Fall2007

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A Tale of Travel

Holy Wawa

By Michael Quinlan

I am a congenitally fearful person. I thrive best hermit-style. My most suitable literary Doppelgänger would probably be (post-suicide attempt) Ethan Frome. (The poster boy for seclusion if ever there was one). Or maybe the double character of bitter recluse and—to me—loveable loveable curmudgeon, “Joy-Hulga,” from Flannery O’Connor’s genius short story, “Good Country People,” a young woman whose physical limitations—a heart condition, an artificial leg—are dwarfed in comparison with her real aversion to the rigors of un-routine travel: the possibility of encountering other, unknown people, whom she loathes and fears in equal measures. In film, I feel kinship with “Cameron Frye,” Ferris Bueller’s anxiety-ridden sidekick, who needed special prodding simply to get him up and out of the house. So, the series of peregrinations that have made up my sporadic traveling life usually occurred when an accidental, or, more likely, enforced wanderlust (basically someone collared me and said, “We‘re going here now”) won out over the cloistered, monastic life I long for.

Everyone’s traveling life begins under the tutelage of their parents, as a child you are at their mercy, and consigned to their whims. And they had a weapon of mass destruction at their disposal: the car. The relative accessibility of cheap traveling obviously owes everything to cars. (I say relative because I have met adults who have yet to leave their home state.)

But, writers and cars have a tense, somewhat awkward relationship. “Esther Greenwood,” the protagonist (and aspiring writer) of Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical (and only) novel, The Bell Jar, is entombed in the family car as her mother chauffeurs her back to her childhood home in the Boston suburbs at the conclusion of a protracted and unsettling trip to New York City: “The gray, padded car roof closed over my head like the roof of a prison van.” F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a car to unceremoniously dispose of dim-witted harlot “Myrtle Wilson,” in The Great Gatsby---with a merciless little CoupŽ the newspapers called the “death car.” Clearly Jack Kerouac was just along for the ride in On the Road, safely ensconced in the backseat for most of the novel, very much the dutiful son dragged across our continental country by “Dean Moriarty,” his crazed, prodding, father figure. (Sort of like Chevy Chase in the Vacation movies only with lots more Mexican Benzedrine.) Mad road driving men ahead. The dilapidated Hudson John Steinbeck placed the Joad family in required endless placating and appeasement—a very exacting and unrelenting mercenary: “Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheelÉ listen to the pounding old Jalopy with all your senses.” Stephen King committed the grievous sin (typical of writers) of going for a walk, and was promptly put in his place by the unscrupulous driver of a Dodge van that came (as if on cue) careening down Route 5 in Maine, near where King lives, almost killing him. Poor Kierkegaard would have had a tough time dodging the alkies as they lurched into the shoulder, threatening to pulverize him on his habitual nightly walks. The disappearance of sidewalks, walkways, and bike trails is one of the most egregious and oppressive consequences of our supposed love affair with the automobile, and a major impediment to the development of an inner life. There will be no walking (or thinking) for you, foolish peasant. Who Killed the Electric Car? and how can I get him to break the collective knee caps of the board members of Chevron? Every generation since Eisenhower has learned that extended car travel is either boring, deadly, or hallucinatory. But, for some reason, the mystique of car culture still prevails.

I didn’t always hate cars. As a child, I believed sincerely that when I grew up I would live in my car, though, this was perhaps more plausible at that time, since the family car was a ’79 Chevy Impala that we called “the boat.” I have subsequently learned this is a typical childhood imagining—to live in a car, but I’m not sure I’ve entirely outgrown it. To this day, if I’m stuck in my car to wait out a downpour (a typical occurrence in Florida—where I now live) this strange feeling of well-being comes over me: What I need, for the moment, is here. But the car has to be stationary—once I start the engine, the feeling disappears. This perhaps explains the theory that the slow-crawl commute to work has replaced walks in nature as far as where we plumb the depths of our souls. Ralph Waldo Emerson, I‘d like you to meet Baba Booey. I laughed myself silly recently when I saw a television show profiling a bunch of back-to-nature pseudo-spiritual types laying out six-figures for “mini homes”—tiny structures, usually on wheels, that are plopped down in the middle of rural forestry (the better to contemplate Thoreauan philosophy!), but it was a nervous, defensive laughter, and born of peculiar jealousy: I too may one day find myself in the hermetic hall of fame.

But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. My Dad must have thought he won the Y-chromosomal lottery—in the form of three sons whom he could bedraggle and bond with and boy scout to his heart’s content. Years in the Navy engrained a love of spontaneous travel and adventure in him, that, no matter how hard he tried—and he did try—he just could not pass on to us.

We were having none of it.

There we’d sit, lined up in the backseat—one, two, three—the picture of passivity and disinterest, staring up with apathy into the rearview mirror as his blue eyes shone with fanatical anticipation over whatever current paltry excursion my mother had relented to and allowed into the tight budget. The car would be ludicrously over packed, (we might need this!) filled to overflowing with the crazy rectitude of a zealot bracing for a possible conversion. The packing was a cakewalk compared with what was to come as we rode: The meandering platitudes that arrived like clockwork, (“The best roads, anywhere, are in Wisconsin!”) Pope-riffic parables, and politics, politics, and more politics. (Around 1984, I could have provided legal counsel to Reagan’s fired air traffic controllers.) In other words, the stuff daydreams are made of.

Sandwiched in the middle between my siblings, knees precariously drawn up to my chest, my feet firmly affixed to the obligatory backseat hump—I was practically in the fetal position. The scenic vignettes that passed by on either side were of little comfort in such a condition, but still, I usually preferred riding in the car, passively, at the level of participation with which I was comfortable—and if I had my way, I intended to maintain.

Our destinations were typified by an infamous trip we took when I was in the sixth grade to Wawa, Canada, in the province of Ontario, a town whose main claim to fame (besides sounding like it was named after Helen Keller’s first word) was it’s relative proximity to something called the “boundary waters” (I still have no idea what that means), which seemed to occupy a somewhat mystical significance in my Dad’s imagination. Wawa was no tourist trap—its population consisted of lifelong locals and what Flannery O’Connor would have called, “real, genuine folks.” There would be no stopover at Niagara Falls, no afternoon lunch in Quebec, no theme parks, no frivolity—nothing to distract us from the task at hand: lessons in survival.

The spectrally minute possibility of homelessness was a continual theme of my upbringing, and my father wasted no opportunity to impart advice on how to survive it, should it materialize itself into reality at any point in my future. (To this day, if I whine about my job, I can expect his swift and delighted rejoinder: “Quit! You can build your own house!” And he did spend several weekends a year volunteering at various homeless shelters for graveyard shifts in various Chicago neighborhoods, much to my mother’s chagrin.) But I was a defiant, distracted student, interested only in irritating my siblings with my little brother antics, and in the trivial, expensive amusements I assumed were part and parcel of family vacations. I didn’t see the point in learning how to pitch a tent, and would usually scamper off by myself while everyone else went through the requisite motions of putting the thing together. I’d return in time for my two older brothers and I to awkwardly negotiate who would go first to change our clothes in the lone, “kid tent,” afflicted, as we were, with the peculiar modesty of the body conscious Irish-Catholic, while my father looked on with unadulterated and undisguised contempt.

I see this now as opportunities foolishly squandered—experiences I didn’t realize would be so much harder to come by as an adult. These days, like one of Susan Faludi’s theoretical Everymen, I do feel a bit of discomfort and regret over my lack of traditional skills—the type of stuff you learn in Boy Scouts. I was a boy scout for literally one day, quitting after the first meeting with the ennui of a know-it-all pre-teen, who needn’t waste his time with such insignificant matters. I patently refused to become, like my brothers had before me, an altar server at our local parish. (I thought the priests were condescending to the kids who approached them at the lectern.) I was beginning a tendency to isolate myself from others, and began to think of myself as somewhat of an outsider. As writer Sarah Vowell puts it, in her comedic collection of essays, Take the Canoli: I’m not a joiner.

Six years ago, when I was preparing to move with my parents from suburban Chicago to what Dave Barry calls, “the utterly strange state of Florida,” a hectoring chorus of forewarnings rained down on me: You won’t like it. You’ll be back. And most commonly: Why? An acquaintance I worked with who was familiar with the area I would be moving to assured me: “Michael, they talk like they have marbles in their mouth and there’s nothing to do there!” “Pish-posh,” I thought, and, “jeez, haven’t you people ever been to Wawa!?” Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but if everyone is in agreement that a locale is not worthy of my time, I really can’t resist going there. And besides, I’m suspicious of the assumption that people are going to be vastly different in other parts of the country, and I kind of wanted to break down the snooty regionalism that some people had exhibited when I told them of my plans. Or at least that was the theory.

To my disappointment, some of those warnings have borne bitter fruit. I’ve had my share of when worlds collide moments—living in the somewhat rural south: the army of crystal meth addicts, the registered sex offenders, (I live in the same area code as John Couey, who raped and then buried alive nine year old Jessica Lunsford), the sea of incorrigible single mothers I work with—who play the system with the dexterous hands and deliberate mendacity of one of Dicken’s charladies—scrounging for stray shillings in Ebenezer Scrooge’s still warm bed sheets—all flying in the face of some of my own na•ve assumptions: Aren’t you, aren’t you just good country people?

Still, for now, I’ll continue to cling to Kerouac’s Beatific notion—that Milledgeville, Georgia, the suburbs of Boston, a ghost town somewhere in Maine, the unknowable North Dakotan city from which “Jay Gatsby” emerged out of the ether, “Starkville,” New England, or, yes, even Wawa, Ontario, can be as transcendent, significant, and worth knowing as holy Paris! holy Tangiers! holy Moscow! or holy Istanbul! The sun go up and the sun go down in all of these places. I can be happy in any of them.

I put this theory to the test once. While traveling to Cleveland with my parents in 2004, I forced them to detour through Lorain, Ohio, a fairly unremarkable, semi-depressed town, that is also the birthplace of Toni Morrison, and was therefore infused with exoticism, meaning, and excitement to me.

The penny-ante corner Walgreen’s is trans-vouged into high glamour—in my imagination, at least—into the form of a Woolworth’s counter circa 1945, where I think I might just have spotted a modern day incarnation of “Maureen Peal,” the antagonist, “high-yellow dream child,” and friggin’ bitch of Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, whose expensive and high quality clothing “threaten to derange” the narrator and her sister. And who is that beautiful, braided, broad shouldered woman with the magnificent smile and wise, ageless face, beaming at me from across the parking lot? Could it be? Because if it is, I’m going to ask her if she’ll sign my book. And, if things go well, if she’ll let me live in her car.

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