One mile stands out in a long summer spent on the road

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There’s nothing like a good road trip every once in a while to break up the monotony of everyday life.

But this summer has been ridiculous.

A few weeks ago it occurred to me that I’d been breaking out the travel bag and rounding up the miniature toothpaste tubes a lot more often than usual.

Typically, between personal and professional obligations, I’ll have to hop on a plane or jump in the car for a cross-country trip no more than three or four times a year. But lately I feel like Johnny Cash belting out a breathless rendition of that jaunty old tune, “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

I haven’t been to Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond du Lac or Davenport, but it seems I’ve been to just about every other destination on Cash’s tongue-twisting roster of far-flung cities and towns.

One day, feeling a bit saddle-sore, I decided to stop and tally up the miles I’ve put behind me since February and came up with a grand total of roughly 16,000. Now, that might not sound like much to a long-haul trucker, but for a homebody, that’s a pretty far piece.

The total includes traveling through the air and over the land, but it also includes a short trip on the water. In June, I was involved in a national publication’s effort to revisit the Louisiana coast for a story on the 10th anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

For two days we toured the coastline taking photos and conducting interviews, and the journey included a ride on the ferry crossing the Calcasieu shipping channel near the remote Monkey Island in Cameron Parish.

Boarding that ferry and then motoring along the secluded shore on Hwy. 27 all the way out to Holly Beach, well, that’s when my colleagues realized they weren’t in Washington, D.C., anymore.

At least 5,000 of the total 16K were made with teenagers in tow. In mid-June, I climbed aboard a charter bus with 27 students and four chaperones for the annual Youth Tour trip to the nation’s capital, which is, for the record, 1,120 miles and about 350 are-we-there-yets away from Baton Rouge. One way.

A second lengthy road trip involved my own 13-year-old daughter.

Casey, the scholar in the family, decided to participate in the Duke University Talent Identification Program in which junior high kids can take the ACT and qualify to enroll in an accelerated college-level interim course.

She chose a creative writing class offered at Appalachian State University, nestled more than 3,000 feet high in the mountains in lovely Boone, N.C. I could hardly blame her when she balked at the option to fly, but that meant making the 1,600-mile round trip not once…but twice…within three weeks.

Having just spent a week in Washington, any wanderlust I had earlier in the year was left on that charter bus when I hit the exit after returning to Baton Rouge.

Just the thought of making those two round trips had me concerned – especially without a commercially licensed driver to depend on. I mean, I can’t sit for 15 minutes watching the evening news without falling asleep. How was I going to have the stamina to drive that far?

What if I got caught in that nightmarish rush hour traffic in Atlanta or Birmingham, or stuck in that tunnel in Mobile? I might not make it without getting arrested. What if there’s a blow-out? I’m not really sure where the spare tire is hidden in vehicles these days. Is it on the bottom, on the roof, in the glove compartment? What about hotel rooms, meals and other travel expenses? The bursars at Duke have already drawn a quart of blood out of my veins.

While freaking out about pulling off back-to-back multi-state road trips, I didn’t realize – until it actually happened – that one of those 16,000 miles I’ve traveled this year was going to be a lot more difficult to navigate than the rest.

That was the mile I passed back through the gates of Appalachian State University and turned southward on Hwy. 321 bound for home…without my daughter there by my side.

This is the season when many parents are saying goodbye to their children heading off to college, or to a first job or otherwise leaving the nest to make their own way in the world.

I remember the day I left home for college, a school that was 330 miles and two states away. I remember making that tight left curve on Colonel Allan Court that took my childhood home out of the frame of the rear view mirror in my 1980 cream colored Toyota Corolla. Through the lens of an 18-year-old, I remember the moment as a new beginning, filled with excitement, anticipation and curiosity about where life would take me, but also tinged with sadness.

But now that 30 years have passed and I can see that picture from a different vantage point, I’m sure my parents, though sharing in my excitement, experienced that same moment mostly as an ending, heartbroken that their meaningful role as dedicated, hands-on providers unfailingly and completely committed to the protection and well-being of their only son for nearly two decades, was moving into the past even as they stood in that doorway and watched me disappear around that corner.

I received a small taste of that unnerving emotion while pulling away from Appalachian State, agonizing over leaving my dear child behind but understanding I had to go. I knew the route back home, every highway number, every turn to make, but it still felt as though I was aimless, lost, drifting toward the unknown, hurtling out into a boundless expanse of dark open space.

I suppose it was a dress rehearsal for what’s to come, and I need to get prepared. To those parents experiencing separation this summer, buck up and be brave – parenthood ain’t for sissies. To those teens leaving the nest, do not – I mean do not – forget to call home.

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