We dropped into the Philly airport around sunset and went through a Kafkaesque car rental process–walking through a maze or corridors, missing buses, waiting in a long line only to find out it’s the wrong long line–until finally, blasting out into traffic and heading across the Walt Whitman bridge into New Jersey. It’s perfect that the 100 Highways Tour includes the Walt Whitman Bridge. Uncle Walt, who I quote near the end of Vagabond Song: “Bearded, sun-burnt, gray-neck’d, forbidding, I have arrived.”
It was a long, meandering drive through Jersey, mostly because, in an attempt to avoid toll roads, we became quickly, beautifully lost. We were heading mostly south and would eventually stumble onto a major highway that would zip us to our destination, so we just enjoyed the ride.
In my youth, this was always my goal in the northwoods of Michigan: the moment I realized I didn’t know where I was, everything became stunningly beautiful and fraught with possibility. Every moment was savored. I could enjoy the fantasy of simply not returning to the world of concrete and schedules. I could be a hermit, a Han Shan-esque wanderer, a feralite. Also, knowing that in the Midwest, getting lost would be a temporary state–when one could read the stars, knew how to secure shelter and water, make fire–made it not much more than a fun game. Mosquitoes are the most dangerous animal, there’s a road every mile or so and water everywhere. Now that I live in Montana, where the weather can kill you in summer or winter, where you can wander for days without finding a road, where bears and lions are very real concerns, I notice that my attempts to become lost aren’t quite so intentional.
We had a decent dinner and a few drinks at a friendly roadhouse that appeared out of the gloom like a dream, then an hour or two later, fell into the flow of U.S. 9, down into Cape May where we checked into a motel then ran across the road, ignored the “Beach Closed” signs and stood at the crashing edge of the Atlantic, still surly and fierce from the recent hurricanes. It’s humbling to be in proximity to such power. It’s good to be humbled by the natural world. It’s energizing.
Much of our problems and threats to survival stem from a severe lack of this type of humility.
The next day, we hiked around some coastal wetlands, glassing birds and learning the names of unfamiliar plants, before jumping the ferry across Delaware Bay into Lewes, the first city in what became the first state. It was here I found a great little bookstore, Biblion, and its friendly owner, Jen. We talked books and the book trade for quite a while, and then I asked her if she had anything on James Joyce. She sold me a great copy of Coping with Joyce: Essays from the Copenhagen Symposium, which is a great addition to my Joyce collection, but it was the stuff that wasn’t for sale that was really exciting, including a photo of manuscript page with notations, the original discovered locally, from the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses, and a large format duplicate of the photo of Joyce and Sylvia Beach hanging at her Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris.
It was a fantastic visit that made me wish that I had booked my reading here.
Overall, the trip was great, especially a bike ride/bird-watching excursion through Cape Henlopen State Park, visiting with my wife’s family, the delicious seafood, meeting up with a cousin and her daughter at a great little Mexican cantina near the beach, the songs of crickets and mockingbirds, the beer tasting at Dogfish Head Brewery, the few days wandering the streets of Philly–with its murals and history and great live jazz at Time–and spending long, energizing moments in the humbling beauty of that surly and fierce Mama Ocean.
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