When I was a boy my dad worked in an office on 16th street in NW Washington DC. We lived east of town in a sleepy Maryland community close to the Bay. As a new driver I learned my way in and out of the city via my fathers instructions who traveled those roads so many times that street names had been replaced with muscle memory. Most directions passed my way in food prose, as I navigated solo for the first time, between errands and work. “Take 13th street in. When you cross the Maryland border you’ll see the Jewish deli on the right. Turn then. At the donut place…you know the one with the….turn left”. Mind you these “landmarks” were at best holes in a wall along a busy street of many delis. However, in my fathers mind only one had that great marble rye, which was exactly where I turned. - Directions by taste. I think we all have memories triggered by our mouth. The taste of an inland lake is distinctive for me. I’ve swallowed many mouths full in open water races, so much so that if I splash into any lake for just one moment, and like my lips, I flash back to races of my youth. Lake Michigan invokes different flashes, when I move forward on the boat here, and take a wave over the bow splashing water on my lips, I instantly lick them for security and find myself feeling wanting. It took me almost a year before I realized I missed the brackish and salt water of the East Coast so desperately. Lips and memories are amazing.
For years my parents needled me with joyous smiles about getting caught under our grapevines. Laying on my back, in the late summer grass reaching up, plucking at grapes dangling just above my face, fresh from the vine as if in King Solomon’s glory. Oddly enough I remember that exact moment not realizing they watched from the house. And, I really did feel I was royalty. It was exactly this time of year, where we can now drive in the Michigan countryside with the air heavy with the scent of grape. Harvest started this last Sunday at the Universities vineyard and it’s hard not to drift back in my mind to warm Septembers in Maryland. But, it’s not just the taste that draws me back. Nor was it simply the best marble rye. It was the experience. Something happens in conjunction with these fleeting moments that ties our minds close to the simpleness of a taste.
Experiences hold power. My good beagle, Bennett, who trails me to work many days each week, lived a not so pleasant puppy memory. Soon after we collected him from a retiring hunter in Charlottesville, VA he had an awful run in. Whilst in the midst of innocently digging up a neighbors yard he came across a hornets nest. Screaming as if William Wallace, he ran across the lawn for protection, but not before getting stung in the rump a good number of times. His poor tush healed quickly but not the memories of the experience. To this day, if any buzzing insect enters his truck or room he turns on defense mode. Cowering, with his hiney close to a wall or leg, he daftly searches the sky for said insect. Just last night we watched him literally go to war with a fat fall fly in our living room. This sleepy, lazy dog turns into a superhero with the slightest sound of a buzzzz.
In those same Virginia days I ran the Appalachian Trail that lay just a few minutes walk from our home. My route tracked from South to North before I slipped up a fire trail and headed home. During the hot days of July the woods offered a cool respite for such adventures. It also afforded some fine hunting. Each year about that time droves of ‘through hikers’ were headed from their spring start in Georgia, through Virginia on their way North. Small gaggles of friends or romantic couples closely mingling together days on end in their own silence, plodding away at the miles of trail. Every group headed in the same direction never crossing paths for all were going the same way at the same pace…except for the 210 lb. runner that was slipping up behind them unexpected and unannounced. The first hikers that I came across in those years nearly jumped out of their skin as I bounded mindlessly past them. Not a word, weeks of quite, and now something was leaping over their backpacks. I became sensitive to it, realizing from the looks on their faces and the screams that I was taking years off good peoples lives. So, I started yelling, “on the right!”. It didn’t help. I remember one guy pushing his girlfriend into the trail as he leapt deep into the trees. I never realized that hikers talked just like sailors. Oddly, this hostel encounter always ended with a smile from the hiker and an expletive on how I scared them. Ah yes, bears, Appalachian Killers and the runner Garth all going down in infamy. Talked about around campfires from Linden, VA to Katahdin Maine, I made a simple hike in the woods a real experience.
Nobody would be surprised that we give experiences as gifts here at our home. When in doubt of gifting opportunities we divert to experiences. In a world where if we need something we get it, gift getting becomes complex. What do you get people who honestly have all they need? As a matter-a-fact most people lament the dust collector gift that will only fill another box in another messy closet. Lani turned 42 in August. We have a small house and in no need to fill it with things that we ‘kind of like’ and we honor the power of a good experience. So, it was something new for 42. Three laps around the Chicagoland Speedway at over 160 miles an hour in the M&M NASCAR, taking only a few minutes, but the experience will last forever. Nobody needs to dust it and we don’t have to pack it the next time we move, because it lives in us. Experiences mark milestones in our lives unlike anything else.
Vegetables are good, they taste good, they make a meal beautiful and they fill our lives with wonderful health. Local organic vegetables raised by young students working their way through school only add to that excitement. But arriving at my office where my basket has been dropped off, while I sat in some forlorn meeting, flowers set atop and fruit aside, is an experience. Bringing them home and picking through the Easter Basket of green and red with my wife every Thursday is an experience. Eating things that I never knew existed and finding that I was about to miss out on something in life, is an experience. Our house will be sad this winter without our basket, but a milestone has been marked. So, if I’m bumped into and asked for directions to someplace in Berrien I hope the receiver doesn’t mind if I say “When you get off campus you’ll see a farm on the left… you know the one with the…they got the best!…turn right. Then just past the vineyard with those Concords…”.