I never feel you so much as when I’m on your asphalt, your long stretches connecting one thing with another. Sometimes I think you’re less a place than a network of connections, a veiny map twining toward and away from a nebulous ideal.
This morning we’ve been on your road for an hour. I’m the mom, and I’m driving, trying to keep my eyes on you, your majesty and hairpin turns, as I steer this family sedan full of people and gear. We’re heavy, with our backpacks and car games and snacks. But for the moment we’re calm: there’s been an hour of passing a sheet of paper between the front seat and back while dad and younger daughter each fill in one line at a time within the huge grid of dots in the game we never had a name for. Fill-In-The-Squares? Dots? Dad cheats a bit, filling in random lines, to move things along. Daughter catches him and exclaims in outrage. Daughter cheats a bit, connecting one side to another, to get some quick squares in her name. Dad catches her and laughs, to which she exclaims again in outrage: I did not cheat.
It’s like this with us, and, I think, with you: we’re moving along at a good clip, passing waypoints, adrift in our own minds or occupied by a game, until some alarm rings out, calling foul, startling us back into our skin. Then we’re reminded that it’s work to get along. It’s hard to get where we mean to be going.
But today I’m steering this ship, and I’m determined. 10 and 2, eyes on the road. Now we’re passing vineyards. Now the brewpubs blur by, each seemingly erected overnight, gleaming with new picnic tables, new trellises and shade sails to lure travelers from the sunbaked road. A cacophony of signs: Cold Beer. Local ice cream. Best burgers in town.
There’s something to buy everywhere, but we’re not pulling over. Sorry, America. I’ve plotted all the stops on this roadtrip, printed out a list, titled it ITINERARY OF WONDER. All caps. Yes, I’m that prescriptive about where we’re headed. I’m turning forty this week and I’m done with being swept into eddies of despair by your news.
America, your story these recent years hurts. What you do to children. The cages, yes. But also how we luckier parents—those of us who are untargeted, for now—have to tell our own children what you’re doing in their names. You’ve decided that to be a child no longer means to be a citizen of wonder, native to a territory full of sensation and delight, guaranteed the shelter of surrounding elders. Our kids belong to a harder country now. You’ve told us that to be responsible parents we must tell them to get in line, defend their borders, shrink and obey, and blind themselves to the other children—their true kin—being beaten, caged, bathing in baywater soupy with plastics, breathing carbon dust in the diamond mine.
I could go on, of course, but it’s almost impossible to breathe in this territory, much less speak. Itinerary of Wonder, I wrote, in caps, and underlined it, damn it: I’ll be heavy handed if I have to be. We’re going to get out into the wilderness and find what makes this world worth loving.
Finally the signs give way to forest. The car strains as we climb. The temperature gauge drops from 91 to 86 to 74. Pines stud the hillsides so tightly they’re all we can see, a green shag bristling in waves. Then they’re around us, taller and taller until we enter them as if entering a body. The shade of sequoias, which is dappled with gold, is a rich darkness unlike any other shade. It’s easy to forget this in our city life, but once we’re here there seems to be no other life at all. Katy Perry goes quiet as we lose the music feed—no signal—and the kids don’t even yelp: they’re craning their faces out the windows to identify which trees they could believe have been here a thousand years.
We speed along under the generous canopy. This road of yours is nearly a cliché, so American it is, full of ambition and unlikeliness. Humans carved their way through a massive forest to make it. They bulldozed the trees in a line wide enough for two lanes, paved it over, then named it Avenue of the Giants.
The giants are coast redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, and they tower above us on every side, silently, as we zoom below, belching exhaust. Industrialized humans showed up just a few years ago in tree-time, a plague of assiduous creatures with tools to cut them down en masse and turn them into houses, benches, bowls. Someone carved a 10-foot-tall Bigfoot and stationed it at the side of the road to entice tourists into their souvenir shop. Someone else carved out the middle of a tree to make a “drive-thru” and charge each carful of people who veered off the main road to pass under. The trees don’t have a defense against us except to wait us out. Most plagues abate if one braces oneself and holds still.
I’m thinking about how our carbon pollution problem may be accomplishing just that when the backseat erupts again. The daughters have moved on to fighting over the markers, or the Goldfish; anything will do. I packed dozens of plastic and calorie-rich supplies for this ride with the faint tinge of panic in my gut that always comes when preparing to confine them in a small space for hours. The object hardly seems to matter as long as they can be outraged at each other for some trespass, some overreach.
I’m trying to hold still and wait them out. Let the trees in their silence overtake us. Wonder, descend! Make us swoon.
My husband reads out loud from the driving tour pamphlet: there was a couple in 1924 who wanted to protect one of these groves. The logging company was arriving that very moment, and Laura Mahan physically planted herself between them and the trees and would not be moved. Meanwhile her husband, James Mahan, booked it to town, got himself into court, and made the case to protect the stand. He prevailed and returned victorious to shoo away the logging trucks, which grumbled home unfed.
Doesn’t it sound like a fable? America, this is the kind of story you love most. A triumph of good over evil. It sounds like all this happened in a day, a feat of transportational and governmental efficiency if ever there was one. The brochure gives it only a paragraph. But she must have been there for weeks, wife to the redwoods, having rooted her body among them, becoming a sort of tree of a woman, not a parasite but an ally, her steadfast gaze staring down the machines.
Months of fog for dinner. Months sleeping below the spires. And that husband knocking at the courthouse door with his bundled papers mounting the defense? He had to outline the case for letting the giants live, then prove they’d raised the money for Save the Redwoods League to buy the grove.
And of course people were working the other side too: laying out their smooth argument for the utility of the materials that were simply there for the harvesting. There was a need, they would have said: the expansion of population, the enrichment of the economy, the basic corporate rationality of using our manifest resources. There always seems to be another side, and it gets the airtime to make its case even when its case is indefensible. America, I know you root for that side too. It claims to be the reasonable voice, America first, bootstraps, self-made men, etc. Let’s all just calm down here, folks. It’s not personal, just business.
Meanwhile those quiet cathedrals could assert themselves only in solidity. The young ones jostled for wedges of light; the elders towered thickly, in turn rebuffing and protecting them, passing sugars through their roots to nurture both the saplings and the dead.
This is what I want you to be, America—yes, the road, the human endeavor, but also the trees that outlast it. That will hold from below and tower above, bigger than anything you build. They grow and thrive in families. Let my family stand as allies in the shadow of that—stretching, elbowing, propping each other up.
Rachel Richardson is the author of two books of poetry, Copperhead and Hundred-Year Wave, both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Literary Hub, New England Review, and elsewhere. A former Wallace Stegner and National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, Rachel now lives in Berkeley, California and co-directs the literary arts center Left Margin LIT.
Header photo by 1778011, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Rachel Richardson by Lisa Beth Anderson.