idol season 11 | week 8 | 1200 words
My True North
A lifetime ago, when you had hair and I had ambition, we talked about traveling the country like a Paul Simon song, looking for something bigger than the corner we called our own.
We didn't know what that was, we just knew the restless need that pulled us toward it. It was the history of our nation, the very definition of being young and free.
We would go the summer after our Junior year of college, we decided. That was the plan—one last hurrah before that life was over, before we launched into playing Musical Chairs with an entire graduating class as we all scrambled to find jobs the moment the school year stopped.
You had the car—a '79 Thunderbird convertible—and I had gas money and a Rand McNally atlas. Some part of me had probably been thinking about a big cross-country trip like that ever since I was ten.
By the time May of Junior year rolled around, we'd been talking about the trip for months. Route 66 was a must, either driving out or driving back, and so were the thirteen colonies. But how far North did we want to go? And was there anything to see going East after Yellowstone and the Rockies, other than Chicago?
I spent the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend sketching out routes from Barstow to the Grand Canyon, when I should have been working on my take-home History essay instead. You called just after two o'clock, your voice so tight you sounded like a stranger.
"Dad had a heart attack," you said.
Nothing was ever the same again after that.
I got a job bagging groceries that summer. The only traveling I did was to the parking lot, and my monuments were towers of canned vegetables instead of the national landmarks I'd hoped to see.
You had it so much worse. You left college to run your dad's store until he got better, but his health forced him to retire, instead. You inherited a job you never wanted, because somebody had to pay the bills. No one was surprised when you made that choice. That was just who you were. But we knew it wasn't easy.
College wasn't as much fun after you left. Neither was Bismarck, where I had my first job after graduation, or Rapid City, where I built the career that led me to stay.
We talked on the phone off and on, and I'd stop in and see you whenever I came back to visit. You almost looked like your dad, standing there behind the counter—confident and easygoing, ready to help anyone who needed it. You had two cute kids and a wife who adored you, and it seemed like life had turned out pretty well for you after all. Your family was busy with soccer games and Little League and scouts, all the anchors of our own childhoods growing up, and why not? There was no reason for any of the good in that to change.
Me, I had a few more hiccups along the way. My marriage hadn't been easy, and I'd never planned to get stuck living in a Midwest snow zone anyway. After my wife left me, I decided I just couldn't cope with South Dakota any more, so I quit my job to move back in with my parents and start over again. Despite the dreams I'd always had of driving all around the country, I was incredibly happy to come back home.
"Great timing!" you said, when I called you up. "That offer on the store went through, and all the paperwork was final last Tuesday. Now I've got a few months to figure out what to do next. Think maybe we could finally make that road trip after all?"
I couldn't believe your wife was okay with that idea, but of course she was. You'd married an amazing woman. I wish I'd been as lucky, though I wasn't half the man you were and would never have deserved her. Maybe I'd get a second chance with someone new closer to home.
I dug the atlas out of the closet of my old room at my parents' house, and flipped through it. Most of the Post-It notes had fallen off, and I'd already seen some of the places I'd marked the first time around. Route 66 was the one area we both knew we wanted to see, so what the hell? We packed clothes and music and snacks for a long journey, and loaded up the car. I'd buy another atlas somewhere along the way and we'd figure things out from there.
You didn't have the Thunderbird anymore, but my 2005 Sentra would do just fine. It was old but reliable. It'd gotten me back home when I'd needed it to.
We set off from Reedley, heading south on 99 toward Bakersfield. The first day of the journey would be nothing special, just miles of dirt and desert along the route out of the Central Valley armpit and over to the desolate path through Las Vegas to the Utah rock parks beyond.
It was good to just talk, though. With no time constraints and no family around, we didn't have to rush or be careful of the words we used. I learned that you were still funny as hell, and could tell a story like no one else. And that while you were grateful for the community and the safe environment for raising your kids, you thought that staying in Reedley forever might actually kill you.
"Oh, I know," I said. "I came back to regroup, but I really need someplace bigger. And less hot. This whole part of the state is pure hell."
"No kidding," you said.
"So, is Becca open to moving? And if she is, then where are you thinking?"
It felt like we were just picking up right where we'd left off all those years ago. Everything had made more sense back then, including me.
"Her parents died years ago, and her brother lives in Tacoma. So maybe around there."
I'd never thought about Washington. I hated snow, but I didn't mind the rain, and I was sure to find work there. Washington could be good.
"How much time do you want to spend in Vegas?" I asked.
"I've got forty dollars for slot machines, and then we can go whenever you're ready. Vegas was never my thing."
"Me either. Everything I want to see is on the other side, and then down past the Grand Canyon and out the old highway."
"Great minds…" you said.
And it was true. This was what I'd missed all those years, more than my childhood and my memories of college, more than the amazing future I once imagined would someday be mine.
I always knew who I was when I was with you, some better version of myself than who I'd turned into while living halfway across the country for so damn long
You kept me honest.
It was so easy to forget that life was more about the journey than the destination, but you'd always known that.
Everything about you still showed me exactly who it was possible to be.
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