Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Traffic in the Delaware Water Gap

Late Friday evening, LRC and I boarded an Ithaca-bound bus on W 44th St. Despite campus to campus service, the bus inevitably encountered Memorial Day weekend traffic and we didn't reach Ithaca until midnight. Last week was remarkably hectic, and as a result I slept for the first two hours of the ride; when I awoke, the sun had already set behind what appeared to be a massive rock shelf, but the sky was still light, and I realized that the shelf was in fact the Kittatinny mountains--we were passing through the Delaware Water Gap.

Well, "sitting" in the Delaware Water Gap would be a more accurate description; motionless traffic stretched as far as I could see on I-80 West. I didn't really mind, however, as few other places on the NYC-Ithaca drive can rival the Gap in terms of beauty, and furthermore, as strange as it sounds, I like sitting on I-80 West. I know that this sentiment is illogical, but I feel as though I'm going back to California whenever I head west on that freeway, even if California is still 2800 miles away and I almost always turn north on 380, which means that I barely put a dent in that vast mileage. But the knowledge that I-80 stretches directly from New York City, my current home, to San Francisco, my hometown, is immensely comforting--as though the interstate is a ragged concrete lifeline that somehow manages to carry millions of cars and trucks year after year from coast to coast, in spite of snow and mountains and desert and plains and vehicle-eating potholes.

My experiences on I-80 are haphazard; when I drove from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco with AFD seven years ago, we relied mostly on I-70, and during my years on the East Coast I've spent much more time on I-88, I-91, and I-90. As a result, I've only driven on I-80 from Cheyenne to the Bay Area, on a stretch near State College in Central Pennsylvania, and from New Jersey to the 380 turn-off in Northeastern PA. Yet despite their disparate nature, my experiences on I-80 are vivid; they conjure the Bonneville Flats and Sierra foothills, the potent greenery of a Pennsylvania spring and the steady meandering of the Delaware River, as well as all the images' attendant memories.

March 2005 marked my first drive through the Delaware Water Gap--JFL, LV, MH and I were headed to Rutgers for the ECCC season opener, and what would be my first bike race. We drove through the deep cut in the Kittatinnies in the same evening light that revealed it last Friday, and I remember being struck by the way that the ridged rock cliffs, lush riverbanks, and the slow river itself could be so different than the geology out West while simultaneously reminding me of those Pacific cliffs and creeks. In the following springs I would drive through the Gap at least once, and my drives past the Susquehanna and the Chenango on I-88 and the Connecticut on I-91 engendered the same evocative feeling. For lack of a better name, my East Coast driving life--I spent a great deal of time in my car--was shaped by rivers in the same way that mountains, specifically the coastal range and Sierra Nevada, shaped my younger West Coast driving life. In a sense, these phenomena best reflect those periods of my life as well; the rivers mirror the steady, contemplative thinking of my mid-twenties, and the mountains underscore the paradoxical narrow and boundless perspective that accompanied my college years.

Friday's trip offered a taste of both the contemplative and free-wheeling; the journey to Ithaca was equal parts memorial and celebration, commencement and conclusion. After the ceremonies on Saturday, LRC and I hiked down to the Commons on the trail that I used to walk every day from campus to my home in Fall Creek. Over the course of three years I hiked that trail in snow boots and flip-flops, past icicles and spring's trillium, with good friends and by myself. My most frequent companion was my mother, who I used to call while navigating the overgrown sections of the trail head; in the winter she would have to wait to begin our conversation until I'd wriggled my fingers back into my giant mittens. It felt right that LRC was my trail buddy this time.

Routine has always helped me through transitions, and this weekend was no exception. After years of driving throughout the Northeast, my car now lives a rust-free life in California, and my bike spends most of its time hanging on my wall on the Upper West Side. Maybe that's why having a foot injury has been so difficult these past couple months; the one unflagging routine that survived Palo Alto and Oxford, Ithaca and until recently, New York City, was a daily, long walk home, either alone or in conversation with someone important to me. Not being able to depend on one's feet evokes a sense of being unmoored in both the physical and visceral senses, like not being able to find one's way home.

For a few minutes however, I was on my trail, the one that carried me home every day for three years, just as I-80 carries all modes of transportion and travelers from my new home 2800 miles to my old one. The trail head was heavily overgrown but it was still there, and when I had opened my eyes in the Kittatinnies, unable at first to identify what lay before me, it was with a sense of happy recognition that I realized that it was the Gap, and that it was still the same. As elemental as it sounds, the realization that things still exist even though I'm not able to see them is a lesson I re-learn every year, and my hope is that when I start running again, I'll recognize that the runner in me still exists as well.

And what did I find when we reached the trail's end, where Cascadilla Creek empties into my old neighborhood? A lilac bush in full flower, the very thing for which I'd been looking since Spring arrived, and which I'd given up hope of finding once the bodegas sold their last bouquets last week. As Walt Whitman wrote, "With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love, / With every leaf a miracle".

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