Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Going Down the Road
Choosing the beginning lyrics of a Grateful Dead song feels entirely appropriate in trying to communicate about my recent road trip. The second part of that song phrase is “feeling bad,” which I am not. The Dead were Michael’s favorite group and as most of the road trips in my life were with him, I’m not surprised that their music twitched around in my head as I proceeded with this one.
My son and I have left our 11th state in 12 days, heading for the 12th and last new one for each of us tomorrow morning. We will have managed to see almost one-fourth of the continental United States in 15 days. About a year and a half ago, my kid offered me a trip of my choice for my birthday, an adventure we could share. After Michael’s death, all in my family are keenly aware of how fleeting time is and how daily life can swiftly be jerked from its moorings. Initially, he talked about going to Europe. I’ve never been to Greece and have been dreaming of a trip there since I avidly read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology many years ago as a teenager.
When I was in Europe at the tender age of 20, I didn’t have the vision to recognize that Giverny, home to Claude Monet and his beautiful gardens, was just an hour from Paris. I made the trip to Versailles but passed on the place that is the stuff of my lifelong dreams. Those two offers were on the table. But I’ve got a thing for road trips.
When I was 12, my family took the one real vacation of my childhood. My parents, my younger sister and I piled into the car and made our way north through Michigan to Mackinac Island. I remember everything about that trip. The inexpensive motels which felt exotic to me, and being served breakfast toast that was already buttered and so deliciously melty when you added a little jam. Then there were the fruit stands on the side of the road where you could buy giant juicy bing cherries that stained your fingers and everything else in the way of the gush when you bit them.
Being on an island where you couldn’t drive and where horse drawn buggies hauled you around to see the sights was pretty cool too. But what stuck with me was the road trip mindset. Getting into your rolling container and moving along for a few hours, getting out somewhere entirely new and absorbing all the things you’d never known or seen is my idea of a good time. I’ve taken a lot of those trips, most with Michael, but also a fun fishing excursion with friends to Minnesota and another, with my generous work partner, who went to visit Civil War sites with me after a disastrous attempt to do that with my mother and kids the previous year. So, despite the temptation of Europe, I opted for another one, with a certain degree of trepidation as I’ve never traveled with anyone for 15 days except Michael.
I always thought that traveling together provided a critical insight into whether a relationship could be sustained over a long time. Being with anyone round the clock is a challenge and if you wind up enjoying it, I figured you’d have a good life. Michael and I developed an easy rhythm from our earliest vacations forward. I wondered how my son and I would do, but for the most part, we managed well. A little bickering here and there, mostly about driving and navigation which was the worst of it. But everything else was good and a relief. I wanted to travel to the East Coast. I’d passed through a few states on my way to New York for a flight to Europe many years ago but I’d never been to New England. Michael had lived some early years in the east and never wanted to go back there. So I was aiming to knock a few more states off my goal of making it to all 50 before I check out of this planet.
My son was busy working before we left so the destinations and routes were left up to me. I pored over maps and tried to choose places that were both historically meaningful and alive with nature’s beauty. There are some cities I’d like to see but truly, after growing up in a large metropolitan area like Chicago and then leaving it behind, I knew I’d feel claustrophobic if we focused on places like Boston and NYC. My biologist son truly dislikes urban areas. So we passed through those or picked close sites where we could get a bit of their feel without the attendant hassles.
This from the intrepid planner who routed us through New York on a rainy afternoon, when all we saw were exit signs for Yankee Stadium and Palisades Park, the stuff of lore and old songs. This ambitious journey, which round trip covered just under 3500 miles, had three main destinations. The first was the home of an author whose books about collies were my childhood companions. For most of my life, I thought they were fiction but about 15 years ago, I learned that the man was a breeder who lived in New Jersey on Sunnybank Farm. All the dogs of my dreams were real and buried on what is now Terhune Memorial Park in Wayne, New Jersey.
I’ve been aching to stand on that land and to see the graves of those animals who influenced my pet owning decisions throughout my life. I was so moved, I wept as my mind rolled back to childhood years and then moved back forward to the memories of my beloved pets who all my life were versions of my book favorite, Lad. My son told me that at this point in his life, he can’t think of places where he’d have such powerful feelings other than home. Let’s face it – Hogwarts is a fantasy, all theme parks to the contrary. I feel lucky to have the impact of books and my imagination still play a role in my internal life.
Next, we spent a few days at Cape May on the Jersey shore. One of my oldest friends who grew up in Philadelphia always talked about going “down the shore,” and I wanted to do it. Any time spent oceanside works for me and as I gathered my shells and rocks, I was filled with the sense of well-being I get when contemplating the water and its magnitude and mystery. We were ahead of high season so we weren’t overwhelmed by crowds. Shore birds flew by and the waves rolled in. Perfect.
We stuffed in a few side trips to Philadelphia and Quincy, Massachusetts for some history. I loved Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, along with John Adams Memorial Park and Homesteads. But mostly I was thinking of other things. I drive an older model car that doesn’t have the technology the new ones do. I always rent one for long trips to extend the life of mine. I didn’t know that CD players no longer exist in the new vehicles. I’d brought 10 books on CD that I thought we’d listen to along the way but that idea went the way of archaic things. From 8 tracks to cassettes to CD’s to internet everything. I’m fossilizing.
Fortunately, I’d decided to unearth Michael’s ancient iPod with its 2500 songs. I hadn’t touched it since 2016. Since we were limited to whatever podcasts we had on our phones, I plugged in the iPod and the car immediately “discovered” it. So there was Michael, the undercurrent of our trip, his musical choices eliciting all kinds of feelings from both of us. There were old favorites which we could sing along with in harmonies we’d developed over the years. Some songs were forgotten treasures and others were new to us. When he was teaching, Michael’s students got to share their favorites in class and he chose his new favorites from theirs which made their way onto the iPod. So we were getting an enhanced music education. Comedians and their best shticks are on it along with TV show themes and classic movie dialogues. My favorite is from Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, followed by Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First? Having Michael’s eclectic choices along for the ride felt just perfect. We barely made it through half of what’s on that old thing. Considering the short life of recent tech toys it was amazing.
As we inched our way along the eastern seaboard, I found myself entranced by bridges, architectural styles of the past and old cemeteries full of history and secret lives. Having fun and being reflective aren’t mutually exclusive. Travel expands our world-views and I was thinking about the need to repair infrastructure and the decline of small towns which had beautiful buildings and then the ones falling apart. As we avoided the interstate and drove the two lane highways, we passed a lot of those small towns. Most had churches, the most well-kept buildings, right at the edge of Main Street. So many churches in these little places. How much religious diversity there is off the beaten path is amazing.
And there’s so much empty, beautiful country. How do you protect that and yet have a functioning economy that prevents decay and breathes life into the places that aren’t major metropolitan areas? Big questions. We did find a Cabot Creamery in a small town. When we had dinner that night I ordered a cheese tray which had four different Cabot varieties. They were so fresh and subtle, a far cry from the Cabot white cheddar I can get locally. The Holsteins along the road into that place are doing a great job. When we rolled into Maine and Acadia National Park, the beauty was instantly striking. While soaking it all in, I was simultaneously worrying about climate change and environmental laws. I also was thinking about how unfair it is that to see these wonders, you have to be a person of certain means. Why can’t there be mandatory trips that take inner city people out to these places so they can experience nature at its most magnificent?
As a city kid who grew up in apartments with no green space, I well remember getting out into the country and seeing all this seemingly endless room out there. I find myself feeling guilty that I didn’t haul a bunch of underprivileged kids with me so their minds can stretch and consider unimaginable possibilities. Those experiences can be life-changing. We spent three great days in Acadia and Bar Harbor, Maine. We passed through three capital cities. We really packed a lot into a short time.
On the way back home, we made a side trip to Niagara Falls which was a first for my son. Michael and I hit Niagara when we took a bucket list trip for him to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame and Hyde Park, home of FDR. The majesty and power of the Falls is spiritual. Although the area is by necessity somewhat touristy, when you stand at the edge and watch the water, mesmerized, it’s really magic. So we did it. We made this long imagined trip and will treasure the memories that abound in any special shared experience. I’m thinking ahead to what’s around the next bend for me and how many more bends I may be lucky enough to have. I’ll be bringing Michael’s iPod on every one.