The Road Taken
In the summer of 1997, my boyfriend and I decided to drive from Seattle, where we lived, to the East Coast. We wanted the heavy heat and humidity, which we missed in a city where the people wilted and whined if the mercury crept over 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Drive-away companies ship cars for people. We signed up with one and got a car someone wanted driven to Maine, a little red hatchback. We picked up the car on Saturday morning, and later that day, Jack married our next-door neighbors in a park. He had gotten certified by the Universal Life Church over the Internet. We drank champagne and went home, and I got pregnant. I knew immediately, but almost no one believed me for months.
The fact that my life was changing tinted the whole trip. This is the last time I’ll drive cross-country, I thought. And it was. This is the last time I’ll wear a bikini, so why not buy the 1970s-issue JC Penney model in orange and white checks at a thrift store next to a bowling alley in a little town whose name I forget?
In Minneapolis, I felt skimpy under the triangles of that bikini at the clothes-optional beach. I looked at my belly and tried to imagine it growing. A couple slid noisily into the parking lot in a Phish van swirled with fluorescent spray paint, and strode toward the water with bravado, throwing off their clothes. They walked into the water, and very obviously screwed. When they’d climaxed movie-style with arched backs, the guy walked back toward shore, dropping to his knees when the water wouldn’t hide his withered stuff. He propped himself on his hands at the water’s edge, begging someone to get his shorts. No one would. Finally he came out to get them himself, cupping his hand over his crotch.
Jack swung out into the water on a rope swing, coming near to some kids. A woman turned to me and told me to get him to stop. “He’s not my kid,” I said, chopping the words very distinctly. “I’m not his mother.”
Would this be what it would be like from now on? Would I have to watch my kid do stupid things and feel conflicted about letting them be alive and keeping them from killing other people? What, exactly, had I gotten myself into?
Everything felt significant, more than the way things do on any trip, just because they’re novel. The scenery was new and I was brand-new too. My stomach felt funny. I slept better than normal, and was edgier, too. Happier, but also, more ready to be wronged.
We ate hot dogs in Chicago, and lobster in Maine after we delivered the car. There is a picture of us eating from the same ear of corn at a picnic table on the dock. We had no idea what we were getting into.
We still don’t, but here we are, ready for another summer. I’ll take a road trip to Maine, by myself this time to tour a festival about bread, and our kids will have their own adventures at camp. Come August we’ll share a dozen ears of corn over separate plates, and everything will be familiar. Everything will be brand-new, too.
Riding in Van With Boys
We’d been a band, a punk band, I suppose, for less than six months. We’d played only a handful of times in the Albany area and had changed our name more times than we had songs. The next logical step was a cross-country tour. We quit our jobs, bought a van, and built a trailer. I got a mohawk.
There were five of us: me on guitar and eventually vocals, another guitarist-vocalist, a bassist, a drummer, and a friend who agreed to play roadie for college credit, which apparently we could grant. We had been working with a new vocalist, but his parole officer forbade him from leaving the state.
The first night, my drummer and I didn’t sleep. We stayed up and drove past Cleveland to watch the sunrise from a truck stop on the Ohio frontier where the eastern United States truly ends and America goes flat until the Rockies. Without our vocalist, we were rearranging songs on the road with predictable results. Our first two gigs were in small towns whose names I’ve forgotten. On the way to one, we drove through Tampico, Ill., Ronald Reagan’s birthplace, on the day he died. Even though it was a mess of a show, it felt good to play punk rock that night.
Our show in an Omaha bowling alley was canceled, but we set up anyway and played for the sound guy. The next day, the van’s radiator gave out and stranded us overnight in a small town called Utica, Neb. The people in the town put us up despite being visibly uncomfortable with us, especially my hair and piercings. I learned more about people in the Midwest that day than any before or since. We met a guy, Mike, I think, who showed us around and said he’d watch for us on Letterman. The RV in his driveway was bigger than his house.
Next, we were stuck in Denver, for a week this time, when our trailer’s towing arm bent. Despite my unfortunate discovery that thin air, cigarettes, and mosh pits don’t mix, we played our best show of the “tour.” We spent the week writing and got some much needed practice, but the delay cost us all of our Northwestern shows.
Artistic and personal tensions built during our California recording session to the point that I nearly got into a fistfight with my bassist outside a show in San Diego. By our show in Lake Havasu, the band members were barely on speaking terms. We packed up, and when the band went to a house party for the night, I hung out with the ticket girl.
The next morning, the band approached me with a dilemma. There were three days until our next show in Georgia, and we had just enough gas money to make it there or we could go back home, but not both. With no guarantee we were getting paid, we cut our losses and drove four straight, silent days back to Albany hoping to stay ahead of the overdraft charges on the other guitarist’s credit card. We hadn’t showered in a week and we’d played only one quarter of our scheduled dates.
We managed to remain a band for another year and even made it back out to California to record again, but eventually, we stopped getting together. Oh, and the only guy I kept in touch with? The bassist.
The Piano Bar at the End of the World
When my husband and I married in June 2001, we split our honeymoon into two parts. We spent the first part in Chicago right after the wedding. For what we called “The Extended Honeymoon,” we decided to spend a week on the far end of Cape Cod, in the rural, dune-enclosed region known as the Outer Cape. We planned to depart Saturday, Sept. 15.
Like most people in the United States old enough to remember the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I recall how I heard the news. I was interviewing a source at an office in downtown Albany, when a secretary at the agency came in to tell us that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I envisioned a small private plane with an inept pilot, thought, “Wow . . . tragic accident,” and turned back to my work. About 10 minutes later, the visibly distraught secretary burst into the room with an update, my interview abruptly ended, and I got home in time to watch in disbelief as both towers of the World Trade Center dissolved on live television.
But my husband and I left for the Cape that Friday, out of a feeling that staying home wasn’t going to make a bit of difference to the staggering sensation of Before and After that defined the national reaction. I’m very glad we went, because our journey ended in Provincetown. And I have never forgotten how that small town that always feels ready to curve off into the Atlantic Ocean looked those first few days after the attacks.
Provincetown has been known as a “gay resort town” for more than a half-century. It’s also an artists’ colony, a fishing village, and home to 3,500 year-round residents. In the summer, the population soars to 35,000. It’s impossible to know how many of those residents at any time of the year are gay or straight, because no federal, state or municipal agency tracks demographics by sexual orientation. But it’s fair to say that the gay-friendly atmosphere is what most tourists see first, and is also what merchants, restaurateurs and innkeepers most heavily market along Commercial Street, the main shopping stretch.
And it’s also fair to say that the city is proudly progressive in its politics. Barack Obama received 235 votes in Provincetown in the Massachusetts Presidential Primary in March; Mitt Romney received 45. Listen to a couple of hours of programming on WOMR FM, the community radio station in Provincetown, and you’ll get the idea.
In those first days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Commercial Street was devoid of the throngs that normally would have choked its narrow, one-way path along the harbor in one of the last weekends of the summer. American flags hung in windows or on the exteriors of the 18th- and early 19th-century buildings all up and down the street. That’s what I remember most—all those flags in the windows, framed by silver-gray or white-painted clapboards. Some of the window glass was so old it was wavy, an effect heightened by the rain that fell that week.
We stopped one night in a restaurant that was empty but for the small crowd gathered around the singer at the piano. Ordinarily, he would have been doing Broadway show tunes with a bit of flamboyance and a suggestion of crowd-pleasing female impersonation, but on this night, he sang a medley of patriotic songs. All of us sang along, as he went through “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee-Doodle Dandy,” “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.” It was the kind of activity that I normally would have considered fun to watch in passing but would never have joined. On that night, though, it felt good and even right to sing. My husband and I stopped in for what we thought would be for a few minutes; we stayed for an hour. I have never forgotten that group of strangers belting out those songs in a kind of joyous release, nor the sight of all those flags on an eerily quiet and rainy Commercial Street.
Just Hacking Around
I remember the remarkably scarred and veiny hands of my next-door neighbor, Kurt. They were hands that worked hard, unlike my own, which were pasty and smooth. I longed for the day when I’d have hands like his. I was 6. He was 10.
We lived on a shady street in Glen Rock, N.J., and the summer after the end of my kindergarten year, I sought Kurt for company. Because of my size, I could almost pass for my friend’s age, and the couple of his classmates who often joined us accepted my presence with very little teasing.
“Hacking around,” Kurt called it, this process of exploring a warm-weather day. The only appealing electronic distraction in 1962 was the television, and daytime programming ran to a repulsive mix of news shows and soap operas.
“Where are you going?” my mother would call as I pounded down the stairs.
“Going to play with Kurt,” I’d holler back. “Hacking around.”
“Stay on this side of the street,” she’d caution. “If you want to go across to the schoolyard, let me walk you there.”
The schoolyard, with its crusty teeter-totter and jungle gym, held no appeal. And the agenda was out of my hands: Kurt and his friends lived in a larger neighborhood. This particular June day, representative of many, began with a stroll along our street to its intersection with another, my theoretical limit. We crossed it and kept on, towards the town of Ridgewood.
I remember almost nothing of our conversations, except that I participated only rarely, aware that each time I opened my mouth I revealed my comparative immaturity. These older boys were my heroes, my ideals, and I figured that the best way to sustain their approval was simply to quietly emulate them.
When one of them suggested taking an unfamiliar pathway that led away from the street, I joined right in. The joy of being part of the group far outweighed any threat of punishment. We walked alongside an ever-deepening gulch that required us to hug the wall of a narrow cliffside pathway, shuffling sideways. I was terrified. I was thrilled. Heat and dirt made the passage even more uncomfortable. I didn’t care.
We soon came to the railroad tracks. “I brought a coupla pennies,” said one of the boys. We hopped from cross-tie to creosote-stinky cross-tie between the sun-hot rails. When a not-too-distant rumble promised a train, we dived for the scrub that flanked the tracks—but not before I was shown how to balance a penny on a rail-top.
The train roared past. The penny vanished. We searched in vain. But the morning yawned ahead of us, delivering another train, then another, each time sending us into that scrub in a frenzy of giggles.
It must have been the third try that succeeded. Someone spotted the copper gleam a considerable distance from where we’d placed it. It was still hot to the touch. The coin’s diameter seemed to have doubled, and it now tapered at the rim. Lincoln’s bloated face was barely discernible.
I longed to keep the coin, but knew I’d have to filch my own currency to deserve such a treasure.
I was home by lunchtime, as required. Would there be more adventure this afternoon? I didn’t know. These boys lived in the moment, a wonderful contrast to the adult world of planning the life out of everything.
“What did you do this morning?” my mother asked.
“Nothing,” I told. “Just hacked around.”
Of Pizza, Sprite and Skunks
Before Saratoga Performing Arts Center consolidated its food and beverage stands into a central concession area a few years ago, the lawn was scattered with tents offering soft salted pretzels, foil-wrapped hot dogs, soft drinks and square-cut pizza that was often burnt black around the edges or oversauced and undercooked, but rarely just right.
A catering company had a contract to run the tents, and one of the men in charge was a bit of a thug. He once threatened to break an employee’s arms when the teenager leaned against the front counter in a certain lackadaisical way. But otherwise, the job of a summer concession-tent worker was a pretty good one for a young person who liked to get up late and then hear concerts while working.
Of course, it was hard to be trapped inside a tent staring down long lines of inebriated concertgoers while your friends waved to you from relative freedom outside. Occasionally customers could be nasty, sometimes for good reason. We were under orders to serve the pizza no matter how charred it looked. And we broke up the ice for soda by slamming heavy plastic bags against the tent’s dirt floor. This often led to stray dirt in the ice, which was unnoticeable in cola but painfully obvious to customers who ordered Sprite.
But on slow nights, during the midweek ballet or less-attended shows by performers whose best years had passed, you could take a break and sit on the lawn in relative peace. The catering company shirts and badges—or the catering entrance through the Hall of Springs basement—could also be sneakily employed to enter the venue on nights you weren’t scheduled for duty.
Working in the midst of a forested state park, nature was never far. Families of skunks often scurried about the tents and rummaged through the garbage. A different kind of scavenger entered the park as soon as large concerts ended: gangs of people racing to collect empty bottles from garbage cans or searching the lawn for money and belongings lost or forgotten by the drunken hordes.
One thing I will never forget: the screams of a young boy, who came late at night with his large family to pick through the garbage after a concert. He had encountered a skunk at close range, and ran fast from the fellow scavenger. Too late. In the moonlight, you could see the skunk juice dripping down his legs.
I was never particularly enthused about going to camp. In fact, it was camping that taught me I had the power to say, “I quit.” For that matter, camping in general has never been a passion of mine, but I gave it a shot. The summer after I graduated from high school I went on a cross-country trip in a van with some friends. I bought one of those then-modern nylon backpacks over an aluminum frame especially for the trip. We stopped at Estes Park in the Rockies. Five guys packed in for two night of camping with enough beer and gear for a week. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t care.
But this is about camp, and specifically the last time I went, to a Boy Scout Camp on Lake Erie when I was 12, during my two-month foray into scouting. Two incidents occurred that seemed ludicrously unnecessary. One, as an initiation for new members, we had to do calisthenics in the mud. The other was that I had to be on fire watch in the middle of the night. This required that I be disturbed from a deep sleep for one hour before the next fire guard came on duty. Whoever was tending the fire woke me at the appropriate time (something like 2 AM) and an hour later I would wake the next sentry. It turns out, through no overt action of my own, just my own animal instincts, I fell asleep well before my watch was over. In the morning I was chastised for this infraction.
A third incident had a greater impact on my life. During the free time in the evening when a roaring campfire was going, while some were peeling sticks and roasting marshmallows, others of my compatriots would walk up to the fire, getting close enough to gulp a mouthful of its
smoke. They would then stroll away from the blaze, exhaling, as if from a cigarette. I tried this. It was horrible, the worst thing I’d ever put in my mouth. It tasted like hot dirt, and I had no idea why they felt compelled to continue to do this.
At the age when friends were beginning to steal cigarettes out of their mother’s purses and sneak off for their first forays into smoking, I never joined in. Smoking held no appeal
for me because of that first mouthful of campfire.
Sort of Roughing It
In the late ’80s my father made a decision that affected our whole family. I remember there being some tense discussions in the house leading up to the big event, but when he finally brought the 1984 Rockwood pop-up camper home, my mother, my sisters and I were all pretty stoked to see it.
It was part tent, part trailer, and part transformer. As dad cranked it open, the camper rose from about three feet to what seemed to be larger than life. Each end extended out to form two separate sleeping quarters. There was a small kitchenette and the table folded down to make another bed. The decor was exactly what one would expect in an ’80s caravan designed for the frugal traveler: dark brown, tan and orange plaid upholstery with beige everywhere else.
It reeked of adventure, and mom immediately began her disinfecting process. When she was done, the thing was actually in good condition and we gleefully set about breaking it in. We were proud of our new clubhouse. We fought over who would sleep in it that summer, even when it was parked in our driveway. When we finally took it out on the road and pulled into our first campground, we excitedly set up our home away from home. If packing up a bunch of your possessions into a mobile unit and then unpacking them in the middle of the woods where you still had running water and electricity was the American dream, then, by God, we were living it.
We learned the ins and outs of suburban camping pretty quickly. Falling asleep in the extended beds meant building a pillow wall between you and the mesh-screened openings. The barricade prevented the camper from waking up with tiny square patterns pressed into their flesh, which was also likely covered in hundreds of mosquito bites. The other option was to zip the canvas sides up completely but at the risk of sweating to death.
We organized our camp and learned our roles quickly. I took it upon myself to keep the fire going while my younger sister discovered that she was deathly afraid of bugs of all shapes and sizes. Mom and dad stayed rooted to our site, while we roamed across the grounds with other kid packs. We swam and sunned. When it rained we played cards. One year I indulged my obsession with Oprah and watched her show religiously on our tiny TV set. I also ignored the heckling that I wasn’t “roughing it.” Were any of us?
The summer before my freshman year of high school, I met a boy my age at camp. We hung out and made awkward conversation. On one of the last nights in the campground, we shared a kiss on the playground. It was everything that the moment should have been. We both had braces and curfews; it was all metal and anxiety under a dark, starry sky. I don’t recall his name, but I do remember laying in the Rockwood afterward wondering whether I was going to get AIDS. If nothing else, sex education had taught me that anything sexual meant death by incurable disease. As I tossed and turned on the thin mattress, every flip of my body jostled the pop-up. That’s just how things were in the camper. Inevitably, we were all a part of the same experience.
My parents might have had more than a few heated debates regarding the purchase of the pop-up camper, but we got way more out of it than we put in. Up until a few years ago, my family was still using it. I think it finally gave up on a road trip out west. My dad keeps it parked out by the shed. He claims that he’s going to strip it down and use it as a flatbed trailer. I like to think that it means too much to just throw it away.
One Night in Iowa
When I look back at my only cross-country automobile trip, which began days after I graduated from college, I wonder at the arrangements I made for my time on the West Coast that was supposed to be the journey’s reward. Little did I know then that the magic might have been waiting for me in an Iowa cornfield. And no, I wasn’t driving with James Earl Jones.
I’ll retrace from the end. Using an Eastern Airlines credit card than had been mailed to me unsolicited, I bought a plane ticket from San Francisco to New York. It was one of those widebodies that made you feel like you were in a big movie theater. After a few hours they set up a bar at the rear of the cabin.
I had arranged to stay with an on-again-off-again girlfriend in Palo Alto. We were pretty much off, but I stayed there anyway. She didn’t make much time for me, but the best part was I got to spend a day wandering Santa Cruz and a day wandering San Francisco by myself.
Amtrak from Portland to Oakland was an adventure, but not a pleasant one. In the middle of the night, a freight train derailed, blocking the tracks. We got off the train and boarded buses that drove a couple of hours to where the northbound train was also blocked. We finally got onto that train and arrived in Oakland about six hours late.
In Portland I stayed with a college acquaintance I really didn’t know that well. She didn’t make much time for me, but the best part was that I got to spend a day wandering Portland by myself.
Rich and I spent long hours on the road in the drive-away car I had picked up in Albany to deliver to Portland. Rich didn’t know why I was in such a hurry to get there, and now I’m not sure either. He wanted to stay longer in Jackson Hole, but I didn’t. We hiked into the Grand Tetons one afternoon and I got dizzy. I left him in Wyoming, where he was going to work on a cattle ranch.
We drove pretty much sraight through from eastern Iowa to Jackson Hole, stopping only for snacks, gas, a beer in Omaha and a nap at a truck stop somewhere in Nebraska.
The June morning we left Chicago, it was already getting hot. By the time we pulled off the highway between Davenport and Iowa City, the Midwest was baking under the intense noontime sun. In a convenient store we asked if there was anywhere to swim. The clerk said there were a few places, but one was by far the best. Were we willing to drive a little?
We took his directions and set out through the endless cornfields. Finally a clearing came into view, and a small lake with a grassy beach. The water was clear and cool, and an almost obscene feeling of refreshment cascaded over my body as I slid into the lake out of the 100-degree heat. The sun felt better after the first cooling off, especially as we knew we could repeat the pleasure again and again throughout the afternoon.
She seemed a Midwestern farm girl out of central casting. Her hair was a natural-looking strawberry blonde, her face lovely, her smile cheerful and inviting, her body toned and athletic. I don’t know how the conversation started, but the three of us hung out together at the lake for the rest of the afternoon. Pleasant and easygoing, she seemed genuinely interested in our stories. And we asked for hers; turns out she was a college student living in an apartment in Iowa City. Without any flirtatious build-up, she asked if we’d like to stay the night and she’d show us the town. As beautiful as she was, the invitation seemed innocent, generous, not provocative. Then again, she may have had a girlfriend or two to share in a night of partying. We’ll never know.
Rich looked at me; I was in charge of the car, and I was in a hurry. Maybe I should have slowed down.
Eat a Peach—for the First Time
It was the summer before my freshman year of high school. I was 13, and I was about to go to my first real concert. Unlike many people’s first concerts, the band didn’t define the music of that time period, or my generation. They weren’t even well-known to my generation, but instead were my dad’s favorite: the Allman Brothers Band. While I’d listened to them with my dad, I wasn’t overly excited when he announced he’d bought a four-pack of tickets for our family. I was actually a little surprised that enough of them were still alive and playing. My mom even asked me, “What do they sing again?” But when that day in August came, we went along with it to our first concert as a family since Sesame Street Live.
The venue was Darien Lake Performing Arts Center. We set up our chairs and blankets on the cool grass of the lawn. It must have been hot, because while I was buying a hot dog, my father reportedly received an offer of weed for my bottle of water from a very desperate man, which he declined.
The crowd was one of the most interesting mixes of people I’ve ever seen. I spotted a few ironed-khaki couples in their 50s or 60s with what appeared to be their grandchildren, and then the next second, some barely clothed, dreadlocked free spirits who appeared to be running around acting like fish.
It was awkward. I’d seen live concerts on TV, and to me they looked like an endless crowd of superfans mashed together, dancing and screaming and singing every word. I didn’t know every word to these songs—actually, most of the time there weren’t any words, just jamming, or a 25-minute drum solo. I liked to dance, but wasn’t about to dance by myself next to my family.
I people watched. I saw one group of young people passing around what I assumed was weed. I wasn’t quite familiar with the terms. My parents saw them too and maturely addressed the elephant in the crowd.
“Notice those kids smoking a joint,” my mom said to us with a very stern motherly look on her face. She wasn’t all that into the music, but was a good sport, even when an inebriated man attempted a cartwheel over our blanket.
While I might have stood awkwardly for the majority of the show, wondering if every concert I went to would be like that, between the absurdly long drum solo (that I think even bored my dad), the hippie watching and the songs I didn’t know, I got to sing out a few words to some of my favorites, “Midnight Rider,” “Soulshine,” “Melissa,” and of course “Ramblin’ Man.” I saw people doing drugs for the first time in my life, and learned to sit back under the stars and enjoy good music. Since then, I’ve seen the Allman Brothers Band four more times with my dad, Dave Matthews eight times, Furthur twice, and many, many more, saving up paychecks to cash in for summer fun. Looking back at that first outdoor summer concert, I didn’t know I’d just had a taste of something that would become a huge part of every summer for years.
Two Floors and One Brawl Up
Resorts and elevators are a lethal combination for adolescents on summer vacation—I know from experience. My family would take a trip every summer to Silver Bay on Lake George, and I remember the long car ride full of winding roads and scenic mountains that hug the lake like a newborn baby clinging to its mother. In those days Lake George felt like the center of the universe; there was no place else on earth I’d rather be.
The inn, which stands on a hill overlooking a baseball field adjacent to the crisp, blue water, reminded me of The Shining. The hallways were long and narrow, providing plenty of space to misbehave and quickly escape if danger approached. But more important than the long corridors was the elevator. It was the perfect space for our own personal fight club, because unlike the hallways, there was no escape.
I can remember mine and my friends’ lonely procession, slowly walking past the front desk in the lobby, trying our best to act casual. Some of us briefly chatted with passersby standing aloof in the hall. Although I looked calm, a mix of excitement and fear drove me as I imagined the sort of pain awaiting me just moments ahead. I remembered the bruises from previous years and could feel my palms beginning to sweat. Still, if you had been around to observe us, you wouldn’t have thought more of our group than a bunch of sluggish teenagers who had stayed up far too late the night before and were on their way upstairs to nap.
Not a second after the doors shut—bang! I had been pinned into the corner by my friend Zach. He started punching my ribs and leaning his weight into my body, creating a trap from which I couldn’t escape. In the opposite corner stood Sal and Sean, locked in what seemed like a battle to the death. However, it wasn’t long before all broke out into absolute chaos and everybody started fighting everybody. This went on for what seemed like an eternity until the elevator bell rang signaling that we had reached the third floor.
We struggled desperately to collect ourselves and catch our breaths as the doors opened. The game was over, and just outside awaited an elderly woman too old for the stairs. A look of bemusement ran across her face as she tried to piece together the origin of commotion that seemed so assuredly to be coming from the elevator just seconds before.
“How ya doin’?” Sean asked politely as we all struggled to contain our laughter. “Good,” she replied before entering and shaking her head. Afterward, we rarely spoke about the elevator game, and as far as anyone else was concerned, nothing happened at all. When I file through my catalogue of summertime memories, the elevator game is among my favorites. It represented a time when life seemed so carefree, our worries being little more than the next adventure.