The Good Life

for Marshall–Nulla dies sine linea

Those who know me best would never label me a ‘big camper’—that is, until the Airstream came along.

I was driving home from my book club one afternoon, navigating the rush hour traffic, when something along the roadside caught my eye.  I smiled and progressed to the next red light.  But it wouldn’t let me go.  The light turned green; I went on a bit further.  And in a sudden break in the stream of oncoming cars I wheeled a tight left and went back.  Stepping out onto the dusty gravel drive, cars whizzing by close at hand, I looked up at this great strange entity with a sense of awe.  An arching frame sheathed in aluminum with a blue tag welded above the back window: Airstream. If I had ever seen one before I hadn’t noticed it.  Now as I stared, edged closer and emboldened myself to peek in a window or two, a vision began to grow in my mind.

I could hardly wait till Philip came home that night.  In glowing tones and with many a hand motion for emphasis I told him what I had seen—and what it could mean to us.  An easy escape when the cares of life began to crowd in too thickly; a portable home in which to flee when the noise and confusion of modern life drew too near.  “It’s like a silver turtle,” I told Philip in the heat of enthusiasm, “carrying all its worldly goods on its back.  Think how free we would feel!”

Philip took the dream and ran with it, and four months later found us making the road trip from Georgia to Indiana to pick up our 1962 Tradewind.  The intervening time had given us leisure to decide exactly which model and floor plan we wanted; we had scrutinized the digital pictures provided us with exacting care; but when I stepped into that wood-paneled camper for the first time I honestly couldn’t believe it.  Original porcelain front refrigerator, tiny gas stove, two closets, a bath!  Philip had coached me most of the way to Indiana on how not to appear too eager when discussing terms with the seller, but all my vigilant reserve went right out the window.

“This is our Airstream,” I said, as if in a dream.  “Can we take it home—right now?”

After our Maiden Voyage in the spring of 2004 we took a few more jaunts to state parks and the farm.  Each time it was harder to come back home; the taste of freedom more sweet.  And still we were dreaming of the Great Escape, the cross-country ramble, the gypsy-ish liberty of Toad’s Open Road soliloquy in The Wind in the Willows:

There you are!’ cried the Toad, straddling and expanding himself. `There’s real life for you, embodied in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here to-day, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changin’!’

Not long after my sister’s wedding, she and Marshall had us to their apartment for dinner.  We had a wonderful meal and a rousing game of Uno, but we were soon to discover that these were not the only reasons for which we had been invited.  In a way, it was something of a summons.  Marshall had a proposition:

Road trip.  This summer.  The four of us.  The Airstream.

The Open Road beckoned and we obeyed.  Summer 2005 became the catch phrase for adventure.  And all the more touching was its call owing to the fact that September would find Liz and Marshall moving to New York to pursue an adventure of another sort at the Art Students League.

But on the summer morning of our departure they still had not the slightest notion of where they would be living in the great metropolis, or even when they were leaving.  All that mattered to each of us was that the journey was underway.  The year was 1962.  Kennedy was in office; C.S. Lewis was still alive.  The sun was shining and we were fancy-free.

I turned up the Airstream mix that Philip had compiled and we all sang John Denver’s Country Roads at the tops of our lungs.  The car was charged with the utter delight of unaffected corniness.

“Now, that was what I’d call a sing-along,” Marshall said, settling back with satisfaction.

“Who d’you think Kennedy’ll appoint to the U. N.?” Philip posed.

“Do you imagine they’ll ever put a man on the moon?” I wondered.

Liz peered over Jackie O. glasses with a coy smile.  It was obvious that she cared more about period fashion than politics.  From plastic beads to vintage aprons, we both were prepared to dress the part, and if Liz’s cache of costume jewelry was considerably larger than mine she was only too willing to share.  Playing dress-up—never a problem for either of us—was part of the travel pact.

Friends of friends had offered us the use of their farm outside of Lexington, Virginia, and it was thither we trekked, our bright silver camper rambling behind.  As we neared our destination I glanced up from the map I was trying to make sense of and caught my breath.  A slight rise in the highway spread a golden vista before us: cow-studded hills in a late afternoon gilding, brick farmhouses half-hidden by ancient cedars, pastures domesticated by miles of white-painted fences.  It was so beautiful that it almost hurt to look.

“I think this is our exit,” Philip said.

A rapture of praise went up in my heart.  It was too good to be true.

The farm was as beautiful as that soaring glimpse had promised.  We set up camp with merry hearts, and as the sun dropped below the trees on the mountain behind us Liz and I went into the Airstream to start dinner.

“This is the galley,” I explained with the pride of a 1960’s homemaker.  I opened the cabinets one by one and acquainted her with their inhabitants.  “Tea here,” I set the aluminum canister behind the stove, “dry goods here,” with a flourish towards the cubby that curved with the arc
of the trailer, “and the stove’s name is Princess.”   I indicated the blue and gold emblem on the door and Liz nodded, her mouth drawn up in a little bow of comprehension.

“Apron!” she cried, thrusting me a handful of blue organdy ruffles.

As darkness fell we gathered around our vintage-spread table with bistro lights swinging above and candles twinkling to enjoy a delicious pizza hot from the oven.  The night grew black around us and we talked and laughed and marveled at our situation.  I always forget what real darkness is until I’m camping.  And silence that teems with the din of night creatures.  A screech owl gave us all a bit of a shudder—except Liz.

“Don’t worry,” she assured us with the sagacity of a true outdoorswoman, “that’s just a pony.”  I’m ashamed to admit that we laughed her to scorn.

When it was time to turn in we pulled sofas into beds and threw open overhead compartments for pillows and linens.  Everything so tidy and cozy, it wasn’t hard to close the door against the night and snuggle up with respective spouses.  And how wonderful to fall asleep with no thought for the morrow but that it would surely be fun.

The dawn was a beautiful gift.  I blinked sleepily at the golden haze pouring over our enchanted valley, suffusing the garden, the barn, the pastures beyond with a living light.  I had been afraid that I had dreamed it all.  But the morning only revealed that I had not remembered how lovely it was.

Lexington offered us a boon almost from our very first footfall on its undulating little streets.  Liz and Marshall saw it at the same time:

Stonewall Jackson Thrift Store!

I had been chattering about wanting to see the Stonewall Jackson house, a few short blocks above the VMI campus where the great general had thought to live out his days quietly teaching natural philosophy.  But surely it would keep for another half an hour.

Inside we found a perfect windfall of vintage clothes.

“Lexington junk is lots better than Atlanta junk,” Liz declared, heading for the dressing room with laden arms.

Our trophies proved her right and the boys were proud.

“Beetle, you just bought your fall wardrobe for 18 dollars!” Marshall exclaimed, clapping his arm around Liz’s shoulder as we went back out into the sunlight.

Though we’d all seen them before on family vacations, like good Southern children we made the rounds of Washington and Lee, admired the sweep of green lawn from the prospect of the president’s house and paid our respects at Traveller’s grave.  (For those uninitiated in the lore of a Southern upbringing, Traveller was Robert E. Lee’s faithful horse who was interred outside of the Lee Chapel while a spirited UDC matron played Dixie on the organ.)

Camp life was of the utmost amiability.  Late afternoons saw us pursuing our individual quiet pursuits: writing, painting, napping.  Liz and I took long walks over the farm and tried not to think about our coming separation, stopping by the vegetable garden on the way back to gather high summer bounty for our dinner.  The evenings lengthened into endless starry enchantment as we lingered at the table conversing on deep life issues or sat by the fire laughing over nonsense.  With sparklers, ghost stories, s’mores and Rummikub we set by those hours among some of the dearest of our lives.

Liz and I both wore our new dresses for the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We embarked in the morning with an amazing assortment of maps and a full picnic basket and wound our way through some of the most beautiful scenery this country has to offer.  With the windows down and Befriended on the CD player the sense of possibility was high.

Our heart’s desire was a secluded spot to spread our repast, and like everything else on this trip it was granted beyond all expectation.  A grassy path to a scenic overlook seemed promising and Philip pulled over for Liz and me to inspect.  Cresting a little knoll we found a spreading tree that seemed to have been planted on the sunny hillside just for us.  The grass was long and sweet, and the views that opened in every direction were of waving fields crossed with old fences and dark stands of cedars and hardwoods.  We ate our sandwiches in the happiest frame of mind, talking little but to extol the prospect around us; when that was done Liz served tea and we all settled comfortably with our books, the silence broken only at intervals for Philip to share a passage or two from Walden.  After digesting some rather weighty thoughts of Chesterton’s I set off on a little solitary ramble to give my mind a chance to recover, and as I wandered through the grass among Queen Anne’s lace and shaggy lavender bee balm my heart was singing a wordless thanks for God’s wonderful kindness.

“We’ll come back here someday,” Philip whispered as I turned for one last glimpse before piling into the car with the others.

But there was an even harder goodbye awaiting us the next morning.  As we broke camp, code named Bingo by our intrepid captain, Philip filled our heads with bright promises of what was just over the next hilltop on the Open Road.

“You mark my words,” he assured us, “Wiggle will have its own adventures.”  And not one of us doubted him, any more than we questioned his ability to christen campsites.

So we ambled out where we had ambled in so happily a few days before.  We said goodbye to our temperate valley, to the willow at the bend, to the horses, and then edged out into the old tree-canopied lane.  There was a waver of a sob beneath my laughter as I joined in the merry banter that is conversation with Liz and Marshall; but my spirits rallied considerably when someone suggested stopping for ice cream on the way out of Lexington.

Back in the car, Liz was as happy with her overflowing ‘single scoop’ as the rest of us but she was defeated before her ice cream dipped below cone level.

“Here, do something with this,” she said, passing it off to Marshall with easy unconcern.

“And what would you like me to do?”

We were careening conspicuously through neighborhoods at that point, past some of the most dignified establishments the genteel old town had to offer.

“Look, there’s a trash can!” Liz cried, pointing under Marshall’s nose to a receptacle rapidly nearing on the right.  “Just toss it in there.”

In Marshall’s defense, a perfect marksman would have been challenged under the circumstances of combined speed and short notice, but if nothing else his sincere effort was worthy of merit.  Top-heavy ice cream cones have a mind of their own, however, and this one seemed to possess a liberal streak of willfulness.  With the wind in his face and the sun in his eyes Marshall made his best shot—and landed it cone up in the very center of a pristine lawn.

“Step on it, Philip!” Liz cried from the back seat.

“Like they’d never recognize us loping through town with an Airstream behind!” I muttered.

“It’s okay,” Marshall said with his wide grin, “we’ll just say it’s our calling card.”

We went out of our way to see the Natural Bridge Caverns, passing as we did a couple of deserted roadside attractions of the Shenandoah Gothic variety, including a life-sized replica of Stonehenge made completely out of foam.  The name?  Oh, yes—Foamhenge. High on a hill it gleamed in the afternoon sun, luring us to stop and gaze in wonder, tempting us over the low gate for a surreal picture or two…or four or five…

The Caverns guaranteed all sorts of miraculous statistics, but aside from a treacherous wet stairway into the lower regions and a tour guide with a malevolent smile we found very little to recommend them.  There was a brief shadow of excitement when the lights were cut at the climax of a ghost story, but the story fizzled out, the lights came back on as planned and we all trudged back to the surface feeling very jaded and not a little cheated.  Our only regret in leaving was that we had no ice cream cones to pitch out the window as we drove away.

Hours later we were installed at Wiggle on the James River, bistro lights twinkling from the awning and steaming plates of Italian sausage and rigatoni before us on the table.

“To The Good Life!” was our toast, clinking plastic goblets.

Despite its other notable features, Wiggle proved to be a bit on the buggy side, but it was no hardship to pile up in the Airstream for a round or two of Old Maid or a heated Monopoly match that carried us into the wee hours of the morning.  I seriously thought that our patient, good-natured Philip and our feisty, fun-loving Liz would part company over the latter, all for the sake of one notorious blue card, but the minute the game was over Philip’s smugness and Liz’s fury were swept away with the wooden houses and Community Chest cards.

For Williamsburg Liz and I rallied our very prettiest vintage clothes.  We crossed the James on the ferry from Scotland, and our hopes for the day were as bright as the morning sun that leapt off the blue water in myriad dazzling rays.  Leaning over the rail from the observation deck I took my life-long visions of the revered place in hand.  If it’s not just as I’ve pictured it, I told myself firmly, then it will be better. But even my imagination could not prepare me for what better was.  I loved Williamsburg from my first step on its graveled walks, my first gaping glance at the regal Governor’s Palace, my first glimpse of a sunny garden over a wooden paling.

“That’s what I want for my birthday,” I told Philip, indicating a white-painted dovecote with a cedar shake roof.  “With doves.”

“Naturally.

“You can build it, darling,” with an eye-batting smile.

“I’ll have to,” he replied.  “I don’t think you can just go out and buy those anymore.”

Our last dinner was a bittersweet affair.  And as with all of our meals, highly photographed.  I twirled my fork on the pink plastic plate of stir-fry and couscous and suggested that we make a slide show when we got home confined to what we had eaten on the trip.  Rousing approval ensued.

We took solace in reminiscence that night, musing over favorite moments as if they inhabited the distant past.  Liz and I shared the same—the picnic at the overlook.  Marshall harked back to the night of the sparklers and the Roman candles on time-lapse.  Philip’s best time was watching the sunset out by the campfire with the happy chatter of Liz and me getting dinner ready in the Airstream…what golden hours!

“You know,” Marshall mused, turning his glass of Moscata before the candle flame, “I really think that Bingo was a lot like Heaven’s gonna be.”

We all concurred with silent nods then Liz added softly, “I’ve always thought that my happiest times have been little glimpses of Heaven.  It’s like the home of all our joys, the real thing.”

“Do you think the Airstream’ll be there?”  A smile lurked in Marshall’s earnest gaze.

After a moment’s speculation, we decided that on the hope that the things we loved would foreshadow Heaven we could pretty much expect to see it.

“Next stop, Niagara Falls!” Philip cried, lifting his glass.  Pretending that we were moving on was the only way any of us could deal with the sad business of breaking camp in the morning.

We did make our slide show when we got back.  (Though featured prominently, the meals took second place to the girls who prepared them.)  And at our going-away party for Liz and Marshall we set up a huge screen and projector in the den to show all our friends what fun we’d had on our summer vacation.  Selections from the Airstream mix accompanied the pictures as they flashed up larger than life in the darkened room.  The effect was magical, hilariously funny as the sappier of our medley predominated.  To Herb Alpert’s Spanish Flea Liz and I marched about Lexington; to You Can Fly Roman candles exploded into a starry night.  But The Green Leaves of Summer gave me a sentimental turn—at the line It was good to be young then… I felt a funny little burning at the back of my throat.  It was good—it was very good.  It was The Good Life.

3 Responses to “The Good Life”

  1. Melinda says:

    That is such a lovely story! The Good Life, indeed.

  2. Claudia says:

    I thought I knew this story …wrong. I felt like I was there too..right down to the burning in my throat and some unbidden tears. Thanks for sharing this!!

  3. Liz says:

    YOU DID IT!!!! you captured our trip perfectly!!! and i have looked like an idiot on the library computer laughing and crying! thank you for recording our memories…thank you SO much. i love you! LONG LIVE THE AIRSTREAM!

Leave a Reply

Please leave these two fields as-is: