Silver Spring, Maryland, where I lived at the time, is terminally suburban. It creeps up to the border of Washington, D.C., and sprawls for miles into Montgomery County, becoming the second largest city in Maryland after Baltimore.
I grew up one town over, in Takoma Park, but after college, Silver Spring became our home. Not Home in the big sense—that will always be Vermont, despite the fact that I only lived there for two years—but it’s where my parents lived, where my first apartment was, where my father died, where I shared a house with my mother. Leaving Silver Spring on a great adventure was a symbol for leaving an inherited mindset behind and trying to see with new eyes.
It is September 17, a Tuesday. Somehow it’s important that I mark the time of my departure precisely: 11:26 a.m. My trip takes me up route 270, where I visit my great grandmother’s homestead in the tiny town of Boyds, Maryland. My great uncle’s general store there still bears his name. Such a flood of memories: summer nights chasing lightning bugs and drinking black cows, screen doors banging as children ran in and out of the house happily, sitting on back lawns with friendly neighbors, the sound of cicadas buzzing furiously, the feel of the graveyard beneath my feet at the little country church. There was something quietly mystical about that town back then. There still is.
I headed up 70 past the town of Frederick, where my father lived for many years before marrying my mother, then into Washington County. The smell of manure and alfalfa was overpowering, and quite wonderful in its way. The fields gave way to rolling hills, and cooler pockets of air. At Sugarloaf I passed Little Conocheague Creek, and the town of Clear Spring, where the hills rose up dramatically and quite prettily. Rush Limbaugh was on the radio vilifying liberals in a shockingly hate-filled tirade.
A sign for The Nice Motel read, simply, “2 people, $28.”
At the entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike was a man sitting by the side of the road with a pack or bedroll next to him. He sat with his back up against a railing, knees up, arms resting on his knees, with a thumb extended casually: he was hitchkiking, apparently. His expression was glum, even grim, as if he dared someone to pick him up. I didn’t take the dare.
Pennsylvania, though it has much to recommend it, was fairly dreary, since I saw nothing but the turnpike while I was there. At the rest stop just across the Ohio border, I even bought a postcard of the turnpike.
At the same rest stop, a toilet paper dispenser had, on one side, a graffito of a large phallus, crudely drawn and very ugly, and on the other side, JESUS written in big, bold letters. I’m assuming they were not drawn by the same person.
Once I got off the turnpike in Ohio, everything changed: the fields were cool, lovely, verdant, the trees tall. I found my way to the Stanford Hostel in the Cuyahoga Valley. The hostel, which is owned by the National Park Service, was built in 1843 by one of the original settlers of the Valley.
There I learned one of the primary rules of hostel life: everyone does chores! I dusted the living room, then went to sleep in a cramped room chockablock with bunkbeds, though I was the only one there this night. I’d come to find, wherever I traveled on this trip, that I had arrived just after the late summer vacationers had departed—which of course suited me just fine.
The next morning, I sat in my car having some breakfast while I wrote out the postcard, the first of twenty-two that were sent to my mother. The card is full of newsy bits and excited anticipation. I affixed the stamp—it depicted a spotted whitetail deer—then started addressing the card.
You know that creepy feeling when you think someone is looking at you? I suddenly got that feeling. I looked up to find two of those same whitetail deer, so young that they still had their spots, standing about fifteen feet away eating breakfast, and one of them was staring fixedly at me. Then he nudged his partner, who stopped eating long enough to eye me thoroughly. Then they sauntered off into a grove of trees.
Hmm. You don’t think they could have been harbingers, do you?
Tomorrow’s episode: Chicagoland, the Handlon-Lathrops, and my introduction to Deepak Chopra.