Here's the scene:
You're in the back seat, laying down,
The windows wrap around,
To the sound of the travel and the engine,
All you hear is time stand still in travel,
And feel such peace and absolute stillness still that doesn't end,
But slowly drifts into sleep ...
REM, 'You Are Everything', 1988
Haddonfield was skirted by highways.
I-295 & the New Jersey Turnpike (I-95)
going through the edge of Haddonfield
As far back as Junior High School, I remember riding my bike to the top of the Center Street hill a few blocks from my house. From there, I could hear the distant drone of I-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike (I-95) beyond the quiet fairways of Tavistock Country Club that separated Haddonfield from the boroughs of Lawnside and Barrington. Flowing southward into Delaware and northward to New York City, the sound was like the steady murmur of fast-flowing water. Sitting on my bike from the security of my neighborhood I would close my eyes and feel the pull of things outside of my little world.
My father's family came from New York City. Several times each year we would pile into the station wagon, ride out of Haddonfield, and get on the New Jersey Turnpike going north. Each time I would get on the highway in the back seat of my parent's car I would feel a rush of both peace and exhilaration in coming up to speed with the traffic. I felt very much at home on the highway. I loved falling into the trance of watching the land fly past, looking into the faces of the people in the cars next to ours and the backyards of other people's lives.
I understood from a young age the magic of that place between here and there, where life seems both detached and illuminated.
On the Road
Like most high school sophomores I was bored and restless. Scanning a rack of books in the Haddonfield Memorial High School library one day, I noticed a tattered copy of Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road'. I had heard some older students talk about the book with an passion that interested me.
The book connected with an unnamed yearning that I had no name for and with a nearly audible 'crack' the shell of my childhood world broke open. There was a world out there. Not just places on the map, but worlds unto themselves. Those worlds could be visited and experienced one only needed to put one's self 'on the road' toward them.
I devoured the book and, like decades of young people before me, it put something I had felt deep down into words; a nagging sense of wanting something more something larger. It spoke of the desire to put one's self through a transformative process and it alluded to a Vision Quest for enlarged understanding. I was at an age where I needed to find something to steer toward and Kerouac provided it. Dreams of travel came to occupy my mind.
I had a Rand McNally road atlas that I kept next to my bed throughout high school. Some evenings I would leaf through it and read the names of all the little towns strung along the secondary highways and wonder about who lived there and what their lives were like. I would trace the thin, colored lines from page to page and state to state, imagining what I would be seeing were I a traveler on those roads.
A Taste of the Road
It wasn't like I never got out of New Jersey, but up to that point I had always stayed on the East Coast. I had taken a car trip down to Florida as a child and had memories of Southern drawls, sweltering heat and Spanish Moss in the trees. We regularly visited my grandparents in Philadelphia, crossing and re-crossing the Delaware River, but never venturing more than 20 miles from home. We visited New York City once a year or so, and I had also been up to visit relatives in Boston a couple of times. One Summer we went camping as far north as the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York, but the trips were always with relatives and always with a specific destination in mind.
Horseback Riding at Frontier Ranch
near Buena Vista, Colorado
My one big high school travel opportunity came between my Junior and Senior year when I worked for the month of July at a camp in Colorado. I rode out with a bus load of campers from Maryland and got my first taste of Middle America. I spent most of the trip by the window, looking at all the places I had seen on my map and in pictures; Ohio, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. I savored the rest stops the most when I could get out and try to 'feel' the immensity of the West and the crowdedness of the East melt away.
In Colorado, I worked outdoors, rode horses under the Big Sky and climbed to the peak of the Continental Divide. At night, I finally saw the Milky Way and realized that there were indeed more than the two dozen stars that are visible in brightly-lit New Jersey. At the end of the month I went back to Haddonfield and my senior year of high school. It had been a tantalizing taste of the world and I was aching to get out into the big land again but on my own.