Monday, February 18, 2008

On the Road in Ohio

Happy Presidents Day!

I hope you all enjoyed your traditional Presidents Day barbeques and the opening of the Presidents Day gifts.

We had a great deal of luck on your trip when it came to the weather. We expected to return to winter from the moment we left Florida, but we didn't have to put our winter coats back on until we crossed the Ohio River. In Cincinnati we rediscovered snow.

Robert Louis Stevenson was a fan of Ohio. He wrote in 1879, "Ohio was not at all as I had pictured it. We were now on those great plains which stretch unbroken to the Rocky Mountains. The country was flat like Holland, but far from being dull. All through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, or for as much as I saw of them from the train, and in my waking moments, it was rich adn various and breathed an elegance particular to itself. The tall corn pleased the eye; the trees were graceful in themselves, and framed the plain into long aerial vistas; country fare, and pleasant summer evenings on the stoop. It was a sort of flat paradise..."

I grew up in Ohio, and I have to admit I lack some of Stevenson's enthusiasm for the Ohio landscape. Ohio has many plusses, but spectacular views from the highway are not among them.

On the road we traveled through towns and villages, urban areas and farm country. Often I found myself looking out the window at the identical condominiums, decaying barns and the small houses with interstates transecting their back yards. I would look at them and think: somebody lives there all the time. That is the background to someone's every day life. That is where he comes home from work, checks the mail and plops down in front of the television. That mansion with the splendid view, that suburban split level, that cement block of apartments, has become so familiar to someone that she doesn't see it any more.

And then there are the rest stops plazas on toll roads. I've always had a curiosity about them as well. Do the people who work at the Sbarros have to drive 60 miles each way to get to work or is there a back road? The travel plazas aren't connected to any town. No one lives above the store, there are no houses nearby. No one at a travel plaza is local. Are there "regulars?" Does anyone walk up to the Starbucks and ask for "the usual?" The travel plazas are little oases out of everyone's life and time.

Even the perfectly ordinary traveler gets to see those houses and villages and to see a tiny glimpse of another life, a life that you might have had, that you could have had. Who would I be if I had been born in a farming town in Indiana? In the shadow of a factory in downtown Gary? Who would I be if I lived in one of the mansions on the shore in Sarasota, Florida? If I ran a fruit stand at the side of a South Carolina road? Who would I be?