“We have no destination,” says a boy about his family in Michael Rosen’s A Drive in the Country. “No reason to be home for supper, no place we need to reach by dark on the map….”
No rendezvous. No obligations. And yet: Are we ever so contented when we are traveling as when we are looking ahead to the possibilities of a trip, a cruise, a ride to somewhere else?
And what of those places we have already been? The twists and dipping roads, the ducks we fed, and horses, the crawdads we almost stepped on, the yellow watermelons and arrowheads we didn’t buy, the restless word games and thwacking wipers and industrial-smelling skunks – are these ever as actually enjoyable in their passing as the thrills we attach to their memory?
This book is an unabashedly sentimental accounting of one day’s exploration, probably cobbled together from several in the author’s experience. Or maybe he just made it all up – but I don’t think so. The details here – like that crawdad sleeping, and something called picalilli (“whatever that is”) on the shelves of a country store – are too specific for anyone to go to all of the trouble of Googling, indeed they sound as though they were probably already discussed and debated for years between the passengers on that outing. Maybe inaccurately, and maybe some versions were self-serving, still such are the artifacts which sustain the average motley family, even when it is no longer living together under one roof.
If there is anything consoling about these circles we trace and retrace around our insignificant fractions of the globe, then the transcontinental wanderings of a restless young man in Tulip Sees America represent a very different story we like to tell about ourselves - as a nation of pioneers. This is increasingly legend in our crowded and politicized culture, still here is some evidence – in paintings and words – of the sort of quietly spectacular places that still need exploring. Most of the names are familiar, but the impressions they leave are in every way personal, and they are cumulative, I think. These never disappear:
“The farms in Iowa. They are pictures. White houses. Red roofs. Farms like castles in fairyland, serene in the morning fog. There are no farms like Iowa’s.”
“The desert in Nevada. There is no place to hide in the desert, and you are glad you are not a rabbit or a mouse someone might want to eat.”
“The ocean in Oregon. You are on a cliff and the water is below you and as far as you can see, and you think the earth has dropped away from you and you’d better know how to swim… There is no ocean like Oregon’s.”
No supper getting cold, no map on the bedroom wall, though I think we are very often searching for places to start over, whether we choose to plant thumbtacks or not. The young man in this story is traveling with his dog (the eponymous Tulip), and he finally does settle down near that ocean, but not before savoring and occasionally debunking a number of our national mythologies along the way.
Perhaps this is even a responsibility then, now so much of our landscape is imperiled. When we can afford it, and we are not every minute tied down with professional responsibilities, or medical imperatives, or mortgages or endless renovations – when we are still young enough then, maybe we owe it to the land to report back on it periodically, even raise an educated fist.
I have not seen very much of this country, but I have seen enough – in two weeks, many years ago – to regret all of the unfamous acres I will certainly never get around to. Fresh out of college, I drove a Ford Escort three thousand or so miles from San Francisco up to Canada, back down to Mexico, then up to San Francisco again – partly, I think, because I suspected the opportunity would never come again.
It didn’t, but I have seen foggy, massive boulders not very far from where Tulip is possibly living, and redwoods the width of my home. I have seen Pocatello, Idaho where my father spent one strange year in college (uprooting from Baghdad – uh-huh), and I have visited matching lakeside resort towns named for Lewis and Clark. I have witnessed the beginnings of a snowstorm on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and a brick-red sunset among the mesas of Southwestern Utah. Late season Napa, ratcrappy Tijiuana. And the Hearst castle, near San Simeon, where my circle became almost disconnected over one of those picturesque cliffs.
Chances are you have heard of most of those places, or even visited them, and my impressions are unlikely to alter your own, but there were twenty-mile views in Central Oregon – a stretch between places on the map – where mine were the only headlights in sight. And when I turned those off, my engine the only sound, and when I cut that off, just breathing, just footsteps, just me. Amazing, the pictures that linger. There is no place like the place that nobody else remembers.