NYS Route 212

By Tove Danovich

Travel

Traveling in a car is like moving through two worlds at the same time. Inside you are mostly still while flashing past houses, people, and trees at almost unthinkable speeds. Entire towns and lakes vanish within minutes. Right now, we’re going sixty on a road made for half of that. The driver and the road controls our movement—the pull of our bodies away from and toward the window each time we run past a curve, the hum of vibrations that goes up through the seat. When I relax my mouth—which isn’t often because the conversation is funny—my teeth chatter against each other with an involuntary click.

We’re driving through upstate New York, trying to find our way to Woodstock. Matt and I have never been and even though Paul tells us that it’s full of hippies and gift shops it’s a good excuse for a drive. “It really shows you what would have happened if the sixties never died.” Paul bought his first and only pair of Birkenstocks there a few years ago but hasn’t been back since.

With Paul behind the wheel of his car, we get lost on the way and end up doing a big loop away from the town and then back toward it again. A five-minute drive becomes an hour long after taking the wrong road at the turnpike. “You need to get a map,” I tell Paul, and he glowers in response.

But getting a little disoriented transforms into a beautiful detour. We drive beside a lake that reminds me of Tahoe; the water is pure crystal with an island of trees in the center. According to a fire station’s sign, we’re in the town of Lake Hill, a place where the GPS on our phones won’t work. None of us can even tell how lost we are.

It’s seventy-five degrees outside. We roll the windows down and it doesn’t take long for my hair to get tangled from the wind in my face. It rolls over each curl, twisting it around until the hairs rub together and felt themselves into knots. With the windows down I can actually feel the speed. To be fair, I’m not sure I could tell the difference between sixty miles an hour and thirty from the wind alone. Colors blur together outside; individual plants and trees turn into streaks of green and brown and yellow. As we speed up, that swaying back and forth in my seat grows more rhythmical. Inside the car it’s still all hum and sleepiness and vibration. It reminds me of being in the rocking chair at home or out on a boat where the waves slap against the wood with a dull splash. Driving gets into your bones that way.

I can finally look down and see the pavement flashing beneath us, turning into one smooth panel instead of the gravelly asphalt that’s actually there. Water’s running right along the road now and I’m glad to have my seatbelt on. Paul’s road crazy again. His usual gruffness vanishes the longer he’s behind the wheel until he actually seems happy, enthusiastic even. It’s as though the road transforms into a racetrack in front of him—the Cliffside highways of Monte Carlo or the sharp angles of Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps track. Only once or twice have I ever told him to slow down. That doesn’t mean I don’t grip the door when he takes an especially sharp turn. It’s a little too easy to imagine this car crashing, tumbling in sideways somersaults down to the water and against all those sharp rocks.

The water rushes over the stones and natural dams of twigs and branches, turning white as it hits them and then flows back the way we came. It’s only a narrow river but the water’s energy gets more concentrated as the sides close in.

A while later in the drive, we pass through the Catskills. I can hear the waterfalls. It’s the first real melt of the season and all that runoff races from the top of the mountains and turns into a dull roar and spray. I love how the sound of water can tell you what type it is. Ocean waves crash against the rocks in a musical way; there’s a rhythm to the bursts of silence between them. Waterfalls stay at a consistent level of sound, static that gets into your ears whenever you stand too close to them.

All that water must be working its magic because suddenly the boys both have to pee. They get out of the car and walk into the woods. I trail after them and almost catch up with Paul whose back is towards me. Somewhere in between this sight and the fact that he’s yelling at me not to come any closer, I remember why we stopped the car in the first place. I’m left looking very intently at the scenery, pretending I’d meant to find my way to this spot all along.

Without the rush from being inside a car, the wind is calm in comparison. To look at the plants, I would think the wind was coming from all directions at once. Each tree or shrub moves in a different way. One little plant with seedpods on it splits stalks into two groups as if breaking to let the wind pass through. The largest tree branches groan a few seconds after the breeze is gone. Maybe if I hung colored strings in the air I could actually see the currents and tides of the wind.

Break over, we return to the car. We’d rolled up the dark-tinted windows before parking and now it’s like looking out of cheap sunglasses. On a warm spring day like this one, that invisible wind is the only link between what’s outside the car and in it. Without the air around me, it’s like I’m watching a poor-quality video of the Great Outdoors instead of being here, passing through.

The three of us are all a little off today. I’m hungry although it’s too early for dinner. Where’s a mom who packed sandwiches in the cooler? We’re winding down the mountain now, back the way we came. We pass through towns that are still covered in a foot of snow. The steep roofs of the houses make upside-down V’s; there are so many of them that it begins to look like a row of jagged teeth along the road. In an empty field, I see two dogs playing, kicking up white snow like water rapids. Through the dark glass, the colors are muted and the sky almost looks gray. It’s a little colder outside but I roll down my window one last time and see the colors open up into pale yellows streaks through a sharp blue. The car turns and I start rocking back and forth again in my seat.

Here’s a secret: Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point. You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost. This is a hard, simple truth. If it hasn’t happened to you yet consider yourself lucky. When it does, when one day you look around and nothing is recognizable, when you find yourself alone in a dark wood having lost the way, you may find it easier to blame someone else—an errant lover, a missing father, a bad childhood. Or it may be easier to blame the map you were given—folded too many times, out of date, tiny print. You can shake your fist at the sky, call it fate, karma, bad luck, and sometimes it is. But, for the most part, if you are honest, you will only be able to blame yourself. Life can, of course, blindside you, yet often as not we choose to be blind—agency, some call it. If you’re lucky you’ll remember a story you heard as a child, the trick of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, the idea being that after whatever it is that is going to happen in those woods has happened, you can then retrace your steps, find your way back out. But no one said you wouldn’t be changed, by the hours, the years, spent wandering those woods.


***

(2005) A year after the Abu Ghraib photographs appear I wake up in Texas one morning, in love with two women, honest with neither. I am finishing up my second semester of teaching poetry at the University of Houston, getting ready to fly back to New York, where both these women are waiting for me, or so I imagine. I’d been “dating” for a few years, since the breakup of a long-term relationship, and more than once it had been made abundantly clear that I was not very good at it. For me, “dating” often felt like reading Tolstoy—exhilarating, but a struggle, at times, to keep the characters straight. The fact that the chaos had been distilled down to two women—one I’ll call Anna, the other was Inez—felt, to me, like progress. For months I’d been speaking to one or the other on my cellphone. Her name (or hers) came up on the tiny screen, and each time my heart leapt. It was the end of April. I’d come to the conclusion (delusion?) that if I could just get us all in the same room we could figure out a way it could work out. Another part of me, though, would have been perfectly happy to let it all keep playing out in the shadows.

The book A Field Guide to Getting Lost came out around this time—it is, in part, a meditation on the importance, for any creative act, to allow the mind and body to wander. The title jumped out at me—maybe I could use it as sort of an antimap. Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing…. Another book that came out around this time was Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, but I didn’t pick that one up—perhaps I wasn’t ready not to be lost. Lost, at that moment in my life, manifest itself as feeling bewildered, confused, bereft—it’s not that I didn’t know where I was, I just didn’t know what I was doing there. On a deeper level, I knew that my bereftitude was only partly due to my self-inflicted disasters of love. Beneath that surface tension was the inescapable fact that I’d just crossed the threshold of being the same age my parents had been when they’d imploded, each in his or her own way. My mother had killed herself when she was forty-two, shot herself in the heart. When my father was forty-five, he fell—drunk—from a ladder while painting a house, an accident which may or may not have left him with a permanent head injury. A year later he’d enter a bank and pass his first forged check, the start of a small-time run that would eventually lead him into federal prison. After doing his time, after being released, he’d drift even deeper into this life of wandering, until he ended up living on the streets for a few years, which is where I got to know him.

And now, here I am, waking up in Texas, just past the age my mother never made it beyond, the same age my father was when he went off the rails. The dream I’m having is already dissolving, and I’m left, once again, with my unquiet mind, which for some months now has been straddling these two beautiful women. It has nothing to do with fate, karma, or bad luck.