With My Father In the Passenger Seat
We’ve always been comfortable with a windshield in front of us.
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
We’ve drifted some. It’s been eight years since I moved to Knoxville, and it always surprises me to see the grey in his hair. The scars on his hands. He’s happier now than I ever remember him being. Remarried with two brilliant and happy step kids and now, a jellybean daughter of his own. The house we built is warm and alive with love. It’s hard to recognize the man without his back to one wall or another.
I picked him up on a warm winter Wednesday, the hillsides still draped in white from the last big snow. Virginia looks her finest like that, the folds of the Blue Ridge soft and close in the clear air. It sets a pang of homesickness singing in my chest.
We went north, my truck thrashing its own dumb pistons out ahead of us, pulling us through one state, then another. The landscape shifted as the sun sank. West Virginia saw the worst of the storm. When we stopped for dinner in Berkeley Springs, the waitress behind the only open bar told us the town had sunk under 36 inches. Loaders and graders still lumbered through four days later, desperate to pile it all anywhere but where it lay, their amber lights splashing against chest-high banks.
On the road again before dawn the next morning, the gorgeous pinks and reds of a winter sunrise pushed the stars away and caught on a low mist in the valley. Pennsylvania is beautiful the way all the old states are, peppered with small towns made of nothing more than a handful of buildings and a sign, all hemmed with gentle Appalachian ridges. It swells my heart to see them, so close to East Tennessee and so far at the same time.
The trees were frosted and white. Snowmobile tracks spread like fractures across one perfect field, then another. Stoic clapboard churches stood proud against the snow the way they have for 300 years or more. It was the perfect kind of peaceful.
It felt good to be moving. To be out there. To have my father in the passenger seat. It got me excited about what we’re doing, about roaming for a year. Seeing the places that exist just past my field of vision. Out of reach for no reason past my own laziness. All ready for the grasping if I’d just stretch my legs a little.
We were at the welding shop in time for the doors to swing open, and the new bed was hung on the truck in a blink. It changed it something fierce. For the first time, I’m proud of the thing. It’s more than a beat-to-shit old Dodge: It’s ours now, our home. A thing I built with the idiot determination my father gave me.
We were back in Virginia by mid afternoon. I had a ways to go, yet.
“We’ll have dinner here in a minute, if you want to stay,” he said.
Any other day, I’d brush off the invitation and roll south quick as possible. But there was something in the old man’s eyes, pale grey as anything. It’ll be a long minute before I share his table again, and we both knew it.
“I’ve got nowhere else to be.”