Six Years on the Road

Even with a photograph in hand, I can’t tell you much about this car I helped to wash so many times. I never knew the make or model, and todayI’m not even certain of the color.

On the other hand, I remember the back seat perfectly well.  My world-on-wheels came furnished with a red plaid wool stadium blanket, a plastic solitaire game with red and blue pegs, and a doll suitcase filled with crayolas and colored tablets, paper dolls, and a pile of Golden Books.  Whether it was a jaunt over to the A&W for root beer floats, an evening at the drive-in movies, or a trip to my grandparents’ house, the back seat was mine.  It was my castle, my refuge, my tiny bit of homestead to do with as I pleased.

On longer trips, tiring of books and paper dolls, I’d stretch out on the seat and pretend to sleep, while the low murmurings of my mother and father tucked a conversational blanket around me. Sometimes I drifted into sleep, secure against my pillows, enjoying the sense of movement and the soft hum of tires on concrete.

Eventually, I began to take more interest in the trips themselves. No longer content to sleep away the miles, I dangled my arms over the front seat and chattered away.  We played car games that involved the whole family, reading the Burma Shave signs, looking for out-of-state license plates, or “stamping” white horses in the fields for luck. 

Filled with a child’s eagerness and impatience, I asked questions common to travelers since Moses led his little band out of Egypt toward the Promised Land. “How much longer?  How much farther?  Are we there yet?”

One day, I noticed the slowly turning numerals of the car’s odometer, and discovered a new form of entertainment.  Every time a series of nines showed up, it was especially exciting. To see 4,999 miles was just as good as seeing 99,999, and I loved those “big days” when the nines turned themselves into zeros.

The fascination lingered into adulthood.  When my last Toyota clicked over to 100,000 miles, I smiled approvingly. At 200,000 miles, I gave it a pat on its dashboard and whispered small, congratulatory sentiments into its engine compartment.  As 300,000 miles approached, I developed a case of nerves.  Would it die before reaching the benchmark?  Might it be killed in an accident?  Would it commit some sort of ghastly mechanical suicide while my back was turned? 

In the end, nothing untoward happened.  I drove around for a few extra miles one evening in order to witness the grand event, and then smiled with  satisfaction when the magical 300,000 mile mark rolled into view.

I’ve had opportunities galore to watch odometers chew through great chunks of mileage, particularly during vacation trips. But, as I learned while still a child, there are vacations, and then there are vacations.  Not all parents were as easy-going as mine.

My dad was a car guy, and enjoyed nothing so much as getting up and going, but he liked to combine a little education and fun with his appetite for the open road.  Our family trips took us to Colorado,  South Dakota, Kentucky, and Louisiana. We waded across the Mississippi at her source, and explored the muddy Delta where she ends. 

When we weren’t fishing in Minnesota, we visited with Paul Bunyan and Babe, his great Blue Ox.  We carried home glass tubes filled with sediment samples from the iron ore mines near Hibbing, and chunks of granite and basalt from Colorado.  Indian Corn from the Dakotas decorated our front door in the fall, and photographs proving we’d thrown snowballs at the Continental Divide made it to Show-and-Tell. 

We even had a real adventure or two.   I still remember a horse-drawn ferry at a Kentucky river crossing, and a wonderfully terrifying, stuff-of-family-legends night in Rainy River, Ontario, where we landed in a room above a tavern that came complete with B-grade movie neon lights shining outside the window, a B-grade ruckus in the bar, and a chair shoved under the doorknob for a little extra security

With vacations ended and families returned home, my friends and I compared notes on our summers.  The year we traveled to a Minnesota lake and stayed in a cabin, I was telling excited tales of fish, snails, and leeches when a classmate looked at me and said, “Yeah, well…  We drove over 3,000 miles.”   When I asked where they’d gone, she said, “All over.”  When I asked what they’d done, she said, “We drove.”

Looking back on it now, I wonder if Robert Paul Smith didn’t have a similar experience. His memoir, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing, makes the point that kids always are doing something — most of it quite interesting — while adults generally have neither the time nor the inclination to find out what’s happening under their very noses. 

In the case of my classmate’s family, the “nothing” they experienced on vacation was about as close to nothing as you could get. Their two weeks were filled with highways, gas stations, and bad road food. They spent the bulk of their time trading drivers and trying to figure out how far they could go before they had to turn around and head back. 

Every year, it was the same.  When September arrived and it was time to answer the question — “What did you do on your summer vacation?” — most of us wrote about camp, fishing and swimming, or trips to exotic destinations like Omaha. And every year our little friend bragged, “We drove 3,000 miles.”

We never knew quite how to feel about it.  Sometimes we were jealous. Sometimes we asked a question or two, just to be polite. Most of the time, we simply told our own stories and moved on.

A little less than six years ago, three months after I began writing here at “The Task at Hand”, those memories came back in a rush.  Logging  on to my dashboard one late afternoon, I was surprised to see that, after just three months of blogging, 4,996 page views had been recorded.

Looking at the graph, I was as mesmerized as a ten-year-old hanging over the front seat of the family car, waiting for the odometer to roll over. I was going out for dinner that night and needed to leave, but I couldn’t move.  The total views clicked up to 4,997, and then to 4,998. 

With the total sitting at 4,999, I finally pushed back my chair and left.  I just couldn’t bring myself to make a phone call and say, “Sorry I’m going to be a little late. I’m waiting for the blogometer to roll over to 5,000.” Even if I’d made the call, they wouldn’t have understood.

Arriving back home later that evening, I found the page still showing 4,999 views.  Whether or not it was direct intervention by the Great Cyber Gods I can’t say, but I got a screen shot of my first 5,000 page views. The image stayed in my files for a year or two, but over time it became less and less important.  Eventually, I deleted it.

In the intervening years, I’ve done a good bit of thinking about blog stats, followers, and the frantic search for page views and likes. Six years ago, I knew very little about blogging, but I knew something about journeys. I knew I didn’t want to be the vacationer who travels thousands of miles only to return home with no stories to tell, any more than I wanted to be a traveler so odometer-focused I had no time to glance at the scenery along the way.

Certainly, I had goals for my writing when I began this journey on April 19, six years ago. I still do, and those goals include increasing readership.  But questions that began forming as early as childhood still apply. Am I traveling to see the sights, meet some people and enjoy the experience, or am I traveling simply in order to brag about the miles I’ve covered when I get back home? 

If you’ve come to know me at all, you know my answer. When another anniversary rolls around and I’m peering at the blogometer, no matter what the numbers say, I’ll be thinking about them in the context of writing, readers, and the relationships with people and life they represent. 

Sometimes, you have to drive to get somewhere.  But whether you’re driving three thousand miles, or three hundred, or thirty, there’s no reason not to enjoy the scenery, and even less reason not to pull over now and then, kick off your shoes, order a drink and have some conversation with the locals.  You might hear a good story or two, and you might have something more than miles to talk about when you get home.

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Published in: on April 13, 2014 at 9:03 am  Comments (74)  
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Slender in the Grass

 of springtime,
sleep on. A glint
of green on rising
 grass,  reed-slender beyond
 all imagining, you cling
 to your swaying, sunlit world
with perfect confidence;  you entrance
our raucous, chattering pond with silence.

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For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem containing ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click HERE and HERE.

Reclaiming the Freedom to Sing

Because it was a school night, my tenth birthday celebration necessarily remained a small affair, confined to our family’s dinner table.

It was October 23, 1956. As I blew out the candles on my cake, whatever sweet, mid-western wishes I made had little in common with the wishes of children a world away, children who, with their own parents, were marking a different sort of occasion –  an uprising that later would be known as the Hungarian Revolution.

On the 24th of October, or perhaps the 25th, I passed through the dining room on my way to breakfast and noticed the Des Moines Register lying where my cake had been. A photograph filled the space above the fold, and a bold caption: “REVOLUTION IN HUNGARY.”

At the time, there was no 24-hour news cycle. There was no CNN, no internet, no Facebook or Twitter. There was only a newspaper, motionless and mute, waiting while my father readied for work and my mother drank coffee in the kitchen.

I stood at the table, transfixed by the photograph. Eventually, my air of concentrated astonishment caught my dad’s attention. Stopping behind me, he asked, “What’s happening?”  I pointed to the photograph. He picked up the front page, scanned it, then brought it to the kitchen. He showed it to my mother, then handed it to me.  “Maybe you should take the newspaper to school,” he said. And so I did. (more…)

Office Hours at the Boatyard

  here, no standard
  desk, no dull constraint
  or purposeless command.
  Rippled waves of thought ebb out,
  flow back; the feathered word takes flight
  and circles to the sky, seeking new
  companions, taut wires on which to land.

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment, please click below.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem containing ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click HERE and HERE.

Shaping Sentences, Choosing Words

Decades ago, I learned to delight in that staple of elementary school education, the vocabulary quiz.  As kindergarten students, we were exempted from its discipline, but once we entered first grade it was expected that we would learn twenty new words each week — not only their meanings, but also their spelling, correct pronunciation, and proper use in a sentence.

As far as I was concerned, forty weekly words would have been acceptable.  Every word turned on my tongue like a key, unlocking a new and unexpected world.  Sometimes, pushing against inexplicable spellings or mysterious definitions, I found words to be like windows, opening to reveal a variety of intriguing vistas.

Words with multiple syllables were my favorites. Tumbling through sentences like grade-schoolers at play, it seemed they could go on forever.  Walking to school in the morning, I’d rehearse them in my mind.  Perspicacity.  Archetype.  Lacuna.  Paraphernalia.  Abnegate. Chrysanthemums. (more…)


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