25: The Man of the Van

25: The Man of the Van

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

The Man of the Van

We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.

~Author Unknown

On September 11, 2001, my husband Mike and I gathered our kids Adam and Dana, then thirteen and ten, to tell them three things: They were safe and loved; America was strong; the world’s people were good. The last point was important to us because our kids have been traveling the world since they were babies. Respect for all people is part of their upbringing, and we’d allow no terrorist act to steal that.

As the numbing slowness of the weeks after September 11th yielded to relative normalcy, I regained enough focus to give the future some thought. That future had us traveling again, but this time, we’d see our America. On a June day nine months after 9/11, my kids and I set out on a 12,000-mile cross-country journey. We’d be gone for the summer, driving a southern back-road route from our Boston home to the Pacific and a northern route back. We kissed Mike goodbye, climbed into our minivan (named New Paint as it was the successor to Old Paint, a workhorse with a decade of service), and left to explore America’s towns and byways and confirm the strength and resolve of her people.

By the time we’d crossed Connecticut, New Paint was transformed. The family van became a comfortable home — a secure haven, a full member of the expedition. The kids settled in with pillows and books, I eased into the rhythm of the road, and New Paint purred confidently westward. We were four travelers — three with legs, one with wheels.

Of the memories made that summer, the most enduring are of the people we met. People like Scotty, a Kentucky motel janitor who moved his broom over the same spot as he listened in wonder about our trip, and who washed New Paint with the motel’s hose so she’d gleam. Scotty said our journey into the healing country was important. He seemed proud of us, and I realized that his opinion mattered to me. On the morning we checked out, Scotty was waiting outside to see us off, waving as we pulled away.

We’d meet more people like Scotty — in parking lots, post offices and diners; at gas stations, parks and fishing docks — who asked about our trip and shared stories of their own cross-country journeys or their dreams of future ones. They told us how lucky we were, a mom and her kids, to spend such rich time together. Indeed, as we tucked more miles under our wheels, we felt the ties between us and our appreciation for one another strengthen. At times the power of our connection took my breath away.

People asked about other parts of the country and how folks were faring. That summer, the simple act of one family’s trip across the nation was enough to unite the Americans we met in a certain, knowing bond. We were there, on the road, traveling freely, robbing terrorism of its ability to scare us. I realized that people were cheering us on and that we represented them as we continued. Perhaps they couldn’t make the trip themselves, but we could make it for them, touching the country’s corners and middles, confirming that things were all right. We — Adam, Dana, New Paint and I — were messengers that summer. We were a cord, a thread. We had the capacity to sew patches of the vast American quilt together simply by threading our way through it and talking to people we met about its remarkable beauty, vastness and resilience. The revelation that this trip was important not just to the trio making it but also to others was a gift from Scotty and the scores of people we spent time with in the twenty-one states we rolled slowly through.

Fifty miles from Tucumcari the orange and adobe-colored land began to thrust itself upward into buttes and mesas of ochre and cinnamon, and the wilder red rock in the distance promised utter majesty. The patient hand of time had sculpted the earth into art. This was a powerfully beautiful world where the ordinary seemed extraordinary. The bewitching headlights of a hundred-car Union Pacific train created a shimmering mirage as it curved toward us through the desert. We were in a place where a freight train becomes a magnificent thing.

In Santa Rosa, New Mexico we took in a collection of vintage cars and Mother Road memorabilia at an auto museum on Route 66. Adam and I dashed around photographing the gleaming Mustangs and GTOs, DeSotos and Impalas, Bel-Air Nomads and Dust Bowl–era panel trucks. I asked Dana to take a picture of Adam and me in front of a tomato-red 1950s convertible. Dana found us in the lens, then put the camera down, exclaiming, “Adam’s taller than you!”

At least once a week over the past few months, before excusing himself from the table, Adam would look at me and say, “I’m taller than you,” which required me to stand up and prove him wrong. I knew the day would come when he’d be right. We always stood eyeball-to-eyeball because we enjoyed looking into each other’s eyes, his pair saying something like, “I’m not a kid anymore,” and mine something like, “Hold on bud, I’m still your mother.” I’d been winning by a hair until then. Now, hearing Dana’s pronouncement, Adam turned to me, grinning. He was taller than his mother. If Dana, chief competitor in almost everything in life had said it, then it must be true.

We stood eye to eye. I disregarded the fact that Adam wore Nikes with massive rubber soles that lifted him two inches off the floor. I’d be conceding height to him soon enough. Why not now, while we were on an incredible journey that allowed him to be a boy most of the time, but called on him to be a man some of the time? I’d left Boston with a newly minted teen. I was standing, thousands of miles later, next to a beautiful young person I knew I could count on to take off his headphones and pitch in to help us through bumps in the road or add to our appreciation of this mighty adventure. On this trip, Adam was the man of the house — or van, or tent, or motel — for 12,000 miles. “You are taller than me. When did that happen?” We all grinned. Dana lined up her sights again and snapped the photo.

Later, we pitched our tent between fragrant cedars at a Route 66 campground. The manager, from Massachusetts, gave me a discount to celebrate our journey and applaud my having driven so far. I took canned beans, corn and tomatoes from the car top carrier, and Dana made chili over the campfire. The kids reconnoitered the game room for other kids, and I strapped on a headlamp and wrote in my journal. That night we fell asleep to the distant whistles and steady hum of long trains and the light drum of blessed desert rain over our heads.

~Lori Hein

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