My mother, my two crazy aunts, and I are going to pick up Route 66 in Amarillo,TX and drive west to Los Angeles next summer. Just two weeks on the road visiting “hysterical” markers, seeing the Grand Canyon, and sampling pie from Dallas to the West Coast and back again.
This trip was born out of grief. My father passed away in May 2009, and things have been askew ever since.
Road trips and grief are rather clichéd, I know. Besides, I’m not sure I believe the whole metaphor of grief being a journey or coming in stages. It doesn’t work that way. Grief is explosive, numbing, strangely productive, and vibrant. It’s also intensely personal in ways I can’t quite describe. I know my experience of grief as a Technicolor swirl is unusual. For me grief has been more akin to a Gene Kelley film, perhaps because my father loved old movies so much. It’s been brash, ironic, oddly gracefully. There are moments of peace, contentment, happiness, even, although these usually come when I’m alone out in the world. I guess the happiness and laughing shouldn’t surprise me. We spent the whole funeral experience laughing and crying. Dad loved a good laugh. I think the oddest thing I’ve found is that it is possible to be both sad and happy at the same time. Grief allows the two emotions to sit side by side.
Hence the trip, which emerged organically, not as a way through grief, but as a way of celebrating the relationship between my mother and her sisters, a relationship strengthened by grief. Our trip is both unavoidably about grief and not about grief at the same time. Much of the first legs of our journey will actually retrace the trips my mom and my aunts took as children; I’ll be seeing spaces through their 1960s tinged view. And hopefully trying to determine the best diner pie between Texas and the West Coast. The pie tasting is reason enough for me to take this trip.
I love to travel, and I love road trips even more. I like the early morning hours, sort of, with the radio turned down low playing NPR as long as we can find the station. When I was a kid, my family drove down to Hunt, TX every summer. My father had to leave at 4 am or as close to it as he could get. He wanted to be in Fredericksburg early enough to go to the Nimitz museum, again, browse through the Dulcimer shop, and eat lots of German sausage for lunch. We listened to NPR and Paul Simon as miles of telephone poles, emerging corn fields, and billboards flew by the windows. My brother and I fought over seat space, and I tried to read–always an unsuccessful, nauseating endeavor. These trips to Mo Ranch or camping (almost always a rained out disaster) became part of the fabric of our family lore. Even now, as I contemplate my four hour drive to Dallas this afternoon, I’m looking forward to the music and the feeling of being totally free that flying down the highway brings. While I love traveling to distant places that are unreachable by car, flying doesn’t produce this rhythmic feeling. The engine is too loud, and you’re too aware of everyone around you and the work sitting in your bag. A road trip is more centering, more organic somehow. It’s about the journey as much as it is about where you are going, as utterly clichéd as that is.
As part of the trip, I decided months ago to blog about it. I then I decided blogging about travel, grief, music, my mom, my aunts, historical sites, and pie for only two weeks wasn’t enough. As a writer, the expectation is that I will journal away about grief. I don’t want to. I refuse to. The grief is in everything I write at the moment; I don’t need to write about it. But, I do see the need for a project outside of my work on Victorian periodicals. My favorite Victorian writer, Elizabeth Gaskell, began her first novel as a way of working through the death of her son. Her grief is there, but Mary Barton isn’t about Gaskell’s son. It’s about Manchester, industrialization, fallen women, murder, working class issues, and how to recognize true love. Perhaps she would have written a different story if not for the death of William, one less punctuated by the desperation grief can prompt. I don’t know. What I do know is that her advice to a writer starting out still resonates with me:
It is always an unhealthy sign when we are too conscious of any of the physical processes that go on within us; & I believe in like manner that we ought not to be too cognizant of our mental proceedings, only taking note of the results. But certainly–whether introspection be morbid or not,–it is not a safe training for a novelist….Just read a few pages of De Foe &c–and you’ll see the healthy way he sets objects not feelings before you. I am sure the right way is this. You are an Electric telegraph, something or other–
I like the idea of setting objects not feelings before people. Nor do I think Gaskell is suggesting writers should forget feelings; rather, a novel needs to be about things and people not just feelings. Introspection itself isn’t enough. And it isn’t healthy. Gaskell after all did write the first biography on Charlotte Bronte, and she found Haworth stifling. I especially like her last bit of flip advice: “You are an Electric telegraph, something or other–” I find the metaphor of writing as transmission, as reaching out through the ether, as being about objects not feelings, infinitely compelling.
So this is a blog about objects. About books, travel, music, places, theory, ideas, and pie.