April 6, 2010 –
Outside Melbourne, Florida
I am seated in my son’s Volkswagen Jetta, as he drives us south, down I-95. The warm sun streaming through the front windshield bastes me as if I were a succulent Butterball turkey, waiting patiently to be carved. An hour earlier, Alexander and I gorged ourselves on blueberry pancakes and pure, golden, Vermont maple syrup at the Cracker Barrel, near Melbourne, Florida. Our final destination is the city marina at West Palm Beach, where Alexander will crew on a 65-foot Alden sailboat, originally built for General George S. Patton, on the boat’s return from the Bahamas to Martha’s Vineyard for summer duty.
I am fast asleep in the passenger seat, when I think I hear someone call my name. It’s as if I have been trudging along a trail, deep in the forest, and suddenly stop because I hear a familiar sound. It is a faraway cry, like I am at the bottom of a deep well, and someone above is attempting to get my attention. The intrusion is annoying. It is reminiscent of those days when I was a young boy, and my mother used to call me in for dinner. I could hear her faint voice from down the street and knew it meant the end of the day’s joy. A bath and an early bed awaited me, neither of which I was ready to receive.
Now, lying in the front seat of Alexander’s Jetta, I have that same end-of-joy feeling. I just want to be left alone. Ignore the call … go back to sleep, I tell myself. But there is an edge in that cry, like the one in my mother’s voice when she hollered, “Hugh Junior, this is my FINAL call of the evening,” and I knew I had to go, or else.
My eyes fly open to brilliant, bright sunlight streaming through the Jetta’s windshield and a sky so blue it draws me upwards with the force of my ache to be closer to it. It takes only a microsecond to survey our situation, but in that brilliant brightness, everything inside the car is caught in a glow that contains the moment. It’s as if I am suddenly holding the entire world in one of those plastic snow globes, the kind that encapsulates a miniature scene, and if I were to shake it, tiny bits of glitter would swirl up, then down, creating a small blizzard twirling away in the palm of my hand. In this snow-globe moment, in some weird, Einstein-relativity sort of a way, I feel as if I have plenty of time. Plenty of time to witness the shiny, gold Jetta crossing unscathed through three lanes of southbound I-95 traffic. Plenty of time to read the speedometer as it chronicles our 80-miles-per-hour flight through space. Plenty of time to view the stand of stout Australian pines waiting patiently for us.
Plenty of time to look over and see my beautiful, young son fast asleep behind the wheel.
First, I think, Do we keep going until the Jetta finds its way to the trees? Then, I remember how much I have always loved those weeping Australian pines. How, as a young boy, I wanted to dig one up and plant it so it would grow big and tall in our Jacksonville backyard, and I could climb to the very top and sway for hours, as the wind made the branches dance, and I could enjoy the view above the roof of neighborhood houses like a lonesome bird.
And then I recall how the appearance of Australian pines along the interstate signals the dividing line that separates the rest of the state from tropical South Florida—how, as a kid, traveling with my parents, that meant we were getting nearer to our destination: the pool, the beach, the warmth of the sand, and the blue-green water of the Atlantic Ocean. And then I think, If I let the Jetta make it to the stand of trees, maybe I can show my son what it was like before they ruined such a beautiful paradise. But then we hit the rough ridges at the edge of the concrete pavement, and the car rattles, and before I know it, my hand shoots forward to steady the wheel, guiding us away from paradise and back into the heavy flow of traffic. Alexander’s head snaps up as his fearful hands instinctively grab to make us swerve, but I smile and tell him, “It’s okay, son. I’ve got it.”
* * *
I’ve deposited Alexander at the West Palm Beach City Marina. Now it’s me behind the wheel of the gold Jetta—and, somehow, everything feels different. I sense an audible hum inside the passenger compartment. The air is mildly electric, and the small space feels full, although I travel alone this evening. It takes another hour or so, but I finally pass the place where Alexander and I almost slipped off the edge of the road. I have been mulling over the consequences of that moment: Where would we be had I not answered the cry to wake up?
To be honest, Alexander says we would have been just fine. He just dozed for a microsecond, he maintains. It was my sense of things that was skewed, a carb-induced drama born of too many pancakes and too long a nap. It was just dad, being melodramatic. In fact, for years to come, I will try not to bring this up when Alexander is around, as he will continue to chide me and roll his eyes. That’s okay. I am still so very glad my hand shot forward to grab the wheel. But I’m also grateful that we took that little three-lane trip aimed at the Australian pines.
You see, my life has always turned on a reality that is formed by a different parallax. Ever since I was young, there have been moments when I seem to collide with another place, another space, another time. However you frame it, our near miss in the Jetta this evening is another in a long procession of similar experiences. Yet, this quirky collision with time and space has given me a wake-up call. Whatever the true danger of that moment, it catapulted me into a realization about how far removed from the bright light my life has become. I am not alone. So many people are dealing with the horrific fallout from the economic meltdown of the past year-and-a-half—it’s as if the map of our world has been redrawn, and the normal signposts we once used to navigate our lives simply no longer exist. It seems as if everyone, everywhere, is coping with trauma these days. Myself, I am seeking answers.
As I continue northward towards St. Augustine, a switch trips in my brain with a distinctive and resounding click, and I realize the best place for me to find these answers is not seated at a computer twelve hours a day, but winding down the back roads of our country. With that, the idea for the bike trip is simply there. Immediately, it seems to be the solution—the right thing to do—and I find myself nodding in agreement, as if I am answering some unseen questioner about my life. Yes, I nod. I will ride my bicycle approximately two thousand miles across America to arrive in Taos, New Mexico, on or before my 54th birthday this August 1st. And, at this moment, it seems just that simple.
* * *
In 1991, when Alexander was only four months old, I moved from St. Augustine to the high mountain desert of Taos, New Mexico. In the ensuing years, I crisscrossed America many times, visiting my family in Jacksonville and spending precious time with good friends in the nation’s oldest city. Even flying along interstate highways, that trip across more than three-quarters of America took three to four days of committed driving. But every single time I made that journey, at some point along the way, I wondered, What would it be like to travel a similar route on a bicycle? The thought of pedaling slowly across the same territory, smelling the fresh air of the countryside, visiting small communities that had always seemed to be just grayed names on a map, and talking to the people I met on my way, never failed to enchant me. So often, as I careened back and forth across America at 75 miles per hour, my mind was on a bicycle moving at ten. But it was a ridiculous idea. I would never experience such a trip. I mean, I had a bicycle, but I never even rode it. Who was I trying to fool?
* * *
Over coffee the next morning, when I tell my wife, Elisabeth, about my plan, her exact response is, “Honey, I think that’s a good idea.” (Strange. When does that happen? It’s kind of like Obi Wan Kenobi putting the juju on the storm troopers at the checkpoint with young Luke Skywalker, so that each trooper nods his head in agreement and allows them to pass unharmed.) When I tell my friends, the more diplomatic among them declare it “Quite an ambitious undertaking, Hugh”—although, the refrain of “Hugh, have you lost your fucking mind?” reverberates quite often. And with good reason, as I am not an athlete nor used to making physically challenging choices of any kind. In fact, I have always lived by my motto, “I am built for comfort not for speed.”
But something bigger is at play, here. I believe at some point in our lives, we are each called to make a special journey, one where we discover the limits of our humanity. If we travel down this road, a new path may open, providing insight and direction we might otherwise have missed. My invitation to do just that has officially been delivered, and I will at last have my chance to pedal across America. I must have faith that my decision to follow this road is a good one—that it will lead me back to the bright light.