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June 18, 2007

TT: One for the road

Writers spend much of their lives alone at a desk, and some of them take to it more easily than others. I'm a reasonably gregarious soul, but decades of silent, solitary labor have created in me a need for privacy that sits awkwardly alongside the conditions of my everyday life. Not only do I make my home on the Upper West Side of New York, a city known the world over for its ceaseless hum and buzz of cultural possibility, but most nights I can be found in a crowded theater, accompanied by a friend and surrounded by colleagues. Mind you, I wouldn't have it any other way. Rarely does a day go by without my marveling at my good fortune. Still, there are times when it gets to be too much of a muchness--too much art, too many people, too much buzz--and all at once I find myself wishing I was anywhere but here.

Fortunately, my job provides an antidote to its own poison, for I cover regional theater in addition to reviewing plays on and off Broadway, and from time to time I make a point of arranging things so that my professional travels take me farther than usual from the better-beaten paths. Last Thursday, for instance, I flew to Washington, D.C., changed planes at Dulles for North Carolina, and ended up in Greensboro, a smallish city where I'd never been. The official reason for my presence there was to review Triad Stage's revival of Tobacco Road, which hasn't been performed anywhere in America for the past quarter-century, but my secondary purpose in going to Greensboro was to get away from it all.

I didn't travel much in the Eighties and Nineties--the mere act of moving to New York from the Midwest seemed for a time to have satisfied all my travel-related needs--but now I revel in it. I love planning complicated itineraries, packing my small wheeled bag, changing planes and renting cars and checking into hotels. Most of all, though, I love the delicious moment when I pull the plug on my iBook, turn off my cell phone, and head out the door, happily aware that for the next few hours, nobody in the world will know exactly where I am.

I'm sure the pleasure I derive from these temporary periods of inaccessibility has something to do with the fact that I work for a newspaper, meaning that I must live by the clock and calendar, hitting regular deadlines and checking in with my editors at more or less regular intervals. To be completely out of touch with them, even for the length of a single day, is a dish that never grows stale.

I spent most of last Thursday and Friday with the plug pulled. I picked up a rental car at the Greensboro airport, drove to my downtown hotel, and walked from there to 223 South Elm, a restaurant across the street from the theater, where I ate an exceptionally good dinner (crabcakes and collard greens, mmmmm) while listening to a local trumpeter and guitarist play "Ask Me Now" and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" very well indeed. On the way to the restaurant, I strolled by a plaque honoring the inventor of Vicks VapoRub and looked with wonder at the old Woolworth store where, forty-seven years ago, four black students seated themselves at the whites-only lunch counter, asked to be served, and changed the world. At intermission I ran into a classmate whom I hadn't seen in thirty years--the South is a small place--but otherwise I kept to myself.

The next morning I checked my e-mail and drove to Raleigh, where I had breakfast with Robert Weiss of Carolina Ballet. Then I spent five ecstatic hours heading east on Highway 64 with the windows rolled down and the radio turned up. Somewhere along the way I pulled off the road to eat at a cheerful little place called the Country Sunrise Grill and B-B-Q, operating on the assumption that it ought to be easy to find good barbecue, hushpuppies, and cole slaw in a town called Tarboro (pop. 11,138). I was right.

At afternoon's end I crossed the long bridge that leads from the mainland to Roanoke Island, where the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site commemorates the 115 English colonists who sailed to America in 1587, made camp on the island, and were never seen again. I went there to review The Lost Colony, Paul Green's 1937 outdoor drama about the colonists, and--just as important--to be utterly alone. I spent the night at Tranquil House Inn, a pleasant, well-kept place overlooking the waterfront, and after the show I sat on the balcony, gazed at the boats below me and the black, starry sky overhead, and felt myself unwind.

On Saturday, alas, I spent nine grisly hours making what was supposed to have been a six-hour-long drive from Roanoke Island to Washington, D.C., where I met Ms. Asymmetrical Information at the Shakespeare Theatre for a performance of Hamlet, having hit town too late to join her for dinner. (Traffic can really hang you up the most.) The next day, though, I went straight back to North Carolina, flying down to Asheville on a puddle-jumper to dine with Ms. Tingle Alley and her husband, after which I drove over to Cherokee, the tiny town on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where I spent the night. My planes were on time, my dinner companions delightful, my meal amazing. If anyone in Asheville ever invites you to dine at Salsa's Mexican-Caribbean Restaurant, say yes instantly.

Today I plan to wander idly in Gatlinburg, the Tennessee tourist town where I summered as a child, and take in another outdoor drama, Unto These Hills. Tomorrow I return to Manhattan to write two pieces, see three shows, read my mail, and do my laundry. By then I'll doubtless want to be home again and back in touch. For the moment, though, I'm still glad to be far from Manhattan, living out of an overstuffed carry-on bag and enjoying the uncomplicated pleasures of being on the road.

Posted June 18, 2007 12:00 AM

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