Travels with Emily

Cindy Hunter Morgan

Cindy Hunter Morgan

Cindy Hunter Morgan is the author of a full-length poetry collection and two chapbooks. Harborless (Wayne State University Press) is a 2018 Michigan Notable Book and the winner of the 2017 Moveen Prize in Poetry. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Passages North, Tin House Online, and West Branch. She teaches poetry at MSU and heads up communications for Michigan State University Libraries, where she also is part of the MSUL Short Edition team. This piece was published as part of a call for submissions in coordination with MSU's Broad Art Museum's exhibition Interstates of Mind.

We internalize the rhythm of travel early. My first road trip was short, and I have no memory of it – a couple of hours in a cardboard box on the back seat of a Ford. No doubt it had some influence on me, though I don't know how many trips I took in the box or where my parents kept the box between trips – if they lifted it out of the car and used it to store newspapers or wet boots, if they took the newspapers out before they put me back in. The box was, in 1968, their version of a car seat. Seven years later, in the summer of 1975, we loaded up a different car, a two-door Pontiac with no air conditioning, hitched it to our pop-up camper, and drove west to a friend's buffalo ranch in South Dakota, into Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park, down to Colorado, over to California.

In other years on other vacations, we drove south. I remember a skittles game in Berea, Kentucky; moss dripping from live oaks in South Carolina; cotton fields in Georgia; Kenny Rogers on the radio. In the backseat, my sister and I sang, "You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, with four hundred children and a crop in the field." We thought four hundred children was rather a lot. It didn't occur to us we misheard something.

In college and after college, I read Travels with Charley, On the Road, and Blue Highways. I had an S10 Chevy Blazer. I drove it to the beaches of Lake Michigan and to the woods along Lake Superior. I drove it to Indiana to visit my best friend. I took friends. We ate eggs and hash browns at truck stops in the middle of the night. We brushed our teeth in roadside ditches among milkweed and tick clover.

In our early twenties, my sister and I decided late one night in Michigan to leave early the next morning to drive to Cape Cod. I had a rash from poison ivy, a new tent, and twenty dollars. My sister had more resources, as big sisters sometimes do, but we ran out of money on the way home. I hawked magazines out the passenger side window to other travelers stuck in toll lines.

The wonderful thing about road trips – my own and those chronicled by Steinbeck, Kerouac, and William Least Heat-Moon – is how they are about both expansion and limitation. We travel great distances in tiny spaces, and the tiny spaces are as important to the experience as the mountains, the prairies, the toll lines, the miles.

When my son was younger and playing soccer, his team practiced on a field a few miles away off a road always clogged with traffic. Sometimes, instead of driving him and leaving and driving back to pick him up, I stayed. I parked in a far corner of the enormous parking lot. I prepared for this. I brought a pillow and a thermos of tea and a book and a notebook and sometimes a quilt. I got out of the car and climbed into the back seat and positioned my pillow in just the right place and settled into it and hid for two hours.

It is delicious to stretch out in your own back seat on a September evening with the windows down, parked. What preceded or informed this pleasure? Some imagined image of William Least Heat-Moon in his van with Leaves of Grass and a camping stove? Steinbeck in his maple-walled hideout in the back of his pickup? His table that could be lowered at night and covered with cushions to become a bed? Yes, though I was primed to respond to Steinbeck and William Least Heat-Moon because of my years sleeping in tents and reading beneath card tables covered with bed sheets. Some longing for a life simplified to a pillow and a few books is innate, I suppose.

Those evenings in the car in the parking lot by the soccer field evade categorization. I was neither home nor away. They were, as Emily Dickinson might have called them, a "going out of sight." When I stretched out and propped myself up with my pillow, I could look out the window and up at the sky while I listened, in a fuzzy sort of way, to the sounds of soccer. I was invisible except, possibly, for my feet, which were raised, pressed against the door and a little above it. I felt the holiness of privacy. When I heard a whistle, I heard Dickinson's bird "Afar upon the wind."

The critic James McIntosh speculated that skies appealed to Dickinson because "they are in motion toward the unknown." That is also the appeal of the road trip, of course, though, as Dickinson understood, we don't need to travel to be in motion toward the unknown. The last place she went – Mrs. Bang's Boardinghouse in Cambridge – felt, for her, like a prison, and as for the sky, she also wrote, "the brain is wider than the sky." She did not need travel. She did not need to provoke change.

Dickinson wrote of "That polar privacy / A soul admitted to itself." She called it "Finite Infinity." She would have loathed traveling with Sal and Dean – too much welter and disquiet, but I think she would have found the holy privacy she valued in a well provisioned car with a thermos of tea, a good pillow, a neat pile of books, a clean towel for sandy feet, and a retractable sunroof through which she might contemplate a hawk gliding on thermals or the stars in a June sky. Would she have preferred the car to her desk? Did she need a car? No. No.

And what about Kerouac, Steinbeck, and William Least Heat-Moon? In their pursuit of America the trio of road writers were all, in various ways, chasing Whitman. They were deer at the salt lick. That they sought intensity might indicate they lacked it.

Dickinson had sufficient inner intensity to reject the kind of restless pursuit we associate with travel. She also had a meadow, an orchard, a greenhouse, and a room of her own. She didn't need Kenny Rogers or truck-stop hash browns. She didn't need a retractable sunroof. Still, I take her with me most places I go, an atlas of finite infinity.

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