At some point in the afternoon on the day we leave San Francisco, traffic grinds to a halt. We are in southern California on a two lane highway, driving towards Nevada and then Arizona, taking the long way back to Minnesota because I want to see the Grand Canyon. My cell phone has one or maybe two bars of service and I try to find out what’s happening, why we are stopped, how deep the jam goes.
I am unsuccessful, so I start to read.
I have just finished my graduate program. My dad had come to hear my read before packing what I could of my studio apartment into the back of his car and driving me back to Minnesota. He brought along the autobiography my grandfather had recently completed. It is printed and bound with a thick black spiral. There is an old photo of my grandfather as a baby on the cover. A Life, it is called. It was hot in the car and we had the windows down. I tried to rig a corner of shade for my face with the passenger seat visor. I read aloud for my father for the second time that week. He grew up poor in the far Northern reaches of Minnesota and I read how in the winter my grandfather’s father would cut ice from the lake to sell. There was no heat in their home. My own father inches us forward and peers into the distance, heat shimmering off the cars we cannot see the end of.
Transit is dull. We sit in planes and cars, on buses or trains and sometimes we look out windows or talk to our companions, but often we read. I am never surrounded by so many readers as I am when on a long flight. There are always exceptions. Kids with videogames. The inflight film. Spreadsheets open on laptops. But there are always those who turn to stories and books for company on the journey. These are my people, covering the distance with words.
Twice last summer I traveled north to visit the other Northern Minnesota homestead, the farm on which my mother grew up. Both times the same story filled the car. The first time was chance, a podcast my mother and I settled on after a few other choices started slow. The second came when I look out the window at the familiar plane of passing horizon and knew I needed to hear it again. I select it again from the library of options I carry with me on my iPhone. There is a moment of anticipation before it begins and the prickling of feeling of what it was like before. I wonder if it will be the same, but know that it won’t be. Even well worn paths can surprise you.
Every story has already been told. Or so the saying goes. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that every very journey has already been taken. Yet, we go. We read and listen and watch. This is my favorite thing about travel and literature, my favorite thing about passengers tucked into their seats with books. No matter how deep the jam goes and even when we’ve heard it before, we throw ourselves back in, anyway.