On the road

We spend a week in motion in a rented Kia, exploring toll roads from Illinois to New York. We get gas in Ohio and an Easy Pass in Pennsylvania, and stop in neither state. It is a quick but thorough tour of relatives and friends, and despite the pace nothing feels rushed.

It’s been a while since we drove the east coast, down 81 and through Philly. Longer since I drove from Chicago to Ithaca, a part of the country my companion has never seen. We encounter fierce rains in Cleveland and the Endless Mountains, and see great lightning in Cherry Hill and Rumson. It’s the kind of tour that sees us admire flowers, play tennis, and hold snakes. We eat in back yards and dining rooms, at local restaurants in Brooklyn and at Google’s cafe in Chelsea. I even get a couple of bagels from College Town Bagels in my home town, and eat them while driving.

We do better than the above listing suggests though, and on our flight out of Newark I am happy and relaxed, and then asleep. By the time we land in Denver for the next stretch I feel sated, rested, and comfortable with the conversations we traveled those miles to have. We’ve gotten better at pacing ourselves, planning less and focusing more on each evening, on the mornings around the kitchen table and the walks to get breakfast. Fewer photos, less posting, and more focus on the people we came so far to see.

More and more I am grateful for our abilities, for the freedom to fly so far and be so unburdened. As I once wrote about being thirty eight and biking to the gym, there is a luxury now to being able to spend time with friends and family, despite the choices we have made to move so far. The conversations are brief, often a single hour or a single evening, yet they are real.

And so with each such loop of short visits we share a bit more of our lives, and we remember each other a little more clearly. With the tools of rental cars and trans-pacific flights we are pushing back on the erasures of friendship by distance and time.

Upstate

From the balcony the world looks lush. Upstate New York is green and filled with trees. Layers of hills gradually recede in the distance. For this transplant to California’s drought, the sight of so much water and growth is a relief. My body lets out a sigh I didn’t know it’d been holding.

We are in the Catskills for the weekend, seven of us, to celebrate a friend’s impending marriage. Like all such adventures there is little sleep and much remembering. Collecting the past thirty six years of someone’s life takes a lot of hours and whisky. The stories alternate between the embarrassing and the hilarious, with the best managing both. We who began as brothers, high school friends, college friends, we are all now adult friends. As such we play lawn jenga and shoot arrows together late into the night. In some ways it’s a celebration of one person, but in others that of a group who have known each other for at least fifteen years now.

On Saturday we go swimming in a river down the hill. The water is cold but not painful, save for one of us who hates such things. We splash and swim with some locals and some other vacationers, no one in any hurry.
In good coincidence it is also my birthday. And so I turn thirty six in a river upstate, some hours from where I was born but not many, surrounded by friends from college. It’s a good reminder of how things change and do not, and how we make friends and maintain them. We meander between talk of childcare and investments, and pure joy at the toppling of a tower of two by fours. We manage to mix pleasure and laziness in good measure, without much excess or any physical damage.

Sitting on the balcony as Saturday fades I think of the places I’ve lived with the people in this house: Vassar, Shanghai, and Tokyo. The specifics aren’t important, just the distance, the sense of how far we’ve traveled together in our thirty six years.

Humid country

The mood of a place is dependent on small things, and weather. In San Francisco every single part of the city is informed by fog, by the lack of it or the lack of visibility it brings. Sunshine is a thing of sparse moments and joy, and the changes to workdays and clothing that come with the East Coast’s hundred degree days are hard to imagine, let alone replicate. We move in wide circles, but as I have said before, our bodies have short memories.

San Francisco smells of fruit and tall trees, of wind and buildings built primarily of wood. It smells of the dust from China that blows off the Pacific. Over everything, in the early afternoons of the season that the rest of the country calls summer, it smells like a city, a place where humans have struggled in close proximity for a hundred years.

And then the fog comes in, and the peninsula smells like an island in the ocean, the air filled with water and sand. On Irving, a man walking to dinner in July of two thousand eleven might wear a wool hoodie and jeans. In Brooklyn the same amble to dinner would entail shorts and flip-flops, sunglasses and a t-shirt.

Along Irving the street lights go on at six, their routine unchanged by the lengthening of day, for the fog darkens everything.

Thus in July we flee to the east, and drive windows down across Staten Island. The Verrazano bridge toll has been raised to $13, and the traffic is thick with accidents. The rental car is our fortress, allowing safe passage from state to state, allowing us to grow accustomed to the humidity without carrying our luggage as we do so. The gift of red-eye travel is in these surprising mornings before our new locations awake.

In New Jersey we play frisbee in the back yard, barefoot in the humid air, and sit on the deck in the afternoons, grateful for the quiet hours. After a few days we drive up through Pennsylvania, along roads from my childhood, past the small towns of her grandparents’ history. The gentle hills are green and the air is thick with fresh cut hay, with flies, and with small towns. After the West Coast’s sprawling hours of land without cities, the transition from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to New York takes no planning and happens in a leisurely afternoon.

From the city, if not the house, of my birth, we adventure. We swim in gorges and wander to waterfalls. We sit by the side of the lake and watch the light fade, and set things alight and let them drift into the sky. Further from the ocean the air is less humid, and the long evenings a glorious reminder of what summer usually means. We do not think of San Francisco, or fog, choosing instead to watch lightning bugs in the trees of the back yard, their small flashes miraculous gifts of light.

In New York City later we sit on the concrete of Williamsburg and eat hand-crafted donuts in the shade, Manhattan across the water looking gorgeous in the sunshine. In the evening we crowd into the one room with an air conditioner, this strange piece of equipment everyone in New York has purchased as they grew able in the last decade of employment. In San Francisco no house has these boxes in the windows. Instead we shut the glass against the fog in the evenings and fling it open in the morning to let the wind in.

The evenings in Brooklyn move from park to rooftop to sofa, from large exuberant celebrations of summer to small conversations about the practicalities of shared spaces, and the hours fly quickly. In another two dozen we are back on our coast, back in the weather that is not a season, and back to the courtyard that houses a cat. The vacation has ended, and the memory will fade from our skin, but we have seen New York, and summer, again.