I know, I know, planning a road trip in January is just nuts. At least, it would be most years. This year, though, the weather is balmy. The honeysuckly on my porch hasn’t even frozen yet. The bugs are still happy. The sun is shining. And I find myself thinking wistfully of a particular stretch of road. It’s the bit of road just to the west of Pendleton, at the intersection where you can either go up the hill to the swimming pool (fun), or down the road a stretch to the house were my mom’s best friend lived at the time (a marvelous place with sheds, dogs, a creek, a huge yard, a swingset, and a big boy who could sometimes be inveigled into playing with us), or straight out of town and down the road to the river, and ultimately to the Emerald City–Portland.
The whole world began at that little intersection where three roads met, and at the heart of the intersection, defined by the three roads, lay a miniature valley. Willow trees shaded it, and under the trees grasses grew tall and green in the spring, and then turned to deep gold just about the time swimming lessons were over. I used to beg my mother to stop the car, just for a minute, and let me go sit in the grass under the trees. She refused–too much traffic, she said.
And she was probably right, but that didn’t stop me from dreaming of that valley. Sometimes I thought I might build a tiny house under the willows and live there, moated safely in by blacktop patrolled by speeding cars. Sometimes I thought I might fill it with water and swim under the trees. Sometimes I just looked at the tiny pocket of unspoiled country, trapped in the intersection, and dreamed of the wagons that had passed that spot, of my my grandfather, driving truck past it, of how it held magic in its heart precisely because it was at once so very public and so very private.
That little valley has always meant the eternity of summer for me, largely because the only times we really saw it were on summer trips–on the way to mom’s friend’s house to can corn, on the way to the swimming pool, on the way to Portland, on the way… on the way…
And that’s the magic of the well-planned road trip–it’s the “on the way-ness” of it. It’s the magic of the fleeting moment, of the dreams that flash past at sixty miles an hour. It’s the freedom of the wind blowing through the car while the radio plays too loudly and we sing off key. It’s putting our bare feet out the window and wiggling our toes. It’s stuffy rest area bathrooms with scratched metal for mirrors, no paper towels, and no soap. It’s the gritty feel of dusty, sunbaked skin, and wonderful coolness of hotel pools as the sun goes down. It’s watching cartoons in the hotel while we wait for the pizza to arrive. It’s going to the movies in a an old theater where there are water stains on the ceiling, a popcorn cart in the lobby, and a movie that’s been around for years, simply because that’s all there is to do in town.
On road trips we step out of time and into a single moment that stretches as long as the car is rolling, as long as the wind is blowing our hair, as long as we can’t see home, and the money holds out, and there is still another road to take. That intersection, where the world started for me is like that–when I drive by it I still dream of the house I might build there, or the pond I might make, or the picnic I might eat under its willows. When I drive that stretch of road I am, for a few seconds, a child again, looking at that little valley that has, against all odds, survived, a trapped moment, a bubble of eternity, a place where time has stopped and held, for a second, forever, summer.