As we reach mid-April and the weather warms, one thought occupies my mind constantly: getting on the road. Rob and I loved to travel, and when he began working from home four years ago we committed to increasing the amount of time we were on the road. Over the following summers we logged almost 30,000 miles in our travel trailer, camping all across the country. Last summer, after Rob died, I drove our camper the last 1,000 miles home, committing to the kids and to myself that this wouldn’t be our last time on the road.
When I arrived back in Massachusetts after Rob’s funeral services in Washington, I dropped off my camper at a local mechanic to get the hot water heater fixed. We’d taken cold showers all summer because Rob couldn’t figure out how to fix the heating element and anode. As it turned out, the whole system needed to be flushed and fixed by a pro. (Rob would have been relieved to hear that!)
The day I arrived to pick up the camper, I decided to tell Dan the mechanic my situation. I explained that my husband had died recently, that we were a road warrior family, that I needed to learn to do this by myself. Would he teach me? With that understated kindness that defines New Englanders beneath their gruff exterior, he agreed and ushered me out back for a lesson on trailer maintenance.
I pulled my truck around to hitch up and grabbed my journal from the front seat. I was going to need to take notes. Over the next forty-five minutes, with my kids sitting in the audience in the backseat, my new friend Dan taught me how to de-winterize my camper and check the water heater to head off the previous year’s problems. He climbed into the driver’s seat and showed me how to calibrate my trailer’s brakes, a tricky job that had frustrated even my coolheaded husband.
I wrote furiously, stopping every so often to read him what I’d written and confirm I’d gotten his directions right. I asked every possible question I could think of. When all my questions were exhausted, Dan gave me his card and told me to call any time. He loved camping with his wife up in Maine, he said. “You can do it,” he assured me.
Right now I’m devouring David Gessner’s All The Wild That Remains, a beautiful book about the American West and two of Rob’s and my favorite writers, Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey. As Gessner describes his road trip across the west, I close my eyes and remember. I can see the exits he describes off I-70 in Utah. Every mile of that road is familiar to me. I know the way the front range rises from Boulder, Colorado, toward the heights of the Rockies. I’ve camped in the shadow of those mountains. Every page makes me want to hit the road.
This summer, Lord willing and COVID-19 permitting, I’ll hit the road again with my four kids and our family dog. It will be the first time I’ve ever driven so far on my own, but the highways across America are familiar friends. The West feels like home. I know Rob would be happy to see me climb behind the wheel and take off. Even though the front seat will be empty beside me, I’ll sense his wander-loving presence there. And if I start to lose my nerve, I’ll remember my friend, Dan, who taught me to do this by myself. I’ll catch my reflection in the rear view mirror and channel his confidence. “You can do it,” I’ll tell myself, and I’ll keep on driving.