My Brother, the Traveler – The New York Times

I didn’t know if he had watched it as a kid; we hadn’t grown up with each other because I was our mother’s first child, born when she was 15, and then swept away by a secret adoption. From what I knew of my brother and my family now, I understood James’s traveling couldn’t be stopped. His daddy had moved the family around ceaselessly and had once left our mother and their kids behind when he’d taken off to California and had not come back.

As family lore has it, our mother, who was 21 then, tied their four children together along a length of rope, tethered them to her waist, swaddled her newest infant, and boarded a cross-country train in Jacksonville to go get her husband back. She succeeded. Maybe the rhythm of the train on that trip had marked James.

California was one place I’d gone when I’d been a traveler, a confused runaway hitchhiking her way along old roads instead of riding the rails. Tattered flannel shirt, black hi-tops, worn jeans. Taking a wide stance in the breakdown lane, my right arm at a right angle to my body. Motherless in a way I didn’t fully comprehend, except that I had no mother who would own me.

“She’s been a traveler,” James said, introducing me to the train kids. I imagined them chasing slow-moving trains and hopping up into boxcars. At least they faced the right direction on the chase. The paradox of hitchhiking is that you turn your back to your destination and face the past while you’re trying to catch a ride to a future behind you.

Daylight ebbed, and everyone began drinking openly from bottles wrapped in paper bags. James took a long draw off his. I worried that he was too old to keep up with these kids.

He and I had once been tiny cells lodged together in our mother’s body, and something of her body sticks to us. Maybe I left something behind for my siblings: A belief in buoyancy, in the faint glow of daylight through our mother’s stretched flesh toward the end of her pregnancy. A chimeric shimmer of how it felt to be carried from place to place.

We sat close to one another, holding hands and catching up until it was deep night.

He and his friends were cagey about where they planned to sleep. Somewhere sussed out by travelers who had been there before. Walking me back to my car, James told me about riding in an open boxcar earlier that summer through the high plains and the Badlands, the euphoria of seeing for miles because there were no trees and no humidity.