What’s a Travel Essay?
by Stuart Ross
I’m driving from Montreal to Burlington to catch a flight back to Chicago. Chris lives in Burlington, so I’m dropping him at his place. Our wives are spending one more day in Montreal. They’re waving goodbye to us as we leave the parking lot downtown. Or as Chris is calling it, in a fake French accent, the terrain de stationnement.
“Remember,” my wife Betsy says, “if you guys get lost, just remember south.”
“South, boys, south,” Chris’s wife says.
“You wives have nothing to worry about,” I say. “Chris and I are real Americans. We can sense our country from the inside.”
“Yeah like salmon,” Chris says.
“What’s a salmon, anyway,” I say, not as a question, just a statement. We’ve been asking questions and making statements like these the entire trip.
Chris and I will be spending three hours in the C-MAX together, and we don’t have much to say when our wives aren’t doing the talking. But neither of us seems too concerned about lifelong friendship. It’s summer, it’s sunny, and we’re technically still on vacation, leaving Montreal over the Lake Champlain bridge.
“Goodbye, cruel city,” Chris says. “What’s a city?”
“I have no clue,” I say.
“Yes you do, city boy.”
I’m from New York and now I live in Chicago. To Chris, that’s insane. He’s a Vermont person. Has been forever. Maple syrup courses through his veins. He swims and sails in the summer, and in the winter he skis and snowboards down the Green Mountains, although winter sports, he warns me, are not as elegant as summer ones. Elegant is one of Chris’ favorite words. And he uses the verb to navigate effortlessly, not in its corporate sense of navigating the pitfalls in a project plan, but actual navigation on fresh water. I know Chris is excited to get back home, since Vermont’s sunny days are limited. All it’s done this summer in Vermont is rain. It’s caused some serious issues with Burlington’s antiquated drainage system. I read all about it in the local papers.
Our directions take us off the main highway. At least the signs still say south. Or since we’re in Quebec they say Sud. We’re passing hot plate diners, shuttered barns, new churches, and Chris is reading to me, in an exaggerated Canadian accent, the ads tacked to telephone poles for manure disposal services. Not a very elegant business, he comments.
Then it’s quiet, until he starts to make fun of me. I’m a pansy from the city, and Chris is a real man from the country. I talk shit, whereas he knows shit. He tells me we’re passing soybean fields, and do I even know what a soybean looks like?
“What’s a soybean?” he quizzes.
“Isn’t soybean a generic name for edamame, sprinkled with iodine-free rock salt imported from Brooklyn?”
“Did you know that trees are where wood comes from?”
“The dividend yield of my logging industry ETF is almost 2%,” I respond.
“Did you know that trees also make paper?”
“I didn’t know that,” I say. “What’s paper? I thought paper came from the Hallmark store.”
Playing music would end this game. Chris doesn’t like music in the car, though, telling me it will disrupt his passenger seat concentration. Satellite radio came with this rented car, Ford’s version of the hybrid, a C-MAX. Or, more correctly, Betsy and I decided to pay for the satellite radio when we rented the C-MAX. I’m going to miss vacation, because that’s when you decide to pay for things you don’t need, like the 24-hour Pearl Jam radio station, another version of “Tremor Christ” just as solid as the last version of “Tremor Christ.”
The service road gets even less servicey-looking. The shuttered barns have become more infrequent and even the Sud signs have disappeared. We talk it over like you do when you’re following directions. If the last sign we saw said Sud, and we haven’t made any turns, then we still must be going sud. We have to be. We’re good.
Chris asks me the highlight of my trip. Well, there’s yesterday’s hungover brunch in the Plateau Mont-Royal, and Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party at the Place des Arts. And last week, at a sports bar in Burlington, the weeping Boston fans when Dan Bolland scored the Stanley Cup winner for Chicago. That a professional hockey season can end in late June is another sign of global warming. But the real highlight of my trip happened when I first got off the plane, in Boston, and travel arrangements had me by myself for a few hours.
The Silver Line bus connects Logan Airport to points downtown, where you can catch the Red Line train over the Charles River into Cambridge. It’s crowded when I board the Silver Line and I’m pushed to the rear. Seated in front of me is an older woman, dark glasses over her eyes, a folded cane in her lap. Her clothing, too warm for the June weather, is covered in pet hairs. She has a steady cough, each breath a labor, like she could be cast in an anti-tobacco PSA celebrating the total misery of emphysema.
She yells out to the crowd, “When’s the next train to Fitchburg? When’s the next train to Fitchburg!” I know something of Fitchburg. One of Jack Kerouac’s biographers lives there. It must be near Lowell. But that information isn’t going to help this woman. I find the answer in my phone and tell her when the next train to Fitchburg leaves North Station. I sense she’s disappointed she actually received an answer, as departure times are always disappointing to hear, datapoints when nothing in particular is supposed to happen, like 9:43AM. She thanks me quietly before yelling out, with a breath she must’ve been saving up, “It means so much to travel!”
When I arrive in Cambridge I will think the same thing. I wheel my luggage down Mass Ave. and buy my fourth coffee of the morning, just to experience a transaction, to confirm that the money they accept in Chicago is the money they accept in Cambridge. I also buy the Spare Change News from a man who, the next morning, will try and sell it to me again. Then I decide to go on an adventure, and by that I mean I decide to leave Mass Ave.
On Magazine Street I pause in front of a gray stone church. I cross the street and sit on the top step of a walk-up so I can examine the church better. It’s from this angle I notice it has a school annex, built decades later. The church is well kept. I’d say beauty is the word that washes over me for the church, and for the school annex the word is ugly. Built on a overrun budget, it now needs major repairs. I try and look away or look up, take notice of the blue sky and sun. Nothing to see there. And as I sip my coffee, thoughts turn to police stations. Police command centers are the most beautiful buildings America builds now, whether in the suburbs of Chicago or the medieval-named Freedom Tower in Manhattan, which may as well be called the Freedom Wall, or the Freedom Moat. The clearest evidence of civilization is the library, T.S. Eliot said, but today the clearest sign of civilization is a tower filled with cops ready to kill you.
These are the things I would like to tell Chris. The highlight of any trip, no matter how long or how many places it takes you to, no matter how much Google image searching you’ve done the week prior, will probably occur during the first few hours, when capital P place is new and undefined. When everything has a deep human face, even the school annex, even the lazy flies.
1) a blind woman on the bus asked me when her train was due; and
2) I saw a pretty church and my mind began to wander.
Instead I tell Chris:
3) jumping into Warren Falls.
“How elegant,” he says. “For a city boy like you, at least. Halfway elegant.”
Jumping in the falls is the first thing Betsy and I do in Vermont, and since Chris couldn’t be there I can show off my sense of nature and tell him how the steady rain made the climbing rocks slippery, and the clouds made the water very cold. What’s a cloud, though? That’s not what makes the water cold. Betsy and I jump in twice, on a one-two-three-go, steps apart from each other, hands leaving each other’s hands. Chris’s wife takes a bunch of pictures. The very cold water loosens the Band-Aids around my paper cuts as I swim back to the rocks. At some point I develop a new injury on my toe which I take back to the C-MAX as a natural souvenir.
Chris approves. He tells me about the summer parades in the town of Warren, where parades and the Americans who march in them are taken very seriously. On July 4th there are effigies of statesmen and politicians. A few years back a float depicted Cheney waterboarding Bush, a meme that choked America’s sweaty neck all summer. They are fun parades if you get there early enough, if you can get stoned enough, and remember to book yourself a seat on someone else’s lawn.
A sense of relief washes over us when the signs for Sud return. Chris knew it. I knew it. We were still going south, I mean, we hadn’t made any turns. We’re convinced the lack of directional signs was a Canadian plot to mess with Americans.
We soon see signs for the border crossing. I reduce my speed. There’s about a dozen cars in front of us. I put the C-MAX in neutral. Chris and I have run out of things to talk about. We start discussing national politics, which for us is still the bombing of Baghdad over ten years ago.
The morning of the invasion my roommate played his vinyl of Born in the U.S.A. We didn’t sing along. We sat on our thrift store couch and watched the buildings crumble. Chris tells me he doesn’t remember where he was when the war started. He reminds me Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed the Iraqis had ballistic missiles that could reach the east coast of the United States in under forty-five minutes. “I don’t remember that shit,” I say, “what’s a ballistic missile?”
We curse, nod and bitch. We’re not learning anything new from each other as much as confirming what we already believe. I think of a Republican I saw last week at Singing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea. He wore canary yellow swimming trunks, threw a solid Frisbee, and was hesitant to dip a manicured toe in the water. Most of the time he sat on a canary yellow beach towel reading RedState.org on an iPad. Like us, he must’ve parked illegally in Manchester-by-the-Sea, pretending to be guests for the wedding up the hill. If this guy were with us right now, in the backseat of our hybrid vehicle, would he simmer our anger or bring it to a boil? Or would he pick up my copy of Bukowski’s Women and start masturbating?
We inch forward in the C-MAX.
Now we want a definitive history of 2003.
“Ask the border cop,” Chris says, handing me his passport.
“Yeah I’m sure he’ll have an elegant response,” I say, right before rolling down the window.
My hand shakes as I give the border cop our passports. I worry he knows everything wrong I’ve done in my life, starting with suffocating fireflies. Border guards must sense this feeling in their subjects, and I wonder if it gives them a sense of power and if they savor that fleeting power, the seizure they cause in returning citizens. The guard asks me—with the permanently raised eyebrows he earned after a week on this job—why we were in Canada.
“For the jazz festival in Montreal,” I say.
He waits those three cranky seconds before raising the American gates. “Welcome home, boys.”
Right now, if ever, I should feel a surge of pride for my country. But I don’t. The road signs change from kilometers to miles, the Sud becomes South, and the roadside itself seems to have more kill, as if even cars being driven in America are more violent. It seems to me that of all the freedoms I regain back in my home country, the freedom to kill animals with the C-MAX is the most unalienable of them all.
“I was lured to a foreign nation for a jazz festival,” Chris says slowly.
“I know,” I say, “it was an unforgettable, elegant experience. And now you are almost home. How does that feel?”
“For a jazz festival. Where the only beer selection was Heineken and Heineken Light. Do you know what that does to a Vermonter?”
“Well,” I say, “Heineken sponsored the festival.”
We arrive in Montreal in heavy rain, a sobering ride, the fog over the skyline makes it feel like any other city. We don’t let the rain stop us from walking down Catherine Street to the jazz festival, and standing in the rain during the early acts, and later, during the headliners, we stand in even harder rain, really it’s pouring all night, and we’re attempting to get a contact high from the dank air and reminding our soaked selves we won’t be getting sick.
The headliner is the chanteuse Feist, and for some reason from the first note of her set she’s awkward, and even worse she senses she’s awkward. Her set isn’t very good, but she definitely doesn’t suck as much as we make her out to suck. Maybe her rainy trip into town was as gloomy as ours, and it made her the kind of blue a chanteuse doesn’t want to be. That doesn’t stop us: it’s like we’re every blog on the internet who really hates Feist. No matter what happens the rest of our time in Montreal, if the sky pours acid rain into our mouths, if we miss the Metro, if my stomach is sour from too many olives, if we leave a phone in a cab, if we can’t hold an erection during sex, things will never be as bad as Feist, who hasn’t had a new idea, Chris remarks, since 2004. (It is now June of 2013.)
In Montreal we learn prochaine means next, maintenant means now, and in order to say something as simple as parking lot you must say terrain de stationnement. We pick up some other words related to food that we forget once we’re satiated. Mostly we point, and I keep thinking of Stein’s Tender Buttons and the “system of pointing” as a way to organize your foreign language, to compensate for the lack of it. One points because one cannot speak. We eat little meals every few hours, drink wine and lift olives off sword-shaped toothpicks. At one sentimental café we stir unrefined sugar into our coffees with souvenir spoons, the names of other cities engraved on their handles, pictures of what those cities are famous for. Gondolas for Venice, Big Ben for London, the Freedom Tower for New York.
“What city is Feist from, you think?” Chris says during that coffee.
“She’s Canadian,” I say.
“Oh that makes sense. She should be on this spoon for Canada and it should say Feist ruined our country. We are embarrassed to have given birth to Feist’s parents and eventually to Feist.”
“Let’s drink to Feist,” I say during another meal with wine.
No one lifts their glass. Not even me.
We’re back in Burlington. We made it alive. We remembered south. Chris wants to buy me lunch if I have time before my flight. I do have time.
“We must go to this place in Winooski,” he says.
“What’s Winooski?” I respond.
It’ll be our first American meal in four days. They’ll be no more wine and toothpicks. We’ll have a Mexican Coke with our sandwiches before we return to our personal summers.
We stop at Chris’s house so he can pick up his car. We take a back road to Winooski. Even though every road in Vermont is a back road to me, this one has squigglier arrows denoting even sharper turns. Driving behind him I’m worried about Chris, I think he’s driving erratically, until I realize he’s avoiding all the potholes I’m catching behind him.
Alone again in the car, I remember the damage I’ve brought to it. Last week, driving to Burlington from Warren Falls, a pebble hit the windshield of our C-MAX and began a crack in the glass. Over the next week this crack spread the length of the passenger side. Now the crack is mostly straight, with very few rises or dips. It reminds me of a 10-year chart of Microsoft’s stock price. Never having damaged a rental car before, or any car, I’ve been worried it will cost thousands of dollars to repair. When it first happened, as soon as cell reception became available, I spent 30 minutes on the phone with an American Express representative, who consoled me off-script, confirming something I should’ve known: to start the claims process I simply had to log on to the File a Claim portion of the American Express website.
What’s a claim? I wondered. A claim on who?
The lunch place in downtown Winooski is more European than the French-side of the menus in Montreal. Some of the ingredients I’ve never heard of, and even the salad has bacon. When I ask for the fries crispy, I’m told the fries are naturally crispy, with probably the most anger I’ve ever heard about fries. They’re salted, with rosemary and thyme. They’re that unique.
You could be in Park Slope, you could be in Montreal, but wouldn’t you rather be in Winooski?
The bill is about $22 a person. I take out my wallet.
“I’m buying you lunch for driving me home,” Chris says.
“Happy I could do it,” I say, my arm around his back. I lightly tap his back three times before moving my hand away.
I look in my wallet. I’ve still got too much Canadian money. I leave casinos with chips and I leave countries with currency. Ever since discovering this problem of mine I think I unconsciously embrace it.
Back in Chicago, I’ll toss the Canadian coins in my favorite house trinket, a tree stump in the shape of Texas we bought in Austin at a Sixth Street junk shop. What’s Texas? For me, Texas is something that holds my foreign coins, my loonies and toonies, my Euros, and even a few pesetas and the Third Reich coins I held onto when my grandfather died. It gives me comfort to know if I’m ever completely broke I can exchange this money on LaSalle Street and get a good rate. Or sell the Hitler money to an eBay creep.
But I have Canadian bills left over. They won’t fit in my Texas trinket and that’s too much useless money. Of course there’s probably a currency exchange at the Burlington airport.
The statesman on the Canadian five, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, looks like Ian McDiarmid’s’s Chancellor Palpatine, just before his facial mishap in Revenge of the Sith. Back in Chicago, I’ll read on a currency message board that most Canadians think Laurier looks more like Leonard Nimoy’s Mister Spock. Either way, there’s something Sci-Fi about Sir Wilfrid, a strange presence on a bill. Science. Fiction. These things are not a part of money.
While the fries are in the crisper I use the restroom. I take a bad photo of a framed map of Winooski, so I remember I visited.
Chris and I dine al fresco, seated across from each other in the afternoon shadow of City Hall, the Winooski River just down the hill. A good river for Vermont, Chris calls it, flowing all the way to Montpellier. I am embarrassed to ask Chris the question: what is a river?, even though it’s the only thing I’ve wanted to know since I reached Vermont. That and what it’s like to live in a state with no advertisements on the roads. And what it’s like live in a state where the largest public company is a coffee roaster. My key question, if I had only one question to ask: what’s a river? That’s the last thing I want to learn on this trip, and maybe, if my plane crashes, it’ll be the last thing I learn in my life.
I finish all of my rosemary and thyme fries, and some of Chris’s.
We pound goodbye. We hug goodbye.
“2003 was bullshit, wasn’t it,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Not an elegant year at all. 2004 sucked even more.”
Chris is silent for what seems like a long time. Then he says, “at least 2004 wasn’t as bad as Feist.”
We part, like Americans do, to our separate cars. Every time I start driving a car I wonder if I will die, or kill someone else, be it a person or animal. I want to get over that. I want to be an American and drive big cars and kill little animals, throw my money in the Winooski River, poison the salmon I foolishly imagine to be breeding there, let that money float downstream all the way to Montpellier. That’s what I’ll do. That’s what a river is: a place to get rid of what bogs you down. And I will not fly back to Chicago. I will live in Winooski. I will live as an human animal in Warren Falls and know the way to belong to the earth again.
My plane doesn’t crash.
A few weeks later I’m drunk on cheap bourbon at a honky-tonk bar in Madison, Wisconsin, screaming at my new friend Danny over the poorly amplified sound of a cover band struggling to play Gram Parsons’s “That’s All It Took.”
Danny has a blond fro and a glowing blond beard. He reminds me a lot of Chris, a man of nature, who looks at a mountain and sees a challenge instead of a photograph. Chris and I are better friends now, sometimes we text things to each other like What’s a text?
The band sings: “that’s all it took, the mention of your name.”
I’m thinking about texting Chris. Hey, I met a guy in Wisconsin who reminds me of you.
My new friend Danny just got back from a monster trip. He spent seven months in Asia on local buses. It changed his life, forever. He knows more about what basic things are now. I can’t believe my luck to meet someone like my new friend Danny. I’m overjoyed, overcome with information. So I keep asking him big questions, on big themes. What’s a bus? What’s a life changing experience? I tell him about this woman who probably lives in Fitchburg, she’s amazing, and she said something similar, just what it means to travel.
Danny says, “without a doubt: seven months in Asia and you know what it means to be an American.”
“Shit, shit, shit,” I say, “what’s it feel like? I’ve been trying to feel like an American all summer.”
“Go to Asia for seven months, man, you’ll know.”
Now he’s talking about Laos. But enough about Laos. I cut him off, bear hug him, and I scream out: “what is Asia, what is Asia, what is Asia?”
Stuart Ross is a writer living in Chicago. You can follow him on twitter.
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