Armchair Peregrinations

July 29, 1999

I yearn for those old, meandering, dry, uninhabited roads which lead away from town...which conduct us to the outside of earth, over its uppermost crust; where you may forget in what country you are travelling...where travelers are not too often to be met; where my spirit is free...

Henry David Thoreau

In eastern Washington a few years ago, I was traveling, and I got on the road from Sunnyside to Goldendale, and it was early in the morning and the world on that cool October day was bright and promised new places to see and visit, or at least pass through.

I went up into high, rounded hills, past wheat fields and irrigated crops and then into the Horse Heaven Hills. The land thinned out, and it seemed kind of like a desert, but wasn't.

A little more than half way to Goldendale, I descended down from the hills, into a small canyon carved by a tiny little stream known as Rock Creek. Where the road crossed the creek, I stopped the car at the bottom of that small canyon and walked along beside it. It was about five-feet wide and strewn with small, smooth rocks. I took pictures of the oak trees that were flaming yellow that particular autumn.

And then, I looked at the map, and discovered that the short dirt road I had started down continued on another nine miles to the Columbia River, following every contour of that creek. I thought, well, you know, I have some time, why don't I travel that rocky road and see where it goes and discover some treasures and secrets of the backcountry along this route.

I weighed my options. I thought about the long drive back to Portland, and then I started up the road a ways before turning around and driving back up out of that canyon.

I was very happy the brief time I knelt beside Rock Creek to look into its flowing waters and walk around awhile, rustling leaves that had fallen from the trees, but I didn't take that road for some reason, and, to this day, I wonder why.

July 27, 1999

I was sitting in my car last week. It was parked in the usual place near my apartment. A hot day. I was fumbling for something in my glove compartment, sweating and anxious to find what I was looking for and get back into the air-conditioning.

I had the door open, and just as I was about to get out of the car and go back inside, I heard a voice speaking to me. F__, my neighbor from downstairs whom I've known, but not well, for the four years I've been in that apartment complex, was telling me that her husband had died early that morning at about 2:30. She had taken him to live in a nursing home about six weeks ago, and he was in the later stages of Alzheimer's Disease. F__ was exhausted by years of coping with this terrible affliction brought on her and her husband. (I wrote about them once before in my April 3 journal entry).

I had only seen M__ a few times in the past couple of years, coming and going from their apartment. He no longer sat outside in a lawn chair with F___on late afternoons to get some fresh air, and seldom could she get him to take a drive out to Folly Beach, which she liked to do whenever possible, for both their benefits, and as a way to help preserve her sanity, I would imagine. She handled basically all of his needs as he became more and more withdrawn.

When she told me the news, I told her how sorry I was and asked a few questions, but was not at all surprised by the news. I really didn't know either of them well, so it was not really a difficult thing for me to hear and respond to, but I still felt awkward, strange and subdued. I really didn't know what to say.

I saw her eyes glisten and become moist as she was talking to me on that hot morning. She said there had been no heroic measures to prolong his life. No IV tubes. He had just stopped eating and didn't want to live anymore.

I told her he was better off. Words failed me utterly at that point.

I think she was listening to my feeble words, and she said, "Yes, but you know, when you've lived with someone for 56 years, it's hard to let go."

I tried to imagine what M___ had been like in normal times, in his prime, helping F___ raise their children, at his job. I didn't even know what he did for a living, or, for that much, much of anything about their past, only that circumstances had brought us together as neighbors in the same apartment complex. We were nothing much more than that -- neighbors.

I admire F___tremendously. She is a strong and determined woman. I can't even imagine what it must have been like caring for a man who had lost so much of his mind and personality to that horrible disease. It is hardly conceivable to me. Could it happen to me or someone close to me in my family? It could, and that really scares me.

July 23, 1999

This is a tale of two beach communities on the coast of South Carolina. One, Folly Beach, is known well by now to you who read this journal. It is an old beach town dating to the early part of the century with mostly single family residences and beach rental houses. A few condominiums are unfortunately popping up, but the height restrictions on these are 40 feet, so we'll not soon be seeing those high -rise monstrosities so common on the big commercial beaches of Florida, and, up and down the Grand Strand, the 40-mile section of beach 100 miles north of Folly, the central attraction of which is Myrtle Beach.

Many people know of this area. It attracts millions of visitors a year to its miles of wind-driven surf, amusement parks, restaurants, golf courses and other beacons of a true tourist megalopolis. While Folly Beach is a downhome seaside community, Myrtle Beach is a behemouth, a galloping vacation fantasy and play land that atrracts hordes of Canadians in winter and other multitudes of sun-worshipping families from all over theSouth and Mid-Atlantic states and beyond each summer during the high beach season.

Now, I've been there the past few Julys to visit my good friends from Virginia who have been going there for years because their young children and teenagers like it so much. After all, it's got a Hard Rock Cafe, huge water slide parks, dozens of all-you-can-eat seafood buffets featuring Calabash fried shrimp, and miles and miles of 10 and 12-story condominiums, hotels, and motels of every size and description. All along the beach. An unbroken line stretching off into the horizon. People pack onto this beach in the summer in great numbers, and mostly it's families. Every other block or so, there are huge souvenir and beach supply emporiums, the kind that have racks of seashells in the windows, beach buckets and toys, and all mannner of inflatable rafts and inner tubes, etc. etc. Plus, coffee mugs, trinkets, ashtrays, t-shirts, bathing suits, beach clogs, and more assorted kitsch than you're likely to see in half a lifetime elsewhere.

Now I have to admit for a day or so, on a short visit, it is kind of a novelty. It's amost tolerable. Go to one of the buffets and you'll find a cavernous room with eight different areas of food -- seafood, Mexican, Southern, Chinese, barbecue and on and on. It's frightening in a way to think of all the food that's consumed in those places. But the times I've been to Benjamin's, the food has really been good. It's fun to go there with my friends and their kids.

It's all so different and yet, in ways, the same as when I, my brother and father went there in the late 50s and early 60s to stay in one of the rooming-type houses with rooms to rent for a few days or a week that unfortunately have just about disappeared.

The great Pavillion, the rides, the games, the hot dogs, the boardwalk, the crowds, the suntan lotion, the heat, the waves -- it was all a grand experience when we were kids. And, those were special times with my father that I'll never forget.

I can see myself now with a pint container of fried clams from Howard Johnson's. Nothing seemed to taste better when we were young and hungry from a long day out in the water and lying on the sand getting an enviable suntan. (Those were the days before worries about the depletion of the ozone layer).

That place was really the "big time" compared to Folly Beach. It had the glitter, lights, big ferris wheel, carnival atmosphere. It has always been a gathering place for high school and college students on the weekends. They'd come from all over the Carolinas. Myrtle Beach today is every bit or more the tourist attraction that Fort Lauderdale or Panama City or Daytona Beach are in Flordia.

Now I have happy memories of that beach from when I was a youth, but today the endless miles of traffic, motels, subdivisions, shopping centers, and urban sprawl depress me. And, one wonders how all these restaurants and hotels and motels and condominiums hire enough workers to cook, wash dishes, change linens and clean motel rooms. But then, as I do each year it seems, I spot the headline in the paper: "Workers' long, hot bus rides keep tourism world rolling." It is messy fact that nearly 2,000 hotel and other service workers from 11 inland South Carolina counties commute 2-3 hours to Myrtle Beach and other resorts towns along the Strand to work 6 or 8 hour-days at minimum wage in the hotels, returning home on another 2-3-hour bus ride. The reason for this: there is almost no low-cost housing and Myrtle Beach has about 60,00 rental rooms that have to be cleaned. So, thousands of people get up before dawn for the bus ride to the beach and jobs that offer no benefits and no future. But they have to take them because the rural areas in which they live are depressed economically and have no jobs to offer.

The same thing is happening in other pricey big resorts and popular tourist spots such as the ski resort towns out west where the hosues sell for a cool million or more but no one can afford to live there who works at providing basic municipal or housekeeping services. Not that anyone could feel sorry for the spoiled and wealthy jet-setters who live in Aspen or Vail, Colorado.

But it's a fact also that there is very little affordable housing in just about any medium-sized or large city in the country. It is mind-boggling to contemplate the level or greed and avarice that exists in the real estate rental business, whether it's apartments, condominiums, townhouses and the like. When 50 percent or more of one's income is spent on rent, there's something very seriously wrong with the housing equation in this country. It's often cheaper to buy a house than to rent.

So, the great tourist magnet of Myrtle Beach would just dry up and shutter its doors without the legions of minimum-wage workers who come in by the busload each morning at dawn to work in a town where they couldn't afford to pay rent or find decent housing. And the sad thing is, this has been going on for years and will likely only get worse. Meanwhile, as they say, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

July 20, 1999

As I drove farther and farther out into the country from Sumter on my way back to Charleston Sunday, I was immersed soon in the most familiar of rural landscapes, such comfortable predictability of scenery and route that I know each bend in the highway, each little community I pass, each country grocery store/gas station, each intersection, caution light and turnoff. It's as if I were a long-distance bus driver sometimes, driving back and forth between the same places, year after year. In a strange sort of way, I can see how that kind of work can appeal to people. There's only your thoughts and the sound of the engine and tires on the pavement, miles passing by outside the window, the seasons changing as well as the interior monologs that go on inside my head, but otherwise I seem to be as much a part of this passing landscape as the people who live out there. I know it superficially, as comes only with a passing acquaintance, but in a way, too, I feel this landscape so deeply inside my being that I don't even want to deviate from the route I take. I could go a couple of other ways, but it's always the same drive, and the same amount of time.

When I get into Charleston and return to where I live, I find myself occasionally conscious of each turn, left-right-left, over the speed bump, around the curve, into my usual parking space. Four years now there's been the same place to return to, accompanied by the same movements of my hands changing gears, of my feet hitting the brake pedal ever so mechanically and lightly, and of my car slowing at the same places -- it all seems as if it will go on indefinitely and as if this is the only place I've ever lived, although in the span of my life, it's as nothing. A few short years.

Usually in the past, I only lived in a place half a year, a year, two at most. So just when I was starting to feel a lasting attachment to it, I'd be packing up a rental truck, loading the car, getting the utilties turned off, turning in keys, saying goodbyes, and then heading off to who knows where.

Now I can't see myself going anywhere different anytime soon. I'm content with where I live, itself an astounding fact. It's not perfect, it's not surrounded by woods out in the country, it's not as private as I'd like it to be, but for now, where I live is home.

I think about these things because I remember how I used to dread all the details of moving in the past, how so many things had to fall into place and how one new physical environment after another had to be adjusted to all over again.

Now I just don't consider flux and change much at all. Each day at work is different and yet the same. At home, I discover the car is leaking oil and has to be worked on, my Internet connection doesn't work temporarily, some other little thing jars me out of complacency for awhile. But that's the exception. The status quo resumes. Life continues in its steady stream, like those rivers and creeks I love to watch flowing along with an unceasing flow. I feel like I'm drifting along on one of those rivers, a very gentle current, breeze in the trees, endless summer day, hot, earthy smells, alone, coming up with thoughts neither too profound nor too empty of meaning, either. Just flowing along.

I like this and yet I don't. It's vaguely unsettling. I haven't been on a road trip in a couple of years. That usually stirs up the currents and upsets the status quo quite a bit, and I come out of my usual state of being to see a bit of the outside world. But then I return and life resumes as before, though it may take a couple of days.

When I was driving back from Charleston, I noticed continually, as I do in any type of season or weather, the crops and fields that I passed. Sunday, the farmers must have been feeling blessed because the corn and soybeans were green and full and thriving after all the rain the past 10 days. Life was restored to those fields which just a few weeks ago had been parched and drying up, the crops almost ready to be counted a loss. But everything that was growing -- crops, trees, shrubs, kudzu, grass along the road -- everything was alive and well, for now.

It is turning into a normal summer, and as I drove along, I was happy about this and knew that for awhile longer I could exist in my undisturbed state of mind. Nature seemed to be in balance, and I was flowing along on that long rural highway, a part of the earth around me as surely as those flowing tassels of corn rustling above the rows of moist earth and sandy soil.

July 16, 1999

I was telling someone at work the other day how much I needed to get away from everything for awhile, to take a road trip somewhere at least several hundred miles away, and probably much more. I'm tied down with school and work and other projects. The weight of responsibility is heavy on me, and I long for some kind of release.

It's been almost three years since I took my last lengthy trip anywhere, and that was to West Virginia and Ohio, two states I had never seen up until September 1996 when my travels during that all-too-brief vacation brought me over the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the New River Gorge area of West Virginia, and later to the Ohio River city of Marietta, an enchanting and historic town, the first permanent settlement in the old Northwest.

From there I drove for miles along a beautiful river and then west and south to the Hocking Hills region of limestone outcroppings and waterfalls, not to mention thousands of square miles of richly green deciduous woodlands.

For two nights I stayed in a 150-year-old, restored frontier log cabin, sleeping in a type of loft bedroom, surrounded by woods. I had a rocking chair and porch to sit out on, and a small trail through woods to a pond to visit each morning after going to a nearby town early for some of the best breakfasts I've had ever had on the road.

I recall all of this very fondly because it now seems to long ago and far away. I drove through countless small towns, lost in reveries of the road, walking down main streets, going in stores, visiting museums, buying books of local history, and forgetting completely the world I had come from.

Now I have a file box of clippings, brochures, newspapers, books and booklets, postcards and the like from that trip. I went through it the other day and found a brochure for Knox County, Ohio, a place I wish now that I had visited. Two autumn scenes were on the front of the brochure and the words, "Town charm, country pleasure." The county is located almost in the center of Ohio, just slightly north and east of the capital of Columbus. It is home to the Old-Time Farming Festival in Danville; the Dan Emmett Music and Asts Festival in Mt. Vernon; the Dogwood Trail; the Knox County Fair; and the liberal arts school, Kenyon College in the town of Gambier. Keyon publishes a well-known literary review. Imagine a rural county near the heart of Ohio Amish country, with slightly rolling countryside, magnificent autumn color, farms, quaint towns, and a small liberal arts college. Also, folk music and crafts, outdoor concerts, canoeing, the Kokosing River, and a timeless 19th century appeal. I'd really like to go there some day, but I don't know if I ever will.

That's the thing about traveling for only a week or so. You miss some really special places, and have to hope you can go back some day. But then there are entirely undiscovered and new areas of the country which beckon when you finally do get back on the road, so it's hard to retrace roads taken years ago, although I've certainly done it in the past.

Nebraska is a good example of a state with places I want to go back to again and again. My memories and associations of traveling through there are so powerful and so connected with a period of great freedom and possibilities for change in my life, that I'd like to think I could recapture some of that feeling. Maybe not, but I would try. And, that's really what travel is all about in a way: Finding new places to explore, and then being able to go back years later and rediscover them from an entirely new perspective, one that is only enhanced by the passage of time, and hopefully, the accumulation of wisdom and some new ways of seeing the world.

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