Got talking to a guy named Tony at the last place we camped. Met him our first night there as Sharaun and I walked the loop, as is our habit.
He’s from South Alabama. Sharaun introduces herself as being from Florida and he nods simply. When I say I’m from California he smiles and quips, “Well the jury’s still out on you, then.” I offered a good-hearted chuckle in response, and he still looks at me just a little wary, like maybe my coastal elitism might be contagious.
We had a longer conversation the next day. I’m outside practicing guitar, he’s got his tow vehicle pulled into the empty site alongside ours so he can lubricate the sunroof.
Being that lubricating mechanical things is a universal male matter of interest, I walk over, brimming with testosterone, and ask, “Silicone?” “Yeah,” he says, “Trying to limber-up the rubber seal a little. Sun’s got it winkled and the seal’s bad and the air coming in is noisy when we’re driving.” I lean in for a look at the gasket, run it between my fingers to certify that, yes, the sun has indeed puckered it a bit. He nods approval at my inspection.
We are two such different people. I’m wearing shorts with full-length stretchy pants underneath, a Grateful Dead t-shirt with a long-sleeved undershirt, flip-flops and wool socks – none of it color coordinated in the least. He’s in bluejeans, workboots, and a white collared polo. The shirt’s tucked in and his cellphone is holstered on a belt clip. South Alabama, meet California.
We chat, using a shared appreciation for routine preventative maintenance as a springboard into more the personal. He’s not worked for six years now, been unable to ever since he had a benign tumor, along with a small part of his brain, removed from his head. His memory isn’t what it used to be, but, by all outward appearances, he’s fit and well abled.
When we get around to the bit where I share that I’m on the road for a year with my family he asks me if I work from the road or I’m independently wealthy. I answer neither and explain a little about deciding to take a year off. We talk about homeschool and kids and careers and traveling, even a little on religion.
And then Tony hits me with it: “So what do you hope to accomplish this year on the road? What are your goals?” Ho-lee crap South Alabama! We gon’ get all existential up in here just like that?!
I start to reply, then stutter and stop, realizing I don’t have this answer canned. Stalling, I say, “Oh man that’s a great question.” I stammer some more and Tony, maybe sensing that I’m really thinking, doesn’t stare me down in anticipation of a response and just goes about checking to see if that silicone hasn’t loosened-up that rubber yet.
“We actually sat down and wrote formal bulleted lists,” I say. Still not an answer. But, for the life of me, in that moment, I can’t bring them to mind.
It’s these times, when I know the answer to something and should have a response but just can’t get to it in my head, that I’ll often just turn to raw honesty. Turn off all the pre-processing and perfecting and situational-adjusting of words and ideas I do by habit and just speak what’s coming from my brain, heart, gut. Just say it, whatever it is, because it’s the truest even if it’s not what my practiced response might be.
“I wanted to spend more time with my family,” I say. “I was traveling too much, missed my wife and kids.” And then I heard myself say, “And our daughter is growing up so fast, maybe I thought I could slow that down a little.” And was shocked that I’d said it aloud, having, for some time heretofore only acknowledged it privately in my own thoughts.
So here we are, all that preamble to get to the point of this writing and now I’m nearly too spent to fully consider it. But saying the bit about Keaton out loud was powerful. I’ll have to write more about it later, it’s surely worthy of more, but I’ll finish now by telling the last of that conversation.
Maybe it was easier for me to speak so unfiltered because there was a subconscious anonymity saying it to South Alabama Tony. I mean, maybe it’d get lost when he tried to file it into that part of his brain that was missing. But, more likely it registered to me that we were just two ships passing in the night and there was no reason for pretense. (Heck, maybe there’s never reason for pretense.)
Regardless, Tony now looked me dead in the eyes and it was his turn to pause before speaking.
And right before he did, it all evened-out.
My hobo-boho ensemble and liberal leanings. His CCW, climate denial, and worn workboots. All our differences washed into a soft pink sameness of two humans living together on planet Earth.
“What you said just then,” he said, seriously, “I can truly understand that.”
And, then, there wasn’t much more to be said. Further, the realness of the conversation had maybe dawned on us, strangers both unto each other yet sharing quite the intimate sentiments, and the urge to flee took over. There’s gotta be some more mechanical stuff that needs lubricating, after all.
“Well, I’m going to go on in and eat lunch,” I say. “Guess it is about that time,” he says, “Was good talking to you. I’ll see you around.”
Thanks Tony. Safe travels, brother.