At first glance, Traveling the Two-Lane: A Memoir and Travelogue appears to be your ordinary approach to a road trip; but there are several different facets to the story that set it well apart from your usual "I rented a motorhome and toured America" account.
In the first place, Marilyn Berman was not only sixty-three when she began her journey, but she grew up gay in a world that largely condemned gays as being mentally ill, at best. That's why she chose to hide, never told her parents the truth, and lived a closeted life, always placing her dreams and truths on the back burner of life.
In some ways Traveling the Two-Lane is about the 'flame on' that happens when she leaves the familiar to journey out into the world, contemplating her life, her self, and her heritage. In other ways it's a slow simmer of experience that doesn't quite come to a boil, but is changed by every road she chooses and every alternate path she takes.
Because it so neatly straddles the line between travelogue and personal memoir, those who look for a 'travel' book to serve as a model for their own road trip may be disappointed. Yes, it's filled with experience; and some of that can readily serve as guidelines for those who use such books to create 'what to do/what not to do' lists - but others who seek just an armchair read will find themselves involved in much more, here - so be forewarned.
Traveling the Two-Lane isn't a simple road trip filled with close encounters and other cultures: it's a self-reflective work that considers the vastness of the wider world, the significance of one's life against this backdrop, and, especially, the difficulty of living a secret life as a closeted gay women, isolated even from one's otherwise-close family.
The juxtaposition of past and present in Traveling the Two-Lane is clearly differentiated by italicized text and allows readers to easily follow Berman's dual journey through past and present as the experiences of her road trip lead her on concurrent explorations of her choices and life.
Throughout the story there are storms and wonders, friendships and loves lost and regained, and a sense of inner and outer examination that succeed in melding memoir and travelogue into a smooth, continuous journey. From serendipity to truths perceived from a self-centered driver's seat, Berman's life unwinds in a dance between men, women, and illusions exposed.
Perhaps the latter facet is the greatest strength here: not just the stories of road trips and unexpected encounters; not just the glacier beauty of Canada or the icy reality that personal happiness is often dependent on the attitudes of others; but the truths that can only come to light during a trip that doesn't just explore, but embraces the unfamiliar.
Illusion. Philosophy. The meaning of one's personal life and choices. This is what Traveling the Two-Lane is ultimately about. Yes, it's a travelogue - but to bill it as such would be to do it a disservice and disappoint those looking for singular road trip adventure and blueprints for 'how I did it'. It's really so much more, and readers looking for the added value of social observation blended with personal experience will surely find it here.
"I understood, at least for this moment, that the happenings of my life were as specks in the vastness of time."
The death of her father and the early signs of dementia in her mother prompts Marilyn Berman to examine her own mortality. At sixty years of age and feeling the call of travel, Berman embarks on a long awaited fantasy of "driving up mountains, camping on lakes and shopping in quirky towns." With a converted VW van serving as a camper and home for the next year or two and a trusty GPS system nicknamed "Mazie Grace," Marilyn heads north.
Along the way she meets strangers who share their own stories and way of life with her. Berman reflects on her time spent with them while travelling through America and Canada and remembers her youth and struggles with the buried secret of her sexuality. Settling briefly in Maine for the long winter and compelled by a sense of adventure she makes new friends, forming social and spiritual connections she will treasure and remember. Eventually finding her way back home, Berman is thus empowered with new beginnings and fresh starts.
Traveling the Two Lane is both a timely and poignant memoir. With keen observation and humor and written in a down-to-earth tone, Berman's memoir is more than just a road trip as she explores present day America and evokes a deep sense of history. She learns about the places she experiences, inspired by the beauty and power of humanity and nature, and the more she learns about herself, hers becomes a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. Berman's insights and life lessons will give you pause to reflect on and appreciate your own life and experiences.
For those of us who live by the adage “Don’t judge me unless you’ve fought through the hell that I have,” allow me to introduce you to a courageous standard-bearer of immense stature. With her stunning Traveling the Two-Lane, first-time author Marilyn Berman not only captured my heart but greatly softened it as well. Never again will I condemn, ridicule, or make light of that which I know nothing about. This is a brilliant journal, a must read for those wishing to step out from yesterday’s darkness into the light of today’s reality.
Recently I read a book by a long-lived lesbian that made me feel as if I’d made a new friend.Traveling the Two-Lane, by Marilyn Berman, is the best kind of travel memoir, one in which the author reveals as much about her inner journey as the landscape she’s passing through.
At age 63, Marilyn Berman quit her job, rented out her home, said goodbye to her friends, and headed towards Alaska. She planned to be away some 18 months, driving a customized VW Eurovan down the backroads of the USA and Canada, seeing things she’d never seen “while still physically and cognitively intact.”
The phrase “bucket list” wasn’t in vogue when she made the trip, but she intended to make the journey while still well enough to enjoy it. Her timing was fantastic: three years after her return home, she experienced the beginnings of a series of medical conditions that would require surgery and radiation and which would ultimately take her life.
Because she was under five feet tall and unaccustomed to travel, nervous friends and family urged her to prepare carefully, which she did. “Life is short; the idea of this journey is fascinating. I would take reasonable precautions and enjoy every minute.” Planning her route, she bought a GPS she called “Mazie Grace” (as in “I once was lost, but now am found…”). She also took books, lots of them, to support her “addiction” to reading, as well as a TV which she never used.
At the same time she underwent the long journey – thousands of miles as far east as Newfoundland, as far west as Banff — she used the time to reflect on her life as a lesbian. Growing up gay in Chicago in the 1940s and 50s, Marilyn knew from an early age not to tell anyone about her crushes on her teachers and other girls. Her parents’ financial and social difficulties when she was in her teens made her mindful not to cause further distress by coming out, as did their failing health when she was older. In fact she never did formally tell her parents about her orientation. Some friends knew, of course, but most of her life, Berman lived with a degree of secret-keeping that seemed necessary yet made her uncomfortable. Only at age 60 did she come out to everyone. “I had a half-century with a secret life. At first all alone, then known to a few, then many – fifty years with two lives, slowly merging into one.”
Reading Berman’s reflections on her long lesbian life, I felt moved to write to her, to contact her for this column, and maybe even become a friend. Her story struck me for its sadness but also for its honesty: I think there are a lot of LLLs in the USA who have lived “double lives” for a long time. To all of them, I recommend this book.
But I have another, more sobering, piece of advice too: anytime you find a book, a film, any piece of art that grabs you, reach out to the author right away. Don’t wait.
The day that I emailed Berman’s publicist to ask for an interview was the day that Berman died. When I got that news, by email, I first gasped and then cried – as if I’d lost a friend. How close I felt to this author, and what a loss that I can never interview her for LLL.
Yet what a gift her book is, an honest and faithful account of her lesbian life’s journey.
It took me a long time to read this book because it was so rich, I often couldn’t absorb more than one or two chapters, or even one page, at a time.
In her 60s, tightly wound, and a life-long closeted lesbian, the author decided to break free of her own shackles and go on an extended road trip. She bought a van, had it retrofitted for the road, and charted a strict itinerary, heading for Alaska. To her credit, Dr. Berman decided it was about the journey rather than the destination. It was about seeing sites, experiencing new things, meeting new people, and reconnecting with old friends. She drove in a somewhat haphazard manner around the United States and Canada for eighteen months, giving the reader insightful descriptions of her travels and what she took with her when she moved on.
Counterbalancing this exceptional travel writing is the author’s remembrances of painful or embarrassing moments in her past that still plagued her. I was rooting for her to feel better about herself, and by the end of the book, I felt that she had reached this. This book is not just a fascinating, wonderful, travel read, it’s also a keeper, because I’m betting that I will want to read it again sometime.
I am grateful to an agent of the author who offered me the opportunity to review this book.
We recently reviewed Travelling the Two Lane: A memoir and travelogue by Marilyn Berman. Here LLL speaks with Berman’s nephew Marty Weil, a business writer in North Carolina.
LLL: How well did you know your aunt?
Weil: I knew her pretty well, my whole life. She was 26 when I was born, and she lived in Atlanta from the early 1970s until her death. I grew up in Chicago but she was a frequent visitor, coming back to Chicago quite often to visit her brother and sister, my mom. Then I moved to North Carolina, and since Asheville and Atlanta are fairly close I would see her every year for Thanksgiving. So I’ve seen her a couple times a year since I was a child.
LLL: What was it like having her as an aunt?
Weil: Marilyn was a very interesting person. She was highly intelligent. She held a PhD from Michigan and taught for a while at Indiana University. She also taught later in life at Emory and she was [Chief of Audiology and Speech Pathology] at the VA hospital in Atlanta. Her specialty was speech therapy. So she was extremely bright and funny and always highly involved in life. She had an interesting career, and tons of friends in Atlanta, and she was close to everyone in the family. She was a really nice aunt, and we got along very well.
LLL: Were you aware growing up that she was gay?
Weil: Sort of a yes and no answer. I had a pretty distinct idea about it by my teens but she didn’t come out until after her parents passed away in the late 1980s. So when she sort of made it official I was already around 20, but it was a pretty openly known fact among family members. She had a partner for a long time who I never met, so she did keep her private life pretty private from the family — she goes into this in detail in the book about not wanting her parents to know, although they were highly suspicious.
As society changed and became more and more open, I think she was more willing to not keep it such a secret anymore but she did wait until her parents both passed before she came out officially. So there was a point in life I didn’t know, and then there was a point where I was pretty sure I knew, and finally when she said for sure then it was okay to acknowledge it.
LLL: Knowing your grandparents, do you think that they would have been as upset as she thought if they’d known she was gay?
Weil: Gosh, that’s really hard to say. They were very proud of their kids; they loved all their kids very much. They had made veiled references to things like, ‘Whatever choices our kids make we support it.’ For instance my mom didn’t go to college, but her brother and sister both have advanced degrees, yet their parents were just as proud of my mom who chose a career as a beautician. They made statements in a broad, categorical way — and Marilyn mentions it in the book— saying they were proud of all their kids regardless of what they chose to do in their lives, they were very happy with them. They had a very close relationship with Marilyn. I think they suspected [she was lesbian] but I don’t think that affected their relationship with her at all. If she had come out — it’s hard to say. I think they didn’t want to know for sure. They were from a different era and I think they preferred not to know for sure.