In January of 2001, when I was 20 years old, my cousin Andy gave me a novel. Technically, a friend of his, when I complained to them both about looking for something to read, Jeff slipped it in my hands when I was saying good-bye. I took that book with me, shoving into the outside pocket of my carry-on bag, next to a bag of cookies.
I boarded my flight to Ireland, I listened to music on my Walkman, I tried to watch in-flight TV. I was restless. I was nervous. I ate a cookie. I pulled out the book, running my fingers over the cover, reading the title once more, On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I sat back, reading the opening paragraph. I consumed the novel in one sitting. I re-read it again, marking quotes, jotting in the margins.
I read On the Road two more times my first two weeks in Dublin. I finally got set-up on email through the university system, I sought out Jeff’s email. “That novel you gave me, I wrote him. “I loved it. I loved every part of it,”
The response was short, “Oh yeah,” he wrote. “I thought you might.”
I read that book again and again and again. I carried that book in my pack around Europe. I brought it home to college, from college to my adult life, from Sacramento to Los Angeles to the suburbs of San Francisco, packing it up with every move. It still remains, without question, one of my top three favorite novels of all time.
When I met J, we bonded over a love of reading and travel. He’d tell stories of lay-overs in Australia and jet off to New York for the weekend, and I’d reminisce about my time in Ireland. We'd share our favorite novels, talk about our favorite characters like they were old friends. After we graduated, our weekends were free, and often times we would skip town for the weekend, deciding at the last minute where to explore next. We’d pack up a cooler and drive: San Luis Obispo. Hollywood. San Diego. The Redwood Forest. On our drives we would plan out elaborate trips to Europe. To Asia. To Argentina. Anywhere and everywhere.
The weekend excursions diminished as we earned more responsibilities. Grad school and a mortgage. Babies and routine. Weekend trips were less likely to happen, but they were essentially what really built our relationship.
A few days after Christmas 2008, we were driving up to Orangevale. It had been a particularly hard month, and we had hit rock bottom.
“What if we just skipped Christmas and kept driving?” he asked. "Yes." I answered without thinking.
So we just left. We let in the rain, with just the nights’ clothes on our back and a coffee to share. No plans except an idea to head north.
As we drove on I-5 towards Oregon, the quote from On the Road that I had memorized years before came flooding to the surface. “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies."
This past weekend as we drove farther and farther north, we kept questioning our decision. “We should have camped in Sonoma,” I muttered, as Violet cried, and “Are we there yet” sang out for the thousandth time. But, then north of Eureka, the landscape changes and something shifted and it felt right.
On Saturday as we hiked through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and we watched the girls climb on tree stumps and raced among Redwood Groves. We ran our hands up and down the soft bark of the trees. We breathed in the fresh air and played games among the trees. We built campfires and roasted marshmallows. We dug in the dirt and balanced on tree logs. In forty-eight hours we watched each of our girls grow in different ways.
I am nostalgic to a fault. I miss people before I’ve left them. I reminisce about things ten minutes after they’ve happened. I look back on times that were happy and they made me happy, but they make me sad too, and sometimes there is just no way to separate the happy from the sad, and it’s because you can’t go backwards, I think, because there’s no way to press the repeat button. Things happen and then they’re over. People are here and then they’re gone. We keep going forward because we have to, and the past recedes in the rearview mirror behind us, and it gets smaller and smaller and smaller.
Nostalgia, if you can believe it, was once recognized as a medical condition. Soldiers fighting in wars in the eighteenth century were diagnosed with nostalgia and sent home. Rousseau’s Dictionnaire de Musique describes how Swiss mercenaries were banned from singing the songs of their homeland – the Kuhreihen, or cattle-herding melodies – because they stirred in them such a powerful longing for the past that they would run away, become ill, or even die. Nostalgia – from the Greek word nostos meaning “returning home” and algos, meaning “pain.” So, when it comes down to it, we feel nostalgic when we are looking for a sense of grounding or stability.
You can’t go home again, they say, and it’s true, you can’t: you can’t go back in time to a grand international adventure in 2001 when all the world seemed alive and new. You can’t go back with hard-won knowledge and hard-earned skills, and you can’t do it over, even if you swear you wouldn’t do it any differently at all. But, remembering the past inspires hope and builds confidence. Nostalgia helps us make sense of this wild ride. It grants us perspective, reminding us: Nothing is permanent. You can’t go backwards, and so you have to go forwards. But there’s nothing wrong with looking over your shoulder every once in a while.