The Music of What Happens

Published by Luna Soley ’22
The blinkers stopped working in Kansas. We’d forgotten we needed them. Strawberry-blond stubble of cornfields in the snow and the road so straight it looks like a diagram in perspective drawing. The sky is a washed-out old sheet tucked in too tightly at the corners. We're in Kansas, and we're talking about heaven.

Perrin (Milliken ’22), in the driver’s seat, goes first. There’s something freeing about talking without having to look at each other, but her answer surprises me so much I turn my head.

“Walking around an airport before the flight takes off.” She glances at me and smiles, “You?”

The question “what’s your idea of heaven?” is from a deck of getting-to-know-you cards we brought from her house in Vermont, tucked into a canvas bag between homemade granola and a box of cassettes her dad made for her mom in college. (“If you hear my voice,” he warns us, “turn it off.”) Bringing the cards is somewhat ironic because we already know each other well. Over the past year, cross-country skiing at Pineland and early morning breakfasts in Reed House have morphed into letters and FaceTime calls, then late-night resolutions and stifled laughter from the room we shared in a house of friends taking classes online. As our worlds shift, our friendship calibrates, keeps up. And now we’re driving to Salt Lake City in a borrowed car, in winter, in the middle of a pandemic.

I’m not ready to answer the question yet.

“Why an airport?”

Perrin thinks about it. “Because I still have all the excitement of going on a trip, but I haven’t gotten there yet. My expectations haven’t met reality.”

“I think mine would be waking up early with friends around and everyone else is still asleep.” We’re quiet for a few minutes.

“But this is pretty good too.”

Photo of a rear-view mirrow

When my mother, Jean Hoffman ’79, hitchhiked cross-country in the summer of 1975, the year she matriculated at Bowdoin, things were different. Fleece hadn’t been invented. Composition notebooks cost only fifty-nine cents, as I read off the toast-colored cover of her journal from the trip. Well-intentioned parents might not have let their teenage daughters hitchhike, but if those daughters bought a bus pass and swore to stick to the bus route, well, they had no way of knowing.

My mom and her friend Leslie went because they wanted to see the West, mostly Colorado. They didn’t bring a tent. They did bring refillable peanut butter and jelly squeeze tubes, my grandfather’s yellow vinyl rain slickers, and one book apiece. They also brought Leslie’s fifteen-year-old sister, Eve, which was probably a mistake.

From the trip, not much remains. As Leslie, who is still wavy-haired and blunt, tells me over Zoom, she can’t really remember where she went with my mom and where she went with another friend shortly after.

“We didn’t do any deep thinking about it,” she says. “We just sort of went for it.”

There is my mother’s journal, which stops abruptly in Lake Tahoe after an all-night drive through the Tetons. There is a silver Indian bracelet Leslie bought for her in the Mesa Verde Co. outlet, and which I’ve never seen because she keeps it in her safe deposit box, even though it cost practically nothing. And there are these two women, who remain friends after nearly fifty years.

As I learn from poring over the journal when I get back (reading it in one sitting feels uncannily like an all-day drive), Perrin’s and my trip differed from my mom’s and Leslie’s in a number of ways. Most notably, we had a plan. Unusually, it included a long list of things we would not do, such as:

  1. Buy groceries
  2. Sleep inside
  3. Go inside except for an emergency or to use the bathroom

On the way out to Utah, we would sleep in the back of our friend’s Jeep in the driveways of Bowdoin classmates. Once we picked up Perrin’s car in Salt Lake City, we would camp around the Southwest for a week, dropping her off, COVID-free, at a remote field studies program in Arizona. I would then have four days to make it home to Maine before the start of classes. We were bringing, among other things, ten gallons of water, an enormous Tupperware container of lasagna, a stack of child-sized N-95 masks, and a violet wig.

Luna’s mother, Jean Hoffman ’79, in Colorado on her 1975 road trip.
Luna’s mother, Jean Hoffman ’79, in Colorado on her 1975 road trip.

THURS, 7/10, 1975

Left DC amid hail and sad parents. I feel awake but cold, no real sense of detachment, sadness or excitement. Waiting in bus stations dulls most everything.

On Monday, January 25, 2021, in an upscale Ohio suburb, Perrin and I are awakened at 6:00 by the father of a classmate who finds our car in the driveway en route to the morning paper and considers calling the police. His daughter, whom we know, is away and neglected to tell him we were coming. I open my eyes blearily to a pair of sweatpant-clad legs framed by the rear doorway and the sound of Perrin apologizing profusely over the roof of the car. We spit toothpaste into the privet hedges before I back the car out and accelerate toward the highway. The sky is crushed gray velvet; it starts to rain.

TUES, 7/22, 1975

We’ve just been stopped by a burly cop who “didn’t agree with the law” (allowing hitching in Colorado) and asked to see our I.D. and “if our parents knew where we were.” I wonder if anyone says no?

WED, 1/27, 2021

Lander, Wyoming, is so cold our breath fogs on the windows and freezes into a pattern like it does on old oak leaves in the woods at home. The snow is sparkly and dissolves when I touch it—“hoarfrost,” our friend’s dad corrects. There are horses in the field beyond the house. We eat homemade apple bread off the hood of the car and blow into our hands.

THURS, 1/28, 2021

In Salt Lake, we stop during a blizzard and go Nordic skiing with our friend, the owner of the Jeep, which we’ve by now christened Silvia. The ski area is deserted, and all the rocks are wearing tall soft hats of snow. We slide off one and land chest deep, snow powdering our noses, laughing too hard to get up. I understand that somewhere—a while back, before the bend in the road—I’ve left my worries like an apple core flung out the window. When was it? While listening to Dolly Parton tapes through the crackly speakers in the rain? Crossing time zones in the night and cheering when the odometer ticked past 205,000 miles? When did we stop leaving, and then stop getting somewhere, and start going?

SUN, 7/27, 1975

We’ve set up a makeshift tent with the heavy plastic given us by the couple at Mesa Verde campground. […] This is a beautiful, isolated spot about 9,000’ up in rugged, snow + rock capped mountains. […]

Les, Eve + I are sitting around a little fire, each reading or writing within our tiny ring of pines. To the right is a small, bright green meadow, to our left high, rocky peaks, and pine and aspen forests.

I feel warm, content; happy to be here and with Leslie and Eve.

TUES, 7/29, 1975

I’ve gotten accustomed to roughing it. The dirt no longer bothers me. […]

I think of bed as a warm sleeping bag rather than sometimes wishing for a clean bed.

MON, 2/1, 2021

The New Mexican mountains are creamy brown and secret, scooped out. Like taking a halfeaten pint of coffee ice cream from the freezer in the dark. It’s the first place I’ve been where I think I could live without the ocean. The sun sets blue in the wide, flat plains of grass and on the slopes of the mountains, and we are quiet for hours.

We spend an entire day at White Sands National Park and stray off the path marked by red posts driven into the dunes. Perrin wants to run, and I’d rather walk, so we split up. It’s a bad idea. We’re both out of water, and I didn’t bring my phone. I walk barefoot up and down over the crests of the dunes. I can start to feel my scalp burn under the part in my hair.

To distract myself, I think about a book I’d read that winter, Arabian Sands. The author, a British explorer, spent years living with nomadic tribes in the empty quarter of the Arabian desert between Saudi Arabia and Oman. The men carried little. Coffee, sugar, dates, flour, rice, lard, and guns. A sheepskin or a scrap of carpet to sleep on. They walked barefoot; some slept directly on the sand without a blanket in the freezing nights. Their sleeping patterns were entirely different. Cold in the night, they would wake every few hours to sit and talk, telling the same stories over and over. Conversation was nourishment and warmth.

I think about driving with Perrin, about talking all day in the car. About how I—who so often feel unmoored, who am still a little afraid of driving alone at night—have seen out the window along the shifting roadside always a fixed point on the horizon. Will that sense vanish again, when the trip ends and none of my destinations are as clear as the town we can reach before dark? Have I escaped something out here, or caught up to something instead? My own speeding nature, the quick-drawn map of doubts and desires, the places I’ve doubled back. And the uncertainty always there like a ghost limb, at twenty, the uncertainty that I’m doing the right thing.

For the first time, I think about my mother. Remember her mentioning the road trip she took with her friend. What did she think about, staring out the window? Did she wonder about Bowdoin, about the future?

Luna Soley ’22 in White Sands, New Mexico, February 2021.
Luna Soley ’22 in White Sands, New Mexico, February 2021.

 

Suddenly it feels very important that I find Perrin. We should never have split up. I start to jog. The sand, which gave way beneath my feet while walking, hardens on impact, and I move more easily. Just as I’m starting to really worry, I see the car from the top of my dune, and pound my heels in and somersault down the face, whooping, sand dusting my knuckles and forearms like powdered sugar. Moments later, miraculously, Perrin appears at the edge of the parking lot.

THURS, 7/24, 1975

The dunes are incredible. Sandwiched against the high, rugged Sangre de Cristo mountains and another range, on the edge of a broad, flat desert, they are a chunk of Arabia surrounded by Colorado mountains. The sunset was beautiful over the dunes. First an orange blob, then the entire area glowed bright red. The desert was shrouded in pink mists. As the sun sank behind the dunes, straight yellow-white rays pointed out from where the sun had been. We climbed the dunes today and I was freshly amazed at their size, location, steepness and mere existence. Apparently they shifted considerably last night, as the wind was fierce and cold through narrow mountain passes.

We intended to climb the highest dune, but went up a closer huge one instead. The ascents were terrible. The steepness, wind, heat and ever shifting sand made a modified pigeon stance necessary. Going down was great, I ran, fell, and ran again, flopping down at the bottom.

TUES, 7/29, 1975

I still think largely in terms of the future and grand designs. […] I have great difficulty in living for the moment and experience.

WED, 2/3, 2021

In Arizona, we whiz past signs for the Grand Canyon without a second thought. The Piña Colada song comes on the radio. Perrin cranks it up.

“Stop,” I yell. “This song is so dumb!”

“I want to get married to this song!” She’s dancing; my hands are over my ears.

“Why?!” She turns it down.

“Have you ever listened to the lyrics?”

I hadn’t.

I was tired of my lady
We’d been together too long
Like a worn out recording
Of a favorite song
So while she lay there sleepin’
I read the paper in bed
And in the personal columns
There was this letter I read

If you like piña coladas
And gettin’ caught in the rain
If you’re not into yoga
If you have half a brain
If you like makin’ love at midnight
In the dunes on the cape
Then I’m the love that you’ve looked for
Write to me and escape.

“It’s about appreciating what you have,” she explains. “Anyway, I’ve always loved that song.”

“Perrin?” I ask.

“Yeah?”

“Do you think this is a bit like walking around the airport before the flight takes off? The road trip?”

We think about that.

THURS, 2/4, 2021

The first night after dropping Perrin off, I drive as far as I can into Santa Fe National Forest and pull into a trailhead parking lot. I’m less nervous about sleeping in the car alone than I am about meeting the editor of a magazine in Santa Fe the next morning—mostly what I will do about my hair. I’m so exhausted I fall asleep hemmed in by luggage in the back of the car, barely bothering to make space for my sleeping pad.

Headlights wake me, then the sound of gravel crunching under another car’s wheels. It’s far too late for this to be an innocent hiking trip. I don’t move, suddenly grateful I never cleaned out the back of the car last night. Maybe they won’t see me at all. Voices. I can’t tell if they’re male or female. Then two sets of footsteps, moving away. I ease open the door and step out onto the snow in my socks without turning on a light. I tiptoe over to the car. There is a box of strawberry seltzers in the back seat, fleeces, a flannel shirt. I walk around to look at the license plate. It’s from Maine.

I have breakfast with them in the morning. They’re making oatmeal, too. Two women my age. One is from Vermont, near Perrin’s hometown, the other from Maine. They’ve just dropped a friend off at a semester program in Arizona, near the border.

SUN, 2/7, 2021

On the drive back to Portland from DC, it snows the whole way. Like the road doesn’t want me to leave. In Connecticut, I pull off the highway and sleep in a Lowe’s parking lot until the roads are cleared. I’m hungry and tired, already too late to make the last ferry home. I see a lit-up McDonald’s sign further down the strip and burst out laughing. Of course, there is only one fitting way to end my great American road trip, alone and driving through a blizzard. I pull into the drive-in and order number one on the menu, a Big Mac meal.

Hands slick with ketchup, driving one-handed up I-95 in the dark and onslaught of snow, something settles in me. Somehow, instinctively, I’d known that driving more than 7,000 miles was exactly what I needed to feel ready to come home. To face another semester online, and then my final year of college, not always wanting to be somewhere I wasn’t.

I had thought that all those trips to the gas station might fill something in me, a reservoir of new experiences. Instead, it was all the time together in the car with Perrin that had done it. Where we were going—that didn’t really matter at all. Being together made the view out the window enough.

That song comes on the radio again. This time, I turn it up.

I remember a story a professor told me in an English class once, a passage she paraphrased from an Irish folktale. In it, the legendary warrior Finn MacCumhaill is talking with his men—one night around the fire, we imagined—about music. They wonder what the sound of the most beautiful music is. Is it this instrument, or that one? It gets later, their answers more abstract. Is it the sound of the wind in the trees, or the waves on the shore? No, says Finn, it’s the music of what happens. That is the most beautiful music of all. 

So I waited with high hopes
And she walked in the place
I knew her smile in an instant
I knew the curve of her face

It was my own lovely lady
And she said “Oh, it’s you”
Then we laughed for a moment
And I said “I never knew
That you like piña coladas
And gettin’ caught in the rain
And the feel of the ocean
And the taste of champagne

The story of my mother’s trip, and of mine, is a tune that sticks long after I’ve lost the words. Raindrops racing each other down the sides of the tent, the things you talk about when you talk to keep yourself awake. It’s the harmonies I remember. Connection, and shared experience. Those were the sunsets that pooled in potholes on the road like molten gold, and the silver bracelet.

Looking through my mom’s journal from the trip after I get back, I find loose papers tucked in between the pages. A poem Leslie wrote her, a postcard from a friend—and an entry written a year later from a weekend spent alone at the old family home in Rhode Island.

Friday, May 28, 1976, it reads:
I miss Bowdoin. I miss Karen, John, Haste, Amy, Tony, Toni, Maevis, Donald, Mac, Steve, Migs, Jim, Donald, Mark, Allison, Boi Boi, the Betas, the Union, Taster’s Choice with 3 doinks, rain, the chapel, anti-WASPS, the 5th floor, Coleman first floor right, the door—all (or lots) of it.

I miss Bowdoin.


Luna Soley ’22 is from Peaks Island, Maine. She is an English major, a sea kayaker and a sailor, and a contributor to Outside magazine. For her next road trip, she wants to take the Trans-Siberian Railway.


Bowdoin Magazine, Spring/Summer 2021

 

This story first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.