Every summer of my childhood, our family climbed into the 1972 copper-colored Valiant and traveled from Green Bay, where my father was teaching at the university, to the Pacific Northwest, where my grandparents lived. There was no air conditioning; we rode with the windows down, the wind roaring through the car. Sometimes we rolled a window up to hold a towel in place, a curtain against the sun. Sometimes my parents got a bag of ice from a gas station, and it would melt between my brother and me on the vinyl seat. We would suck on bits of ice, or roll them around our necks, or throw them at each other.
My mother gave us each a shoebox at the beginning of the trip with small wrapped gifts. We got to open one or two a day. My box usually had a Trixie Belden mystery and books of word puzzles. My brother and I played cards and the alphabet game, looking for the letters on signs and license plates. Occasionally my father would smoke a cigar, and the sweet smell drifted through the backseat.
We left early the first morning, stopping in Wausau for pancakes. One year my dad had to pull over the car a few miles out of the city for my brother to throw up his pancakes. We hooked up with I-94 in Eau Claire and then drove almost without stopping — just for gas and a quick picnic lunch in a rest stop — until we reached Jamestown, North Dakota, where a giant concrete buffalo stood guard on a hill. I was fascinated by the breakfast arrangement at our motel. Coffee, juice, and doughnuts were sold on the honor system, with a bowl marked “kitty.” What would stop someone from eating fistfuls of doughnuts and walking out without paying? And why was a money dish called a kitty? My father always dutifully counted out the coins and left them in the bowl.
The next long day took us from Jamestown to Bozeman, Montana, where my great aunt and uncle, with the funny names of Floss and Shirl, lived in a log house in a mountain valley. Somewhere along this road, we began to see billboards for the Snake Pit outside Spokane. The first billboard read something like “830 miles to the Snake Pit!” We always laughed and called out the Snake Pit signs because we were actually traveling that far, and we knew that the Snake Pit was a little warren of sad buildings that most people, including us, passed by.
The last day brought us to Spokane and my maternal grandparents’ house, where we sat on the cool back patio drinking lemonade and trying to play with their grouchy dachshund Mitzi. We would spend some weeks at their nearby lake cabin, then drive to Seattle for a visit with my father’s parents. And then we would turn around and drive east, passing the Snake Pit signs, waving to the Jamestown buffalo, and leaving our coins in the kitty on our way to Green Bay autumn.
This summer I’ve been reading the work of André Aciman, a writer once called by a reviewer “the prince of nostalgia.” When he was a child, his Jewish family was forced out of Egypt and exiled to Italy. Eventually, he moved to New York, where he writes essays and novels that often explore nostalgia for times and places long gone. It’s no surprise that he is a Proust scholar.
In an essay called “Shadow Cities,” Aciman describes a small New York park that he has grown to love because, among other things, it reminds him of other cities. But what he comes to understand is that he is remembering “not so much the beauty of the past as the beauty of remembering, realizing that just because we love to look back doesn’t mean we love the things we look back on.”
I do not share Aciman’s experience of exile, yet it resonates with me. Until I turned twelve, my family was constantly moving, from the Pacific Northwest to Houston to the Virgin Islands to Green Bay and back to the Northwest. By first grade I had traveled on trains, planes, and long car trips. I learned to love, not just places we visited — for example, the sere landscapes of eastern Washington: the Ponderosa pines, the dry heat, the sweet cool of lakes — but also the movement, the getting there, the travel. And as Aciman suggests, I do not love everything I look back on; I’m sure if I were, right now, driving into a hot North Dakota sun, I would wish I were back in my cool Seattle apartment, drinking chilled wine and looking out on the green park. But I do like to remember.
I’m scrunched down, my bare feet pressed against the back of my mother’s vinyl seat. Hot wind whips the curls around my face. Trixie Belden is sneaking through the dark back yard of a sinister mansion, and my brother, for once, is asleep against the door and not bugging me. Ice melts against my neck. The road stretches ahead. This is summer.