John Steinbeck’s delightful little volume Travels with Charley fascinates me each time I read it. It tells how the author and his dog took to the highways, traveling hundreds of miles, encountering all sorts of interesting people and intriguing situations. William Least Heat Moon, of American Indian stock, wrote a similar work many years later which he titled Blue Highways, another casual travelogue worth reading. Fed up with shallow relationships and fast freeways, Moon was curious about life being lived beside the slow lanes across the heartland of America. He deliberately chose the back roads for his journey, the gravel-and-asphalt two-laners off the beaten path. Mixing a few black and white photos with his diarylike text, the man enables you to feel what it was like to mingle with authentic folks in places that will never make the headlines. For years Charles Kuralt did the same thing with his on-the-road camera crew as he stopped and interviewed people whom time seemed to have left behind.
I find myself charmed by that sort of thing. I like back roads, old bridges, service stations still run by mechanics in greasy overalls, banjo-pickin’ bluegrass tunes, stores heated by potbelly stoves with a handful of folks sitting on stubby stools, playing dominoes . . . folks who look you in the eye as they answer slowly, smiling warmly. I even like mom-and-pop cafes where the heavyset waitress calls you “darlin’” and serves you a steaming bowl of chili, hot coffee in a thick white mug, and a slice of cornbread big enough for two; and where you can listen to a couple of guys at the next table talking about bass fishin’ or squirrel huntin’ early that morning or last Friday night’s high school football game. Just good, country people who wouldn’t have a clue about floppy disks or networking, but who wouldn’t hesitate to crawl under your hood and help you find out why your battery isn’t charging. To them, that’s what user friendly really means.
I got a quick taste of this a few years ago when I drove our youngest son across eight states to get him settled in an apartment near a school he would be attending. We swapped turns driving his pickup, spent several nights in motels, and by the time we rolled into the last driveway, we’d covered 2,569 miles. I suppose you could say it was my own “travels with Chuck” . . . and I loved every minute of it.
We had variety aplenty—sandy desert, dry cactus, mountains in the distance, snow, sleet, ice, rolling hills, cattle-covered ranch land, cypress-lined swampland, rain, wind, clear skies, and dark nights. We drove through towns we’d never heard of, over rivers we couldn’t pronounce, ate at a few spots we wouldn’t recommend, and stayed at a couple of places you can bet AAA doesn’t include in their listing . . . and it was great.
Small talk and silence. Deep discussions and laughter. Hamburgers and Cokes, jokes and snoozes. Snow-covered prairies and hilltop vistas offered visual feasts not found in smoggy southern California or on the busy streets of the Metroplex. But the best part of all? Being with my twenty-year-old son. Sharing feelings we hadn’t talked about for much too long. With a 5 x 8 U-Haul behind us and nothing but miles of highway in front of us, life was distilled to stuff that mattered.
Why did I love the trip? Because I love my son. I cannot tell you the number of times I found myself overcome with nostalgia as I thought about the inescapable reality of six simple words: He is now on his own. He no longer needs his mother or me to make his decisions, to remind him to keep an obligation, to be on time, to study hard, to take this or that when he feels sick, to clean up his place. We are separated not only by 2,500-plus miles, but also by a wholesome and very necessary rite of passage.
As the two of us walked together toward the airline terminal where I was to catch a return flight home, we arrived at a small sign: “Only ticketed passengers beyond this point.” We stopped. He cocked his head and smiled, “Well, Dad, I guess this is it.” Swallowing a knot in my throat, I answered, “Yep . . . I suppose this is it.”
Suddenly he wrapped his long arms around me and whispered the words every father longs to hear from his own: “I love you, Dad.” I held him tightly and recalled two decades of hugs from this boy who is now a man. I replayed childhood scenes of that little towhead and forced myself not to cling.
As my plane lifted high above the blue highways, I asked the Lord for four things: the unselfishness to release him, the vision to encourage him, the faithfulness to pray for him, and the wisdom to be there for him whenever or wherever that may be. God knows I’m willing to do whatever.
I was even willing to crawl back into that pickup when school was over and take on those same 2,569 miles in the opposite direction. Only next time there’d be one spot where we definitely would not stop. The place might be quaint and the waitress might call me “darlin'," but the chili was terrible.