Rules of the road

Travel is a ceaseless fount of surface education,
But its wisdom will be simply superficial,
if thou add not thought to things.

Tupper; Proverbial Philosophy of Things

Our recent trip to Florida along the I-75 corridor suggests something about the nature of pilgrimage, at the least a simple set of rules. I sketched these out a week or two ago, but finally worked through them this weekend–on another road trip. This time to New York City. See Michael’s observations on this adventure, and his first Broadway show.

But anyway, here are the rules:

Stay alert. It’s 6:30 a.m., and I am driving through central Georgia in driving rain, trying to stay awake. I’ve been driving for an hour and a half, when I took over from Christian who took the midnight shift. This is the time when you keep telling yourself you can make it 30 more miles, or 30 more minutes. But there is only one rule that matters in the dark. Stay alert.

My eyes are straining, and I’m grateful that we need gas. If I make it until 7, I can wake up the others for breakfast. I do, but after breakfast I still can’t stay awake and an half an hour later, when the rain lets up, I pull into a rest area to let Michael drive. Katie, who drove through Ohio and most of Kentucky sits in front trying to stay awake herself, since he has a learner’s permit which requires our supervision. But I fall deeply asleep, for the first time on the trip. I feel like a wimp, but it doesn’t matter. You have to stay awake.

A few days later, returning to mom’s late at night after a day at the beach, one of us nods off and begins to drift across the center line. Pilgrim, who is 13, is in the front and reaches over, calling their name and averting disaster. Literally.

Everyone must stay alert. It’s one of the rules.

Travel light.The van is crowded, six people and too much stuff. We have jackets we won’t need till we get to Kentucky on the return trip. Stuff is packed between the seats, and we crawl over things to get in and out. We have to move the cooler to get to the water jug, and we have lots of snacks. Whenever we get out of the car Katie insists that we remove the trash. It’s a good idea, one which keeps us from drowning in a sea of stuff.

At mom’s, in Englewood, Florida, the temperature is 80 and we wear the same shorts everyday and leave most of our clothes in the suitcase. We brought food to prepare at mom’s, and on the way home we pack things in the cooler and bring fewer snacks. The difference is small but significant. And appreciated. Travel light. It’s one of the rules.

Enjoy the journey.On the way down we get off the freeway and drive through the center of Florida, through Dade City to Plant City where the strawberry festival is underway. We stop when we see my dream car, a Willy’s Overland, at a roadside stand where we buy boiled peanuts, a southern delicacy. And then, in Plant City, we have a huge strawberry shortcake at the world famous (really) Parksdale Farms. At this point we are tired and hungry, and a little grumpy. But we buy a flat of strawberrys, and press on, arriving at mom’s about 7:00 p.m. She has pizza delivered. We have strawberries and boiled peanuts. And joy. I walk out into the back yard and breath in the warm, salt air, listening to the water lap against the sea wall. It feels like home.

Expect delays.When we leave Plant City, we take the back roads to Brandon where rush hour traffic from Tampa and spring break combine to bring traffic to a standstill. In fact, for the whole trip, everything takes longer than we expected. Pilgrimage is like that. Complicated. And messy. The delays go easier if you expect them. Homemade strawberry milkshakes the next day can help too.

A few days later, on a day trip to Sanibel, it takes us over two hours to get off the island. And another two hours to get home, turning an hour and a half trip into four.

Discover delight.Despite the difficulty getting off the island, the day is almost perfect– a clear blue sky over a clear calm sea. We start off with a late breakfast at the Lighthouse Cafe, and then visit the lighthouse itself. After that we spend a few hours driving through the Ding Darling WIldlife Preserve, stopping to see and photograph exotic birds and plants and little crabs that live in the mangroves. Leaving, a little behind schedule, I turn north on a whim, crossing the bridge to Captiva.

As we drive along the beach, Christian calls out that he sees dolphins and he and his wife Ann clamber out with Pilgrim to see them. The rest of us drive on, in search off a restroom, but when we pick them up on the way back off the island they have seen a whole school of dolphins, playing and jumping completely out of the water. They have also picked up wonderful shells from the pristine beach and are practically intoxicated with joy.

As we head back to the toll bridge off the island we run into stalled traffic, and, after moving half a mile in 45 minutes, we head around to the south end of the island on a different road where we find a great Cuban sandwich at a deli, topped off with home made ice cream. Despite the delays it is a perfect day, a day filled with dolphins and delight. Discovering delight is the flip side of staying alert, but it’s much more fun. It is without question the First Rule. Every pilgrim is looking for a miracle.

Comfort others.While we are in Englewood, I get a phone call that Dick Riley’s 18-year-old grandson Richard England has died unexpectedly and inexplicably. Dick is an old family friend, and shared the pulpit with me just a few months ago at my father’s funeral. He was my dad’s best friend in the ministry, ever since they met in college. Dick Riley has prayed for me by name every day for 45 years.

So the morning of the day we head back to Michigan I drive to Ft. Myers, where I went to high school. I give Dick and his wife Joyce a hug. Joyce, who advised my mother to sort of just get over it when my dad died, tells me she has realized now that it is not that simple. Then she cries. They are glad I came, and so am I.

We visit for a few minutes and I see their daughter Sherry, who went to high school with me. I meet Sherry’s daughter too, and I confess that I one had a brief crush on her mother. It’s one of those things that happen when you suddenly notice that one of your close childhood friends happens to also be a female.

I call their other daughter Julie, and we arrange to meet at a convenience store on my way out of town. She is being brave, but we hug and she cries, but not much. She shows me a picture of her son, who I have never met but probably should have. He is smiling, and we are not. My presence is only a small comfort, but it is a real one. It is something pilgrims do.

Cherish friends.We leave home for home about 8:00 p.m., a little later than planned (see “expect delays” above). I joke that Christian is stalling, since he wants it to be daylight when we drive trough the Jellico mountains in northern Tennessee. I had wanted to be well into Kentucky by breakfast, but we are just crossing into Tennessee from Georgia at 7:00 a.m. I’ve been driving since about 1:00.

I stop and call Dave McKinney, and he and his wife Wanda agree to meet us at the Dinner Bell just south of Knoxville for breakfast. We’ve known the McKinneys since our daughter was born and we went to church together while I was working on my masters degree at the University of Tennessee 25 years ago. So we talk and laugh for a couple of hours and they approve of Christian’s wife Ann. Dave tells us about his only trip through Chicago as a college student, going to can peas in Wisconsin for the summer back “before Mexicans were invented.”

Dave owns the largest collection of country music and blue grass on vinyl of any one I know. He seems to know a little about everything, a sort of hillbilly Renaissance man. Wanda keeps him in check, tolerating and moderating his wild imaginings while offering a constant stream of hospitality and grace to the rest of us. It was a good breakfast and a good time. Pilgrims nourish each other and need each other.

Ask for direction.I have one last helping of grits and we are on the road again. Christian is driving, and gets to cross the Jellicos in the sunlight. Later, Katie is driving through Cincinnati, and a semi in the next lane kicks up some construction debris which hits and breaks our windshield, two or three dozen crack lines extending its height and width.

We pull off and I go into a convenience market, where one of the customers offers to lead us to a auto glass business, which, unfortunately, is about to close and doesn’t have a part. But the manager gives me directions to another store, which stocks the glass and has emergency service. Forty minutes later, we are hopelessly lost somewhere north of Cincinnati and even the second store is now closed. There are two women in the car, and both of them want to know why I didn’t stop and ask for directions.

It seems like a good rule.

We finally duct tape the window and drive home. Pilgrims always carry duct tape; I think that is a rule too. Arriving about midnight, we unpack the car so we can take it to a glass dealer first thing in the morning. It feels like home. Again.

In fact, on pilgrimage, every place feels like home. And no place does. Home is the road itself which both marks and measures our destination and desire.

So what are your rules for the road? Or your experiences? Stories are the stuff of pilgrimage. Tell yours.

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About wally metts

Wally Metts is the daysman. He is director of graduate studies in communication at Spring Arbor University and is a pastor at Countryside Bible Church in Jonesville, MI. The father of four adult children, he and his wife Katie raise barn cats and Christmas trees in Michigan. His grandchildren call him Santa.

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