It’s been a year now since this story happened, and it’s simmered enough to finally write.
We had an interesting summer last year.
We did a road trip. But, as with anything with us, it wasn’t ordinary.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of ordinary stuff in there – but – well, here, I’ll explain a bit as we go, k? You hop in the back seat, right next to the ice chest, kick the sandy shoes and the McDonald’s bag out of the way so you have some leg room, say hi to Michael, he’s back there, too, and come along for the ride – oh, sorry – no cup holders in the back seat.
There are so many stories to tell here – some of them are behind us – in fact, here – fold the map up and crack the window a bit while I get you caught up. We’re heading west, with no turns for 2000 miles… We won’t need the map for a few days.
So we were headed back to my wife’s home state of Michigan to celebrate – lots of things…
…it’s the stuff life is made out of, right?
Life had been a bit challenging leading up to the trip – lots of things…
A ton of overtime at work…
Lots of organizing things for the trip…
Lots of – well…
…it’s also the stuff life is made out of, right?
And so while we were looking forward to some fun times, life, as you well know, occasionally has other ideas. And in this case, there was a trip to an emergency room, a hospital stay, a resulting unexpected trip to a laundromat, where some prayers were answered, where we bought the cop car we’re driving west in, and – yeah, a lot of things… things that you just don’t expect when you’re going to visit family for an anniversary, a wedding, and a graduation.
But they were there…
…it’s the stuff life is made out of, right?
But things were a bit stressful, wondering if it was okay to leave, but we were told things would be okay, and so the time came to leave, we said our goodbyes, and tried not to cry – because as you know, there’s always a chance that the last time you see someone will indeed be the last time you see someone, and the last words you say to someone will indeed be the last words…
And you realize, as you leave, that you want to hold on to them for just a little longer…
You want to soak up their presence, their essence, and you want to just be with them for a little bit longer.
You don’t *know* that something bad is going to happen, but the visits are rare, and you have to save up for them, so that thought isn’t just in the back of your mind, it’s actually in front of that.
And so you hug them, put on a brave face, and try to remember everything you learned from them.
So you not only hug them, but you hold on to them as long as you can, and –
– hang on a bit – it looks like a rainstorm ahead…
And yes indeed – it is a rainstorm.
In fact – it’s raining so hard I can barely see – wow this came on suddenly – unexpectedly… Should I have seen this coming? This is not a road I’m familiar travelling, but stopping isn’t an option.
I look in the rear view mirror and see a Semi truck barreling down on me. I’ve slowed down to 35 mph and still it doesn’t seem slow enough… the wipers are flipping rain as hard as they can. The car suddenly shudders violently in the turbulence as the truck blasts by. The wipers won’t go any faster, and the only car I can see, and that just barely, is the one in front of me…
I can’t follow too closely, because there won’t be time to react if that driver has to stop suddenly. There was a gentle curve to the left starting just as we hit the rainstorm, so I need to stay with that driver – to be close enough to see his taillights to help guide me, but far enough away to be safe. I know I’ll have to let go, so to speak, of that driver, sooner or later, but for now, I have to hang on.
About this time, trying to imagine explaining this later, I ask Michael to take a picture, and he does.
The wipers are on full, and if you look closely, you can barely see the one taillight of that car just about dead center in the picture. The one I have to stay close enough to to see, but not so close that I crash into them.
I can’t believe how hard it’s raining, or that it’s even possible for it to rain harder.
But it does. It rains harder, I can barely see past the hood, much less the sides of the road.
We have to slow down even more.
I want to say “I can’t believe it” – but believing it – or not, is irrelevant… it’s staring me in the face. The deluge on the other side of the windshield just is, and has to be dealt with.
Whether I believe it or not. Whether I’m capable of believing it or not. Other drivers have seen a cable guardrail on the side of the road and have decided that slowing down isn’t enough. They had actually stopped on the shoulder, knowing they couldn’t drive any farther, simply because they couldn’t see.
I think about it – but a quick look in the rear view mirror shows the dark silhouette of another truck coming up behind me in the fast lane. He’s doing maybe twice my speed and I realize that I’d never be able to get out of the way fast enough if he were in my lane, much less drifting off to the shoulder full of parked cars.
I glance up and see that his cab is just above the spray from all the cars. That’s why he can drive faster – he can see, but all of us down here are in the middle of the spray, and we can’t see very well, so we drive slowly… and safely. We crawl past the line of cars and see an exit, which we take.
It loops around 180 degrees to the right, we make a left turn off it, and find a truck stop that says, in large letters, “CAFÉ”. There’s a parking space right in front of the door, so I pull in and just sit there for a bit.
My foot’s still on the brake, and I’m surprised to find I have to slowly peel my fingers off the steering wheel. One at a time. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding on so tight – but I had been. I had to so I could stay in control, in case – I can’t allow myself to think of the alternative.
Our ears re-adjust to the sounds in the car now that it’s stopped. The engine’s off, there’s no sound of tires on wet pavement or frantic wipers on wet glass. The only sound now is the rain, roaring down on the roof so loud we have to talk loud to be heard over it.
We wait in the car for a bit, wipers finally off, wondering if the rain will let up…
And it’s not letting up, so if we’re going to get inside, we’re going get wet, plain and simple, so taking a deep breath, we jump out, lock the car and run for the door.
We stomp our shoes dry in the foyer and find others have had the same idea, that stopping and waiting for the weather to clear is a good idea. There’s a crowd of people congregated around the bathrooms to the right and I hear two women talking, one surprised to see the other’s there. “Oh, I wasn’t expecting to be here, but there’s an accident blocking the westbound lanes at the next exit a mile or so further up, so I came this way.”
Those westbound lanes were the lanes we’d been traveling on.
With the storm, I wouldn’t have been able to see an accident if we’d come up on it.
Waiting my turn, and still trying to come to grips with what had happened, I pull out my phone and look up the local weather radar – I’d never seen anything like this, and from that radar image, it’s clear why it felt so sudden, because quite frankly, it was. It had been cloudy, but no rain, or even a sign of rain, until we came up over a rise just outside of Jamestown. We could see rain up ahead, but there wasn’t any hint of what was to come. Since we could barely see past the hood of the car, trying to figure out how big this storm is would take something else, so I check the scale on the radar map and find the towns of Steele (on the left) and Casselton (on the right) are about 130 miles apart. That means the storm we’re in is about that big north to south, and the part we were driving through east to west was maybe 15 miles of total blindness. It would have been driving by braille, feeling our way along.
Yeah, it was worth stopping.
We go back to the café part of the place and sit down in a booth where the vegetable beef soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and diner coffee sounds about as good as anything could sound on a day where the water in the air is so thick you can’t see through it.
…and it got me thinking…
The whole trip had been full of so many things.
Some were wonderful. (Put going to Mackinac Island on your bucket list, really)
Some were calmly pleasant. (Sitting on the front porch, quietly chatting with my father in law, the one who taught me how to pour coffee).
And some – like all goodbyes, were hard.
I remembered holding on through our goodbyes as we left, and how much that was like holding on to that car up ahead in the rainstorm, the one I’d seen so clearly until the rains fell. I tried to hold onto it – to stay close to it, so that I wouldn’t lose it.
But I couldn’t get too close.
Too close and I’d run the risk of running into him. Too far, too early, and I could lose my way entirely and crash myself.
I had to stay with them as long as I could, until I could see well enough to get along on my own, and only then let him go.
And I thought more about that, sitting there in that café, with my family, as we ate our soup and sandwiches…
We have to let go of the generation in front of us, right?
At some point in everyone’s life, there will come a storm.
It will be hard to see.
It may come on suddenly, like a tornado.
It may come slowly, like a hurricane.
You will find yourself trying desperately to hold on to the generation that’s always been in front of you.
Leading the way.
Lighting the way.
And you’ll realize that there will be people around you – for whom this storm matters not.
Like the first truck that drenched us with spray.
There will be things that shake you.
Like that second truck that so shook the car.
And you will find that there will be situations where people simply can’t see as well as you can.
And for a moment, they’ll stop.
They know their limits, and they’ve pulled over.
They’ll move again when the road is clearer, when the storm has passed enough for them to see clearly enough to move on.
At some point, that storm will pass enough for you try to make it on home, too.
You’ll have taken a break to think of these things and to strengthen yourself with family, and maybe with the emotional equivalent of vegetable beef soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and diner coffee, but when you get back on the road to move on, the car in front of you, the one you depended on and simultaneously took for granted, will not be there.
All that you have of that car, the guidance, the wisdom, the acceptance is what you learned from it before and during the storm…
While the person who was ahead of you in the car, and in life, will be gone, those memories you were able to bring from their life into yours will live on.
All of what you were able to bring into your life, you’ll be able to keep with you.
That which you didn’t is gone forever.
Be safe out there, folks.
Hug the friends and family you have while you have them. You never know when the storm will come.
And you don’t know when it will be your turn to be the driver up front.