Best Worst Year: Episode 26 (Or, The Old Man and the Road)

In a little over 72 hours, I drove to and from Springfield, Il, found an apartment, and officially began the countdown to my move. Now out of those 72 hours, I spent about 26 or so on the road. It’s kind of fitting that the next chapter of my Best Worst Year would be spent on the longest road trip I’ve taken in years.

And that I wouldn’t be taking it alone.

I can’t remember the last time my dad and I spent so much time together on the highway–maybe second grade when we went to Kansas City. I got my first Louisville Slugger on that trip. We also saw the Football Hall of Fame, and stayed at a dive motel which pretty much jump started my mom’s OCD (sidebar: when we went to the Philippines a few years back, among the items shipped in advance was a mini-keg sized container of Purell. True story.). I remember eating burgers from a Stuckey’s and watching Fred Lynn win the All Star Game for the American League for the first time in seemingly years. Even as miserable as that crime-scene per hour motel room was, cheap burgers and baseball made everything all right.

So jump to decades later and I’m the road warrior now. I drove the bulk of the 13 hours out, some 750 miles out to the land of Lincoln–most of it a straight shot on Interstate 80. My dad has a bad back back and bum leg so I was very much concerned that he shouldn’t have to drive. Plus, I don’t do well riding shotgun anymore. I’m too used to being behind the wheel. When you set out so early and you know the day will evaporate under your wheels, there are a few things you hope for–good music, good weather, and good conversation. Had all three in spades.

Some highlights: (One) My dad has no rhythm at all. Far fucking from it. He would be drumming away to the Rolling Stones and was so far off the beat it was almost avant garde–it was so white it made Mitt Romney look like Miles Davis. It got to the point where he was no longer allowed to tap along in any audible fashion for fear of me driving into a divider. (Two) When my mom is not around, my dad swears with aplomb and poetic flair. He said a few things to truckers which would have made Louis C.K. blush. (Three) Diner folk love us. On our meal breaks, we seemed to be conversation magnets. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the mania of coffee consumption, the good natured ribbing we gave one another, or if we just looked like we wanted to know about South Dakota but one thing is certainly true: when a retired lady truck driver starts asks your advice on food, you’d better be right. (Four) Apartment hunting with my dad was worth it just for the look on his face when we drove through one of the complexes I was considering: “That pool is a green I’ve never seen before. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

We put some honest miles this trip. We talked a lot–words and wisdom now sewn into the fabric of miles and family bonds; personal histories, some long walks we took alone and what we learned from them. It was not an overdue conversation but the extension of a dialogue which becomes more valuable to me the older I get.

I have spent a good portion of this year having great conversations. Hearts open, words full of meaning. I feel fortunate to have been able to be so mindful of these conversations as some of them were happening. Usually you are unaware when a red letter talk is happening–only in hindsight are you given a sense of its import. For some reason though, and it may have much to do with me being in the right headspace or carrying such a greater urgency for such heart to hearts, I have been more aware than not. Even if I couldn’t articulate just why conversation X was so important, I could feel the atmosphere around it change. This doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that these were fireside chats which will be forever etched in reverse on mirror windows of contemplation in the temple of melodrama. In some cases, it wasn’t what was said but what was shared.

My old man ended up driving most of the return trip home. It’s like he got younger as the miles got longer. A couple hours into the ride home,I was actually pretty tired. For the first time in a long time, I felt worked over by the highway. Usually, knowing the road is a set of open arms is enough to spur me on for hours and hours. Then again, have you’ve been on I 55 heading to Chicago? It’s only two hours and change but it feels like the rest of your life. I never thought I would say this but I’m going to miss highway driving through Pennsylvania. Seriously. From the passenger side, I watched my dad’s reflection in the tail lights of big rigs and passing cars. His face got became softer, crows feet vanished. He turned the radio up for Joe Cocker and the Allman Brothers. He breathed along with the contours of divided highways, like he had always known how the road bends just so on the Indiana/Ohio border. He had other stories from days spent as a Navy man, a young heartbreaking turk taking a road trip through the desert, the cars he owned, the audio tapes he sent back to Pennsylvania while in Vietnam. He talked about meeting my mother in Manila, and how she has been and will always be his best friend, and how lucky we are to have her. In a little over thirteen hours, he had reclaimed that part of highway which once spoke to him the way it speaks to me now. As I struggle to finish this little dispatch this week, all I can think about is how the highway is just in my blood. I guess that makes me my father’s son, through and through. There is no better thing I could ever think of being.

——–

Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He will become the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal at Benedictine University in about two weeks. 

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