I come from a family of wanderers, who look to the road with longing in their hearts, who have restless feet and yearning souls, yearning for adventure and new things, who grow bored and dissatisfied with the same thing day after day. I did not inherit this restlessness, except for a tiny corner of my heart, the one that loves the open road and the wind in my hair, the joys of being lost in a landscape, of wandering without a purpose save for the wandering itself. (In me the twitching feet came out in the form of a short attention span, of the ability to fall in love with something deeply but for only a short while before something new catches my eye and heart).
We are a family of roadtrippers, piling into cars with maps and thermos flasks and coolers packed with bottled water and bottomless supplies of snacks. (In the mid-eighties I remember a road trip from St. Louis to Seattle of which I remember only forests of petrified wood, museums of ancient fossils, the hot leather of the car seats and the dog panting at my side). The summer I turned twenty-one I took a road trip with my uncle and my grandfather from Seattle, WA to Rochester, NY. (A year later I would take the same trip in the opposite direction with my mother, but that is another story). The three of us drove across America, detouring through more scenic areas and eating in roadside cafés. (The best fried chicken I have ever tasted was eaten somewhere along this route). In the 1990's my grandfather and uncle made many of these trips between Seattle and New York; they were old hands at this.
I came upon Travels with Charley for the first time in a decade and the memories of that road trip come flooding back to me. John Steinbeck writes of the journey he took across America in search of his country, realizing that he, as an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir...writing of something [he] did not know about...is criminal. His companion on this journey is his French poodle, Charley, undertaken in a three-quarter-ton truck with a fully-equipped cabin on the back, and the truck is named Rocinante, which you should all know is the name of Don Quixote's horse.
Unlike my own journey between the two halves of my life, home and school, a simple way of getting from one point to another, Steinbeck's journey was undertaken with no destination save for the journey itself. He recognizes in himself a sense of longing, "the urge to be someplace else," and along the way meets so many people who gaze at him and his Rocinante with that same wishful longing, from the little boy who lives next door and watches him prepare for the road ahead to the man who takes his order for drinks to offer any visitors along the way. And I feel that same longing rise up in my heart, the urge to take my father's bright-blue camper van and a supply of food and clothes and books that I wish I had time to read but don't and take off in search of my own America, to see how it has changed in the nearly fifty years between Steinbeck's journey and my own time.
There is a sense of shock when I remember that Steinbeck was the first writer I loved. I am reminded of how Joan Didion once said that she loved New York like you love the first person who ever touches you and you never feel the same way about anyone ever again. There have been so many other writers in the years since, but now I fall into Steinbeck's words and remember how they always made me feel, the way that your body remembers something you thought you had forgotten. It seems right to me, to start the new year with an old love, the oldest love of them all.