Sydney M. Williams
Essays from Essex
February 2, 2017
Alice: “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends on where you want to go,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.
“Them it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, 1867
“…not all those who wander are lost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
Gandalf to Frodo, “Lord of the Rings”, 1949
Twenty-five years ago my wife and I joined a club in Florida, about twenty miles north of Fort Lauderdale. This year we decided to drive.
When first in college, road trips were as important as an introductory class in economics. Guys (mostly) would jump into a car and head out, usually with girls and beer in mind – not always in that order. Once, when 20, I drove alone and without stopping, other than for gas, the 1,200 miles from Sudbury, Ontario to Greenwich, CT. The trip took eighteen hours. Exhausting; not to be repeated.
My favorite auto trip, from the annals of yesteryear, was through Europe with my wife in the winter-spring of 1965. My erratic college career ended that February with my having completed courses for a degree. A job with Eastman Kodak was waiting for me in June. We had been married a year earlier in April. During my last two years in college, I had held multiple jobs – driving a school bus, working in a sandwich shop, selling $2.00-win tickets at Rockingham State Park and writing a sports column for Foster’s Daily Democrat. I was also an Army reservist. Caroline labored over a tedious manuscript for a professor. With rent of $85.00 a month, no telephone and $15.00 a week allotted for groceries, we were able to save $2,000. We bought round trip tickets to Paris, rented a Volkswagen bug and, with Arthur Frommer’s “Europe on $5 a Day” tucked under our arm, we spent eleven glorious weeks touring southern Europe.
Road trips have a long history, dating back long before cars. Perhaps the two most famous fictional heroic trips were the ones by Odysseus and Lemuel Gulliver. According to Homer’s epic poem, Odysseus took ten years to return from Troy (located not far from Gallipoli in present day Turkey) where he had waged war for ten years. The story tracks Odysseus and the adventures he encountered, as he traveled back to Ithaca and his patient wife Penelope. Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s travels were legendary; he sailed to the South Seas and beyond. He left England in 1699 and did not return until 1715. Thousands of writers have since described the pull of the open road and the romance of the unknown. In “Travels with Charlie,” John Steinbeck drove the 10,000-mile perimeter of the country with his Poodle. He wrote: “I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.” Three years earlier, in 1957, Jack Kerouac, wrote his best known novel, “On the Road.” On the road, in his case, was more of a sociological trip into the countercultural world of the “Beat” generation, with its jazz, poetry and drugs.
Hollywood has long used road trips to entertain viewers and score box office successes. Think of all the “On the road to…” movies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Viewers were transported from their theaters to Rio, Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco and more. Consider the darkness of Ida Lupino’s “The Hitch-Hiker,” a movie produced in 1953 starring Edmond O’Brien; or Peter Fonda’s “Easy Rider,” produced in 1969, starring himself and Dennis Hopper; or “Five Easy Pieces,” with Jack Nicholson and Karen Black, a movie which includes my favorite line about ordering buttered toast; or the slap-stick humor of Chevy Chase in 1983’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” or Susan Sarandon and Greena Davis in “Thelma & Louise.”
But our trip would be different, tamer, more choreographed. We expected to be neither gone for years like Odysseus, nor tied up by Lilliputians like Gulliver. We weren’t going to pick up hitch-hikers or search for the meaning of life. We had one another for company, not a dog and certainly no strangers. In contrast to Kerouac, we are not counterculturalists. Unlike fifty-two years ago, there would be no sleeping bags, or living on $5.00 a day. We planned where we would be every night. And, unlike my drive down from Canada, no day would involve more than 400 miles, and we would not drive after dark.
We left Essex on January 1st, after celebrating our grandson George’s 12th birthday in Lyme, and drove the 80 miles to our daughter’s in Rye. A happy omen was leaving one happy household for another. The next day we drove to Richmond, once capital of the Confederacy, a city laced with history. As one who loves history, I could not but help think that a Revolutionary War-era messenger, changing horses every ten miles or so, would have taken at least two days to travel that distance, and then only if the horses were fresh and ready to go, with no waiting. That would have meant changing horses at least thirty-five times! For most, it was a two-week trip. We thought of years-ago car trips, when we had to travel through the center of Baltimore and Washington. Now, all we had to do was pay attention to our navigation system, which guided us to our hotel. We could not help thinking that self-driving cars will likely be here for our grandchildren when they, at our age now, make similar trips. They will simply enter their destination, sit back and enjoy the ride. But will they miss the sense of independence that control of a vehicle provides? Will they be able to spontaneously make side trips, or alter their destination?
From Richmond, we drove south, across swamps, down straight, uncongested highways, through the pine barrens of the Carolinas, to Savannah where we spent two nights. It is a city neither of us had seen, and we needed a break. We could not help thinking that this onetime home to Forrest Gump was Sherman’s goal when he left Atlanta in November 1864 on his “march to the sea.” Today it is America’s fourth busiest port, with an historic district that combines the beauty of southern architecture, with the graciousness of its people, and it serves food so good that, as one guide told us, “…there ain’t no size six dresses in Savannah!”
From Savannah it was a short hop to Ponte Verde Beach, not far across the border in Florida. Here we bunked with good friends from New Jersey who escape the snow and ice every winter for four months in the sun. The following day we drove the long eastern shore of Florida, across marshes, down the flatness of Florida’s I-95. While it was the least interesting part of the trip, our destination was in sight.
Nine days later we started home, this time taking twice as long as we did going south. Perhaps it was an instinctive desire to delay getting back to the cold, snow and the wind? On the first day we drove all of 40 miles to Wellington, where my youngest brother George lives. Horses had been a part of our life growing up, and George has made a career involving them. He is a Grand Prix rider, president of the U.S. Dressage Federation and was recently appointed the only American on the FEI Dressage Committee. The following day we headed back to our friends in Ponte Verde Beach, and on the next a long drive west across the Florida/Georgia border, through conifer and deciduous forests, to LaGrange, Georgia to visit friends. LaGrange is only seventeen miles from the Alabama border and about 70 miles south and west of Atlanta. It sits in the middle of what was once Georgia’s cotton country. The final leg was through miles of peach orchards – a beautiful part of the world, a place neither of us had seen. The next day we headed back to the coast, to elegant Charleston, where friends welcomed us to the house they had rented for four months.
After two days in Charleston – one morning spent at Middleton Place, a former rice plantation where the paddies take the form of a butterfly – we headed back to Virginia, to Petersburg where my great grandmother Mary Bolling Kemp lived during the siege that foretold the end of the Civil War. She was born in Gloucester County on the York River, but was in Petersburg as a young child during the siege. I have a photograph of me on her lap a few years before she died in 1946. From Petersburg we drove the eighty miles to Fredericksburg, scene of one of the Confederate’s famous victories and where Caroline’s nephew now lives. The next day we drove to Red Bank, New Jersey, near Rumson where we have rented a house for the month of August for almost 40 years. It is where my wife spent her summers growing up. The next morning, after dinner with friends, we drove back to Rye, to our daughter’s, with a car load of laundry, and happy to be back among family. Two days later, rested and with clean clothes, we headed to Essex.
What I missed most in spending days driving was reading the papers. The decline in print media has become increasingly apparent. While I have all the means of getting my news electronically, I prefer the rustle of paper, the ability to turn pages and the sight of an article I had not considered. So we listened to news on Sirius radio, but more often than not tuned to “50s on 5.” In the evenings, after a drink and a good dinner, the adventures of “Little Nell” beckoned.
A long trip makes one think about myriad subjects – about our country and the people who populate it – our differences and similarities. We grow accustomed to the people and the geography that surround us. When traveling for business, I was usually one of the “flyovers.” On this trip we went to new places, yet still only saw a narrow swath of America. In researching a new book, “Earning the Rockies,” Robert Kaplan visited parts of America that are remote to those of us who have spent most of our lives on one (or both) of the two coasts. He went to the heartland – to places that voted solidly for Donald Trump. Kaplan writes that listening without asking is how one learns people’s true opinions.
In our own lives, surrounded by like-minded people and with so much of our time spent listening to our own voices, we miss what others are saying. A friend of mine, who lives both in Manhattan and the rural south, recently wrote a letter to her niece, a letter she shared with me. She described those living in her small southern town: “…a lot of them see themselves as hardworking, tolerant and good people. That makes them disbelieve the press…It makes them feel un-listened to and, again, a word I hear often: disrespected.” No party or political philosophy has a monopoly on intelligence, righteousness or tolerance. Kaplan’s words about listening should serve as an epiphany to those who care about the divisions that separate us. His message is one we should all heed, especially me.
But enough moralizing. For most of us, there are only two times when we can take such road trips, when we are young and when our hair has turned grey. My wife and I have been fortunate, in that we were able to take such a trip when we first started out together, and now, after more than fifty years of marriage, we did it again, but differently, more comfortable and less spontaneous. Nevertheless, all trips are adventures. My favorite piece about road trips is the last paragraph in E.B. White’s novel “Stuart Little,” because it suggests the mystery of the unknown and the start of an adventure: “Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led to the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.” As we pulled into the drive, 3,400 miles and twenty-five days after we had left, our adventure was over. We knew we were home, but we are determined to do it again next year.