Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Summer Roadtrips

(2000 Photo by Jenny Wood)

I carry a vacation with me wherever I go, a portable vision of summer roadtrips past and future. Sure, I keep a framed print of Andreas Feininger's famous Route 66 photograph in my office, but that totem doesn’t work on a long bus ride or in a boring meeting. It is my mental collection of scenes, stories, and souvenirs that carries me through the occasionally frustrating pit stops of daily life. How does it work, this portable vacation?

It’s simply a matter of projection, an intentional immersion in the recalled senses of the road: the crackle of a distant thunderstorm that rolls over the prairie, the pleasant conversation with a waitress wearing a beehive and serving a bulging slice of cherry pie, the buzz of a neon motel sign that glows under a twilight sky. With enough will and practice, I can transport myself to those memories and stay awhile. Storytelling helps.

On the road, my family and I tell lots of stories. My favorite kind is to imagine the lives of people we pass, living days, months, and even years of their lives in my own narrative. Sometimes when Jenny and Vienna allow it, I’ll pick out a house and tell how its occupant got there. Given my love of Sherwood Anderson and John Steinbeck, these are invariably sad stories, gothic in their wretched pathos. These are the kinds of stories that Bruce Springsteen meant when he asked, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” -- narratives of hope and optimism worn down by the rough patches that no one anticipates when setting out on the road. My stories end up with a bittersweet hope that things will get better for my characters, tomorrow. But then again my stories begin that way too. It’s a motorized form of flaneur gaze, complete with plenty of warrant for critique. But I imagine that some folks have concocted their own stories about me too, so I feel OK about my choice of narrative inspiration.

When we’re between roadtrips, those unromantic stretches that most people call “real life,” I love to remember great and infamous drives. My family and I have an almost decade-old practice of telling the story of our cross-country drive from Ohio to California in 1998, the year I took my teaching position at San Jose State University. We had driven longer distances even then, and since that year we’ve done up to 10,000 miles over a three week tour. But that trip in 1998 remains a gathering point for so many moments that define the Wood Family: our good fortune with friends, our squabbles and our laughter, and our relentless persistence despite long odds.

It takes about an hour to tell the story properly, and I won’t try to recount it here. I’ll simply say that the story includes a horrifying crash into a Cheyenne motel overhang, a sublime evening in Winnemucca, and a last minute discovery that neither Jenny nor I had a valid driver’s license, requiring a tri-state high-speed odyssey before we could even start our journey. Jenny groans when I start the story but eventually we all add our unique transitions and narrative nuggets, reminding ourselves of how far we’ve come.

Jenny and I also use one particular drive from the southern tip of New Jersey to New Hampshire in a single nightmarish day as a reminder of the struggles we’ve faced and overcome. We were researching our book on motels, taking four day 2,000-mile tours through clusters of states every month or so, and it was time to hit New England. We enjoyed our journey snapping photos and interviewing folks until we realized just how poorly I’d planned the final leg of our trip. Traffic, rain, and poor navigational choices strained our conviviality until the two of us found ourselves screaming at each other for nearly an hour. The prospect of divorce -- heck, the potential that one of us would end up walking home -- led us to a breaking point.

At last we had to laugh at how genuinely awful this trip had become, recognizing that we two must pull together. We remember stumbling into our motel room, knowing we only had about two hours to sleep before returning to the airport. We remember sleeping with our heads leaned against each other across the country on an airplane. And whenever we tell this story, we realize that nothing we’ve experienced in nineteen years of marriage was as bad as that day in New England.

Then there was our very first roadtrip, a journey across Route 66 and back. On our first night, some thug broke into our car and stole Jenny’s purse while we played miniature golf in St. Louis. On that one occasion we’d chosen to keep our cash in my wallet, so we didn’t lose too much money. But I was still crushed. Our first cross-country trip, planned for months, and some jerk broke into our car and ripped off our credit cards. That night at the Gardenway Motel, I seriously thought about turning back and giving up. The next morning, though, Jenny woke up early and negotiated with the bank to release some money before canceling our credit cards. She returned as I awoke and handed me a hat sporting a Route 66 shield. It was a shiny, silver trucker’s cap that I’d never buy, but seeing it that morning lifted my spirits. We hit the road and didn’t look back. I only wish we’d kept a journal from that trip.

These days, either Jenny or I take on the duties of writing a journal for each day of our trips. We then build webpages and share them with friends, and sometimes we get amazed reactions from folks who read these stories years after they’re posted. For me, the entries are tickets for time travel, chances to relive otherwise fleeting moments in distant places. I imagine decades from now that I’ll clutch those memories tightly like a treasure. In the meantime I’m so grateful that we still have plenty of journeys ahead. In fact we will make new memories this summer, on our Wood Family Southern Routes BBQ Tour. Less than two months to go, and I can’t wait. And the next time I’m sitting in a long meeting, wishing I were a thousand of miles away, I may very well be there.

(2005 Photo by Jenny Wood)

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