Every student will tell you that precious hours of study don't necessarily stick. How much do you retain? How much do you lose to fading memory? And if the task is more abstract — say to create goodwill in your community — how many warm greetings, a cheerful wave here or there in passing, how many welcome baskets, pet sits, apple pies, Girl Scout cookies will do it? If you are looking for adventure, happiness, a sense of life fully lived, how do you measure it? What dead-end towns, three a.m. truck stops, blank-eyed looks, fruitless hunches will you suffer through to find your Eldorado? How much of the journey evaporates without issue?
The second time my family crossed the U.S. it was in an old-model Mercedes, a car held together by rust and kitchen string, altogether at odds with the grandness of the name. We flew from Belgium; it followed us by ship, swung over the sides onto the dock in a cargo net. At least, that's the picture I hold: I could be conflating it with a Spanish ferry on the Costa Brava. The family was together then, the five of us, and we stopped into a coffee shop, just off the plane at JFK. I ordered a hot chocolate. "Honey," said the waitress (they still had waitresses and stewardesses in those years, until they were all exchanged at equal value for servers and flight attendants)..."Honey," she said in a mellifluous New York accent, "we don't have hot chocolate in August."