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Driving Through Irene 

Here's an essay that's been kicking around since just about this same exact time last year.

Thanks to Irene, it wasn’t easy to get where I was going. I was expected in Vermont on the ten year anniversary of 9/11—had it been ten years already?—for an environmental journalism retreat up in the Ripton hills. So many roads were closed from the hurricane’s havoc that I had to circumnavigate my usual route, one I’d taken countless times. Hundreds? It's possible. The trip took hours longer than I’d planned even though I was told to expect delays.

I was coming from my family’s place in Maine, a long ride even without the detours. I’d forgotten to pack CDs and I listened to podcasts on my phone for the first couple of hours until it promptly died. I couldn’t call anyone, couldn’t illicitly check my email from the road. Just as well. The radio was all I had and the reception was shoddy—billboard country and NPR’s 9/11 commemoration show were the only stations that tuned in clearly as I rolled into the Green Mountains, the light lowering in the sky. Is there nothing else? I wondered, then turned off the radio altogether. 

I showed up late, which is usual for me and, as usual, there were things I could point to (the road closures, in this case) that made it not totally my fault. The group was nowhere to be found. I shut off the car to look for them. The warm evening had turned windy up on the deserted hill and the metal clasp clanked against the empty flag pole. The houses I looked in were empty, too. There were no other cars in the lot or on the roads. Life was normal on one side of the mountain where I’d come from, the other side, I reckoned, very much not.

That week, we didn’t hear or see much about the damage nearby. It seemed it might be mostly back to normal. Meanwhile, we discussed our various stories of environmental unraveling around this cracked-up globe.

On the 16th, my birthday, the retreat was finished and I left feeling desperate on behalf of the planet, an earth-shaped hum in my heart. In just five days it had turned to fall. The road had opened and I was headed to New York where a birthday dinner awaited me with friends in Queens. I was reluctant to leave Vermont’s softness for the unwildness of New York or even for my home in California. I felt like stalling. So I decided to make a detour to see my friend Robin, who lives a Vermont life of the sort that I always thought I wanted but probably, because life is like this and we choose some things over others, I wont have. The routes I should have taken were closed, I’d gotten faulty information on how to get there so, in the end, the trip took me over four hours when it should have taken me two.

All those bad things people do: like slash the trees and drive too much (like me, I'm guilty) and fly planes into buildings and want to go to war. But being on the road at first lifted my spirits so I could stop feeling so sorry for myself and for everyone.  It was the usual Vermont gentleness as I drove, leaves just on the brink of shifting. Then, in this same dreamscape on my regular way out of the state, a house smashed apart.

Have you ever seen a splintered house up close? It looks like a house for toys.  Like tearing it down from below was easy. Remember, how easily those towers turned to liquid-dust before our eyes? I passed the splinter house and then all was normal again—the regular town.

It went on like this: normal roads, normal crisp light of Fall, normal houses that evoked domestic scenes of normalcy, then something else skinned off clean. On my usual turn onto route 107 past Stockbridge, a place I’d so often stopped to pee in the fields, the concrete had buckled so sweetly and susceptibly it looked like the crust of that kind of snow that hardens then crackles under our boots, of a brownie newly cooled then split to eat.

I reached an impasse: road closed this way, road closed that way. I’d have to go back the way I came which would add hours. I might spend all day in this car and miss my birthday in Queens. I consulted with a deliveryman, me in my car and him in his truck. The weather was warming, our windows all the way down.

“Where you headed?” he asked. I told him South. “Follow me this way,” he said. “Worth a try.” We drove past the orange signs that read “Road Closed.”

Not soon after, we were stopped. A crew cleared debris from the lot where a house had been shucked from its foundation. The door was torn off but the satellite dish still poised to catch its signal out back, pointed toward the swath of green hills that throbbed behind it for miles. I could see a lamp (off, of course) in the upstairs window.  A bone of concrete jutted from the ground. I grabbed my phone to take a picture.

At that exact moment, the traffic began and I scrambled to snap the photo and put my car in gear. I threw the phone on the seat beside me. A young road crew worker who looked like someone I’d have been in love with years ago when I lived here and anything was possible shouted at me, “Facebook!” as though I was here for some kind of grisly souvenir. “Fuck you,” I said out loud in my car to only me. Then I felt sorry.

No, fuck me.

When the earthquake hits and my life gets swept off the ridge I now live on in California far away from Vermont, or when the fire blushes its way across the other hills to mine, will I want people snatching up images of my rubble or char? 

Each time I passed another road crew I had the unreasonable but distinct feeling they all knew about that photo. Like there was an insensitivity warrant out brandishing my know-it-all face. I waved, called a thank you to them all, and carried on.

Just when I’d gotten far enough to forgive myself, I came to a red barn surrounded by trees. It fit the Vermont I love to wax romantic about—an empty greenscape, me the only one on the road, a riverbed, a big red barn. You almost couldn’t notice that it was only the barn’s top half, it’s bottom ripped ragged, resting in the now trickling riverbed like a split cadaver. I didn’t, at first. Somewhere sat its bottom half, nerve ends still wriggling.

I finally found the highway and my friend’s lovely home. My phone died again. I moved on southward toward New York. It seemed to make even less sense to go there now than it had that morning. I crossed the Whitestone bridge, rushing through the blackness past the lights of some pulsing skyline—which one, I wasn’t sure. In the middle of the bridge were more workers in hardhats. The crews were everywhere, today. The scope of things—the cars, the people in them, the towering bridge beneath that behemoth city—felt uneasy. I was getting closer to parking my car and stepping back out into the world one year older.

On the bridge, I remembered that exactly ten years ago I’d had a birthday celebration in Boston with these same friends I was now racing toward. I hadn’t seen them on my birthday for that long. See how quickly ten years pass? We love to remember in circles and think in terms of anniversaries. I hadn’t been sure all those years ago whether any of them could make it to Boston given the closures after the towers crashed. But they’d made it. We’d celebrated in spite of things and quickly put that business about the planes out of our minds for a time. Now, with the ten year anniversary still fresh and all of them but me having taken residence in that altered skyline, they were waiting for me.

Once again, I was arriving late with the same excuses.  

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