Tag Archives: travel

Ways and Means

As creatures of habit, once we establish ourselves, we find our favorite routes to and from. Some of us never vary our paths; others are more experimental in mixing it up a bit, for variety’s sake. I once worked with a guy who had his routes, by car, so mapped out that he knew exactly how long each one would take: 7 minutes and 32.5 seconds – yes, that precise, and he loved to offer his statistics. Kind of scary.

I do find that once I like a certain path, I will repeat it since it becomes predictable and safe. And I am definitely a shortest-distance chooser, meaning that if there is a choice between the fastest route (higher speed, when it likely takes you out of the way) and a slightly slower one (that connects the start and end points in a straight-ish line), I prefer the latter. Of course, here we are talking about roadways. But whether it is by bicycle or on foot, I will move according to “as the crow flies.”

Another factor that determines my paths is a sense of comfort with the terrain. I just don’t feel safe in multilane highways that slice through undeveloped parcels and give the traveler no sense of context, let alone placeness. It can be like a big, open-range cattle-herding chute, in stampede mode. We have way too many of these behemoth roadways and they disconnect people from places. It is an earthbound version of the “fly-over,” which is how all of America between the east and west coasts is referred to by east- and west-coasters. We have set up thousands of miles of “drive-over or -through” zones. I consider these avoidance paths.

screen map

I am a map person – I know that that places me somewhere in the pre-Holocene epoch – and loving the in-hand maps includes the wow factor of the mind-blowing concept that crazy/brave explorers mapped out our world, long before GPS appeared. I not only value what they did but I cherish what they left for us. Maps are wonders of the world – how were they designed, conceived and realized? I have seen some of Lewis and Clark’s first renderings of the Mason-Dixon line. Did they find a path or did they make one? Native Americans followed deer paths and Lewis and Clark followed Native Americans. Now we follow road engineers who don’t believe that the land knows best – they just cut down anything in the way; and it never ends up being a straight line anyway.

I admit I don’t warm to GPS or even to Internet mapping programs because they lack context. There is no where there. Certainly I can follow directions, although they are not always accurate. Instead of beaming in on the micro, a real map will give you the whole picture, and then you can find the specifics. On a device, you have a very narrow window through which to view your options. If you move out, the detail is lost, street names disappear; move in and you are a dot with maybe three lines surrounding you. With a map, you have an entire region and you can maneuver through it in different ways. And you will probably learn things along the way, as opposed to accepting and following one way. Sometimes getting lost with a map in hand can be challenging or exhilarating, since it offers you options for self-correcting. I always feel safer with a map nearby, it is a guidebook to the ground. And as long as we are grounded, it is useful, necessary.

iPad

Recently, relying on a web-based mapping program in a rural area – it, sadly, was the only option (well, there’s one point for the electronic version) – but it mapped the wrong address on the wrong road, and had its little pointer pointing to the end of the road for the destination. Strangely, the real road continued on despite the virtual road having ended, but the blinking dot (meaning my car) just kept moving along the empty space of non-existent road on the virtual map. Talk about scary. The road ends/it doesn’t end and the virtual car has found the other side of the looking glass. It was the cellphone to the rescue, in this instance.

Yes, it is miraculous and bizarre, and a bit scary, that a satellite can find you and follow you – yet, apparently it doesn’t care where you are. But think about the miraculousness of a piece of paper that a) someone created, b) after someone trekked, c) after someone measured in distance and contour: mountains, rivers, oceans, roads, and drew it all in an organized system of scale.

Look at a real map and find those squiggly lines that snake up a mountain or alongside a creek. That’s the path I want to take, in this case not a straight line but as straight a line as nature provides, the contours of the land molded by wind and water. If we follow such paths, who knows where they might lead?

ny map

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Woodstocks Nation, Part 4: New York

logoRight up front, Woodstockers will tell you that the famed rock concert didn’t happen there. Of course, this will not stop them from trying to sell you an “authentic” souvenir commemorating those three muddy, giddy, iconic and inimitable days of peace and music. And why should it? The show might have taken place in Bethel, but it got its name from the town that spawned the idea for it and lent its considerable good vibes to the proceedings – good vibes that exist there to this day, in much the same way that they did then. Manhattanites come, old folkies go, but, to an extent that is almost miraculous, Woodstock remains Woodstock. The concert happened nearly 70 miles away and 45 years ago, but the echoes reverberate still off Overlook Mountain.

village green

Come into town (we were heading in from Woodstock, Vermont, via Massachusetts), along Route 212 or down 375 (what is soon to be known officially as the Levon Helm Memorial Boulevard), take a gander at the mountain range all around, and then notice primarily what is not in the village, the central core of the town: except for a couple of national-brand pharmacies, there is no big-box store, no chain restaurant, no big-name shop – this is by design. Woodstock wants none of that, thank you. There are more Buddhist prayer flags than American flags (not that it is an unpatriotic place, it’s just that it has its priorities), and more ponytails per capita than most other towns – and that’s just on the men. Where other village greens in other towns display old cannons or heroic statuary, Woodstock, N.Y., has a Peace Pole. It also has, on warm-weather Sundays, a drum circle, complete with volunteer dancers swaying in abandon, and a bizarre Father Woodstock – dressed like a sorcerer by way of Sergeant Pepper and Doug Henning – giving peace signs to passing motorists.

peace pole

It’s the boutique-y shops, oddball businesses and natural beauty that attract weekend tourists to this oasis in the Catskills just two hours north of New York City, but what draws artists and writers and musicians to make Woodstock their home, even if they’re just weekenders, is that it is a place that, since the early 20th century, has been a gathering place for the creative of word and deed and imagination. The town calls itself the Colony of the Arts; its town crest hasn’t the usual symbols of government on it, but, rather, representations of painting, theater, music and writing.

It is a town with a laissez-faire attitude toward outsiders and art-makers – it is known as being a place where you don’t have to explain yourself or your oddities, and a place where those attributes might even be celebrated. There is even a cemetery dedicated to artists. Folks from Milton Avery to Joan Snyder, Bob Dylan to Steve Earle, The Band to Donald Fagen, Helen Hayes to Uma Thurman have all called Woodstock home at one time or another. Even David Bowie’s around there somewhere. These days, real estate is a bit pricey, and younger folks are taking their artistic baby steps in outlying smaller towns and in the nearby city of Kingston, but even they know that other places are for paying your dues – Woodstock is the reward.

joy

We began our Woodstocks wanderings with the intriguing though half-baked concept of touching base with as many towns of a similar name as possible, and seeing if there were any commonalities. There weren’t many – shared names, even if from identical origins, don’t mean that there are any other similarities. They weren’t separated at birth; they don’t have shared DNA. Woodstock, Conn. and Woodstock, N.Y., might just as well be in different countries. What they do share, though, is a sense of what they are, a solidity of values and a refuge from urban woes. They are all relatively small outposts, and they have lives beyond the shadows of behemoth cities. They all have nice people. Maybe what they share is a kind of goodness, a spot of safety and the sense that if all the rest of the world starts slipping down that drain with a loud sucking sound, they will not be going that way, or if they are, they will be last.

What we came to realize, too, on our road-trip journey was that next time we will try a different theme: Paris, Texas, sounds good as a starting point to get us to that other Paris; or maybe Athens, Georgia, with that Greek namesake as the endpoint; there’s also Rome, N.Y. and Berlin, N.J., and we could stretch things and go to Notre Dame in Indiana, or Venice Beach in California, and find our way to those foreign places that come to mind. Finding our Woodstocks was grand, but there’s a whole, other, places-with-similar-names world out there. And, of course, there’s still Woodstock, Ga., and Woodstock, Ontario, and …

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Woodstocks Nation, Part 3: Vermont

welcomeHere’s a free-association test: Say “Woodstock,” and people with money will reply “Vermont,” while those with ‘60s cred will point to the music fest in New York. Of the Woodstocks we’ve visited so far on our thematic trek – first in Connecticut, then New Hampshire – Woodstock, Vermont, is the one that sits at the grownups’ table.

street

The village was invented, it seems, so that the word “picturesque” would have something to refer to, and it is so formally self-aware of this and of its tourist-attracting saleable past that it has a historical marker with so much written on it, it has to continue on the back side. It is the village of a mere 900 or so residents that we speak of here; it sits within the town of Woodstock, which contains about four times that population and a South Woodstock, too.

sign

As we drive into the village core, park and walk around, in the summer sun (although ski season is among its chief raisons d’etre), the place seems to be gleaming white (in more ways than one), with spotless sidewalks, many old and idiosyncratic storefronts, pretty picket-fenced houses, a stately and gorgeous (inside and out) public library … god, there’s even a covered bridge, and a big village green where, when we visited, a huge annual book sale was in full swing. Wholesome values, in aspic.

green

You want New England, this place is perfectly lousy with it. And that’s the drawback, as we see it, from a placeness, arslocii perspective – it is too perfect, and, though a creature of centuries of urban evolution, seemingly too much a creation of intelligent design. Some of that has to do, we’re sure, with the nature of tourist allure – presenting visitors with what they expect to see – and some of it with Disney-ish Main Street-ification. At times, we thought that the only things missing were crowd-mingling reenactors dressed as Paul Revere and an easel-toting Norman Rockwell.

house

There is money here, and much of it came from Rockefeller wallets, and while that family has made startlingly wonderful efforts to preserve art and land, their participation often leans to the development of a more studied, more fashioned, more cleaned-up/dressed-up artificiality – a shaping more than a tending, and a slight soullessness in its immaculate artistry. The feel of that stewardship circulates down Woodstock’s quaint streets and byways.

Don’t get us wrong: It is an attractive village with surprising amenities and photo-worthy views, and, if you find yourself in the neighborhood you owe yourself a stroll. But, when you are there, thereness might not be your walking companion.

bridge

Next time: Woodstock, New York

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Woodstocks Nation

When we vacation, we tend to overpack the car, point it in the direction of compelling, sometimes overlooked places and make our way with a stack of printouts as our guide. That is how we found one place we keep going back to – a place that so immediately and completely and naturally became “our place”  that it was like discovering that you‘d been adopted and now you’ve met your biological family and, from the get-go, in some weird pheromone-ish way, simply “know”” them; it is our Brigadoon, arising out of the heather mist, periodically, in our time but of its own; a spot that lies nestled at the foot of mountains named Guardian and Overlook – how can you not love the protective hug of that? It is Woodstock, New York.

There is, for us, only one Woodstock, but, we have found out that there are, indeed, other Woodstocks – a bunch of them: two in Canada, at least five in the U.S. alone, three clustered in the northeastern portion of the country. Having visited none of the others, we wondered what they were like, and how they compared to our/”the” Woodstock: Was there another Woodstock that we would prefer or be more enchanted by than the one we’d come to hold close to our hearts? Would the others be home to the same kinds of characters and outliers and land’s-enders as the New York Woodstock? Would any or all be a colony of the arts, as ours was? Might there be something common to all, and if so, what – besides the name? And by these wonderings, and with a bit of vacation window open in front of us, we hatched a plan and devised a route, a circuitous trail of mostly back roads, a few highways, mountains and valleys, inns and b&bs, sculpture parks and natural wonders, but all with a central purpose: to arrive at our Woodstock, eventually, by way of other Woodstocks, the ones we could reach in our allotted time. What would we find in our quest of Woodstocks?

Woodstock(s), Conn.

Connecticut, like New Jersey, can be seen by outsiders as a pass-through DMZ, a bedroom-community corridor between New York City and New England, a freeway ramp to Boston. Really: What pops into your mind when you hear the word “Connecticut”? It has a reputation for insurance (Hartford) and the first native-American casinos (Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods). For us, in Bridgeport, is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the country: Bloodroot. The fifth state in the union has no major-league professional ball teams. There is no love song written to it. It has a Woodstock, though – actually, six of them. And, coincidentally, we have a good friend in the town in New York who grew up near (if not in) this town, having attended the Woodstock Academy, in Woodstock, Conn.

But wait, six Woodstocks? The way we understand this is that six villages –  South Woodstock, Woodstock Hill, North Woodstock, East Woodstock, West Woodstock and Woodstock Valley – make up the town of Woodstock. Just as an aside, the New York version is a town made up of twelve hamlets. But with New York, the other hamlets don’t have variations on the same moniker.

country

They call the northeasterly part of Connecticut the “Quiet Corner,” especially in contrast to the roaring and belching interstates and the denser urban pockets to its south, and it is here where Woodstock is. And Woodstock is, as the regionalized name indicates, quiet. Farms and vineyards, antiques and b&bs (we stayed in a sweet and quaint place, Taylor’s Corner B & B, along a country road, although, truth be told, every road there is a country road, really). There is not, to the underinformed visitor, much or any of a town, but rather just rolling green acres and homes and occasional shops.

fair signWoodstock is a rural enclave and the people have fought hard to keep it from being over-developed. In this town you are more likely to find frogs and fireflies than lattes – and that is a good thing. It celebrates its history, with one of the original town homes now housing its historical society – and behind it is a nice arboretum/garden with a strolling path – and its agriculture, evident in the large millstone standing upright at the town center and its annual fair.

millstoneBut it also has a notable landmark in Roseland Cottage, a pink-painted Victorian gem that once hosted the rich and famous, and is now a tourist attraction. It was influenced by the designs of Andrew Jackson Downing, has a lovely formal garden, and sticks up like a shard of gingerbreaded coral by the road.

roseland

(It would seem that if you want a town with more commerce and centrality, you need to make the brief slide over to Putnam or Pomfret. An eatery called the Vanilla Bean, in Pomfret, appears to be the popular populist gathering place for the area, and provides a bit of local color – you’re as likely to find biker gangs as suburban families there.)

With Woodstock flowing into Pomfret, and with not much of a town center to Woodstock at all, it is often difficult to know just where you are (of course, there a lot of people in the New York Woodstock who aren’t quite sure where they are, either), and this is compounded by the fact that it is a divided Woodstock, with its six sections, each flowing one into the other, with occasional signs but without definitive borders. We tried, as best we could, to visit all its parts – we may have, but couldn’t quite tell for sure. Like many New England towns, it is cute and historic, and this one is a good reminder of our early American roots. It is its own Woodstock, albeit, to our eyes, with nothing like the placeness of ours, but an original nonetheless.

sign & house

Next installment: Another state, another Woodstock, and scaring moose.

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Taking a Toll

From Merriam-Webster: highway robbery, n., 1: robbery committed on or near a public highway usually against travelers.

NJ-turnpike-Toll-BoothsIf you live on the East Coast of America, the concept of a free ride is an empty one. Toll roads exist in about half the states, with the original pay-to-pass having been built between Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pa., in the 1790s.  Currently, in every state that touches the coast, or connects to a state that does, drivers must ante up. New Jersey, at some point, decided that, given its strategic location, it could haul in bucket-loads of cash by providing high-speed roads that would take people to where they really wanted to be.

If you want to travel the length of New Jersey – since that’s mostly what it offers – on the New Jersey Turnpike, it will cost a passenger car $13.85. The Garden State Parkway is another means of traversing, but for $15.75; the GSP is a little deceptive, since it stops you periodically for tolls – maybe giving you a chance to get off before you run out of money. And this sporadic payment plan makes it difficult to know what it is actually costing.

NJ turnpike system

I know from experience, the tolls can create a secondary (to the traffic) panic when you are exiting the booth and your one-way ride has already cost $27, and you have nothing to show for it. If you cross borders into and out of New Jersey, it can be as costly as a hold-up during a Wild West stagecoach ride.

You can enter New Jersey for free, but to leave you must pay the piper. Going from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, the fee varies slightly, perhaps based on the specific bridge’s construction expense; sometimes it costs $5 or $4, and sometimes only $1 – so pick your bridges carefully. Pennsylvania is a bargain compared to New York, where, merely to cross a bridge or enter a tunnel and exit New Jersey, get ready to pony up $13 for the privilege. In a quick calculation, if you live in Cranbury, N.J., and you drive into Manhattan every workday (you would have to be insane to do this), your weekly bill for tolls would be around $150. Ka-ching!

The well-known Pennsylvania Turnpike was constructed in the 1930s, and is probably the most expensive ride across a state, if you take it from New Jersey to Ohio – a whopping $35. On the New York State Thruway, from New York City to the other side of the state, you can pay around $25.

familiar sign

In 1993, E-ZPass, an electronic toll-collection system, debuted on the New York  State Thruway, just two years after Colorado’s E-470 came up with the first of its type. E-ZPass is now used in 14 states. With this method, you can be pinched without even opening your pockets; it just deducts your ride from your electronic E-ZPass account. This can provide a kind of out-of-sight-out-of-mind stress avoidance – that is, until you look at your monthly statement. Just add up 20 crossings via a tunnel and the stress is there in spades – thankfully, you are not in your vehicle when you see the bill, since road rage might ensue.

Of course, there are alternatives, but some of them make you happy to pay. My theory is that U.S. Route 1 in New Jersey is purposely left untended, pothole-riddled and ugly just for that very reason.

However, there are many state and county roads throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, and surprisingly, they are interesting rural byways – especially the old parkways that were once toll roads but are no more. They are the only means of seeing what is truly wonderful about these states – in terms of driving. There is no placeness on interstates, since they are all about moving you through, quickly and without distraction. The toll roads will not give you views of the good stuff, the way the back roads do.

Come on and take a free ride.

hhwy-toll-plazas-toms-river-tolls_11242827132

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The Road Not Taken

road to nowhereWe do not think of roads in pieces but as ongoing lengths – we even refer to them, in stories and songs, as ribbons of highway. It is almost as if, if you kept driving, a road would keep appearing under you, as needed, fabricated out of whole cloth over empty land to ensure your continued travel. When we think of roads in sections, it is usually the landmarks to the roads’ sides that we refer to – seldom (other than potholes or known construction barriers) do we consider the roadway itself. Like electricity when we flick a switch, it’s just there. And, in most places, where one road ends another comes off it. A road does not, it seems, in and of itself, have placeness, though its environment may.

That is why a so-called “road to nowhere” is so jarring, and intriguing. For, by the very nature of its stopping, literally dead in its tracks, it seems to go against “nature,” but also, by its causing us to stop dead in our tracks as well and to demand consideration of the absence of its “roadness,” it creates placeness.

Famous, of course, is the “road to nowhere” that was built to connect to the “bridge to nowhere” envisioned as connecting Ketchikan to Gravina Island, in Alaska, the scandalously wasteful, pork-barrel nature of which may have added fuel to the disenchantment with and ridicule of Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate and voice of right-wing Republicanism (a road that, itself, seems happily to, finally, have gone nowhere, although the trip took longer than the projected 15 minutes).

Regularly, on the way to doing some tasks near Norristown, Pa., we have found ourselves quite suddenly and surprisingly on another such derailed road. You come off an exit from a bridge, rolling down the chute, and then you find yourself facing not the straight lanes you expect but instead a chain-link fence that diverts the road you are on to make a hairpin turn sending you off rather quickly in the opposite direction. But, before you leave the area, you can spy, behind the chain link, the road that might have been: multiple lanes go off a short distance, ending in a jungle of overgrowth – and it is as if one had reached the end of the earth before falling off, or disappearing into the wild. From up above, looking down from an overpass, you can see the abrupt disappearance of highway even more clearly. It … just … stops.

hairpin

Having had our curiosity piqued by this odd sight – a circumcised highway imprisoned like a white-collar criminal, without any indication why – a little research uncovered the backstory. Apparently, a link was imagined between two routes, to ease commuting, and, given the grand name of Schuylkill Parkway, the work was begun. And then funds ran out, right in midstream. And so, today, stands a monument to the “dream” of interlocking paths to make suburban sprawl even more conveniently sprawling, and an indictment of pouring tens of millions of dollars into a useless folly and not having the sense to spend a little more and give it usefulness. Better to let it be pointless is the logic, it seems. And should it ever come back to life as a project, how wasteful it will have been to let everything crack and crumble, with more millions needed to bring it back up to baseline buildable again.

But, if one rolls down that exit ramp, and instead of making that sharp turn and continuing on in the opposite direction, if one were to pull over and park in what would have been the road’s median – well, it is a whole different place to be. Indeed, it is a place. If no other cars are coming, one has the great, eerie pleasure of walking on a wide, deserted highway, as if all the world were gone but you, as in some Twilight Zone episode. But even better is to walk to and squeeze through the chain link, and you are in another world: A road almost never used that, in very short fashion, ends. Here, and in few other places, the highway can be looked at as a piece, as the way you might see light as particles and not rays if you had the tools to do so. It is wide and clear, but a snippet … and, in some way, sad, in the way something that does not achieve its potential is a sad thing. And, if you step farther into the stunted road, you can almost feel the quiet, and you can yourself feel like a thief, or a time traveler, or someone (Twilight Zone, again) whose time-metabolism is different from those on Earth, and that there might be cars zipping all around you, but you are out of sync with them, and thus unaffected. It feels like a place of unintentional but no less powerful art. Not holy, not spiritual, but insistent, and resonant with arslocii vibes and possibilities.

turnaround

It is like a movie set and, in fact, the city or county or state could make some money off this white elephant by making it available to filmmakers to use for car-chase and -crash scenes. Sometimes, a motor-vehicle agency puts out parking cones in this space and performs some sort of test or driving contest; it could be the perfect place to teach driver-ed classes. Or to turn into a recreational area – there is plenty of room for basketball and tennis courts. Or make it a performance venue, or show movies outdoors during the summer. Make this thing that goes nowhere be its own destination. Sometimes, nothingness is the perfect place for anythingness, because there are no restrictions, rules or preconceived notions. Sometimes, the place to start is the place where it all stops.

road end

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Rock ‘n’ Roll, or Current Resident

radioWe are rocketing up the highway, driving as fast as our voices are loud, singing at the top of our lungs. (Why does no one ever sing at the bottom of their lungs? Don’t they contain air, too?) The songs we are singing are, maybe, ten years old (although, the way time and our minds are racing from us, like a tsunami down a steep slope, the songs might actually be 20 years old … or older), yet we know all the words, or most of the words, or, more accurately, all the vowel sounds – within the span of three minutes, the words “my pledge of love” come out different each time we warble them. We hit the high-note ending, pointing our fingers at whatever audience we think we are performing for (they adore us, they are undressing us with their ears), and then it is over, satisfyingly throat-ravaging, invigorating and youth-ifying.

The deejay intrudes, makes sure to tell us his patently fabricated name, and the call letters of the station, and the information that this obviously Podunk, 4-watt operation emanating from somewhere near a mountain and a swamp is “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.” What follows, then, is what begins to turn into about 8 minutes of strung-together 20-second spots, so we hit the scan button – no, no, maybe … no, absolutely not … and then yes, something we know, and we’re off again, howling to the adult-contemporary moon. Then another deejay with the same voice as the previous one, maybe even the same name, and the same speech-pattern and shtick, time, weather, the kind of call-letters that start with B or Q and end in numbers … and he informs us that where he is broadcasting from is “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.”  And we wonder: Rock ‘n’ roll has two homes, and in this flyover mudsplat corner of the world?

Over the course of the next hour, and several dozen impatient and severely judgmental excursions up and down the radio dial (it’s actually digital, but, come on, we still “dial” the phone, don’t we?) we receive signals from no less than three other homes of rock ‘n’ roll. We are puzzled: Just how many homes does rock ‘n’ roll have? How many does it need? I mean, OK, one in New York, another in Los Angeles, maybe a place in Nashville, a pad in London and, of course, one in the Caymans to hide the money and be close enough to Turks and Caicos to party with Keith. (And, sorry, Cleveland but, hall of fame or no, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t consider you home. Ever.) But, really: Seven homes within 60 miles in the middle of nowhere? Isn’t that just a little bit strange … and piggy? And whatever happened to rock ‘n’ roll’s tradition? Crashing in other people’s pads, or in the back of cars after a gig where it didn’t get paid, or in a corner of a bus station – when did rock ‘n‘ roll get to be Donald Trump?

All those homes – consider the mortgages. The utility bills (rock ‘n‘ roll tends to leave the lights on at night, because it passes out before it has a chance to flick them off). The  lawn-mowing. The pizza deliveries – you could go broke on the tips alone. Trying to remember all the ZIP codes. Imagine the key ring rock ‘n’ roll has to carry around – you’d need a roadie just to lift it. And when rock ‘n’ roll sings “home, where my love lies waiting silently for me” – well, which home? Which love? Although, if there’s a love lying waiting for rock ‘n’ roll at every one of its homes, one can begin to understand the attraction of getting into that business.

And what does rock ‘n’ roll’s home look like? Split level? A nice two-story Cape? And what do rock ‘n’ roll’s rooms look like? Shag rugs? Posters on the wall? Black light? Is it something cool and clean and classy – someplace with museum-quality furniture that Sting might lay his lute on? Or did Keith Moon get to it, and that cool air we feel on our necks is coming from the broken windows and the punched hole in the wall? We can imagine the bedroom (there’s a love lying silently there … on sheets that haven’t been changed since who knows when), but let‘s not try to picture the bathroom, if you don’t mind. Or the kitchen. Maybe rock ‘n‘ roll’s homes have gardens, and one need not stretch to envision what is growing in it. Or, now that rock ‘n‘ roll has attained the level of filthy rich respectability, maybe some of the homes have a cool Mitt Romney-ish Republican reserve to them, or a Downton Abbey-like elitism that befits an art form approaching its reminiscence-filled dotage.

Rock ‘n’ roll is a lousy host, though. We have invited it into our home for years, but have we once gotten an invitation over to its place? We would be happy to come over to any of the homes, at any time, thrilled to lie waiting for it … but, since we know all the words, or at least the vowel sounds, it wouldn’t be silently.

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To B&B, or Not to Be

I guess I first became aware of bed-and-breakfast accommodations when I went to Europe years ago. At that time, in the late 1970s, there didn’t seem to be any similar options for lodging here in the United States. Maybe because our country is such a car-happy place, motels were the popular choice, and, too, suburban sprawl was sucking people out of cities and towns, cities and towns being the most likely settings for B&Bs. In America, generally, if you had money you stayed in hotels in the city, and if you didn’t, motels outside the city. I am thinking, too, about all the Automobile Club-rated motels and also the Motel 6s, the cheapest accommodations to be had in almost any out-of-the-way place. Maybe it was in the 1980s and early 1990s that I started to see B&Bs come into their own. What I have been noticing lately is that B&Bs have morphed over time from what their intended purpose had been to what it is now.

My initial forays into B&Bs I found a little weird, I admit. So much togetherness with strangers. There were stays in people’s homes, in their spare bedroom, where I felt odd and uneasy, like I had just married into the family, never having met them. Then at breakfast, there was the coming together of the “parents” and all the new guest in-laws, which I was being introduced to for the very first time. We were all chatting as we awaited breakfast, mostly about why we were here, where we were from and how long we were staying. Although it was congenial, it was like orientation at college – a kind of forced intimacy that I found uncomfortable. The thing was, though, the interaction was part of the deal. You were ostensibly there for the interaction, this being part of the travel experience. You were meeting the natives, plus you were meeting other non-natives, and you were all shaken, not stirred into one big wayfarers-filled happy family with a hosting happy family. The melting pot. Home away from home, so to speak. Although, unless you run a B&B of your own, this setting would be nothing like home.

There were, of course, variations on this theme but, basically, you would become a foreign exchange student in an English-speaking land. Over the years I had noticed subtle changes in dining style. Rather than everyone together, breakfasts could be had at different seating times so that individual digestive tracts could be accommodated; serving was winnowed down so that the meal was not necessarily one for all, all for one. And, too, food choices could be made apart from the original farm-style breakfasts. Once in a while, there was a place that had a stocked mini-fridge in your room so your morning face wouldn’t have to frighten the other guests. And, too, there were the rare places that delivered a basket to your door, like Saint Nicholas filling your shoes overnight – no interaction whatsoever and your time was entirely your own. And, except for check-in, you never had to associate with your hosts again. Or were they elves?

It has occurred to me of late that now, often, the hosts don’t even live in the house. They have another private house on the grounds, or better yet, they live next door or nearby on a separate property. Two things seem to be working here: B&Bs are becoming more impersonal, more like inns with innkeepers who are there to give you directions or find you a corkscrew; and, travelers’ time is deemed more precious in our hurried-pace world so that, face it, talking with strangers is a waste of time. Get up and get going, don’t lollygag around making small talk with people from Des Moines. There are sights to see and someone just left a personalized tray of breakfast items on the hall table for us to pick up. In this instance, I think that we have created fast-food B&Bs. Although it is still, quite literally, a bed and a breakfast, has it become something other than the original concept? 

So the question begs: Is there or should there be placeness in overnight accommodations? Do B&Bs provide that or should they or can they? There is probably the placeness of where they are located, meaning their proximity to your destinations. And, undoubtedly, there is placeness in the style or design of the house or room, depending on where your tastes lie. And, if lucky, there is a placeness to the view you may have from your bay window or porch for the limited time that you will be in your room. But, in terms of the placeness of meeting fellow travelers, there isn’t much of that anymore. Even bed-and-breakfasts have turned into anonymous motels. Sure, there might be dizzying wallpaper, and more doilies than your great-grandmother had in her whole house just in one room, but the idea of a shared experience is over. The independent American spirit prevails, a B&B stay becomes a roof above without personal investment. Get back in your car.

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A Map of the World

Back in the early days of the Web, its biggest selling point (in a giant cloud of delectable intellectual seductions and complete boneheaded and hedonistic time-wasters) was its capacity to provide news and opinion, and updates of same, in words and pictures (later, of the moving kind), instantly, constantly. For an information junkie, it was the mother lode of resources, on-demand updatedness, and enough headline skimming for one to absorb and then project the appearance of knowingness. It was great fun, bouncing from story to story, site to site, seeing more, gaining aspects, having a panoply of voices informing (and misinforming) one’s own.

But, then, with all this news available, people started to do a strange thing: limiting their scope. Through the use of aggregator algorithms, readers were able to shut out all news except those they specified: You could tell the program or site that all you wanted to see was, say, business news, or sports news, and what was provided for you was just that and nothing more. And that ability to determine line of sight when it came to being informed, that specialization, changed everything: it changed how knowledgeable we were as a people (less broadly so); it changed our view of the world (more narrowly so); and it began the end of newspapers, which could not personally aggregate and segregate focused news for each individual reader.

And, for a news junkie, that was the shocker: Why would you want to know less – that is, more about a few things but less about everything else? Why filter out the greater world? The paradigm of newspaper reading was that of a journey, through space and time; one in which you followed paths to destinations that you wanted to get to (jumping from Page One to Page 12, for instance), but by doing so it became one in which you also bumped into things you didn’t know you might, fascinating, illuminating, even life-changing things. That little story on Page 12, at the bottom, was likely the one you remembered all day and told people about at the water cooler.

In what is described as our hectic world and hurly-burly lives, we feel the need to shave off precious seconds of wasted time by cutting to the chase – bypassing the rose and coffee smells – and by doing so what we have lost is chance and the lucky accident … serendipity, or, perhaps, fate. And by the way we use the Internet for our news instead of the locational, processual, processional walk through a newspaper, the placeness of it all is gone, too, as well as the art of mastering the maneuvering through and understanding of that placeness. We get information, but, somehow, we haven’t earned it. Getting to specifics is our one goal – everything else is just the fly-over.

And so it is, in terms of placeness, ironically, in the way we now figure out our travel plans. The journey has been removed from map reading, and the placeness has been excised from the finding.

We here at arslocii have been trying, the past few days, to plot out a car trip of several hundreds of miles, across a half-dozen states, in little more than a handful of days. One of us – the one most intoxicated by the Internet (okay, okay, that would be the male version of the animal) – is charting the course using Google Maps, a generally  excellent service combining fine mapping with the kind of GPS-ish, turn-here-then-there directions once limited to MapQuest. The other of us is doing it the old-fashion way: the several years’ old Rand McNally road atlas. (Do they actually make them new, or do they all roll off the presses somehow old?) Actually, it’s copyright 1998. Google is as current as … well, more current than 1998.

Using Google Maps, one is speedily propelled to desired locations, and distances between these desired locations are instantaneously calculated. The program seems to understand, a bit eerily, where you might be headed based on where you’re starting from: as you type in the first few letters of your next stop, a drop-down menu suggests possibilities and, almost invariably, the first option offered is the one you were looking for. Impressive and ingenious, there is a sureness about it, a feeling of authority – with a speed that is winning. It’s not quite magical, but it is quite remarkable. And fun – like an arcade game, but with a point.

And yet … there’s something wrong there.

Although Google Maps finds the town you want with all due haste, it is like the news aggregating programs: key spots, and all the rest is fly-over. Plus, the paradigm of travel is obliterated: using the book-form atlas, one is compelled to search – to “travel” – to find one’s way through the pages and what is on each page. The user, goes to an index at the back of the book, runs his eyes down a long, small-type list of towns and cities – already we’re traveling – finds the locale he wants and notes that on the map on Page 18 he can find his destination at something designated as “E-16.” Flip pages to get to the proper map, find the number 16 along the bottom of the page, place your finger on it and proceed to slip that finger vertically until it reaches the horizontal E axis, and then search within the defined rectangular area, filled with names and dots and red and yellow road lines, for the site you seek – all the while “traveling” through hamlets you’ve never heard of and burghs with odd or storied names, over blue creeks and through green state parks and by historical markers, actually touching them, all on your path to the name and dot that you want. Processual, processional, a simulacrum of real travel, the chance of seeing something you didn’t know was there. Serendipity. Placeness. Art. Slower? Sure. Less elegant? Certainly. More “human”? Definitely.

(And let’s not forget the creases and tears, the pen marks and spilled-food stains, on the pages once or most used – Google Maps screens provide no similar triggers to nostalgia and happiness, to memories of getting there, getting lost, getting angry, getting giggly, getting experience. Google Maps is new each time; the road atlas is a fellow wayfarer who, through many trips, sat on our lap and looked out the windshield with us.)

And more paradigm shattering: When you type in a town name into Google Map’s search, you are taken right to it, and have to move outward from it to find out where you are – to determine the context. With the Rand McNally, you start away from the goal and slowly move in its direction … just like real traveling, going from the general to the specific, from a loose set of parameters to a point.

Traveling, especially by car, is a pilgrimage of personal discovery in which the road experience is as pertinent as the arrival at Mecca. So is the planning portion: “Here’s where I start, here’s where I end up … and look at all that stuff we’ll pass through in-between.” All that stuff is what makes it all worthwhile.

As in geometry, a line is a series of points. So is traveling, and travel planning (and, don’t get me started, life itself): not a “Star Trek” beaming up, but a going towards, place by place by place.

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