The Trip Takes You


I waited for the bus in the dark, just before 6 in the morning. I felt a sinking feeling that might be exclusive to non-drivers: that fear of the great divide between getting somewhere and not getting somewhere. That reliance on another person, friend or stranger, to come through for you, to pull you across a great distance. If the bus did not come, I would not get to the airport. There seemed not to be much difference between one bus and zero buses during those few minutes. The bus could easily just forget to come. It would forget to come.

An 18-wheeler pulled into the parking lot, carrying food for the students at the local university, and a man hopped out and walked in my direction. I was standing outside the university’s student center, feeling as hapless and broke as a student. Anywhere else and I would have been scared of coming across a stranger in the dark. But I have never been scared in this town. I enjoy getting to know it in the dark, fairly late at night, when little is going on. I like to run up and down a certain steep road, quiet and lined with pine trees, using its bumps and cracks to mark my progress. Sometimes during the day I continue up that hill and down the other side, ending up 8 or 10 miles from home and not always sure how to get back. When I’m swimming in the ocean here, as it climbs up the shore, filled with mud, flotsam and seaweed, and nudges me out to sea, I’m never afraid — a mistake. The sea is no one’s friend, but I have always thought this part of the sea was mine. It almost killed me once, but because I was too young to feel the gravity of what had happened, I’ve always assumed the sea hadn’t mean any harm that afternoon.

There is an island down the beach, Boot Island, which really looks more like a slipper, and where birds — cormorants, herring gulls, great blue herons, and some carrion birds — sit in their nests at the very top of a stand of white spruce trees. From a distance, you can’t really see the variety of birds that lives on this island, but in the warmer months you can hear them, like singers in a musical ensemble competing to be heard, if you circle around the island in a boat.

This island does scare me. It is wild and people-free. Because of the height and schedule of the tide in the basin surrounding the island, it’s difficult to spend much time on it. It’s only about half a square mile, but its small size doesn’t detract from its allure. It’s sometimes visited by bird-watchers and hikers. From the sky (or Google Maps), Boot Island looks like a human brain, full of tiny nerve-like rivulets tapering off into a muddy salt marsh. I imagine accidentally getting stuck on this island overnight and being eaten alive by its hulking residents, birds I’ve watched out in the crop fields on the mainland as they devour a carcass in minutes, undeterred by an audience of humans, cars, tractors, and more tentative avian competition.

The man went inside the student center and never came back out. I was alone again. The day was coming, but so slowly that I could pretend it wasn’t. I looked at the hard, old snow covering the edges of things — sidewalks, roads, parking lots. It had all, once again, refrozen during the night. It had been like this for at least four days, and could remain this way for another ten, dusted or totally covered with new snow, or remaining idly in its frozen-melting-frozen state until the sun came out for enough hours to melt it, run it down the hill into the drains. The sidewalks were covered in a thin layer of ice, old footprints visible beneath it, preserved in time. No other weather system would likely break out for another few months, unless global warming conspired to rush things through. Eventually the snow would turn to rain, but the sun would stay away until May, mostly, and a rainy day in April, this close to the water, could feel as bone-chilling as the day after a blizzard.

Of course the bus had come, oddly packed with people, mostly students heading back to universities around the country. I would not sleep on this hour-and-a-half ride. An hour and a half is nothing when you’re looking to stay in the half-place between here and there. I tried to admire everything out the window while the door to the bathroom swung open and slammed back in, never quite catching its latch, every time the bus curved with the highway. Eventually someone else would get up and shut it. The sun was rising, streaks of thin clouds and red blooming from behind pines. This was probably the first sunrise I’d ever seen here. It was as dramatic as a summer sunset, maybe spurred on by the fact that so few were watching it.

This is one episode in one piece of the world, but I believe that everything that happens here is worthy of praise: the stubborn, gray snow. The names of the roads. The island full of birds, despite the forbidding qualities that island takes on at night (every tranquil place needs a dose of the macabre). There is a scene in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, about neighboring Newfoundland, in which the character Nutbeem says, “You know, one of the tragedies of real life is that there’s no background music.” But there is the hum of something here that makes music unwelcome, invasive. Maybe the hum is the voices of familial ghosts still trying to enjoy a summer here.

It’s an odd place, beloved by migratory birds and the few others who are lucky enough to have a stake in it. The beach, which stretches about four miles, from the mainland to Boot Island and beyond, is a basin, a mixture of mud, sand and clay. You certainly can’t lie on it, like you would at a beach in Florida or California. The mud is full of sharp sea snails and sharp, shocking green eel grass, an invasive species that keeps creeping northward into the basin from its origins near the mainland to the south. The beach is dotted with eroding lumps of hard sandstone covered in seaweed. And, as of last summer, the beach is the home, or graveyard, of jellyfish-like creatures that wash up to shore en masse and promptly die. Are they plant or animal? We weren’t sure until they started rotting under the hot sun.

At the airport, the sun was suddenly high and bright, the sky perfectly blue, and the sun came blazing through the glass walls of the terminal. Was this really the same day? The allure of dawn is that its witnesses are an exclusive bunch. Here, waiting for many hours until my plane would finally snatch me away, I felt accosted by the day. But I’d been half-asleep in that parking lot, half-asleep on that bus ride, half-dreaming of things that weren’t mine. Now I was seeing things as they were. I can only visit here.

But if that place 70 miles the road could speak, it might say it doesn’t want to be seen the way most places do. The earth rebels there by doing exactly what it’s always done, and it doesn’t care much what man has to say about it. Spend enough time there and you can see the wounds that man has caused: that mass graveyard of mysterious creatures that squelch underfoot; the red sandstone cliffs tumbling onto the beach in boulder-sized clumps; the white pines at the edge of the land that resignedly bow into the sea, victims, like the sandstone cliffs, of erosion. The mysterious jelly things floated into the basin from the outer, colder reaches of the Atlantic, the Bay of Fundy, because it was warm, we think — warmer than it’s supposed to be. But the wounds themselves are spectacular and threatening. They’re a reminder that a twisted earth can do more harm to us than the earth as we found it.

This place has always been particularly fond of extremes — the tides here are the highest in the world. And the people like extremes too. The cottages are small, all built on the same footprint, all built very close together, no fences to separate them. Privacy consists of building your window diagonally down the wall from your neighbor’s to avoid a direct sightline from one window into another. But you can hear your neighbor walking around in his cottage, and you can even feel the force of his footsteps, as if someone is walking around in your cottage.

I’ve never minded any of this. But there are many things to deter a person from wanting to come here. The fine print — the little dagger-like snails; the sharp rocks shrouded just an inch under soft mud, waiting to surprise your feet; the numbingly cold northern Atlantic — has kept away many people. Those of us who are here are suspended in amber, at least for a season. This place is too specific, too stubborn in its uniqueness to endure big changes. When big changes do come, we try to pretend they’re nothing. We didn’t ask for a place we could go, so much as a story with no ending.

The title of this post is taken from a line in John Steinbeck’s road memoir Travels With Charley: “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

middle image of the tree – [Colin Clark]

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