As a child, every two or three years my family would make the cross-country trek back to the land of our fathers. And mothers–they stand tall and powerful of influence in my family tree. My mother, who was bereft of a single relative (besides her own children) in the state we eventually called home, and whose focus in life is family, was the propellant: no sacrifice was too great to get within the grasp of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. On a tight budget and with plenty of kids in tow, she was the organizer, the study-er of maps, the planner of our national park excursions/camping itinerary/food menu, and packer of the station wagon–no small feat considering nine people needed camping equipment, clothes, and food for three weeks. We only stayed in a motel if there was inclement weather, and we only ate at restaurants (read: McDonald’s) about once on the way there and once on the way back. Mom’s pioneer ancestry runs thick as mud in her veins, and her children would have the same experience with the stars, terrain, and trekking west (also via a wagon, of the steel variety) if it was the last thing she did.
While Mom was the driving force, Dad was the driver. Quiet captain at the wheel, steady and sure as the Mississippi River–wherever we went, Dad got us there. Kept alert by carrot sticks and Mountain Dew (the only time he ever drank such), he could successfully pull off 10-12 hour days if need be, patiently following Mom’s directions to turn here and switch to that back road and ah, yes, this is where we’re camping for the night. His humor and good-natured personality averted many a crises along the journey and are his greatest gifts to his children. Dad was a teacher, professor of French and Latin at a prestigious high school. That we had summers to explore the country and adventure together was something I took for granted…it took thirty years for me to wrap my mind around the fact that not every working individual gets June and July off. The tragedy!
How I loved these trips. They shaped my life, carved a craving for the open road, adventure, and being surrounded by loved ones. To this day, every few seasons I start itching for a long road trip. And I and my siblings, parents now, frequently try to recreate what Mom and Dad started, generations coming to know the pleasure of journeying together to a faraway destination. Squashed to the hilt in that yellow station wagon, and preceding strict safety regulations, my baby sister would sit in a bucket car seat in between my parents, my long-legged older brother, sister and I in the middle, and the three younger boys in the adventurous back area, with two little benches facing each other and the horizon on either side. We breathed the same air for 3-4 days each way, heard the same well-worn family stories and some unexpected new ones, sang songs, played the alphabet game, ate whatever meals we could throw together from the cooler, and set up and took down camp together. Even in the rare moments of quiet, staring out of the window at the passing landscape, the changing geology, and the weather sweeping across the plains, there was solidarity.
What I also gained from these trips was exposure. Most of my classmates were surprised by the fact that our lower middle-class family regularly saw sights well beyond the reach of Louisiana locals. The Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, Yellowstone, Mesa Verde, the continental divide, oceans on either side: we got to see these wonders in the flesh, not just in tired photos in a geography book at school. In the variety, I found magnificence…and an introduction to my life’s passion.
One afternoon in particular stands out: I don’t remember how old I was (probably not more than 12), or where we were (somewhere in that forever-land we call Texas, or New Mexico, or along the old Route 666 in southern Utah), but I do remember exactly what I saw and have gone back to that memory many times because it seemed to open a door to a new dimension for me. Cheek cupped in palm, tan forearm in the warmth of the sun, I stared hungrily out of the window in one of the scarce periods of quiet. What was I searching for? For beauty. My childhood self was searching for beauty.
And I found it. My young eyes discovered a simple, exquisite scene, and my brain formed a gilded, ornate frame around it in the scrapbook of my mind so that I could return to it again and again–not only the picture, but also, particularly, the full-bodied joy that accompanied it, because Joy is Beauty’s favorite traveling companion. A grassy field, stretching out towards gentle foothills; a river doing what rivers do best: snaking through the picture, adding movement in form and in actuality with clear, impatient water racing over rounded rocks; trees lending green and sway and shade; sunlight in its golden hour choosing which shapes to highlight and draw the eye…and a deer, perfectly placed, coming to the water for drink. It leaned down, velvet nose to water, and then heard our car lumbering past. Front right leg came up in pause, ready to turn the body away in an instant if necessary, and its big doe eyes looked right at me. Into me. Connected me to the moment, the picture, the beauty. And I will never forget it.
Since then, I’ve sought and found beauty a million times over, in all varieties, combinations, gradations of color, texture, form, sound, and interaction. It’s become my life’s pursuit, not only to find it, but to create it: in music, with words, generating warmth towards others, and editing excess to create order with physical things. My life in a nutshell. Sacred and fervent impetus, I have a feeling it’s a longing for the home my soul knew before this one. That comfort of life in an unmarred realm, surrounded by loved ones. Journeying across the great divide of imperfection to get back to the place of origin, familiarity. Just like my mom. When I find and touch beauty, I am whole again.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
~William Wordsworth, excerpt from Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
I think Wordsworth is intimating that a child’s pure delight with the splendid visions of nature’s beauty point towards a forgotten, sublime home, but that as we journey farther from our birth (which trailed clouds of glory), our eyes become glazed with the commonness of it all and here comes familiarity’s contempt. It is my goal to maintain a childlike wonder, an ecstatic joy whenever I unearth Earth’s beauty…let me be a 95-year-old who still weeps at the sunrise!
Well, the baby sister in the bucket seat grew up, and one day on the open road of a similar adventure together as adult sisters, we decided we’d race to see who could visit all fifty states first. What Mom and Dad started in guiding us across the country as children, we finished. She beat me, by days, but the venture to every one of the unique, united states has changed me with this nation’s gift of beauty. My mom may have meant to take us to family, but how glad I am that the way there required a pilgrimage. The journey is what bonded my nuclear family together, and what opened my eyes to beauty.