A Thousand Miles from Nowhere. That's a country song. It's also about twelve miles away from where I live. Let's suffice it to say that I live in a small town that is pretty far from the bulk of the major population centers in this world. And that's okay, I sort of like it. The point it that when the nearest Wal-Mart is in the next county, one tends to do a fair amount of driving to get to and fro. The nearest place where you can get on a jet plane is about two hours away. Five hours in the car to see professional baseball live. And so on and so forth.
Every weekend of every summer of every year since the beginning of time in the Midwest, there is an exodus from south to north for about a week and then back again, from people going from places where there are nothing but strip malls and airports and professional baseball and they come to places like here; piling in the minivan or the modern day minivan - the SUV - to tow the boat or maybe the camper into the lake strewn areas of the north. Usually the trip is between four and eight hours, and it features many, many of the features that one sees in National Lampoons Vacation, albeit on a much smaller scale.
I will freely admit that I was one of those people when I was a kid. There is one major difference though: I am a road dork. I always have been. When I was a kid I used to swing on the swing in my backyard and pretend I was driving a car. I had streets and roads set up all around my yard and all around my neighborhood. Even today I look at pictures of road signs when no one is looking and I can tell you what font is on just about any particular road sign that we pass. I know, it's not right but it is me. I also always try to take a different route home from wherever I happen to go. So now, armed with this information, you will make fun of me I am sure, but you can also imagine how I was as geeked for the ride to vacation as I was for vacation itself.
Oh yeah, I was all about the ride. It's only about a four hour ride when you get down to it, but when you are seven it's about as far as one can conceive going. And with a family in a minivan with a boat in tow, in the days before the DVD players in the car and the invention of the iPod, I can imagine that is about as far as one would care to take a family. I usually commanded the front seat because it was an excellent way to keep me quiet and occupied. See, I am sort of like Sam. Sam is my sister's dog, and he used to tear up the house when everyone was at work. Then, one day someone left the curtain on the patio door open, and when my sister came home nothing was torn up and Sam way lying contentedly by the window, staring at the world outside. Well, that's me. If I can look out the car window I am contented as the day is long, so my mom would usually concede the front seat to me in the name of peace and harmony. She really is great, isn't she?
I loved every minute of the ride. My thing, the move that I would always try, was to see down every road that we drove past. This was especially difficult when it came to a crossroad that went both directions, and I am sure that I was close to whiplash on more than one occasion. It very rarely worked, but that was okay because I could always look again on the way home. But I loved the whole thing anyway, the big green signs on the freeway advertising towns that I would never go to God knows how far away; the smaller green signs pointing to tiny little towns down narrow county roads; the towns; the houses, with the yard decorations and the strange cars parked in the strange driveways; the parks; the people; the whole thing. The point where the freeway ran out and it was nothing but two lane roads for the rest of the way was just about the most exotic place I could think of, and it sort of filled me with excitement like I was on an airplane about the break down through the clouds and see Hawai'i unfold beneath me for the first time.
Fast forward about twenty years and it is a VERY different story. I am old enough to go my own way and I pay for my own gas so no one can keep me from exploring, so a lot of those towns I have been to, and they look a lot like the other towns I had already been to before that. The end of the freeway now for me is the start of the freeway and it means that I can be done with this bullshit and get somewhere without all these damn trucks with boats getting in my way. The point where two lanes broaden out into four is where I floor it and get down to making my way to my parents', or the wedding, or whatever.
The wort part is that I do it enough that the ride isn't so special anymore. It's not a special trip to somewhere extraordinary, it's the same commute as always back to the place where I have spent the largest percentage of my life. It's more like going to work than it is going somewhere special, not that going home isn't special. But it is certainly not the same. Sometimes when the music is just right and the weather is just right it is sort of special, and it is more a fun ride than a driving chore, but more often than not it's the same towns and the same exits as it has always been and will always be. Unless one night while I am sleeping they sneak in and re-arrange all the towns and whatnot, which would be cool but I doubt is actually going to happen anytime soon. I guess that I still have the side roads, the little county routes, and their hidden little towns, and about a million different ways that I can go that I have never been before. That only works if I have about seventeen hours in which to make my trip but whatever.
The moral of this story is that the epic four hour trip with the family when you are a kid becomes nothing more than a four hour ride from Point A to Point B faster than you will ever realize, and when you spend your life looking at maps you learn really quickly just where everything is, and that is no good. But that's now. I can only imagine what it is going to be like when I am on the other side of the wheel, when I am the anxious dad loading up the troops and constantly worrying about how the boat is doing, with a little tyke on the next seat over wondering where every one of those roads goes but not taking his iPod off to find out. I bet it will be fun again in its own, strange sort of way, don't you think?