March 17, 2009

road trip

did you know: listening to an organ being tuned is like having leeches living inside your brain? but on the flip side: on my walk to the church this morning for rehearsal, I came across a tree unapologetically in bloom. it's covered in pink flowers. I had to do a double take.

this morning, Annalisa, our lirone player, was the first one to arrive. I bet you have never heard a lirone. it looks like a cello, but has more strings. pitched higher than a cello, it's bowed the same way, but played in chords like a guitar. it's a divine noise, sweetly restful and plaintive. I would have liked her to keep warming up all morning.

I'm in and out of PBO rehearsal all week, splitting it this time with my full-time hours at the opera. (it's exhausting). this morning, true to form, I spent the better part of rehearsal reading old stuff on my computer. here's more from the archives -- farther back in time this go-around -- for your reading pleasure.

(written 3/5/07, about a road trip taken July 2006)

those mornings of the road trip last summer, the middle of july. we'd wake up and sometimes we'd shower, we'd find breakfast in the lounge of the hotel -- cereal, mostly, or those little regulation muffins, or toast -- and then we'd get in the car. sometimes we'd have cleaned it out the night before, but it was always jam-packed, with things overflowing out of the back seat, and the front grill was covered with mangled bug carcasses. some mornings, in arkansas and tennessee, and in nevada especially, you could already feel the heat in the air, the way it was going to be steamy by noon. we'd all hop in the car and take our places: mom at the wheel; me in the passenger seat, my bare feet on the dash, braids in my hair; my sister behind me, her pillow up against the window, ready for a morning nap; my brother behind the driver's seat, his hair growing long and blowing in the breeze from our open windows, rummaging for his gameboy. there was this whole routine: we'd hop in, and my mom and I would have coffee in to-go cups from breakfast, and we'd start the car and back out and then we would shuffle through the CD changer for Willie Nelson, and we'd start the day with a rousing live rendition of "On The Road Again," the lyrics of which we had all learned by the time we finally reached North Carolina a week after we set out.

that drive up Pike's Peak. you know, I kind of didn't want to do it. It seemed so out of our way. but once we were on it there were so many things to think about, to look for. "Bigfoot Crossing," one sign read. "Hot Brakes Fail," said another. The road was paved to a point, and then it turned to dirt. There were no guardrails. You could not look over the edge without a sense of panic and vertigo. I wondered aloud how many people a year drove over the edge. In the backseat my sister sang "America the Beautiful" at least four times in a row. It was hard to believe that what we were seeing was real, after we hit ten thousand feet. The scenery below was too far away to fathom. It was like being in an airplane, before you break through the clouds and lose your view of earth. We clocked the temperature change. It was 72 degrees when we started out at ground level. It was 47 at the top.

I remember that we were in the gift shop -- the gift shop! god, what a very American thing, a gift shop at the peak of a mountain -- and my sister was considering buying a shirt for herself and a matching one for our seven-year-old cousin, Kaitlin, but she suddenly decided against it. We didn't understand at first why she hurriedly put the shirts back on the rack. She was suffering from altitude sickness, and I think she was feeling suddenly claustrophobic as well, after a huge group of people from the mountain train had entered the store. She ended up waiting for us in the car. My mom understood my sister's heart at that moment, and bought both shirts. Later on that day -- or maybe it was several days later, I can't remember -- she presented them to Ashley. My sister was so grateful. It seems like the most wonderful thing, looking back.

Or the way we sat at a Waffle House in Oklahoma, each of us enjoying our own gigantic waffle, and our waitress, whose name was Karen, was so talkative, baffled and eager about us, amazed that we were driving all the way across the country. She told us about how we were in Garth Brooks' home town (we happened to be on Garth Brooks Boulevard), and she asked us about the trip, and she mistook my brother for my son. I could tell my mom was beginning to want to be left alone, but I found it charming, the way she was unabashedly interested in the foreign concept of this family with two children just taking off and seeing the country. Later on my brother threw up that waffle in the backseat, somewhere in Arkansas.

Or when we decided to get off the highway in Lovelock, Nevada, in search of the Tufa formations, a hundred-acre section of land in the middle of nowhere where giant lumpy red-brown rocks sat. It was the middle of the afternoon. There was no one around. The formations were speckled around an old motocross course. There was almost no road; the only sign of where to go were occasional dirt tracks. We plowed into the middle of the field with our car. We decided we didn't want to get out; the grass was up to our knees, and there were lizards everywhere. We worried about rattlesnakes, and we were all wearing flip flops. We counted jackrabbits. Three times the car got stuck and we had to back out the way we came. When we finally left, half an hour or more later, we pulled back onto the main road, which curved around through the mountains, empty. We stopped the car and my mom got out with the camera. She stood on the center yellow lines with her hand on the top of her head and just stood there, breathing. She took the most remarkable pictures that day. Then she got back in the car and we drove back through town. I stopped the car in the middle of the road and got out to mail a letter in a nearby mailbox. I walked across the street in my socks. We had a special pair of 'driving socks' stuffed into the driver side door, which we needed because the floor air conditioner was relentless. We'd wear both socks on our driving foot.

Before we even left Oregon we passed Prehistoric World, and it was the kind of hokey, 1950s amusement site I'd been craving. It was fifty degrees and drizzling, a miserable day. It was our second day on the road and we had not yet even broken into California. I wanted to walk through the tiny park but I felt bad because it cost almost ten bucks a person. I started to say that it was OK if we didn't, but my mom said, "Are you sure you don't want to?" in that way that meant she knew I did, and so we went in. It was back in an old growth forest, and we had the place to ourselves. We made dinosaur faces and learned about fossils. One dinosaur was being rebuilt and painted.

In Texas we stopped in Amarillo in a strip of hotels and restaurants, and we ate at a huge but empty barn-like place, where we had calf fries -- deep-fried calf testicles. The baked beans were delicious. The girls had thick accents.

I had my iPod with me, and sometimes I'd plug it in and we'd listen to mixes I had made specifically for the car; huge playlists with old singable classics I thought everyone would like. My siblings developed a fondness for Jeff Buckley, and although my sister thought I was crazy at the outset of our trip, when in a gleeful morning moment I sang "Loveshack" to her at the top of my lungs (out the car window), she soon came around. One night we were -- where? Colorado, maybe, or I think just outside the Nevada border, after that dreadful night driving through mountain passes and past landslides -- and my mom had run in to a hotel manager's office to inquire about a room. We sat in the car waiting for her, all of us tired and at the edge of being grumpy and overextended, but we started singing, for some reason, "I'm A Believer." It was such a moment. She got back in the car and we were on the last verse; my brother was getting into it in the backseat, and all of us were belting it out. It was a moment of incredible unity.

There was the day my brother got carsick, when he threw up the waffle in the backseat. It was barely afternoon, and we didn't know whether to stop or press on, so we pressed on. We tried a million different places, looking for ginger ale, and not a single place had any. It was 104 degrees outside, in Arkansas. We pulled over to the side of the road twice. In a McDonalds parking lot my mom washed off my brother with a large bottle of water bought at a nearby gas station. Then he threw up again on a turnout on the side of the road. He dry heaved for two hours in the backseat, while my sister pressed herself up against the opposite window. Finally my mom crawled back to be with him, and I drove. I was so tired but I felt like I had to keep it together, like if I could keep it together somehow we'd all be OK. We drove until we were just outside the Tennessee border, on the west side of the Mississippi. We carried Travis inside and he fell asleep immediately. The next morning he was jumping on the bed.

On the exit ramp in Taos, New Mexico, my mom threw the car into park and we leapt out of the car to switch places. We thought no one would come. I was barefoot. When we got back in we realized there was a car behind us. I pulled over to one side of the ramp so they could pass, because my mom wanted a picture of the I-40 sign.

Our second night driving we found ourselves on Rt. 20, going through the mountains in eastern California and, eventually, western Nevada. There was no guardrail, and we were hundreds of feet up. It was pitch dark. It felt like any moment we would be pitched over. Semis came roaring past us in the opposite direction. We passed landslides, lit by high-wattage halogen construction lamps. We shivered. In the backseat both kids were asleep. We were tired. I wasn't ready to drive the huge SUV. There were no hotels of any kind for hours. We approached town after town with tiny populations. We thought we would have to drive all night. Finally, at nearly midnight, we found a nice motel and nearly fell out of the car. The following morning I awoke early to a beautiful sunny day, and I went for a three-mile run down the main road, my hair braided. Running in Nevada! It felt like a miracle, somehow. I came back and showered, ate Cheerios in the lobby of the hotel, swinging my legs. My sister took a bowl of them, dry, in the car with her and promptly spilled them in the backseat.

Graceland! The way the Mississippi was slow and full of sediment, so different from the wide, deep river we had each seen on the Wisconsin/Minnesota border (I had seen it a year earlier; for my family, only two weeks had passed). The dread we all felt as the terrain narrowed once again, in Arkansas and especially in Tennessee; how everything seemed to be more drab, how it all matched what we knew from the East Coast. The fog through the Smoky Mountains, and the way it felt to enter the time zone of our extended family, who were waiting for us in North Carolina. Driving across ranchland in New Mexico, no one behind or in front of us, and nothing around but low shrubs and fences, a two-lane road, not even a single electrical pole in sight. Or the redwoods, those giant monoliths, how we expected to be stunned into silence and we were, we were. Trees as old as the Magna Carta.

I don't think I realized how special that road trip was until this very moment. it is touching me all the way down to the inside of my heart. I very much wish we could do it again this summer. it seems like even if that road trip were the only good thing that ever came out of my living in Oregon, it would be enough.

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