August 17, 2007

Crossing the Hudson: Nostalgia trip

I'll need a lot of hot coffee tomorrow. I'm looking at 10 hours of dashboard time as I ferry Dana and two friends to running camp in New York's Catskill Mountains. The trip is five hours out and five back.

I'm actually looking forward to the trip. I enjoy long distance driving. (When I was a teenager I announced to my parents that I planned to become a long-haul trucker. As I was seventh in my high school graduating class of 400, my dad gave a crafty response, one that simultaneously humored a pouty, 17-year-old rebel and directed a six-removed-from-valedictorian toward higher education: "Sure!" he said. "Trucking's a wonderful career. And you'll be good at it. You can do it right after you finish college!")

I pulled out my Rand McNally road atlas to map out my route to the Catskill camp and found I'll be covering some of the same territory the kids and I traveled at the very beginning and very end of our 12,000-mile, post-9/11 back road journey across America.

As I traced the map's red, black and blue lines with my finger, wonderful moments of that journey, one I feel blessed to have been able to take and to have experienced with my children, came rushing back. Tomorrow's long road trip will deliver sweet stretches filled with good memories.

Early in the day tomorrow I will cross the Hudson River at Fishkill, New York. In this excerpt from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America Adam, Dana and I come to Fishkill as we roll westward in the summer of 2002:

By the time we’d crossed Connecticut, New Paint was transformed. Somewhere around Hartford, the family car became a comfortable home, a secure haven, a dependable workhorse, a full member of the expedition. The kids settled in with their pillows and books and headphones. I eased into the rhythm of the road. And New Paint purred confidently westward, thrilled to be released from post office and grocery store runs. We were four travelers- three with legs, one with wheels.

I’ll remember Fishkill, New York as the place where my mind grasped the magic and enormity of what we were doing. The pull of the road; the lure of unknown places; the freedom of being away. These gripped me as we filled our water bottles at the Fishkill rest area and gazed over the history-steeped Hudson River Valley falling away just beyond the endless line of truckers resting in their rigs.

Letters on the trucks and license plates told of vast stretches of highway leading to the places where these tired men lived when they weren’t on the road: Tomah, Wisconsin; Lincoln, Nebraska; Texas; Louisiana; Minneapolis. Hard-working men delivering things Americans want and need, catching some sleep in the late afternoon on the side of the road in Fishkill, New York.

Very late in the day tomorrow I will recross the Hudson River as I head back toward Boston on a route I've driven before. From the final chapter of Ribbons of Highway:

Ten miles south of Albany, we crossed the Hudson on a sky-blue steel bridge. Full circle. We’d crossed her near Fishkill, New York, nearly 12,000 miles ago. Jetskiers played in the twinkling water below us. I pointed south. "If you followed that water, guys, in a few hours you’d be in New York harbor. You’d pass under the George Washington Bridge, you’d float by Grant’s tomb and the Intrepid, and you’d come to the Statue of Liberty. Those jetskiers could ride to New York City if they wanted to." The kids liked the image. Jetskiing to New York City!

We saw the Massachusetts Turnpike’s pilgrim hat logo and a sign that said "Boston." It was an odd moment. No one spoke for a while. We were almost home, and we didn’t know what or how to feel.

We crossed the Massachusetts border at West Stockbridge, lush and rolling. After the bright blue "Massachusetts Welcomes You" sign near the Stockbridge tolls, I tooted the horn, and Adam and I rolled our windows down. We waved and whoopied at the cars lining up to go through the tollbooths. Some people had seen the tailgate etchings and had likely figured out we weren’t crazy or rude, just long gone and now returning.

We passed the cellphone around and called all the people to whom the words, "We’re in Massachusetts!" would mean something. Now they waited for us, while we rolled the final miles down the turnpike, which felt like a long, green exit ramp to home.

But we’d really been home all along. Our whole journey had been a 12,000-mile discovery of home.

It will feel good to get back home tomorrow night after such a long trip, but it will also feel good to have made the trip -- again.

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