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.