Fall is my favorite time of year to travel to big cities, the ones stuffed full of history. Point me to an art museum, and I’ll be there. We’ve visited Athens and Florence, and London, Paris and San Francisco on several occasions, in early October. Temperatures are cooler, and you don’t have to deal with the human-imposed frigidity of air-conditioning. It’s never too hot, or too cold. The sewer smell of those grand cities, supporting millions, is minimized by mercury’s dip. It’s always just right, Goldilocks.
At the moment, destinations such as these are not on the radar. Or at least on a screen I can visualize without goggles that see into the future. This isn’t from lack of desire; the wish, or should I call it urge, for wanderlust, is still there. Over the past couple of years, the urge has been suppressed by the reality of our time of life. We are the parents of a college student, and a college student wannabe. We recognize where our focus must lie. The renowned pink light of Paris, which I so enjoy, must wait. Yes, I know that “for every time there is a season” and that with a “turn, turn, turn”, we’ll be back traveling again, and yet, I hear of my friends’ adventures, and all I can do is bite my knuckles, and say, “arrgghh.”
Last week, we celebrated the wedding of the daughter of close friends, visited two colleges, and enjoyed watching a cross country meet that brought together college students from schools over a five state region. We began in Colorado, journeyed to Minnesota, had lag time in Wisconsin, and are back now in Colorado, a bit breathless, but content.
We’d planned to meet our son, Harrison, in LaCrosse, Wisconsin last Saturday. A distance runner, we’ve seen him run college track, but had yet to match up with him for a cross country meet. He wanted us to go to a big meet; the energy and dynamics are what most inspires him, and he wished us to experience the excitement generated by all those kids, running together. Harrison ran cross country in high school, but college athletics bumps it up another notch. The training is more intense; it becomes a dominant part of how you pursue life’s goals.
We pulled out the map, trying to determine if we could shoehorn in something else of value while we were in the mid-West; not that being with your son isn’t enough, although we thought we’d only see him briefly, as he’d be with his team for the majority of the time.
Our daughter Isabelle has applied to a plethora of colleges, hither and yon across the United States. Surely, one of them had to be near LaCrosse? As it so happened, one of her top choices was in Minnesota, so off to Minneapolis we flew. A quick dance in both states, a relatively short drive, we could make everybody happy.
As you might imagine, with an itinerary such as this, there’s no great need for packing much more than jeans and comfortable shoes. Fine dining and art museums are off the agenda. In addition to tennis shoes, I tossed in a pair of somewhat dilapidated loafers that have logged in many miles over the years traversing museums and city streets; they’re also the kind of shoe that you don’t have to apologize for when you stray into a nice restaurant.
Except, these have seen time between my collie Mopsy’s teeth. As a puppy, she ate through about twelve pairs of shoes, a fact which was accepted with resignation every time I walked through the door of our local shoe repair shop. The owner would sigh when she saw me. “She did it again, huh?” she’d ask. I could only curl up my lip in disgust; what else is there to say to a question like this?
They’d tried really hard to fix my loafers, but Mopsy had chomped her way through the band holding the top together, which I’ve now learned is what keeps this particular design of shoe on your feet. Suffice to say that after walking through the airport, dropping a shoe here and there, I gave up and tossed them into the trash.
This wasn’t a problem in Minnesota; when you’re off on a college visit, you’re there to walk the campus, and sneakers were just fine. Besides, the person who needed to impress anyone was Isabelle. In a situation like that, Mom and Dad are best off being invisible.
The concept of invisibility is layered, not always affecting the sense of sight. We’ve become used to it, with one kid off in another state. Cell service is spotty on Harrison’s campus, and the best method of staying in touch is through text messaging. You’re there, and you’re not. While a quicker form of communication than the letters I used to send home back in the ’80’s, instant gratification read on a two-inch screen isn’t the same as face-to-face connection.
The great irony of being connected to the world is reflected in the times when you are not.
We’d begun the college visit with a late arrival into town on Wednesday, interested in scrounging up dinner and heading to bed. Which was fortunate, because I’d been lackadaisical regarding hotel reservations, in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, having made the decision to travel there in late August. Not smart. It was family weekend in both college towns, and I’d managed to score the last room in town in Northfield, MN, and LaCrosse. We’d have to change rooms on Thursday in Northfield, because the family suite, plenty spacious for the three of us, had been booked for the weekend. I was glad to have a bed, and anyway, I reasoned with Dr. K, Isabelle would be off in the dorms the next night, having a real college experience. How much room would we really need? The tango had begun.
We moved to a room labeled a “cozy,” a space which could only have seen former days as a hallway. Smaller than the dorm room in which Isabelle spent her night, this glorified hotel “room” was one step towards her eventual separation from us, and we began to feel the onslaught of isolation and invisibility. Becoming a fish out of water, or a human stuffed into a broom closet, will do that.
The next morning we collected Isabelle from the college and hopped in the rental car, a quirky retro-style Jeep Wrangler which looked too cute to pass up, particularly after the rental agent gave me the same price for it as the boring sedan we’d reserved. Close to three hours later we arrived in LaCrosse; rattled and shell-shocked, we three agreed that the sedate sedan may have been the wiser choice, given that we couldn’t hear each other over the noise from the road. Our buzzing ears had added another layer of isolation.
LaCrosse is a small college town, sitting on the prairie’s edge where the LaCrosse, Black and Mississippi rivers conjoin. After checking in to the hotel, we wanted to explore, but a chilly wind swept down from the bluffs lining the Mississippi, hampering our walk alongside the banks. We gave up, and headed across the street from the hotel into downtown to shake off the road miles.
I’ve decided that LaCrosse is an excellent spot to visit, or to go to college, if what you’re looking for is a drink. I counted twenty-five bars along one square city block alone. The names were tame at first, then grew in potential of lost inhibition. “Library”, “John’s Bar”, and then “Who’s on First”, morphed into “Animal House” somewhere along my rambles; I chose a shoe store instead, hoping to replace my loafers. Dr. K and Isabelle were off on rambles of their own in the vicinity. The plan to contact Harrison, who was bunking with his team at an as-yet-to-be-determined hotel within a fifteen mile radius, to see if he could join us for dinner, was under discussion, but was still uncertain; kids never know what they’re going to do until five minutes before the event. And then they’ll get in touch.
In modern life, wandering away from your family is never a problem, what with cell phones. A text message away, it’s easy to let them know your next step. Until somebody driving along Highway 53 to the north of town knocked out a cell tower, wiping out our AT&T service. Some stranger, probably texting and driving, had the ability to strand me from the rest of my family, who were just across the street. Somewhere.
Time passed, panic grew, and I did what the reasonable do: head to Base Camp, where we all, evidently trained in Boy Scout mentality, had regrouped. We were still rattled, though. It is astonishing how much we rely upon technology to shape our days. Isabelle headed to her room for a much needed nap; the weight of two school visits in a week, decisions, and eventual separation from us was beginning to press down on her.
Isolated again, Dr. K and I braved the wind and discovered a cozy restaurant not too far down on the Mississippi, “cozy,” in this instance, relating more to decor than room size. Appetizers and drinks would replenish our spirits, and warm us up, until we could figure out a way to find Harrison’s whereabouts.
Across the river sat the old trading post, built in 1841, and I wondered about the lives of the explorers and fur traders along that river, considered their isolation from the world they knew. The sun began to set on waters that have inspired writers and poets, composers and artists, rippled by a cold wind, tinged with a pinkish-grey glow that brought to mind a Corot landscape, and it dawned on me that I had the remarkable opportunity to experience art, firsthand. It wasn’t necessary to travel to Paris, to view paintings over one hundred years old. The images were there, no differently than were they for Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot; no, it wasn’t Paris, but living poetry was there for the asking.
We did eventually link up with Harrison that weekend, who, although injured and unable to race, jogged the course with the runners, snapping photos for the team; we tagged along with him, following the sunny course.
As for Isabelle, I don’t know where she’ll end up, which college will pick her, or which one she’ll choose. For now, my only interest is where I’ll be sending her CARE packages, filled with odds-and-ends to remind her of home, and the shoes she’s forgotten to take with her.
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