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Vacationing in the New World

Leaving the monumental man-made vertical mayhem that is New York City and arriving at this serenely natural and horizontal setting in St. Mary's County in southern Maryland took a few days of planned detours, but the journey seemed longer. After securing a rental car near University Place and parking outside our building's entrance, we loaded the suitcases, the bag of snacks, the totes for all the recharging devices - for the phones, the cameras, and the laptops, the bag of dog food and treats, and finally the dogs, beyond eager to jump up on the back seats, and headed toward the Holland Tunnel a few blocks away. Surely, we forgot something, I think. Exiting the island city via the orange lights of the Holland Tunnel always seems a liminal moment, that in-between pause between experiencing the city from within it, as we do when we live here, and then looking at it anew and at a distance, as we do when we emerge from the light on the other side.

Anyone traveling in a car on a road trip accompanied by dogs knows the routine. After an hour and a half, it's time to pull over to the fast-food franchise. Finding a strip of green grass that's at least five feet wide, it's time to take turns walking the dog along this stretch of lonely earth while the other goes into the restaurant and orders a chicken sandwich. For ten minutes, the vacationers sit uncomfortably on the curb next to the hot highway and eat their deliciously unhealthy food out of the bag before getting back into the car. No one really knows what town this might be. Noticing that the dogs are panting and then realizing that it's not because they're happy but because they're dying of thirst, someone fishes the dogs' water bowl out of the bag that's wedged behind the front seat and then fills it with the ice from a plastic cup they just got at Arby's or Burger King or McDonald's or wherever. This routine repeats itself several times over the course of the next few days. It's hard to distinguish one road stop from the next. Everything in the luggage compartment and the back seat slowly descends into chaos and disorder. Dog hair, some dirt, and spilled water are now everywhere, despite the fact I had carefully covered the seats with towels at the beginning of the trip. This state of affairs is compounded on the return trip with the omnipresence of beach sand that finds its way into every crevice of one's camera, teeth, and shoes and remains for eternity in one's apartment.

During our week-long trip to the New World, first to Culpeper, Virginia and then to St. Mary's County in southern Maryland, the trappings of civilization peeled away with each passing hour. Once we left the New Jersey Turnpike and wandered into the lesser and more scenic thoroughfares of the country, I felt like we went backwards in time, arriving first in the battlegrounds of the American Civil War, and then back again some ninety years, to Thomas Jefferson's and James Madison's young verdant 18th century classical republic.

The hilly sections of Virginia that support the horse society there reminded me of the English setting for National Velvet (novel by Enid Bagnold, published in 1935, and movie adaptation in 1944.) The hills look civilized, gentle, nurturing. As a Texan, I am conditioned to seeing beauty in the hard scrabble and existential nothingness of the browner and flatter places of West Texas, and so the green splendor of the Virginia landscape makes me feel slightly envious. Why should this be? I remember the scene in the 1956 movie Giant (novel by Edna Ferber, 1952) when Bick Benedict brings his Maryland bride back to his Texas ranch, Reata, on a long train trip, and this beautiful civilized girl wakes up from her sleep only to look out the window and see her new home, a vast plain of flat nothingness. (Elizabeth Taylor, the British-born violet-eyed beauty, symbolizes the civilized East in many motion pictures.)

The leg of our journey from Virginia to the southern shores of Maryland involved the removal of yet another century from the built environment. As we arrived at our destination in St. Mary's County, along the western shores of Southern Maryland, near the place where the Potomac River spills out into the great estuary known as the Chesapeake Bay, the American continent started to look new and strange:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
-Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1610-11
Captain John Smith, who explored these waters, was born in 1580 and would have been 30-years old at the time of Shakespeare's play. The Catholic settlers here in the 17th century still show traces of their journey and settlement. More than anything, though, the views of the landscape kindled in my imagination the first contacts between the indigenous peoples on these shores and the first European voyagers who encountered them. As I sat in the chair that you see before you, I thought about these meetings. I wondered what I would think if I saw some strange creatures arrive on a boat and wander onto the shore. Would I be curious enough to help these smelly seafaring strangers, or would a bow and arrow do the trick? And then, as I sat at this place and watched the setting sun, I thought that this would be a good place to spot an extraterrestrial aircraft, and I wondered, too, if the same response would apply.

On the final day of our trip to the New World, I was overcome with the heat. Everyone was hot. The dogs smelled poorly, a result of their rolling on top of the dead crabs that washed ashore. I didn't feel like doing anything. I felt I had succeeded at putting my feet up and sitting still for several days, a miracle for me. I knew it was time to go home.

Approaching New York City on I-95, I was amazed, as always, to watch the shimmering great gray skyline come into view. Madness to live in such a place, I thought. Nevertheless, it was time to go back into the tunnel and unpack and shake out the sand. Time to catch up on all that I missed.

Image: St. Mary's County, Maryland. July 21, 2008. Roll the opening sequence from Terrence Malick's beautiful 2005 film, The New World, for more information. Photo by Walking Off the Big Crabcake. On Monday, I'll resume where I left off, on the block known as St. Luke's Place. I will then write a few words about Marianne Moore, famous poet and sports freak.





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