After a relentless winter this year’s spring seems hesitant. I realized as I hooked up the trailer to depart for this year’s Million Bees Roadtrip I would be heading out of New England and hoped to be heading toward a less reluctant springtime. In Maine the earth is having difficulty shaking off the icy ache and stretching its limbs; mornings still have a distinct chill. Even on the nicest days there has been a frequent and bitter afternoon wind that spoils my planned enjoyment of a cool gin and tonic in the evening. My crocuses and daffodils came almost two weeks late but the tulips popped dutifully on time right around Mother’s Day. Take heart Mainers, look for the little red/green tips of knotweed pushing through the soil; summer is coming our way.
Previous visitors to this venue know I have an exceeding fondness for long, solo drives. On this journey my bodiless company are Bill Bryson and Vladimir Nabokov (read by the incomparable Jeremy Irons.) On last year’s trip I discovered the companionship of Bryson and found nothing passes the time quite like convulsive laughter. One of the students in my winter beekeeping class recommended his Australian journal “In a Sunburnt Country” and I have been looking forward to it ever since. [Disclosure: My teenage daughter is presently living in Australia and I have a new-found love for and curiosity about our colonial cousins down under.] I’m interspersing that story with the CD version of “Lolita,” which may seem an odd choice; many people get hung up on the disturbing pedophilia. I will admit the perversity of the story has more poignancy than when I read the book in my twenties, now that I’m a father of two girls. But the near-poetic descriptions of the peculiarities that shape America are a delight, especially when the story becomes a roadtrip tale of its own. It’s not hard to understand how a Russian-born writer could find the rhythm and imagery of another nation but it is amazing to hear the lyrical prose, rippled with alliteration and rhyme, and realize he was writing in his second language. So with my two disparate companions, one charming and the other perverse, I drove away from Maine and began spying signs of spring in Massachusetts. The ground was a bit further along in the change from brown to green, the first of the roadside hawthorn trees had begun to bloom, and the knotweed was a little taller.
A few hours later in Connecticut I started to see dandelions blooming in earnest but I was distracted because the closer I got to New York the more I had to pay attention to one of the top three challenges of a long solo drive: navigation. This challenge has been lessened greatly in the last several years by the easy availability of GPS navigators. Since the arrival of my trusty TomTom I have become very lax at pre-trip planning. Most of my driving these days is in Maine and there simply aren’t that many options for roads to a far off place. Right in the heart of the long expanses of open highway between Maine and Kentucky is the jumbled mess of roads around New York City. My GPS wants to insist the best way to traverse it includes the Cross Bronx Expressway, which is, to say the least, inappropriately named. There is nothing express about it. I know there is a way to trick the GPS into taking me across the Tappan Zee bridge but I can never remember what it is. (Aside: if you can work it out, arrange some time to be on the Tappan Zee during the mysterious time between the inbound and outbound rush hours. The bridge has a moveable center divider that is manipulated by a vehicle that seems right out of an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki.)
I pulled off to the side of the road and brought out a stack of maps to try to make sense of the next leg of the journey. As I puzzled at the jumble and realized NYC is a little like New England in that you have about a dozen equally inconvenient ways to get from one point to another I was surprised by a dark form at my driver’s window. A Connecticut State Trooper had come up to check if everything was okay. Not very long ago the sight of a state trooper at my window would have made me nervous but now I was fixated on his pimply skin and unintimidatingly boyish expression. I guess it’s a sign I’m getting older, or perhaps that I haven’t committed anything near to a crime in longer than I can remember. He said, “do you know the taillights on your trailer aren’t working?” And I now had to add to my navigational quandary finding a repair shop for trailer hitch connections. He sent me on my way and I pulled soon after into a garage staffed by two guys whose thick New York accents reassured me that if it could be fixed, they would fix it. It turned out, after a thorough testing, exploration, and re-testing, the problem is with my car and I need a part from a Honda dealer. As I drove on toward New Jersey, Meghan, at Command and Control at The Honey Exchange found a shop and made an appointment where I planned to spend the night before picking up the bees – Elizabethtown, Kentucky. It seems prudent to have brake lights and turn signals when one is towing a trailer filled with a million bees.
In New Jersey the earth was greener and there were stunning purple trees blooming I could not identify and the knotweed was knee-high. By Pennsylvania I noticed the grass had grown to a lush green carpet and the late afternoon was filled with the wholesome, earthy smell of manure on the cropland. In the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania I slipped in my CD of Beck’s lush “Morning Phase” to usher in nightfall. If you are planning a long drive I strenuously encourage you to bring that album along. It may go down in history as some of the best roadtrip music ever recorded.
My goal for the day was to get past where Maryland shakes hands with West Virginia and find a hotel when I got road-weary. But when I stopped to search I found I was in an inexplicable eighty-mile stretch where every room hotel was sold out. At my third stop I met two women working at the Comfort Inn who found the crowds just as puzzling as I did but who found me a room, some 60 miles farther down the highway. I pulled into the Enchanted Hunters hotel well after midnight in an exhausted delirium.
I awoke to a view at breakfast of a breathtaking expanse of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was 80° when I loaded into the car at 10:00 am to leave again and as I snapped a picture of the view a passerby noticed my Maine plates and hollered “Welcome to West Virginia!” As I drove on through the day in air redolent of honeysuckle I noticed the dandelions were already little white puffs. By the time I reached Kentucky all the trees were fully clothed in leaves and the gently undulating hills covered in rich bluegrass. I had set off in search of spring and during the night had arrived in summertime.
In our first year with a Million Bees our worry was cold. Last year the worry was heat. This year when I pick up the bees I have a new element to worry about: Thunderstorms. Think happy thoughts.