On July 4th, 2012, I left the campus of the Vermont College of Fine Arts and visited America.
I hadn’t planned to do this. I had just finished having lunch with one of my favorite faculty members when, walking back to my dorm room, I realized I was done. Or, should I say, full. I had taken in all of the knowledge, all of the insights, all of the social interaction this vessel was able to hold.
I needed to leave.
Fortunately I had my car. Yes, I had driven the 550 miles from Alexandria, Virginia. I like driving. Don’t forget I spun an automobile’s digital odometer nearly 6,000 times on my cross-country U.S. road trip. Those trips had followed a set itinerary, however. What I really love to do is drive with no sense of where I may find myself.
I found my way to a state highway pointing north out of Montpelier. I soon learned it was a classic “blue highway” that William Least Heat-Moon would love. It had everything you could want. A winding, two-lane road with few shoulders. Tall trees. Porch-lined homes. Aging barns. Pastures hosting grazing cows, horses, and goats (but never more than one species in any given patch of grass). Yellow, diamond-shaped signs warning of crossings of tractors, snowmobiles, and moose, all of which lied because none of those dangerous objects in fact crossed my path, only a skitterish chipmunk who stopped on the solid yellow center line to shoot me the evil eye before continuing to the other side.
Writers like to tell us that the real America is dead, but the Americans still living there would likely take issue with that. You can see them–you can see us–just by getting off the interstate.
I stopped briefly at a boat landing on a small reservoir a few miles north of town, but there were too many swimmers and picnickers. I wasn’t ready for company. As I took pictures with my cell phone, I noticed that the little bars that indicate signal strength had been replaced with a small white “x.” Having left Montpelier, I had left the land of cell-phone reception as well.
I passed through a handful of small towns. Well, I passed through scatterings of homes and auto-repair garages flanked with signs declaring them towns. Then all signs of civilization were behind me. It was nothing but asphalt, trees, and the ever-present possibility of a crossing moose.
I have on many occasions taken off in my car with no idea where I’ll end up, and I always end up someplace. This time, I ended up at a lovely spot called Lake Elmore. The lake is fairly modest in size, but had drawn a decent holiday crowd to its small beach. I found a large boulder protruding from the water’s edge about three hundred yards away from the bathers and enjoyed a moment of solitude. I was alone, except for a Harley rider who had pulled over and occupied a separate boulder a few yards away. He never once asked me to include more metaphor in my prose.
As tranquil as it was to watch the mild wakes produced by distant motorboats wash up below my feet, I couldn’t sit too long. I have been sitting for a week now. But I was too tired for a hike. For want of something better to do, I found my way to the Elmore Store. It is like many “blue highway” retail establishments. It doubles as a post office, and sells cold beer and soda under the unseeing eyes of a mounted stag’s head. But the store had some local color as well, such as the tie-dye-wearing woman at the checkout counter and the glass-covered wheel of slice-yourself-cheese near the register.
I bought a double-scoop ice cream cone from a pre-teen girl, also in tie-dye. She smiled shyly as she pressed the strawberry-cheesecake and black-cherry flavored ice cream into a cake cone. The freezer had been left open recently, she said in apology, as the ice cream almost immediately began to succumb to gravity, dripping down my left hand.
I returned to the lake, desperately trying to get the ice cream into my mouth and away from my shirt. I mostly succeeded. I then took a few more photos, not realizing my sticky hands had obscured the camera lens. I had inadvertently invented an Instagram-style method of producing impressionistic (read “blurry”) photos.
I didn’t need to return just yet. All that was ahead of me back at VCFA was a softball game, a barbeque, and a talent show. I would be singing in the show, but that wasn’t for hours yet. But I was ready to return now. It made no sense metaphorically, but sitting by the water had produced room in my mental bucket. Filling myself with a not-quite-frozen dairy treat had created room for more knowledge.
I headed back on the same road, seeing the same cows, horses, and goats, and missing the same tractors, snowmobiles and moose. I could survive for two more days.