I don’t know if I have the vocabulary to describe it, but one moment I look forward to each year is the day, typically sometime in October, when I walk outside and it is suddenly autumn. That day is defined by a combination of things, such as its look, with the leaves clearly changing color, to its feel, as the temperature is suddenly brisk, to its smell—somehow, for the first time that year, the day smells like autumn somehow. Every year I experience that day and it hits me like a ton of bricks each time and I feel that sudden sense of exhilaration. Some people call this the first football weather day and fair enough, but to me it presages not merely football but the totality of fall. What a day.
Instead of writing these words, I might have been driving around taking photographs today, but the weather would not cooperate. It is very rainy and thundery. Instead, I’ll catch up a little bit on this blog, which, it turns out, I started four years ago this month. In April 2013, blessed with a new camera, newfound knowledge of WordPress, and a new vehicle with 4-wheel drive, a navigation system, and satellite radio, I got the idea of turning a fond indulgence of mine—driving around backcountry Ohio—into something of a hobby, documenting the things that I saw and posting them on-line. Here.
Growing up in West Texas, as I did, I acquired the habit of looking down over the railings every time I drove over a bridge. The reason why, of course, was to see if there was any water in the arroyo or canyon or streambed or riverbed below—because more often than not, there wasn’t. If you did see some water, it was like a pleasant little surprise, something always to be remarked upon as you drove past. In Ohio, of course, there’s always water under the bridge, but it took me many years for my subconscious to pick up on that, because I was always looking.
February 2016. How long ago that seems, and how innocent those times were. Children played and built snowmen, while a Trump presidency was a distant and unlikely proposition. Not so crazy about today’s reality? Journey back with me a glorious twelve months and let’s explore a bit of southern Ohio from those bygone days of 2016.
When last we met, we were in the middle of a sunny but cold February 2016 excursion into southeastern Ohio, just a couple of miles from the Ohio River itself in Washington County, whose county seat is Marietta. Washington County is one of the more prosperous counties of southeastern Ohio—its per capita income is 25-33% higher than that of neighboring counties—but everything is relative. Central Ohio counties have incomes similarly higher than that of Washington County. You can find prosperity and poverty both along the Ohio River here.
A new employee showed up at a place I once worked and a veteran employee quickly came to the conclusion that she did not like the new employee. She began a whispering campaign about the new hire, attributing certain negative job-related qualities to him, and before you knew it, other people were repeating those aspersions when the new hire’s name came up—even though they had never actually seen any of those things themselves. The new employee was suddenly the victim of widespread preconceived notions, without even knowing what was going on, much less having an opportunity to do anything about it. He struggled his entire time at his job under the burden of those undeserved, preconceived notions. What struck me about this incident was how quickly others accepted the aspersions against him, with no proof or evidence at all. They were simply sheep following the lead of someone more dominant. It was a depressing but useful life lesson.
Try and think of the earliest dessert you ever ate. Can you think of anything? The earliest things I can remember, all from the time I was four or less, are animal crackers, vanilla wafers, ice cream (the earliest word I learned to spell, because my parents would ask one another, “Do you want to go get some i-c-e-c-r-e-a-m?”), and chocolate shakes. The latter I remember because I got sick with some sort of stomach bug and had to go for several days without eating or drinking anything except for sips of water—that was how sensitive my stomach was. I started fantasizing about a milkshake and, when I could finally eat again, I pleaded for a milkshake. My parents, bless them, obliged—and I promptly threw it up.
When I was in high school, I was a member of the Math Club. Yes, you heard me correctly, I did not lose my virginity in high school. One year we traveled to Monahans, Texas, about 250 miles away, for an academic competition. It was probably more than just a math competition, because we went in a school bus. On the way back, after a long day, I stared out from the bus into the darkness of the west Texas desert, listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park on my Walkman knockoff. When the song “Homeward Bound” started playing, I was suddenly swept up, listening to the lyrics, by a feeling of incredible melancholy. To this day, when I hear that song, especially when I am traveling, I still feel those strong emotions—there is something in that song about a desire to be rooted, to be anchored, to belong somewhere, that to me is very powerful. It may speak to me so strongly because it sometimes seem to describe my entire life rather than merely an episode in it.
I grew up in El Paso, Texas, and went to college at Trinity University in San Antonio. There’s 550 miles of Texas between the two cities. Over the years of driving back and forth, you come to learn things—traveller’s things, at least—about the places in-between: Van Horn, Fort Stockton, Junction, Kerrville, etc. You’d know where you can get gas, which towns or villages had a place to eat—which town had the Pizza Hut, which had the McDonald’s, and which had the “Dairy King.” That was all driving on I-10, I should note, the same drive, every time, which gave me a very limited view of half a thousand miles of Texas. Though I drove near it many times, I never once saw the village of Iraan, Texas (“the second largest town in the second largest county in the second largest state”). Of course, when you have half a thousand miles to cover, minutes become precious.
That’s one of the things I like about being in Ohio and taking my little excursions. I can explore and see all the things you can’t see from the freeway. I feel “invested” in Ohio, because of this, more than I ever felt invested in Texas.
A couple of years ago, I was inspired to see if I could find a house listing for my childhood home in El Paso. To my surprise, I found it on newspapers.com, a 1970 listing for a tiny (probably around 1,100 sq. ft.) 3-bedroom, 1-bath house listed at $13,750. That year, 1970, was the year my parents moved from Pennsylvania to El Paso, Texas, and bought the house. I was four years old. About 34 years later, after many years of rental living, I bought my own home. Just a few days ago, I mused at the fact, because it hardly seems I have been living in my home for a dozen or so years now.
I mention these facts because this excursion—actually the second half of a long excursion that took place on March 21, 2015, features a lot of houses, of many different kinds, and they were all homes to one or in some cases perhaps many families. Many of these houses now lie abandoned and ruined—at some point they ceased being homes and reverted to being mere structures again. For some reason, that makes me sad.