ONE AFTERNOON, ten years ago, my grandmother looked out her kitchen windows toward the mountains and said, “Jesus, I never want to be the kind of person who sleeps in hotels. That would just make me feel so goddamn old.” She was seventy-seven and would die before the next summer, but neither of us knew it then. That day, in her kitchen, in Vermont, we were drinking cheap red wine, watching the wild roses bloom beyond the sill, and praising sleeping by the sides of roads. For thirty years my grandmother toured the country as a folksinger in a series of rusty vans my grandfather had converted into campers. The first versions were Volkswagen buses, but eventually those became too coveted so they took to buying secondhand Dodge vans and decking them out with a foldout bed, a pop-top, and a refrigerator. She drove them to gigs, to folk festivals, and to Tucson each winter. Her bedding was a beloved down sleeping bag and a Snoopy pillow someone had left at her house ten years earlier. The ambiance was night sky, crickets, highway, dust, rain, creosote bush, train whistle.
My grandmother came by her penchant for migrant, al fresco living naturally. Her stepfather had worked for the National Forest Service, and for a handful of years they’d lived in a tent in the Mogollon Rim of Arizona. She used to tell me she would fall asleep at night listening to coyotes yipping and to the cowboys, who were hired by the Forest Service, singing love songs around their fires.
She passed the habit along to my father, and to me. My childhood vacations involved six-hundred-mile road trips in a Volkswagen Rabbit. My parents often drove through the night en route to Arizona, or New Mexico, or British Columbia, but sometimes around midnight or two a.m. they’d pull over by the side of the road and set up a tent in the dark. We slept near wetlands and in pesticide-laden fields and far too close to train tracks. One night, in western Texas, they took us up a long dirt track and pitched our tent in a gravel pit; a half hour later we woke to pickup trucks, splintering bottles, and gunfire.
A month before my grandmother died, while driving home from a gig in the middle of the night, she realized that she didn’t know where she was, that she didn’t know where she was going, that something was wrong with her brain. She began to cry but didn’t pull over. Her body knew the back roads home and led her to her farmhouse on the hill. She died in that house with us by her side; through the open windows came bird song and the scents of decay and mud and lilacs in bloom.
What did she love so about sleeping out-of-doors? What is it about hotels that made her feel so old? I think: air, risk, the dissolution of the boundaries between the self and the world outside the self. Those fields one drives into, those farmers who wake you in the morning, tapping politely on your window to make sure you’re alive, those creeks one discovers, with their swimming holes and creatures and music. I think: what a way to know the world, the walls thin, porous, the body vulnerable to peepers, crickets, trains, gunshot, the ever-looming highway, the age-old companionship of moon. I’ve known terror on those roadsides, but astonishing splendor too. Aren’t the two most often joined?