Journeys on the Back Roads of Life

I GREW up in the home of a travelling salesman. My father drove his territory in a 1956 Buick painted the color of ripe avocados. The upholstery was a soft beige fabric, and the cushions so plump, yet tight, that we truly did bounce as we rounded corners and curves of state highways.

The best days of my young life were those when my father invited me on one of his longer selling trips. We'd fit his candy samples together like pieces of a puzzle in the deep trunk and wave good-bye to my mother and sister.

For the next few days, I was free from school, free from schedules, and most clearly, free from the standards my mother set for a nutritious meal.

On those long, quiet road trips, I came to know the pull of travel and the pleasure of a good story.

Bouncing along the back roads of Oregon, my father and I relaxed in each other's company. We could go for hours without saying much, and it was in the ``not saying'' that I was allowed my uninterrupted dreams and musings on the fragments of history my father related along the way.

Born and raised in Washington, my father knew a great deal about the Northwest. Because he'd had a childhood of moving, there didn't seem to be a town we passed - north, south, east, or west - that was unfamiliar to him.

He introduced me to the rolling hills of eastern Oregon, to the vast and winding Columbia River, and to the small-town ranchers and business people who told us the best place to get a good lunch.

My father never appeared to ``craft'' a story while we rode together in the car. It was more of an out-loud musing.

Passing sheer rock walls that fell just as steeply on the other side of the highway to the river below, I learned how the water had carved its place in the windy gorge.

I heard the story of native people who had fished the rapids from big wooden platforms jutting out over the turbulent river until it was dammed only a few years before we drove beside it.

As is often the way in parenting, the things a mother or father sets out to teach his or her children are not often remembered as well as the touch of a hand or the way someone stands at the stove while dinner is cooked.

I learned more from my father's solitude than I did from his words. He seemed comfortable with the quiet that is inspired by long stretches of highway and cliffs so tall that one can't help but feel very small in comparison.

Though he might have been mapping out his visits to the drugstores that proliferated in small and not-so-small towns in the days before the existence of ``chains'' and malls, I saw only a familiar face of contentment staring out over apparently endless roads and rivers.

On the road, away from the things that ``had'' to be done, I could view myself with as much curiosity as the places we travelled through. Thoughts ran through my mind like cars on a train, while rain blurred the images of meadows that turned golden when the sky cleared.

With distractions temporarily suspended, I was free to imagine myself as any one of the many people my father described in his stories.

I tried on, like raincoats, solutions to the problems a child can have. Contrary to what everyone, including my father, told me, I found that for a few days or weeks problems could, indeed, be left behind. Sometimes leaving them behind is what inspires their solutions.

When I'm asked now about reasons to travel, I remember those early days when travel became as much a new way to view the world and my place in it as a method of getting from one place to another.

Recently, before a long trip I was to take with my children, a friend called to relate the difference between a traveller and a tourist.

A traveller, he explained, went somewhere to learn about his or her place in the world; a tourist went to collect souvenirs and mark a passage, instead of having a passage mark him or her.

Thinking back to those road trips with my father, now decades past, I realized my father's primary wealth rested in his ability to walk the world as a traveller, even when only a few miles from his home. For this inheritance, I am grateful.

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