My best vacation memories are of places found accidentally, far off the beaten path. Of three that stand out, two were in adolescence, traveling with my parents and sisters, and one with David in France eight years ago. Actually, David and I have had many such off-road adventures, from Canada to FLorida, but the one I will recount was outstanding.
One: My parents were looking for the home of a famous woman writer somewhere in northern Florida. I don’t remember who it was, but Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is the likeliest one who comes to mind now, so many years later. What I do remember is driving very slowly down a narrow dirt road, the trees on either side hung with Spanish moss that swayed slightly with the least movement of air, and little barefoot children who stopped their play to stare silently at our car, as if they had never seen one before. We never did find the famous writer. I guess we must finally have turned around and stumbled back to paved roads. But it’s that dirt road that stands out in my mind. The dirt road, the Spanish moss, the barefoot children.
Two: Another family vacation took us to South Dakota, where my parents had lived when I was born. We covered the state from east to west, and one day we found ourselves on another unpaved road, a secondary road that slipped to tertiary status as it wound up into the mountains. We came to a wide, roaring mountain stream. There was no bridge, but the road continued on the other side of the water. My father drove his Buick slowly into and through the rushing water while my sisters and I hung our heads out the window in excited disbelief. On the other side we pulled over for a picnic on a large flat rock. We girls wanted to wade in the stream, but the water was too cold. It was August.
Three: When David and I were last in France, we took the TGV to Avignon, where we rented a car and began a slow, meandering drive north. We stopped to visit a Traverse City artist friend living in an old silkworm farm on the outskirts of a small village. Most of the time we were on two-lane roads (narrower in France than in the U.S.), and David was doing all the driving (he drove, I talked: that was our division of labor in France), and after a while, in the mountains, I noticed that roads to and from higher villages off the road came in pairs, as if one road led up, the other down. These were very narrow roads. Could we take one up and see what the higher, named place looked like? We could come right back down to the road. --Sure. Well, the ascent quickly became precipitous and terrifying, but there was no way to turn around or back down. At the top, turning left, to make our way between buildings we had to fold the side mirrors back against the car. (French car makers anticipate these situations.) Then the road ended! Not only did it end, but the pavement was crumbling at the edge, and chunks had fallen down the mountainside! What now? I got out to keep an eye on the edge so David wouldn’t tumble down it in the car as he made a series of very small back-and-forth wheel crankings to turn us around. We stopped to catch our breath and for a picnic of bread and fruit and cheese on a low stone wall. After eating, we walked down the narrow, deserted street. Two women on a balcony above called down to us, astonished by our presence, to ask where we were from. “Près de Chicago,” I answered, giving my standard response. They would never have heard of Traverse City. Their astonishment increased, but it reached epic proportions when I described to them the road’s end that had almost been the eud of us. “There was a sign saying not to go there--!” “No,” I said, “there was no sign.” “There was a sign,” one of the women continued, “but some kids took it down!” Thanks, kids! Our bodies might never have been found! We did find the other road going down the mountain, again narrow and frightening, and only then did I realize that these were not, in any official way, one-way roads! It was one of those adventures one would never choose to repeat but was glad to have had and survived. Les Crozes-Hauts was the name of the small collection of houses—not really a village at all: no shops, no post office—but we always call it “the scary place.” The two women were friendly, though. I asked them questions and learned that they had bread delivery three times a week, vegetables and fruits twice, meat and fish once a week, all by little trucks, camionettes. I wonder if the drivers of those little trucks were well paid. I see that village in my mind as clearly as if we had been there yesterday.
Many miles over many years, but these are a few of the long-ago memories that stand out. That might be my wish for today--to get lost. Not just turned around and confused on some miserable, impossible expressway interchange, but lost, far from the pavement, where adventure awaits.