Geographers often refer to spatial phenomenon as being represented by point, line or area symbols, depending on their areal extent, whether there is directionality to them, or other characteristics. I recently completed a road trip that took me through areas, following a line of the route, but encountering points along the way.
The trip started at my home north of Boston with my older daughter who flew in to help me drive west to Michigan. We had two choices for a route lines, one along the south shore of Lake Erie along the northern edge of Ohio or another through Ontario. The Ontario route was shorter, but required taking a risk of long waits at the border crossing points. We took our chances.After following the Erie Canal route across New York, we crossed into Ontario at Niagara Falls.
While Niagara Falls is a destination point, it actually is part of the Niagara escarpment which crosses across southern Ontario, northward creating the Bruce Peninsula and a line of islands. This is a ridge of hard dolomite that shapes the areas on either side of it. As my daughter and I drove along Lake Ontario through the fruit belt of Ontario, the escarpment was on our left, the lake on our right, and the fruit in the small area in between where a unique micro-climate exists.My daughter had been in kindergarten when we had lived in Ontario for a few months. Now she was driving me across the landscape. I asked about her memories of that time—did she remember visiting the peach orchard in the fruit belt?
As I looked around me, I saw all the elements that represented the region for me—green barns and Tim Horton coffee shops. I wondered if I could have ever come to be a Canadian and wondered what kind of emotional attachment I would have had to the region if I had sought a different life on that side of the border.
When one traffic lane disappears and merges into another in Ontario, a mysterious event happens—in the U.S., the middle line disappears as you merge to the left—in Ontario the two lines meet. This took me weeks to figure out when I lived in Ontario. I would find myself totally confused and not able to identify why—two lines were not supposed to meet! So during this trip I just sat and watched what happened to my daughter as she was driving in the right lane and it started to merge with the next lane on the left. Sure enough—she screamed as she tried to figure out how to merge without crossing a line. I was entertained.
We arrived in West Michigan for my younger daughter’s graduation from Calvin College. I have lived most of my adult life with Dutch North Americans—areas of settlement across North America, interconnected by lines of migration. In many ways, I probably identify or at least see “normality” in this ethnic group and their communities—Dutch names, jokes about Canadians (the migration crosses the border), conservative libertarian politics, high levels of education. The pot holes and Middle Eastern food of West Michigan also made me feel at home. But in looking at the names of the list of board of trustees and graduates at my daughter’s graduation, I again wondered about my relationship to these places in which I had invested so much. I’m always a translator between regions—between Canada and the U.S., between Dutch Reformed and other groups. So is it like a colleague recently said to me—“the irony of my career teaching Spanish is that I can never, by the nature of not being born as a Spanish-speaker, become an expert in my field.” When you are a translator between, in which space do you stand? Or can between-ness in itself be an identity?
In West Michigan I picked up my mother, my younger daughter, and a family friend from Illinois where I grew up. We began our road trip back toward Boston, along a route that involved points. Often you think of a linear route as one directional, but in some sense the linear route took us back and forth through time, somewhat like Dr. Who.
We stopped overnight south of Indianapolis to intersect with friends from Central Illinois who met us there—friends who had known me since I was eight years old.
We stopped in Morgantown, WV to have coffee with a friend who I had known in Minnesota in graduate school—we have geographer-colleagues spread across the world with the University of Minnesota as our point of reference. We stopped in Pennsylvania at a meeting spot to have dinner with a couple who I had known for 30 years—they had visited me in Iowa and in Michigan and I had seen them at my geography meetings regularly. I had gotten to know their son in the past 10 years and he ended up living in Hong Kong when I lived there. We had breakfast in State College, PA with friends who had lived in my building in Hong Kong just two years ago.
Points, time, and lines intersecting along our route.
Our route took us through Appalachia where I left my daughter at Mt. Laurel, WV to work with a couple of catholic nuns who work in educational programs in a remote area.
Driving through the narrow valleys and coal areas of the Cumberland plateau intersected with some of my earliest memories. When I was 5 years old we lived in North Carolina. I can remember traveling from the flat region of the Midwest to the area of windy roads of the Appalachians—I can almost feel the big trucks on the narrow roads. I can still see a girl who came to visit who had part of her family in the hospital from an accident on one of these narrow roads with a truck. I recall the smoke of coal in coal mines abandoned yet still smoking from fires. I can hear the voices. I can almost feel my five year old self in a strange region.
My younger daughter’s future intersected with my past.
Finally we reached home (my home). But then we made one more short trip. My mother and I went to New Hampshire to meet someone who grew up in my home town who now lives in Maine. We met at a middle point on the route between. We talked about people who tied us together in the distant past in a place where our lives intersected long ago.
Points of intersection. Areas of influence. Routes along the way. And the people who have shared parts of the journey and given us depth and dimension.