In Familiar Country.

I drove across the panhandle of Florida, heading toward a hotel that I had never been to before.  It was a chain that I’ve stayed in more times than I’d like to count, and could navigate blindfolded if necessary because they are all exactly the same.  The location of the front desk ahead and to the left. Tepid coffee and water for late night arrivals about 10 steps in and 3 toward the right.  I’d never been to this city before yet I knew that so much of it would look like so many other cities I’d been to. Miles and miles of trees, or corn fields, or desert, or mountains, then suddenly an oasis of chain steak houses, fast food, big box retail and those hotels that I know so well.  I don’t like to think about it too much because it’s depressing as hell.  Then again, the optimist in me thinks: Well, at least the kids who grow up here won’t be crippled at the thought of moving away for college or jobs or whatever, because wherever they go–it will be familiar.  Then I think: Nope, still depressing.

I’m a sucker for those airport and hotel displays of brochures from local tourist traps.  Without them, I’d just be stuck with trip after trip of the same hotel, same bed, same rental car smell and same steak house salad, and my head just might explode.  I was thinking about the kinds of unique visitor experiences this place might have to offer–would it be another handful of places designated as purveyors of the best bbq ever or, if I was lucky, some historical sites with on-site, costumed reenactors–when I called my dad.  I told him where I was headed and he laughed.  I know that place.  I was near there for training before going overseas and that’s the town we used to sneak off to.  He said “overseas” instead of Vietnam.

I’m not sure why it struck me the way it did.  I’ve lived in a lot of places and my parents (and their parents) lived in a lot of places before I came along.  There always seems to be some familial connection to any place I go to and, frankly, I don’t usually think much of it.  This time was different though.  I wanted to see this place my dad had been.

The sun felt like it was sitting on top of the car and the air conditioner was working hard.  I was looking at the low, dense pine trees as I drove. They seemed short to me, as if the weight of the place’s humidity kept them from reaching a full height.  I saw enormous dragonflies, the size of small birds.  I saw the landscape through the eyes of my 18 year old dad, far away from the urban environment he grew up in and not far from being sent to war.

Maybe it was my own fatigue and homesickness at work, but my sense was that this place, so hot and foreign, probably made my dad feel very alone.  In fatigues and homesick, staring down insects that could carry a small dog away from its yard, I imagined that he felt lost.  I didn’t and haven’t asked him about any of this and I don’t plan to (unless you read this, Dad, and want to chat, xo).  It was a lifetime ago for him.

Another 50 miles down the road and my mind was on the hundreds of children arriving at our southern border each day and how fatigued and homesick they must be.  The radio voices were assigning blame for the crisis and generally calling for them to be sent back to wherever they came from.  [As an aside and without an opinion about what should or needs to be done about the situation, I wonder how those words would feel coming out of the radio mouths if they were forced to use the word “children” instead of “them”…but I digress.]  These children come from places where people don’t have the luxury to ponder why the pine trees are short because they are too worried about whether their kids will survive.  I turned off the radio, rolled down the windows and listened to the voiceless air instead.

I am (along with so many others in this country) so unbelievably lucky to live in a place where I have the luxury to think about trees.  To live in a place where I, as a woman, can have a career that provides for my family and the ability to travel to strange and beautiful places within our own borders, largely without fear.  To live in a place and time where I am pretty darn confident that my children will not fall victim to a war, and will not have to fight a war unless they choose to do so for their country.  To live in a place that so many others see as a promised land.

I drove by the military base that my dad was at so long ago.  There were just enough chain restaurants that it probably feels familiar to anyone stationed there now.  I optimistically thought about how a foot-long sub from a familiar restaurant might make a city kid far from the subway feel at home, at least for a little while.

I didn’t get the chance to see any other local sites.  I chose a late night flight back so I could see my girls, my very lucky girls, off to camp in the morning.

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