On our recent vacation in New York’s Hudson valley visiting our son and daughter-in-law, I spent a good part of a Sunday with The New York Times. Diligently working my way through at least a dozen sections of the paper (which probably should be measured in pounds rather than by number of pages) I was hooked by "To See America, Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist," article. This was a dialog between two acclaimed writers, William Least-Heat Moon and Phil Caputo about avoiding interstate travel, slowing down and the true difference between tourists and travelers.
William Least-Heat Moon is the author of "Blue Highways" published in 1982, an account of his journey along back roads of America, which at that time were marked in blue on old highway maps. Hailed as a masterpiece of American travel writing his journey started out with little more than the need to put behind home and his separated wife, or as he put it "to leave behind the Indian Wars" and a driven curiosity about the little towns "that get on the map – if they get on it at all, because some cartographer has a blank space."
Phil Caputo’s "The Longest Road", published just a couple of weeks ago, chronicles his drive, with his wife and two English setters, in a Toyota truck pulling an Airstream on a 6,000 mile trip from Key West, Florida to Deadhorse, Alaska in search of what binds Americans and pushes them apart.
A tourist, according to the authors, is usually someone on a time budget out to see the sights, more often than not listed for him in a guide book. Both agreed that there is a deeper curiosity in a traveler. The traveler, they said, makes a deeper penetration into the landscape and peoples’ lives. He travels many times on secondary roads, on back roads, and learns what you don’t learn and can’t learn, on interstates.
"In two-lane America there’s often approachability in the people who live there, people not yet terrified of a stranger in town," they said.
I am a traveler. In my previous life (translation: before retirement) as a marketing manager I was on the road for well over 20 years traveling Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Tennessee. And since our accounts were primarily in small towns I was fortunate to experience what lay ahead past the next curve on a blue highway.
It is strange how certain memories, long ago filed in some dark corner still pop up reminding me that I am richer for them. And so we come to the homeless man.
Many times in my travels I stayed overnight in Portsmouth, in the bend of the Ohio River, separating Ohio from Kentucky. Portsmouth, another town in Southeastern Ohio abandoned by steel and barely kept alive by coal.
I always ate dinner downtown. No, not in a big name restaurant (there weren’t any — corporate chains don’t build them for poor people,) but in a small, family-owned, nondescript storefront across the street from a long-ago shuttered movie theater. Two tables up, the homeless man was eating his meatloaf. And since I ate here many times before, I knew the routine. He would come in once a week, pull out a handful of change from his tattered jacket and always order meatloaf. The waitress would take a few coins, never even close to cover the meal. And all would be well.
That evening, however, as he was sopping up the last of the meatloaf gravy with cornbread biscuit crumbs, he asked for a piece of apple pie. The waitress kept patiently explaining to him that he didn’t have enough money (obviously drawing the restaurant’s generosity line at pie) and he kept muttering about how much he would like some apple pie.
When my bill was ready to be tallied, I asked the waitress to bring him the pie and add it to my bill. Going back to the homeless man she asked to see his money again and in an apologetic tone told him that she had miscounted his money, and he did after all have enough for a slice of apple pie. And again, all was well.
A wise man (a traveler, no doubt) once said that the journey is the destination. How true.