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Thursday, August 04, 2011

On the Road with My Shadow

It was in the early forties, during WWII and somehow my dad got hold of a car with gas and we drove from “the City” (NYC) to Rockaway Beach, via the causeway that is now part of JFK. As we drove towards Rockaway, we had a panaromic view of a half dozen beaches. Each beach was known by the street that led to it.
 116th St. was the main drag of Rockaway Park with arcades,Irish bars and custard stands lining both sides of the street. The Boardwalk separated the beach from the street and the wide, sandy beach was well-covered with bathers and condoms from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Dad and I approached the beach from Far Rockaway, whose center was around 25th St. about four miles east of Rockaway Park. As I looked at the beach from the car, I noticed that some of the beaches were dark blocks and others were almost pure white.
I asked my dad why some beaches were dark and others weren’t. He explained that the dark beaches were crowded with people and the others were empty. I wondered why so many people would choose the crowded beaches and avoid the empty ones. My Dad, told me that most people inevitably would gravitate towards places where other people were- that they felt “safety in numbers” he said. We found a great beach with plenty of space- away from the “maddening crowd” 
Throughout the rest of my life, I have consistently avoided the crowds and rarely regretted it. If something, a beach, a book, a movie or place  was “Top of the Pops” I found an alternative. As a result, I discovered some wonderful people, places and things and often found myself solitary in my explorations. Certainly no one can dispute the fact that man or woman is a gregarious animal but perhaps some are more gregarious than others. 
In the time of our prehistoric ancestors, it was probably only after the emergence of agriculture that our ancestors begin to show a marked tendency towards what I’ll call “crowding” for want of a better term. Hunters might work in small groups to facilitate the capture and kill the larger prey but it was not carried over to other activities and the gatherers worked primarily on their own. Yet, there appears to be a genetic predisposition toward “crowding”: seeking out opportunities to commune with others, often complete strangers. None the less there are some of us who eschew large parties, stadiums, rallies and any congregation of more than twenty (‘is plenty”)  individuals. Perhaps, we missed an evolutionary step?
Or perhaps as Emily Dickinson wrote: “The heart knows...”
In this, my second road trip of the 21st century, I have been a solitary traveller, going from place-to-place without much of a planned itinerary, on my own for the most part.
In comparison last year, I had a number of pre-set destinations: from Austin to Iowa where I picked up my new camper and from there to Madison where I picked up my youngest daughter who had completed her studies for her Master’s degree. Together, we travelled to Montreal for my granddaughter’s graduation from the University of Montreal. Then my daughter Amelie went back to Madison and I drove south to Hudson, NY to visit with my sister who I hadn’t seen in about 20 years and attend a reunion of her family including our brothers and assorted nephews.
Then, it was to Albany, NY to pick up my wife Danielle at the airport and drive to the Green Mountains where we spent a week together. Danielle then returned to Austin and I headed south to Okracoke Island, NC where I fished for bluefish, flounder and other fish for a week and then headed back north to Charlottesville, VA and then back to Madison where  I picked up Amelie complete with furniture and her personal belongings and returned to Charlottesville where I deposited my daughter and her belongings, spent some time with my son Matthias and his family and drove west to the mountains of West Virginia where I did some white water rafting and then headed home to Austin via Nashville, Memphis Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. During my odyssey, I spent as much time in the company of family as I did alone, or perhaps more with family than alone.
Summer 2011 has been a very different trip. Aside from 1 week in July, with my wife in Wyoming (mostly in Yellowstone, National Park, where we ogled the elk and beheld a lot of buffalo.) I was completely alone in my travels and that was good - up to a point until I began to tire of my own company. Like the old song “Me and My Shadow” ... “And when we climb the stairs, we never knock ‘cause nobody’s there. Just me and my shadow- all alone and feeling blue”
I do believe that solitude is good for the soul - and the mind but even I, not the most gregarious of men, need a little company once in a while. In an email she posted to me at the start of my trip in late June, my elder daughter wrote to wish me “happy trails” and
said that she thought I’d meet some interesting people on the way. I’m afraid the interesting ones were few with hundreds of miles between encounters. If I hadn’t given up drinking a few years ago, I might have met a few in the watering holes along my route but “I quit, so I didn’t” and besides, they probably wouldn’t have proved truly “interesting” in the cold light of day.
So, here’s one [ice tea] for the road, hoping that there’s a cool fellow traveller at the next campground.

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