Feb 22, 2005

Sense of place

I met my dad crossing the line into Arizona, in the night, sitting high on the hard jostling seats of the Penski cab. I knew who he was as a person there, what he was and what it meant to be a man. He was telling me stuff, stories and thing’s he’d read and how he liked to drive and always thought maybe he’d become a trucker and I was watching him shift, watching him drive drinking from a two liter Coke lit up by the green glow of the dash board lights. He told me he’d had motorcycle, a Norton he was riding on an Indian reservation road and he came over a little rise and the road was all washed out. Laid the bike down, wrecked it way out in the middle of nowhere. He walked out. He told me he’d had a job at a gas station, one point, but they fired him when he wouldn’t take the night shift the morning he came in and found the night guy dead and his dog too. Didn’t want the job, he said, I figured there’s always something else.

Which is what we were doing there – moving on to something else. I was 9. He was 42, with everything he owned packed in the extra-long truck moving his wife and four kids to Texas, betting it’d be better there. He was moving for a better place, a better country.

We sat the atlas out on the bed, gathered for a leaving-Texas family meeting, out on the green king-sized comforter, and looked at the country all laid out in interstates and US routes and state-shaped boundaries. The whole thing was laid out open and we could choose, we could go anywhere. What about Minnesota, we said, what’s that like? What about Arizona, Idaho, Virginia, and we’d trace the little lines tying them together.

It was there, looking at the atlas, that we knew we were from somewhere only until we were from somewhere else. We knew we were mobile, movable, free to pick up and fly and land anywhere, call anywhere home. We didn’t have roots, we had an anchor.

You can get to know the road, moving; it has a sense to it. The highway’s a shape shifting community. The truckers are there, living there, and the cars flow in and out together, through motels and gas stations. Traffic drifts and merges. Everyone’s moving, directional together, a society communing in its mobility. And when the night comes cloaking over the curves, you pull in behind a pair of road-tracing taillights measuring turns, two of you settling into a tandem touching out the reflection of the yellow line. You work the road together, co-op it, and them there’s some unique-named exit numbered by the miles to the state line and he pulls off. He gets off, leaving you to watch the speedometer alone. You try to think he’s just getting gas, finding restrooms, that he’s still thinking of hours termed in miles, still thinking of ‘there’ as ‘out there’ but no, no he’s probably pulling home.

He’s probably picking up a pile of saved mail and yesterday’s doorstep-stacked newspapers covering statutes at the city meeting. He’s probably left you, gone home, forgotten you to tumbling towards the hour-mile marker and the state line. And that was it, the never-constant community, the mobility that is Amer’ca. You had it, for a moment following taillights, and you lost it at the last exit.

What we’ve lost, he says, is a sense of place. Gotta find it again, get it again. At some point we gotta stop. Stop moving, stay, plant ourselves down and learn the seasons of the creek out back and learn the names of the trees and plant some trees. Since we weren’t given a place we’ll have to stop and claim one, be claimed by one. We have to stop and listen, until we can hear it when we close out eyes.

It gets to be hard to explain where you’re from, when you’ve moved a lot. It gets to be hard to explain why you’re where ever you are, when you’re talking to people who’re there because they’ve always been there and you’re there because you’ve never been, until now. The guy at the bookstore said to come back, tell him how the book was. Not from here, I said, I’m from there, but that’s just for now. My brother’s here. Not from here, but here.

Didn’t mean to pry,
he said.

No, no, it doesn’t matter. We’re just a family that moved a lot, growing up, and grown up we’ve just kept moving.

I’ve driven or ridden from Seattle to Philadelphia seven times in the last three years, which works out to a trip short of the length around the globe. First time I saw the continental divide I was listening to a Vegas musician talk about Kennedy and Hendrix and what kind of drugs they serve in heaven. One time I listened to a construction worker with a leprechaun tattooed on his neck talk to the just ex ex-con till they got off in the Columbia to get a beer. I shared a hamburger once with a guy describing the restraining harnesses he used to transport violent criminals. Watched a kid said he was going to Maine videotape Iowa with a homemade camera. One time a smoke jumper told me about his mom.

My friends leave for Europe, Africa, the Middle East but I just keep going back and forth between borders. You really ought to go, they say, but they can’t see it, I can’t see it. Somewhere you gotta stop. Some place you gotta sense, listen.

I think I’ll be taking the greyhound again this summer, out to Washington to see my family, see my sister before she leaves for Austria, and back again to Philadelphia. A six day ride. Mostly of silence. Six days of sleeping in my seat and the seat next to me, of reading and looking out at the farms and fields coming up. The bus a ride from east to west to east listening to strangers talking in the quiet dark, talking on the bus station curb in the morning in North Dakota, talking over accidentally shared meals on Formica tables back of a truck stop. I want to rest on that ride until again I lean my head back on the slightly rumbling seat, close my eyes, and hear this place.