EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is an abridged version of Chapter 45 of “Adrift in America: Diary of a Minimalist Mariner,” a work found in the nonfiction section:
Old Orchard Beach, Maine. December 1986.
I have a memory that is more cyclical than chronological, and this is never more apparent than when the seasons change. On the first thaw of spring, my memory doesn’t go back to the previous day when there was ice on the ground but back through a series of first thaws to the spring of 1948, when I splash home from grade school in my gum rubber boots and see the sand breaking out of the ice soft and clean. In a few months, I know, the sand will be dry and warm, and I will stand again in it barefoot, as I stood in the warm sand of the previous summer when somebody told me my father was dead, killed on a utility pole when he touched the wrong wire. Daddy doesn’t ever come back, but the memory of him does, always. At the first barbecue of summer, I don’t think of the previous day when it was too cold to cook outside but of previous first barbecues of the year ranging back to 1966, a year before Peggy and I are married, when the two of us sneak off for a weekend at a tourist cottage just outside the city of Keene in western New Hampshire. We buy pork chops and beef ribs and cook them on a wood-fired grill next to a stream that runs past the row of cottages. We drink wine and eat meat dripping with juice before we fall together greasy into the cottage’s squeaky-springed metal bed. On the first crisp day of autumn, my mind drifts back not to the previous day’s heat but to previous crisp days of autumn. Like watching the first leaves of 1981 drift into the yard around the big house in Biddeford as I wait for Mary to get home from work, understanding for the first time since I have known her that she isn’t just someone attractive who keeps me from missing Sara but someone real, someone with whom I am falling in love.
The campground at Old Orchard Beach is cut into one of the best remaining stands of white pines on the southern coast of Maine. Near the front gate, the place is ugly – a plaza of asphalt connecting the office with a series of metal utility buildings and a concrete swimming pool that seems out of place so close to the ocean. But a hundred feet or so into the campground, the tall trees form a thick canopy of shade that makes the tightly spaced camp lots seem larger and more private. As it is up front, the ugliest part of the rear of the campground is what we have brought here – rectangular shells of metal and polymer to live in, tubes of twisted aluminum and nylon to sit or swing on, occasionally a fluorescent casting of a tropical bird feeding in this plastic-dotted paradise.
But it all changes with the first snow of the season. I am taking my daily walk along the roads around the perimeter of the campground when it starts, an icy snow that comes down in tiny pellets that rattle through the trees and bounce like rock salt in my path. I crunch through this new ground cover, leaving footprints in the road where my weight has melted the granules. As evening advances and lights go on, the ground begins to glow with reflections. I return to the truck and go inside without turning the lights on. I watch through the windows as the flakes grow fatter and begin floating like snow in a Currier & Ives print.
Home isn’t so much a place as it is a feeling. When I sit on the couch in the rear of the cabin of my truck, I don’t feel as if I am sitting in a conglomeration of furniture, appliances and possessions that have been contorted into the bowels of the ridiculously small white ice cream truck that I see each day from the outside. Instead, I see the clean lines and angles of wood, carpet and metal that in their regularity protect me from the chaos of the outside world and make me more comfortable as they hold within easy reach all the goods and utilities I consider necessary to my life. Safety, order, comfort and convenience. This is my home, and this is the home I see in my mind when I am away from it. Even when I am in the front of the truck, driving away from a place where I have been parked for a day, I feel as if I am driving away from home, even though my home is following me only a few feet behind. And I will have this away-from-home feeling until I have stopped at another place and am sitting in the place that I see as much in my mind as in my rear view mirror.
In this sense, my home on wheels is connected with all the other homes I have occupied in more conventional structures. Which may help explain the feeling I have two months after the first snowfall in the campground, the day the first blizzard comes. As the powdery snow swirls over the wheel wells, obscuring even the top edge of the skirting, I wonder when I will be free to get to the main road, to the interstate highway and eventually to Connecticut and Diane again. As a child in the winter of 1946, I wonder whether the snow drifting against our house will cover the second-story windows as it has the first. In storms like this, when your breath is taken away by driving wind and dusty snow, you wonder if it will ever stop. Only your memory assures you it will.
Life is not chronology but cycles, not straight lines but circles. This is why our clocks keep coming back to the same hours, our calendars to the same days.
– Sid Leavitt