My parents used to lead us on heroic family road trips every three years, traversing 1,800 miles of mountains, deserts and high plains to the gentle rolling prairieland of central Iowa where paternal relations tilled the soil or lived in antique-shop towns like Jamaica or Rippey or Grand Junction. These were the overland odysseys of my childhood, thick with wonders: lightning bugs on summer nights; Nebraska thunderstorms; pit-stops at Wall Drug in South Dakota; vistas of munching bison in Yellowstone; and the musty house of my ancient great-grandfather where a spoked tractor wheel had leant against a tree so long that the trunk grew round it, and where the storm cellar was full of tinned food in old-fashioned paper labels printed in red and green and yellow ink still fresh and bright.
There’s no predicting the particular moments and images a child will recall years hence. It may be that none of those that most impressed me on our recent trip to the Pacific Northwest will prove enduring for either my son or daughter. But I like to imagine them in future remembering the strangely mobile silhouette of Mt Shasta that seemed always to recede as we approached; the big-windowed, high-ceilinged room of our Portland hotel, converted from a turn-of-the-century elementary school; the passage over the Columbia and up Interstate-5 into the primeval woods of Washington State; the bleached glacial monolith of Mt Rainier; the cramped Seattle ice-cream shop-cum-pinball arcade with a live band performing at the front; the badminton game in the park when a half dozen swallows curled silently around us mere inches above the grass; the front porch of a friend’s house across from the zoo and the fenced elk maundering through the trees on the other side of the street.
Books, like music, have a wonderful power to bind themselves to memories of specific moments or places. Typically it’s the reading of books rather than the purchasing of them that takes on the borrowed flavor, but I can usually recall where I bought a book too. In Portland last week we spent three successive days in the legendary Powell’s, where I picked up, among others: Vertigo by W.G. Sebald, Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, Twelve Stories by Guy Davenport, a nice older edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque, and a paperback edition of Philemon Holland’s 1601 translation of Pliny’s Natural History. The latter I consider a special find, though, taken as an object, it’s the most unlovely of them all, dog-eared and water damaged. The one title I was most excited to discover in the stacks, however, was a children’s book I’d given up ever finding: Mervyn Peake’s Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. I wasn’t even looking for it. The title on the spine simply leapt out at me as I walked by.