I often make my way back to my sister's house in northern New York for the loveliest of Thanksgiving feasts. The traditions start days before. I pack the ingredients for my dinner contributions, the apple and pumpkin pies. I make Chex mix and some cookies in advance. And, for the six-hour drive, I throw a well-worn set of CDs into the car for the ride. Stop snickering. Yes, I said CDs. This homeward journey demands technology as comforting as the songs themselves.
The route that takes me from my New England home to New York's North Country, where I grew up, seems perfectly matched to the tunes I cherished when I was young. My song choices certainly don't exhibit any sophisticated musical tastes. They're unapologetically mainstream. But they do make me long for a time when people agreed on what the mainstream was and enjoyed simple cultural touchstones together.
The lyrics, now, they are personal—emotional, spiritual, political. They remind me of who I was and who I imagined myself to be as an adult. Attached to me like barnacles, these melodies resonate like a personal soundtrack, easing my re-entry back home.
Heading out of New Hampshire to the Vermont border, I usually reach for Motown first. Breaking free and on vacation, what could be better than belting out "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" from the driver's seat? It's usually the soundtrack from The Big Chill or sometimes Michael McDonald's set of covers, Motown, that accompanies me on this leg of the trip. This time, I injected my Detroit sounds through the soothing, albeit sappy, voice of the Doobie Brothers lead singer. McDonald's soft rasp is like 20th-century molasses to the raw wounds of today's frantic culture.
Crossing over the Vermont border into Brattleboro, there is a quirkier sensibility. I reach for Labour of Love: The Music of Nick Lowe. I saw Lowe play live in the band Little Village, alongside Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, and Jim Keltner. Seriously, Lowe may be the coolest man I've ever seen in person, playing the bass like he was calmly smoking Marlboros in his sleep. The CD catches all the random goodness that marks Lowe's songwriting. Greg Brown's "Where's My Everything" and Joe Louis Walker's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" are prescient perfection.
The New York border announces itself with a big green sign and bold block letters that say, "Welcome to New York, State of Opportunity." Until recently that sign had read, "Welcome to New York, The Empire State." It angers me to see a time-honored saying turned into a plea for the dollar bill. What in the world? I pop in the soundtrack from the movie Almost Famous, longing to hear the Simon and Garfunkel classic that leads the album, "They've all come to look for America..." It's the perfect accompaniment for the transformation that takes place as picturesque, small-town Vermont recedes in my rear-view mirror and the seeds of the rust belt find fertile soil in upstate New York.
The stretch of road from Hoosick to Troy is easily the least attractive of the six-hour drive. This area functions as the interstitial between true-blue, orderly New England and the creeping insistence of a red-themed America. It may be best represented by the small town of Hoosick Falls, which has the unfortunate distinction of being ground-zero for a public water supply tainted with chemical toxins and a potential state Superfund site. There's little to do but let the Allman Brothers take over with "One Way Out," followed by Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man," and a chaser of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer."
By the time I reach the New York State Thruway in Albany, it's time for a new CD. I look forward to mindless highway driving from here on out, so I balance it with deeper, more emotional music. When I reach for Roseanne Cash's Rules of Travel CD, the case is empty. Curses.
I turn to the only CD that fits any occasion, any time. Sinatra. The Jobim album, 1967. This is a quiet and passionate Sinatra. No "My kind of town" or "I can make it anywhere" bravado. Even the back cover shows a man deep in thought, eyes cast downward, transported in music. Frankie was a saint in my Italian-American household. I can still sing the words to "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" and "Meditation" on command whenever I need a little moment of reflection.
Somewhere between Albany and Utica, the Mohawk River presents itself like a lazy snake, signaling that I've entered WOUR territory. I take a time out from my CD travelogue and flip through the FM dial to 96.9, "The Rock of Central New York." Back-to-back Leonard Skynyrd greets me at the audio gates, punctuated by Genesis, AC/DC, Kansas, and a whole lot of advertisements, which grow tiring quickly. But even the radio ads offer their own bit of nostalgia, as I actually feel wistful for a day when we all listened to the same commercials.
When I pass the Turning Stone casino, I know there is just an hour or so left before I arrive at the Syracuse airport to pick up my daughter and head north to our destination in Watertown. This is likely my last stretch of musical programming before our conversation creates the sweetest music possible. Steely Dan's Aja is the only choice for this stretch: languid and bittersweet. It captures my 19th year with such specificity that I'm immediately transported to a smoky, wood-paneled basement with low-pile carpet, munching Doritos and sipping homemade Black Russians. Michael McDonald returns as a bookend to the trip, singing backup vocals on "Peg." But it's the lyrics from "Home at Last" that wrap up the trip neatly: "I know this super highway. This bright familiar sun. I guess that I'm the lucky one."
Pulling away from the airport terminal, the "Welcome to Syracuse, New York" sign seems propped up by snowbanks, courtesy of a lake-effect blast. A half mile farther, another sign points me toward Route 81 North to Watertown. I turn the dial "off" on my old musical friends, talismans, faithful guides. With my daughter in tow, I'm home at last.