When I was young there was a misery particular to a ride in our two tone, 1985 Ford Econoline. It was in part the conditions – as the youngest of eight, I was relegated to the middle of the back bench, where, as sure as the tides, I would grow car sick. The lap belt would dig into my stomach, and the musty smell of the upholstered seats would become queasy-making as the van trundled down a country road, listing at each corner like a boat broadside to the surf. On the highway my nausea would diminish, but it would be replaced by boredom, which was even worse. I could hardly stand the hour long ride to visit my grandparents; on a trip to the shore, which took the better part of a day, I would think every thought I had to think and then sit there, my brain and body humming with a simple desire to be anywhere else.
I didn’t start enjoying road trips until after college when I drove to Alaska with my friend Mark. (Mark, for his part, went the other direction, and has since opted to walk from Philadelphia to Minneapolis and to basically every city between rather than set foot in a car or bus. My best guess is that it’s been six years exclusively on foot, but I’d need to write him a letter if I wanted to be sure – he doesn’t have a phone either.) Anyhow, that particular trip was imbued with the right proportions of happenstance, wonder, idiocy, and American scenery to foster the sort of joyous certainty of purpose that, when experienced by the young, can make sleeping in Walmart parking lots and drinking gallons of gas station coffee feel epic, if only briefly. In my case the elation only lasted until about a week after arriving in Anchorage, when I found myself living in a basement apartment and working as a line cook in a tourist trap with the unfortunate name of Humpy’s.
Nevertheless, those weeks of travel were the first time I managed to use hours of being trapped in a metal box hurtling down a strip of asphalt for introspection. More recently I’ve begun to deeply appreciate the enforced disconnection of being out in the farm truck, in which a purposeful destination is clear and the time and the miles pass in rhythm with each other. I do some of my best or at least most interesting thinking on the long, early morning leg of a delivery, the sleeping houses dark, the night beyond the headlights an invitation to a wandering mind. On the drive home I’m sometimes lucky enough to have moments of clarity and purpose about what I should be doing in the coming days and weeks, even if these are nearly as insubstantial when faced with the routine of life at home as my cross-country dreams were when faced with three hissing fryers and a hundred pounds of haddock.
Last weekend I went to Long Island, where Alanna and I lived for several years, and the flat expanse of the sound stretching north to Connecticut did that thing it often does, making the time in between now and when I’d called Orient home fold like an accordion, as if the farm and my family were a dream. There’s a poignant beauty to having a strong feeling of familiarity coupled with an awareness of change, though it’s a sort of nostalgia that can be corrosive when it allows the past – a gauzy, idealized memory rekindled by a return to a familiar place – to foster aimless regret.
I didn’t fall into that particular trap, at least not too much, probably because I was there six weeks ago and will be there again six weeks hence, and I will be making the trip for a reason; I don’t need to seek comfort in the past when I can instead join it with my present as part of my work. A trip that as a child would have made me feel like two places were worlds apart now serves to let me feel they are both still a necessary part of my life. The North Fork’s tide darkened pilings and moneyed vineyards and oysters so fresh they make me never want to eat seafood anywhere else are a counterpoint to the hills and cows I now live with, but in my more optimistic moments, as I travel between them, I think both can benefit by being connected to each other, or at the very least that I can benefit by being connected to both.
Here’s a morbid idea: it would be reasonably easy for me (or anyone, really) to do the math on how many times each year I will go to my old home town or the place I lived as a child or Orient, or Alaska for that matter. It wouldn’t take a terribly long time to write down a list of friends and family and next to each name a ballpark number of how many times in my remaining life I could reasonably expect to see each. I have no particular desire to see this exercise through, but if I did I suspect the number would be depressingly small.
I saw Mark a few weeks ago, and he would say that one solution is to make peace – that it is impossible to be everywhere and with everyone, so it is best to live in one place as well as possible. When I walked through Lancaster with him the depth of his relationship to the city and the breadth of his relationship to the people proved that he had an easy familiarity that I’ve known in few people, and in none of my generation. By intentionally limiting his life he has little enough choice and enough time to engage with his immediate surrounding as they are, rather than to seek something better in an imagined future, a remembered past (or a screen of some sort, for that matter).
I don’t have a good rejoinder to this, and there are aspects of his life I seek to emulate in my own. But for me, with my inability to commit myself to such a monastic life, at least thus far, these regular excursions are useful. They are infrequent enough to remind me of the value I place on the relationships in my life, both at home and away, but they are not so infrequent as to put the specter of death, or even just of time and distance, at the fore of every conversation. The farm’s GMC van, with a ten foot box instead of three rows of seats, is more than two decades younger than the one I rode in as a child. But it still rolls into each corner of a country road, and its engine rumbles a complaint when it’s asked to climb a hill. I don’t get sick anymore, but it is still a strange place to look for the transcendentally liminal and an even stranger place to find it.
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I had a whole tangent I wanted to go on about logistics and the environmental impacts of both farming and driving and how the two relate, and how the roads are like veins connecting places together and how I used to think of community in only the narrowest, most immediate sense, but how I’m now sort of buying into the idea of trying to foster a great community as a response to what I see as the depredations of the time we find ourselves in, only I also worry that this and all the other incrementalist tendencies that increasingly appeal to me are just a self-administered opiate that let me try to grow my farm in the context of an inherently immoral system without directly confronting the system itself, but then there’s no other system I’m convinced would be better, or at least, no other system that I think would be better implemented by revolution than the aforementioned incrementalism, only that doesn’t totally satisfy me, especially since, when I read over this post, it is vague in both it’s goals and in the underlying metaphysics it implies, and thus probably is just a tangential justification of the status quo and my place in it, even if there are a couple nice sentences in there. But I didn’t know exactly how to write that, and I needed to post some content.
Photo Credit – Garth Brown