February 1, 2021
Eventually, many of us uproot ourselves. We give ourselves over to the purgatory of changing places. Former hometowns recede into memory. The connections to those we care about remain, as if we had said “so long” just yesterday. Then we think about highways. We want to see people. We have only so much time.
South Carolina Upstate is as good a place as any to feel time obliterate itself. It’s a modest spot on the map a few hours from the coast. We have good hospitals, a zoo, and a minor-league pro ball team. You find snippets of history across the state, some of it violent. Secession started in South Carolina, in December 1860.
Greenville has a Confederate museum. Like many S.C. towns, it has a road and a school named after millionaire slaveowner-cotton grower and rebel hero Wade Hampton, later former millionaire, senator, and governor. I just set aside Wade Hampton: Gentleman and Soldier, a tongue-in-cheek Christmas gift from my daughter. Hampton’s story captures not just the indelible mythology of the Lost Cause, but its tragic legacy for 2021.
While we work at settling here, now three months, a friend is planning a run-hike in the Grand Canyon next month on a section of the rim-to-rim network of trails out there. A hard challenge, but the kind of thing that refreshes spirits. I remind myself I only have so much time.
We could go to the Canyon. We could ride up I-26 to I-40 and across Tennessee, first through the mountains and the flat cotton South to the southern Plains, and over the Texas prairie to the desert. We’d pass through six states to Williams, Ariz., then turn north on U.S. 44 for the last 50 miles.
We could do that, or just stay on 40 out to California and see family. I’ve been telling them I’ll visit for years. But we’ve got a lot going on here: the new house, the radiation sessions, the doctor’s appointments. February is not the time for cross-country driving.
Instead, there’s my still-new but rapidly aging bright idea, fast-hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. I got a taste of it in September when I joined a friend to crew a runner overnight for half the distance. I want to see those white AT blazes again.
Right now it’s talk. Then there’s the climb of Mount Katahdin, northern terminus of the AT, in Maine. I’ve been to Springer Mountain, Ga., the southern end. Aren’t we all making big plans? Plans, or dreams. It would allow stopping in Virginia to see old friends, then near Philadelphia, where our son and daughter-in-law live. We could visit people in Jersey, an old friend in New York, and cousins out on Long Island. I could combine this trip with my 50-year college reunion, St. Anselm in Manchester, N.H., in June.
These days many Americans are dreaming of recovery from disease, of getting decent work, and putting food on the table. Some are wondering when the national anger will fade, or if it ever will.
We wonder if we’ll ever set out on that Northeast junket. When do you know you shouldn’t be taking 2,500-mile road trips? Last March before the pandemic blew up we drove from Virginia to Florida, then detoured to Greenville. Life changed. Florida tried to stop out-of-state visitors. We learned about masks and home confinement. Who doesn’t remember those things?
But meanwhile all of us, not just the oldsters, reflexively struggle to resurrect memories. We try to leap back over 2020 and connect present to the past, that is, the past up to the start of last year, not because of the pandemic or the politics, but because we treasure the years when we were carefree with our dreams. More and more, old folks hear from younger adults wistful stories of their past, and the simplicity, the pleasure of it. They’re learning to revere memory, as we did, not just for the lessons it holds, but for the joy of summoning those they love.
Then we find freedom. We know we get to a point where there’s more behind us than ahead. We find it when we get serious about measuring the good and maybe the not-so-good we’ve accomplished. We step up to take inventory, the sum total of what we’ve learned about ourselves and what we’ve meant to others. That we call wisdom.
We cherish the youngest, the children because we love them, but also because we want to teach them. We want to show them the richness of life ahead of them in that sweet spot between, well, between whenever we think we got our act together and the present moment, when we’re planning out months, not years.
The trick to that is not lapsing into the creaky “when I was your age …” stereotype of the old coot who thinks his complaints, grievances, and grudges are worthwhile lessons. And while we think we know the type, it’s not easy to avoid. After all, most of us didn’t make ten million dollars or become President. Something went wrong for me along that route. The sooner we recognized it and quit stewing about it, the sooner we relaxed.
I’m still looking at the Arizona trip, ready—maybe not exactly ready—to strap on a hydration pack and slog down the Canyon trail. Then we could hop in the van and finish the trip to California. We wouldn’t be on anyone’s clock. We’ve been talking about a big plane trip, maybe Hawaii or Alaska, never been to either. Then there’s Mount Katahdin—the climb, the campout, the fast trek back down. It would refresh spirits.