Several years ago, I submitted an essay for the Travel section of the Seattle Times.
To my surprise, it was published.
(You can read it here, on the Seattle Times website.)
I'd written it, thinking back to that particular summer after my father's death.
I'd just finished college and was about to move out West...
And so it's been ten years now.
A decade is a convenient--and not-so-convenient--marker of time,
one that begs, insists that reflection and introspection take place...
Only then can time seem to move on.
I feel so fortunate that I've been able to travel during this decade--
not just throughout this country, but also retracing some of my father's travels, in Germany, France, Spain...
Then marriage, and introducing my wife to the fragrant, sun-baked stone towns of Provence,
taking the ferry from Marseille to Corsica, listening to howler monkeys in the Mayan jungle of northern Guatemala, climbing the stones of Macchu Picchu, standing in awe of soaring condors circling around us on the lip of the Colca Canyon in Peru....
This past decade of living in Seattle has been punctuated by a year in Paris and a year in Nicaragua.
And now, we're preparing to leave again. Not on a trip; this is a move.
New job--new climate.
We are refugees fleeing the grey climate and overpriced housing of Puget Sound, hoping to put down another set of roots in Tucson...
Plans just firmed up,
and now the reality of planning a 1600-mile move in less than two months is hitting us.
And I can't help but think now of that trip ten years ago,
a trip taken with my mother shortly after my father's death, before I would move out West...
Some of the most meaningful 'travel-writing' came from that bittersweet summer,
and I feel compelled to post it here, in its original form,
written in the present-tense, which the editor of the travel section felt compelled to translate into the more newspaper-ish, essay-istic past tense.
But feelings are always in the present-tense., even a decade later.
--On the River, Québec, July 1997
“I never seen river so wide.”
These words became a refrain during our drive along the south shore of the St. Lawrence all afternoon yesterday, and they are reoccurring this morning as my mother and I prepare to board a ferry in the town of Trois-Pistoles. (My mother, who is Korean, has never completely mastered all the inconsistencies of English grammar; her “momspeak” is as familiar and comforting to me as her rice-dumpling soup.)
We board the ferry. Yes, here, several hours to the northeast of Québec city, the St. Lawrence’s banks are rightly referred to as “shores.” The river is wide, as my mother’s been saying—the ferry crossing to Les Escoumins on the north shore takes an hour and a half. Seals and belugas swim alongside the ferry, the temperature feels 10 to 15 degrees colder in the middle of the river than on land, and the damp wind tastes of salt.
I should explain. My mother and I are traveling a couple of months after my father’s death. He was born and spent his childhood in the French-speaking St.-Jean (St. John) river valley along the border of northern Maine and New Brunswick. Earlier in the year, the three of us had planned this trip—my parents and I all on one last family road-trip before I move across the country for graduate school. After my father’s sudden illness and death, the two of us decided to take the trip anyway—my mother had never been to the area—and to scatter his ashes in the St. John river.
The day before yesterday, we did that. Now we’re driving on…the balm of summer landscapes… We’re visiting the small towns along the St. Lawrence, settled in the 17th and 18th centuries, before staying with some friends in Québec City. In a few days we’ll drive back down to Portland to return our rental car and fly home.
So we’re on the ferry. “I never seen river so wide.” I smile as my mom’s now-familiar narrative resumes. From the deck, I scan the waters for more marine life, and then my mom decides to seek shelter from the chilly morning and she goes inside one of the ferry’s cabins. A few more minutes, a few seals later, I decide to go inside too.
Inside, I find my mother engaged in animated gesturing with a family of five—all six of them are warming their hands around paper cups of hot chocolate. (Ahh…the warm, sweet and somewhat chalky staple of ferry-beverages...) My mother and that family know only a handful of each other’s language, but they’re all smiling. It’s nice to see a smile on my mother’s face. When the family learns I speak French, the gestures become words.
They ask where we’re from and say that my mother is the first Korean person they’ve met. I ask where they’re from. “De la rive nord—from the north shore,” they say. “We have relatives on the south shore, and every other summer we take turns crossing the river to visit each other. The ferries run only in the summer—no ice.” The father explains that the nearest bridge, upstream in Québec city, is the better part of a day’s drive away, a bit too far. So, usually, they see one another only during the summer.
(I translate for my mom, pleased that I’m understanding the French-with-a-twang that is Québecois pronunciation.)
“Yeah, it’s kind of funny,” he continues, “in the winter, we can look across the river on clear days and see right where the family lives, but there’s no way to get across.” I happen to glance at my mom, still smiling among these strangers in the middle of this wide river.
“Yep, you can look across and see, but you can’t get there.”