Christan Gatto: A Composition of Travel
A compelling review based on the sole question: What is your favorite book?
Cure, routine, rendezvous or collision, the rhyme of travel is sublime. But you must forgo these concepts and the common area in which you reside. Ride, ride, ride somewhere to the fissures of foreign tableaux.—D. Martini
A month ago I had a conversation with a dear friend who is a teacher living in the mountains of Colorado. It was about having a favorite book. From his repertoire he selected a book that has been influential and one he recommends. “It’s my outlook on life,” he said. I thought about my choice. What book from my repertoire made an impact on me? What gave me foundation in my years of living in Miami Beach? I have mostly fiction, art, poetry, and travel. Then it occurred to me with a clear answer of one particularly profound book: Blue Highways.
Written by William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways is my biblical bibliography to travel. Stories dictated from Least Heat-Moon’s daily notations of people he encountered, titles of regions encompassing their environment and homestead. The places he visited provided me with a short-film documentary because these conversations were meticulous in meaning yet explicit by nature. Published in 1982, Blue Highways is a timeline based on taking the backroads of the United States, but this period is truly timeless in ideology and spirit. Least Heat-Moon’s resources for these experiences were borne from rolling down the open road in a modified Ford van called, Ghost Dancing. I read this book in 2001: two years after my editions republication, and this book changed my outlook on travel. In my possession were these stories by the author which became my hallowed foundation.
It was a cold night in the middle of February, 1978. William Least Heat-Moon had lost his English teaching job, and learned that his wife for whom he was separated, mentioned her boyfriend as she gave the news of the inevitable termination. He pondered the questions of his purpose to stay, remain, or adhere to unacceptable conditions that filled his soul on the winter grounds of Columbia, Missouri. One month later he was eastbound and on the way to a different life.
Much time had passed since I read Blue Highways, fifteen years, so I decided to reread it. I opened the book to notice a page was bookmarked. It was a napkin with a written message from Dot Martini. She was, in a way, my adopted mother. I was friends with her son Lewis, who was killed when he was ten. Lewis was an art prodigy and the youngest of the eight Martini children. He was my best friend and I was there when he was hit by a vehicle in our small town of N. Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania. After the cremation services for Lewis, I made my best attempt not to pass his house because I couldn’t bear the truth. However, one day I saw his mom pruning a festoon of red roses on the white trellis that led to the alley and I decided, with reluctance because I did not want to ring the past, to say hello. Dot told me that all was well, but that she had stopped painting, a trade she loved, and began to write. She told me this without making eye contact. I knew she saw Lewis in me, our childhood, our fun times, and now, only my future. I stayed with her and just talked about wanting to leave the borough. When I mentioned the idea of ‘leaving’ she finally looked at me and no one else. It was relief in one way, but I was not sure how to receive her stare. She stopped what she was doing as we sat down in the shade of the large buckeye tree in the backyard.
I am not for certain why I expressed a reason to leave everything at such a young age. When Lewis was alive we built a castle on dreams of being explorers. It wasn’t the same afterwards. I knew it, my parents sensed it, and Lewis’s mom understood this more than anyone.
Soon, I was part of the family in the Martini house. This was great for me being that I was an only child. Though I would hang out with Lewis’s many brothers, there was ample time for Dot to talk with me. She would instill in me the concept of wanderlust. I became of age and sensed the meaning of travel was probably intended for Lewis—artfully, dutifully.
I did leave N. Belle Vernon to move with Stan in Miami, the fifth oldest of the eight siblings and twin brother to Topher. I went to college for journalism and began to travel whenever the opportunity arrived. I travelled extensively for two years by myself and had a few girlfriends here and there, but nothing serious. Until I met a woman who I thought would be a fellow traveler, but it was not meant to be. After two years our union dissolved and I was separated in surroundings that soon became unfamiliar. I did not recognize the change I underwent from an ideal way of living to a conformist.
I traveled back home to see some old high school friends and of course, Mrs. Martini. My parents were deceased so I wasn’t in the neighborhood the first of three days, but I needed some toiletries so I went to Vernon’s drugstore and this is where I saw Dot who was picking up a prescription. She invited me to Crandal’s Diner on Route 51 for lunch. We met and talked about several issues that ranged from the arts to family. She knew me better than I knew myself. We enjoyed a modest lunch with a lot of coffee. I still remember when we finished the subject about travel I ordered a slice of blackberry pie from the waitress. Dot gave me that same stare from when I was ten by the trellis. She said, “Lewis is here and he’s happy, but worries you might be mired if you settle down again.” I knew from being around the Martini kids she was a clairvoyant yet I was speechless. She asked me if I understood. “Yes,” I said with a nod. The waitress served the pie and Dot excused herself to use the restroom. I was so full of caffeine that I went after her. I came back to the slice of half eaten blueberry pie at an empty table.
Dot was never one to say, ‘goodbye.’ She disliked the conclusion of meetings as much a she did conversations and this day would be no exception. I looked out the window to see where she went, but I didn’t make a move—I understood. I finished and went to pay at the register when the owner told me that she had paid, and then he handed me a napkin, folded once.
“Cure, routine, rendezvous, or collision, the rhyme of travel is sublime. But you must forgo these concepts and the common area in which you reside—Ride, ride, ride somewhere to the fissures of foreign tableaux. Bless You Christan, Love Dot”
I read the message over and over again. Kept it next to a few affirmations that I recited in my progress to gain the confidence I lost during the divorce. The napkin message would eventually be used as a bookmarker as I began to read William Least Heat-Moon’s captivating story. I felt it was more than appropriate to keep this between the annals of a travelling timeline.
Most of the Martini siblings lived in Miami for the exception of Abe who lived in Indiana. Bert Martini, their father died in 2005. I did not know Dot had terminal brain cancer until Stan called me one day to meet him at a jazz club where he performed as a saxophonist. Stan was not close to Dot after the death of Lewis. I remember the night he exploded in anger with words of hate that came from a bottle of bourbon. Stan blamed her for a lack of responsibility when it came to Lewis’s precocious and spiritual path; he blamed her for allowing Lewis to learn about Buddhism instead of Catholicism…it was a horrible episode. He tossed the bottle in the front yard and his relationship with her, never to return. I did not tell Dot that I moved in with Stan and his family. I was only there for three months. Plus, he was the only sibling that had a room available. I had some doubt about his serious but shallow statement. He was also a heroin addict, among other drugs he abused. So I called his brother James to verify this account. Stan was right about her cancer, but she was no longer suffering because she was dead. The need to bleed the borne hate from Stan was not in my soul, so I never went back to feed him more resentment.
James gave me the information and helped with a ticket since the cremation service needed to take place in the next two days. He worked for a major airline which assisted in flying Reba, Mona, Topher and him to Pittsburgh International airport.
Two days later all the siblings for the exception of Stan and Frank who was in jail for dealing drugs, stood the base of the bank of the Monongahela river in Belle Vernon. Reba, the oldest, held in her possession memorial service programs that seemed out of sync with her trembling hands. For a radio personality Reba remained silent, justly so, she was the closest, if not a best friend to her mom.
The second oldest, Mona was draped in the gift she made for Dot, a quilt of t-shirts from the many marathons she ran. She walked over to Reba and passed out the programs. Abe, the third oldest who drove from Indiana, began to play a song on his acoustic guitar sung by Nat King Cole titled, “Nature Boy.” We all knew this song was about Lewis. When Abe sang the line, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return,” I saw myself as a ten-year old laughing with Lewis as we all shared the sad sentiment. Abe finished with a slow tempo equal to the tears on everyone’s faces.
My program, now wrinkled on the edge listed Abe singing this song. I rubbed my eyes to see who was next when James stepped forward. While he talked about Dot’s love of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” I could not resist reading the sacred script on Topher’s face. Topher, a struggling playwright and poet had written and produced one successful dramatic short-play, “The Late Aquarian.” A play he dedicated to Dot on opening night. He was, as Dot discretely told me one day, “The tender one in the family.” James stepped forward and recited the poem with bravado. The second time he said, “Rage, rage against the dying of light,” you could feel his call to all that the time to live is short. I stood next to Topher, and, at times, patted him on the back for some type of reassurance. Reba passed out the small containers of Dot’s ashes and one by one we disseminated the contents into the river until there was just dust remaining from the once sodden sediment of her body. “Live life to the lees,” Ulysses said in Tennyson’s poem. The ‘lees,’ the sediment—a reminder about the long full life Dot lived.
The vivid thought of that day accompanied by the message from Dot prompted me to see if I still had the program. In my bedroom closet are ten shoe boxes of photos and mementos encapsulating meaningful events of my timeline. Behind two shoe boxes marked, “1990” and “2000” was the one I was looking for titled, “Family/Childhood.” Inside with a few faded photos and an Evel Knievel watch, was the program folded in half with the wrinkled edge.
I could hear James’s voice rise with bravado like it did that day in early December. I walked with my emotions downstairs, a place now empty of material and memories alike, and, in unison, recited the poem:
‘”Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lighting they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Don not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage again the dying of the light.’”
The duration of this oration stood at three minutes according to the watch on my right hand holding the one page program, yet my tears rolled to the past in a timeless manner.
Once more, the impression of Blue Highways as a ‘favorite book’ had new meaning. I saw a correlation between the poem and the author; and the connection of Dot’s message to both. ‘Rage, Rage against the dying light.’ I can sense the refrain in Least Heat-Moon to leave; let go; forgo; and adhere to his calling of metaphorical blue highways. One can read his story to understand the concept and reap the unexpected environment of those blue highways.
There was a time after my divorce when I felt a loss, a sense of purpose seemed removed. After I revisited Blue Highways I remembered the termination of my marriage and the bleak idea of not giving love and affection. I lacked the motivation to move forward. This book reminded me of my passion for travel. Eventually, the desire to leave the ‘common area’ led to a recorded romance about different cultures.
“A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine, live the real jeopardy of circumstance. It was a question of dignity.” William Least Heat-Moon’s words for moving forward reminded me of Dylan Thomas’s, “Do not go gentle into that night.”
‘Chuck routine’: You can stay in one place, let the froth of fear obstruct doors of ideas; windows secluded of ethereal dreams and stay with old ideas to commit a crime of killing creativity. You need to open a door and step forward in a different direction. Don’t rush, be patient for you will receive a more plentiful plate. As John Greenleaf Whittier said, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’”
The question of a ‘favorite book’ is one each of us should take personally. Offer the influence of the affluence you were provided. It is also important to share the book: In conversation; in correspondence; lend to a friend; and in a composition or, perhaps, a way to say ‘goodbye’ like Dot Martini.
If there is an afterword, an appendage to this story, then it will be somewhere in a ‘foreign tableaux.’
Christan Gatto: Traveler, Writer, & Gadabout