FOR two days last week, a large road map of the eastern United States stretched across the breakfast counter in our kitchen, not far from the telephone. Next to it lay a yellow highlighter pen, ready to trace a line beginning on Interstate 70 in St. Louis and ending on Route 128 in Boston.
An itinerary for a family vacation? A case of spring wanderlust? Neither. The map and highlighter track a student's solo journey as she drives 1,200 miles between school and home. Armed with money, maps, snacks, and a collection of favorite tapes, she will spend 22 hours behind the wheel, measuring progress by watching the odometer go up and the gas gauge go down.
This is the season when college students take to the road for spring break, heading south to a Florida beach or wending their way back to family and friends. Whatever the destination, these adolescent travels can be as instructive for parents anchored at home as they are for offspring adventuring on the highway.
To students, whose collegiate world is bounded by classrooms, libraries, dorms, and dining halls, spring-break travel offers a heady taste of freedom. As the hum of wheels on pavement carries them along, they discover the pleasure of the open road, the diversity of the American landscape, and the occasional boredom of endless hours on an interstate. In the process, they gain an invisible layer of confidence and maturity, traveling a step closer to ultimate independence.
To waiting parents, these journeys serve as an exercise in patience, trust, and letting go. While the scenery changes constantly for a traveler, those remaining at home must find ways to compensate for their essentially passive role. With one eye on the Weather Channel, the other on the clock, they may think of others in history who have waited even longer for loved ones to walk through the door.
In ancient Greece, Penelope used her loom as a strategy for passing the years until Odysseus returned from the Trojan War. In 19th-century New England, sea captains' wives headed for the widow's walk atop their seacoast homes to survey the horizon for signs of returning ships. More recently, television cameras recorded families of Desert Storm soldiers, glued to CNN as they waited for the Gulf war to end. Similarly, spouses of the longest-distance travelers of all, astronauts, depend on updates from Miss ion Control.
Although our student traveler is the veteran of two previous solo ventures, we make one request that has served well both times: Call home every four hours or so. With each scratchy connection from a roadside phone booth, we trace her progress by extending the yellow line on our map: Indianapolis, Columbus, Wheeling, then Harrisburg for the night. Perhaps only those who have played a similar waiting game can understand the disappointment that occurs when the phone rings and the voice at the other end bel ongs to someone else - or, worst of all, a computerized telemarketer. ("Hi. My name is Janice. I'm calling on behalf of a local cleaning service....")
At 7 p.m. the second day, a car pulls into the driveway, and a cheery "Hello" echoes through the house. The traveler, weary and relieved, flashes a triumphant "I-did-it" smile. We fold the map and put away the highlighter, symbolizing journey's end.
To a student pilot, the final independence is the solo flight. Even for those who never sit in a cockpit, solo travel begins early these days. Young children barely old enough to cross the street alone fly as "unaccompanied minors" to visit grandparents or noncustodial parents in distant cities. And young adults pursuing education, jobs, romance, or simply adventure crisscross the country, blithely unencumbered by long distances.
Travel - whatever the reason, whatever the destination - never leaves the traveler quite the same. Places seen, strangers met are deposited on the memory to add to the mosaic of who the traveler is and what the traveler understands.
Nor do those who wait for the traveler remain unchanged. Wishing a child home, mile by mile, the parent travels too, reviewing in the heart all the chapters of together-and-apart since birth. When one travels and the other waits, it is like two separate journeys. But at the moment of reunion, all differences end. In that first embrace, the traveler and the stay-at-home at last become one.