“Pop,” Matt called out from the back seat, the wind from his open window whipping through his hair, “where’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?”
It was late. We were driving home from a house concert at a friend’s property in a secluded wooded area on the fringes of Anchorage. Between the trance of the evening’s music and the long sunlit Alaskan summer evening, I’d lost all track of time, and so I now raced along the highway, distracted by the hour and that tomorrow was Monday and that the kids were still awake.
“Well…” I said, jogging my memory, “I remember really loving Italy…”
“…and Spain…” I added, as an afterthought.
“Wait, Pop,” he gasped, “you went to Italy?”
In 1999, in my late twenties, my then girlfriend and I left Montana and backpacked around Europe for a few months. While I know the trip made an impression, and that there’s a box of photos in a storage closet somewhere documenting the time, I now struggled to put into words any lasting effect or poignant tales from the journey.
As the boys and I hurtled towards home, my mind only proved a soupy stew of vague, passing images and snapshot scenes: vines wrapping around a trellis of on the back porch of an apartment we rented on the Amalfi coast; standing on the balcony of our room in Barcelona and looking down on the courtyard with its little round tables and wooden folding chairs in the square; our host in the Cinque Terre, Giacomo, lifting a bunch of fresh grapes from a barrel and smiling as he handed them to us; a thumping nightclub in Prague where we winced our way through glasses of Windex-colored absinthe.
Yet I struggled to grasp these wispy images from a long ago former life, to contain them in the framework of story or to find threads that wove all these together into a single fabric.
Who in the world was that guy in Europe baring my name and face then? What were his dreams? What did he want out of life in those years?
And was this midlife? Do memories just erode like shore lines in a hurricane during your forties? I clamored back to the surface.
“Japan was beautiful, too, though, right Sammy?”
“Yeah…” my eleven year-old dreamily sighed from the passenger’s seat.
We emerged beyond the high trees running along the highway and were coasting past exits and turnoffs leading to Anchorage’s version of the gaudy, predictable chain stores and strip malls featured off of every exit in the United States.
On this night, however, well north of consumer culture’s eyesores in the foreground, the sun blazed and pulsed with a dazzling prism of colors and light. Rounding the curve that revealed as much, it’s a wonder we didn’t drive straight off the highway. Slack jawed, I directed Sam and Matt’s attention to the sun’s show on my left.
“Look at that!”
The kids looked and said nothing.
As a born and bred East coast kid from the working class suburbs of Philadelphia, Alaska’s skies always leave me feeling like I’m getting away with something. From the midnight sunsets of summer, to the aurora of winter, there’s something nearly scandalous about letting a random suburban Philly boy travel so far from home to witness so many jaw-dropping skylines.
I tried keeping my eyes on the road while still absorbing the sky’s show on my left. The last time a sky so brilliantly throttled me and consumed my attention was on my trip to Joshua Tree this past March, where I met up and traveled with one of my oldest and best friends, Mark. Every morning and evening in the park seemed, like and unlike in Alaska, an unpredictable but welcome pass for being daily sucker punched by a sky full of Amazing. The in between times, our days, were framed by stupefying encounters with dramatic stone structures, hikes on paths and ground that recalled Roadrunner cartoons, and wandering amidst ruins and desert flora that seemed props for a Cormac McCarthy novel.
I remember passing hazily through the airport, in slow motion on the morning we both flew out of LAX, heading our separate ways back to Alaska and Pennsylvania. I boarded my plane in a trance and sat in my window seat, gaping and eyes wide.
What had we just lived through?
While on one hand I felt like it’d take years to process the silent wonder of the desert and all we’d encountered there in its raw, unforgiving simplicity – in its stark landscapes, its sunsets and sunrises and stillness - my memories of Europe suggested I might not even remember or be able to note the trip’s impact on my life a decade from now.
As I sat staring out the window of the airplane, looking at nothing, my phone buzzed. Mark was texting from his gate, where he still waited to board his flight. He included a photograph featuring an underlined, marked up page of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire:
“If [the desert] has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful - that which is full of wonder…The shock of the real. For a little while, we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels.”
The desert, certainly. Alaska, too. Perhaps the passage even served as a way to more memorably travel and carry myself as I pass through the world in the coming years.
Because hadn’t I perhaps traveled blind and numb to wonder in my other, younger, previous lives? Didn’t I, like the strip malls we now passed and all they advertised, once treat Experience and the places I traveled like something to ravenously descend upon, consume, and devour? Could that be partially why the threads, the stories, and memories of other places prove so hard to come by?
I blew past our turn and steered the car north.
“Pop!” Matt shouted, “Where are you going?”
“There,” I said, pointing to the sunset in the distance, now straight ahead of us.
“We’re going there.”
Wherever it rests. Wherever we find it.