My earliest memories of my parents’ car aren’t of the car as a whole. I haven’t a clue what the make, model or color might have been, but I can describe the back seat perfectly. It was, after all, my world-on-wheels. It came fully furnished with a red plaid wool stadium blanket in a carrying case, a plastic solitaire game with red and blue pegs, an old doll suitcase filled with crayolas, paper dolls and colored tablets, and a pile of Golden Books. Whether it was a trip to the A&W for rootbeer 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 territory to do with as I pleased.
Sometimes on longer trips I’d tire of my paper dolls and books. Stretched out across the seat, pretending to be asleep, I’d listen as the low voices of my mother and father murmured through the air, suspended like a conversational cloud that floated through my consciousness. Sometimes I drifted off to sleep, secure against my pillows, clutching my special blanket and feeling the soft hum of the tires. Sometimes I just listened, enjoying the sense of movement and the hum of my parents’ voices.
Growing older, I began to take more interest in the trips themselves. No longer content to sleep away the miles, I hung over the front seat, dangling my arms and chattering. We played car games, reading the Burma Shave signs along the roadsides, looking for out-of-state license plates or ”stamping” white horses in the fields for luck. Feeling a little constrained, a little impatient, I asked questions common to every traveler since Moses led his own ragged band across the Red Sea: how much longer? How much farther? Are we there yet? Where will we stay? Did you make reservations…?
Hanging over the front seat one day, I noticed the slowly turning numerals on the odometer. Watching it, I began to understand distance in a new way, and when my parents bought a new car it was the odometer that intrigued me most. I was disappointed when I missed seeing it turn over the first thousand miles, but I remember reaching 5,000 miles, and 10,000. Any time a series of nines showed up, it was especially exciting: 39,999 miles was just as good as 99,999, and I watched the numbers turn over on those ”big days” whenever I could.
When I began driving my own cars, the fascination lingered. When my last and most-beloved Toyota clicked over to 100,000 miles, I smiled approvingly. When 200,000 miles arrived, 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 dare to commit some sort of ghastly mechanical suicide while my back was turned?
Nothing untoward happened. Despite the fact that I had to drive around for ten extra minutes one evening to witness the grand event, I giggled with satisfaction when an unbelievable 300,000 appeared. When the 350,000 mile mark rolled around it stil was cool, but at 386,000, I decided I was pressing my luck. The young woman I sold the Toyota to still hasn’t achieved 400,000 miles, but she says she’s inching her way toward it, and plans to give the car a party when it happens.
As a child, I had plenty of opportunity to watch odometers chew through great chunks of mileage when vacation time arrived. We lived in a Company town, and my dad worked for the Company. The plants shut down each summer for two weeks of maintenance, and everyone left for vacation at the same time. But as I learned, there are vacations, and then there are vacations. Not all parents took the same approach.
My Dad was a car guy and enjoyed driving, but he always was willing to combine a little education and fun with his hunger for the open road. Our trips took us to Minnesota, Colorado, South Dakota, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana. We waded across the Mississippi where she begins, and were amazed by her muddy Delta where she ends. We learned the story of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his great Blue Ox. We carried home glass tubes filled with iron ore samples from Hibbing and chunks of granite and basalt from Colorado. Indian Corn from the Dakotas hung on our front door in the fall, and photographs taken at the Continental Divide, Leech Lake, and the Flint Hills made it to Show-and-Tell.
We even had a real adventure or two. I still remember the horse-drawn ferry at a Kentucky river crossing, July snowball fights in the Rockies, and that stuff-of-family-legends night in Rainy River, Ontario, when we landed in a room above a tavern with a B-grade-movie neon light outside the window, a B-movie ruckus in the bar, and a chair shoved under the doorknob for a little extra security.
When the trips ended and families returned home, my friends and I compared notes on our adventures while our fathers went back to work. The year we traveled to a Minnesota lake and stayed in a cabin, I was telling my excited tale of fish, snails and leeches when another girl looked at me and said, “Yeh. 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, it seems one of the stranger twists on Robert Paul Smith’s memoir, “Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing”. Smith’s point was that kids always are doing something – most of it quite interesting – but that adults have neither the time nor the inclination to find out what’s happening under their very noses. In the case of my friend’s family, however, the “nothing” experienced on vacation was just that: nothing. Their two weeks were filled with highways, gas stations, trading drivers and trying to figure out how far they could go before they had to turn around and come back.
Every year, it was the same. When school started and it was time to write ”what I did on my summer vacation” essays, most of us wrote about camp, or fishing, or swimming, or trips to exotic destinations like Omaha. And every year we heard our friend brag, “We drove 3,000 miles”. We never knew quite how to feel about it. Sometimes we were jealous, and sometimes we just didn’t understand the point. Since we weren’t any more clear on what to say to her, we simply told our own stories and moved on.
I suspect none of this would have come to mind had I not logged on to WordPress last night, checked my stats and discovered a surprise. After three months, 4,996 page views had been recorded. Looking at the page, I was mesmerized. I might as well have been a kid again, back in the family car and waiting for the odometer to roll over to 5,000. I needed to leave, but I couldn’t move. As I watched, the total views clicked up to 4,997, and then 4,998. With the total sitting at 4,999, I pushed back my chair and left. There was no way to make a phone call and say, “Sorry, I’ll be a little late. I’m waiting for 5,000 hits.” Even if I’d made the call, they wouldn’t have understood.
When I came home, the page still was showing 4,999 views. Whether the Great Cyber-Gods arranged it that way or dumb luck had intervened, I got my screen shot of the benchmark 5,000 hits.
Afterward, I did a good bit of thinking about statistics, and the frantic search for “hits” among bloggers. Like my classmate who bragged she traveled 3,000 miles but didn’t have a single story to tell, or like travelers so focused on their odometers they have no time for even a glance at the scenery along the way, some folks seem to be missing the point. Behind the Sitemeter, StatCounter and Google Analytics numbers are people: human readers who arrive on sites for particular reasons, and who are far more complex and valuable than simple marks on a graph. Turning those readers into real friends requires far more dedication and effort than simply throwing them onto a list at BlogCatalog.
Certainly I have goals for my blog, and those goals include increasing readership. But I faced the question early on: am I traveling to see the sights, meet some people and enjoy the experience, or am I traveling simply to be able to brag about the miles I’ve covered when I get back home?
Of course I know the answer to that question, and if you’ve come to know me at all, you know my answer as well. When six months rolls around and I’m peering at my blogometer again, 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.
It’s a fact that you have to drive to get somewhere. But the larger truth is that, whether you’re driving 3,000 miles, or 300, or 30, there’s no reason not to pull over now and then, kick off your shoes and enjoy the scenery 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.
COMMENTS ARE WELCOME… To leave a comment or respond to one, please click below