All books start as ideas, but Poets on Place started as a choice to leave one life behind and to go in search of another. My wife and I had great careers. We had worked hard for them, had been busted and broke during our early years, but now I was a writing program administrator, and she was a sales executive for a network-owned TV station. We had worked hard for almost twenty years, and we loved our jobs and the life we led. But we lived in almost ten different places during that time, and when we both eased into our 40s, we started wondering about another move, one not predicated on a job. We thought about taking a look around the country and seeing everything we could.
We had the fantasies of drifting around and starting a business in a pretty little town on the water. A bed and breakfast place, maybe. I wanted a place where you could have poetry readings and live music. My wife wanted to make soup (but not salad) and cookies (but not cakes). I thought maybe a Laundromat would be easy to own, but my wife wanted to know who’d fix the dryers. I wanted to open a radio station, play all my favorite songs, and hire college kids for pennies to run it when I wanted to sleep. My wife wanted to know who was going to clean the bathrooms. We kept the fantasies to ourselves. There was always something a little secretive and naughty about our desire to break from the real world.
A move from Texas took us to a suburban community outside Baltimore, Maryland. When house prices began to skyrocket, and our neighborhood boomed, the fantasies gained new life. A neighbor sold his three-year-old house for twice what he bought it for and we began to do calculations in our heads. How much time and space would that money buy us?
We liked where we were; it was a nice bustling suburb, near two big cities (I worked in Baltimore and my wife commuted to D.C.), but it wasn’t really home. We had never found that place. We were visitors wherever we went, never afraid to go on to the next stop. In some ways, home for us was always somewhere else. Home could be anywhere we slept that night. Home, really, was just with each other.
We don’t have kids; our dear 14-year-old Boston Terrier had recently died, and so we just thought we’d go and see what there was to see. It became a real thing, this fantasy. We could investigate the red and black and “blue highways” of the big country and see if we’d stumble across a place that held a deeper magnetic resonance for us than all the other places we’d lived in in the past.
But we couldn’t just sneak off in the night. We told our families and friends. People told us we were brave. We liked that at first. But after a while, “brave” started to sound like “stupid.” People said “brave” with their voices lifting at the end, like a question. Like “brave” really meant, “Are you both insane?” And we got nervous.
We had sleepless nights. No jobs meant no money. Sure, there’d be money at the beginning; the house sale would solve that problem. But it wasn’t a lot of money. It was a year’s worth, if we kept things simple. If we bought the generic macaroni and cheese. If we did laundry on a rock in a river.
But it still was in our heads, so we started planning. None of it was as romantic as I hoped. I started thinking about mail. Where would our bills go? How would we get health insurance? We started thinking of things we could do with our stuff, and then – like a switch getting thrown – things just moved forward. We quit our jobs. Over the phone, we bought a small investment house near my wife’s folks, and then we gave our furniture and boxes to burly men in a moving van praying that they would be willing to take it there.
We bought an RV. A motorhome. A Class C. A giant cab-over with a slick interior, a tiny stove, a tiny bathroom, a tiny bed, and giant tanks for gasoline and water. It was a great big rolling tin can, a moving version of our home. In went the smallest version of our stuff that we could imagine. We piled in clothes and cans of soup, paper towels, hoses, wrenches, flashlights. My Swiss Army knife. It was a mini-everything-we-owned; it only got eight miles to the gallon, but it was our ticket to the highway.
Suddenly, 12 months stretched ahead of us like a long, straight line. We wondered what in the world we were going to do for all that time. We knew that the first days would be delicious and long. No work. No clocks. Nobody waiting at school for me or at the office for my wife. We didn’t have deadlines or reports that were due. There were no students waiting in a classroom. We imagined the bliss would be overwhelming.
Until the second week. Then what? My wife had longed for more time in the natural world than her career afforded. For years she had stolen the occasional three-day trip to go rafting or camping. She’d come back hungry for more, more trees, more land, but would settle for more reports and more paperwork instead. So the immediate future was intoxicating for her. She shed her old self like it was a stinky coat. She was ready for new places, new experiences, and was going to eat them up no matter how they came to us.
I’m considerably more trouble, however. I have to have something to do. I have to have something to finish. So we talked projects. I’m a writer, a poet, and the thought came to me that I could do something with that. For as long as I’ve written, my own work has been grounded in place, steeped in the sensibility that where we live and work matters. Shortly after we got married, we lived for a dozen years in Texas. I felt that state’s effect on everything in my work from the content of a poem to the length of the line. The endless vista of west Texas, the scrubby desert outside Van Horn. I wrote what the wind sounded like. In the places of Texas I found my own voice as a writer. Texas taught me patience. It taught me that what was in between the towns was more important than the towns themselves. And though Texas continued to work on me after I left, the new places added their own colors and textures. So Florida added something, and then Maryland. I wondered about the rush my poetry got from a new place, a new setting, and I thought about how the places of my life were a part of what I wrote, how I wrote.
And I wondered about other poets. How does a poet go from Chicago to Montana, and how is her life different? What happens when a writer from the mountains ends up in a prairie state surrounded by grasslands? How is the art different for someone living on a mountain in Idaho and someone in a 300-square-foot apartment in Greenwich Village?
For me, poetry was always somewhere else. Poetry is a rich collection of things, people, ideas, language, and places. And it rocketed through my head that the greatesttest poem ever written is that stretch of highway on the way to a town you’ve never heard of before. The wondrous discovery of every turn. The tasty arrival as you clear the hill and peer into a new landscape.
Each state, another poem. Each town its own stanza. There was poetry in every bump on the interstate, through every corner of every tiny road. It was all poetry, every place I’d lived. A poetry of places that stretched for endless miles in every direction, under tree-lined streets in Ohio, and under the ominous skies of the Pacific Northwest, and under the perfect blue canopy of the Florida Gulf Coast.
I wanted to know what other writers thought of it. How did their work spring from the places of their lives? And there was only one way to find all of this. We’d have to go to them.
The weather is freezing, and we’ve gone as far north and east as we are able. Time is crushing us and we have to get back to the middle of the country for a western route that will take us all the way to Utah on the last leg of the trip. We start across Pennsylvania in one shot, stopping once to get gas and once to make the latest in an inexhaustible supply of sandwiches. Later, I find myself exhausted, but pushing along the Pennsylvania Turnpike at 11:30 at night. My wife has given out and is asleep, beautifully, in the passenger seat.
Somewhere just outside of Harrisburg, we start climbing. Endless switchbacks. There's a three-quarter moon, yellow to orange, right ahead of me, and the traffic is light.
The switchbacks continue, and the climb is steady. Somehow – and this is not normal – Winnie Cooper is running like a small sedan. The accelerator is responsive; its nimbleness amazes me.
A Harley Davidson, its distinctive rat-a-tat-tat sound coming first, passes me. The guy has a black helmet with “Tommy” stenciled on the back. He begins to pull away, but I give it some gas and follow along behind him. We're doing 60 mph for the first couple of miles. We occasionally come behind two or three semis struggling up the hills. I keep thinking that we'll level off, hit a valley, something, but the incline is steady.
Eighty miles from Pittsburgh I notice I'm up to 70 mph. The pavement is glassy smooth and the moon gives a little light. But it's still a highway near midnight so it's dark everywhere else. We bend left and right, up the switchbacks. I keep thinking, what the hell is the elevation here? How high are we going?
Two semis have to weave from the slow lane in front of me. Tommy, the bike guy, is still ahead. The slow lane has narrowed because of construction barriers. The semis are in front of me; I ease off the gas and watch my speedometer start to fall. This is more normal. Winnie is brave, has a V10, but rarely goes north of 50 mph on hills like these.
Off to the right, up another climb, I see Tommy's tail light as he pulls away. I tap my steering wheel a while, and I take a drink of water out of a bottle next to me. It takes about five miles for me to pass the semis, but when the road flattens temporarily, I really get rolling. I hit 75 mph and the road is empty.
I have my window open, and the wind is rushing through here like I'm on a roller coaster. I see Tommy's light ahead of me. In a few minutes I'm behind him and we settle in together. We bank the long, slow corners, he a second ahead of me or so, and we use both lanes, the left lane for bends that way, and the right lane when we cut back.
He's aware of me – he couldn't not be – but he senses I'm not passing. We climb higher and impossibly higher. As we pass about the 50-mile mark, we haven't seen another car in five minutes. I look down once and blink. My speedometer says 80, and the sound of both engines is nearly deafening, the echoes slapping back from the rocks that crowd both sides of the turnpike.
Higher still. Impossible, I think. The moon hangs ahead of us, the only light save our own, and we're headed up another switchback when I hear Tommy's engine misfire a time or two. Altitude. The gas mixture on the big bike is off a hair, not noticeable anywhere else but here.
He drops to 70 and I stay behind him. When two semis appear ahead of us on the right, Tommy pulls into the slow lane and gives me one finger point, motioning me to go on ahead. He eases his throttle back as he nears what appears to be a level spot of highway.
I go past, not waving, not looking, just pushing on. I eat up the two semis and am now on a giant sloping downhill. In a dream of some kind, I see the speedometer flicker back and forth on either side of 85 mph. The hum of the engine and the roar of the wind is exhilarating. It's the best I've felt about anything in a year, maybe five years. That's a horrible and sad thing to say, and my life is full of incredible blessings. But tonight is extraordinary. It's one of the best nights of my life. I love driving, I guess. Highways. I love the feeling of going somewhere. There are few things as beautiful as the rushing of the wheels.
My love of place, of new places, has to have a genesis. There has to be a reason why a night like this brings me such happiness. My folks worked for a long time in the hotel industry, and we would move every few years. About the time I’d find a friend in one town, we’d move on to the next. I learned not to put posters up on the walls of my bedrooms, or to get too attached to my teachers. And as I got older and left for college, I realized that I never gave a shit about any place that was called home. That’s 25 years ago, and I’m still moving, still running. I’m going someplace else. Anyplace. Anywhere.
And suddenly, there's Tommy again. I can see his single headlight coming up. We're on a flat when he pulls even with me. We’re more than an hour into this event. I can see the lights of Pittsburgh in the distance, and though part of me wants to keep pushing along under this moon, I’m tired, sleepy, and ready for rest.
I think about Tommy. He looks to be my age, or a bit older. On a Sunday night like this, I think he is going home, home to someplace where someone is waiting for him. I look over at my wife, her name is Beth. Beth since I was nineteen years old, and Beth for all of my life. I would drive to the end of the world if I knew she were waiting.It's one in the morning. Another day and another place.
Just before an exit, Tommy goes by, the Harley pouring through the night like sand. I pull into the parking lot of a giant Wal-Mart that is closed for the evening. As always, a handful of other motorhomes are here, scattered loosely in the furthest regions of the parking lot. I pull in under a soft yellow light and wake my wife up. I don’t tell her anything but, “We’re here. We’re stopping for the night.”