The Woods Are Changing

I am sitting by the deck in early evening, as the shadows grow long upon the sun-dappled grass, listening to the call of a mourning dove. As I watch a diversity of finches and other song birds eat at the bird feeder and play in the stone bird bath, chipmunks, squirrels, and butterflies all dance about each other in the peaceful quiet of a Vermont backyard. There are no sounds of traffic or other human voices, only the whistling of the gentle wind through acres upon acres of trees. And the mourning dove continues to cry.

A short burst of rain on Saturday night at Green Lake broke through the heat wave, and as we awoke Sunday morning to drive to Vermont we knew we would be traversing through more pleasant temperatures. We planned to set off by 8:00 am, but were delightfully delayed by the unexpected arrival of another dear aunt, who had come down several hours the day before from northern Michigan. We only had a half hour with her, but it was enough to double our smiles at leaving, while also strengthening the desire to stay a little longer. Reluctantly we were able to break away from the family embrace and set out through Detroit toward the Canadian border.

I realized as we passed easily through customs––I am after all a dual citizen and have a right to be in both countries––that on this trip we would not only pass through nineteen different states, but one province as well, technically making this not a cross country trip, but a transnational trip! Although I had noticed little change in climate or landscape for the last few days of driving, once in Canada I could begin to discern the more northerly qualities of the land around us. The air smells different up there, more thin yet pure as though it were made from fewer ingredients. The trees became taller and deeper green, with thick foliage in the undergrowth, and swampy ponds choked with bulrushes and reeds. The land appeared less disturbed by human hands, and several stretches of forest would pass before we would see a farm nestled between the trees. Heavy wooden barns and red houses gave the impression of older family farms, although I imagine many of them practice conventional agriculture the same way as their neighboring American farmers do.

We passed over the Grand River and in a fleeting glimpse I saw steep cliff sides topped with entangled trees, the gray rocks plunging into the rushing river. We entered a stretch called the Green Belt where wind rippled silver through long grasses, and meanwhile we settled in to listening to half a dozen or so episodes of This American Life. David Sedaris with his slightly sighing gay whine and perfectly placed adjectival jibes, an episode on bridging the gap between secularists and Christians, gun lovers and gun haters, and even a piece on fiascos including a hilarious description of a Peter Pan production in which absolutely everything went wrong. One of the most interesting episodes was on Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago who was a key player in the slowly shifting racial attitudes in the Windy City. By the end of the day’s driving Ira Glass seemed to have become a third traveler in our car.

Our road navigated along the narrow strip of land between Lakes Erie and Ontario, and our short view of the latter gave the impression of a sea rather than a lake. It is not hard to understand why they are called the Great Lakes. When I was a little girl my mother read me a wonderful story called Paddle to the Sea, about a young Native Canadian boy who carved a tiny boat with a wooden Indian seated in it. He set the boat out in a frozen streambed where it sat until the spring thaw melted its waters and sent the boat sailing downstream. The story follows the little boat and Indian as he descends through each of the Great Lakes and eventually leaves the fresh water for the salt of the ocean. As he floats by an ocean dock he is picked up by a young man working quietly, a man who recognizes every feature of this beautiful carving. Against all odds Paddle to the Sea fulfilled his name and in the same moment found his maker years after he began his journey.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Matt had never seen Niagara falls so we committed to the traffic and tourist attractions to get a view from the Canadian side. On the slow moving road mist from the falls speckled our windshield. People were everywhere. At the end of a half hour wait we were directed into a parking lot, even though we didn’t want to stay long, where $20 was removed from us for a few minutes of parking. Rather disgruntled, we walked along the sidewalk weaving among visitors from all over the world to see the epic falls. An old rusted boat appeared to be disintegrating up river of the plunge. I wondered what horrific accident may have occurred here in the past. At last we were able to see the falls themselves, visible through a haze of mist and rainbows, unimaginable quantities of water gushing over the edge every second. The Maid of the Mist boats approached the crashing waters far below where we stood. I’ll now admit, it was worth the stop.

To return to the US we crossed the Rainbow Bridge and entered New York state. We were on the East Coast. We had driven to New England, a place I have been to many times before but always by plane. It was somewhat surreal. The woods had a different feeling here, that older world change from the forests in the rest of America. Here there were cabbage fields and rivers, rolling hills providing brief open vistas of the state. Gray cliffs towered over the road, and on one a narrow white crucifix had been erected. Little towns poked out among the trees, visible by the height of their church steeples. Unlike the freeways of the West Coast the highways here were guarded by steep tolls. We had definitely come very far.

The sun sank below the horizon and we saw the last of its vermillion light on a wide reservoir over which a duck flew at the same pace as our car. We crossed the border to Vermont and entered Bennington minutes later, to be welcomed by my uncle, aunt, and cousin at their beautiful home. A delicious dinner of grilled salmon, green beans, and fried sweet potatoes awaited us. A truly cozy welcome.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Today was dedicated to sorting through all my belongings that I left here, bringing some items to Goodwill and packing the rest into the Ford Focus. It was like greeting old friends as I opened each box and looked at journals, college notebooks, letters, and art supplies, as well as clothes, cushions, necklaces, and so many other lovely things. After easily parting with three heavy boxes for donation, we managed to pack everything else into the car, even leaving enough space for all three mirrors to be safely used for the drive home. I feel a certain sense of freedom now that I have collected these belongings once again. I now feel as though I have completed a necessary trip that I had the responsibility to take, and now that it is done I have the freedom to travel anywhere new that I want. Not that these current travels are close to over, but rather that I have seen this key piece through.

My cousin, Matt, and I went into town for a few errands, including dropping off the boxes at Goodwill. We stopped at the library and spent a few minutes adding pieces to a 1000 piece puzzle someone had been working on. Next we got ice cream cones and strolled in the sun while licking their dripping sides. Once back at the house I took a brief wander around the property, tasting peas and raspberries in the garden, and lying under the low-branched apple tree to watch the clouds drift past. The temperature was idyllic. Within the hour the three of us were merrily at work in the kitchen, preparing whole wheat pizzas piled high with fresh mozzarella, mushrooms, artichokes, tomatoes, broccoli and, for those who enjoy them, red bell peppers. The whole meal was completed with a plate of ripe cantalope, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries.

In the morning Matt and I will take our shortest drive of the trip, to the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts to stay with dear friends and visit the place that, in many ways made me who I am today: Mount Holyoke College.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

A Long-Expected Journey

So it begins…

This is the first day of a long-awaited journey, one that is two years in planning, and will at last be embarked upon. Two people, a Ford Focus, 18 days, and 6,000 miles (at least!) This morning Matt and I depart upon our cross-country road trip from San Francisco, California to Bennington, Vermont and back. The purpose? To retrieve my belongings that have been languishing peacefully in my dear uncle and aunt’s basement. The true purpose? To have an adventure, a real one, by driving deep into the heart of the American continent, and emerging on the other side to inhale the breeze on the Atlantic coast.

The first leg of the journey may indeed be the longest, as we leave the Bay Area and head east, aiming to arrive in Wendover, Utah by late evening. We will be camping out for our first two nights, before meeting up with family and friends for the remaining overnights of the trip. Our initial plan had been to drive through Colorado, but the wildfires blazing throughout the state have influenced us to reroute north. I am curious if we will see smoke along the way, or if we will be fully out of range. Climate change is indeed doing its damage, from the fires in the West, to the tornadoes in the Midwest and the East, and the 118° temperatures in Kansas. We will be experiencing the rapid changing of our planet first-hand on these travels.

Our planned route for the journey after Utah is to camp again in Cheyenne, Wyoming, then stay with my fraternal family in Kansas City, Kansas, Matt’s family in Cincinnati, Ohio, my paternal family in West Bloomfield, Michigan, before arriving in Bennington, Vermont to stay with more family and pack up my belongings. From the Green Mountain State we’ll drive to the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, where I went to school at Mount Holyoke College, and we’ll stay with friends in the area. Our next destination is New York City to stay with another friend, and then we’ll turn our eyes homeward once more. Another pass through Cincinnati and Kansas city, and then a stay with Matt’s aunt in Aspen, Colorado if the pass there is unobstructed by wildfire. If it is, my desire is to turn southwards and see some desert-land before we cruise back into the chilly humidity of our fog-bound San Francisco home.

We are outfitted for the trip with few items of clothing, but a multitude of entertainment: dozens of podcasts of This American LifeFresh AirWait Wait Don’t Tell Me, as well as an obscure Tolkien podcast entitled An Unexpected Podcast. We will also have the treat to listen to Matthew Stelzner’s archetypal astrology podcast Correlations to help us stay attuned to the outer planets as we travel across the surface of our own home planet. Finally, we have the rare privilege of listening to a large collection of audio tapes I salvaged out of my father’s studio: lectures by Joseph Campbell, Rupert Sheldrake, Terrence McKenna, Bruno Barnhart, Robert McDermott, and several others. And lastly, if we can listen to the stereo no more, Matt will have his books on Schelling for his Ph.D. comprehensive exam, and I will have a few books of my own: The Road to Middle Earth by Tom Shippey, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and, if a copy stumbles into my hand soon, The Cosmic Game by Stan Grof.

May the stars smile down upon us as we begin this journey, may the unexpected adventures be merry, and the expected ones all the sweeter for occurring,may the road be swift and safe, and may the landscapes be the deep pool from which I’ll fill the cup of my imagination. To quote a great traveller in the wilds of the imaginary, let me conclude:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.