I always possessed a bit of envy for people who had a passion since childhood that swept them into the future much like a strong wave powers a surfer towards the beach. Marv Albert always wanted to be a sportscaster. Since childhood, Neil Armstrong looked to the heavens for his future. Diving before he was a teenager, Jacques Cousteau yearned to explore the ocean’s depths. For me, no powerful plan or compelling dream drove me towards a future already being shaped in my fertile imagination. At best I relied on a process. If an idea seemed to make sense and connected enough dots, I yielded to its influence and allowed it to carry me for a time until its force dissipated. Each force urging my life into the future, rather than a powerful wave, was more like an available current that helped me drift towards a better tomorrow.
Over the years as my process matured it gave birth to a simple self test when faced with dots in need of connection. I would ask myself, “if not this, what? If not now, when?”
With the arrival of 2022, I find myself facing a constellation of dots seeking order.
Blue highways, back roads – If not now, when?
Materially I have what I need in life. Some have more. Some have less. I am blessed. What I fear lurks in the rear hall of my consciousness. Its form takes shape as a lazy sameness where my soul succumbs to the dulling inertia of mind numbing predictability. No way! Figuratively and literally connecting the dots for 2022 will begin by taking Drivin’ News on the road.
As the new year dawns, my life partner and co-conspirator Elaine and I find ourselves blessed with good health and a clear schedule. I have come to fully appreciate that my friends are my family. I derive great joy from the community that has grown around the “Collectible automobiles as a passion” class that I team teach with Bob Austin and Fred Hammond. More than anything else I hunger to keep these relationships and activities fresh and populated with the uplifting and unexpected. Over the years Elaine and I have found some of our most meaningful experiences take place as happenstance encounters along “blue highways.” For those unfamiliar with the term, “blue highways,” it represents the spider web of two-lane back roads that serve the expansive countryside bypassed by major high speed interstate traffic arteries. Unlike the hypnotically dull interstates that made blue highways obsolete for high speed transit, blue highways, with the power of an evocative piece of slower paced music, re-calibrate a driver’s mood and expectations to a rhythm more in sync with the life, energy and surroundings to which this serpentine ribbon of black top belongs. Time spent attending to the dips and curves of blue highways actually engages a driver with real life experience rather than blowing though a countryside like the blur between subway stops.
Elaine and I have come to be forever bettered when time allows us to avoid interstates by stitching together a journey on blue highways. No interstate leads to a weathered country store that stands strong, proud and alone while projecting a gritty confidence that it belongs to be exactly where it is. Such structures remind me of a bricks and mortar version of a role mastered by an aged Clint Eastwood.
Often encountering a proprietor worthy of a Norman Rockwell illustration, my first question pretty much cuts to the chase, “What’s your story? I’ll ask. If not a general store, then a gas station with a rust trimmed Dad’s Root Beer sign or a hillside of sixty and seventy-year old Cadillacs with trees the size of schooner masts sprouting from hoodless engine bays. Regardless, there always seems to await a story ready to be shared.
Drawn by the magnetism of the rough hewn authenticity of the man or woman who calls our roadside discovery his or hers, Elaine and I with palpably honest fascination tease out personal histories. Often little known tales enrich references and characters that larger histories have already introduced. The tellers at their best weave color, character and detail into the fabric of what should be proudly celebrated as true Americana.
A late 1940’s pickup truck caught my attention while heading north towards Panguitch, Utah. Panguitch is a native American word for “big fish.” Despite my best fishing efforts, I had to take their word for it. He stood in the foreground of a vast field of deteriorating Detroit iron. As I walked up, he had his attention focused on a 1963 409 Chevy that he later informed me that he had once owned in high school. On the downhill side of 60 he claimed to be Jeremiah Johnson’s fourth great grandson. With a countenance worthy of a Dorothea Lange portrait, his sun bleached saddle leather skin framed a large and proud smile. Shy, yet deliberate in manner and presentation, he wove a great story of his life and the lives of family members that came before him.
At a farm stand off the Blue Ridge Parkway, we met Bill. Genial and engaging, after introducing himself, he whisked Elaine out onto the dance floor. A terrific band of mountain musicians had just fired up their instruments and before my eyes transformed a roomful of people pleasantly chatting into a gyrating bluegrass flash mob.
Later, with band members now packing up their instruments, Bill explained how he had spent many years as a NASA engineer working on projects of some renown including Apollo 11 and a system that would later become known as GPS (Yes, that Global Positioning System). Once retired he, together with his sister, decided to buy an orchard near the Blue Ridge Parkway, make it a not-for-profit 501c3, and use it to preserve and promote the culture of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Bill explained how each year spring through fall the Historic Orchard at Alta Pass put on over 160 shows. Bill just smiled as the crowd that had packed the old red farm stand/dance hall filed out, many carrying with them fresh baked goods and all holding happy memories.
Blue highways are rich with delightful people possessing great stories that eagerly await discovery like diamonds in a DeBeers mine.
Interestingly sometimes a blue highway leads to a treasure trove of profoundly moving stories with the strength to stand on their own without benefit of a storyteller. Atop a sand dune poking above a sea of beach grass at the end of a two lane that terminates on a North Carolina island stands a mailbox. Written on its supporting post are the words “THE NOTEBOOK.”
Opening the mailbox reveals a stack of neat note books where people have left their stories to be shared with strangers. On these pages raw, honest, heartfelt feelings find a home. Page after hand written page reveals the depth of human emotion in stories of love lost and found, of children who passed far too young, of friends never forgotten, of joy found, of faith renewed.
Possibly the isolation and anonymity of “THE NOTEBOOK” empowers its story telling ability. Left behind by tellers who have been swept on to the future by the tide of life, each story possesses the strength to stand on its own.
I remember from geography class in grammar school (yes I know there are no more geography classes and, yes, that makes me crazy too. But I digress.) I learned that each year the Nile River would overflow its banks. In so doing it replenished the fertility of the soil and promoted a cycle of renewed vitality. And so I now seek the same for myself.
Elaine and I intend to pack light and hit the road. With faith in serendipity and happenstance, we will set out with the goal of missing every mile of interstate possible in an effort to flood our banks.
I hope you will find the time to join us as I take Drivin’ News on the road.
Your comments point out what is important in life: our relationships with other people – those we know and those we meet for the first time.
Stay safe and well in the New Year.
Hey there Elaine & Burton , Traveling mystery Don’t leave us hangin . The first stop is ?
We are heading to the Skyline in Virginia after that it is either east to the Outer Banks or wwest through West Virginia always with the intent of drifting south.
wow, i love it, keep on living life my friend
Always pleased to have you as a loyal reader. Happy New Year.
Like Jacque Cousteau, I dreamed at a very early age that my future would include, not scuba diving, but motor vehicles….but I had no idea of how, or in what capacity they’d figure in. I just knew!
Blue highways sound pretty wonderful, We’re currently on our own ‘blue highway’ journey, but in Guanacaste, Costa Rica for a month living in a modern tree house in the jungle, discovering different regions of the country most days and meeting new friends wherever we go. We’re relying on what I can remember from my 8th-10th grade Spanish language classes to communicate and immersing ourselves in the culture. Howler monkeys announce the arrival of the sunset every evening…life occurs at a much more relaxed pace here. Most of our local roads are unpaved, very dry & dusty…. but we all find our adventures in different ways.
“The joy is in the journey as much as in the destination”.
Blue Highways is one of my all time favorite books! Lovely article.
That’s great. Be it on two wheels or four, I caught the road trip bug in the summer of sixth grade. My family made the journey from NJ to Sturgis, South Dakota for the world famous Sturgis Bike Week. Our convoy consisted of 3 motorcycles for the men with a Ford Aerostar van and a Chevy Cavalier wagon filled with the wives and kids. It was a great trip for me but, it also lit the fire in me to travel on my own.
My first solo trip was when I was 15 and got my moped license. I thought it was the most amazing thing to be able to cross the NY State Line into Pearl River for the first time. Next, in my 20’s would be a trip to see my dad in East Alton, Illinois. The overnight stay at the Holiday Inn off I-80’s Exit 1 in PA, turned into an all night party with strangers. Then in my 30’s I bought my first Harley. After a month of ownership, a solo road trip from NJ to Key West, FL was planned. It felt like I finally came full circle but heading south instead of west. I took the long way down and back to visit friends and family all along the East Coast. It was the greatest trip of my life and if the bike wasn’t totaled by a sleepy driver behind the wheel of a beat-up 80’s Lincoln Town Car who thought he could make a right turn from a “Left Turn Only” lane, I would still be traveling with it today. Having a child now, I’m sticking to the 4-wheeled method for a while.
Thanks for this story, Burton. It has stoked that smoldering fire in me and we may have to plan a family trip to nowhere in the spring. Safe travels and I look forward to reading the stories from the road!
Agreed the back roads are special! FYI I did not know what the term “Blue Highway” really ment and its tied with the old Rand McNally Atlases….
In 1978, after separating from his wife and losing his job as a teacher, Heat-Moon, 38 at the time, took an extended road trip in a circular route around the United States, sticking to only the “Blue Highways”. He had coined the term to refer to small, forgotten, out-of-the-way roads connecting rural America (which were drawn in blue on the old style Rand McNally road atlas). Keep up the good words Burton & Happy New year! Ted
Wow!!! Great article, maybe the best yet. Been to Alta Pass a few times as you remember!! Take care and see you soon! Happy New Year to you and Elaine!!
Happy travels and Godspeed, Burton and Elaine!
Talk about a road trip. The wheels on the bus go round and round all through the town —— of Watkins Glen. An iconic road trip that will NEVER be forgotten. Happy we didn’t wind up in the bog. We’d still be hoofing it back to Jersey. Remembering F 1 at the Glen with Duncan, Maury & Burton.
What an absolute wonderful recollection of F1 at Watkins Glen via a 1953 GMC school bus