Summer, for me, used to be all about lethargy. Languidness. Endless afternoons with sun that baked exposed skin.
It also used to be about getting in the car, packed to withstand a few weeks on the road, and heading out. No destination in particular. The destination, rather, was a place waiting for discovery, a place that would make itself apparent when it was stumbled upon. Literally stumbled upon – not with the click of a mouse, but with two feet aimed at a path that might have dust and rocks and mouse droppings.
Those are the kind of summers I grew up with. Lazy travel, lawn chairs, the sounds of planes droning in a deep blue August sky like dragonflies from another realm. The discovery of places that emerged around the next bend in the road. Beer and soda in glass bottles on the back step at dusk. My parents were not privileged people – my father was a federal civil servant and my mother did not have an outside job most of the time when I was growing up – but they understood the need to change their routines at least once a year. That we got in the car and hit the road without reservations, without cell phones, without a plan other than a date by which we had to be back home so Dad could go back to work, is something no one I know now does.
I remember one summer, when I was 13, when my parents got in the car while debating which way to head – south to where my Aunt Marion lived, west where my sister Trish had relocated, or east where New York City beckoned. Dad put his key into the ignition and started the engine while they were still discussing the pros and cons of one direction over another. The west got cut fairly quickly because we had been that way many summers in a row. We were on the freeway heading through downtown St. Paul when they sort of chose to go east by default. We were already on I-94 anyway, so what the hell.
That was one of the best trips ever. We meandered through Milwaukee and Chicago, stopped at the sand dunes in Indiana, walked the Notre Dame University campus. We drifted through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, stopped at Niagara Falls during a huge cloudburst, found our way to Boston and nearly did not find our way back out, ended up at a motel in Mamaroneck (or was it Scarsdale? Hmm.) and took a train into New York City. My first view of what would become one of my favorite cities in the world was through a train window and then from the steps of Grand Central Station. We found a tour bus and got oriented to the city on the bus ride, with stops at the classic places: Empire State Building, Chinatown, United Nations, St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We found the Staten Island ferry and got on it. We walked endlessly. The next day, my dad decided driving in New York City wouldn’t be all that bad and so he did. We got lost in Harlem, where Dad rolled down his window to ask directions at the same time Mom rolled hers up and locked her door. Later, we accidentally got in the tunnel that goes to New Jersey but nobody cared. We kept going as far as we could down the East Coast until it was time to turn around and go home. The last two days were spent pounding the road for long stretches so Dad wouldn’t be late for work. His delight at having logged several thousand miles on his car lasted all winter.
There is a lot of comfort to knowing where I’m going to put my head at night. But there’s also a certain luxury to being free enough and lucky enough to have an adventure during which I report to no one. And I can’t remember the last time I was completely unplugged by choice.
It must be time. I’ll just go pack the smallest of bags.