Since travel is supposed to bring a change of pace, we thought about going someplace new this summer — maybe the Texas prairie, the caves of New Mexico, the California Coast.
But last month, our family ended up in the same house on the same stretch of North Carolina’s New River, sharing a week with the same friends we’ve vacationed with many times before.
Maybe, in a season of odd headlines, we yearned for the familiar. It was a comfort, at the end of a long drive, to find the river and the rental house there for us, like a book on the family shelf that waits for months until you notice it again.
The drive itself was a string of pleasures in a minor key:
A bushel of fresh peaches from a roadside stand, warm and fragrant from an afternoon in the trunk. Ice cream from the kinds of drive-ins you can still find in small towns, where progress has yet to render the small charms extinct. Rural road names, like Fox Trot, Dog Run and Buck Rub, that give music to the miles.
The New River seems built for nothing but fun. It’s often too shallow for shipping or motorboats, becoming instead a place for slower pursuits — fishing, canoeing or our family’s favorite pastime, tubing.
I’ve always thought there was something slightly subversive about tubing, how it takes what was once used for quick transportation, the inside of a truck tire, and reuses it for a long glide down the river. It’s a wry reminder that sometimes, the best trip is the least hurried one.
I have to relearn that lesson every summer that I tube in the New. On my first floats of the week, I find myself paddling with my palms, intent on quickening course. Only after a while do I realize that I’m on vacation, with no real schedule. And tubing, perhaps more than any other scheme of travel, teaches you that the trip, not the destination, is the real point.
So we surrender to the timing of the current, which has the general velocity of pancake syrup. The New isn’t much interested in winning any races. As the week unfolds, neither are we.
It’s easy, on every one of these river vacations, to think that we’re not moving at all. Maybe that’s another reason we come here so much — to trick ourselves into believing that we can stop time itself.
That’s an illusion, I know, as a glance at our son and daughter, floating beside me, makes clear. Children when we began this summer tradition, they’re now among the tallest creatures on the river.
But if I can’t completely conquer the clock and the calendar during my week on the New, maybe I can, at the very least, briefly hold them at bay.
It’s what brings me back year after year, even when there are new places to go.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.