A couple of days ago I finished reading Gravity, The Allure of Distance, by W. Scott Olsen. I bought it a few years ago. It called to me for all the predictable reasons. It’s a paperback. The cover shows an empty highway, a sign for Exit 0, and the kind of big-distance, big-sky terrain that felt like home the first time I saw it (and promptly got heat-induced delirium, because that was in the Mojave and it was the first time I’d spent real time in the desert, but that’s another story).
The book took me a long time to read.
It puzzled me that that was so. The writing is beautiful. The terrain described is beautiful. The author’s sense of what it is like to get on the highway and just keep going, the pull of six or eight big lanes and semi trucks running seventy or eighty miles an hour and motels in the middle of nowhere that you pull into late at night, of gas station rest stop food and diners in the middle of nowhere, seems like a relative of mine. The pull of empty roads through deserted passes, the exhilaration of steep cliffs and jagged rock formations in the middle of nowhere (but is it really nowhere, if the pull is so strong?), is familiar too.
And that’s when I realized: the trouble I had with this book is that it made too much sense to me. It was like reading the inside of my own head, or recalling my own memories. Not to say that I’ve driven the Dempster highway, or stepped over the Arctic circle, or have any desire to – I haven’t been to the Yukon, and thus far when it comes to big deserted open spaces I bias more toward heat than ice. But the mental and emotional perspective of heading for out there, of defining home as how far I can get driving in a day (how long is a day? is it from waking to sleeping? variable, then – and I recall the time I made it from Albuquerque to Indio before stopping for a hotel, then successfully negotiated a bargain because it was so late at night), makes sense to me.
So I read the book. And as I read it, I kept putting it down, because it covered territory already known to me.
I’ve been spending this gray, rainy morning reading other gardeners’ blogs. A lot of these are written from the UK and Europe, which right now seem to be having a cold snap and at any rate are much, much colder than here. So I’m reading about frost, and blackened leaves, and I look out my window at the overcast sky and the occasional drift of light filtering through the clouds, and contemplate whether it is or is not too mildly damp and drizzly to walk a lazy half block up the road to mail a letter to my friend L. (Digression: one upside of the pandemic is that L, a high school friend with whom I used to exchange letters during summer vacations, & I started writing real physical letters to each other again.) While I read, I consider how much I admire and enjoy snow, and admire and enjoy the crisp frost of a colder-than-here winter morning, and at the same time I love sun and find it hard to imagine what would actually be too much time out of doors. Years ago, during the six months I spent in York during my junior year of college, it started out as winter and there was very definitely snow. I went hiking in the snow with a student group on weekends, and I walked the two
miles kilometers from my residence hall to class during the week, regardless of weather. I am not sure if this was because I didn’t want to spend money on the bus, or was puzzled by the bus schedule, or maybe there wasn’t a bus, or maybe I simply preferred to walk. I remember kicking my boots through the cold white drifts and stamping down the half-melted-and-refrozen crunch underfoot. I remember the fascination of the bleak gray sky. I suspect I was often cold, but I don’t remember wanting to change anything (this was when I was much younger, before I learned how to buy a winter coat, and that “made of wool” is not the same thing as “warm”).
Anyway. Weather. I am so grateful that yesterday was warm and sunny and I spent the afternoon digging in the dirt, and then I had a giant glass of fresh-squeezed navel-orange-and-Persian-lemon juice afterwards.
And I’m only a little bit jealous both of those with snow, and those growing tropical blooms in Florida and soaking up sun in the southern hemisphere!
Once upon a time in Austria, on vacation, in Salzburg, I went to a classical music concert – Mozart, I think. This was in winter, just a week or so before Christmas. Snow dusted the tree branches overhead and the edges of railings beside and the puddles of frozen winter grass I walked past. Golden light spilled out of windows.
The concert took place in a pink marble room where the notes sparkled off the polished surfaces and the ceiling and the chandeliers soared far overhead and the concert-goers in stiff side chairs sat neatly arrayed in rows, listening. It was a chamber music concert, just four musicians. It was wonderful, like a window into another room, like a moment taken from a fairytale.
But the part that stays with me, as a surprise, years later, is this: that because it was winter, all of us concert-goers arrived wearing substantial, voluminous coats. And whereas in the United States, or the United Kingdom, or most other places I have been, we would all have waited in a coat-check line to hand our coats to a clerk in exchange for a tag or a token which we would then re-exchange for our coat again later, after the concert, after standing again in a line – in Austria there were simply large and substantial coat racks set up in the lobby, unattended. The racks gleamed with chrome and coat hangers. And we concert-goers, as we entered, simply hung up our coats on the hangers on the racks, and went in to the concert. Afterwards, on our way out, we returned to the lobby and retrieved our coats. No standing in line, no tags or tokens. No awkward uncertainty about whether or how much to tip the coat-check person.
And, as far as I know, no missing coats.
It was a wonderful experience.