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It's Nelly's World

Going Places

alec vanderboom

Go expressly to enjoy the moon and it turns to tinsel,

but discover it on a necessary journey and

its beauty bathes the soul.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every new bike comes with a warranty card, which you mail in, and an urge to travel, which you hang onto. It grows. Now, in the fall, I am overcome with an almost painful wanderlust. Remembrance of trips past, perhaps, triggered by the peculiar length and feel of these days. But no matter why, this is the season—the slant of a burning orange ball in the sky, a wash of brown and red leaves across the road from right to left, or a miniature cyclone of dead foliage chasing itself around and around—that makes me want to go find new motels. Too bad it comes in a life that is little suited to this enterprise anymore. I look in the pages of the agenda and flip them back and forth: here? No, drat; there’s that thing I have to be here on Saturday night for. Here? Shoot. The schedule got changed, and I’m a parent that weekend. The next clear one is in November, and I have been thinking Adirondack-y thoughts lately; probably too cold. And on it goes.

But I will persist, and drive a wedge somehow into the calendar, split it clean through with the adze of determination and make a space into which I can insert this novel idea: I will go away. For two days, I will be on my bike and going somewhere for the simple purpose of going and seeing what it looks and feels like.

Where? Well, that’s what god made the Rand McNally Atlas for, didn’t he? (“America’s Love Affair with the Road,” US $9.95.) I stare into its pages, too, trying to imagine myself on those thin red or black lines, preferably the ones edged with little dots (Scenic Routes). There are too many to make a choice, and I am rapidly approaching the stasis I embody before the nine-page, eight-pound laminated menu at the Greek diner: after reading entry after entry, my brain getting slower and slower like a logey computer loading more and more, I end up ordering the same damn omelet I’ve ordered for the past thirty years in Greek diners. Rye toast, please.

Where I've really been longing to go is the Grand Canyon. I want to spend the night at the soaring lodge--an architecture that meant to mimic the scenery outside, and because it was from a period in American history when we cared about aspiration as much as we did about craftsmanship (I refer to the time of, gasp, socialism's brief flower), it comes close. But two days to get to Arizona and back? Not even the Iron Butt fairy could wave her wand and make that happen.

I will probably choose someplace familiar, then, Pennsylvania somepart, or Massachusetts. Soon will come the moment I will turn out the driveway and not look back. For two or three days I will answer to no one, pace myself to no one, talk to no one, dine with no one. By necessity and circumstance alone, and potentially by choice. I will know that, though, only when I get back.

There’s a strange alchemy that sometimes works itself on the material of the lonesome trip: it can be a great movement outward, an opening that seems to propel you forward toward a boundless horizon. Or it can suck. Then, it quickly reveals itself as the dreadful mistake you just have to get through, forty-eight long hours of What Was I Thinking. This is when, paradoxically, the great act of freedom becomes a self-created prison, the close walls made of loneliness and fear. Have you never felt them both?

I am reading Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider, and it’s both fueling and cautioning my wanderlust. It is a raw and perfect cross-section of grief; it chronicles a long, aimless road trip undertaken because there was nothing else he could possibly do, having lost his daughter and his wife a year apart. Inconceivable. How does the human mind deal with loss of that magnitude? Well, he tells us how. Basically, it is not built to do it. It’s like asking a perfectly good canoe to take off from a forty-foot cliff and get you to the ground safely. It’s like taking a disconnected rotary telephone outside and pointing it at the sky and expecting to get a signal.

If he didn’t have motorcycling . . . Well, god forbid. He just had to ride it out. Having all that stuff to do—navigating, calculating, performing all the mechanical tasks of operating the machine, regulating speed, every second thinking defensively, all in a continuous, multivalent flow—protected him from being eaten alive by corrosive, overwhelming grief. It saved him.

That is why I am getting so tetchy with people flinging the danger card down on the table in front of me. Don’t they know that when you reach a place where there is nothing to eat anymore, and the cupboard is empty and you’re out of everything, then something appears that is suddenly full and ripe and tastes so good, it would be insane not to save yourself, not to fill yourself up again? What is a bit of danger on a full plate next to starving? Not a choice, but a necessity.

The weekend of October 16, then, destination to be determined. Warmer gloves to be bought, electric vest to be tested. Bags to be packed; not much is needed beyond pajamas and two sets of underwear. Book, paper, pen. Credit card. Open road, opening.