A week ago I went off to Hertz at the airport to pick up a rental car. It’s been nearly a decade now I’ve lived in cities large enough to get by without owning a car. I’ve chosen to get by, which got considerably easier a few years ago when I joined Zipcar, a pay-by-the-hour car rental service. Man, paying by the hour can really . . . energize an otherwise mundane grocery run. My brother Sam and I would careen through the aisles in a suburban rendition of Supermarket Sweep, shouting sale prices to one another, tapping our feet nervously at the deli counter. We went on Saturday mornings, when the muzak drifted lazily through a sleepy store. We must have looked nuts.
I thought our relationship might be ruined one day when my intricate mind’s eye map of the one-way system malfunctioned, and we came to a sudden stop at an intersection facing the oncoming, one-way traffic that was stopped at a light. We were late—there’s a hefty fee for that—so I was on my cell phone with Zipcar, trying to extend the reservation. The light changed and I made the sort of crazy decision I’m prone to under pressure: I pulled forward and wove through two blocks of one-way honking, outraged traffic. I gripped the steering wheel and held my cell phone to my ear and focused on the parking spot I needed to get to in—shit—ninety seconds. To this day Sam cannot speak calmly about his experience in the passenger seat. Anyway, we made it.
Now Sam’s moved away, my younger sister lives here, and none of us own a car. It might be the single most shocking thing we have to confirm to extended family members each year when we’re home for the holidays. That’s because we hail from Michigan, where the automobile figures rather largely in the (now ailing) economy, and in the state’s and many families’ history: many of our relatives worked at one time or another in the automobile plants. My aunt spent one college summer installing dashboards. My father once operated an air impact wrench at Pontiac Truck and Coach, screwing the motor mounts onto the engines as they came down the line. Once when his wrench was malfunctioning and stripping the bolts, he pushed the panic button.
“The alarms went off and ten white-shirts appeared out of nowhere,” he told me. “They were right in my face. They didn’t care if the bolts cracked right in half. They made it crystal clear you never ever stop the line.”
My father drove a lot of miles in his career, and driving was certainly our transportation mode of choice for vacations. I remember fighting to stay awake while he drove the long dark road home, worrying over his weariness, wanting to keep him company, but drifting off and waking magically in the driveway to be lead to bed.
We have a cabin two and half hours north, and in his retirement my father often goes up for the day, sometimes only to get out of his Suburban and hop on some other piece of machinery in the barn. My family likes motors; we have motors for every season. Driving is a badge of honor, and most my relatives don’t bother with mere cars:
(That’s from a family picnic last summer.)
My father taught me to drive, and I’m not sure there’s anything I wanted to excel at more in his eyes.
“Drive defensively,” he urged, and I nodded. Then he kept repeating it, and by the time I realized this would become his most important tenet, it was too late to confess I didn’t have the faintest idea what it meant.
Driving is an activity somewhat frozen in time for me, one inextricably linked to home.
And so when I got the news that Josh Ritter would be appearing in that old hometown . . .
Hmmmm. . . Actually, that banner contains a small oversight. I’m sure nothing was meant by it, but we are a proud community, slightly sensitive to the snub ever since we got Da Vinci’s famous sculpture American Horse and one journalist said installing it in Grand Rapids was akin to hanging a prized Picasso in—well, in your bathroom. So if you don’t mind I’ll just—
There. Josh Ritter would play Grand Rapids on Monday, March 3rd. And when I saw just where he would play—
—I figured it was a fine occasion to make the first road trip home. It’d be long, sure—I was due back in four days—but I’d happily put the driving atlas that I’m always looking at to use. I’d try not to rush, try to make the highway an end in itself. I’d resist planning. Best of all I’d link up some new familiar roads with the old ones, this new home with Home. A long time ago I realized that, even carless, I have my father’s love of maps, of direction, of knowing where one is with the certainty of one who has physically covered the ground—by foot or wheel—in question. I sort of only trust a place if I’ve walked it. Failing the ability to do that, driving will do.
Oh, and the timing was lucky because my parents were slated to return from the biggest trip of their lives—two months in Australia and New Zealand—on Saturday. They hadn’t been able to crack the phone system, so we’d barely spoken. A few emails, a bungee jumping rumor. A kiwi camper van returned, fitting of any self-respecting Michiganders, with an eye-popping addition to the odometer. We missed them. I’d sent my Dad an email about my trip a week beforehand, asking that he not worry and that he keep it a secret from my mother.
While packing late Friday night I hit the first snag in my young life as a non-planner: I flipped open my passport to find it expired. This was unnerving on a few levels, but the most immediate was that I’d been planning to drive through Canada, and hadn’t they just passed a law requiring a passport? Conflicting information was everywhere, but it seemed I’d need two government-issued IDs and I only had one.
I left anyway in the morning, a duffel bag full of CDs in the passenger seat, telling my friend I might make it and I might just go look around Western New York. It was snowing hard. But I got going and got settled, figured out how to change the langue of the Display in the Prius’ touchscreen from French to English, slid a hotly-anticipated new Scottish album into the CD player. I chose right; it’d be my go-to disc for the entire journey. It’d be my best music discovery in awhile.
The weather across New York was thrillingly variable: sunny skies with racing clouds would suddenly darken and snow flurries would whip round the windshield. Twice I walked into a Travel Plaza in a blizzard wearing my sunglasses. It took a long time before I stopped concentrating on slowing my brisk city-walking, hurry-up gait. Travel Plazas are by nature not somewhere one lingers, but I did, taking in an entire wall of beef jerky. Listening to the high-pitched chatter of a high school sports team in matching sweatshirts. Reading the “History Happened Here” kiosk.
Night fell and I inched along the map, rounding Lake Erie, heading toward the town that had made me smile when I spotted it along my revised, domestic route.
I’ll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, or Ashtabula
“A-S-H-T . . . ” I recited to an American Express travel agent on my cell phone. He spent fifteen minutes trying to find it in his system to book me a hotel there. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, though, so I hung up telling him I’d call back if I wanted to make a reservation.
“Ma’am,” he said with slight exasperation, “Make sure to tell the next agent to use the CLEVELAND CODE for Ashtu—I mean AshTAbula, Ohio.” I don’t think he really believed there was such a town.
I’d hate to cause offense, so I’ll just say I didn’t stay there. But it was late, and of course I had no idea where to go. I got back on the highway toward Cleveland and found a Fairfield Inn.
The next morning I was in striking distance of familiar territory—
—and by mid-day I had crossed into Michigan and was pointed straight at my beloved college town of Ann Arbor. I met my best friend from college—she’s in graduate school—at Cafe Zola downtown. I got to meet her boyfriend, who she forced to leave—despite my protestations—after he drained his first cup of coffee. We talked and talked, as is our way, charged with the novelty and coziness of being together. We traded heartfelt compliments and then deflected them with deft self-deprecation. When we got out on the street I linked my arm in hers and suggested we walk one block in the mild air.
“Did I tell you I have to dye my hair now?” Kate asked disgustedly as we walked along, just as I was admiring—like I always do—her dark chestnut curls. When they get unruly and her fair cheeks flushed I think she looks like the cover of a romance novel. She insists she looks like a milkmaid come in off the farm.
We got back to the crookedly parked Prius over an hour later, having done a familiar circuit around the snowy campus. We laughed about the time my upper-classman boyfriend brought me up to the roof of a prominent building when I was a freshman . . . and suddenly the huge inert telescope we didn’t even realize was there lurched into motion and slowly began to turn. There were people in it—astronomy students—and I thought I’d be kicked out of school. Or die of embarrassment.
When I got on the road from Ann Arbor I turned up the music and performed my own concert for the windshield. This was my road, the one I sped up and down, back and forth, for my four years of college. I was into country back then, and I’d roar down the highway belting at the top of my lungs, banging on the steering wheel. The Dixie Chicks’ song Wide Open Spaces steeled my courage to move to London after graduation. (And I’d thought they were just words, but a Big Mistake I did, in fact, make.) I’d slide in behind a speedy “front door” like my dad taught me. I drove way faster than he would have allowed, but no faster than he drove himself.
I turned off the headlights when I pulled into the drive, rang the doorbell, and stood there with my heart in my throat, like a kid starting to lose the battle with the keeping of a secret. My mother appeared, wine glass in hand.
“WHAT are you DOING here?” she shouted, laughing. It echoed out in the silent street.
We sat at the kitchen counter, drinking wine, the tales of two trips tumbling out of our mouths. I told my mom I wasn’t the only person of interest who was in town.
“I heard Josh Ritter in a cafe in Auckland last week!” she gushed. “Can you believe it? The only other band I can recognize is The Beatles, and here I was, asking the lady, ‘Is that by any chance Josh Ritter?'” Last autumn while at the cabin I was carrying Life on the Mississippi around everywhere, and, curious, my parents borrowed my CDs.
Grand Rapids has its own case of fandom for one Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States. Our modest airport was renamed The Gerald R. Ford International Airport in May 2000, just a few years before my English ex-boyfriend would fly in from London, survey the two small terminals, and start a long running joke about Grand Rapids’ small-town identity.
President Ford was born Leslie Lynch King in Omaha in 1913. His mother fled an abusive marriage to Grand Rapids when he was just two weeks old, and Ford eventually took the full name of his stepfather. His presidential museum is in Grand Rapids, and my mom and I stopped by there for a couple hours on Monday. Despite our sharing a hometown and an alma mater, I was not too familiar with Ford’s presidency.
The first room of the exhibit contained all kinds of 60s and 70s paraphernalia. My mother paused a long time at a glass case of clothing and accessories.
“We made all our own clothes. We all did this,” she said, pointing to the macramé. She looked up at the television screen to find Bobby Kennedy. “For awhile in college I kept waking up to find out someone else was shot. It was like you didn’t want to go to sleep. And every day there was a protest—We protested everything. There was so much . . . unrest. And The Beatles! Aren’t they cute?”
“I guess,” I said.
“I liked Paul,” she said wistfully. “Everybody liked Paul.”
I was quite intrigued by the glass case of implements used in the Watergate break-in. It is still an extraordinary story, with the resignation of Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, like an extra dollop of madness in a maelstrom. Ford was serving as House Minority Leader when Nixon named him Vice President to replace Agnew in October 1973.
By August 1974 Nixon was completely backed into a corner—those crazy tapes!—and on the 8th he announced his resignation. Ford had been advised by Nixon’s Chief of Staff on the 1st that he should prepare to be president, and on the 6th Ford had warned Nixon that he would stop speaking publicly about Watergate. On the steamy Saturday of August 3rd my parents were married.
There is stirring footage of the bicentennial celebrations of July 1976 in the twenty-minute film “A Time to Heal,” which summarizes Ford’s presidency and is on loop in a large auditorium throughout the day. I was born in October of that year, just weeks before Ford held his final campaign rally in Grand Rapids. He conceded the race to Jimmy Carter the next day.
“Were you angry at Ford for pardoning Nixon?” I asked my dad when he met us at the Red Ball Jet Cafe for lunch.
He rolled his eyes and nodded slowly.
“But now, today, do you think it was the right thing to do?” I asked, having formed my own tentative opinion.
“Probably,” he replied.
It was the night Josh Ritter came to town
The Ladies’ Literary Club of Grand Rapids flings open its gates and bids you enter, on this occasion of your [so-called Canadian Tour]. We welcome you, good friends, to our city, our halls, our homes, and to our [frozen] fields of thought.
Bring to us, with these [bracing winter] days, the [blizzard] of your wide experience, kindle, we pray, the torch of truth that shall shine with no uncertain light. Balance for us an even scale of justice that we may judge wisely all the plans and purposes of life. Lift aloft a right and true standard of honor to guide and direct our days.
Adapted from an invitation issued by the Ladies’ Literary Club in 1891. No “Drop by sometime!” from these Ladies, as evidenced here.
It was a tall order, but they managed it. My mother used my spare ticket, went in ahead to grab seats, and bumped into some former teaching friends of hers. They’d won tickets through the local radio station and were sitting in back to allow for an early getaway.
“You won’t want to leave,” I said. “Trust me.”
It was a generous set list. It seemed like they played most everything, though I suppose that can’t be true. Josh opened with a gorgeous Idaho, the homesick song that’d been on my mind as I covered the miles to Michigan. The word that never fails to . . . lake-lock me, I’d thought, smiling. Josh was rather enamored of the nature of the venue, remarking on its Masterpiece Theatre vibe.
“Are there any . . . ladies here?” he grinned. “Literary ladies?”
My mom squealed when Lillian, Egypt down shifted into a disco beat during the encore. At the end Josh offered his thanks to Jane Austen, Daphne du Maurier, and Charlotte Bronte.
“Thanks for comin’!” He shouted one final time as he left the stage.
“Thank you for coming,” my mom said, hugging me tightly in the driveway. I’d convinced them of the wisdom in my getting a start that evening, so we’d loaded up the Prius. My mom rooted through the pantry looking for the makings of a portable snack. My father spread out the AAA TripTik he’d picked up that afternoon on the kitchen counter. I zipped the certified birth certificate we’d retrieved from the basement into a pocket of my purse.
“Thanks for coming,” I said, picking out the lights of downtown as I took the long circular ramp onto 96.
I crossed the border at 2:30.
The next day I stopped at a frozen Niagara Falls, Canadian-side. It was windy and misty and bitterly cold but I’d been digging the Canadian air since I took a deep breath at a Husky service station near Hamilton. It’s eminently breathable, winter Canadian air, like cold water on a parched throat. It feels like it might purify your spirit, as though it could clean you right out.
The water beneath the falls was frozen in ragged, Abominable-Snowman chunks of ice. Of the handfuls of people braving the cold I seemed to be the only native English speaker.
I lingered too long, setting myself up for a punishing final push. It lashed with rain, very time-pressed SUVs appeared suddenly like hulks in my rear view mirror. I flew past some cops, resisting the urge to slam on my brakes. I got mustard on the steering wheel, and I swear I lost my cell phone, my camera, the CD lyrics, and my toll ticket in regular rotation county after county after county. Do not rent the pale green Prius from Hertz at the airport: Some sort of cosmic Bermuda triangle for Lost Stuff is centered right on the driver’s seat, I’m sure of it.
That new Scottish CD I mentioned before came through. In light of roads untraveled and new adventures I will tell you that Iain Anderson of BBC Scotland has delivered me yet another favorite: he’s Grant Campbell, and he’s just released his second album, Beyond Below. I do think it’s a record especially suited to a road trip, but I’ve given the car back—two toll tickets sacrificed to the gods—and I’m still listening. A lot. He’s got a staggering voice that hits undulating notes so low and big and rich you’re paralyzed by your own ear for a few seconds. This guy feels it, you can tell. I love the ethereal Lila, the bold confession of Annabelle, the searing pain and awareness and resignation of Fuel the Fire. The impossible beauty of the imagery and the notes—those haunting low notes—of Lowlands.
Bob Dylan pledged survival:
I’ll see you in the sky above,
the tall grass, and the ones I love
Grant Campbell wasn’t asking for the moon:
Tomorrow go easy don’t break my heart
I thought back over Josh Ritter’s words
The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts
And it was only in the final hours when I couldn’t listen anymore. It was just me and the frantic wipers and the stillness inside, some plastic-wrapped processed food in the cup holder. The horizon glowed various shades of black, and I thought all kinds of things over.
You don’t tell everything to a blog—or to anyone—so I’ll just say it’s nice how the road somehow enables one to tell more to herself.
“Thanks for coming,” I’ll say to you.
[Starting Line by Grant Campbell]