My last day on the road I drove Interstate 90 East with the idea of standing on the shore of Lake Erie in early morning light. I could see the Great Lake from the highway so it didn’t seem like much of a detour and I had an early jump on the long drive ahead of me. The cheap motel I spent the night in had a lumpy mattress, a septic smell in the otherwise clean bathroom, and a noisy couple next door getting it on in a squeaky bed.
When would I ever be traveling along the shores of Lake Erie again? It could be sooner than I imagined, or never. I veered right and took the exit for North East, Pennsylvania.
On a quiet Sunday morning, I drove past miles of vineyards, pumpkin patches, apples, and signs proclaiming Jesus is Lord. There were dilapidated barns sitting beside dressed up barns advertising wine tastings. Pretty front porches with wicker chairs and sagging porches with peeling paint. Lights were on in kitchen windows, church parking lots were empty, for now.
Guns are sold in a set back building situated between a liquor store and a hydroponic garden center. There were flags and more flags; waving on front porches, telephone poles, and wrought iron fences. Put there as if I might forget where I was, but the gun shop had already alerted me to the fact that yes, despite the hundreds of miles I had traveled over the past two weeks, I was still here, in The United States of America.
The drive to the lake was taking longer than I thought it would. Then I noticed the sign for Downtown Erie. Damn! I was driving west, not north, back to where I started before dawn.
What am I doing here? I wondered. What wild goose am I chasing this time? Alone in the early morning light on a quiet church-going day my frustration quickly turned inward. Did I accomplish anything on this Hometown Book Pop-Up tour? I’d sold a lot of books and earned enough money for food and shelter on the drive home but none of those sales would register in the records that keep track of bestsellers. This is no way to make it to the New York Times bestseller list. As an Indie author, I can buy my own books at a discounted price for resale but those sales don’t count toward my ranking. I contemplated giving people who came to my Pop-Ups a bookmark and sending them home to order the book on Amazon but how could I pass up a sale when it was standing right there in front of me? Would they really buy it when they got home? I told myself there was always value in word of mouth, IF I could get the reader to write a review and recommend the book to friends and share it on Facebook.
My car was a mess. I hated my pocketbook; a black hole where my phone, my reading glasses, even my overstuffed wallet, were easily lost. And then there was Siri who couldn’t find her way to Lake Erie. “I’m sorry. I can’t help you right now.” Was there anyone out there interested in helping me on this journey?
A whistle blew as a train approached from the east. I turned around in the parking lot of an abandoned office park and headed back to the town of North East. Maybe I’d find some Messages from America on the quiet tree-lined side streets but as in so many other places I’d traveled through on this road trip there were no signs of hope and resistance.
Instead, pink ribbons were everywhere, reminding the women of this small town that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.
The local election for Clerk of Records appeared to be the hottest race in town. Everyone was supporting the same candidate. I can’t remember his name and for all I know he could be the only guy running for office.
The town had gone back to their lives post-Trump. They had work to do, bills to pay, healthcare issues to worry about. They didn’t appear to be concerned about the obstacles that would create road blocks along the way; the efforts Trump and the Congress are making to cut healthcare, dismantle the EPA, and give giant tax cuts to the wealthy. The President’s lies, the mass shooting in Las Vegas. I saw so many flags at half mast over the past week, but the flags were raised again and life goes on. For the lucky ones.
I parked the car in front of a wine and cheese shop, and took a walk through town. Around a corner I stumbled upon a magical alley where fire escapes and painted grapevines climbed red brick walls.
I left the alley, looped around the block from the opposite direction, and then entered from the other side. I stood there for awhile and took pictures. I don’t know what it was about this alley but it made me smile and gave me a small measure of hope.
It’s been over a week since I returned home. I’m trying to decipher the notes I took in North East. I’m trying to recall the hope I felt in the alley. I am now in Providence getting ready for a Hometown Book Pop-Up in Pawtuxet Village, my original hometown. The place where I grew up.
Earlier this morning my daughter’s boyfriend, Kyle, invited me to join him on a hike to Ross’s Cliffs, just over the border in Connecticut.
We took the road I traveled when I worked at the inn and would drive to Providence to help my Dad after the fire at his condo. My mother’s Alzheimer’s was getting worse and times were hard but I enjoyed this ride through rural New England.
Ross’s Trail climbed through sun-dappled trees and I thought about the hikes I took in the Great Mountain Forest when I created Leo Heaton, the first character in Under The Same Sun who spoke to me.
Excerpt from Under The Same Sun: “I hike a lot and when I’m alone in the woods I notice things. Tonal differences in rocks, peeled birch bark fallen from trees, a twig trapped on a rock in the middle of a swift moving brook. When the breeze blows through the oak trees, leaves dance, and to me it sounds like the rustle of silk. At night when I lay my head on my pillow, it’s just me and my thoughts. I worry about life and what the future holds for my girls. I never expected to be doing this alone so I have a hard time falling asleep, until I let my thoughts drift back to that rocky, primeval forest. Deep in those woods the world is sane and perfect.”
I am having a hard time finding my way into this blog. I can’t remember why I wanted to write about my brief visit to North East. But during the hike, as always happens when I’m out in the woods or walking by the ocean, I found my way.
Maybe what I felt that morning in North East, after getting lost and doubling back to the place I started, was a rapt attention to the world around me. I was transported to an enchanted place where sanity and perfection were possible.
I left North East that day without seeing another soul except those at kitchen windows or in passing cars. I spoke to no one. The stores were all closed. No one walked the streets. The town could be anything I wanted it to be. Then I got in my car and drove an eight hour day, alone, across the entire length of Upstate New York.
Some combination of light, stormy weather looming behind me, clouds and sunlight, created a luminous stunning atmosphere. A glorious light, as if the world had been scrubbed clean and was new again. I could imagine anything. I could imagine America when it was new and full of hope, like a day in Philadelphia when a group of men from thirteen colonies imagined a place where everyone is created equal and there would be justice and the pursuit of happiness for all.
Just before I crossed the border into Vermont I saw a billboard with large letters that warned of heroin and impaired driving. I had seen similar signs throughout my journey. In Ohio there was even a hotline that drug impaired drivers could use to call for help.
I remember thinking we all share similar concerns and problems. We all have similar hopes and dreams. We truly do live under the same sun.
The problem is, not everyone realizes this. There are too many distractions and hardships, too many opinions, too many tribes that no longer have a shared vision, and too many news sources and politicians that support those divisions.
The hope I felt in the alley was a dream, the American dream, that was signed and sealed on a piece of parchment paper two hundred forty one years ago this past July 4th. We once had a common dream and like in The Wizard of Oz you were there, and you, and you, and me. We were all there.
These days it seems we no longer dream the same dream. Some don’t remember the dream or misinterpret its message. There are those who are defeated and angry, they lick their wounds and blame their problems on someone else. Someone different. Someone foreign. They are vulnerable to those with enough power and stature to twist the dream to suit their own greed and self-interest.
As we approached the top of Ross’s Cliffs I wondered where the hope that briefly visited me in North East disappeared to. It was so fleeting.
We stayed there for awhile. It was a perfect place to ponder. We imagined Mohegans and Pequots standing on this bluff watching for the white man’s approach. So called civilization on its way.
It could have been that I was hiking with Kyle, a Mohegan Indian, and thoughts of the retelling of history, the mistruths of the Native American story we were told, came to mind.
It also might have been thoughts of the recent visit I made to the slave quarters at Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina where the curators are finally telling the truth about that piece of American history.
Or it could have been the message on the bench where I sat and contemplated the beauty that lay before me.
“This bench is part of what’s left of my soul, that I carried on my back to share with this cliff and with those that are here for peace, and peace of mind. Thank you all who enjoyed it and left your mark, but whoever tossed it over this cliff once…you were seen and you are more than half found.”
It’s hard to imagine someone would hike this beautiful, spiritual place and toss a gift of handcrafted beauty over the cliff. It’s hard to imagine the mindset of some of my fellow Americans these days.
I met wonderful people on my book tour. I also heard horrible things on talk radio. I saw Confederate flags on highways in the Carolinas. Las Vegas happened. I came to the conclusion one on one there are many kind and generous people but America as a whole leaves me feeling sad and confused.
I can’t help but wonder if it was only a dream.
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