This essay first appeared in the Nova Quarterly, September, 1988.  It is presented here by permission of the News and Publications Office, The University of Texas at El Paso.

I am driving eastward through the American heartland, happy with anticipation of the trip home, happy with the journey itself.  Of course, I love to travel, have always loved it since early childhood, when for months at a time travel inevitably meant the Saturday trip to town, a custom my family shared with all the other farm families in the Ozark mountains.  For me, the simple act of going somewhere was a powerful treat, to be enjoyed in its moment and replayed as long as the fixative of memory held, for I was a contemplative child, nurtured by rural silences as well as by the richness of rural life.

To be the only child for ten or so miles in any direction meant long, slow stretches of time that were entirely my own, time to know—with all five senses—the white wooden house, the yard with its peony beds and tall oaks, the redolent barn lot, then the scented open fields, and always, the woods; the old mountains.  I knew all these places and their vivid sensory signatures with the secure and permanent intimacy of a native, one who belongs.  After all, generations of my kin had lived in the same house, had worked the same farmland, had traveled through the same worn mountains, tracing their way along the rocky backs of the ridges.

Let me speak of the pathways that, because of the fascination they have always held for me, are at the core of my understanding of travel.  These are the first trails, and because they trace through the woods using paths of least resistance, usually the ridge tops that are the spines of our eroded limestone mountains, they are called traces, a word which perfectly suggests their ability to delineate a pathway and simultaneously evokes their tentative nature.  My family’s land is transversed by such a trace, one of the great old ones.  Within a short walking distance through the thicker part of the oak forest runs the White River Trace, an earthen thoroughfare not used since the last century, yet still spoken of in my grandmother’s time and in mine, its numinous quality, its ability to evoke the allure of journeying, as yet undimmed.

Sometimes I am struck by the contrasts—and the resulting tensions—that make up my personal history.  Oddly, the most compelling of these is geographic, and perhaps most essentially climatic.  The wooded mountain area of my birth is humid, green, and lush during most of the growing season, and wet and cold in winter.  As an adult I have freely chosen to spend my working life in the Chihuahuan desert, attracted by the cultural mixture of the Southwest, so various when measured against the folkways of my native woodlands.  I remember my first impressions of the desert, and the shock of pleasure when, at the end of a long westerly odyssey, I found, by following my affinity for high trails, a winding road up the flanks of the treeless mountains.  It was, by coincidence, sunset, and when I silenced my engine at the summit, the sky was alive with color.  Watching the lights of two bordering cities shimmer and pulse, I knew I had done well.  In the succeeding years, the desert’s mingled peoples, like blended threads of color in a complicated tapestry, have for me been a sustaining interest, their beliefs and customs offering an inexhaustible voyage of discovery to the grown-up child who always wanted to go somewhere.  But my paradox is to be perpetually drawn back, tethered by strands of desire, to the old climate, to the moist air, tangible against the skin, and the waters, trees, and trails of home.

Now I am traveling home.  The interstate is a fast grey river alive with the improbable energy of numberless speeding cars and heavy diesels.  Restless, I begin to imagine the metal river of which I am a part propelled by an unbroken chain of internal combustion engines, stretching the unimaginable miles from coast to coast.  As I picture power and motion I feel a kind of apprehension as I think of the vulnerable mass of all the people on this curving highway, rushing down through the heart of the continent.  I superimpose a kinder thought: older, slower automobiles fill my view as I force the fast traffic to give way to what I choose to see as a less hurried group of drivers.  But I have no real affinity for these imaginary motorists at all, I think.  As I wind the reel back, I set up another transparency—the wooden boxes of stagecoaches, or wagons, pulled by horses, mules, oxen.  This pleases me, and the predictable culmination presses into my vision: I see now the foot travelers, edited quickly out of their pioneer costumes as my interest lags, now dressed as Indians, then in the skins and furs of the nomads of prehistory.  With some effort I hold the four successively superimposed levels of my fantasy, the jarring speed and hard metal, the touring cars, the wagons, the walkers.  I feel most drawn to the walkers; somehow, in the same way that my rural childhood was defined by the concrete and the tangible, they too, while most remote, seem most real.

Self-conscious and irritated by the neatness of my vision, I acknowledge the truth of this concrete river, but I am bored now and the imagery seems less clever.  Then in a glad moment I see that I have moved into juxtaposition with a companion stream of life: it is spring, and above me the sky is traced by winding bands of migratory birds.  Their essential color is silver grey, they too are numberless, and in this changing season they are going home.

This essay first appeared in the Nova Quarterly, September, 1988.  It is presented here by permission of the News and Publications Office, The University of Texas at El Paso.

I am driving eastward through the American heartland, happy with anticipation of the trip home, happy with the journey itself.  Of course, I love to travel, have always loved it since early childhood, when for months at a time travel inevitably meant the Saturday trip to town, a custom my family shared with all the other farm families in the Ozark mountains.  For me, the simple act of going somewhere was a powerful treat, to be enjoyed in its moment and replayed as long as the fixative of memory held, for I was a contemplative child, nurtured by rural silences as well as by the richness of rural life.

To be the only child for ten or so miles in any direction meant long, slow stretches of time that were entirely my own, time to know—with all five senses—the white wooden house, the yard with its peony beds and tall oaks, the redolent barn lot, then the scented open fields, and always, the woods; the old mountains.  I knew all these places and their vivid sensory signatures with the secure and permanent intimacy of a native, one who belongs.  After all, generations of my kin had lived in the same house, had worked the same farmland, had traveled through the same worn mountains, tracing their way along the rocky backs of the ridges.

Let me speak of the pathways that, because of the fascination they have always held for me, are at the core of my understanding of travel.  These are the first trails, and because they trace through the woods using paths of least resistance, usually the ridge tops that are the spines of our eroded limestone mountains, they are called traces, a word which perfectly suggests their ability to delineate a pathway and simultaneously evokes their tentative nature.  My family’s land is transversed by such a trace, one of the great old ones.  Within a short walking distance through the thicker part of the oak forest runs the White River Trace, an earthen thoroughfare not used since the last century, yet still spoken of in my grandmother’s time and in mine, its numinous quality, its ability to evoke the allure of journeying, as yet undimmed.

Sometimes I am struck by the contrasts—and the resulting tensions—that make up my personal history.  Oddly, the most compelling of these is geographic, and perhaps most essentially climatic.  The wooded mountain area of my birth is humid, green, and lush during most of the growing season, and wet and cold in winter.  As an adult I have freely chosen to spend my working life in the Chihuahuan desert, attracted by the cultural mixture of the Southwest, so various when measured against the folkways of my native woodlands.  I remember my first impressions of the desert, and the shock of pleasure when, at the end of a long westerly odyssey, I found, by following my affinity for high trails, a winding road up the flanks of the treeless mountains.  It was, by coincidence, sunset, and when I silenced my engine at the summit, the sky was alive with color.  Watching the lights of two bordering cities shimmer and pulse, I knew I had done well.  In the succeeding years, the desert’s mingled peoples, like blended threads of color in a complicated tapestry, have for me been a sustaining interest, their beliefs and customs offering an inexhaustible voyage of discovery to the grown-up child who always wanted to go somewhere.  But my paradox is to be perpetually drawn back, tethered by strands of desire, to the old climate, to the moist air, tangible against the skin, and the waters, trees, and trails of home.

Now I am traveling home.  The interstate is a fast grey river alive with the improbable energy of numberless speeding cars and heavy diesels.  Restless, I begin to imagine the metal river of which I am a part propelled by an unbroken chain of internal combustion engines, stretching the unimaginable miles from coast to coast.  As I picture power and motion I feel a kind of apprehension as I think of the vulnerable mass of all the people on this curving highway, rushing down through the heart of the continent.  I superimpose a kinder thought: older, slower automobiles fill my view as I force the fast traffic to give way to what I choose to see as a less hurried group of drivers.  But I have no real affinity for these imaginary motorists at all, I think.  As I wind the reel back, I set up another transparency—the wooden boxes of stagecoaches, or wagons, pulled by horses, mules, oxen.  This pleases me, and the predictable culmination presses into my vision: I see now the foot travelers, edited quickly out of their pioneer costumes as my interest lags, now dressed as Indians, then in the skins and furs of the nomads of prehistory.  With some effort I hold the four successively superimposed levels of my fantasy, the jarring speed and hard metal, the touring cars, the wagons, the walkers.  I feel most drawn to the walkers; somehow, in the same way that my rural childhood was defined by the concrete and the tangible, they too, while most remote, seem most real.

Self-conscious and irritated by the neatness of my vision, I acknowledge the truth of this concrete river, but I am bored now and the imagery seems less clever.  Then in a glad moment I see that I have moved into juxtaposition with a companion stream of life: it is spring, and above me the sky is traced by winding bands of migratory birds.  Their essential color is silver grey, they too are numberless, and in this changing season they are going home.

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