The Long First Month
Spring finds the Bowmans, at last.
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.
It’s been a long month since we left Knoxville. More than 3,000 miles of Virginia hills and Atlantic coast, Florida swamps and Gulf sands. Now, the low hills of southern Mississippi. The truck rolled past 300,000 miles at last, clattering its way over ever more country and lugging our lives along with each sweep of its crank. It’s odd to look down and see the odometer glowing with so many zeroes. I keep running my eyes over it, tracing the digits like a new tattoo, or another scar. Tender, somehow.
It’s just a number, but it looms larger than that. It stokes my paranoia and sets me listening harder to the chorus of clunks and rattles that keep our mule turning its tires. Noticing which are louder, reckoning which are terminal, guessing which signals the truck is about to come to a stop. Wondering how I’ll handle roadside surgery with a wife and kid in tow.
I try not to think about it. Focus on the view out the windshield. We’re in sand clay country, the red earth burning through seams in the spring grass. It seems impossible that anything could grow in that hateful soil, but it does, life erupting everywhere we look. Purple wisteria hangs in clumps, the dogged vines tangled in pines too young to outgrow its reach. The deciduous trees have turned out their leaves. Poplar and maple and oak and elm, all an implausible green. All soft. All delicate.
Even the breeze is restless. When we stop for the night we hear it working its way through the trees a mile off, hushing itself with the sound of car tires on gravel or distant, crashing surf. We wait for it to coax the mosquitoes away. To move the canopy 40 feet above, the trees swaying their trunks so slow it starts as a trick of the eye.
It's the season of growth. Our daughter feels it. She’s walking in earnest: what started as a sprinkling of trembling steps on the North Carolina sand has blossomed into determined, straight-line pacing from parent to parent. It happened in a day. Maybe less. She brewed the courage to stand on her own, feet spread wide and swaying, then undertook her first full transit from her mother’s arms to mine, the three of us ecstatic.
When she walks she can hardly contain her glee. She laughs so hard she falls, plops to her tail or tumbles forward on knees and forearms without so much as a shout. Just more laughter. She’s bruised and scraped, her pale skin raised and red or deep blue and purple. I want to tell her to be careful. That she doesn’t know how fragile she is. That none of us do.
There’s magic in there, that transition from infant to toddler. To person, to being. And in bearing witness, too. Being there for it—not on a plane or a conference call, but on one knee waiting to catch our wobbling daughter. There's a lifetime of steps ahead of her, a potential so brilliant it glows white hot. And all of it starts with a few tentative, brave steps.
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