It’s funny how easy it is to go through life just being the star of your own TV show. You focus on family, work, problems, solutions—until that’s all that’s on your screen; it fills your field of vision and you think that’s the whole world. Some people are so engaged with helping others they can avoid this trap. But otherwise, I think traveling (especially if you’re traveling simply) is the best opportunity to shed the blinders and take part in the bigger show—to walk outside your self in other times and places, to walk in others’ shoes.
Much of our trip so far has been experiencing the outdoor life of our incredible, varied, gorgeous continent. Seeing the features of this place, natural and man-made, first hand. Talking with all kinds of people in these places has been easy but often shallow. We’ve found it harder to get past small talk conversations—people don’t expect to talk on a deeper level, or they’re busy and don’t want to take the time. I had hoped opening up with people would be more natural, but even when we’ve dawdled most conversations have stayed pretty superficial.
But occasionally we’ve put down tiny roots, meeting some fascinating people and finding kindred spirits. Some of our liveliest conversations have been in bars and cafes, where people slow down, loosen up and are more likely to share. We like small town taverns, sampling local beer and talking with folks on adjacent stools. Like just outside Bar Harbor, ME, where we connected with John and Denise from Tucson—two well-traveled blues from the reddest of states who are now expecting our visit in the spring!
In a breakfast café in Ovid, NY, the town historian happened to hear us talking and she stopped by to share some town history, including that of the Three Bears across the street: the big county courthouse, the medium-sized sheriff’s office, and the little brick hut now used by the Sons of the Civil War. The jail used to be in the basement of the sheriff’s building, with dirt floors and a trench running down the middle and out the back—that was the latrine. Originally from Rochester down the road, Pat’s lived in Ovid for almost 50 years and knows where the bodies are buried.
At a stop off Highway 87 in Ohio, we talked for a while with the very generous Emily and Pete; she runs the farm while he works in a nearby steel mill. Emily had just been harvesting huckleberries (she makes brandy from it, storing it for three years), and they grow soybeans which they sell to the neighboring Amish. In her self-effacing way, Emily proudly told us of their son, an accomplished computer programmer who just moved to Boston to start his organ donation logistics company.
Walking out on the wharf in Winter Island, MA, I got to like Joe, a retired Salem police captain now working for the harbormaster part time and looking forward to not wintering in Salem. He’s leaving for Florida in November with his wife and their electric bikes. Doesn’t sound like he’ll be sorry to miss the first winter the harbor will freeze since they built the big coal-fired power plant across the bay—it’s been putting 88º water into Salem Harbor since 1951, but they’re tearing it down this fall.
Touring a Frank Lloyd Wright building in Racine, WI, the SC Johnson company HQ, we met the very engaging Amy and her husband Mark. She’s not only fighting breast cancer, she’s bringing her forthright, upbeat, courageous style to blogging and making videos (amycz.com) about her fight, her body, her surgeries and chemo, and about healthy eating and “enjoying every sandwich.” They clued us in on the Apostle Islands along Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shore, which was so beautiful and we likely would have missed it otherwise.
And in the Village Inn bar in Cornucopia, WI, we ate fried cheese and got to know Harold and his fascinating story: he landed on Utah beach, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and served in Berlin in the war’s aftermath. Harold has traumatic insomnia—he doesn’t remember any details from the Battle of the Bulge up until the war ended. One day he asked a friend why they were about to give a parade for some generals, and his friend asked, “Don’t you know? The war’s over!” Later in Berlin, the Tiergarten was nothing but splintered tree trunks and everyone was afraid to go into the Russian sector, all guns and dogs watching you wherever you went. We learned about his father, who got his business degree at 15; he moved all over clerking for a logging company, and when the trees were gone he started a grocery store in Cornucopia, which Harold took over on his return from the war.
It feels trite to say it but I think it’s worth saying anyway: these too-brief connections and others like them have opened small windows into the lives of some extraordinary, likable “average,” people. They have been as vivid to me, and have meant as much, as the most vibrant landscapes along the way. When you take the time to talk, the people make the place.