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Miles and days, Wyoming to Connecticut
Oct 18, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck
I was relieved to learn that echoes of early childhood and fatherhood still can be heard.
Does a parent ever entirely stop thinking in terms of having a small child, even when the child is anything but? I haven't been able to shake it, not completely.
I drove the 2,000 miles from Wyoming to Connecticut with my college boy again, riding along in a station wagon as he headed east for his junior year.
He's 20 now. Twenty years old. Young still, of course, but years removed from taking Dad's hand reflexively as we walked together. No more bounding in wonder with a leaf in his hand, he the first ever to discover it -- and me the first ever to discover a boy discovering a leaf.
But there are still some discoveries to make together, and still some leftovers from little boyhood, some his doing, some mine.
"Let's stop at Lincoln," he said on our first leg of travel on the long drive east. We first had stopped at the Lincoln monument between Laramie and Cheyenne when he was still young and wondrous, and when I was still the giant of his world. I told him to watch the big statue at the rest stop. "If you look at him just the right way, he'll look right back at you," I said.
And it worked. Time after time, either driving by or stopping, there's the point when the statue "looks right at you" in the same way the eyes of a painted portrait will, or a face in a photograph.
Nothing more special to it than that, nothing unique except our being there together. To a 5-year-old, Lincoln's gaze was a thrill.
It was early evening when we stepped out of our vehicles (we traveled in two cars to Denver so that I would have something to drive home when I flew back alone). Inside, the sign writers at the small historical display have made an error. They didn't know whether to refer to "its" or "it's" when describing the altitude of the highway there, and so went with neither -- settling on its'. Grammarians, find me the written occasion that calls for its', and I'll pay you five dollars, on the spot.
Meeting up after dark at the Denver airport parking lot, we joined forces from two vehicles into one, the pickup left waiting for my return six days later. Opting, for the first time on our long drive to the East Coast -- this was the fourth time we'd done it -- to hold south for a thousand miles or so, we sped into eastern Colorado and the Great Plains, with Kansas and Missouri ahead before the veer north.
We slept the night in Limon, Colo., where I drove as a young teen with my father when he was thinking of buying the newspaper there. No offense to Limon, which hosted us comfortably for the night, but looking around the next morning, I was relieved that business deal didn't get done.
Robert, back from a summer abroad, had studied mighty St. Paul's Cathedral, not to mention climbing the 700-some spiraled stairs to the top of the 365-foot dome. So in Kansas we detoured south to see The Cathedral of the Plains in a farm town that seemed not much bigger than Shoshoni, the big church looming for miles in view as we approached, surely just as its ambitious builders wanted. Only the gray grain elevators in the distance could compare -- they, like it, sacred to the Kansas faithful.
At a gas stop in Kansas City, we knew we weren't in Kansas anymore, both geographically and the way Dorothy means it on the Yellow Brick Road. We had "got east." This was a different country, and we drove into the darkness of it to St. Louis, steering strange freeway exits and parking lot configurations of the sort common to the modern motel-restaurant-gas station conglomerations on city outskirts everywhere. Looking for our hotel, we had to do a U-turn on a street named Harvard. Robert grumbled good-naturedly.
I did 30 minutes on the hotel treadmill the next morning and urged Robert to do the same before heading into our third leg of all-day sedentarism. He grumbled, less good-naturedly this time, but went in. I looked for him later and he was swimming back and forth across the deserted hotel pool. He earned some time in the hot tub afterward.
"Dad, I swam my laps," he said, looking up at me. And there it was -- the little boy again, for a moment.
Cutting northeast through Indianapolis, he pointed out the landmarks in a city he had been to several times already during his run to the top of the Key Club International hierarchy when he was in high school. We mowed down the smaller states where the Central Time Zone met the Eastern. We talked, listened to music, and I read to him for a while the way I did for 5,000 hours when we both were younger.
Determined to make a deeper probe into Pennsylvania than we had managed the previous two years, we finally found beds in a place with a familiar name -- Dubois -- which the desk clerk said was pronounced just as we say it in Wyoming. He showed me his white Harley-Davidson parked outside, with orange flames on the gas tank.
Gliding across Pennsylvania, Robert told me about a short essay he had to submit as his application to be admitted to a literature seminar on heroes and villains. Lots of applicants but only a dozen slots. I had an idea, and he ran with it -- creative, catchy and funny, all in 250 words. Stretching our legs on one of the huge, green Pennsylvania rest stops, he read me the finished product. (He got in.)
We arrived that afternoon toward the end of the day in New Haven, I help him load some stuff from summer storage into the car for the four-block drive from his old residence hall to the new one. "You drive, and I'll meet you over there," he said. "I want to walk across my campus."
He set off, on much the same route he had trudged two years earlier on night one, when he told me all he wanted to do was go home.
Yale at dusk is a grand place to be. He knows it now.
I left a couple of days later, flying west from Newark -- right back over Missouri, Kansas and eastern Colorado, as it turned out. Some of the big center-pivot irrigated farms approaching Denver from the east had small sections unaccounted for, as if giant pies had a slice removed. From 30,000 feet they reminded me of nothing so much as Pacman from the old video game, and I imagined the dot-gobbling game character devouring the 2,000 miles backward from New Haven to Riverton, a distance that can be measured on a map, but, as the last three years have shown me, hardly in any other way.
All the hours and miles we had paid out over four days in the car together were reeled back in again from the air in less than four hours. Not erased -- never that, I hope -- but rewound onto a spool of time, not quite as if it had never happened, but almost short-changed by the realization of how quickly it could be reversed if we let it.
That's why we drive. One more time after this year.
I was in the pickup by early afternoon, and a couple of hours later I topped the summit between Cheyenne and Laramie. There was the big Lincoln statue, observing all who passed.
I pulled in for a pit stop and texted Robert: "He looked right at me."
I thought he'd still like to know.