Sunday, April 6, 2008

Traveling the Back Roads

Few people, after they retire, are going to say, "I wish I had spent more time on the interstates." Most, I suspect, will regret not having traveled the back roads more. I do mean literal interstates and literal back roads, but I also mean much more. There are the interstates of life, and then there are the back roads.

These days, I stay off of the interstates, both in my car and in life. I spend as much time as I can on those back roads. I've done this for a long time. I will continue to do it for a long time, until I can't do it anymore.

There is a road I travel once a week, an old, rarely-traveled two-lane blacktop. It meanders through several small towns until I reach my destination. Sometimes these towns have 200 people; sometimes they are so small there isn't even a population sign.

When I drive through them, people wave to me. Old people sitting on a swing on the porch, children walking home from school. I smile and wave back.

Recently I bought a cheap camera, took some photos, and now show them to my friends. They look both puzzled and amazed when I show them the pictures.

"What is that?" they ask.

"That's an outhouse," I tell them. Behind someone's house, right in the middle of town, visible from the old outhouse built of brown tarpaper with a fake-brick pattern on it.

"An outhouse? Those things are still around in 2006?"

"Oh, it's not being used anymore....the owners just never bothered to tear it down."

"You're kind of strange to take such a picture, did you know that?"

I just smile. I migrated off-planet a long time ago. Women, the ones who like me, refer to me as "darling but strange." I think it's a good description.

The ones who don't like me, I've noticed, are never happy people.

Then there's the cemetery. There're lots of small cemeteries outside of small towns, but I've only seen one in which one of the tombstones is a 15-feet-tall statue facing the road, and only about ten feet from it. I went over a small hill, and there it was. I stopped and read the inscription. Someone who was important in the area, about 1920, and so was honored with this gigantic stone likeness. I've never seen anything like it, and here it is outside of some small town with 500 people.

The last time I made my trip I noticed meadows of small purple flowers springing up. I stopped and walked into the middle of this silent, early morning field of flowers. When I checked on the Internet, I found they were violets. Hundreds of thousands of them. Millions? Try to find this in any downtown.

I see something new every trip. Two deer standing on the side of the road, silently regarding me. A hare, on his hind legs. Racoons, groundhogs, skunks, foxes, possoms. Calves gamboling in the pasture. What's that? A bobcat? I can't tell, it was gone so fast. Then there's some old guy spearing aluminum cans with a stick with a nail at one end, and dumping them in the back of his '68 Ford pickup truck. He pauses for a minute to watch the early morning fog, five feet off the ground, blanketing a field.

I enjoy all of it. There is a dim but definite feeling that I have found a entrance to a world that is the same but somehow different, such as the one Lucy found in a closet in C.S.Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Every day, every second, I realized, is eternally brand-new.

For all the awfulness that exists in life, there is still an enchantment, the Deep Magic that Lewis wrote about, that holds the universe together. To ignore that law -- or to not know that it exists -- narrows the life, sometimes limits it greatly.

I've never understood the suit-and-tie lifestyle. I tried it after college, for three years. I felt like Dilbert, or worse, like I was stuck in the movie, Office Space. Living in the suburbs, mowing the grass on weekends, washing the SUV, wondering how you're going to make the car payment and house payment every month, flipping through 200 channels on satellite, wondering how to save money and still have some thanks, it's not for me. I'd rather live in a cinderblock cottage on a lake.

When I was a kid I kept hearing the phrase, "rat race." I remember a scene in the movie, Good Neighbor Sam, in which Jack Lemmon looks in the car next to him and sees that the men in it have turned into sheep, ones dressed in suits, ties, and hats.

Later, I understood what that phrase and that movie meant. I tried that life and quickly decided not to participate. I have a lot more fun stopping and looking at the flowers, in sitting in parks (and meditating on the song "Turn Down Day" by the Cyrkle) and watching the clouds drift by, in watching my retarded pug run in ecstatic circles (what, I wonder, is he feeling?).

I once read, I believe from G.K. Chesterton, that the meaning of life is appreciation. It's one of the meanings, I know that. Appreciation, and gratitude -- to look at things with humility, curiosity, fresh eyes .

It means to be able to laugh at an outhouse in the middle of town, or to look at a tiny purple flower and wonder what it is, to enjoy white clouds drifting across a blue sky, to take a trip without worrying about the destination, and to realize those older, slower back roads are far, far more interesting than hurrying down an interstate without seeing anything but the end of your trip.

1 comment:

Mike W said...

Uncle Bob,

I've been reading you for a couple years, but just saw this post today.

Ever heard of the fine circa 1980 book "Blue Highways", by William Least Heat Moon?

A guy loses his wife, then his job, cashes out and drives his van around America on the small roads, the "blue highways" to reorder his mind and his life. If you haven't read it yet, you may enjoy it.


Mike in Burbank, CA