Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Road More Traveled

It is hard not to think of it as my road or, at the very least, our road, my and my family’s road. No one else was living on that five-mile stretch of sticky clay and powdery dirt when we took up residence there and, to this day, long after other residents have acquired an address on the road Daddy named, I still look up at the sound of a passing vehicle, assuming that it is somehow connected to us.

I have walked hundreds of miles between the ditches that the county drags sometimes, crossing tracks made by deer and turtles and snakes and birds of Lord-knows-how-many species. I have pulled a young Adam and even younger Kate in a little red wagon over the undulating bumps created by farm machinery. I have foolishly punished myself by riding a bicycle through sand that provided no traction.

Sandhill sits about halfway between the two paved roads that are the bookends for our dirt one. When I get into the car and head out I don’t have to pay a whole lot of attention. I’ve driven that two-mile stretch in every kind of weather and I know exactly when to slow down, speed up, move over. My hands and feet respond to memory without any specific direction from my brain which is, then, free to wander. I can go through the day’s to-do list or lose myself in an NPR piece. I can notice the morning sunlight coming through the pine trees like a laser and smile at my good fortune.

And in about four minutes, I can find myself at the stop sign, scanning the county road for pick-up trucks going the back way to the poultry plant before pulling out onto the hardtop. Except that several times lately I’ve been jerked from my revery by something totally unexpected.

Our neighbors up on the highway farm a couple of the fields on either side of our dirt road. And they irrigate those fields regularly. At least five or six times this summer I have come smoothly around the bad curve on dry and dusty road only to find my tires suddenly slipping and sliding into muddy clay. I’ve not ended up in a ditch yet, but it’s been close a time or two and less than charitable words have slipped out of my mouth as I’ve maneuvered the car away from a vertical drop of three feet or more.

The last time it happened I felt the tightening of my muscles and the flood of adrenalin and, then, equally as unexpected as the slipping and sliding, came the flash of insight. It is, as I thought, my road. But it is subject to the conditions all around it. And those conditions aren’t always created by rain or wind or other acts of God. Sometimes they are created by other people.

It is a metaphor so often-used as to become predictable and trite, but it is used so often because it so applicable: Life is a road. We can plan the trip, unfold the old gas station map or print out something from Google to plot the course. We can fill the tank, check the oil and the tire pressure, clean the windshield of squashed bugs. We can get a good night’s rest and pack some snacks. With the help of the Weather Channel, we can even accelerate or postpone the journey to take advantage of optimum atmospheric conditions.

What we cannot do is predict the behavior of other people. Drivers, passengers, pedestrians. DOT engineers waving flags, farmers irrigating fields. The homeless woman pushing the grocery cart, the biker in the funny-looking helmet and Spandex shorts. They slow us down, create road hazards, force us onto detours and – Let’s face it. – very seldom know or care that their actions effect our journeys.

So it’s up to me and me alone to make sure I don’t go crashing through a barricade or running over a two-by-four. It’s up to me to pay close enough attention to the changes around me that I don’t end up in the ditch. It’s my road, but there are other people on it. And, if I want to get home, I have to share.

Copyright 2009

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