Cannon Beach, Oregon
10 March 2012 / 7:35 am PST

In spite of wise words by John Steinbeck, I originally came to Cannon Beach to write the prologue of this book rather than the opening chapter.

Though I’ve not embarked on or chronicled my first journey, I needed to produce an essay for the Jack Straw anthology. My brain quickly wrapped the conundrum in a tidy bow: take a weekend to write the prologue.

What nagged at me was the truth in John’s quote:

“A prologue is written last but placed first to explain the book’s shortcomings and to ask the reader to be kind. But a prologue is also a note of farewell from the writer to his book. For years the writer and his book have been together—friends or bitter enemies but very close as only love and fighting can accomplish.

Then suddenly the book is done. It is a kind of death. This is the requiem.”

I experienced that feeling when writing the prologue to my first book in 2010. Summoning a faint memory of yolky Italian sunlight, I said goodbye to my two-month residency in Civita di Bagnoregio on a chilly night in Seattle. It was relentlessly rainy—a dark, bitter farewell to what had been the warmest, most productive time in my life.

Today, tucked away in a toasty cottage on an equally dank night on the northern coast of Oregon, I’m standing at the edge of a new journey—not the end. There’s no sense to be made and nothing to make sense of. In fact, it’s the first time in months that I have left sense-making behind; no grocery lists, no work (it’s waiting in piles at the office), and no companions.

This is a season of beginnings, not conclusions, though there is stage-setting to be done. While I’ve sequestered myself for functional reasons, there are also philosophical ones: understanding where the coming months will take me—where they will take us—is why I’ve come. It’s time to dream up questions, not answers.

This book began as a wisp of an idea two years ago as I prepared for my Italian sojourn… something about investigating the great cities of my home country. Then, I left the United States behind and fell in love with a tiny hill town founded 2,500 years ago by ancient Etruscans. Each day, as I carried groceries on my back up and down a steep footbridge, pausing to greet my neighbors in Italian, my desire to return home disappeared completely.

Eventually, the fellowship ended and I did return. For the first time, I hated being home.

American food tasted flavorless, like ash. I dreaded speaking English and I even loathed Seattle. A month later, at the end of November, I exited the bus on First Avenue near the Lusty Lady during its final days of operation. I was daydreaming about an Albanian man I met in Venice when I turned the corner of Harbor Steps, headed down to my office on Pier 56.

As I began my descent, I was pelted by a brutal gust of rain, a slap of reality so brisk that I gasped. It wasn’t only the dismal weather. That was when I admitted that I was really, truly no longer in Italy; pretending could no longer make it so. By the time I made it to work, drenched and forlorn, I couldn’t tell the difference between tears and raindrops dripping from my eyelashes. I knew I was ready to write my prologue.

Thankfully, the brutality of my feelings faded with time and America worked its way back into my heart. In March 2011, I traveled to Detroit to spend time with my uncle, who was dying of liver and lung cancer; I returned in April for his funeral. The assembly line of his life made me feel raw: his 40-year career at the Chrysler plant, the physical pain of his demise, the bleakness of the Midwest and its endless bingo halls and urban blight…but I was intrigued at the kind of place that wears its strife so well. After all, this is where I came from.

While visiting friends, I was romanced by the honeyed warmth of Austin: salsa and chips, barbecue, the dulcet notes of Texas drawl, Zilker Springs Park, being called darlin’ and sugar, sipping hoppy beer and tapping my toe to Slaid Cleaves at the Saxon Pub, and hearing phrases like, “Aunt Stephani is upstairs takin’ her beauty pill.”

My greatest surprise came during a rendezvous with a college friend in Las Vegas—a city that I had written off after a series of regrets, too many cigarettes and blistering hangovers. This time, old vices looked new; the ugliness of Sin City was as captivating as its pimped-out beauty. After a long walk, I dined al fresco on crepes with fresh fruit on Las Vegas Boulevard, watching passersby waddle from casino to casino. My thoughts were poised on America.

Last summer, I returned to Italy, too. I fought the August swelter to reunite with friends in Civita and brushed elbows with the paparazzi at the Venice Film Festival. In moments conjured from a dream, I found myself walking arm-in-arm with Denis, the man who I had daydreamed of while descending Harbor Steps into reality. We wandered together through that floating labyrinth, pausing on bridges and falling in love. As I boarded the vaporetto at the end of my stay, I turned back to find Denis standing on the dock; he leaned against the rail, smiling. He waved and I waved back.

I was finally ready to come home.

Like my trip to Cannon Beach, I had returned to Italy for reasons both logical and esoteric; I needed to close that chapter of my life. On the flight back, I transferred through JFK and my heart surged at hearing the TSA agents bark orders at us with accents from Brooklyn, Queens, and New Jersey. Something in those harsh vowels felt like home.

They were, like me, American.

Europe and I have had a good run for a decade. I know that I’ll be back, but now it’s time to explore that which is both domestic and foreign: the country of my birth.

11:58 am PST

For a while, the driving concept behind Hidden City Diaries had a patriotic bent (can I love America as much as I love Europe?) with a hint of Jane Jacobs (what elements makes a great city great?) It was influenced by my time in Civita (find a local patron with connections) and my experience as a blogger (use personal storytelling and social media to inspire dialogue.)

Over many months, I’ve refined this idea to a personal investigation of the space where people and place unite—the hidden cities inside each of us. How does place make us who we are? Why are we drawn to certain cities, and what do they say about us? Where does our psychological landscape end and the sidewalk begin?

As a member of Gen-X, I’m part of a so-called Lost Generation that author John Ulrich describes as one “without identity who face an uncertain, ill-defined and perhaps hostile future.” I’ve come to see that exploring these questions, finding out what lies beneath, studying how we’re all lost to a degree, and discovering the threads that connect us as a people is the kind of searching I was born to do.

Hidden City Diaries isn’t a tell-all in the sense of travel writing or traditional memoir, but it is an investigation into who we are and how we are made within the context of modern-day America. I hope that my discoveries reveal something true to readers, no matter where they’re from or what generation they belong to.

We are detectives peering into the mysteries of our own origins. Ours are but a handful of stories amongst billions.

3:12 pm PST

Hidden City Diaries. I debated the name for some time (Is “Diaries” too dramatic?) but if this shit ain’t confessional, then I don’t know what is.

Yesterday afternoon, upon buckling my seat belt back in Seattle, I breathed deeply and whispered the name out loud. It seemed fitting that a collection of essays based on my travels should begin with a journey itself, even if this trip isn’t about exploring Cannon Beach, but about invoking a pause.

Once exhaled, I pulled out of the parking lot in Pioneer Square and hit gridlock as I eased onto the interstate with only the voices of Madonna, the Eagles and Lucinda Williams to guide me. I felt excited. Apprehensive. Frustrated at the slow and go… then calm, like I had all the time in the world. I brought only a few belongings and, with every minute, a growing sense of lightness.

Rain coated the road and my windshield, then it let up. It sprinkled again; then ceased. This went on for a hundred miles. I began the journey at Exit 164 on I-5, and headed south towards Exit 40 to Kelso/Longview. Those were a long two-and-a-half hours filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic and never-ending neon signs announcing off-ramp strip mall retail and fast food.

It wasn’t until I approached the Lewis and Clark Bridge, with its elegant latticed trusses of gray, cream and white, that my trip began to feel epic. As we ascended, I could smell the massive piles of cut timber on the shores of the river below. All became gray: water, landscape and sky.

In a single lane, hundreds of us traveled upwards, leaving our worries behind in Washington as we passed a small green sign that read, “Now entering Oregon.” No passports or security checkpoints, only a humble welcome. The road twisted and turned, becoming Highway 30W; my heart raced when I took the curves at 60 miles per hour, thinking, This is the farthest I’ve ever driven alone.

Surrounded by evergreen thickets, each branching road seemed to lead to rustic campsites without running water. After ten years in downtown Seattle, I felt out of my element; yet, what is a journey if not relinquishing the familiar for the unknown?

Beyond the Oregon border, temperatures dropped and the expanse of freeways on-ramps and gas stations fell away. There were two lines of cars—one in, one out—and an occasional passing lane for speed demons who took the snaking roads at 80 miles an hour. Mists fell low and the road was ensconced in alternating marshes and forest. I pictured how the Oregon coast might have looked thousands of years ago, still under water, muddy and fertile with prehistoric fish poking at the muck with their giant barbels.

I remembered The Goonies as I drove through Astoria with its New England-style homes nestled into the cliffs. The heady charm of inns and fishermen called for me to linger, but the night was falling quickly, and I was miles from Cannon Beach.

South of Astoria on Highway 101, the road turned away from city lights towards obscurity, accompanied only by yellow and white lines and a series of green signs that didn’t provide guidance, only suggested that there were other paths. There was no hint as to their outcome or what travelers might find along the way.

The sky turned ultramarine, then fell to pitch, making it impossible to discern trees from sky from ground. The mists rose again, splattering my windshield with millions of pin-prick drops. Fog billowed in from the forest as if propelled by a giant breath, sweeping blindness across the road. There was nothing but me and my headlights, feeble lamps against the claustrophobia of a heavy velvet curtain hurtling towards me, a lone actor on stage.

I was on board a ferry to the underworld.

Half an hour later, the sign for Sunset Boulevard stood as a dim beacon of relief. When I finally reached the Hidden Villa Cottages on Van Buren, my stomach growled but my head was clear. After leaving my belongings inside Unit 2, the Seashell Cottage, I found a small fire-lit bistro. A glass of cabernet in hand, I leaned back in my chair, exhausted, listening to the waitstaff speculate who might have knocked up a local girl.

While I sipped my wine, dreaming of crawling into bed, I doodled in my notebook. First, I drew a small circle with an arrow pointing to the words, “This is your comfort zone.” Then I drew a larger circle with an arrow pointing to the words, “This is where the magic happens.”

I glanced at the facing page. A few days before, I had written a note about my impending trip: “Stepping outside the circle this weekend in Cannon Beach… Who am I and where do I come at this story from?”

All journeys require that we step outside a place of familiarity to discover something. We realize that, the more we leave our creature comforts and predictability behind, the more open we are to understanding ourselves and the world around us. It’s a dichotomy: outside the bubble, we find perspective, yet inside the bubble is where we’re rooted, where our families, friends and careers thrive.

How many journeys are necessary to keep life fresh without becoming disruptive? Is there a point when all that contemplation and travel prevents us from establishing relationships or developing who we are?

I wondered how someone like Odysseus, the ultimate seeker, spent his days after returning home. Once the euphoria of resting in bed, embracing his wife, and eating his favorite meals had passed, was he content to remain—or did he tempt fate with sailing trips, hoping that winds might overcome his vessel again?

10:49 pm PST

Like Odysseus, perhaps, I’ve been in port too long. I can feel it that it’s time to get back out on the road, which leads back to my original question: what is it about places like Seattle or Cannon Beach—or Nashville or Boston—that makes us who we are?

Why do some people choose to live in small towns, suburbs or large cities? What do we learn from downtown streets, local cafes, skyscapers, victory gardens, working waterfronts and farms, urban cemeteries, sports fields, and homemade pie? How does this all fit into being “American” even if we haven’t visited most of the cities that make up our country?

Maybe it’s a ferry, a car or an Alaska Airlines flight, a divorce or a graduation, a marriage or a death… a childhood memory or a movie we’ve watched that takes us there. Somehow, each place that we see, touch, taste and smell becomes a part of who we are. As places pass into us, so we leave parts of ourselves behind like landmarks. We refine—and redefine—who we are by where we live and visit.

For me—a woman traveling alone in this chilly town, laying next to a roaring fire and a windy beach, down the street from Haystack Rock and a warm restaurant with a local band—I’m glad to have stepped outside the circle of my comfort zone. I’m grateful for the magic that happens when I least expect it, often far from home. Tomorrow, I’ll be back on the highway to Seattle. I’ll revel in the knowledge that it won’t be the last stop—that we’ll explore many cities together.

We’ll head to Nashville and Boston first, then Highway 101 in California and eventually, Santa Fe, Charleston, New York, Chicago, and Miami. We’ll even explore Seattle. It may be home, but there’s a hidden city underneath it… several, actually.

After all, home is what we make it. The barrier falls away quickly when we step out the front door; the world is our home, street by street and city by city. That’s why we find pieces of ourselves in every place that we go.