THERE’S NO SUCH THING as a time machine, of course, and that’s a pity, notwithstanding all the monkeying with time and the photograph-erasing that the movies warn us such devices can visit upon those who would tinker with them. But the chief appeal of the things, I believe, is in their promise of re-familiarizing us with times or events in our lives which exist to us now only as points on a timeline, or sketchy details attached to a photograph, but which have had fade the specific memories, feelings, ideas, and sense experiences that made them so special to us to begin with. In such cases, in the absence (so far as I am aware) of a working model of a time machine, I have found that the next best approximation requires surrounding oneself, for a time, with artifacts of the period in question, so that the collective historical energy of the things – photos, mementos, articles of clothing, pieces of music – might conspire to reinvigorate dormant memories and make it seem as though the events had only just occurred.
As a result, I’m currently sitting in my basement office with a window open to the hot night breeze, listening to Gram Parsons, flipping through a photo album, and wearing a slouchy old Milwaukee Brewers cap, doing my best to jolt some life back into my fast-disappearing memories of the late summer of 2001.
WE WERE SO YOUNG, and it was so hot. A drought had descended on much of the continent, but especially the Midwest and the Great Plains. This, I’m certain, is what recently got me thinking about that summer, searching my mind for a season as dry and hot as the one we are currently experiencing. My love and I were driving west – so far into the West! — from Ottawa, through the northern US and up to Victoria, then back home again across the Canadian prairies. All day we drove, and at night we pitched our tent in state parks and homey KOAs all along the line. We lay down atop our sleeping bags and sweat right through until dawn. The heat was astounding. All day we rolled over blacktop that was like charcoal briquettes. We baked and we fried.
We hit Milwaukee on one such day. We were listening to a Gram Parsons CD set using an adaptor running from an old Sony Discman and into a thingy that fit into the car’s tape deck. My love had given me the CD a day or two earlier, on my birthday. She had somehow smuggled it along on the trip, keeping it concealed from me for hundreds of kilometres. Then, on the morning of my birthday, she simply said, “Reach under the seat” as we sped along a highway somewhere in Illinois or Wisconsin. I did as she said, and there, in a bag, was Gram Parsons.
It was a Saturday afternoon when we rolled into the Cream City, and we had tickets for the Braves and Brewers. It was the FOX Game of the Week. The clamshell roof on brand new Miller Park was open, and the malevolent sun streamed in and right down atop our mezzanine seats on the third base side. We parked in some satellite lot and wandered dazedly through the massive tailgate party for which Milwaukee is famous. Beer and brats everywhere. Shirtless men. Chevy trucks and Korean subcompacts with extreme paint jobs. Hibachis and George Foreman grills, vats of chili burbling, corn on the cob steaming.
Inside, they served our beers in plastic bottles. We stole someone else’s seats to escape the sun. The Brewers were awful. I don’t remember the precise score, but the Braves – the old Milwaukee Braves, who were stolen by Atlanta, but that was only karmic levelling, because Milwaukee had stolen them from Boston first – embarrassed the Brew Crew on national TV. Regardless, I bought a hat, an unstructured cotton deal, fitted. Navy blue, with the white script ‘M’ and, beneath that, the single golden head of barley. There is a photograph of it, somewhere, in one of these dusty albums, sitting atop my head, me standing as we are leaving Miller Park that afternoon, she snapping the photo, no doubt at my request. The monstrous Japanese fan of a roof looms behind me, and over my shoulder, not quite visible in the photo, a man plays a sad lament on a trumpet.
We beat it out of Milwaukee that same afternoon, though the heat followed us. We drove west and somewhere, at some nameless point on the map, we found a KOA where the sunset was gorgeous and the dry grass crunched beneath our feet and rasped as it swayed in the breathless breeze, and we slept damply, uneasily.
In the days that followed — yellowed, super-dried days – we pushed west, deviating from the Interstate and driving the small highways up near the Canadian border, in the flat, sun-blasted landscapes of North Dakota, and Montana, and then Idaho and into Washington State. Of those days I have only fragmentary memories, of places such as Havre and Minot and Great Falls. Richard Ford territory, where he has set so many great stories and a couple of his novels.
Memories such as: in a place called Voltaire, North Dakota, someone was selling an empty church for thirty-seven and a half thousand dollars.
And: in the parking lot of a restaurant (Applebee’s? Chili’s?) in Williston, North Dakota, I stopped in my tracks to take in the wash of colour as the light drained from the largest sky I had ever seen, and nearby the local boys raced their pickup trucks down the impossibly straight highway.
And: eventually losing the Gram Parsons CD somewhere in BC. Thinking that the bag it was in was among the several bags of garbage – takeout containers, newspapers, snack wrappers – that I was discarding in a trash bin out front a convenience store, and tossing it blithely in, then realizing the mistake several hundred kilometres later. Replacing the CD at Record Runner (RIP) on Rideau St. in Ottawa a day or two after we returned home.
The Brewers cap atop my head, her hair in a ponytail, we drove through the merciless drought and listened to Gram Parsons. Another ballgame in Great Falls. Then Spokane, and finally to Seattle where, as I have mentioned before in these pages, I saw Ichiro for the first time. We drove around Puget Sound and up to Port Angeles reciting passages from Carver. A ferry to Victoria, and finally we came to rest on Galiano, in BC’s Gulf Islands, at my brother’s strange house, perched atop its mossy and treed cliff.
THERE IS ALL THAT, and that should be enough. It should be a summer studded with enough great moments and strange, half-remembered places that I would wish to evoke it again, rummaging through boxes and drawers for tokens of those days, assembling the pieces in order to conjure some additional kernel of the experience.
But now consider what came so soon after. Likely you remember where you were on a bright, flawless morning in September of 2001 when somebody called you and told you to turn on the television and see what was happening in New York and Washington. I certainly do: I was losing my shit on the couch of my in-laws’ house in Ottawa, getting ready for a day of classes at Carleton University, where I had resumed my studies. We’d been home from our odyssey only a few weeks. My love was there with me, having taken the morning off work, I believe, to do some mortgage shopping, for we were preparing to buy our first house. Earlier in the summer we had skipped out on the lease of a terrible downtown apartment (I felt and still feel totally justified in doing so — prostitutes used the apartment next to ours; there were roaches beneath our kitchen sink; the supers were a couple in their 70s whose hearing was as good as their property maintenance skills) and put all our things into storage in her folks’ garage before taking off on that road trip.
And on the morning of September 11th, as we showered and ate breakfast and prepared for a pretty normal, albeit exceedingly lovely, Tuesday, her brother called the house and told us to tune into CNN. Then my mother called. We sat and watched and shook our heads, and when the first tower came down I freaked the hell out. I don’t want to dwell much here, but I remember watching the images of the jumpers that they won’t show anymore, and replay after replay of the planes striking the towers.
That was a strange day, as were the ones that followed. I remember thinking that something was going to be different from here on out, though I couldn’t have said just what. Nor could I have known just how different they would be. I couldn’t have anticipated – none of us could – all the terror and absurdity that has come since. All the bullshit. All the deaths, hundreds of thousands of them. All of the hatred. All of the tiny instances where we have felt intruded upon but have said nothing. All of the indignities visited upon the corpse of our civil rights. All of the insane rituals adopted in the name of “security.” All of the inconveniences. All of the complications added to the already complicated act of air travel. All of the venom spewed toward good people and their beliefs. All of the treasonous, criminal, unpardonable acts committed by George W. Bush and his administration. All of the insane things we thought we’d never see but which have, en masse, come to constitute some aspect of “normal” life, circa now.
And the flip side is that I couldn’t have known how quickly the summer of 2001 would begin to distance itself from my mind; how alien it would soon seem. How quaint and unthreatened. How wide open and free.
Do you remember days without Terror Alerts? Do you remember not having heard of Al Qaeda, or Bin Laden, or the Taliban? Do you remember carrying liquids aboard airplanes, or not feeling guilty of something at border crossings, or not considering 24 hour electronic monitoring of your movements a normal thing? I barely do. But when I try, my mind goes to those days immediately before our collective fall, and I locate myself in August of 2001, speeding west in a Saturn coupe through the hot, dry fields, with my love beside me. I think of sitting in the stands in Milwaukee, and Great Falls, and Spokane, and Seattle, without a single care in the world. Can you imagine that?
With all that’s come since, this Brewers cap (I’m wearing it now), faded gray in some places, brown in others, frayed a bit, and the golden thread having lost its shine, is a token of a different time when such a thing was possible. It’s only 11 years old, but it carries about it the strange aura of a relic from a previous century. Everything attached to it has been bathed in an Edenic light, a prelapsarian innocence – sweet, golden, and irretrievable – for by the time this souvenir was only a month old so much of the world in which it was made had begun to alter in ways that we could never have fathomed.
IF I HAD A TIME MACHINE, that’s what I’d go back for: that sense of easy freedom that we had no idea was about to collapse into a pile of rubble in Manhattan – indeed, a sense of freedom that I don’t even think we knew we had. It was as natural to us as breathing. The feeling of being on the Great Plains in suffocating heat and seeing a part of the world for the first time, my love and I, that to us was strange and beautiful and, through the photos and the mementos, in some way ours. A campground in Washington State. A ballgame in Milwaukee. A kiss by a blue, blue river in Montana.
But I have no time machine, and neither do you. We aren’t going back there, no matter who we vote for and which insurgencies are crushed and what restrictions are eased. This is our world now, a perfectly damnable place, but ours, I suppose, to make liveable until our children have their chance to try and correct our innumerable mistakes. But that shouldn’t be taken as an embargo on memories of the world it was until so recently. I see no sin in trying to go back there the only way available to us: with photo albums and videos, postcards and journals, T-shirts brought home, programs from plays, a ticket stub from a county fair, CDs or files of the music that we loved and can still sing along to, and a ballcap that still fits, faded though it is.