O, Plague that has stolen so much from so many, will you truly deny us our annual purgative pilgrimage?
(Unmoved, Plague replies through a yawn, a pox upon your house.)
Back in February we began the calculus as always, surfing for dog-friendly digs, option weighing, and atlas consulting—the old-school version with the spiral binding, a giant book that falls open so neatly on the coffee table, the scribble and scrawl here and there reminding us of roads less traveled in summers gone by. With each new summer comes the question, How best to avoid the behemoth that is I-95? How many hours would you like to drive the first day? asks The Chef. If we shoot just past Roanoke on the first day, there’s this place we can stay…. I look over his shoulder and nod. Shall we pay extra for the privilege of cancelling? I shrug, may as well. And then our travel plans begin to take shape.
Just when we were laying those plans in February for travel in July, March upended them with Unwelcome News: You already know the story.
At first, we stayed hopeful. We’ll just massage the dates a bit, we reasoned, or, in the worst case, maybe this will be the year we spend Christmas down South; that might be fun, we agree. Then slowly, sickeningly, undeniably, the reality dawns on us: There will be no travel—at all—in 2020, at least not across state lines, not with so much at stake.
Truly, how paltry a thing to bemoan, but a thing now somehow so essential and urgent, trapped as we remain in this scrappy little Vermont hamlet; nor can our loved ones come to us, not without consequences. We are employed, thank the universe. And thus far, we have our health. We are beyond grateful.
We’ve missed out on seeing family and friends, and whatever kinds of grand adventures awaited us in July, we’ll never know: It will be two years between visits, an inescapable truth. As much as the adventures, and the visiting, I miss the unremarkable moments and can’t get them out of my head; somehow they’re more palpable and meaningful now, and so I keep rewinding old tapes, and play them again and again in my mind’s eye:
Here we are, climbing into a car packed hours ago, loading in a bewildered dog and one final bag, the last bit of payload. The only sound around us is the chirping of summer crickets in the stillness of the hours just before dawn; we move quietly and speak softly in an effort not to disturb the neighbors. We are bleary-eyed, a little tired from the last big push to reach copy deadlines and fulfill pastry orders, dot proverbial i’s and cross t’s, but our giddiness to go makes us forget; Scout is silent and lies down across the back seat, fastened into his harness and ready for the long ride ahead, relieved to be with us—he is a seasoned traveler now and knows what to expect. In the darkness, I ride shotgun and The Chef drives; we punch on the radio. Occasionally, rarely, we see a pair of glowing red eyes in the shadows and Chef David slows the car to avoid a mishap.
And then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, comes dawn, the first stop-and-stretch, the first coffee refill, and talk of breakfast now or soon. In the back is our cooler packed full of water and sandwiches; in a tote bag behind the driver’s seat are forbidden salty snacks, sanctioned on this occasion, but we’ll wait until after breakfast before we tear into them. The inside of the car is comfortable and smells of the coffee that bubbled out of a travel cup and has dried on the console. Occasionally Scout stands and stretches like a cat, peers out the window briefly, and settles down again; I offer water and he tells me politely, thanks, but I’m good.
The New York State Thruway is a phenomenon for this Southern girl, a gritty ribbon of road with no way out except for a ransom, and all those once-in-a-while gas-and-go pit stops, where you’re cast cheek-to-jowl with not some but every traveler. Remember how I called Saugerties sausages, and now we say it aloud and laugh every time like it’s the first time? This year Saugerties is but a point on a weather map, in the way of a thunderstorm, says the man on the evening news. I wish I were in the Saugerties thunderstorm right now, I think.
The miles and miles of open road mollify and settle us: We are glad for this annual escape to the South, a welcome if ephemeral sojourn. Through the Allegheny Mountains up, up, up winds the road and makes you feel like you’re driving through treetops. Before that stretched the bucolic landscape of Pennsylvania, rolling hills of Dutch-settled farmland, and at some point before that we noticed the billboards missing from our home landscape by law. Gas, food, and a shower, trumpets the truck stop advert, low, low prices on Pfaltzgraff, sold at this here outlet store. Guns and knives, adult toys there. (The American billboard truly has no shame.)
Much later in the afternoon we’ll make a final pit stop, we suppose, before the last stretch to the dog-friendly hotel. We’ll climb out of the car into heat that is starting to feel distinctly Southern: It is heavy and moist, a little oppressive in the lungs. I’ll have driven some, but will hand over the wheel again to The Chef for the last miles of the day. Park over there, by that strip of lawn, I’ll suggest, so Scout can have his break in the coolness of the grass, under the shade of a tree. When we climb back into the car, the sun will be hovering much closer to the horizon, and then we’ll see the first kudzu vine, a sure sign the Northeast is far behind us. We’ll pull into the hotel parking lot under cover of darkness, grab what we can carry on our way to check in, and the clerk will chirp a friendly welcome in a dialect that will be music to my ears.
Before that we will have told each other countless stories, some of them old ones we’ve told more than once but they’re still fun to tell; we’ll have talked about our children and the parenting mistakes we each made in our separately married lives; we’ll have sung aloud to summer anthems in the car; I’ll have tried to convince The Chef to let me read a story out loud to him from my book, but he’ll say no, thanks; we’ll have played a game of my invention where we each take turns supposing what kind of cargo that truck ahead is carrying; when The Chef rides shotgun he’ll put the seat waaaaay back and take a nap, which will alarm Scout, a little, for the intrusion into his space, but he’ll make room; and we’ll have been interrupted several times by an anxious twenty-something down in Knoxville who can’t wait to see his mama and wants to know…are we there yet?
Next year, is what I say now when he asks me, the universe willing. Next. Year.