine. Goodbye to the waters that connect us to Europe and Africa, goodbye to the world of the north where the ocean air is cold even in summer and the sky sinks low on its way to the North Pole.
It’s about time we head west.
The further north we drove the shorter the spaces between places became. We were far from the long stretches of open road and now towns were built upon towns, layers of history beneath fresh coats of paint and freeway signs. We were looking forward to meeting up with Charlie and Teresa, friends from Los Angeles, in Connecticut where Charlie grew up. They were in town for a wedding and offered us a roof to sleep under at his parents’ house. We stopped for Mexican food at this restaurant in Stamford. I didn’t realize how much I missed eating Mexican. Two days is too long let alone a month or whatever it had been. Maybe the rest of the country would ease up on the racist, faux-immigration-reform rhetoric if they had authentic Mexican food to munch. I digress. It was a glorious lunch, though. And upon filling our bellies we drove on to their house. Charlie and Teresa welcomed us with open arms. We ate and drank and played ball in the backyard. We showered and shaved and caught up with each other. It was good to see familiar faces in an unfamiliar land and a pleasure to meet Charlie’s parents, warm and interesting folk.
We took a little stroll through a wilderness park, uphill from a river and a set of railroad tracks. Granite boulders hung out from the hillside like a set of wild production stages. Large swaths of trees were flattened all along the path by wind or by frost. It was if a giant troll had run through, squashing the forest with his big troll-ey feet. We made it back to the house in time for an amazing home-cooked meal. After some fantastic local pie for dessert we hung out and watched a movie.
It was good to feel at home, like going to a friend’s house after school. The next morning there was a hearty breakfast of eggs and toast and coffee waiting for us. We ate and talked about the road ahead and we each got ready, Jamie and I for the route north and Charlie and Teresa for their flight back to L.A. It was a short stay but we were happy to know they’d be back in L.A. when we eventually got home. We thanked everyone for their hospitality and bid them adieu.
Before we took off Charlie told us about a farm up the road where you can pick your own strawberries so we made sure to stop there. Row after row after row of berry bushes stretched out across the hill beneath the overcast sky. Eliot did the best he could to help us fill our bins but he couldn’t help popping them into his mouth twice as fast.
After Connecticut we drove on into Rhode Island. Our next stop would be Uncle Ralph. He lives in a small neighborhood north of Providence. Jamie had a great-Aunt Lola and he is her brother. Before we headed up to meet him, though, we wanted to see the capital. Our first impression was positive. Hey what a cool little city. I like that architecture. I like that river, there. What a beautiful school. Home of Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, University of Rhode Island, Providence College and about a half-dozen more the town couldn’t get more academic than it is. We stopped and got some Thai food and then walked through the Brown campus. The nearby streets were filled with college kids and it was as alive as any college hub in the country.
Unfortunately, perhaps out of self-preservation, the college area is a world in itself. Outside of the bubble of academia the city appears in tatters, most likely due to political corruption and economic misdealing. For an ’83 VW it isn’t the easiest place to navigate at night. Roads split open like the path to Mordor (how many Lord of The Rings references is that so far?), streets rumbled and tore at the undercarriage like we were cruising through rural Mongolia. Signs pointed this way and that way and did very little to help us get to where we wanted to go. It wasn’t until we stopped at a Wal-Mart to ask a security guard if it would be alright to spend the night that we found out more about the city.
“Fahst of all, nah, you can’t sleep heeah. Starh closes soon and it ain’t safe anyway. Why the hell wouldja wanna come to Prahvidence?”
We told him who were were visiting and he said “Ah. Well Ah’m trying to get outta heeah mahself. I love tha town but Ah got kids and Ah wouldn’t want’em growin’ up heeah. Tha murdah rate has shot up every yeeah. Violent crime is crazy. You guys be careful.”
Yep. So we spent the night in another grocery store’s parking lot and left the city the next morning. Ralph met us in the driveway of his home, a beautiful place, almost 300 years old, tall and slim with narrow doorways and a steep staircase.
He smiled and led us in his house. You could feel the history of the place, one of the few original settlements in that area, currently on a large plot but previously attached to any even greater acreage. It’s the type of house a kid would love exploring. Closets and rooms behind rooms, a pull-down attic door, creaky floors and hollow walls that you can tap morse code messages through. We got settled and he took us out to one of his favorite restaurants. He was recognized immediately as a regular by one of the waitresses. It seemed like she hadn’t seen him since before his wife passed last year and it was fun to watch them joke back and forth like old friends. He told us about the history of the town and how the restaurant used to be owned by the mob. He joked with Eliot and with us and told us about his hopes to travel back to California where he’s from to see what’s changed.
When we made it back to the house I asked if he’d mind me using his driveway to change the oil. He said “Not at all” and pulled up a chair to keep me company despite the heat that was already making me drip sweat like an old VW drips oil. It was nice getting to know him, talking about the Red Sox and his old ’79 Ford truck in pristine condition. Seriously, that truck is beautiful. We kept talking about it, how he’d used it to move out to Rhode Island right after buying it, how it was all original and in great condition, how he was playing with the idea of selling it. Then, after I had finished and cleaned up he said “Why don’t you climb in and I’ll take you for a spin.” I of course accepted.
The interior was a shiny, cherry apple red and the first thing that hit me was the shot of cool air from the a/c. No sooner had he mentioned thinking about selling it when a truck pulled up alongside side him and honked its horn. “Hey you wanna sell that thing.” The guy yelled with a playful smile.
“Why, yes, as a matter of fact I do.” The guy was caught completely caught off guard.
“Oh. Um, well is it V6 or V8.”
“V8 of course.”
“Huh. All original?”
“All of it. Good interior, got A/C, all controls working…” At that point another car had pulled up behind us at the stop sign. Ralph drove around the corner and pulled over to wait for the other truck. The other guy honked and waved about something but wasn’t coming up for some reason. “What is he doing?” Ralph asked as we watched in the mirror. I could see he wanted to give the guy a chance to talk to him but he was taking his time pulling up behind us. Ralph’s fingers were getting itchy as he reached up for the gearshift. The guy’s son had gotten out of the truck and was slowly walking up. Then he moved.
“Bah, forget it! This car’s gotta fly!” He threw it into drive and we took off down the road, the engine roaring beneath the broad white hood. I laughed and remember Ralph saying something like “Take a number, fella.” We drove around his neighborhood for a few minutes before he turned around and headed back. Ralph is up there in years but he’s got the spirit of youth surging through him. It gave us energy to stay with him. That night we all parked ourselves in his screened-in back porch and watched the Sox annihilate the Marlins 15-5 while we ate ice cream.
The next morning we were sad to leave but we knew we must continue. Maine was close and we had a long way to go. He took a picture of our van, laughing and saying “You don’t see those every day.” We said our goodbyes and hoped to see each other again soon, perhaps if he were to take a road trip out west. With his adventuring spirit we wouldn’t be surprised.
We cleansed our palate from the sour taste of Baltimore with a drive into the Pennsylvania farm country. We had hoped to see the beauty of the Lancaster countryside, to experience Amish culture as much as we could, and to have a genuine experience, to see the Amish people as people living an intentional and spiritual way of life and not as targets of tourism. But we realized as the daylight slipped from our grasp and settled on the western horizon that these hopes may not have been fulfilled. It was Saturday after all, and we had spent most of the day already driving aimlessly through the city of Lancaster looking for something interesting while simultaneously trying to track down a random $3 part for the Volkswagen. Disappointed by both, we were directed northeast and as our stomachs rumbled we realized we were getting closer. We pulled over and ate at a restaurant advertising good ol’ Dutch food. Eliot giggled with delight at his first sight of a horse drawn buggy. On our way out to the van another buggy rolled by and Eliot and Jamie gave them a wave. An arm reached out and waved back.
We piled back into the van and headed further into town, noticing window after window of CLOSED signs. The next day was Sunday and we realized that any chance we might have had to meet and connect with anyone was probably gone. Jamie was disappointed. The quiet town was falling quieter and we hadn’t even thought about where we would be staying that night in the sparsely populated Lancaster area. A soft and gentle glow spread across the road ahead, the way only the light from an ice cream shop can do. When in such a mood and in such a situation, sit and eat ice cream. So we did.
We sat on the steps out front and thought about what to do next, enjoying the peacefulness of the quiet street and fading light. Then a small Amish family, walked past into the shop, their infant daughter in hand, and we smiled at each other and said hello. On their way back out, they stopped and asked if that was our van parked around the corner. The husband said that he was looking for us after he saw it and said that they had ridden by earlier when we were at the restaurant and waved. We chatted a little more and then they invited us back up the hill to watch fireworks with them. There was a town culture festival that night and in the nearby park hundreds of youth were gathered to watch the sky light up with fire. But there we were a few minutes later on blankets in the parking lot of the town library, waiting for the show to begin. In the time that passed we all got to know each other. Elias and Linda grew up in the area, had large families all around them and a large family, themselves. We told them about our trip and where we were headed and how we lived out of our van. Then we told them about where we were thinking of staying that night.
“Wal-Mart most likely. Don’t really know.”
“Oh, well, why don’t you stay with us? We’d feel much better knowing you were parked out by our barn than in Wal-Mart.”
I didn’t see that coming. At that point I was only thinking about our family having a safe comfortable place to spend the night and I was grateful for the hospitality.
We spent the rest of the evening talking about everything from our families and our faith to our work and the state of Lancaster county.
It was nice to just sit with good people after all the traveling we had done and just enjoy the moment, wherever that was and wherever that took us.
After the show, though, that took us down the hill and into the park where Amish youth, most of them in Rumspringa, were hanging around. We picked up a few more of Elias and Linda’s children and took them back to their buggy. What struck me that night and the next day as I spoke to Elias was how incredibly Same we all are. From the madness of southern California, the fast-paced car and movie-influenced culture, to the hills and valleys of Lancaster county, rural and fertile, our children are children. Our teens are teens. And as we age and grow and adopt labels and clothe ourselves in the titles of Us or Them, beneath it all we are really the same people striving for goodness, struggling against temptation, rising above or succumbing to adversity.
As we spoke in their house the next morning, breakfast cooking in the kitchen and their girls playing with Eliot in the living room, we learned so much about how exactly Same we were. In any demonination there are expectations and rules and those that see beyond those guiding principles to what the faith really leads them toward and then there are those who substitute the path for the destination. Labels fade and clothing blurs as real connections are made between people. We were welcomed into their home and shown the warmth of a living breathing family. And that is what they were to us. A family, not a label. We were taken on a drive through the countryside, Elias showing us the points of significance in his valley, explaining Amish life and practice. We were taken next door to his brother and his brother’s family, and then one door down for his father and mother’s house. At some point during the day plans were made for a picnic down by the creek between their homes. As we walked down the narrow path we saw a sign the girls had made, “Happy Father’s Day,” and a table for food. We sat down as the whole family joined us from across the fields, there in the shade of trees by the creek, carved with the names of their children. A fire was built and by the end of the meal it was a S’more manufacturing fire. S’mores.
We couldn’t be with our own families on Father’s Day. In fact, we couldn’t be much further from them. But in the shade of those trees, with the sound of laughter, children splashing in the creek, and the smoke taking turns drifting into each person’s eyes, at least it felt a bit like home. We were privileged guests in this family’s world.
Like any chapter, though, this one was ending and as the sun slowly fell we realized we would have to move on. We said our goodbyes to people we had known for less than 24 hours but whom had become genuine friends and pulled off the dusty road back to the pavement. Our hearts were heavy and our minds were still trying to grasp what we had just been given. The road had long ago become a refuge for cloudy thoughts and unripened conclusions so it would be there we would have to let it process.
With a trek across the Maryland border we said goodbye to the South and hello to the Northeast. Baltimore was a reasonable first stop due to its relationship to Edgar Allan Poe, a champion of the letters. It is here that he is buried, in the graveyard of Westminster Hall. We had no preconceived notions of the town. Neither of us had been there but I was thinking Hey, it’s Baltimore. It’s a good sized city so it’s got to have something going for it, right? Captain Kiwi chugged through the outskirts, row housing passing by, barred windows of auto shops and liquor stores blurring together with small patches of dead lawns and littered sidewalks. Alright, we’re going through the bad part of town. It’ll pick up if we just keep going. On we drove, straight into the city, closer and closer to the university and downtown. Graffiti, litter, dead and dying foliage, boarded windows, none of these things in themselves create an atmosphere but it’s something else. A certain fear or discomfort arises, a disappointment that falls on you despite no particular expectations. There….should be more, right?
I drove by the university and pulled into a spot around the corner from Westminster. Alright, I thought, a little shady, but it’s Baltimore and this is the university and it’s broad daylight after all. The tall steeple of the church led us toward the gate, beyond which the graveyard lay. Just inside was the monument.
It was the one highlight that day, feeling the wave of thoughts and feelings flood over me. This was the man who wrote the Raven, the Tell Tale Heart, the Cask of Amontillado, the Gold Bug. I thought of his sad and mysterious death, his even sadder life. And there was the old visitor who had come for years on Poe’s birthday to drop a bottle of Cognac and three roses on his grave. This was that spot. As lonely and unappreciated as he was in his life it adds a bit of irony to think that in his death, at least in Baltimore, he serves as a tourist attraction and the inspiration for a football team mascot.
Jamie left me to find a restroom while I pushed Eli around the graveyard. She met me back at the gate with “We should probably get going.”
“You find the bathroom alright?”
“No, I walked all over. I had to cross the street over there and go into that old market. This lady came up and helped me.”
“Oh that’s nice of her.”
“She just came up to me and said ‘You be careful, this place isn’t safe to walk around by yourself.’”
“Ha ha, why?”
“I don’t know, just said I shouldn’t be alone. I was going to go into the main market but she told me not to and pointed me upstairs. I guess that one’s pretty sketchy.”
“It’s broad daylight, though.”
And so we left. Goodbye to Poe, goodbye to Baltimore.
(And in case you ever wondered what Christopher Walken reading the Raven sounds like…)
From the small towns of North Carolina and on into the wooded hills of Virginia, rain settled over the road. The clouds took turns drip-dropping their seeds across the countryside as they passed. We took our first stop at Williamsburg, a colonial town not unlike Old Town San Diego or a Universal Studios set, but real. Almost. But for the presence of Coke, Sprite and Dr. Pepper on tap behind a few old timey wooden refreshment stands it might have been believable. Something in me couldn’t help but see the 17 year old behind the get-up, the one who would throw his buckled shoes in the back of his Toyota Camry when he got off work, and speed off to meet friends at the beach, while The Arctic Monkeys boomed from his stereo. And a colonial bakery should have fresh, homemade-tasting goodies, right? Not so in the 1700’s. Back then they bought their cookies and brownies from the day-old tray in the supermarket bakery like everyone else. We walked the soggy streets in the mist and humidity until we saw enough.
We headed northwest and climbed ever so higher into the Appalachians. The country stretched its arms, let out a yawn, and welcomed us with that tired, squinty-eyed smile that it’s known to offer travelers. It nodded hello again and again as we passed through small town after smaller town, populations decreasing as the elevation increased. The hills became twisting, curving mountains and Captain Kiwi shifted into lower gears. Then we were at the gates of Shenandoah National Park, a secret among National Parks if ever there was one.
We turned and drove south onto Skyline Drive toward our campsite. It might have been the glow of dusk, it might have been the music on the radio, or it might have been something completely Other, greater and more wonderful than ourselves, but the place was magic. The setting sun cast long shadows through the woods, where the ferns and brush were thick and soft. The road straddled cliff on one side and sloping hill on the other. We passed lookout after lookout, catching glimpses of worn and ancient peaks across the valley, storm clouds heavy in the distance. And then suddenly there was an open field and the turnoff for our site.
We claimed a spot and paid our fees and hurried back to the general store for supplies before they closed. We parked and hurried past two gnarly looking travelers resting on a picnic table, beards thick and clothes damp and dirty, their backpacks at their feet. As we came out a few minutes later with a new sticker for the bus and some snacks we passed by the table. Something made me want to stop. They didn’t seem like just campers.
“Where you guys coming from?”
“Georgia” one of them said, like the state itself was just the town around the bend. We all got talking and found out they were hiking the Appalachian Trail. The whole thing, from its one end in Springer Mountain, Georgia, to its other in Mount Katahdin, Maine. 2184 miles. They were about two months into the hike with 3 months to go. We couldn’t have been more excited to talk to these two, sharing perspectives about traveling, their experiences on the trail to date, their preparation. Pancho taught in Asia for a while to save up money while Dane, or Great Dane, his travel companion, only saved up for a month. It’s a surprisingly cheap endeavor, we learned, to do the AT. Pancho told me that hikers earn nicknames or claim one for themselves on the trail. Great Dane is originally from Denmark while Pancho earned his because of his repeated and resourceful use of his rain protector. He shared how just the day before he stripped down and hiked with only it as his covering because of the rain and the ravaging effect that moisture and friction can have on a person’s thighs. We spoke about the Pacific Crest Trail, about Dane’s experience on the Camino De Santiago de Compostela, our hopes for future travels, and what possibly lay ahead for us all.
You could tell they were good. Souls with that spark, not content to wait or to drift but to pursue and pursue and rage, rage against the dying of the light. We shared ice cream with them until, satisfied with the connection we had made and each of us eager to get comfortable for the night, we bid each other well on our respective journeys. I hoped, secretly, to cross paths with them again, to hear how their journey ended, to hear if their journey ended. I hoped that ours would crisscross and weave around theirs and those of others like a spider web spun in the branches of a tree.
We made it back to camp after catching the surreal sight of a dear playing with a black kitten in the parking lot and then we cooked dinner. We made s’mores on our stove and let the day settle on our minds. The clouds that skirted the peaks of the mountains earlier in the day had crept closer and closer as the sun set so that as I went out to brush my teeth I saw a massive thunderhead formed in the distance and the sky between it and the trees was an eerie white against the deep blue of the night. The thunderhead lit up, miles and miles wide, and again and again. Thunder rolled like a freight train in the distance. I told Jamie and the two of us with Eliot sat out on the road and watched, silent and rapt with awe. The clouds morphed and grew toward us, first lighting up like lampshades and then exposing the giant streaks of lightning beneath as they traveled across the sky. We were powerless and microscopic compared to those clouds, that storm coming closer. We were nothing.
But in the great scheme of things, neither was it. It was a tiny speck of cloud mass on the face of this planet. The heaviness of that sense of perspective both sank and lifted my heart. We are nothing but we are so much, each of us an individual. So much has been given to us and so much is possible. We are possible.
[Godspeed and blessings, Pancho and Great Dane.]
- Charleston is a short hop from Savannah, one coastal tourist town to another. We drove around and around and around over bumpy, one-way stone streets while I quietly worried about the state of our suspension. After finding parking we strolled the streets and came across a old, covered marketplace spanning several blocks, where vendors sold what vendors sell in these places. Stickers and keychains, t-shirts and hats, woodwork and candles, TSA approved jelly jars and local art. Down past the marketplace was the water and pier from which we saw Fort Sumter, it’s old walls fading into the grey of the stormy sky behind it. We sat on a bench and felt the warm, wet air blow around us, cooling our bodies and giving us a brief moment of peace from the hustle of tourism. It’s strange to be in so many places so swarmed with tourists and to look at everyone around and feel separate, to tell ourselves “we’re not tourists.” But we are. That’s exactly what we are in the most literal sense. We are touring this big country. We are taking in the sights and drinking in life. How different are we?
One thing we hope for on this trip is to not be content with being a parasite, with only taking. We want to give, however we can, whenever we can. We want relationships with the people we meet, the places we see. We want to grow with the road, and leave our footprints in the sand, while the road leaves its fingerprints on us and our family.
The clouds gathered closer and the light, early storm droplets of water started to fall so we stood up and continued on along the water. We didn’t see much else in the Carolinas. It was a long drive of strip malls and not-so-scenic country road. Mini golf, actually. Yes, there was plenty of mini-golf. Pirates and spaceships, tractors and dragons and ghosts and dinosaurs. Every possible aspect of pop culture was harvested and hung up on the roof of some building or half-submerged in astro-turf for the sake of the putt-putt. They spanned the length of the Carolina coast.
By the time we got to Myrtle Beach we were tired and ready for sleep. We weren’t sure what to expect from the town itself so the sudden tide of drunken college kids yelling out of cars and crowding the sidewalks, the flashing neon lights, the 70’s arcade-style buildings and bumper to bumper traffic threw us into a catatonic survival state.
“Just make it to the water and we can get out of the car.”
That’s all we wanted at that point, contact with the Atlantic.