It is funny how little expressions from people you love lodge themselves in your head and continue to surface and pass your own lips years after they are gone. "Home again, Finnegan," my grandmother would say each time we entered her house in San Francisco after an outing. Lord knows what it means, but I find myself mouthing it now and then, even on the doorsteps of hostels we have stayed in less than a week.
Growing up, my family stayed with my grandmother during the summers and at Christmas. She was like a third parent to my brothers and to me. After college I lived with her before finding my own apartment, and returned when I took a chance on a low-paying job working with children.
One evening that year my grandmother caught a bad cold. The next morning my brother, John, also living with her at the time, found her dead from a heart attack. I was tormented by the feeling that as a selfish twenty-four year old I never showed her how much I loved her. I had treated her as if she would live forever. On the other hand, my grandmother hated hospitals and going to the doctor. Even a day in the ICU would have been a hell on earth for her. The suddenness of her death was tragic for me but ideal for her.
Since that time I have felt a deep importance in the end of things. The meaning of a thing usually isn't clear until its end and its emotional significance is strongly colored by its ending. Goodbyes, moves, the last day of school, leaving a job, death. These things and how we deal with them can define our lives.
So how does one end the trip of a lifetime? I don't have a full answer just yet. I do know it feels wonderful to do what we set out to do: to return from the tip of South America entirely on the ground, spending every day of nearly fifteen months together, feeling closer to each other than ever.
It was great also to roll across the border and into the home of our old friends the McGregors. We took a bus directly from Monterrey, Mexico to San Antonio, Texas making stops only at the border (for an entire bus x-raying) and a bright, shiny Burger King (there are some things I haven't missed).
Matt and Bridget picked us up at the bus station and took us home to see their lovely and entertaining girls, Maeve and Sloane. Maeve was still a baby when I last saw her and Sloane was born during our trip. The McGregor family makes parenthood look like fun. I hope we can follow in their footsteps shortly.
Soon we were joined by Mike Garza, the legendary Sweet Mike. There is not room for an airing of his exploits here, as even a hundred blogposts could not do them justice. I have come to think of him as a sort of modern Don Quixote, and while I would love to be his Cervantes, there is not time for that now. But he lived up to his nickname and he and the McGregors made us feel that we were home.
San Antonio is an interesting place with a long history, perhaps not compared with Peru, but certainly compared to Houston. We took the WPA built Riverwalk to the unforgettable Alamo and enjoyed its collection of Bowie knives, learning that James Bowie, a hero of the Alamo, debuted his eponymous knife at the notorious "Sand Bar Fight" near Natchez, Mississippi in 1827. We also got our first taste of the Tea Party. I prefer coffee.
We only had a few days in Texas so we spent the majority of it just enjoying the company of Matt, Bridget, and Mike and being entertained by the girls. Luckily San Antonio has a progressive bar culture with many catering to families. One even had a jungle gym. We sat for a while in the bar at the Menger Hotel drinking in its rich history. It was there that Theodore Roosevelt recruited the Rough Riders for the Spanish American War. We also visited the beautiful Veterans of Foreign Wars bar further down the Riverwalk which advertises itself as the Oldest Post in Texas. There we met Guillermo, a friendly if troubled veteran, who appears to have posted himself there since the end of the Vietnam War.
We finally had to say good bye to our friends at midnight to join Amtrak's Sunset Limited out to New Orleans.
We spent three nights in New Orleans at a B&B in midtown in the house of a woman named Sue who treated us like old friends. We ate oysters and po boys, saw some jazz, and took a short troll down Bourbon Street following the Italian-American parade. We also walked through back areas of the Garden District and in City Park, full of live oaks, magnolias, and waterfowl.
New Orleans still bears scars from Katrina and there is a stillness outside of the French Quarter that is a little eerie and sad, but its unique flavor remains and we have heard that almost three quarters of its residents have returned. New Orleans lives on.
On Sunday night we joined Sue's "Bridge Club," a group of her friends who set up lawn chairs on the pedestrian bridge over St. John's Bayou and drink wine. I've been to New Orleans several times, including for a bachelors' weekend before the McGregor wedding, so I have lots of little impressions that make up New Orleans in my mind. There was a moment sitting on the bridge, the bayou lit up with the fiery red light of sunset, the taste of red wine on my lips and the cool air ringing with laughter, as one of Sue's friends, a nearly blind artist and native of New Orleans, did a dead-on impression of Louis Armstrong telling jokes. That's New Orleans.
Sue had a beautiful old golden retriever named Clipper who was dying of bone cancer. I think it might be possible to gauge the goodness and happiness of an old person's life in the kindness of their eyes and the ease of their demeanor. If I am right and the same is true of dogs, then Clipper had the best and happiest of lives.
As the sun rose over Lake Pontchartrain at the beginning of our twenty-six hour train ride to Washington D.C. I struggled with a bit of melancholy thinking about Clipper and our trip. Such wonderful things coming to an end.
Fortunately we still have some traveling to do before settling down. We have been seeing a bit of the east coast while looking for jobs in Washington. In a few weeks we will complete the circle, returning to San Francisco on a road trip with Hilary's brother Tom who is moving to Monterey to learn French.
My parents still own my grandmother's house and Hilary and I plan to stay there until my brother, Tom's wedding in June. I know just what I will say when I open the door.
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