Thursday, July 12, 2007

a road trip

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I was excited to go home. I hadn't been to New Hampshire in a year. I hadn't seen anyone in my family, or visited my mother's grave, or walked in the woods and smelled pine. I hadn't heard loons, or felt the pleasure of a view opening suddenly in the mountains when you've climbed high and far, and the trees part, and you can see cool blue and green hills rising up into the clouds if you face north, and flattening into the lakes as you turn south.

One summer when I was revising my Big Article, after graduate school but before a job, I went home to work. I climbed a mountain by myself one day, taking two dogs, and was enchanted by the discovery that the mountain I had picked had an alpine meadow full of delicate wildflowers as its summit, like something from the first helicopter shots in "The Sound of Music." I remember sitting in the grass eating my lunch, feeling the afternoon sun burning my face as I looked across at the slopes of Mount Washington. A plume of smoke rose from one side, winding its way around in an upward spiral, and I chewed for several minutes before happily realizing I was watching the cog railway chugging up the hill, taking tourists up to the top of the highest mountain in the east.

When I go back to New Hampshire I think I am trying to get back to that day. I was young enough to take being young for granted, alone but not single, employed but not obligated, hoping for success but willing to appreciate what I had right then. I think up there I was happy. In the mountains, there you feel free.

We left town late for our road trip because we had people over the night before. We had scarcely made it out of town before we hit bumper-to-bumper toll traffic. As we got in line for the toll people started beeping at us. Apparently we had a flat tire.

We pulled over on the shoulder and a man in a business suit asked if we needed help. I shook my head and got out of the car, ready to change the tire myself. As I lifted the hood I saw another man jogging towards us from a car he had parked up ahead. He wore a crushed hat and sunglasses. He looked to be in his twenties or early thirties, and was waving a bike pump. I fished the jack out of the trunk and he tried to pump up the tire, "in case," he said, "it had just gone over something and broken the seal." He never asked if he could help; he just started working. When the hiss of air escaping made it clear we would have to change the tire, he helped jack up the car so we could put on the doughnut. His wife and daughter waited up ahead while we finished, and as we rolled our car back in traffic I waved to them, and they waved back.

We were inching sluggishly towards the toll when he ran up to us again. "Our battery seems to have died. Can you give us a jump?" he shouted. I laughed, pulled over, and trotted back to his car. He wanted to try to push-start it first, so his wife and I ran behind the car and pushed it as he tried to pop the clutch. When that didn't work we hooked up the jumper cables. As we worked GF started talking with his wife, and found out that she had met him because he stopped to help someone on the road, who eventually introduced him to her. I marveled at his generosity. Their car was old and didn't even have hubcaps, and they were on their way to the beach with a child in the back, but they had time to stop and help people, and not for the first time. I'm pretty sure the story of his battery did not end well. You can bet that if his battery died just sitting there for twenty minutes while we changed my tire, that battery was either on its last legs, or his alternator didn't work, or both. But he was cheerful. They were all cheerful, headed to the beach on a sunny day.

After we got their car started we all parted ways, waving and laughing. GF and I pulled off at the next exit. Laziness, indecision, and procrastination meant I had an actual extra tire in my trunk--a remnant from my last flat tire episode, when I bought two new for the front of my car and found myself with an extra. Unable to give away or throw out a perfectly good tire, I had kept it. Now, on a late Saturday afternoon when buying a new tire would have meant hours lost, I pulled into a tiny mechanic's garage and asked if they could put my extra tire on the rim that now held the flat. Fifteen minutes later we were on the road again. I was so jubilant I gave the mechanic a 20 dollar bill for a ten-dollar job, which caused him to smile broadly and make small talk. The sun was shining, we were on the road, and the world seemed full of kindness.

The rest of the trip had its bumps. An hour later I got a speeding ticket, though that didn't immediately dim my cheer. Later that night I took a wrong turn and missed the highway, adding an hour to an already late trip. We made it to the hotel, then had a beautiful drive through Vermont the next day. In New Hampshire, one of my sisters took us on a torturous hike that left me barely able to walk for a week, a hike with no payoff at the top. Limping and grumbling on the way down, we finally found a trail that opened out near the bottom, and we ended the hike walking down a ski area and looking at the mountains all around. There were wildflowers under my feet, and I tried to appreciate them, but my knees were killing me and my back hurt. That sister later decided to act beastly, talking about me behind my back for no apparent reason except that it hurt my feelings and made her feel better about her own disappointments. GF stayed in Boston for a week of research, and I drove home alone for two days in 100-degree heat.

I return home at the beginning of the on-campus interview season, when law firms begin hiring people for summer jobs next year. My first-semester grades make it unlikely that I will get one of these jobs, which can help pay down the cost of law school. My heart swells with anxiety as I contemplate more failures, now with the added burden of vast loan debt and a baby perhaps on the way.

I try to get back to the place where there are vistas and wildflowers, but it seems hard. I helps to think about the guy with the family and car with no hubcaps. He doesn't have much, but he isn't selfish or cautious or bitter, and he still stops to help people. I hope he made it. If he didn't, I hope that somebody stopped to help him. He believes they will make it. He believes that with kindness we all will make it to wherever we are going.