After pouring a second cup of morning coffee, my lovely wife, Grace, asked, “What would you like to do once you are vaccinated?” When I didn’t respond promptly, she added, “Did you hear me?”
I had heard her and, strangely, also the echo of my mother’s voice asking old questions. What would you like for Christmas? and What would you like to do this summer after school is out? I recalled childhood days of wanting something yet also suffering through the reality that wanting it didn’t make it come any sooner. It only made me want it more.
Suddenly an idea popped into my mind. “Go somewhere. Yeah, get in the car and drive somewhere,” I replied.
“You can do that now,” Grace answered, sitting down at the kitchen counter and opening the newspaper.
But I wasn’t thinking of going to Mount Pleasant or even as close as, say, Georgetown. No, I wanted to go further. Over the state line. Make it plural. Over multiple state lines. Venture into at least Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, or Florida and perhaps beyond. Maybe way beyond. I’d drive to see children and grandchildren, but other destinations were fine, too. I just wanted to be moving toward someplace. I shared these thoughts with Grace. Without looking up from the paper, she offered, “Wouldn’t it be easier to fly?” Air travel might be quicker, but it wasn’t the experience I was yearning for.
Again, my thoughts drifted back to childhood. In the early 1950s, my family lived in Minneapolis, where my father was working on a doctorate degree at the University of Minnesota. Because he and my mother were born and raised in Birmingham, our annual summer vacation was a trip to Alabama to see their families.
While I never thought of our family as being poor, my folks did not have the financial wherewithal to fly or possibly even for overnight lodging along the way. So, they drove. Straight through. MapQuest says the trip today, substantially on interstate highways, is 1,079 miles. Our trips traversed federal highways that went through every town along the route, often were two-lane roads, and offered a maximum speed limit of fifty miles per hour. My folks would leave in the early morning, drive all day and through the night while I slept, and arrive the following morning. Looking at highway maps today, I believe they headed south from Minneapolis on Route 52 through Rochester, across the northeast corner of Iowa, and into Illinois a little west and south of Chicago. There, they picked up Route 51 that runs down the spine of Illinois, exiting the state at Cairo, and continued down the far western end of Kentucky. In northern Tennessee, they merged onto Route 45 and followed it south to Tupelo, Mississippi, where they then headed east to Birmingham on Route 78.
To this day, I can picture memories of the trip. Lunch, pimento cheese sandwiches my mother had made, along the side of the road in Iowa or northern Illinois. Gas wells, near Centralia, Illinois, that rocked up and down like seesaws. Playing games my father devised to pass the hours such as guessing the last digit on the license plate of the next car to pass on the two-lane road or to seek out as many different state license plates as we could spy. Being awakened from my sleep to see the lights of the big bridge at Cairo, where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet. Waking up the next morning near Tupelo to the heat, humidity, and red clay of the Deep South.
In Birmingham, I saw grandparents, aunts, and uncles and played with a collection of cousins. I went barefoot, ate fried okra and ambrosia, and once got a mohawk haircut, much to my mother’s dismay. But my most vivid memories are of the trip to get there, not what we did, albeit all of it was pleasant once we arrived. I have no recollections of the trip back to Minnesota, although we traveled the same roads past the same sights. I guess that means the excitement of things to come trumped the experiences that eventually did occur.
Maybe that is the way things are today. We have been on a yearlong COVID journey. Vaccines are being administered, and yet there is still some distance to go. We will experience emotions from anticipation to angst, possibly endure more loss, pledge to be patient and safe, and probably fret and fuss a little on our way to the finish line. Like my parents’ drive, it won’t be easy, but we will get there. Years from now, the stories we tell will be mostly about the journey—masks and social distancing, so many activities canceled or postponed, PPE and paper product shortages, one-way aisles, losses and pains, temperature checks, virtual communications—and all that we did to get by, to get through.
Yet the vaccine destination, and what lies beyond, is the goal. When you arrive, do whatever is on the top of your wish list, be it a new car purchase or a mohawk haircut. As for me, I’m going on that car ride. I realize now that two of the paths I traveled in the 1950s, Routes 52 and 78, have their eastern terminus in Charleston. One might say I have already reached the end of my road. I like to look at it in the other direction—long, concrete ribbons reaching to somewhere I’d like to go see when all of this COVID stuff is in the rearview mirror.
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