We sort of took the long way home.
Three full days, all in all, to cover the roughly 1100 miles from North Topsail Beach, North Carolina to Galva, Illinois. It was well worth the time, with some wonderful sights and memories from the bear-filled Smoky Mountains and other stops along the way.
But I have to admit, even I, the ultimate slow-go-on-the-road guy, was kind of anxious to get where we were going.
It's been a long time since we were in the place I call my hometown. Nearly four months, in fact, since we excitedly set sail for the Carolina coast on a gray February day. Despite some significant misgivings about leaving our youngest grandsons and our beachfront bungalow for awhile, we were looking forward to coming home and seeing who's who and what's what.
I admit, I was a little curious.
After all, with no TV at the beach, we have been constantly out of touch with the national news. As far as we knew, Galva could have been invaded by space aliens, converted into a large water park, or named our country's 51st state.
I was worried, too, about Max, the reluctant housecat. While he receives excellent care and companionship from his devoted cat-whisperer, Shannon, I feared that life without me, his ultimate Alpha-cat, had been dismal and lonely for the leg-biting little beast.
I just didn't know what to expect.
It's been two weeks now since we finally pulled into our driveway just before sunset.
Some things have changed. Most of them haven't.
There are a few more wind turbines on the horizon, including one on the southern edge of town that never fails to startle me as its massive, whirling blades seem, from a certain angle, just about to lop off the spire of the Lutheran Church that sits a few blocks down the street. After dark, the on-and-off blinking of their aircraft warning lights creates a new nighttime vista reminiscent of giant red-tailed fireflies flickering in unison.
I discovered I no longer remember just how many seconds it takes to successfully make microwave popcorn in our Galva kitchen or how to play a DVD on our antiquated back-room television.
I had nearly forgotten, too, about the fine Galva custom that requires me to wave at every passing car and pedestrian, even if I don't know who is driving or walking by.
She: Who were you waving at?
Me: I don't know, I couldn't see.
She: What if you don't know them?
Me: It's Galva. What are the chances of that?
After months in a place where we're not really near anything except a few neighbors, a fishing pier, the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, we've enjoyed walking places in Galva, where just about everything is close by. We've now transfered our book-borrowing custom to the nice ladies at the Galva Library, leaving the similarly nice ladies at the tiny branch near our beach to wonder what became of those yankees who apologetically return sand-filled books at the end of long, lazy beach-chair days. And we've enjoyed heartfelt reunions with neighbors and friends on front porches, at kitchen tables and in the pews at our church.
My beloved 1994 Isuzu Trooper, the one with over a quarter-million miles on its odometer, started on the first try.
I've grown quickly re-accustomed to the rumble of coal trains at night, and am only slightly startled at the roar and rush of the Amtrak passenger trains that fly through town daily.
We have dug weeds, transplanted plants and filled pots with a few new splashes of summertime color. We stained our neglected deck, and I've dragged out a ladder, risking life, limb and a serious scolding, for some much needed home maintenance. Just the other day, I glumly purchased paint for a continuation of the never-ending exterior scraping-and-painting process that always awaits me whenever I come home.
After months of ignoring them, I found the Chicago Cubs firmly entrenched in last place, with a dazzling 4-7 record since our return home.
We've gone to the pool for a cooling dip and a surprising sunburn, to the park for little league baseball and an evening breeze, and to Bishop Hill, where I celebrated Father's Day with a massive cinnamon roll the size of my head at my favorite, much-missed bakery. Soon, it will be time to hang bunting and fly flags in preparation for Galva's magnificent Fourth.
There's a lot to do. A lot to enjoy.
But what about Max?
He greeted us in a sort of grudging manner as we pulled into the driveway that night. He now is, as is his custom, summer-skinny in contrast to the comfortable, well-rounded wintertime body style he was contentedly maintaining when last I saw him.
"Did you miss me?" I asked, as he scurried in and out of the front door while I carried in luggage.
He didn't answer. Surprisingly, he didn't even bother to take his accustomed nip at my leg as I tiredly hauled in my loads.
I really do worry a bit about just how lonely he gets when we're gone. Even though he gets company every day, I figure it's got to be a little bleak from time to time without a daily dose of the biting, scratching, purring and petting that defines the love/hate relationship we share.
I guess I miss him. At least, a little.
I wonder if he misses me.
"How about some cat food?" I inquired.
He replied in the affirmative, but indicated that he'd just as soon eat his meal on the deck outside our kitchen door, which is often his preference on warm summer nights.
I complied, and was seated at the kitchen table, reading the paper, as he tucked into a tasty bowl of Little Friskies Dead Carp Delight. A few minutes later, I became aware that his dainty eating sounds had been replaced by a louder burst of slurps and thumps.
"Take a look out there, would you?" I said to my spouse, who was standing near the door. "I think Max has company."
Sure enough, he did.
Happily devouring the remainder of our cat's nighttime snack was a husky, well-fed raccoon about the size and girth of one of those Vietnamese potbellied pigs. Meanwhile, Max sat calmly nearby, licking a paw and looking, more than anything, like the host of a dinner party in the days of Henry the Eighth.
"Heck," I said. "Max hasn't missed us."
And I knew the reason why.
He's got friends of his own.