Friday, April 1, 2011

Hitchhiking to the Airport

“I like your rib.” This is what my friend and colleague, Sofia Lopez-Ibor, thought I said back in 1996 when we were teaching in Iceland and looking out at the view of the green-tiled roofs of the houses lining the harbor. She looked confused, waited a moment to reply and then said, “Did you just say you liked my rib?” I laughed heartily and then said it again more clearly: “I like Europe.”

And indeed I do. The carefully and artfully cultivated land, the manicured and sculptured gardens and parks, the exquisitely crafted architecture, the sidewalk cafes, pubs or beer halls, the elegance, sophistication and intellectual climate, the music, art, theater and film, the train stations and trains with seats facing each other, the character that changes notably from region to region, over borders and across seas. Charm. Personality. History.

But this morning, driving out to meet my shuttle at the Howard Johnsons’s past the large expanses of green as yet unmalled, egrets bathing and feeding in the waterways, I touched another travel myth that fed me so deeply in the past, an American version. Instead of villas and vineyards, it is vast expanses of wild punctuated by occasional roadside motels. Instead of trains rattling past castles, it is cars on the open road heading out to large expanses of sky. An American-style travel, not a journey into the glories (and atrocities) of the historical past, but an odyssey into the expansive possibilities of a newly-imagined future.

If Europe means a sense of belonging to the Glory That Was Greece or Medieval Monuments or Renaissance Flowering, the surety of being thoroughly French or Spanish or Italian, the pleasure of expressing the distinctive stamp of the Irish jig, Bulgarian Ritchnitza, German polka, then America means freedom from all inherited identities, a chance to re-define oneself anew. As Joni Mitchell put it, the colorful charm of Europe can also turn grey, “too old and cold and settled in its ways. Ah, but California…”

I first traveled across this country in that most delightful of vehicles, my imagination, keeping company with John Steinbeck and his lovable poodle Charley. Travels with Charley—how I loved that book! I saw the grandeur of Yellowstone, the impossibly tall redwood trees, the sadness of the South, through Steinbeck’s (and Charley’s) eyes and was so happy to be along for the ride in his trailer, Rocinante (without having to share the driving or walk the dog). Some years later, I went “On the Road” again with Jack Kerouac for a different perspective and then again with Ken Kesey (via Tom Wolfe) in yet another zany cross-country adventure involving some electric Kool-aid. Whether it was by trailer, car or “magic bus,” the mythos of the American landscape never failed to capture my fancy.

So when I crossed this country for real as a college student, once in a Volkswagen bug with my sister, her husband and friend (four of us with all our luggage for an entire summer in that tiny car!) and three other times hitchhiking, I was already primed to love everything about it. The changing music on the radio stations, the landscapes of staggering beauty, the shifting accents, the one-of-kind motels and diners, all gave a shape and color to it all. But above all was the sense of freedom; the day was mine and I could go here or I might go there or I would have to go wherever the hitchhiked rides offered where going— it didn’t particularly matter. What counted was the allure of the open road, that sense of roaming and roving and wandering, the travel itself the destination and no reservations necessary. Even when I waited 10 hours in the hot Nevada sun, my thumb weary and patience exhausted, it still was grand.

Now I write this in the Orlando Airport, about to board my scheduled airline with my assigned seat and it is a different kind of travel. Hitchhiking is some 40-years obsolete and though I can plug in my I-Pod in the rented car and choose my soundtrack, the radio stations everywhere mostly offer the same homogenized fare and almost none of it jazz or classical or, strangest of all, American folk music. The open road is a super-highway and all the rest stops are the same. The contours of character have been systematically flattened, the rhythms reduced to one pounding disco beat, the dynamic level set unvaryingly to LOUD and the colors leached out to one monochromatic dullness.

But the land itself, most notably that saved from bulldozing by the grace of National Parks, remains breathtaking, especially as one heads West. And the myth of American travel, given voice by wanderers from Whitman to Wolfe, is timeless. For one brief moment this morning, I could touch it again. If the shuttle had failed to show up at Howard Johnson’s, I was ready to hitchhike to the airport.

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