Three years ago, I moved the contents of my house into a storage unit, and left to live and write in a number of places I’d never been before. Since then, I’ve moved 20 times. Now I’m in residence for two months at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains which I see out my studio window. A blue haze created by the breathing of trees.
I’m not an efficient traveler with a well-packed suitcase and car. I’ve had a basketball in my jeep since I left, but haven’t played for years. But the basketball reminds me of a photograph of a sand mandala I saw at Atlantic Center for Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Seven Tibetan monks came to ACA in 2001 to create the mandala. When they finished, the monks prayed, then blew the sand away.
I heard the monks had played basketball at the court down the road on Turnbull Bay. When I worked at ACA, I thought I’d go to the court one day on my lunch break, play where the monks had played, but never did. Still, when I saw the basketball in my jeep, I saw orange robes flying on a white court.
Before this drive to Virginia, I finally took the basketball out, and it pained me. But I was making room for a jug of coolant, quarts of motor oil, things that could keep me moving down the road. My jeep lower to the ground with the weight of books filling plastic totes in the back. Thousands more in storage, it hardly seems overdoing it to carry a hundred with me.
Before I started this trip three years ago, a painter, Trish Thompson gave me two gifts I bring along. A hematite statue of Guanyin inside a palm-sized woven bag I can wear around my neck. In my memoir, Trish had read of my encounter with Guanyin in the Boston MFA, how I’d learned that she wouldn’t leave the world until no one is suffering. I said that I'd carry her with me. But Trish said, No, she’ll carry you. Trish also gave me a painting in place of an old painting of hers I’d longed for: “Purple River #2.” It was the river behind her house that she walked every night. But she wasn’t as interested in the finished paintings as in the process of making them. So she’d painted over it. Gave me a new one.
I’d heard of a woman who, when she traveled, would pack almost nothing. Buy her clothes in thrift stores when she arrived, then donate them back when she left. I admire her as I admire those who climb mountains. I can’t imagine what it would be like to travel so lightly.
Opening my suitcase in Florida this July, I found I’d packed a freezer bag of mittens. In another suitcase: purple gloves, wool scarf and hats from Wyoming and Provincetown. The gloves have a story too, but I hadn't meant to bring them into the 90 degree heat. Here in Virginia, where I’ll be into October, I found several bathing suits in my suitcase, but no coat.
I drove to Central Virginia from New Smyrna Beach, Florida in a 1997 Jeep Cherokee with nearly 170,000 miles using the GPS on my phone. I found myself driving alone in the dark, in pouring rain through seemingly endless farmland in South and North Carolina. Before dark fell, I’d had fields of green on either side. I saw a sign for Peaches and several churches. One convenience store. Narrow two-way traffic on hilly roads. Later, I learned that this isolated dark road had been unnecessary. I could have taken easy 95 all the way to Richmond, then veered toward Lynchburg.
In these three years of travelling, I’ve relied on my beat-up old jeep, kindly described as rugged. It’s still carrying me to new places. When I write, I want to be lost, surprised, to go somewhere I haven’t been before. I’ve written poems for my cars - a Toyota I had many years ago, and an Oldsmobile. Both poems inspired by Barbara Hamby’s wonderful "Ode to My 1977 Toyota” from her American Odes in Babel (University of Pittsburgh Press):
“... Remember the months
I drove you to work singing "Some Enchanted Evening"?
Those were scary times. All I thought about
was getting on I-10 with you and not stopping. Would you
have made it to New Orleans? What would our life
have been like there? I'd forgotten about poetry. Thank God,
I remembered her. She saved us both.”
William Stafford’s devastating “Travelling in the Dark” always pulls me to the side of the road, beside the speaker and the unborn fawn, the wilderness listening. It’s from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf, 1998:
“My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.”
“After the teacher asked if anyone had
a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank
in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car
being in it alone, his tape deck playing
things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken"
Deborah A. Miranda gave me a copy of Linda Hogan’s beauty, “Driving at Night” (anthologized in Kurt Brown’s Drive, They Said: Poems About Americans & Their Cars (Milkweed, 1994). The poem closes with these lines:
“Bless the horse
and the clothing left out on a line,
with nothing to hold but air.
where women and men
asleep at night
dreaming all the dark roads
out of the world.”
“the darkness sur-/rounds us what/can we do against/it, or else, shall we &/why not, buy a goddamn big car,/drive, he sd”
“I have always been at the same time
woman enough to be moved to tears
and man enough
to drive my car in any direction"
“This is Attention. This is detail fitted to sheer
Velocity. For her knees, after all, are locked—
Once fitted into the driving pit, she can only accelerate
Into a future that becomes hauntingly like the past:”
Sophie Klahr recommended Jim Daniels’ poem, “Wheels,” from Places/Everyone, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1985) in which a brother’s life is seen in photographs of him waving from trucks and cars and motorcycles:
“My brother helmetless
rides off on his Harley
my brother's feet rarely touch the ground-
face pressed to the wind
no camera to save him.”
“But wherever I was going, I don't care anymore,
because no place I could arrive at
is good enough for this, this thing made out of experience
but to which experience will never measure up.
And that dark and soaring fact
is enough to make me renounce the whole world
or fall in love with it forever.”
I’m sure there are other car poems, and I’d love to read them. But I’ll close with a poem about travel by Deborah A. Miranda from her collection, Indian Cartography (Greenfield Review Press, 1999). I would not have met her if I hadn’t traveled to Virginia, where by chance our paths crossed for a handful of days:
Five a.m., at the burnt end of a fierce October.
It's dark, quiet. I wish I were on the road,
traveling, a thin paper cup of coffee
hot in my hand, dawn coming up
on the horizon and all around me
the outline of shaggy pines, uncut pasture
flashing past car windows.
I'd go north into the foothills,
to one of the passes—
Snoqualmie is open, I think—
over the Cascades and down
into the flatlands of eastern
Washington. I could be there by noon time,
walk the arid soil beside the Columbia.
I'd sit in a lonesome sandy spot, listen
to the restless water, smell the scent
This time of year, birds gather—
Canada geese in clouds of gray and black,
herons stick-legged under generous blue cloaks—
and my body, ready, waits for the moment
when wind insists, sunlight strikes
a true angle, triggering in my heart
some secret knowledge of direction.