Five thousand, four hundred forty-nine-point-nine miles later, I’m home, and sitting at my own desk again, looking out the window at trees and houses and a particular color of morning that’s practically part of my DNA.
Yesterday’s drive home began at 4:50 a.m., after packing up camp by the glow of my battery-powered lamp/flashlight and taking a shower. (I was pleased to remember from my first stop at this campground that to get the hot water running, you have to turn the dial in the opposite direction from what the labeling would seem to indicate. Two weeks ago, this was a lesson learned while I waited 10 minutes for the shower to warm up, when a simple shift of the dial was all that was needed for almost instant-hot water.)
When I pulled onto Interstate 44 eastbound, sunup was still a ways off, and this was the first “dark” highway driving I’d done since day one. It wouldn’t last long, but as I sipped my Circle K coffee and ate my morning breakfast bar, for a moment it felt like one of our straight-through overnight drives to or from Florida.
The sky slowly brightened as I passed St. Louis and crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. I listened to Morning Edition for awhile, and then another This American Life podcast.
When I reached Indiana right around 8 a.m., the Time Gods of Traveling Westward took back the last hour they’d loaned me, and though I was sad to see it go, it at least meant that I’d be hitting Indianapolis at 10 a.m. rather than during the morning rush hour.
Two Star Wars Celebrations have earned Indianapolis a special place in my heart, so while seeing the downtown skyline this trip struck nostalgic chords both times through, I was thrown a bit by the sight of Lucas Oil Stadium, which replaced the RCA Dome and actually occupies the former spot of the hotel where Jim and I stayed to cover Celebration III. I get that the new building is a throwback fieldhouse-style architecture, but there’s something odd about the way it looks against the skyline: Because it’s a gigantic structure but isn’t built to look like a massive stadium, it seem out of proportion with the rest of the city, like someone took a one-quarter-scale model and placed it in a one-tenth-scale skyline. I’m sure I’d get used to it if I saw it regularly, but it was jarring this time around.
The remaining five hours home were filled with some radio listening, a phone conversation with my brother Nick, and reflections on this two-week odyssey and settling back into work and life at home. My mom met me at the rental car agency in Canton, where we unloaded Serenity – in all seriousness, this Versa was an excellent car for this trip, and I will miss her and hope she’s treated to an oil change and a good bath to remove 5,400-plus miles worth of bug goo from her front bumper and side mirrors – and not long after, I was back in my own driveway and Kelsey and Jenn were coming out the front door, and one of our cats escaped into the bushes, and things were just the way they should be.
There remain a lot of small moments and other things from the trip that I’ve been saving in note form, and I took more than 300 pictures, and all of these will take some complete narrative shape eventually, although this is my last dedicated vacation blog post for now.
Many sincere thanks yet again to the several new friends I met for the first time in real life, and in particular to the fantastic people who helped me along and shared their homes and company and friendship: Kirk Demarais, Jim Rafferty, Ramona Nash, George Krstic, Jenny Williams, and Jonathan Liu and their families are all just plain super-nice and generous people and the universe is a better place for their presence in it.
I’ve been inspired and refreshed and energized in many ways, and while I’m almost overwhelmed right now with things I need and want to accomplish, this trip was absolutely worth the time and effort and planning and budgeting in every way, and I’m so glad I did it.
My parents, Pam & Jeff Caldwell, get their own thank-you for all their support and for coming all the way to San Diego to cheer Kelsey on and share a few great days together in southern California. And my brother Adam never hesitates to keep an eye on the house and our pets while we’re gone, which, since he’s got a super-busy family and home of his own, is greatly appreciated.
And to my wife Jenn and daughter Kelsey, who supported me in this whole effort in every way and never stopped encouraging me even if you thought I was a little bit off my rocker; you also never failed to understand why I did it and how much it meant to me: You two are always my home, wherever we are.
And it’s good to be home.
Monday, June 28, 7 p.m.:
Around 6 p.m., I pulled into the campground for my last night on the road. Same place, in fact, where I stopped two weeks earlier for the first night of my journey. (A night when a 50% chance of thunderstorms had me sleeping in my car rather than risk having to pack up a wet tent in the morning. Of course, it didn’t rain a drop that night.)
It’s humid, but the day is cooling nicely, and the sun is already behind the trees. The insects and birds are noisier (in a good, summery way) than they were my first time through, and I am digging the cicada song from the trees. No rain in the forecast, either.
Today’s drive pushed 12 hours total, since I took a long lunch break to rest and write. The eastern part of Kansas passed quickly, marked by passage through Topeka and near Lawrence, and with the aid of a few podcasts, and then the twists and turns and traffic and cityscape of Kansas City kept things interesting – so much so that I failed to notice when I had passed into Missouri.
Once I got through the metro area, though, I realized that something was missing. I had passed large portions of this trip without radio or podcast company, finding myself kept more than alert by the changing surroundings and new roads. Here in western Missouri, though, even though it had been 10 years since I’d driven this highway and it should have felt “new,” I wasn’t drawn into the environment; wasn’t exploring it with my eyes; wasn’t soaking it all in – and I couldn’t figure out why.
Then it hit me: It was too familiar. The woods at the roadside were the same leafy, deciduous variety (at least in appearance) as those in Ohio. the hills rolled similarly, and the horizons were closer, and even the biggest corn and soybean fields felt cozy in comparison to their sprawling brothers further west.
Yes, there differences, especially in things like the massive bluffs along the eastern bank of the Missouri River, but for the most part, the scenery along the Interstate could have been any number of places I’ve driven in Ohio.
I did have one remaining “untraveled” stretch of road to enjoy, exiting at Warrenton and heading down Missouri 47 and then 100 before hooking up again with I-44, which I drove on the westbound leg. While I spent too much of this winding, two-lane drive staring at the back end of an RV towing a car, I did get to traverse the Missouri River over a long, narrow, steel-girdered bridge that I would love to have photographed were it not for the lines of steady traffic in both directions.
And there’s this fun little geographical quirk of my route today, too: I crossed the Missouri River TWICE today, from one bank to the other and then back again – so yes, here at the campground, I’m on the same side of the river as I was in Kansas City – but I WON’T be crossing it again on the way home.
I find myself thinking of other little things I hope not to forget: The sight of a little snake wriggling its way across a sizzling blacktop southwest of Timpas, Colorado; the way that it felt when I was in western Kansas and I realized the Iowa plates on my rental car didn’t seem quite as out-of-place anymore; the head-high flight of a yellow crop duster looping and diving over the fields in a buttery-sun morning.
And, of course, every single day of this trip came with just bucketloads of awesome, one after the other after the other, and now, I’m sitting here watching the setting sun bathe bluffs and trees in green and baked-bread gold, and the campground smells like wood smoke and bug spray and summer vacation, and I can hear a train rumbling past somewhere and I’m going to wrap this up and walk around and drink it in until I’m tired and it gets dark enough to crawl into my tent.
Here’s the last sunset:
Tuesday, June 29, 3:50 a.m.
This is the earliest I’ve gotten up during the entire trip, but I know I’ve got to give back one more hour today, and I went to bed well before full dark last night.
It’s been a long time since I’ve ready Travels with Charley, but I seem to remember that towards the end, Steinbeck wrote something to the effect of having a realization that though he was on the road, his journey had ended and he was now simply on his way home.
I get that feeling this morning, and while I don’t want to take this last leg for granted or find it slipping past unnoticed, I’m ready to be home again. There’s a lot in my head yet about what this trip has meant to me, but now’s not the time to write it. I’ve got a few hundred more miles to go.
I’m about 6 hours into what’s going to be an 11-plus-hour driving day, so I’m allowing myself a long, shady lunch here along I-70 just west of Topeka, at a rest stop with a great breeze, nice-smelling trees, and free wi-fi that reaches this very pleasant corner of the picnic area.
I also wanted to make sure I shared some things that weren’t in yesterday’s post, which I kind of rushed because it was late and I needed to get some sleep.
First, for my fellow Star Wars fans, feast your eyes on this:
My Kansas host and friend Jonathan Liu did this from an illustration in The Empire Strikes Back Sketchbook while we sat at his kitchen table talking. It took him all of about 15 minutes. 20, tops. I’ve seen Jonathan’s work on GeekDad and elsewhere, of course, but to see him in action, this thing coming to life on the screen while we sat there and chatted, was just mind-blowing.
So, yeah, WAY COOL.
I also owe Jonathan for two recommendations of “This American Life” episodes. The first, “House on Loon Lake,” came up when we were talking about abandoned cars and empty towns along the highways. I had actually passed a place where an old house had lost a wall, and the interior cabinets and appliances and some furniture were all visible from the road. In Arizona, I’d see clusters of three or four cars, usually from the 40s or 50s by their look, just sitting out in the desert, with no buildings or paths or anything else nearby.
Given my fascination with the bits and pieces of the past that survive and what they mean to people and the stories they carry, I LOVED this episode, which begins with a couple kids exploring a dilapidated house and wondering about who had left it behind.
I was reminded about some of the long-shuttered attractions on the Old Route 66, which runs right alongside long stretches of I-40 – a crumbled stone building with “MOUNTAIN LIONS” painted on a wall comes to mind.
Jonathan had recommended the other episode, “Road Trip,” on my day of departure two weeks ago, but I didn’t listen to it until this morning.
Both kept me company for the long stretch of I-70 across Kansas, which wasn’t nearly as grueling as I remember it from the trip Jenn & Kelsey & I took to Colorado. It’s actually been a really nice drive.
Time to have a sandwich and get back on the highway. See you south of St. Louis.
I’ll admit I had some reservations about the Raton KOA campground when I arrived in town yesterday(Saturday the 26th) around 5:30 p.m. While I did check reviews and look at satellite and street view locations of all three KOA sites I’ve visited on this trip, you still really never know what to make of a place until you’re there, you know? So I knew coming in that this one was a little different in that it’s in Raton itself, tucked into a pocket of the town close to hotels and stores and restaurants and parks and neighborhoods. Maybe it’s because there were people in town for the two-day rodeo which ended last night, but there’s definitely more of an air of the “on-the-road-stopover” to this campground as opposed to a “we’re going camping” feel.
Still, they did have an ice cream social – which, sadly, I missed – and I did get to finish the day with this sunset:
It was still warm when I fell asleep on top of my sleeping bag around 10 p.m., but I woke up about 45 minutes later to some gusty weather shaking the tent. It kept me up for a little while, but it also cooled things down nicely so I was able to comfortably settle into my sleeping bag, and I woke up this morning just before six feeling really refreshed.
I also want to note that I’ve been very pleased with the choice to bring my brothers’ old sleeping mat from their Boy Scout days: It’s only about a half-inch thick, but it’s a nice, dense foam and has provided a surprisingly nice cushion for its weight and flexibility.
After an all-you-can-eat-pancakes-for-three-bucks breakfast, I headed north on I-25 around 9 a.m. It didn’t take long to climb into the neighboring hills, and even less time to realize that I’d soon be putting the hills of the West behind me. I stopped in Trinidad, Colorado for this shot –
– and then started a few hours of mostly two-lane driving through southeastern Colorado on Route 350.
I was unprepared for the beauty and emptiness of the region. I passed even fewer cars here than I had in the Arizona deserts, and several times, I stopped to take pictures without even worrying about traffic, because mine was the only car on the road for miles. Consider this cow I encountered in the Comanche Grasslands:
Yes, you’re seeing correctly: The adult is on the OUTSIDE of the fence.
I passed through several towns which, though marked with signs, were little more than remnants, and hints of long-gone farms.
It really is beautiful country, though.
A railroad runs alongside Colorado 350 for a ways, with a variety of small trestles and culverts and concrete pipes running beneath it. At one point, one of these was a small but fairly elaborate yellow brick construct, with a neatly-mortared archway, and I wish I’d stopped to take a picture because it stood out from the rest.
I spent the afternoon and evening in western Kansas in the company of awesomely creative GeekDad writer, gamer and Etch-A-Sketch artist extraordinaire Jonathan Liu and his family, wrapping up the night with Carcassonne and The Isle of Dr. Necreaux.
I’m in Raton, New Mexico, and it’s a gorgeous, breezy evening, and though it may rain sometime in the next hour or two, it’s supposed to clear up overnight, so I’m hopeful for a night in the tent. I also have the shortest drive of the trip scheduled tomorrow – just over 4 hours – so even if the tent gets wet, I can sleep in a bit and stick around and let it dry out.
Today’s journey began with about 40 miles of Arizona Route 89 , and the northern half of it was as incredibly beautiful as the southern half (between yesterday and today I pretty much drove the whole thing except for the part through Prescott itself), though without the 25 mile-per-hour mountain switchbacks into Yarnell that were fun to drive but made it all but impossible to really enjoy the views.
Then I did Flagstaff to Albuquerque on I-40, which I did on the way west, and I think having just traveled it made this stretch seem to go on forever. Easily the longest, toughest part of the drive.
I tried to break it up with a quick spur-of-the-moment detour to Meteor Crater, but the $15 admission price tag meant all you’re going to see from me is this view from its parking lot:
For all I know, Meteor Crater is a truly stunning experience and totally worth that fifteen bucks, but to get my money’s worth out of the climb to the rim and the museum and exhibits and bells and whistles would have taken more time than I wanted to spend on a day when I was already looking at almost 11 hours on the road.
I also considered breaking up the monotony by stopping to stand on a corner in Winslow, but then I found out on the radio that it’s already been a cheesy tourist thing for awhile. No kidding. According to the radio ads, you can even get your photo with the girl in the flatbed Ford.
I did see the Fight Obesity Ride guy heading east on I-40, and eventually I crossed into New Mexico and had to give back one of those hours I picked up on the way to California.
Fortunately, reaching Albuquerque meant traveling a new road – I-25 (so, yes, I turned left!) northbound, and I was surprised at how the landscape changed again. More green entered the picture, dotting and then covering the hills, although the mountains kept their distinctive western shapes.
At one point, I was treated to a storm off to the west of the highway, on a broad flat plain between me and a distant mountain range. What made it cool was seeing lightning strikes that were actually in front of those hills. Most times, back home the horizon is much closer, so even close-range lightning strikes are behind just about everything you can see. Seeing the bolts link the ground and the clouds in the middle distance rather than in the background was awfully neat.
I was listening to a Retroist podcast about The Dark Crystal during this stretch, and the wide grasslands that opened up to the east , coupled with the hills that still ran alongside to the west, somehow fit the moment.
I got into Raton about 5:30 p.m. during a light rain and bought myself a K-Bob’s steak sandwich for supper, since it had been a really long day of driving and I could feel a hunger headache coming on.
Now I’m going to post this and reward myself with some arcade time – the game room here actually has a working Side Arms – Hyper Dyne, which Aaron and my brothers and I used to LOVE playing at Aladdin’s Castle in the mall (sadly, the Pole Position game has sound but no picture) – and maybe even some ice cream after that. Here’s the view from my campsite:
San Diego and the gymnastics meet – which was only yesterday – already seem a long way behind me, and not just in that 400-road-miles way. It’s strange knowing that Jenn and Kelsey are already back home asleep in Ohio, but at the same time, I like that I’ve got this drive ahead and the time it will give me to mentally revisit and unpack my memories and thoughts from the trip.
So I left San Diego this morning around 8 a.m. after dropping mom & Jeff & Jenn & Kels at the airport, and over the next couple hours, I realized that I really love the Interstate 8 drive between San Diego and El Centro. I mean, there’s about 5 different kinds of mountains and vistas in there, and it would be awesome to spend a week just driving and shooting photos of the region at all different times of the day.
I mean, you go from scenes like that one up into these towering, rocky piles, and then there’s this absolutely breathtaking drop on the eastern edge, and you come twisting out of the hills to find the desert seemingly miles below (it’s less than 4,000 feet, though), and spreading to the horizon. This doesn’t do it justice, since I was almost all the way down when I took it:
I took a different route back after El Centro, though, and did most of today’s driving off the Interstates and on two-lanes that took me through some neat places like the Imperial Dunes recreation area –
– and a long stretch of single-intersection “towns” in southwest Arizona often consisting of sparsely-populated RV parks and maybe a restaurant and convenience store. Abandoned places, too: Clusters of homes and buildings just left vacant that made me wonder at what point someone last lived there or when it was that a person finally walked out those doors for the last time.
This afternoon, I had the great pleasure of finally meeting another fellow GeekDad writer, Jenny Williams, and her husband and family, who very generously and graciously arranged for tonight’s accommodations here near Prescott. Games – there was Super Circles, and Go Fish and TransAmerica and Chronology – and a marvelous dinner of lasagna and some brownies to die for, I tellya, and the whole evening flew by in a flash of nonstop talking and playing and fun, and once more I marvel that I have had the good fortune to come to know such excellent and kind and generous people who truly made me feel welcome.
We looked at the stars outside for a few minutes, and though they stretched from horizon to horizon, I could also imagine them over the smaller patch of sky in my backyard, bordered by familiar trees and rooftops. Home seems far away and still close in many ways.
I’m just crazy proud of this kid. I mean, I would’ve been anyway, but seriously: That’s a set of FIVE FREAKING MEDALS from the YMCA Gymnastics National Championships. That’s placing on every event and in all-around in her division. And it is awfully throat-lump enjoyable to see Kelsey with that smile, and here’s what makes it extra-special:
Just a couple months ago, back in April, she and her team competed at the big regional zone meet in Toledo. Now, she’s coming off a season in which she worked hard to improve in the areas where she came up short last year, and all season long, it had paid off in scores and higher finishes and her first All-Around Champion award at a regular meet. She won the balance beam at the district meet, too, and went into Zones super-psyched.
And she had a rough, rough time of things at the University of Toledo that spring day. No terrible falls or missteps, but just enough little things that added up to keep her out of the placings entirely. It’s a high level of competition at that meet, to be sure, but to come up entirely empty at the end of such a fun season really hit her hard.
This morning, we watched two pre-competition video clips. The first was because Kels mentioned she was nervous, what with this being Nationals and all. So I looked up this spot from Hoosiers:
(Jenn & I thought it would be fun to adopt the “Hickory!” cry during the meet, just because it would be kind of obscure and odd.)
Then, of course, I went to Old Faithful:
Chills. Every. Time.
The uneven bars have never been an easy event for Kels, but she put together a nice solid routine and scored an 8.375 to start things off. (It’s out of 10, but at this level, the 9.0 really marks the gold standard, just for a little perspective.)
Balance beam came next, and though you’d think I’d be used to it by now, it remains the most nerve-wracking for me to watch, even though my kid manages to look ridiculously composed up there. True to form, she kept her footing and scored an 8.6, and just like that, the two tougher events were behind her.
She earned an 8.4 with her floor exercise and finished her competition with another 8.6 on the vault for an all-around score of 33.975.
Now it was time to wait. (“I hate waiting.” – Inigo Montoya) With so many girls in this division, there’s really no way to keep accurate track of everyone’s scores, so it’s hard to even guess whether or not a certain score is worth a medal until they actually start handing them out.
I don’t remember which event they announced first, but as soon as they handed out the 10th place medal (again, for perspective, these divisions have dozens of competitors in them) and it went to a gymnast with a score lower than Kelsey’s, Jenn & I just started beaming at each other, because Kels was coming home with a medal.
And then it happened Four. More. Times. Seventh place on vault and beam, tenth place on floor, and she stood on the podium with a fifth-place bars finish. All-Around: Eighth place.
Now, Kels is normally pretty reserved in many ways, especially in public and around strangers, but watching her stand up there, unable to keep her own eyes from getting watery and unable to stop grinning and hugging her teammates and with this strange sort of mixed look of disbelief and joy – well, remembering the drive out of Toledo in April, damn if I didn’t get something in my eye, too.
Jenn & Kelsey & Mom & Jeff & I made the short drive up to La Jolla Cove today and were so pleasantly surprised at what a neat and fun place it was.
(Funny thing: Using the spoken input option to start the GPS navigation, I had to pronounce our destination as “La Jaw-la,” although once we were getting close, the system pronounced it correctly itself while giving the directions.)
We found a parking spot right at the top of the cliffs and were immediately treated to our first close-up view of the Pacific shoreline and the sight of a massive rock formation just offshore packed with sunning sea lions and harbor seals.
This sign was at the top of the wooden stairs which we followed down to a small beach where we waded a little and climbed on the sandstone cliff.
Further along, an expanse of flat rock outcropping held some little tide pools where kids were trying to catch these little crabs:
They came in a couple striking color combinations – green and black and blue and purple – and ranged in size from about the size of the Lincoln monument on a penny to about 2 or 3 inches across. I shot a video clip of a couple of the bigger ones crawling around a crack and making these little clicking noises, but it’ll wait for upload until I’m home.
Of course, just around the corner from this spot was an even closer-to-shore sea lion lounge:
Lots of activity around and on this rock: sea lions barking and crawling around and swimming in the waves. Fun to watch.
Oh, and there were these little spotted ground squirrels, too:
Our timing couldn’t have been better: We got there just before 11 a.m., and left about 1 p.m., and on our way out, the highway running into La Jolla was bumper-to-bumper standstill.
We were only there for a couple hours, but I was unprepared for the thrill of exploring this fantastic little corner of California and finding so much to see and hear and remember.
Note: Click here for some background on Crossing Decembers and why I’m serializing it online.
Previously: Chapter 1 – Return; Chapter 2 – Another December; Chapter 3 – A Glimpse of Orion; Chapter 4 – Bowling Green, Ohio; Chapter 5 – And We Danced; Chapter 6 – Steering A Train; Chapter 7 – 7:41; Chapter 8 – Another December; Chapter 9 – Cornfield Meet
Chapter 10 – Bridging Backward
It was at once the voice of a friend and a stranger.
A handful of thoughts stampeded through my head in the moment I drew a breath to reply: What if she’s married? Think she’ll even remember you? What if she doesn’t? Jesus, seven years is a long damn time – why the hell would I be calling her anyway? I should have at least thought up something to say before kicking in with Hi, you might not remember me, but there’s this bridge you took me to, and it’s not there anymore and you’re sort of hooked up with it somehow.
And the loudest, and the one that seemed the most right: Told you so, stupid.
“Hi, um, is this Kallie?”
There was a tangible hesitation, then: “Yes, may I ask who this is?”
“This is Josh Kendall. From college. I know it was a long time ago, but we did The Second Shepherds Play together up in the Elsewhere Theatre.” Three sentences, and I could already hear how lame I sounded.
“Okay,” she replied, drawing it out and leaving the so what hanging unsaid. “What’s up?”
She sounded like a girl at a junior high dance who’s watching the cool guys across the gym, and is suddenly interrupted by a skinny guy with a bad haircut.
Still, I allowed myself the slightest exhalation of relief. At least she remembered me.
“Well, I know it sounds weird, but I’m driving through Columbus tomorrow, and, well, maybe I’m just feeling old and I miss the theatre gang from school, but I was wondering if you’d want to meet me for lunch or something.” God, I was pathetic.
“I don’t know,” she said, and as she paused, I heard a television set in the background get louder. “I don’t think so. I have to work.”
I could see her sitting on a couch, looking bored and flicking the remote, struggling to ditch the phone and me with it.
A click on the phone line signaled that she had another call coming in, and she leaped to end the awkward pause. “Can you hold on a sec?” she asked rapid-fire, and the line was silent before I could answer.
Jesus, I didn’t think it would be this bad.
Bad? What’s bad? You seem to be forgetting that you’re the one probably coming off like some stalker, calling up seven years after a mediocre college play and asking this girl out for lunch. She’s lived her life since then just fine, thank you very much, without Josh Kendall, without any goddamn trains, and without Five Mile Bridge.
“Um…Josh?” she said, clicking back to my line.
“My boyfriend’s on the other line. I gotta go. Sorry about lunch.”
Doesn’t sound too sorry, does she?
“Not a problem.”
“Okay, then. Bye.” She hung up.
Wait! I wanted to scream: It’s about Five Mile Bridge! It’s gone, Kallie! Gone! God, please try to remember – if you remember, it will all come back and I can go back and remember, too and –
and she’ll be dead again. Nice thinking.
I slouched back to my car, sat in the driver’s seat.
Done? Your wife and kid are still here, you know. Alex is still up in Michigan, waiting for a weekend of hanging out and talking up old times, and your life isn’t too damn bad. Suck it up and go home. A year from now you won’t care any more about Kallie Tabitha Greenburke than she does about you, because those trains will have chugged away over your brain’s horizon, yanking that bridge with them.
And would that be so bad?
It was ice water in my face. Would it?
That gut-twisting, gnawing nineteen-hour drive from Florida to Ohio, dead tired and blinking away tears every forty miles, shaking from no sleep and too much caffeine? Never happened.
Lying awake, surrounded by the painted smiles of an army of wooden toys the night before Kallie’s funeral, praying to God to scare the hell out of me, and send her ghost for a midnight conversation; waking up at six a.m. to a cold reality? Never happened.
All of it – from the phone call from Jen Carmen late on a Florida afternoon to the wrenching dreams years later that would leave me empty, despite my blessings. Never happened.
I just needed to get back in my car, and drive off, and it would all begin to fade.
True, I really couldn’t tell how long it would take. What if it wasn’t a year – what if it was ten, or twenty? I imagined a great glacier, roving inexorably through my memories, eradicating the past, dragging and crushing and scraping.
I was more afraid of feeling the loss, of knowing what was happening, and being unable to change it I think, than I was of actually giving up on those memories.
For half a moment, I actually saw myself back on Interstate 75 northbound to Michigan, and later, at the Akron-Canton airport, my wife and daughter coming home, and Five Mile Bridge nowhere in my being.
What about the summer afternoon on the bridge with my wife, watching her eyes glisten in the hot, still air, staring west and calling her own train from the horizon. The matching initials she and I carved in the wooden railing and her cry of joy, a wide grin on her face even as she winced in the scream of the onrushing locomotive?
And the poem I wrote? That poem and Kallie’s quaking arms around my neck, and the tears in her eyes, and the choke in my heart that I can still feel like a deep bruise, and the letter I got from Ray Bradbury years later because of that moment?
The hour after I found out Kallie was killed, where did I go?
Straight to the McDonald’s where I worked with my unknown wife-to-be, who read the pain on my face and wordlessly gathered me in while I sobbed into her shoulder.
And I realized that the loss of that past would not be the surgical, precise removal of a mole from the small of my back, or even the demolition of a skyscraper that implodes in a cataclysm of dust but leaves the neighboring buildings unscathed.
I saw instead the upheaval of a great, spreading tree, the roots cracking and ripping from the soil, a million hairlike fingers clinging to life in countless unseen depths, unwilling and unable to release their grip.
Too many connections, too many strands to pull and unravel.
Too much to risk losing.
And when I realized what I had decided – that what I wanted most in the world was to be back in my own life, with my memories intact, a lump swelled in my throat, and I couldn’t stop the tears that ran hotly down my cheeks.
“Kallie, forgive me,” I whispered, burying my face against the backs of my hands on the steering wheel.
It felt like I was sacrificing her. She was going to die in that car wreck after all, and this time, I’d be the cause of it, because I’d be the one rebuilding Five Mile Bridge, respanning that gulf between my past and this future, and reopening the door for her death and my lifetime of missing her.
My problem, of course, was that I had no idea what had pulled me into this situation in the first place. I didn’t go out to the cemetery or the bridge that afternoon to change anything.
Didn’t you? Sitting on the dirt of Kallie’s grave, and that wind hissing across the fields, folding a fortune-teller out of notebook paper, it never crossed your mind that you were wishing for magic? You babble endlessly about the extraordinary hidden within the mundane, about the powerful unseen tensions that bind lives and worlds, about desire and will and change. You sat there at a crossroads, blind to possibility, but when that new path opened, you walked it without question.
I flashed back, and my fingers went numb in the cold air, the memory of working the sheet of paper twitching my knuckles and fingertips. I saw myself tucking the fortune-teller into the Christmas tree at her grave.
I hadn’t written anything on it that day, but as I watched myself stand and walk away, the wind caught a fold in the page and flipped it open.
Pencilled there were the words, “It will be so.”
And my wish, cast from the deeps, had brought itself to life.
So then, I almost said out loud, I can undo it.
From down the block, I heard in my head the erratic ticking of one watch among hundreds.
“It seems to jam up like this every December now for, let’s see, seven years now.”
Kallie’s watch. One thin, gleaming wire link to my past, even if I was the only person in the world who’d recognize it.
Gather more, I thought, and maybe I could pull Five Mile Bridge back into existence.
I headed back down the street to the jewelry store.
Through the storefront, I didn’t see the shopkeeper, so I pushed the door open, my eyes focused on the broken, faceless watch behind the counter. Just grab it and run, I told myself, this is downtown Bryan. You’ll be gone before –
The door struck a delicate bell just inside the jamb that jingled merrily. It sounded like a thousand brass bells dropped on the marble floor of a cathedral.
The jeweler emerged from his curtained back room, his eyes creased and shining.
“Back for another look?” he inquired, smiling thinly.
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t get that one out of my mind,” I said, feigning a sheepish grin and pointing at the moon-and-stars watch. “I’m thinking it would be perfect for my wife, as long as I can keep it a secret ’til Christmas.”
“Stellar Embrace, that one’s called,” he mused, sliding open the back of the cabinet. He drew the watch out with his spindly fingers, draping it over one leathery palm. “It’s from the 1930s, if memory serves, and should -” he pinched it delicately and wound it for a few seconds, “ – ah, yes, it runs impeccably.” Lifting the watch to his left ear, he closed his eyes for a moment. “Every one sounds different, you know, like heartbeats,” he said in a faraway voice. He gathered himself. “Oh! I’m terribly sorry. At any rate, I may have an older watch box for it in the back if you’d like. I think it would give the gift that much more character.”
He handed the watch to me, and I eyed it with as much interest as I could muster, turning it over in my fingers.
I nodded, and handed the watch back. “I’ll take it.”
He straightened up and grinned as I added, “Could you find one of those old boxes you mentioned? I think my wife would love it.” I was physically forcing my eyes into his, trying not to look at Kallie’s watch on the workbench.
“I’m sure we’ll find one to her liking,” he replied, and he slid silently into the back room through the narrow doorway.
I didn’t even think to hesitate when he was gone, lunging across the display cases and closing my fist on Kallie’s watch. It ticked impotently against the heart of my palm.
And now you’re a thief, too, I thought. Damn conscience.
I opened my hand and looked at the back of the watch.
It was engraved: Kallie Tabitha: Happy 18th, Love, Mom and Dad.
Kallie, you’ll get your watch back, I silently promised. But I’ve got to borrow it for awhile.
A hollow bumping noise came from the back room. “Won’t be but a moment,” the jeweler called, “I’ve several for you to choose from.”
I was out the door and down the street before the bell in the doorway stopped jingling behind me.
Ten minutes later, I was in the gravel parking lot of a neighborhood park, willing my heart to slow down, staring at the broken watch lying on the passenger seat next to me.
I had dashed back to my car madly, leaped in, and thrown it in reverse so quickly that I’d nearly backed out into the path of a green pickup truck with a red Christmas bow hung crazily on its grille. Somehow, I’d calmed down enough to leave the town square behind, and I vaguely remembered wheeling the car sharply through a series of turns, though God knows I hadn’t made any conscious decisions about where I was going or what to do next.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to.
High oak trees and swingsets, motionless in the dying dusk, caught my eye from behind a sign reading “City of Bryan, Vandenberg Park.”
I got out of the car, fingering the watch in my pocket.
On an arc-lit swatch of blacktop at the park’s far edge, four guys were playing basketball. I watched for a moment, fascinated as I saw each bounce of the ball just a half beat before the soft pinging thump reached my ears over the playground.
For a second, the scene felt like the night that Anne and I sat on the swings in Bowling Green. I was a half step towards the swingset when I noticed a sort of memorial or something sitting beside a curved section of the sidewalk.
Inside a paved circle was a squat block of granite with a chunk of wood about three feet long bolted to the top of it. It looked kind of like a section of a railroad tie, but it had an odd, ancient air about it. It also felt strangely familiar.
Embedded in the granite was a small brass plaque that read:
In 1982, the city of Bryan, Ohio, U.S.A., and the city of Quanzhou, China joined in an international exchange program called “Bridges” to celebrate both the diversity and unity of people worldwide.
The sister cities embarked on a journey of shared exploration, establishing pen-pal programs between schoolchildren and collecting residents’ stories of life to share.
Each city also sent part of a local bridge to be placed in the other, a symbol of the connection between two such different cities and the hope of understanding.
From Bryan, a sandstone brick was sent from one of the original rail bridges spanning Franklin Street in the 1800s.
From Quanzhou came a section of wooden beam from Anping Bridge, built during the southern Song Dynasty, somewhere between 1127 and 1279. In the Middle Ages, it was the longest beam bridge in the world. Anping is also named for its length: Five Mile Bridge.
May our distant lives be forever linked.
Dedicated May 5, 1983.
I couldn’t help laughing and gaping open-mouthed while I walked around the pedestal, running my hand along the relic. My fingers and palm remembered the deeply-grooved rails of the bridge over the train tracks, recognized the beam at first touch, and impossibly knew it as the same wood.
With a glance toward the basketball court and quick look around at the otherwise empty park, I pulled out my car keys. My eyes scrambled over the surface of the wood searching for an errant splintering or a keyhole crack. Got it.
Jamming a key slightly into a small crevice near the bottom edge, I gave a sharp twist downward. A piece of the beam about an inch and a half long and about dime-thick snapped and bent outward. When I grabbed to break it fully off, the jagged edge lanced into my left thumb, and I yanked my hand back and upward to my mouth, sucking at the flesh.
I pushed my keys back into my pocket and ripped at the piece of wood with my other hand.
My thumb was still hurting as I got back in my car and started driving for the second time that night with no destination in mind.
I was trying to spot the courthouse tower for a directional reference point when I passed the Bryan Public Library and got an idea.
“I need a map of Williams County,” I explained to the librarian, “but not like a regular road map. I’m looking for one like they used to bind together in atlases, with not just the roads, but the railroads, too. Maybe like those big ones they keep on the wall in the county zoning office, with all the land parceled out and everything?”
I absently bit at my thumb again, which still smarted from where I’d jammed it on the broken piece of Five Mile Bridge. I peered at it, saw a dark splinter buried neatly beneath my skin.
The librarian was maybe in her mid-thirties, brilliant blue eyes and chestnut hair, and she was chewing at the inside of her bottom lip, thinking.
“How new does it need to be?” she asked. “I mean, we’ve got older ones that have what you’re looking for as far as the railroads and highways, but we don’t have up-to-date plat maps. Is there something specific you’re looking for?”
“Kind of. You know those train tracks out west of town, if you go out High Street a couple miles and then turn right? There’s this blue-green bridge, and it goes over a double-set of train tracks -”
“Seven mile bridge,” she interrupted, “I know where you’re talking about.”
“That’s the area I need. Just west of there, actually, but not much more than a mile, maybe two. That’s the nearest landmark I could think of.”
She was nodding and already heading to walk around the end of the reference desk.
“We’ll have that in our local history room,” she said, motioning for me to follow. “This way.”
Half-hidden around a corner at one end of the library, the local history room was probably bigger than it seemed. A wide set of tightly-spaced wooden shelves sat along one wall about waist-high, the edge of each shelf marked with a small typewritten label. The librarian scanned the labels, stopped, and ran an index finger over a series of about a half-dozen shelves.
“These are the nice, detailed county maps,” she explained. She slid one shelf out, lifted it by the sides, and placed it on a tabletop. “This one shows all of Williams County, then there are four with the quadrants, and then a few newer ones.” She pointed to a section on the left hand side of the map. “I think what you’re looking for is going to be around in here. If you need anything else, feel free to ask.”
She left me alone, and the history of Williams County, Ohio wrapped me in a musty spice smell of dust and ink, crumbling pages and yellowed pictures.
On one wall hung a wide oil painting of the town square. Attached to the bottom of the frame, a small brass plaque read: Bryan, Ohio – Williams County Courthouse. Designed by E.O. Fallis, it combines French Baroque and Romanesque Revival styles. Scottish stonecutters crafted the Chicago brick, Berea and Amherst stone, and Georgia marble. It officially opened for business in the summer of 1891.
Exactly a hundred years before my summer with Linc and Kallie.
A meaningless coincidence, sure, but why not just go ahead and imagine that maybe a hundred years to the day after the doors swung open on that red stone midwestern castle, Kallie and Linc and I were transfixed by the northern lights over the wastelands of the ketchup factory. Or maybe it was the afternoon I spent on Kallie’s back porch, or the day I climbed to the roof of Overman hall. It would have been a somehow fitting anniversary on just about any day that summer, I guess.
And I was latching onto any thread of coincidence I could find, real or imagined.
I turned my attention to the county map the librarian had extracted from the shelves and traced a bold inkline west out of downtown with my fingertip until it made a north-south T-intersection. My eyes darted up a half inch on the paper, and scanned to the left again, checking the lines on the map against my memory of the roads outside Bryan. I noted the names where the routes were marked: High Street West, County Road 63, Ohio 19. The spot where Five Mile Bridge should have been wasn’t apparent, but I had enough of an idea that I pulled out the more detailed map that covered western Williams County for a closer look.
A diagonal line labeled “CSX R.R. Tol/Chi” stitched across the second map from the upper right to the lower left.
CSX railroad, Toledo to Chicago.
I found it strange for just a moment that the trains that roared beneath Five Mile Bridge actually had destinations, connections, and schedules, so wrapped had I become in their passing. And my wonderment, my belief, was suddenly ridiculous.
These trains, I thought, these magnificent hellbreath tornadoes – Jesus, they’re just noisy trucks on rails hauling coal or scrap metal from one rotten trainyard to another across this flat dirt nothing. Those engineers behind the square-eye, grime-smeared windows? They pass a hundred ugly bridges in an afternoon without a second thought, and it would never cross their minds to imagine standing in the stink that comes choking out of the engine while they rip under another vandalized pile of wood and steel. They squint hours away facing nothing but endless blazing rail glare or driving rain or low, heavy skies, and they stuff foam plugs in their ears because that goddamn whistle will crack your head open if you have to hear it a dozen times an hour.
It was like being back on stage in college, after two solid months of rehearsals, when the memorized lines and gestures become automatic, and I’d find my mind wandering separately out on its own. It was stepping back and looking at myself wearing theater make-up and talking in rhymed couplets, hearing the words come out of my mouth, and at the same time wondering how I got there, what I was doing, and wasn’t it odd that I could be thinking these asinine thoughts even in the middle of a performance?
In the history room of the Williams County Public Library, the same kind of things went through my head: How did I get here, in this bird’s egg of a town in the far corner of Ohio, with a stolen watch in my pocket and some crazy idea that I was going to change fate, even while my life was unfolding along a different path where none of this mattered?
And the same question that used to ping around in my skull onstage: What am I doing here, pretending to be someone else?
All these things while I stared at the creased map, not really seeing it, running my fingers lightly, absentmindedly over the page. I caught myself, and blinked my attention back just as my right hand drifted over the spot where the bridge should have been marked –
and an unseen hand clasped itself over mine, gripped hard for a heartbeat, and was gone.
I jumped, let out a cry of surprise, cut it short, and stared at my hand while my pulse raced wildly and I struggled to breathe.
It hadn’t been the suffocated blue cold of a dead hand touching mine, but the surface chill of a one out on a winter night with no gloves. The clasp of fingers that have been anxiously clenching a wooden bridge rail on a December night.
What if she’s out there? I thought. What if Kallie, my Kallie, who remembers and knows and loves, is lost out there in some other half-real Bryan, trying to do the same thing I am? Staggering blindly and reaching for any piece of hope, what if she’s out there and she almost managed, almost succeeded, almost reached me?
What if it had been my imagination?
Christ, too many what ifs. I couldn’t sit and wait, even if the crazy idea that there was another Kallie out there was true. I didn’t think I had time. Sitting and waiting might mean forgetting, and I’d seen that road and didn’t want to take another step on it.
I gingerly extended my fingertips toward the map to touch the spot of Five Mile Bridge again, the wild streak of hope imagining Kallie’s hand outstretched from someplace else to tentatively brush my own.
There was only the soft crackling of brittle paper under my fingers.
And as I stared at the map, there was a distant twinge of recognition, of familiarity.
I’ve seen this before, somewhere. Where?
I peered at the lines and intersections on the map: Township Road D, County Road 10, and the cross-hatched line of the railroad. Five Mile Bridge marked the crossing of the latter two, at least it should have. But the gnawing whisper of something greater than déjà vu was insistent: Where did this map come from? Where would I ever have seen this in a million years? Nowhere.
I shook the feeling off long enough to grab a short, eraserless pencil from a cardboard cup on a table. There was a stack of notecards there, too, that looked as though they’d been cut from old file folders.
As I sketched a crude thumbnail map of the bridge and the roads around it, my head filled with a sudden sensation of familiarity, of knowing what was going to happen next and yet not being able to quite see around the corner, frustrating and maddening and –
– a memory, sudden and complete:
“Where’s Josh?” It is my dad’s voice. I can smell the foam insulation and dusty corners of my grandmother’s basement. I am eight years old.
“We’re gonna go buy sparklers and bottle rockets, and we’re leeAAVING! Josh! You wanna go, we’re going noooOOW! Okay, then! We’ll be back in awhile. He’s around here somewhere, so don’t worry…”
Dad’s voice fades, punctuated by the light aluminum bang! of grandma’s front door. I am crouched in the basement in front of grandma’s old wooden file cabinet in the corner, the bottom drawer open.
My grandmother comes downstairs, the third step squeaking lightly.
“Josh? How come you didn’t answer your Dad? He wasn’t mad, you know.”
“I know. I’m just looking at stuff, that’s all. They’ll bring enough fireworks back. Is it okay if I look in here? I’m not breaking anything.”
“Just old people’s stuff in there,” she says, smiling. “If you want any lunch, just come up to the kitchen, and I’ll fix you a sandwich.”
And then I am burrowing through corn-husk receipts and the occasional photograph. The long Fourth of July weekend at Grandma’s is getting boring.
The only toys she has are mostly from when I was little, kept in a cardboard box under the spare bed, and I am in search of anything remotely interesting in the basement.
Seemingly out of nowhere, in my right hand there is an old folded notecard, worn soft at the corners.
Drawn on it in pencil is a simple map. One line is labeled “Twp. Hwy D,” another, “10.” And where the “10” line meets a row of dashes, there is a circle, and the words, “Five Mile Bridge” in careful lettering.
The recollection was fleeting, the memory old and familiar and comforting.
And absolutely nonexistent.
The instant my reverie had faded, a single thought flooded into the space it had filled: That never happened to you.
It was the truth. A moment from childhood seemingly forgotten, but engraved on some hidden inner stone, excruciatingly rich and palpable, and yet it was not a memory that belonged to me.
How could it? How could that have happened to me when I was eight and then some ten years later not pop in my head like a firecracker the instant Kallie said to me “I have to take you to Five Mile Bridge?” As if I’d just forgotten finding that penciled map; forgotten the way I’d tucked it into a book that weekend, kept it at home for years in a desk drawer of pencils, wheat pennies and Star Wars cards; forgotten that when I went off to college and read Richard Bach’s Illusions that I knew my old notecard treasure map had found its permanent bookmark home.
Again, all things I unequivocally remembered, and yet had not done.
When I looked at the map I had just drawn in the Bryan Public Library, it was exactly as I remembered from the day I’d found it in Grandma’s basement but still crisp at the corners, and unbent.
It slowly dawned on me that I remembered finding that map, as surely as I had just unthinkingly sketched it.
In that moment, I felt a seed plant itself in a far corner of my mind: the day that boy, that unknown me, found that strange map in Grandma’s basement, he had no reason to doubt that it was anything but a set of directions to some bridge. It must have existed somewhere, or why have a map to it? I’d never seen Bucyrus or Wooster or Mansfield either – they were just signs we passed on Route 30 when we came to visit Grandma, but I never questioned their existence.
To that eight-year-old me, Five Mile Bridge was as permanent and real as Grandma’s wooden file cabinet.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the watch, touching its face with a fingertip.
“- like heartbeats,”
I pressed the watch flat to the right side of my head, the way the jeweler had, and a ice water ran through my eardrum and down the side of my neck, and a lump thickened in my throat: From inside the tiny watchworks came the unmistakable chickerchickCHAKchickerchickCHAK of steel train wheels.
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After Jenn & Kelsey re-energized a bit Monday afternoon, we decided to drive downtoan and check out Balboa Park, which turned out to be a really nice way to spend a couple hours. Having never been here before – and Jenn realized that this visit actually marks the first time that the three of us are vacationing somewhere that’s entirely new to all of us, which is cool – we were just blown away by the place.
It was sunny and pleasant and perfect for exploring the garden area.
First, we descended into the Palm Canyon, marked at its upper end by this extraordinary tree:
Next up was a pass through the 95-year-old Alcazar Garden –
And then, at Kelsey’s request, a stroll past the Lily Pond.
(Lots of colorful koi in there, too, along with at least one red-eared slider.)
For dinner, we went over to the touristy and overpriced Seaport Village – a resort staffer where we’re staying recommended it when we asked about a waterfront restaurant, and we didn’t know better – but the food was very tasty, and Kelsey tried coconut-fried shrimp for the first time, and I tried mussels, and we did enjoy a nice view of the bay and the naval base, and the three of us had a good time just walking around together after supper while the sun went down.