It used to be Mykaela and Emre, gallivanting around the world wherever Emre’s job as Consular Officer in the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took them – Budapest, Ankara, Tokyo, Yangon, Barcelona, Addis Ababa. Now, Mykaela, after nearly 27 years of marriage, found herself setting out on a road trip from Virginia to the Four Corners area with a Japanese man she barely knew except through a brief exchange on a Tokyo train and an ensuing email correspondence.
After passing a pink silo with black polka dots at Lucketts along Route 15, they crossed the Potomac River over a blue low-slung bridge at Point of Rocks, Maryland. Mykaela was leaving behind Virginia, and her husband. Not permanently, she told herself, not yet anyway.
Emre, sunk in a deep depression from which he had no will to extricate himself, refused to leave their house in Leesburg, Virginia, where they’d lived for the last ten years. After seventeen years living abroad, they’d returned to northern Virginia in 2008 so Mykaela could look after her father, who was suffering from early stages of Parkinson’s disease in a nursing home in Winchester.
As they crossed the bridge, Moby sang, from Mykaela’s Spotify playlist, “In this darkness, please light my way.” She thought how strange it was that song lyrics often wafted into her life as outer reflections of her inner turmoil.
Her traveling companion, Atsushi, was dressed impeccably for this road trip to the Four Corners area, while she had thrown on the most comfortable stretchy pants and shirt she could find for today’s nine-hour drive to Indiana. It seemed he’d be uncomfortable in those neatly pressed chinos and polo shirt, but who was she to criticize? No matter what, she would seek to understand. After all, he’d lost his son Jiro last May in Grand Junction, Colorado. In what was an apparent hate crime, he had been shot and killed and his body shipped back to Tokyo. His parents had never seen the scene of the crime and hadn’t even had the chance to visit him at Colorado Mesa University where Jiro was attending school, although they had planned to visit the following fall.
When Atsushi found out by email that Mykaela was going to the Four Corners area to visit her daughter and her mother and to seek inspiration for her quilt art, Atsushi had asked if he could accompany her so he could visit Grand Junction, see the scene of the crime, and try to understand the gun culture in America. He practically begged her, as he didn’t feel confident enough to drive on the right side in America. His wife Chiaki couldn’t accompany him because of her office job with a construction company in Tokyo. In her attempt to escape her overwhelming grief, she was immersing herself in long hours at work. Besides, she was afraid to come to a country where gun-toting outlaws seemed to roam the streets. Atsushi told Mykaela that Chiaki was rarely home anymore, spending long hours either in the office or out with her women friends, eating elaborate meals and drinking too much sake. She had become obese, Atsushi said, with what Mykaela thought was baffled disappointment.
As they drove through Maryland, lavender redbuds lined the roadway. Daffodils greeted them at the South Mountain Welcome Center. Mykaela got out at the rest stop to use the bathroom, while Atsushi sat in the car, studying the map. She was embarrassed that this was her second bathroom stop already in only two hours. Coffee always seemed to run right through her in the mornings.
Mykaela felt like they were alighting across the country inside a cozy cocoon. Driving her weathered pine green 1995 Jeep Cherokee, still dependable after all these years, she felt like a rough-and-tumble adventurer. She looked forward to taking the jeep off-road in New Mexico and Arizona.
Atsushi seemed mesmerized by the white barns and rolling hills of western Maryland. Mykaela sought to distract Atsushi from his grief by asking him to look up the state symbols on his phone as they crossed borders. She asked him to find the bird, flower and insect of Maryland. After searching on his phone, Atsushi read aloud that the flower was the black-eyed Susan, the bird the Baltimore oriole, and the insect the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly. Mykaela said there had been a period when she was obsessed with butterfly, bird and flower motifs in her elaborate quilts. Part of her obsession came about after she’d seen the movie Georgia O’Keefe and then had studied and tried to emulate the artist’s evocative flower paintings.
“I’d love to be at a dinner party with either Georgia O’Keefe or someone like Mabel Dodge Luhan,” she told her traveling companion. “She was an art patron who appointed herself the ‘savior of humanity.’ She let artists live in her sprawling Taos, New Mexico lodgings, people like Ansel Adams, O’Keefe, Willa Cather, but then I don’t suppose you know of them.”
“Yes, I know Ansel Adams. He’s the black & white photographer, yes?”
“You know him? Well, he’s not black and white, but many of his photos are.”
Atsushi looked baffled. Mykaela smiled.
“If you could choose anyone in the world, who would you choose as a dinner guest?”
He didn’t hesitate. “John Denver. Besides my favorite songwriter and singer, he also made friendship between East and West. He was photographer too.”
They drove over the Conococheague Creek, a tributary of the Potomac, translated from the Delaware Indian term meaning “many-turns-river.” She spelled it out for Atsushi to write down and challenged him to pronounce it. His English wasn’t bad at all, as he’d learned how to sound out syllables, although sometimes he got the verb sounds wrong.
Often they were quiet on the drive, looking out the window at the stubbled fields and place names: Whitetail Ski Resort, Clear Spring, Indian Springs, Big Pool. Connie Britton from the Nashville TV series cast sang, “Pour Me Something Stronger than Me,” and Mykaela thought that if only she weren’t driving, she’d like a drink, just so she could relax more around Atsushi.
When Emre had served his term as Hungarian consular officer in Tokyo from 2000-2002, Mykaela had fallen in love with Japan and with Asian fabrics. She’d bonded with several Japanese women who also loved textiles. She had gone back to Tokyo to visit her friends in 2016, and they had perused yukata stores, buying the summer cotton kimonos to cut up and use for quilts. One day she’d met her friends in Yokohama, and they’d spent the day shopping for fabrics and eating conveyor belt sushi.
After parting ways with them, she had taken the train back to Sakuragicho Station, where she had to change to the JR Yokohama green line. She wasn’t positive she was on the right train when she got on, so she asked a short balding man sitting directly across from her: “Machida?” He introduced himself as Atsushi. He spoke decent English. He asked her where she was from and what she was doing in Japan. Since he was speaking to her across the train, he asked if he could sit beside her. He was dressed in proper business attire: white shirt, tie, black suit; he informed her he had spent the day at the National Convention Hall at a medical products convention. He was in sales — medical imaging technology — and told Mykaela about technologies for curing cancer such as cryo-ablation — freezing of tumors — and RFA — Radio Frequency Ablation, or burning of tumors. He said both treatments resulted in the tumor dissolving, due to a person’s normal body temperature combined with the treatment. Mykaela wondered why this technology wasn’t saving people’s lives already and why she had never heard of it.
They talked the entire time back to Machida, about all kinds of things, including his love for John Denver. He told her as they neared her stop, with exasperation but humor, that talking to her all that time had exhausted him; he wasn’t used to thinking and speaking so much in English. To Mykaela, he seemed quite natural at it, but she remembered how much she’d had to concentrate to follow even the simplest conversations while living with Emre in his posts around the world. Atsushi said he had clients all over the world from Western and Asian countries, so he was actually used to speaking English, although it still required great concentration.
At one point during the train ride, Atsushi had asked Mykaela for her email address. When she got up to get off the train, he said that the 1-hour train ride back from Yokohama seemed much shorter because of their conversation. She had thought the email exchange might lead to an invitation to his house to meet his family, or to a lunch or dinner meeting, since she’d told him she’d be in the country for two more weeks. But then he said something that annoyed her, “Welcome anytime to Japan. Please contact me if you return.”
She got off the train and grabbed a bite to eat at a basement restaurant that served sushi and yakatori, accompanied by sake and beer. She had never heard from him again during her stay in Japan, but about six months later, he started writing to her by email in his slightly broken English. Sometimes she could tell he used Google translate as the Japanese was written above with the English translation, somewhat disjointed, below.
Mykaela asked Atsushi to get her a pink grapefruit Perrier out of the cooler, and she sipped it as they listened to “An Outlaw State of Mind” while rolling past a runaway truck ramp. Later, as they drove through Allegheny County, the Eagles sang, “Take it Easy,” and she was surprised to hear Atsushi sing along, “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.” He was a good singer, but that shouldn’t have surprised her as he’d told her on that long-ago train ride that he used to be in a band, called Naname No, which translated, maybe poorly, to “Oblique.”
They passed through Flintstone and some roadkill in the median strip – a mangled deer, a racoon with its dead eyes staring out from black rings. Mountainsides had been cut or blasted away and a herd of black cows grazed in a green hollow. Mykaela’s ears clogged with the change in elevation and she held her nose and puffed out her cheeks to ease the pressure in her ears.
Orange flags signaled roadwork as they drove through Cumberland. Two lanes merged to one and the traffic slowed. Mykaela looked out over all the church spires in Cumberland as they slowly crawled past the town on the highway.
“An old college roommate of mine lives in Cumberland. She became a psychologist,” Mykaela said. “I lived with her for a while and she was always analyzing me. I found it so annoying. We haven’t spoken in years.”
“What if we dropped in to her?” Atsushi asked. “You could connect again. I think always good to keep lines open.”
“I don’t think so,” said Mykaela, who thought he had some nerve suggesting such a thing when he was estranged from his own daughter. In their emails, Atsushi had revealed to Mykaela that he had stopped speaking to his 24-year-old daughter Sayuri because she had moved in with a lanky blonde English teacher from Canada without marrying him. Atsushi had never met the young man but had seen them at Shibuya Crossing one day holding hands.
Mykaela wondered why she and Lilly had dropped out of each other’s orbit. She remembered when all the boys in college thought Lilly so sexy and wild because she often got drunk and danced on bar tables. She was quite exotic, being half Korean, even though she was big-boned.
After the closed lanes opened up, they passed Haystack Mountain and a wind farm on a ridge past Frostburg. A billboard advertised GOD’S ARK OF SAFETY CHURCH. The end of a white barn painted with a four-square quilt pattern of topsy-turvy pine trees caught Mykaela’s eye, and she thought of her own quilting practice and her grandmother who taught her to sew and instilled in her a love of sewing and of textiles in general. She was happiest as a child in the company of her grandmother as her own mother was too self-involved in either her crystals or strange spiritual practices.
As they passed Big Savage Mountain, they crossed over the Eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of 2610 feet. Mykaela explained this marked the watershed to the Atlantic Seaboard. Atsushi at first didn’t understand the word but Mykaela explained that melted snow or rain either flowed down from this high point east into the Atlantic Ocean or west into the Gulf of Mexico. Water from both sides of this divide eventually ended up in the Atlantic. She said later, in Colorado, they’d cross the Great Divide, where, on the far side, water flowed to the west into the Pacific.
More names passed outside the window: Meadow Mountain, Grantsville, Friendsville, and Deep Creek Lake. Rusty vehicles lay strewn all atumble at a hillside junkyard.
Dan Seals sang “God must be a cowboy at heart. He made wide open spaces from the start” as they passed Pig’s Ear Road. Atsushi didn’t know the song, but kept pressing replay to get the words. When John Denver started singing “Rocky Mountain High,” he sang along, serenading either his absent wife, or some long lost love. Maybe he was even serenading Mykaela.
She had never cared for John Denver, but listening to Atsushi sing the lyrics, they felt them take root in her: “Coming home to a place he’d never been before / He left yesterday behind him / You might say he was born again.”
She wondered if she might be born again if she left yesterday behind her. She knew she was on borrowed time, at least until she had a clear sign indicating what she should do with the rest of her life.
This post is the beginning of a novel I intend to write that is set on a road trip to the Four Corners area. It will likely take me a good year to write this novel at a pace of three pages each weekday. I’ll post the first two rough chapters, broken up into two parts each (four posts in total) on my blog. After that, I’ll continue the novel on my own with hopes of either publishing or self-publishing it.
This is the first draft of what will be many drafts. I’m not satisfied with it and will revise it endlessly, but for now I made a deadline, so here it is! I was inspired to write this after reading Jim Harrison’s fictional road trip novel, The English Major. The setting in my novel will be set in the places of my actual journey, but the characters and the plot are fictional.
Part 2 of Chapter 1 will post on Tuesday, June 26.
I’ve been intrigued by the idea of writing fiction set in travel destinations for some time, as well as the idea of “Bringing a character to …”
“ON JOURNEY” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about the journey itself for a recently visited specific destination. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments. Include the link in the comments below by Tuesday, July 17 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Wednesday, July 18, I’ll include your links in that post. My next post will be the first half of Chapter 2 of my fictional road trip.