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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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June 2009 Archives

Pyramids

We’d gone out to “the pyramids’’ – that’s all you need to say in Mexico City to identify the vast ruins of Teotihuacan, northeast of town – and had spent all day there, my friend Mary Ann and I.

Afterward, heading back to our hotel by bus, we were stuck in heavy afternoon traffic, just where the highway comes over a ridge and starts down into the smoggy bowl that holds the capital. The delay gave me time to remember, not that I hadn’t been doing it all day.

“Vast’’ is a pretty weak adjective for Teotihuacan [tay-oh-ti-hwa-KAN]. At its peak, about 600 A.D., this city had as many as 200,000 people, and it influenced art, architecture and culture all over Central America for something like 1,000 years. Its greatest monument still stands, undiminished – the mountain-like Pyramid of the Sun, third largest pyramid in the world.

But it wasn’t the ancient past that was on my mind as Mary Ann and I walked up the wide, pyramid-flanked Avenue of the Dead, under a blazing sun. I was thinking about a personal past – eye-blink recent in Teotihuacan’s terms but distant in my own.

I had been here once before, 40 years earlier, with my parents and younger siblings on the longest – and last – of our long summer camping trips. We called it “The Big Ruin Trip,’’ and by the time we got to Teotihuacan, we were veterans of La Venta and El Tajin in the state of Veracruz, Mitla outside Oaxaca, Palenque in Chiapas, and Chichen Itza and Uxmal in Yucatan.

Seeing Teotihuacan again last winter brought that vanished trip back to me – who we’d all been back then, how much we saw and learned, how we’d all been happier on trips than we ever managed to be at home. Small wonder that I chose travel as a career.

Now, with the traffic around our bus gridlocked in both directions – four lanes of suburbanites heading home, four lanes of city dwellers heading in – I was experiencing one of travel’s downsides.

“I wouldn’t drive in that on a bet,’’ I was just thinking, when a sudden jolt of insight struck. It was one of those moments when the kaleidoscope of memory twists, and all the familiar colored chips fall into a pattern you never saw before.

No, I thought, I wouldn’t risk driving in this – but my father had! And in situations far more dangerous. I’d seen him do it – at night, on unmarked dirt roads, in warrens of back streets, through jungles, in strange cities – for thousands of miles, all over Mexico.

I’d never thought of him as a risk-taker, but now I saw that he’d risked the entire family for the sake of – what? Curiosity, surely, but also for the challenge of it – to see how far we could get, into what scrapes we might drive, and still get out okay. He’d done it too. He’d gotten us all home safe again. Every time. Nobody even got sick.

And I’d taken it all for granted. Long trips were just something our family did. I grew up thinking they were normal. Only now, on this bus in a Mexican traffic jam, did I see how remarkable they’d been.

Once, decades after the family camper had been sold and a long trip for my aging parents meant going no farther than Brainerd, my father and I had an argument – one of our many – about what I did for a living. It was on the eve of one of my trips, which one and where, I don’t remember – just his words:

What is wrong with you? he growled. What’s wrong with staying home? It had been good enough for him – the same city, the same job all his adult life. Who taught you to travel like that, anyway?

If he hadn’t looked so genuinely baffled and angry, I’d have thought he was kidding. As it was, I just shrugged and dodged the question.

If I’d understood then what Teotihuacan revealed to me this winter, I’d have told him what he must have been hoping to hear. There’s no way to do that now – he’s been dead for 20 years – but if I could do it over, I’d say this: You did, Dad. You taught me to travel. Thank you for giving me the world.