American Sabbatical 001: 8/27/96


We set off with a flurry of hornbeeps and handwaves on a sultry August afternoon. Going to find America. We’d stuffed our little red Festiva with all the necessary ingredients, we hoped, hugged friends, family, and the dogs, and headed west.

(Photo by Jo Mussomeli)

Actually, north and west. We were determined to take byroads across the continent, and were slipping out Maine’s backdoor, through Bethel into the White Mountains, and overhill to Vermont. But we couldn’t even make a clean getaway from Bowdoinham. There was Carlo pulling mailart from his box on the Old Post Road, and we had to stop for a hurrah-dance, and the tears we were welling-up to. Goodbye, goodbye.

Our escape route also went through my father’s dooryard in Litchfield, and we paused again, for a stirrup-cup and fond farewells. Between departure excitement and separation anxiety we were a couple of confused voyageurs. Grinning and shaking we took the left-hand fork at Purgatory, and got on the road to.. U.S. History? The American Myth? The National Landscape?

Peggy had a year-long sabbatical from teaching America Studies at Freeport High School. She was committed to traveling to places she teaches about, and others she’d like to. To get a sense of the whole historic turf. I had just closed a gallery show of mythic sculptures, A Spirit Procession, and was hoping to encounter images from the American mythos. We both intended to draw or paint the passing scene, to keep our hands and eyes in sync.


(Photo by Jo Mussomeli)



We had agreed to stay in touch with the Freeport schools via E-mail, to engage in dialogue with students, teachers, and townspeople, by way of the community computer net. And our online friends would track us via the internet. This was going to be a cyber-journey, too, but we were total novices in nerdom. We'd gotten a mail-order laptop (Mac Powerbook) and modem only last week, used a borrowed diskette to log-on with AOL, and didn’t have a clue. But we were off.


Our quest had really begun a year before, when Peggy applied for a sabbatical, and she’d fought for it through three proposals and some union politicking. It had been nine years since the school system had given one, although sabbaticals were in the union contract, and Peggy had promised to be a teacher-by-puter in order to get the nod. Meanwhile I’d read my way through travelers’ journals in the Bowdoin College stacks, and was steeped in first-person accounts of the New World, from Capt. John Smith to Blue Highways. On departure we were packing a bundle of texts, from The Journal of a Mountain Man, by James Clyman, to the Readers’ Digest Encyclopedia of American History, a clutch of old National Geographic maps, and a TripleA road atlas. We hoped to be as wide-eyed as Smith and Clyman, but needed some texts to touch, and a roadmap.

Packing had been a study in radical triage. We intended to camp out as much as possible, expected to see mountain snows, desert sizzle, rainforest drip, and wanted to be ready for any mechanical malfeasance by our Korean-made carriage, so our pile of clothes and equipment was a towering mound. We found six industrial plastic tubs at Mardens, our regional oddlot dealer, which nested perfectly, three abreast, behind the front seats. We took out the back seat, and proceeded to fill the tubs and nooks up to the window level. It took us a week of shuffling to bring our load down to snuff.

(All photos by Bryce and Peggy
unless otherwise identified.)

Our son, Seth, had recently returned from the road, and he supplied us with useful tools and advice, roadtapes, and the promise to take care of home while we were away. He and Klara, his traveling companion, were driving a VW Camper, and they thought our cramped buggy was a hoot. But we’d decided that the cost of a van would buy a lot of motel rooms on rainy nights, and this was definitely going to be the budget tour. Peggy was on half-pay, and I wouldn’t produce any income at all on the road. We hoped a loaded Festiva would still be good on mileage.

Seth and Klara are practicing vegetarians, and we were leaving them a gardenful of greenstuff. Tomatoes just coming on, cukes fingering out, acres of salad. Klara had never had a garden, and her delight at digging new potatoes almost made up for the thought that we would have to root around in local markets for fresh produce. We did dig some heads of fresh garlic and sat them on the dash to spice up our forage. The dash was looking like a car shrine, anyhow. Carvings, feathers, flowers, art supplies, a compass, clips for notes, maps, and et cet, all spilling out of a fitted dash container lashed to the airvents. We looked like a couple of space cadets strapped into a roving module.


Before we took off we had indulged in some departure rituals. On Sunday we had gone down to Popham Beach, at the mouth of the Kennebec, where our local river goes to sea. There we met with the Torberts, who were about to set off on a similar quest, to Spain. We’d all turned 50 this year, and were confronting those ridgetop questions. Where does the road go, once you are over the hill? How do you reinvent yourself when the old R&D goes haywire? How do you keep teaching when your boosters are burned out?

It was one of those magic Maine afternoons at Popham. Sunlight glinting on granite, smoky southwester fading the distant edge. The tide was dead low. Sparkling runoff rippled across the sands. Jim and I plunged into the brine for an initiatory ablution, bellowed, and swore we’d both do it again on the other side. Me in the Pacific, he in the Mediterranean.

(drawing by Bryce)

We were at a gateway of American history. Capt. John charted these waters, Cartier remarked on the tidal anomalies up the Sasanoa, and the Popham Colony predated Jamestown. These were the waters where Bristol fishermen had caught and “made” their fish, long before the “discoverers” arrived. The fishermen’s camps on Damariscove Island, just offshore, where crewmen wintered-over to hold the best curing berths, were the first English settlements along this Maine. Like the first arrivals, we were headed into terra incognita, upriver, and overhill. Our odometer rolled up 99,000 miles as we left Popham for the back of beyond.


We got lost before we were out of state. Somewhere between Purgatory and Turner, we sliced or hooked, and ended in the rough. We’d taken this path dozens of times, and it was tricky, but lost? Fortunately we had a compass, and the watersheds to guide us. We sniffed our way downhill to the Androscoggin, and salmoned upstream to the headwaters. It was raining on the tops, and Mount Adams looked on fire, with plumes of mist blowing through the valleys. We were a bit misty ourselves. Not really ready to cross any great divides, but now committed to follow the trail, wherever.


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