Thursday, August 30, 2012

Two for the road

I've never been quite sure what she sees in me.
I know there's something, since our marriage has now lasted 40 years, a milestone we celebrated in our own quiet fashion this past Monday.  We anticipated it with an anniversary-eve spent accidently stripping wallpaper from one of the upstairs rooms in our big old house. I say "accidently" because she stoutly claims she was only "examining" the paper while wondering whether we should paint or re-paper some day, when an entire sheet shooshed off the wall, setting the tone for a long evening of spray bottles, scrapers and muttered curses.
So I was glad when the actual day rolled around, knowing, as I did, that we had plans that had nothing to do with steamy-hot water, tipsy ladders and tiny bits of still-sticky wallpaper drying on the floor. the ladder and the top of my head.
It was, of course, a road trip.
As regular readers of this column probably know, there's nothing I'd rather do than hop in a car and get it dusty via a long, slow, often-aimless backroads trek from here to somewhere else.
My spouse agrees, I think.
Or, at the very least, she has learned to be a good sport about the whole thing, thinking that it's good, clean fun and a harmless, economical way to keep me entertained and generally in line.  But unlike some of our forays, this one actually had a destination. In fact, it had two--the cemetery in Fort Madison, Iowa, where her parents and grandparents rest, and Mt. Pleasant, where I went to college and where we looked forward to dinner and a visit with some old friends.  But in the tradition of Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, and Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, the actual route we'd take was entirely up for grabs and open to interpretation.
"I'll drive, you navigate," she said, as we got in the car bright and early on Monday morning, which is her way of saying she's steeled herself for whatever misguided mishaps my misplaced sense of adventure and direction might land us in.
It was a beautiful morning. The long-overdue rains we had experienced the day before seemed to give the sky and landscape a newly optimistic look, as if to say things might finally be wetter and better. I first directed us to a favorite spot, the out-of-the-way deepwoods road between Oak Run and Galesburg where we, year after year, have the best luck harvesting bittersweet, the hard-to-find vine that is such a large part of our family's traditions and memories. Late August might seem early in the season for a plant most often associated with autumn, but we've discovered that once cut and left to briefly dry, the yellowish berries soon pop to reveal the darkish red-orange inner seed that gives the plant its distinctive appearance. I plunged through underbrush and climbed muddy banks, while clipping and gathering our finds and adroitly (I hope) avoiding the poison ivy that surrounded them in several places. It didn't take long to have more than enough, but we continued our slow, stop-and-start dirt-road pace, just enjoying the subtle changes that take place when days grow shorter and sunlight softens as summertime wanes.
In fact, our travel was so relaxed that even I, the ultimate meanderer, was finally compelled to say, "OK, pretty soon we're going to have to start driving like someone who's actually going somewhere."
Pretty heady stuff, I know, but we did finally pull onto our version of a super highway, a paved road with actual directional signs and a stripe down the middle.
Well, putt-putt actually, since our idea of highway driving often means cruising the nearest two-lane blacktop through the urban sprawl of burgs like Roseville, Raritan and Niota. It was in the latter that we, once again, plunged off the barely-beaten track onto some along-the-Mississippi River roads so narrow, steep and harrowing that even we kind of wondered if we'd come out alive.
Instead, we came out in Nauvoo, a last-minute sidetrip decision that put us so far off our already vague schedule that we were forced--after a brief look-around--to turn tail and drive the main road back to the crooked bridge that crosses the Big Muddy to Ford Madison, an historic river town featuring narrow cobbled streets, brick homes of virtually every size, shape and disposition, and the memory-soaked sight of the little bungalow where she spent summers with her grandmother.  It only took six hours to make that 90-mile trip, pretty good time for a pair of easily distracted wanderers like us. So, after our cemetery visit and a stop at the iconic Fort Diner, proud home of the massive one-pound Wallyburger (we passed) and a flattop grill that probably hasn't been really cleaned since the place opened in 1941, we felt we had enough time for a trip along one of our favorite routes, yet another winding blacktop that twists its way back and forth across the Des Moines River, a once-navigable waterway that borders a series of frozen-in-time villages that are now populated by an esoteric gathering of artisan entrepreneurs, small-plot farmers, aging hippies and a growing group of Amish settlers.
It's easy to go missing when you're lost in time, but duty called and we finally started heading towards our meeting with the friends who were probably wondering if we had decided to drive the hundred miles from Galva to Mt. Pleasant via Cleveland or Kansas City. And while distance, jobs, families and life in general have kept us from seeing those old friends often enough over the years, we quickly remembered that some friends stay that way because that’s the way it’s meant to be. We compared notes on the phenomenon of growing a little older, while enjoying how young we remain in our hearts and minds.  We talked about the wondrous experience of grandchildren, and we realized--as we always do--just how little the essential values and beliefs that made us friends in the first place have changed over the years.
We drove home in the dark.
As we did, I thought about how our willingness to do and see and share the little things we enjoy has been a constant in our lives. And as I did, I realized that, probably, that's what she's seen in me all these years. It's what I see in her, too.

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