Something About The Open Road

My favorite cab driver Scott, who we last saw on the road to protest Bush at the inauguration, is now cycling to Canada, with a stop along the way at his family reunion, various public libraries to post, and the odd Upper Wisconsin sandwich shop.

We were talking about social security, yesterday, and how I don’t really expect it to be around when I’m older.

“And yet, there’s no reason you shouldn’t, Scott,” my grandmother said to me while she yanked the top off of a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. “Just think about all the people who pay in over their lifetime and then die before they collect. Where does all that money go?” She is working herself up into a speech now. “And that Bush, he just took, what, $9 million out of the social security trust fund. He has done such awful things to our country, and the people are getting sick of it,” she said, proffering a bowl of steaming tomato soup. “You can’t live on just water and granola bars,” she said. “Eat this.”

When he first started talking to me about this trip more than a year ago, I knew it would be the kind of extraordinary story he’d tell for the rest of his life, about the kindness of strangers and the strangeness of the road, about human interaction and the very real hope you find when you set out to do something that’s too hard and scares you.

I tried another door. Someone was definitely home this time, but didn’t hear the knock. I knocked harder, and this elderly woman in a walker came smiling to the door.

“I hate to bother you, but I’m biking across the state, and I was wondering if I might be able to set my tent up in your back yard and be gone in the morning.”

“Oh, well, my husband is in the back yard, why don’t you talk to him?” she says.

“Thank you,” I said, and headed around to the back yard to make my pitch.

“Don’t bother me none,” was the reply–meaning, in Wisconsin, “sure.”

My host was, I would say, a septegenarian if not older. I made pretty quick work of tent-pitching and was about ready to crash when my host for the night asked me over for a chat.

Turns out he worked at the canning plant up the road for, like forty years. He’s owned the house I was about to sleep behind for fifty years, since he and his wife bought it from her parents. He told me how the little town of Clyman used to have three grocery stores and something of a life, before, over the last twenty years, everything closed, dried up, and went away. “Now we don’t have anything,” he said. And it was kind of sad, really.

Then we compared maps. He had a state atlas–which is more detailed than my map, but heavier.

And then I went to bed.

This morning I got up around 6:00 a.m., packed up the tent, did streaches, and got invited in for orange juice, bagels and butter, and milk. Inside, the focal point of the kitchen was a little television with it’s familiar alarmist e-tickertape at the bottom, and some news show. But above and around and all over this little television are all these pictures of people–old, young, you name it.

“Who’s that?” I said, pointing at one guy.

“He’s our friend in the nursing home.” Turns out he’d worked at the canning plant, but had a stroke on a cruise ship in a foreign country and the whole town had maxed out their credit cards to get him back to the U. S. And then there were pictures of grandchildren, and neighbor kids, and something from just about everyone in the town of Clyman, population 388.