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Forty years ago, when I was heartbroke, uprooted, unemployed and deep in depression, I would regularly ride the ferry across Puget Sound from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. It was a cheap ride for a pedestrian and I could go both ways for one fare. There was breakfast to be had onboard and the early morning light, often through mizzle and mist, was the perfect visualization of my inner state. 

Sometimes I would get off on the island and hike through woods just north of Winslow, the town with the ferry slip. I saw goldeneyes and grebes, cormorants and wigeons, mergansers and coots. The Northwest is mostly made up of Douglas fir and western redcedar, but Bainbridge Island had a great stand of maples. Wildflowers bordered the roads. 

I was alone on the crowded ferry, with the constant churn of the motor under the deck, staring out the rain-spattered window at the expanse of water. There is something about water, and about moving across its surface that I found soothing in my loneliness. A band of sunlight  would blast the waves and quickly disappear again. 

Yonkers ferry

I have ridden many ferries over the years. The first I remember was the Yonkers ferry from Alpine, N.J., across the Hudson just north of Manhattan. I went with my uncle to visit his in-laws. I remember very little of the trip — the ferry was discontinued in 1956, so I had to have been less than 8 years old; more likely I was about 5 or 6 — but I do remember the river, the waves, the expanse from one shore to the other and the low skyline of our destination. I have absolutely no recollection of the in-laws. 

It is the flatness of the water, disturbed by the wind into a disruption of skitter that sticks in my mind each time I take the boat. It is both calm and nervous at the same time. The Hindu idea of māyā is immediate: an ideal world brought to motion by the wind on its reflection. The early lines of Genesis also comes to me: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Breath of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” In some Native American mythologies, the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, is manifest as wind, which animates the prairie grasses very like sea waves. 

Perhaps in times of distress, the ferry ride puts me on that sea and I can breath the same moving air that animates the waters. It can calm or at least give me the sense of being part of something bigger than myself. All of which sounds mighty grandiose when you are considering a boat made of iron and grease that rattles across the Sound so that commuters can get to their jobs. 

At any rate, ferries give me a kind of mythic jolt. Which is why when I was coming home from a visit to my brother at the beach, where he lives at the head of the Outer Banks, I opted to take the Knotts Island ferry across Currituck Sound. The Sound separates the barrier islands from the low-lying and swampy mainland. It is about a five mile trip across the water from slip to slip. It takes about three-quarters of an hour on the water. 

Unlike the huge Puget Sound ferries, the boat across Currituck Sound is puny: It has room for only about a dozen cars. Its main purpose seems to be to carry a schoolbus from Knotts Island to schools on terra firma. 

Knotts Island, for the sake of honesty, isn’t really an island, but a peninsula that hangs down from Virginia into North Carolina, through the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is half water, and full of waterfowl, reeds and water lilies. The island is mostly in North Carolina, but its top bit is still in Virginia. 

In years past, when I taught in Virginia Beach, I would take my photography students down to Mackay Island. There was everything to photograph. I went there on my own many times, sometimes just to soak in the brackish air and watch the stretch of water. There is a yearly “Peach Festival” on Knotts Island, and my wife and I and several of our friends went to the orchards to pick bushels of fruit. We spent days processing the peaches into jams and chutneys. 

So, I have history on the island. And now that my wife is gone, the trip back across the island to take the ferry brings up a whole life, its aftermath, its redolence, its meaning. 

Unlike the Seattle ferry trips, this one is sunny. The waters are calm, shivered by only a small breeze, although that is enough to provide the flat waters with texture. The channel markers are home for bird nests. There is an osprey on one, and cormorants spread their wings to dry on others. The ferry chugs past them, some to the right, some to the left. 

The water is wide enough that the far shores are a horizon line, and toward the south, and the spread of water around the curve of the earth, there is no far shore to be seen. The flatness of the day erases the line between water and sky, between life and death, between now and then. You can still make it out, but barely. Waters are deep, and so is the sky. In revery, like Ishmael hypnotized by the sea, I fall into fascination with the obscurity of horizon, of border, of things that have names, but whose names are merely tags to hide the essential sameness, the unity. 

There is a startling beauty to this state, I gaze at the line, horizontal, that seems to exist, then doesn’t, then exists only because I know it’s there. Am I inventing it? Māyā. 

The sky circles the top half of heaven, the water, the bottom. It is a circuit. The sun arcs from east to west then continues west to east underneath our feet, underneath the boat. I am laughing at myself for my seriousness. But I am put in mind of circles and spend the rest of the trip finding circles everywhere on the boat. Can a circle be the primary form of the cosmos? Can it be the crown of a hat? The ridiculous and the mythic are comically the same, same as the sky and bay, water and air. 

Well, I am an idiot. I am alive, still, and what does any of this mean other than I can breathe, inhale and exhale and feel the swelling of my lungs and the beat of my heart: “Close on its wave soothes the wave behind.”

All is lost; nothing is lost. The breath of the gods moves upon the waters. They shiver.

Where is home? I don’t mean where is your house, where do you sleep most nights, what is your address. But rather, where do you belong? 

For many of us, home is illusive. For most of my adult life, I have not lived in the same house for more than seven years at a time. I have lived in four corners of the nation, splitting my time from the Northeast, where I grew up; to the Southeast, where I went to school, got married and divorced; to the Northwest, where I went to recuperate; back to the South, where I got married again; to the Southwest, where I worked for 25 years; and now, back to the Southeast in retirement. But I cannot say, despite repeatedly returning, that I feel the South is home. 

It is where I feel comfortable, where I recognize the landscape on my skin, where I have found family. But there remains something alien about it. Something I can never be fully a part of. 

Certainly, part of this is political: The red state conditions are sometimes depressing. There is nativism, clannishness, religion, suspicion of outsiders, lingering racial division. There is a satisfaction of being Southern that can seem provincial. 

Yet, there is also a friendliness and helpfulness that I never found in any other corner of the U.S. When my wife, before we were married, was snowed in in the mountains of Ashe County, N.C., a neighbor she barely knew, walked a mile and a half through the knee-high accumulation to knock on her door and check on her, to make sure she had enough firewood to last out the imposed isolation, and to bring her a basket of food. Not in New Jersey. Not in Seattle. Not in Phoenix — although snow in Phoenix would be pretty much out of the question anyway. 

North Cascades

When I moved to Seattle, in 1978, before all the Starbucks and California immigration, I was agog over the Olympic Mountains I could see over Puget Sound to the West, and the towering Cascades to the east. When I went out hiking, it was through rain forests of Douglas fir and western red cedar. The ground was spongy underfoot and emerald green moss grew on decaying logs and stumps. Floating on the waters of the sound were goldeneye and cormorant. The air was soft with cool humidity. 

I certainly had planned to make Seattle my home, and I mean that —  not just a place to sleep at night, but I never felt like more than a traveler spending time in an exotic locale to soak up the ambience along with the rain.

And, compared with the East coast I grew up in, the nature was almost monotonous. When I lived in North Carolina, on the land around my house in Greensboro, I counted a hundred different species of tree and plant. I came to love them all. But there on Phinney Ridge in Seattle, there were two species of tree. Two. They were everywhere and they were prodigious and impressive. But two. I longed to return to the East. And so I did. 

Meat Camp, NC

But even then, I moved from Summerfield north of Greensboro, to Obids in the mountains, to Meat Camp just north of Boone — all in the space of two years. And then, to Virginia Beach, Va., to take up a job teaching. After six years there, when my wife was offered a teaching position in Arizona, we packed everything up into a Ryder truck and drove across the continent, without even having a house lined up where to unload the truck. We thought it would be fun to stay in the desert for a couple of years. It turned into a quarter of a century. 

I came to love the desert, but truth be told, I did not live in the desert, I lived in Phoenix, which is Cleveland in the desert, a characterless city of endless suburbs and strip malls in the valley of the Salt River — a river with no water in it. 

(The famous joke about Arizonans is they go to visit New York City and when they came back they were asked about it. “It was wonderful, huge skyscrapers, millions of people, and traffic like you wouldn’t believe.” “What about the Empire State Building?” “Yep, we went up to the top and you could see for miles around from river to river.” “The Hudson?” “Yep.” “What was the Hudson River like?” “Couldn’t tell, it was covered in water.”)

I loved my job, writing for the newspaper, and I loved my colleagues: I came to respect and value the really hard and dedicated work that journalists do. Over those 25 years, we moved four times. None of the houses was home. They were our quarters, but there were no roots. 

North Carolina called back after retirement, and I now live in Asheville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a blue city in a red state. And I have gotten old here, but it is not home. It is a residence. 

I don’t know if it is my New Jersey birth that has given me this sense of rootlessness. I spent the first 17 years of my life there, but I couldn’t wait to escape. Going off to college was liberation. New Jersey was banal, suburban, bourgeoise, dull, conventional, oppressive. I never felt I belonged. 

River Street, Madison, NC, in Rockingham County

I know from my wife and her family, that there is usually a deep sense of belonging that Southerners feel. A genuine love of the patch of ground where they grew up, a love like you feel for a parent. It is a love of where you were born that may not extend beyond the town or county and maybe the state. But for my wife, Rockingham County was where her father and grandfather were buried. That fact alone meant there was an unseverable umbilical connection to that omphalos, that tiny patch of piedmont, those trees, those creeks and rivers, those very weeds that crept over the edges of the crumbling pavement on the back roads. It is the feel of the red clay between your fingers, the blackbirds roosting by the hundreds in the oak tree. Home. 

I don’t know how widespread is this feeling I have, how many people share it, whether it is a symptom of the late 20th century, or whether it is confined to just me and my personal makeup. I believe I am not alone. 

I suspect many from my generation, growing up with the very real threat of nuclear annihilation and living through an adolescence and young adulthood of assassination, riots and revolutions, felt chucked out of Eden quite unceremoniously. 

If you come from Armenia or Poland or Vietnam or Tibet, you have a clear sense of identity, and an unbreakable bond with the land that gave you suckle. Certainly, most Southerners I have come to know have that feeling about their soil of origin. But there are many others, certainly from my generation, who share my sense of rootlessness, the sense that I can never be so comfortable in a place that I would long to be buried there. 

Perhaps it is because I have moved so often that I cannot share that sense of home. I have a residence on the earth, but not a home. 

I express all of this not so you should feel sorry for me. In fact, this homelessness has its advantages. I have had, in recompense, an ease and comfort anywhere in the world I find myself. I have been to three continents, and 14 countries, three oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, and never have I felt anything but at ease wherever I have gone. Being in a country where English is not spoken is as comfortable as being in a place where people eat mopane worms off the grill. 

Travel has felt such a part of my self-identity, that while others might feel distressed having to move to another state or country, torn roots and all from the soil they call home, I, in contrast, feel most myself when seeing some new terrain, hearing new accents or languages, eating new food, driving on different pavements and finding out about the sun-orbiting globe that, more than any single spot, feels like home to me. 

TOWAN

Nearly 40 years ago, I moved to Seattle and eventually got a job at the zoo. Not a glamorous job, but rather manager of the food services. That is rather a hyperbolic name for what it actually was: A set of three iron trailers spread around the zoo from which we sold popcorn, hot dogs, soda and candy bars.

It was a good vantage point to watch human behavior and even better to observe the functioning of a zoo. I’ve written about this before, and you can visit Part 1 of this zoo story at: https://richardnilsen.com/2013/12/13/memoir-life-at-the-zoo-2/

When I started, I wasn’t the only newby. There was a new director, David Hancocks, and as with every new administration, the old hands resented the changes being proposed. Later, Hancocks proved a farsighted and innovative head of this zoo, and later the Sonoran-Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. He won over the old hands in Seattle, but when he first arrived, there was suspicion and even hostility.

You have to remember that until the mid-1970s, zookeepers were low-level city employees. The bear-keeper had been a city garbage collector before transferring to the zoo. Few had a college degree, and Hancocks proposed to up the level of professionalism at the zoo.

Nevertheless, at the first meeting with the zoo staff, Hancocks impressed at least some of the keepers as a bureaucrat and they felt he had condescended to them.

“You know what he said at the meeting?” complained one of the monkey keepers. “You have to wash your hands after going to the bathroom. Geezuz, does he even know what we do all day? We shovel animal shit. I wash my hands before going to the bathroom.”

Everyone at the zoo was known not by their proper names, but by their descriptions: There was Monkey Man, Gorilla Lady, Large Pepsi No Ice — he was known by his perpetual order at the food stand. Gorilla Lady had a second career as a belly dancer in a local Greek restaurant. The old bear keeper, on the verge of retirement was universally known as “Grampa.”

There were Bandana Man with the giraffes, Macho Man with the apes, the Bike Woman who was in charge of the gates. I was single at the time and lonely in a new city and Bike Lady was attractive. I’ll get to her in a bit.

But I want to mention Tree. She worked the admission gate, was about six-foot-four tall and studying poison-arrow toads.

Periodically, the alligators had to be emptied of the pennies they had swallowed. Signs said not to throw coins into the gator pool, but people are jerks. If the beasts had not been disgorged of their pennies, the copper  and zinc would have poisoned them.

Needless to say, getting an alligator to cooperate was not an easy thing. They had to be sedated and a plastic hoop or funnel stuck between their jaws to hold them open. One of the first public-relations events to happen after I got to the zoo was a gator purging, and the press was invited, with TV cameras covering the event, and newspaper photographers gathered around. The gator was laid up on a table with the hoop in its mouth. A zookeeper stuck his arm down the gullet of the beast to scoop out the coins. His arm was not long enough to reach the stomach and he had to give up. A second keeper tried; his arm was not long enough either.

Finally Tree was called. She reached her long arm down, glommed onto a pile of coins and coagulated gator-gut goo and pulled it out. Everyone seemed content. Pictures had been gotten. Stories were writing themselves. But the moment Stick pulled herself out from the digestive tract of the reptile, the beast woke, snapped its mouth shut, cracked the plastic hoop into bits and writhed on the table. Talk about nick of time.

Then, there was Ape Man Jack. He was in charge of the lion-tailed macaques. Jack was a true misanthropist. He never had more than a grunt for another of his own species. But he would talk all day long with his monkeys. He had down all their idioms and seemed to fit into the troop very well. He was a sort of alpha-male to the monkeys, taking over from the dominant Junior, whenever he was around. Ape Man scowled around the zoo, glowering at everyone. But then he would come home to the monkey island and a broad grin would show — or at least he would bare his teeth to the macaques and reassert his dominance.

Grampa was a relief keeper, usually working the bears and sealions. Often, I would donate the day’s leftover hotdogs and the two of us would take them to the backstage of the grizzly bear enclosure and toss them down the bears’ gullets. Those maws were as big as the Lincoln Tunnel. There was no swallowing involved; the wieners just rattled down the chute to the bears’ tummies.

The main snack stand, where I worked, was right next to the large-ape house. I got to know the orangutans really well. They got to know me, too, and each day, as the hours wore down, I would visit Towan, the male, Chinta, his sister and mother of his child, and Melati, a small breeding female on loan from the National Zoo. Towan became my fast friend. I have a signed photo of him.

When the zoo had cleared out, the sun was setting, the peacocks screaming their banshee-calls, the siamangs whooping and the teens working for me in the stand were emptying the snot-thick hot water from the hot-dog boiler and mopping the steel floors, I would wander over to Towan. When he saw me approach, Towan would amble over to the front of his enclosure to greet me. Often, in a gesture of Orang generosity, he would stop chewing on his food and offer the chyme out to me on his extended lower lip.

We had a close relationship. He was like a bartender to me. I would pour out my troubles to him, complain about my loneliness, and he would sit opposite me, on the other side of the glass, with his forearm resting on the sill, staring into my face, listening intently. He would take the burlap cloth that was his main plaything and use it to wipe down the sill, like barkeep swabbing down the bar. It was a nearly daily routine.

In later years, after I was long gone, Towan took up art. He became famous, if that’s the right word, for scribbling with magic markers and paintbrushes on large sheets of cardboard. In this, he followed the lead of the former artistic star of the Phoenix Zoo, Ruby the Elephant, who had died in 1998, and whose canvases had sold for up to  $25,000.

I was saddened to hear, in 2016, that Towan had died, at the age of 48. He was the oldest Orangutan who had been born in captivity.

I had my name, too. Since Grampa was already taken, I was Dad to my employees — most of them high school kids working a summer job. Eventually I had two assistant managers, splitting the week between them.

One was Colin, who pronounced his name the way Colin Powell pronounces his. He was the son of a black geneticist from D.C. and a white mother. He said he was one of his father’s genetic experiments. Colin was gay and his ambition was to become a fashion model or an architect. Colin was very bright and what he lacked in dependability, he made up for in brains.

I was living at the time in a house with the world’s most obscene man and two lesbian doctors. Their names were Cam and Clink. Hard to beat that name combo. But Colin’s boyfriend was named Dick. Need I say more?

My other assistant was a redhead called the Vixen. The Vixen had a temper that blew at least twice a day — as dependable as Old Faithful — usually when customers continued to ask her the same stupid questions. “You have root beer?” “No, we have Pepsi, Sprite and Grape.” “OK, I’ll have a root beer.”

The Vixen and I got to be good friends, but I thought it wise, as her boss, not to mess with her romantically. I stayed away from all my employees — I had about 25 during the summer. But later, I learned that The Vixen was gay, too, so the question had always been academic.

When the machinery was running smoothly at the zoo, I didn’t have to do anything but supervise my help. That gave me a great deal of free time at the zoo and I used it to get to know all the animals and keepers.

Then there was Carma, a volunteer, and her mother. Nancy was 38 and dressed and acted 15. She dated a different boy each night. She collected admissions. To the zoo, I mean.

Carma was indeed 15, but she was the adult in the family. I liked Carma and we went out for lunch occasionally. The world’ most obscene man liked her, too, and tried to date her. (“Imagine, if she were only a year younger, she could get into the movies cheap!”) But she fended off his drooling, or most of it.

At the zoo, we provided coffee every day for the keepers. We had several regulars and I got to be good buddies with them. They would take their breaks with a hand around a hot paper cup of rancid black java and we would talk. One of these was an alternate primates keeper named Macho Man. He would tell me  story after twisted story about his relationship with Bike Woman. Ah, Bike Woman.

He beat her and verbally abused her. She had aborted their accidental baby. He took that as an insult to his masculinity and beat on her some more. She had him arrested for assault and he asked me one day, “Do you think I should jump bail and get out of the state? That woman is crazy. She’s out to get me. If I stay here, she’s bound to get my ass thrown in the slammer. When I think of jail, it gives me the creeps, and all because I had the gumption to discipline my woman.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Not much. I just slapped her around a bit.”

Later that day, I talked with Bike Woman.

“That bastard saw me leaving the parking lot the other day and he rammed his pickup truck into my Rabbit. Then he jumped from the cab and pulled me from the car and started hitting me in the face, calling me a whore and a slut. When I escaped from him and drove home, he followed me, trying to bump into my rear as I drove. When I got to the house, he chased me and caught me before I could get to the door and he dragged me behind the bushes and started beating on me again.”

She had a black eye and welts on her neck and legs. I don’t know how they eventually resolved their battles. I hope Macho Man found out what prison is like.

Bike Lady was attractive, about my age, and clearly in need of a more sympathetic male friend.

I asked Carma about Bike Woman. “What is her real name? How old is she? And is she married?”

Carma had previously ruined one of my fantasies with the bulletin that Tree — remember Tree? — who had blond hair and a smile that melted me every time she aimed it, was married.

“Bike Woman’s real name is Joan and she’s not married. I think she’s a bit flaky, though.”

“How?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“What else do you know about her?”

“She’s got two kids. One of them is under a year old.”

Not what I wanted to hear, but I still was interested.

The following day, I was walking from my little tin office to stand No. 3 when I hear the ratchet sound of a coasting bicycle behind me. The bike slows down. It was Joan.

“I saw you driving this morning,” I said. “I was disappointed. I thought you rode that bike to work every day.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “It’s too far for that and besides, this old bike is too broken down. The brakes barely work.”

“So who needs brakes?” I said. “Just aim it at some children and you’ll slow down fast enough. Like a runaway truck into a sandpile.”

“I don’t think the kids are big enough to stop me.”

“So, just run into fat kids. There are plenty of them around. See, look there.” I pointed at a trio of grotesque monsters waddling along behind a grotesque mother. “The middle one is Grendel, but its’ the mama you have to watch out for.

“By the way,” I said, “Would you care to go out for dinner Thursday night. I was thinking of the India House. I haven’t been there in quite a while.”

“Well, let me think about it,” the bike stopped and Joan rested her feet on the ground. “I’d have to get a baby sitter … hmm … How about the next Thursday. That would be nice.” She gave me a broad smile.

I picked her up on the bus and we went to India. But the dinner didn’t go all that well. We were awkward together and the conversation went something like this:

“What I really want to do is go back to school,” she said.

“And what do you want to study?”

“Philosophy. I love philosophy.”

“That’s a pretty serious subject,” I said, “Are you an Aristotelian or a Platonist?”

“What are they?”

“You know, Aristotle, Plato.”

“Oh, but I mean, I’m into metaphysics.”

“Ah, but Plato is the great metaphysician …”

“No, I mean like the spirit world and astral-projection. My aunt was taken up in a flying saucer last year and communicated to them through ESP …”

My interest flagged.

But there was another woman I saw walking into the children’s zoo with Carma one day. A blond woman who looked at home in the pinstriped overalls that are a part of her uniform. She wore clear plastic glasses, totally unstylish, and my heart fluttered. No makeup, an assertive walk and interesting hands, such as you find on an artist or car mechanic.

Carma was my spy. When I needed to find out anything about anybody at the zoo, I needed only to ask Carma.

A few days later, Carma and I went up to Val’s Cafe for lunch, since we had been in the middle of a conversation when the lunch hour hit. Val’s was a greasy spoon two blocks north of the zoo on Phinney. It was run by the inevitable Greek and had to its credit two huge front windows with seats by them offering a sunny view of the gas station across the street.

Carma ordered a Denver omelet and I ordered a cheeseburger.

“Who was that blonde I saw you talking to the other day going into the children’s zoo?” I asked.

“That was Robin. She works in the CZ, with the springboks and at the Old Farm.”

“Well, how old is she?”

“I think she is about 28.”

“Is she … uh … marrrried?”

“No.”

“Does she listen to classical music?” You can see I had special requirements.

“Yeah. They all do down at the CZ.”

“Does she have any … children?”

“No kids, Richard. Don’t worry.”

My brain was abuzz. I had asked my worst and Robin had passed so far with flying colors.

“Oh, wait,” said Carma. “I just remembered that she said the other day that she will be 30 in a few weeks.”

“Thirty!  … That’s even better.”

I was becoming intoxicated. Robin wore dresses. I hadn’t seen that on a woman in quite some time and it was quite a turn-on. The only thing blonder than her hair was the sun. It turns out she had been a professional swing dancer and had lived on a houseboat. But this saga is a sad tale for some other time.

MapI have lived in the four corners of the U.S. I was born in the Northeast, lived in the South, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. And yet it is somehow the vast middle of the nation that most draws me to it.

In the Northeast, there are cities and woods, the Hudson River slicing up New York State, the “bare and bended arm” of Massachusetts jutting out into the cod-waters of the cold Atlantic. There are the great curved ridges of the Alleghenies forcing highways into what look like Golgi bodies on the gas-station maps. This is the land of salt-rust on the undercarriage of family cars; Of hillside cemeteries bordered by brick apartment buildings. Warehouse districts and tract housing; turnpikes and wharves; glacial till and the stone walls the till makes both possible and necessary — and the fallen ruins of those walls making forgotten property boundaries in second- and third-growth forests. Swimming holes from abandoned quarries and the ever-present nose dust of bus fumes.New York 3

I look back on these things and a wave of nostalgia warms me. Manhattan in the winter, with the Con-Ed grates pouring steam into the air; the periodic burst of warm air blowing up from the sidewalk as the subway train rumbles in the Stygian underground. People in vast tides walking with purpose up Fifth Avenue. The smell of coffee and pie at the Horn and Hardart.

But I left the Northeast at just about the same time as the Horn and Hardart began fading away. I moved to the South, where I became accustomed to slower talking, slower walking and human interactions that were not based on efficiency and gain. It was a land of pine trees grown for paper pulp, a coastline of sea oats and dunes on barrier islands, cities of fewer restaurants, and what there were served meatloaf and fried chicken. When I moved there, the single Chinese restaurant in Greensboro, N.C. pretty much restricted its menu to chop suey and egg foo yung with pot roast gravy.red maple

I have lived in the South now longer than I have lived anywhere else, although I have not been faithful, and have moved elsewhere, yet I seem always to return. There are pinxter flowers dripping with rain along the Appalachian Trail; there are bass-filled man-made lakes where small towns used to be; there are old lawyers in worn suits who meet every morning in the coffee shop to talk about the day’s events while sipping hot coffee cooled by pouring it out into its saucer slurp by slurp. When I moved to the South, the Klan was still common — in both senses of the word — and otherwise perfectly decent white folk made a sincere case for not changing things too precipitously. Every town had its black community, usually on the other side of the railroad tracks that had once provided the reason for the town’s existence and formed the terminator as clearly as if there were the lit and dark sides of the moon.

There were cotton warehouses and tobacco barns; men actually used spitoons — and if they didn’t have one, they might have an empty tin can into which to spit the brown excess saliva from their chaw. I know of one old reprobate who actually died when he passed out drunk and rolled off his couch, cutting his throat on the jagged edge of his spit can.

If, in the North, people had little time for each other, always in a rush to get somewhere and do something, in the South, everything revolved around relationships, around talking and with that talk establishing social rank and responsibility and anyone you knew, you also knew who their daddy was. People talked endlessly, about weather, business, politics, gossip, taxes, planting, hunting, dogs and church meetings. Even now, so many decades later, when I made my first visit to the local barber, one of the things he asked, making small talk, was what church did I go to. He wasn’t being nosy nor was he proselytizing, he was merely establishing a relationship.nc church jesus saves

A good deal has changed in the South since I first got there four decades ago. Accents that used to define hierarchy have begun flattening out: You can walk through whole blocks of Atlanta and hear the same language you might hear in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fine dining is now possible if your city or town is now large enough. Your mayor has at least a 50-50 chance of being African-American. When I got there, every white Southerner was a Democrat; now, they are all Republicans.barista

I moved to Seattle in the late ’70s, before half of California swept north, and before every streetcorner had baristas pouring white swirls into the foam of a latte. The railroad switchers shunted cars from dock to dock along Alaskan Way where homeless men in dirty coats and black watchcaps clutched brown paper bags while sleeping in industrial doorways. The ferry moved out of its pier in the morning light to make its way to Winslow on Bainbridge Island or to Bremerton. Although it rained most days during the three non-summer seasons, it was mostly a drizzle and few people even thought it counted as rain and no one I saw ever carried an umbrella.

From my house on Phinney Ridge, across from the Woodland Park Zoo, you could see the snow-capped Olympic Mountains to the west and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains to the east. To the south was the biggest permanent, unmoving white cloud you ever saw — on those days you could actually see it for the weather — and it was called Mt. Rainier, which was pronounced, unlike the sovereign of Monaco, as if it described the precipitation in the Puget Sound: rainier. Certainly rainier than Arizona, where I moved later.Seattle docks

There was Olympia beer and Rainier beer, and I could hardly believe it to see pedestrians stop at the “don’t walk” lights, even at 2 in the morning when there were no cars on the road. No New Yorker would do that; I had friends who otherwise had a cavalier attitude toward authority who would stop me from jaywalking, as if the Stasi were keeping files.

When I got out of the city, the forests were populated with douglas fir and western redcedar. Nothing else. Endless miles of the stuff, climbing up the sides of mountain ranges and with downed logs greened over with moss, and the path a spongy loam under your feet.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

I think that is what finally drove me to move back to the South: The sense of homesickness for a forest with scores, even hundreds of varieties of tree. The sameness of the Northwestern forest seemed unnatural to me, as if I shouldn’t be there.

There is much I loved in the Northwest. The moist air, the cool summer, the planked salmon and Ivar’s Acres of Clams. I knew a bunch of bicycle messengers, known as “Buckies,” and enjoyed the friendship they provided. There was a political progressiveness that was nearly universal; one could shop at the co-op grocery, the Public Market at Pike Place. Stop off at a bar and have a beer like a real person.Badger Creek Ariz

Finally, there is the American Southwest, as dry as Seattle was moist. One can see for 20 miles at a glance, taking in a meaningful quadrant of the earth circumference. The Southwest mean space. At least outside the city of Phoenix, where we settled — and we got out of the city as often as we could — the desert was intense, sharp and beautiful. Before a rain, the humidity made the creosote bushes smell like spicy cologne. The saguaro cactus stood vertical above the thorny undergrowth. Jack rabbits, roadrunners, the occasional javalina or rattlesnake darted in and out of view. The air was dry; sweat evaporated before you even knew it had escaped your pores. The sun bleached the landscape and radiated heat like an open oven door.

There were three different experiences of Arizona. The most common one was the urban experience of Phoenix.

My wife and I moved there because we had traveled summers across the country and thought it might be pleasant to live in the West for a few short years. I’m sure we were thinking of Flagstaff or Santa Fe. We wound up in Phoenix. We were thinking of having a little adobe house with a white picket fence and perhaps a butte in the background and a few pinto horses grazing in the pasture.  We wound up on Seventh Street, the busiest thoroughfare in the city, with traffic noise like endless surf crashing outside the house, and exhaust soot collecting in the cooling ducts of the house.

The street grid was punctuated by Circle Ks and 7-Elevens. The right-angle network of streets were broken in places by the eruption of mountains: Camelback, Squaw Peak, South Mountain. Enthusiasts climbed them to get a view of the city below, which spread out like a plaid tablecloth, divided into square patches. You could hardly get lost in this checkerboard of roads; you were either driving north-south or east-west, and the city’s mountains provided easy landmarks. You always knew where you were.camelback mountainSaguaro NP Ariz

Outside the city, the land was split between northern and southern Arizona. To the south, there were greasewood flats, saguaro cactus and stony mountains catching the sun late in the day to demarcate the rosy lit areas from the bluish shadows. Dry lake beds hovered in the distance, white salt pans, and the taller mountains caught snow in the winter.

To the north was the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff, the Navajo and Hopi reservations and the Grand Canyon. The air was noticeably thinner and cleaner — no Phoenix, no Tucson to fill the valleys up with yellow smog. Roads unrolled in long ribbon streams ahead of you heading to the horizon bounded by mesas and buttes. The landscape painted tawny, ruddy, sooty, whitish and blue by streaks, the sky larger than you have seen it anywhere, and most likely uniform blue, only darker toward the zenith.

At First Mesa on the Hopi reservation, you can hardly tell the blocks of stone making up the hillside from the stone houses built atop. You drive endless miles across grassy plains to the next habitation. Streams are marked by slight empty depressions that only fill up in the rare rains that come, mainly in late summer as thunderstorms and mid-winter as constant frontal drizzles. They can become roiling mud rivers almost instantly. Cars will be washed away in the flow. You can always tell the newbies in the desert; they think they can drive through the flooded washes. They fill the nightly news and we see the cars floating downstream, their owners on the roof waiting for rescue.

We spent one Christmas day with friends in Walpi. We brought apples and oranges, coffee and sugar. They gave us cookies they were baking. It snowed on First Mesa; the fire in the stove heated the low stone house.

What you are never quite prepared for is the sense that the canyons are not, like mountains, something that rise from the level, but rather are gigantic holes in the ground you don’t see until you are right on top of them. The stratigraphy is a geological story that is told, part by part, as you move from one part of the state to another. The same layers, in the same order hundred of miles apart, although they might be covered by yet more layers in one place, and rest on the surface elsewhere. You could, like a good geologist, anthologize the landscape to tell a continuous saga.

When we left Arizona, we immediately became homesick for the Plateau and the desert. I cannot say, however, that we missed the city. I used to call it “Cleveland in the desert.” I loved my job there, and my colleagues and friends, and my wife loved her job and her colleagues and friends, but the city itself is rather charmless. The South called us back.

And so, we returned — for me it was my third homecoming. Now we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and I am constantly amazed, as a Yankee, at just how open and friendly the people are — so much so, it sometimes creeps me out.

But as I was saying at the head of this periplus, I have lived and absorbed the people and land in the four corners of the country, but somehow, there is a gravitational pull to the middle I have always felt, to the place I have never managed to live, the vast gut of the continent.Chicago, Ill

For me, there are two emotionally resonant attractions to the middle. First, there is the rustbelt city, the factories, the immigrant populations, the train yards and highway junctions that all spoke of the industrious rise of the nation from the late 19th century through the Second World War. It is where so many of our great writers came from. It is the home of pirogis and deep fried ravioli, sausages and red cabbage. I have loved taking the train across the lower shores of the Great Lakes past Cleveland and Toledo to Chicago. There is a Midwest that is populated. What is not industry is farm. And there is corn and wheat, silos and tractors. The land tends to lie flat. You could play billiards on the ground in places in western Indiana.Joes Colo haystacks

But there is the second middle of the country that calls to me even more insistently: It is further west than the prairies; it is the Great Plains. Driving through North Dakota or Nebraska, eastern Colorado or eastern Montana — there you feel more than anyplace else in the 48 states that you live on a planet. On the coasts, it used to be proof of the roundness of the earth that you could see the ships and their masts slowly dip below the horizon; on the plains, you see the next grain elevator rise from the same horizon in front of you as you drive and later drop again behind you. You are always on the high point of a dome; the earth falls away from you in all directions. And on this dome, the grasses curl like whitecaps on the ocean.

It is this sense that Melville captures so well in his late story and poem (or is it poem and prose prologue) John Marr. “Blank stillness would for hours reign unbroken on this prairie. ‘It is the bed of a dried-up sea,’ said the companionless sailor — no geologist — to himself, musing at twilight upon the fixed undulations of that immense alluvial expanse bounded only by the horizon, and missing there the stir that, to alert eyes and ears, animates at all times the apparent solitudes of the deep.” The landscape between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains  was “hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.”

There is little in this expanse that can count as a city. Much that seems uninhabited. Moving across the Dakotas and into Montana, you find that neighbors count their separation not by fences but by miles. The land rises and falls like sea swell, and from the top of any ridge, you can see the land spread off in grassy waves.

Why this landscape should call to me so seductively is a mystery, even to me. I have wondered if it is some atavistic genetic memory of the Indo-European origins in the Caucasus, the Trans-Oxiana, where the grass continues unabated for a thousand miles, that Scythian homeland of my peoples, or at least of my language.Pawnee Buttes 5

Or perhaps, even further back, it is the imprinted memory of the African savannah where even before the global diaspora, we hairless monkeys were born. Why should I feel a homesickness for the grasslands that I have never actually lived in, unless there be some tick in my chromosomes that was molded there?

Whatever the cause, I feel it strongly. I feel it also in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta. The grasses swirl in the breeze, like animated hair whorls on an infant’s head; you can see the breeze moving through the grass in waves, the way a man in a sailboat sees the fretting of the lake surface as the gust approaches.

I am old now, and it is unlikely that I will dot the center of a quincunx of habitations by finally moving to the continental center. I will stay fixed in the North Carolina mountains. The Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest are part of my past. The spindle around which they all turn will remain a psychic locus, not an actual one for me. And the gust that frets the water a hundred yards off is the final one.

State Line tex-NMTo see the world, you fly around it; to learn about your neighborhood, you walk through it; but to appreciate something about the country you live in, there is nothing better than an automobile.Clouds from plane

A jet flies too high and fast to take in any detail. The country is too big to slog through on foot. A car is the perfect compromise, letting you pass over a significant portion of the nation each day, but allowing you the leisure to stop and sniff the magnolias in Mississippi, the rank ecstatic yellow sunflowers in North Dakota — and the lingering odor of peanut butter at Graceland.

It’s summer again, and once more, I open up another brand-new Rand McNally road atlas and begin planning a drive around the North American continent.Sunflowers North Dakota

In the past 15 years, I’ve made the round-trip across the United States at least a dozen times. I feel like Magellan when I start once more on the circumvehiculation of America.

I’ve done it alone and with my wife. I’ve done it camping and in motels. I’ve done it in summer and in winter. I’ve done it in as long as two months and as short as two weeks. Last year, I made it from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend, but I’m not likely to repeat that butt-numbing feat.

Yet I am planning another road trip this spring.

Friends tell me I am nuts, a masochist torturing myself or a sadist torturing my wife, but I keep setting out.

There is always something new to see, or some old friend to revisit: I’ve been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks something like 40 times, and I’m beginning to develop the same relationship with Maine’s Down East. When I have lived in the East, I couldn’t wait to visit New Mexico again.Baldwin Co. Ala. sunset

There are soft-shelled crabs to be eaten in Virginia, salmon in Seattle. There are pirogis in Wisconsin and scrapple in Philadelphia. You can only get pizza in New Jersey, you can only get barbecue in eastern North Carolina, or a real Cuban sandwich in Miami.

Barns in Pennsylvania have stone foundations; in Georgia, they rest lumber right on the ground. In Wisconsin, the barns are red; in North Carolina, it’s the dirt that’s red; the gray, weathered barns aren’t painted at all.

I remember passing through Iowa and being astonished to see a farmfield filled with hogs and each animal had its private home, looking like a Levittown of doghouses.

In southern Arizona, I passed something very similar, but it was for fighting roosters.Bear Mtn Bridge

American regionalism is alive, despite network television and corporate advertising. America hasn’t yet been completely turned into one great food court of McDonald’s and Arby’s.

If you think you have only a choice between Pepsi and Coke, wait till you pop the top of a Double Cola in Reidsville, N.C.

Try one at the Sanitary Cafe, where calf’s brains are the breakfast special.Cadillac Ranch Amarillo Texas

I’ve been to most of those landmark places you’ve heard of: International Falls, Minn.; Walla-Walla, Wash.; Langtry, Texas; Cairo, Ill.; Appomattox, Va.; Intercourse, Pa.; West Point, N.Y.

There are some great old iron bridges across the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, some great concrete bridges in central New Jersey that speak of the the great age of American highway building in the 1930s.

I’ve been up Pikes Peak in Colorado and up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

I’ve been over Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana and across the floating bridge over the Hood Canal in Puget Sound north of Seattle.Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

It helps if you love to drive, and I know not everyone has that passion. My brother hates driving, for instance. He views an automobile vacation like a two weeks stuck in an elevator. He can’t wait for his floor to arrive so he can get the heck out.

But most elevators don’t have windows.

As I watch the landscape pass across my windshield, like a travelog on a movie screen, I get a sense of the whole elephant, not just his trunk or tail.

Of course, we are talking here about a two-lane blacktop trip, not a bland rush down an interstate highway, where one stretch of concrete pavement can be distinguished from another only by the names on the exit signs.factory, trees, Lowell, Mass

It is a particular kind of travel and has nothing in common with the destination-vacation of the tourism industry. I have no interest in waiting on Disney World lines for thrill rides or Lake Winnibigoshish for a week of trout fishing. You can have your three days lounging on the sands of Bimini or your Love Boat cruise.

Instead, I get to travel an arc of the planet, get to feel in my bones the curvature of the earth and the roughness of its skin. It is through driving across its surface that I get some body-feel for the size of the globe: It is roughly 10 times the distance I drive to get from Phoenix to New York City. New OrleansThat’s not some numbers on some mileage chart, but a distance I know by the seat of my pants.

It’s also a lot smaller than the world seemed before I began driving.

In those years, my wife and I have been to each of the 48 contiguous state at least twice and most more frequently; we have been to all but one of the Canadian provinces; and even skirted into Mexico a little bit.

And each of those trips could have produced a Blue Highways, a book-length summation of what we saw and learned.Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Part 2

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve put enough vacation miles on the cars I’ve owned to equal driving around the world 2 1/2 times. You don’t drive that much without learning a few things.

The first is, of course, to stay off the interstates. You may get there faster, but not by much, and you’ll be bored the whole drowsy way. And in much of the country — and especially in the West — speed limits on smaller highways is not much lower than on the four-lanes, and with less traffic.Golden Gate Bridge SF Calif

Have a rough itinerary and plan how many miles per day you are willing to drive. This is more important for a passenger: Driving will keep you occupied, but your partner may go stir crazy sitting in a seat while going across some of the flatter places in Texas; Don’t overdo it. Marriages hang in the balance.

But never make your itinerary too rigid. You will discover unexpected things along the way; let yourself enjoy them.Gorilla, Am Mus Nat Hist04 copy

We never reserve motel rooms, so we never feel forced to get somewhere by nightfall. There are enough motels along the way. Even national parks, with their crowds, often have last minute cancellations. We’ve pulled into the Grand Canyon and into Yellowstone and gotten a room. But have a contingency plan.

One year, we hit South Dakota the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and there were no vacancies for 200 miles around. We had to drive into the next state to find a room. But that brings up the next lesson:

Don’t be afraid of mishaps and adventures. They may be uncomfortable during the trip, but they will be the best stories you tell your friends. No matter how bad it gets, it will provide the most vivid memory.Imperial Dunes California

Don’t drive every day; take some time to spend in a single spot. Three days we spent in a cabin on Daicey Pond in Maine’s Baxter State Park were three of the best days we ever spent — hiking, canoeing, watching moose and listening to loons at the base of Mount Katahdin. Not once did we start the car. When we finally left, we were ready for more miles.

There are things you should always have in your car: water, a blanket, Fig Newtons, a road atlas, your address book with phone numbers. Forest Lawn cemetery LAI also carry an entrenching tool — one of those small folding shovels you can buy at army surplus stores — for digging out when I get the car stuck in sand or mud.

Don’t be afraid of dirt roads. There are some amazing rewards at the end of a bit of gravel.

We also always carry a small library of Peterson nature guides, two pairs of binoculars, camera equipment and twice the amount of film I think I can possibly shoot.

And finally, my nomination for the greatest invention of the 20th century: cruise control. It keeps your right foot from cramping up on the gas pedal. I was 45 before I ever tried it and I’ll never be that stupid again.pacific coast highway California

Part 3

What makes for good driving?

I don’t know about others, but for me, optimum driving conditions include:

–Little or no traffic for infinite miles ahead, with no stoplights.

–Interesting and varied weather; I don’t want incessant sunshine any more than I want endless rain. A front moving through gives me a constantly changing cloud show.Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

–An old road with a history. Route 66 is the most famous, but not the only one. I especially enjoy roads that follow geology: along a mountain range or river, so that the road seems to belong to the earth, rather than denying it.

–Occasional side roads, preferably gravel, for a change of pace.

–Periodic change of landscape, such as when you drive from the Plains to the Rocky Mountains, or from the white sands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the hilly interior of the Piedmont.

— A regional food specialty you haven’t tried yet and no chain restaurants.leo carillo st beach california

— A few museums and a few national parks. I gotta have both.

— A used book store in every town.

— A pile of Haydn symphonies on CD to run through the dashboard player.

–A clean windshield. This last must be renewed frequently. Bugs bust on the glass.Mississippi barge

Part 4

The dozen most scenic drives in the 48 states:

1. Beartooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park.

2. The Pacific Coast Highway, Calif. 1, from San Luis Obispo to Leggett, Calif..

3. Blue Ridge Parkway, from Waynesboro, Va. to Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.

4. N.C. 12 from Nags Head to Okracoke, N.C.

5. Ariz. 264 from Ganado to Tuba City, Ariz.

6. U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West, Fla.

7. La. 82 from Perry, La., to Port Arthur, Texas.

8. U.S. 1 from Ellsworth to Calais, Maine.

9. Kancamagus Highway, N.H. 112, from Conway to Lincoln, N.H.

10. Tex. 170 from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend National Park.

11. Utah 12 from Red Canyon to Torrey, Utah.

12. Wash. 14 though the Columbia River Gorge from Camas to Plymouth, Wash.Niagara Falls

Part 5

It isn’t just the flashy, famous places that draw the true driver. In fact, commercial destinations, such as Disney World or Las Vegas, are probably best gotten to by airplane and shuttle bus, so you can give over all your time to waiting in lines.

No, in a car, some of the best experiences come by rolling through the kind of places that fall through the cracks of marketing. Places “below the radar,” so to speak, of commercial development.mobile bay point clear

The small towns, endless farms, mountain ranges, Indian reservations — these are the places you have the opportunity to discover things for yourself. In the big theme parks, you get a uniform experience, developed through marketing research. The ride you take is the same ride millions of others take.

But when you talk to the harried but chummy waitress in Doumar’s, an original ’50s style drive-in on Monticello Ave. in Norfolk, Va., you are talking to a real person, a one-on-one experience that is particular and individual. You get a flavor of place, of culture, of people, of individuals.Page Dam Arizona

To say nothing of the flavor of ice cream, in a cone as close to identical as possible to the original waffled cone Abe Doumar is credited with inventing in 1904. They still make them on the same old wheezy portable machine. If your lucky, they’ll be making them while you eat.

Likewise, there is nothing predictable about the starfish you find in an Oregon tidepool, or the bears in the Smoky Mountains. You get to experience the infinite variety of real life.Sierra Nevada Mts California

Of course, I have my favorites.

Among the 48 states, I can never find the end of either California or North Carolina. They are both richly varied.

California seems to have everything from the world-navel of pop culture to the most remote wilderness. It has more than any other single state.Thunder hole Acadia NP Maine

But North Carolina is nearly as varied geographically, and it has B&G fried pies, the most soul-satisfying food in the world. North Carolina also has the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks.

And I cannot get enough of the great, grassy, rolling middle of America. When I tell people I love driving through Nebraska, they look at me like I just said I was born on the Hale-Bopp Comet. But just pull into one of those one-street towns with the grain elevator towering over the single railroad track and have lunch in the cafe where the farmers eat.Yellowstone Nat Park Wyoming

Or imagine the wagonloads of immigrants trudging along the Platte River, with Scotts Bluff on the horizon.

The pace is slower, more humane in Nebraska.

Humankind developed on the grasslands of Africa, and Nebraska, especially, seems to call atavistically to me, reawakening my genetic love of savannas.Monument Valley Arizona

It’s easy to love the broad vistas of the West. Southern Utah doesn’t seem to have a square inch that isn’t photogenic, and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming are mountains right out of central casting: They are to other mountains what Cary Grant is to most men.

But I also love the Mid-Atlantic states. Sometimes, a Western forest is too much of the same thing. You can walk for miles in the Cascades of Washington and see only two kinds of trees: Douglas fir and Western redcedar.Zabriskie Point Death Valley Calif

It’s different in Pennsylvania or Tennessee. In the great Appalachian mountain chain of the East, there are more species of plant life than in all of Europe. The variety is blinding: Redbud in spring, Tulip tree in summer. White pine, pin oak, red maple, sweetgum, sycamore, witch hazel, horse chestnut — and hundreds more.

And there is something humanizing about the landscape. This is land which has been lived in for hundreds of years. It is still wild, but it has made peace with the humans who live there and send smoke up their stony winter chimneys.Zion National Park Utah

In the past, I avoided cities the way I avoid Justin Bieber songs. The noise, nuisance, dirt and traffic were everything I was trying to avoid by getting on the road.

But I have come to terms with them, also. After all, it is in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that you find the symphony orchestras, natural history museums, ethnic foods and imposing architecture.Mississippi River Hannibal Missouri

The greatest city for driving is Los Angeles. It may be the home of the cultural antichrist, but it is also a great fermenting, creative pot, with lots of roads that take you past inventively loopy buildings: The Tail ’o the Pup hot dog stand, the downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant in the form of an ocean liner.

In LA, you can’t get anywhere without wheels. It is the perfect American city.mobile bay

There are two states that I have to admit I don’t particularly enjoy: New Jersey, probably because I grew up there and don’t feel much urge to go back; and Florida, which is supposed to be a Southern state, but it has been given over to graceless Yankees. But even in Florida, I have to admit I love the Cubano culture of Miami and the Everglades, proving that there is always something of worth.

streetlamps snowI’m in Chicago and it’s close to midnight late in November in 1978. The air is raw. There is a sleety mist falling and I haven’t eaten anything since leaving Syracuse early that morning.

I am fleeing across the country, jobless, broke, and emptied inside. I want to put a continent between me and my broken heart, but somehow, it is following me. “Stay!” “Stay!” I say, as if I were talking to an uncomprehending dog, but it just drools, looks at me with brown glazed eyes and won’t leave my side.

There is little that so perfectly captures this experience than a train rattling through the wintery night, with its distant points of light and the Doppler whirr of clanging bells as we pass a grade crossing.20th century limited

The Twentieth Century Limited had once been a great route on the New York Central line, driving north along the Hudson from Manhattan and turning west at Albany, passing Utica, Syracuse, Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland and Toledo on its way to frozen Chicago. It had been the train of movie stars and tycoons. The route no longer exists, replaced by Amtrak’s luxeless Lake Shore Limited.

But as I ride the train, in its last days and paying the minimum fair for a seedy coach seat, it is more like a linked chain of crowded, smoky Greyhound busses, rattling along from one decaying rust-belt depot to the next.

There is a lot of talk of the romance of rail travel, but we should remember that romance is not born of ease and indoor plumbing, but of struggle: The most memorable times in our lives are those we survive, not those we glide through.

So, it is one of the travails of train travel that you are at the mercy of inconvenient schedules that are never met, coaches that are always either too hot or too cold and bad tracks that jerk you awake as you try to grab a few winks leaning awkwardly across two seats.

I am in Chicago between trains, with a ticket for the Empire Builder, which will take me the rest of the way to Seattle, crossing the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains along the way.streetlamp sleet

In the meantime, I’’m walking the block around Union Station looking for a bite.

What I find is a lonely kiosk, spewing steam, where a man is selling sausages and sauerkraut. He is getting ready to close up and I’m his last customer.

The sleet darts like needles through the cone of light under a streetlamp and I’m shivering by the time my boarding call echoes through the station like plainchant in a cathedral.kwakiutl design

The Empire Builder I enter still is decorated with the orange and green of the long-gone and multiply-merged Great Northern Railway and each coach is painted with oval-and-bar animal paintings of the Kwakiutl Indians. Here a beaver, there a raven and there a killer whale. It is a train with character.

It is dawn by the time the train reaches St. Paul and I step out on the platform to stretch my legs. It is cold but dry and I’m surprised by the comfort. “Don’t stand there too long in your shirtsleeves,” the conductor warns. “The temperature will fool you: It is 14 below zero.”empire builder station night winter

For the next two and a half days, I sit, squirm, fidget and fitfully doze as I ride the Empire Builder across the broad portions of the continent. I talk to my coachmates, but most of them only stay on board for a few stops as the depots tally up: Red Wing, St. Cloud, Fargo, Devils Lake, Minot, Williston, Wolf Point, Glasgow, Malta, Havre, Cut Bank.empire builder route map 2

But there are rewards paid for the suffering.

You can never see the expanse of the nation better than through a train window. From the air, you see what looks mostly like a huge map, with rivers and interstates. From the car, you see the consumer culture of Burger Kings and drug stores. But from the train, snaking its way through the unprogrammed portion of the country, you see the farms, the factories, the land and its people.montana prairie empire builder

Across North Dakota and eastern Montana, the land rolls like a seaswell and we see no roads, only wheat. Houses blip by only once every few miles. Only the moon is less populated than the American West.

It is night as we pass the Glacier National Park.

But when the train pulls out of Cle Elum in Washington and begins climbing the draw up the Yakima River, an elk stands on the side of the canyon, no more than 15 feet from the train window. Steam blows from his nostrils in the cold air and he watches the steel pass, with faces in its windows, each with a heart, swelling or drained.

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

bear after me

It was after college that my real education began.

There was one official marriage of three years and one unofficial marriage of seven. There were also several crash-and-burn episodes of affection and desire before, during and after. There were many jobs, too: sales clerk, grounds crew, substitute teacher, delivery driver, teacher of crime-scene photography, editor of a black weekly newspaper, and year spent working at the Seattle zoo, but also a year and a half spent almost homeless and broke. At one point, I was literally down to two nickels and three pennies.

There was nevertheless much travel, north and south along the East Coast and east-west taking a train cross country. I knew what it like to sit in the smelly back of a Trailways bus watching 2 a.m. passing in Virginia. And there was a summer hiking part of the Appalachian Trail and feasting on Velveeta, Slim Jims, and Tang mixed with Blue Ridge spring water.Doug as pervert 1978

In Seattle, I lived in a house with two lesbian medical students and the world’s most obscene man. When I was broke and moved back to North Carolina, I was taken in by my college best friend, who, with his wife, nurtured me back to something like sanity.

One learns a lot this way, although they are often things you wish you didn’t have to learn.

But there was a parallel education, and that came from endless reading.

The thing about hard knocks and waxing maturity is that the books and the knocks come to be mirror reflections of each other. You learn the answer to the surly, snotty question you probably asked in high school: “Why do I have to read Jane Austen? It has nothing to do with my life.” Or Gatsby, or Dickens. At that callow age, it all seems so irrelevant (outside, say, Catcher in the Rye, which you insert directly into your vein with a needle).

It is as if they are trying to make you learn things you don’t want to learn. (Hint: They are; and hint: You’re an idiot at that age). Richard back porch 1975

But with a few divorces under your belt, and a couple of employers whipping you from pillar to post, and a few miles under your tires, the world opens up and you begin to understand things you blessedly had no clue of.

It is that parallel education, then, I mean to write about. Those books that cascaded through the years in the wilderness. I tore through a lot of books. Frequently unemployed, I had a lot of time on my hands.

And I didn’t just read books; I read authors. I read all of Hawthorne, all of Melville, all of Thoreau. And when I say all, I mean Israel Potter and A Yankee in Canada. Reams of Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck. I couldn’t get enough Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda or William Carlos Williams.

A few spoke to me most directly.alexandria quartet

One was Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. You have to be a certain age and in a certain state to take in those four books. I was. Thirty is its age, just as 14 is Salinger’s.

The “trick”of the four books is a kind of Rashomon retelling of the story several times. First through the eyes of a man in love, second from the point of view of a disinterested outsider, and third from an omniscient narrator and each version contradicts the previous and fills in missing information and corrects their misunderstandings and misperceptions. It is a byzantine tale set in a duplicitous ex-pat Egypt before and during World War II. The prose is dense and florid; the plot is even more so, and the characters even more than that. It is a huge pile of musk, perfume and offal.

I read it with a dictionary at hand. Durrell rather likes arcane and esoteric words and the list I drew up while reading became a daily vocabulary lesson. Etiolated, pegamoid, ululation, exiguous, exigent, vulpine, objurgations, tenebrous, integument, hebetude, fatidic, pullulation, crepitating, emollient, cachinnation, splenetic, comminatory, plethoric, usufruct, mansuetude, titubating.

The author’s habit leads to such sentences as:  “He has manumitted the colloquial…”

But there is a concomitant grace and directness of balancing sentences, such as: “She took kisses like so many coats of paint.”

It is a baroque style that is meat to only a few. I was hungry for it and the reasons were personal.

I only late found out that the woman I had been living with had had a very active secret life of which I knew nothing. I was as naive as Darley in Justine. I had friends who could have written me a Balthazar, but they didn’t and I fled cross country in exile and in metaphysical pain.

This was a devastating case of literature as a mirror and the face I saw there shamed me. But it also instilled in me a sense of caution, a humility concerning what I think I know and a skepticism for what others think they know.

Balthazar at one point says, “Truth naked and unashamed. That’s a splendid phrase. But we always see her as she seems, never as she is. Each man has his own interpretation.” rules of the game

Or, as Octave says in Jean Renoir’s film, Rules of the Game, “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.”

We almost never know enough to make informed judgments: The truth is always hidden from us and people act from motives we cannot be privy to.

Durrell taught me to be perpetually in a state of tolerant unknowing.

Or at least he reinforced through art the lesson I had been given but perhaps did not fully comprehend. Some lessons come in the form of a ball-peen hammer to the head.

NEXT: Part 2 Wilderness years: A bigger library