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 (80)  
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Victor, Hugo and the Elephants

For years I’d been side-stepping Hugo without a thought. Heading north from Houston toward the east side of Kansas City, my route never varied: Lufkin, Nacogdoches and Paris in Texas, a quick slide through Oklahoma on the Indian Nation and Will Rogers turnpikes, a swing around Joplin and an easy final leg up to Blue Springs.

Tucked into a bend in the road at the southern terminus of the Indian Nation, bereft of glitzy billboards or even a retro gas station at the intersection, Hugo is all but invisible from the four-lane. If you’re just passing through with no reason to take the business route into town, you could be excused for thinking Hugo resembles other hamlets clustered along the Texas-Oklahoma border -  Powderville, Arthur City, Frogville.

I wasn’t sure what I’d find in Hugo, but I’d had my curiosity piqued and decided a visit was in order. After all, the Evergreen Cemetery in Paris may have Willet Babcock’s fancied-up tomb topped with a life-sized Jesus wearing cowboy boots, but Hugo’s Mt. Olivet boasts three world championship rodeo cowboys, the original Marlboro Man and William Edmond Ansley, one of twenty or so midgets who made a career of promoting “Buster Brown” shoes across the country. (more…)

Published in: on November 11, 2012 at 9:20 pm  Comments (55)  
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Heading Home

Given a choice, my mother preferred not to travel. She enjoyed being in new places, visiting family members and taking in the occasional entertainment, but she despised the process of getting from point A to point B. Packing for a trip was agony – so many decisions needed to be made!  Even getting the house cleaned and put in order before leaving created high anxiety, but it had to be done. What if you died on the road? Certainly you wouldn’t want strangers roaming through your bedroom, running their fingers over a dusty night stand and telling one another you were slovenly.

As for those hours in the car, there weren’t enough magazines, knitting projects or books in the world to overcome her impatience. Sometimes she seemed to be thinking, “If only I could close my eyes and discover when I opened them this misery had passed.” Other times, she put her feelings into words: “If I’d known it was going to take this long to get there, I would have stayed home.”

Now and then someone with an inclination to tease would call her “Dorothy”, and everyone understood the reference. She’d just laugh and say,  “If someone gave me a pair of ruby slippers, I’d be out of Oz in a minute. Being able to click my heels and go would make life a whole lot easier.”  (more…)

Published in: on October 11, 2011 at 3:22 am  Comments (64)  
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It’s Their Nation, Too

Despite the drought, despite an area-wide ban on the sale or use of fireworks and despite even the children being denied their sparklers and snakes, the traditional Independence Day show will go on in Houston. Billed as an “extraordinary extravaganza”, the Freedom Over Texas festival is a wonderful event that also exemplifies the sort of hyperbolic excess dear to the hearts of civic boosters everywhere.

Houston’s not alone, of course. Washington D.C. planners are promoting “spectacular” fireworks explosions over the Washington Monument.  Huntington Beach promises the “largest parade west of the Mississippi River”.  New York City will be “displaying its patriotism through massive fireworks” and Boston intends to celebrate “in a big way”. San Francisco and Chicago  will provide “magnificent” and “breath-taking” events, while New Orleans will tow out a barge to make it all happen. Not to be outdone, San Diego will be broadcasting their “Big Bay Boom”  live to the web with helicopter views, ensuring that the rest of the country will have opportunity to see the show “rated Number Seven by the travel industry”. (more…)

Published in: on July 3, 2011 at 4:40 am  Comments (38)  
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Muddy Waters

Goin’ down to the Delta,
lookin’ for a brand new rhyme,
Gonna find me a clock
that don’t tell a single time,
Gonna find me a river
where the muddy waters flow just fine.
~ Mississippi Writin’ Blues

Interstate highways are fine things. For my generation, one that always considered “going for a drive” a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment, the beginning  of the interstate highway system meant an expansion of freedom and an increased sense of mobility, a sense greatly encouraged by speed limit signs suggesting drivers determine their own “Reasonable and Proper” speed.

Today’s speed regulators aren’t quite so laissez-faire, but by the time those signs disappeared I’d learned a thing or two about the difference between driving and traveling. Today I worry less about making time and focus more on spending time – rather different pursuits, no matter where you’re traveling.

Between Memphis and Vicksburg, a driver can make great time on the interstates. But to the west of I-55 and north of I-20 lies a fertile, alluvial plain whose richness of culture and history equals the richness of its soil.  Bounded by the Yazoo to the east and the Mississippi to the west, the Mississippi Delta is shaped, nourished and occasionally destroyed by the rivers that roll along her edges. Experiencing her life requires a little slowing down. (more…)


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