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Where? When memories seem unreal

Sometimes my memories are scattered, unconnected — full of holes. Especially when traveling. My family road-tripped in spring 1984 from Virginia Beach to Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center, with a side trip to Cape Canaveral. My memories of the Magic Kingdom are decent, my memories of EPCOT are especially vivid...then I have these flashes of miscellaneous stops along the way, in North and South Carolina and in Georgia and in Florida and all those states again as we returned home. Pit stops, food stops, motels, the usual logistics of travel. But those flashes seem to be of something unreal, of places I wasn't at long enough to make into fuller, more layered memories.

They feel like visits to sets: built for the occasion, built to stand briefly for a specific (and, again, brief) purpose, lit in not necessarily natural ways (yes, even the light I remember is sometimes unreal), and not extending much if at all beyond what I could see. These are places where people live, work, and also pass through like 10-year-old me did three decades ago; they would not recognize their places if I described them, visualizing them exactly as my memory does.

Not all the stops feel like this, but most do. We did a side trip to Jekyll Island on Georgia's coast, where my parents lived for a few months in 1970 while Dad continued flight training at a Naval air base nearby (that base: now a local airport). A break in the pattern, as there was a family connection — if a small one — to the place and we were at the water, so maybe it stands out more. (For those who haven't lived on the East Coast, it's easy to drive down most of the Eastern Seaboard without ever getting to the water. And I've never traveled the Intracoastal Waterway, one way to guarantee you're near the water.) But it feels real in a way that whatever restaurants, restrooms, hotels, and streetscapes we visited on that trip don't.

I'm glad Cape Canaveral felt real. Wow, I haven't thought of that part of the trip in a long time, but it's coming back: being awed at how big everything was, how wide-open it was — you want plenty of room at a spaceport — and the sense of history that someone like me, owning a copy of The Space Shuttle Operator's Manual, savored. We didn't get to see a launch in person; I remain envious of anyone who did. But it felt like a gateway to the future, a future we still get to see.

The Cape still feels unreal, because it's unusual; there are very few spaceports in our world so far, whereas we have no shortage of diners or rest stops or inns. Yet my memories of it, sprawling under that wide Florida sky, stay vivid, its uniqueness having imprinted on me. I'm glad I don't just remember it from watching Apollo 13 or Armageddon.

But I wouldn't rely on those memories to give directions anywhere at the Cape. Heck, at that time in my life I didn't reliably remember what was north and what was south.

It would be a complete accident of circumstance if I visited that part of the U.S. South again and wound up in exactly the places I'd been 32 years ago, when I created these half-complete memories. Even with driving I-95 increasing the chances of coming to the same place, that increases the chance only slightly. And no matter what, it'd feel new to me. But at least I'm better at remembering now. More experience at it.