Big Road

September 26, 2022

Bayse, Va., is west of the Massanutten Range just south of Front Royal and Strasburg. For us, that means I-81 from Johnson City, Tenn., for roughly 350 miles of mountains, farmland, and small country churches.

Five interstate highways, 10, 40, 70, 80, and 90 cross the country. I-81 really is just a spur, at 850 miles, from just east of Knoxville to the Canadian border. It’s long enough.

In 2011 we drove south on I-81 late at night. Near Wytheville, Va., the wind howled, the rain pounded the windshield. Eighteen wheelers were pulling to the shoulder, the highway was dark, no headlights in front of or behind us. We saw the marquee of a La Quinta Inn and got off. The desk clerk’s face was pale. We got lucky, they had a room. Thunder crashed, rivers and lakes formed in the parking lot. Then it was quiet.

Back on the interstate the next morning, we saw shattered and twisted trees, barns, sheds, homes. The news reported a tornado, then several, up and down the I-81 corridor. It was the same on the way back a few days later along that stretch. Destruction for miles.

2011 is a lifetime ago, the images remain. Earlier, every year starting in 2006 and through 2017 we drove from northern Virginia to Nashville in April to visit family and friends. We passed and or stopped at familiar places, around the Shenandoahs, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Natural Bridge north of Roanoke, and Blacksburg, Marion, Abingdon, Bristol. Then Knoxville, Oak Ridge, Crossville, Cookeville, Lebanon. We both were working and healthy.

In those years we didn’t look forward more than a few days. Everything is different now. Our Nashville friends moved away. Others, Sandy’s family, face health problems, work transitions and challenges. The city is not the same city we moved from years ago, not the same city we visited for years afterward.

Now forward is all that matters. Grandkids have something to do with that. In ten years the older boy will graduate from high school. I’d like to attend the ceremony. The U.S. Navy is building a new class of submarines that will stay in service until 2080. We know where we’ll be then.

For now, I-81 still draws us. Heading north from Greenville, S.C., it’s U.S. 25 to I-26 to Asheville, then through the empty country and dark peaks of western North Carolina and East Tennessee, through Erwin and Unicoi to 81 just past Johnson City. The Virginia state line is another 20 miles, opposite the fabulous Tennessee Welcome Center, which offers eloquent lessons in the state’s tumultuous history and rough-hewn culture. On the southbound side is an enormous neon-lit cross fronting a modest Baptist church. You would know you’re in Tennessee.

Northbound is a slog for a while. Beyond Bristol the road descends into the remoteness of the rugged, depressed stretch to Abingdon. The coal mines have closed, factories shut down, young people have left. Grayson Highlands State Park outside Wilson is spectacular. Years ago when the kids were small we spent a week at Hungry Mother State Park near Marion, a quiet spot next to a pretty lake.

Interstate 81 at times resurrects memories, long dormant, of both happy and grieving trips in both directions. The broken white lines and mile markers blur and disappear over miles and more miles. One exit stays in my mind, “Rural Retreat,” which we’ve never explored. A sense of our Virginia world turns up around Radford and Blacksburg, home of Virginia Tech. The highway drags towards Salem and Roanoke.

Along Skyline Drive

Along this lonely stretch are connections to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which soars through the Shenandoahs for maybe 100 miles to a place called Rockfish Gap, west of Charlottesville, where it becomes Skyline Drive, showing off some of Virginia’s breathtaking vistas, rolling, deep valleys and soaring Appalachian peaks.

North and west of Roanoke is hot-springs country, where pricey spas nestle near isolated coal towns. Years ago I took U.S. 220 from I-81 through tiny, cut-off hollows to Hot Springs. Suddenly the forest opened up at The Homestead, a spa and golf resort planted in the middle of almost nowhere—except that The Greenbrier, another mecca for affluent steambathers and massage-seekers, is only 40 miles away in Warm Sulphur Springs, West Va.

I can’t remember when, exactly, but I went to business meetings at both. The contrast, ramshackle shacks and soaring white columns, boarded-up stores and sweeping green fairways rattles the nerves.

We take turns at the wheel, plodding through the mountains to the piedmont’s rolling green hills, deeper into the Old Dominion. The change is from hardscrabble southwest, really still the Deep South, to the tragedy-racked heart of the state, where Yankees and rebels fought at New Market and Winchester then, further east, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Petersburg, Richmond, where the war’s end was decided and the course of American history recharted.

Coming north to our old Virginia place over three decades, we’d leave 81 where it meets I-64-East at Staunton, then turn north at Charlottesville. Another two hours on state roads would land us in Prince William County. We still have the route memorized. Now, though, it’s 81 only. The pitch of the landscape smooths a bit before the Massanuttens rise gradually to the east. The 100-mile-long ridge looms past New Market and three pretty towns, Edinburg, Woodstock, and Toms Brook.

The suburbs begin to show up with the fast-food joints and the ubiquitous Sheetz multi-pump gas and grocery outlets. Suddenly majestic Signal Knob mountain appears, a beacon to Strasburg, then Front Royal, then I-66 to Washington. The American South ends at Front Royal. But I-66 crosses the Appalachian Trail at Markham. Still deep-forest, rocky country.

Just past Strasburg the D.C. rush hour reaches out 50 miles, the left-lane traffic blasts past us. The mountains, becoming hills, are in the rear-view mirror. Woodbridge, where we ended our long Virginia tour when dreams expired, is an easy run. It rates a drive-by, a short one. We look south now. I-81 is our escape route, all those miles to a complicated future in a still-complicated place, to respite, the final act, salvation.   

The Project

September 19, 2022

The floor sander weighed more than 100 pounds, easily. The Home Depot Rental Center staff, a young woman and an older guy, lifting together, loaded it in the van. I bought four strips of coarse sandpaper. At home I took a deep breath and eased the machine down to the driveway and pushed it through the backyard. As I heaved it up the two steps onto the deck I felt an ugly twinge in my back. I knew then this is a two-man job. I was short one man.

The deck is about 10 feet by 10 feet, accessible from the house through a sliding glass door to the kitchen. Sunlight streams through the door into the kitchen. The deck is old and rickety, the paint chipping, the nails popping. It cried out for top-to-bottom refinishing, or the junkyard. A short few months ago we thought it could become a sunroom, providing more living space, brightness, and warmth.

Sunrooms are popular. Who doesn’t love sprawling in an easy chair or on a soft sofa, feeling the bright rays bathe the body in nature’s gentle warmth, even through the summer’s choking humidity or winter’s icy winds? Everyone loves sunrooms, the cheery, wide-windowed spaces on the bright side of the house. That is, on some houses. Ours doesn’t have one.

No, it’s true, we don’t have one. In the plodding melodrama of our lives, really, it’s a small thing. Meanwhile, we’re stunned every day, like everyone else, by the relentless history beyond our modest foothold in this place. Floods and fires ravage the nation, stock prices plummet, interest rates spiral upward. Covid is returning, the country is torn by political anger. The world is wracked by war, millions suffer.

Yet still—we all push on, trying our best to move our own worlds forward and make our dreams come true; to do something concrete and creative, to leave a mark, great or humble, that will remain beyond our time, something others can point to and even enjoy.

Some try to write a book, paint a landscape, plant a garden, something maybe only our families will remember. In the suburbs we have a natural avenue, both ambitious and mundane: fix up our little nests. Moving into a new home juices the feeling. You like it but it still could use something, a fresh coat of paint, new kitchen or bathroom fixtures, drapes, curtains. Or a sunroom. Our kids’ homes have sunrooms. So do our most of our friends’ homes. When we visit we sit in their lovely, sunny spaces and wonder, could this be ours?

It took us months to make up our minds to sell our Virginia house and move. Inertia paralyzed us, reinforced by years of doing the same things in the same place. It set in again here. We looked on as neighbors and family took on ambitious projects, and wondered.

Months sped by, eventually we stepped up. Three contractors gave us sunroom proposals ranging from $41,000 to $21,000. The high one was from a big homebuilding outfit that wouldn’t notice our business and probably didn’t want it. We didn’t respond, the firm didn’t bother calling back. The low-bid guy pitched a semi-back porch framed with uninsulated plastic windows that he called a “three-season” space. We guessed he knew he would be the low bidder.

We liked the third guy, his bid seemed reasonable. We would have tweaked it. The HOA would rule on the design. That could take a while. But he said that supply-chain problems meant long delays for materials, and anyway he was backed up with work for months. We didn’t commit. His bid simmered for a while, then went cold.

So did our excitement about our bold stroke. A sunroom would add square footage, but we would lose the outdoor space and the spray of sunlight into the kitchen. We wondered what else we could do with the thousands of dollars the sunroom would cost. Our daughter said we could travel the world. It wasn’t in the budget when we moved. Meanwhile health-care costs are rising 8 percent per year.

Ten years ago, in Virginia, I built a 30-foot-long patio with concrete bricks. It took four months, but was indestructible. I sat out there on many evenings, taking in nature. Over time the backyard hill eroded a bit and dirt leached onto the bricks, some of which buckled. But it was mine.

We looked again at the deck with kinder eyes. We could refinish and rebuild it, make it immortal. We could enjoy fresh air and sunlight outside.

Back to the sander: I fastened a sandpaper strip in place and pressed “Start.” The engine roared and tore into the deck surface. I shut it off and caught my breath, the sander vibrated to a stop and keeled over. I peered at the underside, the paper was torn by protruding nails I didn’t notice.

I righted the machine, grasped the handle and pushed “Start” again.  It bucked forward and chewed at the rough floor, pulverizing the surface and the faded decades-old blue paint, dust shooting in all directions. I kept pushing, weaving slowly across the deck to the railing. I backed up and ploughed over the same boards a second time, leaving a whitened, smoothed path through the rough wood.

After navigating the sander in rows across the entire deck I hauled my leaf blower from the garage and blasted away the thick lines of dust, which blew back in my eyes and nose and coated me head to toe. I replaced the worn sanding strip and steered across the deck again. The sander whined, the paint turned to dust. Back and forth, back and forth, through the ear-splitting din. I hit another nail that tore the paper. I replaced it and kept going. In 90 minutes the worn deck floor looked whitened, beaten, smoothed.

I turned the machine off and leaned on the railing, sweating and covered with dust. The deck edges the sander couldn’t reach were untouched, awaiting long hours of hand finishing.

The sander was due back at the Depot in an hour. I stumbled inside. Sandy helped me lift it into the van. We headed back down the interstate. Outside the Rental Center a staff guy waved. “It’s in the van,” I said. Together we lifted the machine onto the parking lot. I thanked him, we drove away.

Later that afternoon I used the leaf blower to blow away the remaining dust, revealing most of the surface, now ground cleanly to bare wood. Months of work remains, but this much is done. The sunroom? Maybe next year. Maybe not.

Faraway Places

September 12, 2022

Italy’s Amalfi coast is supposed to be lovely. So is Merida, Mexico, on the Yucatan peninsula. Just two weeks ago two of our children were visiting both. We have friends now visiting Palermo, Italy. So where are we going?

Many of us yearn to jet off to faraway places, to see Europe’s great museums, cathedrals, and castles, to cruise the Rhine to Strasbourg and the Danube to Vienna. We hope to stroll past the Coliseum in Rome and climb the Eiffel Tower and China’s Great Wall. The plaintive, beautiful tune, “You Belong to Me,” sung by multiple artists back to Jo Stafford’s sweet tones in 1952, says it all:

“See the pyramids along the Nile … watch the sun rise on a tropic isle … fly the ocean in a silver plane … see the jungle when it’s wet with rain …”  You close your eyes and listen, and think, I have to do that, I have to go. 

Click here for link.

The rolling hills and rich green fields of Prince Edward Island run down to rocky beaches along the island’s northern coast, which faces the rich blue Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The rural roads are nearly empty even when they pass through tidy, peaceful villages. Tall steeples of old churches break the horizon. In fall 2010 we drove around the island, stunning in its beauty. We stayed near the fictional Ann of Green Gables home. Most restaurants and hotels had shut down for winter, but we managed.

The urge to travel is almost a law of nature for retired people. Travel is one of the things our nest eggs are for. In June we drove to Wyoming, then last month to New Jersey. New Jersey?  Why not a long plane ride to some exotic place? Our last plane trip was in June to New Hampshire for my college reunion. Last fall we flew to Colorado to visit our daughter. Before that, in July, we flew to Boston, rented a car and drove, again, to New Hampshire.

Shrine, Taichung, Taipei

In the depths of covid, no one was flying. Before last summer I recall taking a plane to Seattle to see my sister and brother-in-law in 2019. It was winter. They no longer live there.

We got to London for the Farnborough Air Show in 1988 and to Paris for the Paris Air Show a year later, both were work trips. We saw some of the sights, London Bridge, St. Paul’s, the Eiffel Tower. For our 25th anniversary we went to Rome. At the Vatican we got close to the Pope (John Paul II, two popes back). I thought he looked me in the eye.  Sandy went back to Italy with her church choir. Our kids all have been to Europe, our son and daughter-in-law to Iceland, New Zealand, and Australia, our daughters to Japan, Russia, and Peru.

I have been to some unique places. In the Marine Corps I spent a year on Okinawa because the Corps sent me, no fun and games. In Naha, the capital, I visited the sad memorial at the cliffs where Okinawans leaped to their deaths during the ferocious April-June 1945 battle. I rode a bike around the rugged northern end of the island where some of the heaviest fighting occurred. On leave I went to Taiwan and rode a train from Taipei to spectacular Sun Moon Lake and to mysterious Taichung City.

Sun Moon Lake

In 1980 I visited Nicaragua on the first anniversary of the Marxist-Sandinista revolution, while sporadic fighting continued. In the hotel bar I ate dinner with Sandinista soldiers who laid their automatic weapons on the tables while small-arms fire echoed outside. The capital, Managua, still was in ruins after the 1972 earthquake.

On my way to Managua I visited Guatemala in the middle of the country’s tragic 30-year civil war, when the military and vigilante armies fought Marxist guerrillas in the mountains. The then-president, General Lucas Garcia, was overthrown by yet another repressive general in 1982. A year later, I spent a week in Mexico City, inhaling its red-brown smog. I walked across the Plaza de la Constitucion, the Zocalo, and rode out to the Aztec pyramids. In the hotel a maid asked me for money, I gave her pocket cash. Poverty torments, even at the Marriott.

Great Slave Lake

On the plus side, in June 2010 my son Michael and I went fishing on the Great Slave Lake, the deepest in North America, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. We flew to Yellowknife by way of an overnight in Edmonton, Alberta, then in a pontoon plane to a wilderness camp. For four days we hauled in giant lake trout and northern pike from the near-freezing lake.

My siblings and our kids all have been to Ireland. Our daughter spent a year in college in Dublin, we never got there. It’s on the list. I’d like to see Oxford, England. On the domestic side, Sandy wants to go to Alaska. We haven’t set foot there or in Arkansas, Hawaii, Nebraska, or Oregon.

Cruises are big with some folks. We met a lady just back from a Viking cruise to the Adriatic coast plus Turkey, which she said she loved. The ship stopped at Dubrovnik in Croatia. Dubrovnik? Wikipedia calls it “one of the prominent tourist destinations in the Mediterranean.” We get the Viking brochures. I looked up the cruise: $4,600/person for the low-rent cabin, not counting airfare or tours ashore. We may not get there right away.

Some folks look at the world, or maybe just look at brochures or their National Geographics and sign up for their trips. They go with tour groups or in twos and threes or fours, or by themselves. They punch their tickets at interesting places but never go back. 

We have only so much time. We hope, like the wandering lover in “You Belong to Me,” to see the world and the infinite variety of God’s creation. But we listen one more time and realize the song isn’t about travel at all. Instead it expresses a woman’s generous love, an immensely greater gift than visits to the pyramids on the Nile and all monuments, museums, and cathedrals.

We go on talking about trips while living our lives, which now include an MRI to locate cancer. That and all our experiences fit together in some complicated, mystical way, as in the song’s apt title. The details fade into the swamp of daily life. We can fly off in the silver plane, or not. We all work hard to belong to each other. The trips are just sights along the way.  


September 5, 2022

Some places are a highway, a bridge, a traffic jam, or a generation too far. The upper reaches of the Bronx, New York’s northernmost borough, are a long trip even from New Jersey. The toll across the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge (“the George”) from Fort Lee, N.J., into the northern end of Manhattan now is $16 round-trip.

We made it to Jersey last month to see my sister-in-law, niece, and nephew, and got to the almost-famous Gotham City Diner along scruffy, all-Jersey U.S. 4, the direct route from Paterson to the George. But we scrubbed the Bronx tour which, really, would have been about resurrecting memories. Southern suburban quaintness plays games with how you think about New York.

In 1986 we moved from Nashville to Red Bank, N.J., 40 miles from the city, for one year. At first I warmed to that familiar, complicated place. Eventually it seemed like another country.       

I was born in New York City, but when I was a kid we moved to Jersey, about 15 miles west of the George. We took Route 4 to the bridge to visit my grandparents, my dad’s folks, in the Bronx. The bridge traffic flows under a crisscross of Manhattan streets across the East River (at that point called the Harlem River). The highway becomes the Cross Bronx Expressway, the continuation of I-95 to New England. We turned north onto University Avenue and crawled through traffic for four or five miles to Fordham Road.

U.S 4, Fairlawn, N.J.

In the years I grew up they lived on the fourth floor of a five-story walkup on a winding street named Father Zeiser Place. The street borders a large city park with a playground. The church where my parents were married is a block away at the busy Fordham and University intersection.

The Fordham neighborhood streets were lined with butcher and grocery shops with signs in Hebrew, small Italian eateries, inexpensive clothing stores. The sidewalks always were crowded with shoppers, commuters with briefcases and, on school days, Jewish boys wearing yarmulkes and Catholic kids in maroon school uniforms. Fordham University is a few blocks farther east. An Alexander’s department store anchored the neighborhood, next to the IRT subway station where the “A” train picks up and lets off en route to and from Manhattan with a stop at Yankee Stadium. The world-famous Bronx Zoo is nearby.  

In those years the George Washington Bridge toll was 50 cents. It went to $1.75 in 1975. By then my Bronx grandparents were gone. Even twenty years ago graffiti covered almost every wall.    

Every so often we’d drive to Queens to visit my maternal grandmother. That meant the George again, but we turned off the bridge onto the West Side Highway, now the Henry Hudson Parkway, which runs north-south along the Hudson then curls into a tunnel to Brooklyn. We’d slog through Brooklyn and into Queens—seemed like hours—then pass the Navy air station at Floyd Bennett Field and cross the giant Marine Bridge over Jamaica Bay. The south side of the bay is Rockaway Beach, part of a long narrow peninsula that fronts the Atlantic, a crowded beach community in summer, but somehow still a small town.

My mother and her two sisters and three brothers grew up there. In time they scattered. Now the Bronx and Queens, for our family, may as well be on the far side of the Atlantic. No one we’re related to is left in either.

A few years ago we drove from Virginia to a wedding out on Long Island. We spent a night in Jersey and took the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn, but then detoured south and crossed, once again, the Marine Bridge into Rockaway. The Navy abandoned Floyd Bennett years ago, it’s now part of Gateway National Recreation Area, which extends from Rockaway marshland across New York harbor to New Jersey marshland, hence “Gateway.”  

Rockaway Beach is a tight grid of numbered streets, each prefaced with “Beach,” running north- south from the bay up to a boardwalk astride the beach and west-east from Beach 149th to Beach 6th. There the neighborhood ends at a giant freeway. It’s the far southern end of Queens, the Manhattan skyline is faintly visible in the distance. But Rockaway is still New York.

The beach streets still are lined with elaborate, sprawling homes, some a century old, many with roomy decks and porches. Here and there the homes now are squeezed between cramped-looking apartment buildings. We walked across the boardwalk and down to the beach. It was November and chilly, the ocean was gray and choppy, brushed by the wind, which pushed the surf against the hard sand. The beach was deserted, I spied a few folks hurrying along the boardwalk, which extends for a couple of miles east and west.  

Red Bank house

The place had a familiar look. We browsed in a few shops, a young saleswoman enthusiastically pushed “Rockaway Beach” T-shirts. We picked out a couple, sure to stand out in Virginia. We stopped at a white-tablecloth restaurant with a look of faded elegance. A few oldsters were getting lunch, the corned beef. We took a booth and stepped back in time.

New York, to many Americans who don’t live there, means Manhattan: Broadway, Wall Street, Central Park, Trump Tower, unique icons of America. They remember 9/11, but the Bronx and Queens don’t register. Those are the Americans whose idea of New Yorkers is rich investment bankers, artsy, radical Greenwich Village types, and snobby Democrats who know little and care less about the rest of the country.

Then again, New Yorkers don’t pay much attention to what’s below the Mason-Dixon line, except maybe southern Florida, where many hope to end up in their sunset years. But those who emigrate still think of their hometown as the center of the universe. They say the right things, but for most New Yorkers everywhere beyond Jersey is an alien planet.

These days, as always, some young people pine to make the Big Apple scene, to feel the glitz, the vibe of the city that never sleeps. They concoct ways to get there, to snap their fingers to the beat of the Sinatra ballad. I left, everyone I knew and loved finally left, or died.

Some people and places vanish like dreams. Others remain with us forever. You go where you decide your life makes sense. That’s where you stay.