A Year on the Road, Half Gone
No matter where you want to go, you always end up where life takes you.
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
We spent our first week in New York hopping from one state forest to the next. These are the voiceless lands, the first any state budget line to be cut, and the campsites there show the result. Neglect and abuse, the ground littered with broken glass, rusted nails, and piles of shell casings. Cheap, steel-cartridge 7.62 and the pricier .223 brass. A rainbow of shotgun shells and pistol rounds, .45 and .357, the vegetation cut down in obvious shooting lanes, the firing line marked with rotting cardboard and the immortal wax paper of Egg McMuffin wrappers.
It’s overwhelming, and I can’t pick up enough to feel comfortable letting our daughter walk around on her own. I can’t take the image of picking glass from her palms or knees, of the imagined pain in her eyes. I can hardly stand to look at the bruises on her shins from scrambling up and down the steps of the camper.
Camping in the east is binary. The spots are either remote, trashed, and cheap, or crowded and expensive. Stay for free in a filthy forest, or pay $40 a night to wedge yourself into a state park, your neighbors closer than in any apartment complex.
It grates on me, both because a beautiful thing can be ruined by a handful of idiots, and because there’s a new nagging in the back of my brain. My dreams are of running out of something. Water or air, I can’t quite tell. The images are never as clear as the mid-throat panic they leave in their wake, nor the mental fatigue of trying to press the worry down to the muscle of my gut. To smother it there with the rest of adulthood. In a month, we will have traveled half our allotted year. We’re facing the unfortunate truth that there isn’t enough time to see what we want to see, or go where we want to go. That when we get west again, the best parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho will have nothing for us but the cold nights of the coming winter.
It’s time I’m out of; there are old questions to be answered, and answered soon. Where will we live? What will I do for a job? How will we pay for a house? Under it all, I’m furious at myself for spending these hours wandering aimlessly north, plodding through places I’ve seen before.
Beth sees it in me. In the shortness of my temper, my complete inability to sit still. She points us on to Syracuse to her oldest brother, Brian, and his young family. To a 19th century cottage on the soft shore of Owasko Lake.
The lakes I grew up with were all TVA affairs. Mountain rivers brought to a halt and distended, blocked by the forward march of man and his thirst for electric light. Big ponds, really. There’s nothing pleasant about wading into that water, first tumbling down a shore that was once the lofty ridge side, then sinking to your knee in the muck and slime of the bottom, the lake still trying to digest the land beneath it. Branches and leaves and liquid clay all turned to a sucking mire beneath the opaque green of Norris or Loudon.
The Finger Lakes aren’t that way. They’re the work ancient dredging, scars left by glaciers as they clawed their way south a few millennia ago. Their bottoms are of soft sand or stone, their waters impossibly clear. Owasco is a minor scratch compared to the gouges of Seneca and Cayuga, just a mile wide at its broadest, twelve times that in length, and 150 feet deep at its center.
We arrive in caravan. Brian, his wife, Lori, their three-year-old son Wyatt, and their hypoallergenic terrier, Oscar, all packed with care into a pale green Prius. We trundle behind in the Dodge. Brian leaves the main road for a barely paved thread of asphalt no wider than the truck, vivid moss growing at the center. A long archway of maple, oak, and elm shade the way before opening up to the water below.
The house is beautiful, two stories tall with a stand up attic. A sleeping porch upstairs and a wide wrap-around number below, both screened. Massive, 100-year-old oaks sway in the yard, shading the grass. The lake shimmers below, gold and orange in the late afternoon sun, the water breathing a cool breeze up over the shore and carrying the call of a far-off gull with it.
Lori’s been coming here as long as she’s been alive. Her grandfather bought the family cottage in 1968, some 80 years after it was built, long before any roads ran to the place. The materials were all brought by boat. The timbers and nails and shingles and thin glass window panes, all floated from one shore to the long-gone dock. Her mother and father are waiting for us in the drive with a handful of aunts and uncles. The place is a rolling reunion, with family coming and going over the course of the three days we’re there.
We sleep and eat. Read and wander into town to see the 4H fair there, Kiddo pointing at every horse and cow, mooing and neighing at the sight of them. We watch her play with her cousin, the two of them laughing and fighting and crying the way they ought to.
Lori is beautiful. Pale as heavy cream, just like her boy, and tall, with a bright, quick smile. But she walks like a woman three times her age. Her limbs, thin and delicate as yearling branches, move in fits and starts, as if she never knows where the pain will catch her or where her muscles will fail. If it scares her, she doesn’t let on.
Maybe it’s because she understands what’s happening to her body. She’s a neuroscientist, one of an army working to save us all from Alzheimer’s, and it was at a conference in Chicago last year when an autoimmune disease left her almost completely paralyzed, unable to speak or eat or move her skilled hands. She lost pounds by the dozens. By some fluke or flicker of grace, the attending physician at her hospital was an expert in the field. Helped push the darkness back in time. Got her eating again, smiling again, talking again. Now, hers is a world of expanding limits.
Brian doesn’t say much about it. He’s always been a man with his arms around the world, brilliant as his wife but in different shades. He can speak on any topic at length. Reads and writes like the world’s words are finite, voracious and profound at the same time. He’s too close to it, maybe. There were days when no one knew if Lori would live, let alone walk. There’s a real chance that if he puts it down now, he won’t be able to pick it back up again. An Atlas of necessity.
It’s rare to bear witness to the bitter thinness of ourselves, to face the reality of our brevity. To be woken from the dim morning of our youth with it. Lori and Brian have earned every moment of this year. They’re the living, breathing, fighting proof that, yes, six months can carry your life a universe away from where it now sits. And that, yes, where you’re going can be better and more brilliant than you ever had nerve to hope for.