If you’re a fan of travel narratives, I recommend the essays in Sometimes the Light by Rick Campbell, a collection published earlier this year by Main Street Rag Publishing Co. Rick’s stories are frequently in motion, on rails, highways, or afoot, often in rain or snow, and if you’re worried about getting someplace on time, don’t count on it.
In the introductory essay, Rick tells us, “I missed nothing by arriving late and I would have gained nothing by arriving on time,” a blunt pronouncement in exquisite contrast to the particulars of the present moment and America’s recent history, say the last seventy years, a history Rick and I share. I’ve known Rick since at least 2012, which is my first memory of meeting him in person at the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s annual conference in Chicago that year. In the decade since, we’ve run into each other often, and I consider him a friend. I’d even say I know Rick well; we’ve agreed to disagree a few times. Which is why you can trust me when I promise there are miles and miles of brilliant language and insights woven into the essays in Somewhere the Light, a collection that travels between past and present with surprises along the way.
The second essay, “The Blender: A Road Trip,” appears to be as straightforward as Rick himself, but then it begins to meander. It’s as much an essay about writing an essay as it is about a hitchhiking journey fifty years ago with a friend, Mark, that starts with baggage—a full-sized 1970s blender, weighing in at between seven and ten pounds. As the two cart the clunky kitchen appliance on the cold, difficult trip from Pennsylvania to Florida, the blender, meant as a gift, becomes a “golden chalice” that helps Rick and Mark endure the hardships of hitchhiking. The men tell stories about the blender in which they’re heroes who will be rewarded upon its delivery to a female coed living in a dorm at the University of Florida. Their reward will be the coed’s adoration, and the adoration of her friends, and possibly even sex with the women in question. Not to give too much away, but the journey ends with a surprising twist, as is often the case with a good essay.
Whatever our mode of travel, we usually take off from somewhere called home. Rick’s essay about home, and also Florida, “Appaloosas in the Vineyard,” begins a quintet of essays that are some of my favorites in the collection. He looks at Florida in new light, a place “as much myth and fantasy as reality.” It’s from his address in Florida known as “brown house” that he travels back to the small town he grew up in near Pittsburgh in “Homecoming: Walking in the Snow.” The essays that follow speak of his father’s death and then his mother’s, his travels to see them and be with them in their last days, gentle stories of laying his parents to rest. His mother is buried near her parents in West Virginia, and he wants to “believe that this would make her happy,” an idea he meditates on, ending with the idea that “trying to please the dead, if we do it for love, might be the reason to believe.”
Other essays in the collection reveal Rick’s passion for politics, poetry, and baseball (my favorite is “The Yankees, Rain, and a Holy Grail.”) He was one of the men whose number didn’t come up during the Vietnam draft. While Rick doesn’t necessarily enjoy everyone he meets on his travels, he makes plenty of friends along the way, gets married, and becomes a father. He writes about his poetic heroes and his encounters with other creatures, from copperheads to loggerhead turtles to his beloved dog, Jasper, who doesn’t like snakes either. The essays are rich with sensory description, lush loblollies and wax myrtle or the stink of a man on the road for too many days. As for the collection’s title, Sometimes the Light, it shines through in Rick’s unique and universal insights. I highly recommend it for anyone’s reading journey.