The Freedom Machine


Thinking back on the amount of time our family spent driving around in cars, we may as well have been gypsies. Our car was always the center of any family activity. In my parent’s world, free time was meant for going somewhere. If we weren’t hanging out at 20 Prospect we were usually to be found in whatever big boat Chrysler that Dad owned at the time.

The original Mr. 20 Prospect worked for the power company, and spent his days criss-crossing WNY in a truck, so it was odd that he always chose to spend his free time driving us around in the car. According to Mom from the time they started dating, it was always the case. Dad, just back from the Air Force, had bought a two door, black and red Plymouth, and they spent their weekends behind the wheel, escaping their parent’s homes, and their neighborhood in Tonawanda/Riverside, for the green spaces of the country.

After they were married, and had started the family, these trips continued until they moved to Batavia sometime in the mid 60’s. By the time I arrived on the scene, I was carted around Western New York every summer weekend, as my older siblings marched in parades with the Little St. Joe’s Drum Corps. If it wasn’t parade season, we were usually driving up to Buffalo to see my grandparents, or just taking Sunday drives in the countryside.

Yet, for all the time he spent in his cars, Mr. 20 Prospect was never a “car guy”. He didn’t spend his Sunday mornings washing and waxing the family boat until it shined. No, the car was only a means to an end, and that end was the freedom of the road. In Dad’s world, life was best viewed through the windshield of a car.

I’ll never know the reason behind his love of driving, I just know that it was passed down through the family. Even today, my 73 year old mother, or my 50 year old siblings, will think nothing of driving 20 hours straight in a car. Set the alarm for 3 am, roll out of bed, fill the thermos with coffee and hit the road before the sun comes up.

Being the youngest by 7 years, I got carted a lot of places. Visits to see Big Bruddah at college in Indiana, or my Bratty Big Sis in Saranac Lake, or weekend drives to Buffalo to visit extended family. Vacations in Florida, Pennsylvania or Ohio, I was born to be a passenger, and took to the road like a duck to water. So it should have come as no surprise that the first job I took after graduating college was as a field service engineer traveling the country. For the first 3 years of my post college life, I did not have an apartment. Instead I lived on the road, 100% of the time, in hotel rooms around the country as I worked in power plants and paper mills. Someday I should sit down and calculate the # of miles that I drove during that time. I know that in one 3 week span I drove from Chicago to Virginia, back to Chicago for work, then took a week vacation to fly California with a buddy, and drive an old Alfa Romeo Spider back to Chicago. The fruit never falls far from the tree.

So when I was working in Denver in 1992, and met the future Mrs. 20 Prospect during a trip to Minnesota, the distance did not discourage me. I just drove to Minnesota for the weekend to visit her, 18 hours each way. I was reminded of this during our recent driving trip to Colorado, as we crossed those very same roads, and looked out at the very same expanse of prairie. While this was a return to the long distance drives of my youth, it was a first for Mrs. 20 Prospect and the kids. And while she didn’t say it, I think she came away impressed that I had put that much effort into courting her. It was either appreciation or regret, it’s hard to say.

Driving across those wide open spaces last week felt amazingly good. I had forgotten just how long it had been since I took a good epic road trip. There’s just something Zen like and peaceful about the looking out at the countryside flowing past like a river. I think it must be hard wired into my DNA. Perhaps it’s hardwired into the DNA of all American’s and Canadian’s, because we were not alone out on those roads. Playing the “License Plate Game” with the kids we counted 44 states, and 5 Canadian Provinces during our week.

Through the rolling farmland of Iowa, along the long flat tree lined expanse of the Platte River Valley, over the majestic snowy passes of Colorado, across the grasslands of North Eastern Wyoming, and on into the badlands of South Dakota, I never ceased to be awed by the grandeur and size of this land. I can only imagine how much larger it must have felt for the Native American’s that crossed it on foot, and horseback, and later the settlers in their ox drawn wagons.

I wonder if we’d have taken that journey, had we lived in the 19th century, but I think I already know the answer. No matter how amazing the landscape, we are constantly drawn to look over the rise of the next hill to see what lies beyond. So long as there was land in front of us to see, our wheels would have kept rolling. Across the sea of grass, and through the gates of the mountains, until we have forgotten whatever destination we had in mind, and fallen prey to the siren calling from beyond the horizon. This is our inheritance.

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3 thoughts on “The Freedom Machine

  1. Bravo!
    The road trip is one of the most freeing, madcap zany adventures you can embark upon.
    I’m on board with the waking at 3am and turning the key in the ignition. It’s exhilarating.
    Much to the horror of my husband and children I have been BEGGING to purchase a small RV to to use to drive cross country. I’ve done some long hauls but mostly by my lonesome.

    • I spent most of the drive pointing out every rented RV to my poor wife, suggesting that next summer we take 2 weeks and rent an RV. I’m glad to know I am not the only insane person who thinks that would be fun.

  2. We took many road trips when I was a kid. I’m ready to stay home or hop on a plane these days — but my husband LOVES driving. LOVES LOVES LOVES road trips.

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