It’s February and Northern California has turned green again, as green as the Emerald Isle. Only four months ago in October, the hills and ditches were a crisped brown in the fifth year of severe drought. Small animals like birds and squirrels seemed to move quietly, conserving their energy. I imagined them in the hot summer, tense with thirst and stoic with resignation, staying close to water sources until they went dry.
But now the bare hills are green, green. Ditches and flat valleys brim with water, buoying trash and breeding bugs. House cats stalk the tall grass at the verge of new ponds, between the hotels and fenced neighborhoods, poaching frogs and mice. Crows and robins are plentiful. Frequent rains have turned the surface cracks in all the paved roads dark with moisture, and many trees are bright with new leaves.
It is 8am, Thursday before Super Bowl 50, and I’m on the airport express bus from Sonoma County to San Francisco, at the start of a travel day heading home. This route has become familiar to me from visits over the past two years. Off the 101 between Petaluma and Novato, cattle meander bright pastures, relaxed in a world of plenty. The sun rises through blurred cirrus clouds, and white birds crowd a distant, shallow lake. The morning traffic becomes dense near San Rafael, where we make a stop before crossing the Golden Gate and threading our way through the city to the airport in South SF.
I think of all the repetitive roads and airports that have led to family over the years, strung behind me like beads on a string. The 250 miles of highway and 2-lane roads between Ithaca and Fairfield County, the college town that became my home and the place I grew up. Later, Ithaca to several towns in Florida: Vero Beach, Orlando, St. Pete. More recently, the complex itinerary of flights and taxis booked to get to Boquete, Panama, where my mother, sister, and brother-in-law lived for 2 years: SYR to MIA, then, not one but two airports in Panama City (arrive at Tocumen International and get a connecting flight from Albrook International), finally arriving at Enrique Malek International in the city of David on Panama’s Pacific coast, not far from the Costa Rican border.
Closer to home, I think often of the two-lane roller-coaster roads in the Catskills between Ithaca and Big Indian, NY, where for the past four summers I have spent a week with a tribe of musicians. And I think of all the domestic air travel done over the years requiring transit through US hubs, mainly Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Newark, Charlotte, Detroit. And ATL, the grandmother of them all — Atlanta, my mother’s birthplace, where some of our family still live. I wonder how many more times will I travel this particular route between Ithaca and Santa Rosa, the scene of my mother’s decline.
Dorothy is a resident the senior facility that my mother lives in. She is white-haired, thin, and sharp-eyed. She was a Rockette during the second world war, hired in 1942 at just 17 years old, below the minimum age requirement, but, as she says, “It was war.” She has a smile that is both devilish and sad, and, in case I mistake her for an old woman, she is quick to offer me a profile of who she really is, inside — young, adventurous and risk-taking, at one time a mother and matriarch of a country house full of dogs and children. Now she’s a widow like all of the women on the assisted living wing, carefully walking the well-lit halls of invisibility. My mother walks here, too, but she is quiet, reserved, inward-looking, and seldom offers any insights into her feelings or thoughts. Perhaps this is her advancing memory loss, or perhaps it is her true nature.
Traffic is heavy on the 101, and the ride to SFO will take two-and-a-half hours this morning. But I’m not anxious about missing my flight. I will have time to get something to eat before boarding the long flight to DTO on a 737. After a one hour in layover Detroit, I’ll take the one-hour-plus flight to ITH on a Canadair jet, arriving about 10pm. Home.
I’m obsessed with my travel details: times, distances, signage, countdowns, gate numbers, terminal letters. Every fifteen minutes I check the contents of my large, heavy purse: iPhone, iPad Mini, wallet, passport, lip balm, liquids in a quart size ziplock, handkerchief, hand lotion. I read every highway sign overhead on the 101, hearing the words inside my head: Lucky Drive, right lane closed, Tiburon Blvd. The big names of myth and magic: Blithedale, Tamalpais, Alcatraz. But there is so much monotony, too. Miles of big box stores, car dealerships, generic houses crowded into every available bit of real estate. Cars, cars, cars. Whatever is beautiful and fine must be shared by so many. There are no private experiences, everything is reduced to a common denominator, from affluence to working class to poverty.
My travel OCD is more pronounced as I age. I repeat these numbers and names to myself, over and over. Delta. Gate 41. One dollar tip for the bus driver in my right pocket. Passport. Boarding Pass. The unbelievably blue ocean and bay under the Golden Gate distract me briefly. The unimaginable breadth and depth of the Pacific Ocean bordering this coast threatens to unmoor my travel thoughts. It almost knocks them from the top spot. Almost.
I could never live here. It’s too dense. The green is too thin, too transient. There are too many people, too many cars, too many houses. I feel that my mind could not survive the constant onslaught of stimulation. There are too many numbers, names, and times to track and memorize. Street names, addresses, amounts, garbage pick up days, new routes to necessary places, intersections, mental maps, instructions. People’s names: doctors, neighbors, instructors, caregivers. Too many homeless, panhandlers, crazies, drug addicts. Perhaps I would adapt, if I chose to or was forced to. Necessity is the mother of adaptability. But for now, I’m gone. Just a visitor anxious to leave, conveyed passively with the conviction of deliverance. I visit California as the green only visits. We make our long arrivals, recessions, and departures. And then we fly away, again.