Sometimes a trip starts out innocently. You may not even know you’ve departed.
(1963) On summer vacation, a boy and his family travel to the college town on the northern coast. He’s an adolescent, incarcerated for the past year by pimples and prairie, his father having moved them from suburbia to prison – a prison without walls, more accurately with the invisible walls of an ethnic enclave, and him with his driver’s license still several years away. All of this has made the vast flat plain fairly terrifying. The day after they arrive in New England, his uncle takes him to his professorial office—musty, strewn with radical pamphlets on civil rights and Vietnam; then they walk the quad. Lots of walls here, of big oaks and ivy, and he could stand on their tops and all he’d see is more of the same, happily, as if freedom could be both enclosed and unlimited. The sprawling, 200-year-old farmhouse his uncle owns couldn’t be more different from the white bandbox supplied by the frugal Dutch-American school board employing his father. The 40 acres out back feature deep woods, not sod, and canoes banked on a river, which goes down to the ocean, which he’s never seen until now. Their picnic there is like nothing he’s ever tasted: the salty air, the fresh baguette, the French cheese; the pungent walk at naked low tide to the island; the meringues of surf forever arriving, the slightly bitter taste of local soda. Love might be possible, it seems. Sure beats singing “Michelle, ma belle” standing at the sink in a poky little house on the prairie, washing dishes and staring out at the minister’s house next door. Something takes up residence from that trip, like a new pregnancy in the family: the next year his parents buy a cabin on a river in the woods, perhaps in compensation, a refuge for the summers of his schooling. There trout fishing saves him for romance, possibly love. He is smitten by nature, if not yet girls.
Sometimes change can take a few years.
(1998) Four women drive up for a day of shopping at the outlet stores. They do it up right, arriving in time for lunch at the fancy inn on the outskirts of town. Fortified by wine and confessions about their marriages, they vow to make this an annual affair, then walk the main street of storefronts, giggling and swaggering in clothes a little too short and scant, taking up the whole sidewalk like a scrum of teenagers. One exceeds her self-imposed limit of $250 all too quickly, feels unsatisfied by Coach and J. Crew, yearns for something more, perhaps the anti-commercial fields and forests she saw through the windows of the inn, and persuades her friends at the end of the afternoon to take the short detour to the state park on the ocean. She dabbles her toes in the surf, has to be dragged away. In twenty years she and her husband will retire to a condo nearby.
(1975) A family from the city rents a beach house, not actually on the beach, which is too expensive for a working man’s salary, but on a row two streets in. The drive up I-95 (possibly the worst highway in the world) is long, and the kids in the back of the Econoline keep up a chorus of “When are we going to get there?” which really means they want to believe in two weeks of body surfing and ice cream and the pack of friends from last year but can’t quite yet, still twitching in urban anxiety. The beach house is wooden and uninsulated from boom boxes and the occasional cold wind, and perversely traps August heat like an oven, but soon enough the walks on the beach, the muscle cars trolling the streets, fresh sea breezes, trashy novels on blankets, the fried dinners at the clam shack, and the intrigues of boys and girls set free of rules soothe everyone into a new, however temporary peace, and they sleep until 10:00 every day. The youngest boy, the one who is usually left out of the games of cowboys and Indians and spin the bottle, will return with his husband to Vacationland and open a restaurant in the upscale town just a couple of miles away.
(1994) A five-year-old girl jumps into the water from the end of the dock. The pond is shallow and the bottom a little mucky, there are weeds here and there, the ducks carry swimmer’s itch and she has to be removed every half hour and toweled down to prevent it, but she doesn’t mind in the least. She loves her vacations with her parents and her big sister, the incessant swimming, the treats of Kool-Aid and Doritos at cocktail hour, the evenings of reading books in the glow of the sun setting across the water, then all four of them swinging in the big hammock on the porch, to see out the gloaming. But then her parents give in to their longings. They displace the funky cottage on the pond with a real house on the coast, and the ocean is full of rockweed and potential pinching creatures, and it’s hard to climb down the bank to the water, and it’s too cold to swim anyway, and the girl and her sister start to retreat to movies from the video store and plead to go to a lake beach, and soon enough she doesn’t want to come up north at all. She’d rather be with her friends. Until college starts, when the love of Dickinson and Hawthorne, and a boyfriend from way up north, and the desire for trees and twilit tides, and the salubrity of writing poetry in a hammock on the edge of a cove infect her thinking. How many years of graduate school and academic peregrinations will it take to bring her back to a state of grace?
Sometimes it takes almost no time at all.
(1984) In a kind of unwritten, unconscious pre-nup, a couple goes on a July vacation to a northern island. She’s a city girl, never been one for lovely drives in the country, more likely to be bombing around with cigarettes and Peppermint Patties, went camping only once, as a Girl Scout. He’s a veteran of a few country inns, and a week-long bike trip in the mountains, and has a heavy romantic burden of a north country acutely dreamed of. It turns out to be a perfect week of hiking, eating, reading, making love. They are so depressed upon leaving that they gorge on pecan sandies and chips with bean dip on the drive home on I-95, and wallow gaseous in the Sunday paper on the bed at night, and accept Monday morning only by promising themselves to return as soon as possible. Two years later, they have moved to a house in the suburbs, married, and bought a camp on a pond where on their first weekend in possession, a frigid Columbus Day, they conceive a child in a drafty, spidery, unfinished second floor bedroom. Who’s to say how big a part that first northern week—food and wine and Remy-Martin, views from a coastal mountaintop, that sexy fireplace in a nineteenth-century inn, all these and not ambition, money, success—plays in their happiness?
(2000) In June, a physician has his secretary call outfitters in hopes of attaching himself as soon as possible to a wilderness expedition. His divorce is just final, and the city is getting hot. He’s lucky: he snags a canoe trip on 100 miles of lakes and rivers. Moose and bobcats and deer and loons and sparkling rainbow trout arrive as advertised. It rains only once, on their lay-over day; air and water vie in freshness; the company is bearable, even to an orthopedic surgeon; and by the end of the week, he is transformed. He moves up north and joins a sports medicine group. He tolerates the female partner in the practice. He skis in the winter, fishes in the spring and summer, hunts deer in the fall, becomes acquainted with his teenage children for the first time, increases friendships from zero to three. He’s been known to remark that “life is tolerably good.”
Occasionally, redemption beats at your door but never gains entrance.
(2007) A sales executive has been coming north for 20 years, ever since marrying and gaining his in-laws’ cottage on the lake in the bargain. Over the years he’s done increasingly well, and this year buys a power boat, the Sunsation Dominator, that he nicknames “No Patience.” He drives it up and down the 11-mile lake at 80 miles per hour, towing water skiers, chasing loons. One August night, during the Perseid meteor showers, he hits another boat, slicing it in half and killing the two passengers. He and his 19-year-old passenger, later termed “family friend,” are ejected safely; the Dominator ends up on shore, 100 feet into the woods. In the Emergency Room, he tries to bribe a nurse to substitute her blood for his own. At his trial, evidence against him includes 23 tickets for speeding in his car and 12 license suspensions, a blood alcohol level of 0.11 three hours after the accident, eyewitnesses who said his first response after the accident was to ask about his boat, the likelihood that he hid assets from a possible civil suit, and no remorse at all, until he cries at his conviction. When he gets out of prison he’ll head far south, where they understand cigarette boats, to re-begin his wretched life.
However long restlessness takes to settle, whatever garb contentment wears, it may last a lifetime, and beyond.
(2012) An executive retires, becomes a kind of landed immigrant, a tourist in residence. He’ll never be a native, he mostly knows that, even though tramping through marsh and woods has gained him Lyme disease and an obsession with land preservation that should have been natal. His friends and family smile at, and tolerate, his split life between city and country. They know it’s a bit of a disease, probably harmless, this fervent joy at being released. What kind of feverless person actually likes splitting wood?
(1985) A young couple originally from the Midwest rents a house on an island a ferry ride away. They’ve been to graduate school in the east, they’re about to take up academic positions closer to home. They dive into their month of island life with all the fervor of parting: the clam bakes, the index-finger salute to oncoming cars, the adventures on shore with their one-year-old, the house-share with friends during their last week. They know the north, from family trips, and from the girls’ camp they directed in the White Mountain foothills. They want one last taste, as if they are sure it’s indeed the last. Their friends know it too, and cry when they part. Twenty-seven years later, in middle age, the man dies of brain cancer. They had revolved all the way back home, to chairmanships and professorships, and for them a Great Lake and national forests became as good as anything east, and his widow and his sons, coming to their eastern friends to avoid a first lonely Christmas, vow to finish the cabin they started to build, however unfair life seems to be, and sad. If there’s any genetic justice, and sometimes there is for the best of tourists, her husband will live on in his family’s labor, in the campfires his sons will build, and in the piercing call of the north.
Some of these tourists, these pilgrims, I know well. Others are avatars. I watch all of us drive north and think, Just point yourself to trees and waters. New England, Canada, northern Michigan, Central Park, it doesn’t matter. (Whatever you do, don’t go south on I-95. That way lies Disney World.) When you arrive, abandon the car immediately. Crank open your mind, stare at air. A day lost up here may multiply and lead to a week, a month, a lifetime of fevers and glows. Celebrate what’s not you, light upon something you didn’t expect. And if you don’t find it, come back next year. Sooner or later you’ll stop touring and find yourself home.
Interview with Jim Krosschell
One of the most interesting aspects of this piece, for me, was the way it’s structured. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to decide on this form?
I was thinking about how people change their lives, or more aptly, how their lives get changed in spite of themselves or even without their knowing. A series of examples (but see #3 below) in groups seemed a good way to get at a variety of these deep, unbidden impulses.
This piece seems to me not so much a memoir of the people who are its apparent subjects, but the place itself. Was that your intent?
Most definitely. The longer I live, the more I believe that a sense of place is a fundamental indicator of happiness and fulfillment. And it can be transformative. These little arcing vignettes were meant to bring out the unusual in fairly stock characters. That was also the fun of writing about them; we’re just stereotypes unless place and family distinguish us.
In the last paragraph, you say, “Some of these tourists I know well. Others are avatars.” Would you care to enlarge on that statement?
I’m playing a little bit with the line between reality and fiction, and where place is concerned, I’m saying it doesn’t really matter. Real or made-up, we’re all shadows on the water. The other point is that truth arises in any case, even from the unreality of touring, so long as the journey is bracketed by a wood, a park, a shore, even a kindly neighborhood with street lights.
Is your own life in this piece? I thought I sensed your presence in “…abandon your car immediately. Crank open your mind, stare at air.” Can you say more about what that means for you?
Yeah, I’m in there, and family members, and friends, and some people totally imagined. For myself I absolutely need open windows and foxes on the shore, and I’d like to hope – actually, I’d like to require it but of course shouldn’t – that other people must also. It’s just that they don’t know it yet.
Would you care to identify this place more concretely? Is it the whole of Northeastern America? Is it someplace more specific?
A little non-specificity was deliberate. The essay clearly points north, but that could mean almost anywhere as long as the qualities of the place cleanse and purify. If you must know, I’m specifically in love with the forests and hills and streams and shores and animals and people of the state of Maine.
I like the way you show all kinds of lives in this piece and the way their “tourism” connects to what we sometimes call “real life,” if only in contrast. Can you talk a little bit about how your own connection to this place influenced your choice of characters?
It was more about how I myself was dislocated from place for a long time. I at least had a dream of something more permanent, but it’s too easy to fall prey to ambition and restlessness. For us “tourists in residence,” better to find your place later than not at all. And thanks for the opportunity to attribute that phrase to Franklin Burroughs.
What would a sequel to this piece look like? A different place? Or different characters?
Maybe what happens to native Mainers when they leave the state. And many do, for lack of traditional economic opportunity. But I wouldn’t dare such a sequel. I’d have to manufacture everything, and risk all kinds of flatlander errors in the process.Share this post with your friends.