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The Road to Somewhere
By James Dodson
Plume BooksCopyright © 2005 James Dodson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNibs the Lost Boy
Early that afternoon, as the skies cleared and the summer sun returned to England, Jack and I set off up Greenwich Hill with our ball gloves in hand.
"Dad," he said a bit anxiously as we neared the top of the ancient hill where King Henry VIII brought the first of his many virgin brides home to the palace bed nearly six centuries ago, "do you think anybody will mind if we throw the baseball up here? I mean, it looks kind of busy."
"The world is a busy place, Nibs," I assured him, placing a supportive hand on his shoulder-partly to ease his worry, partly to ease my aching knees. "But that's no reason to stay home in the hutch. Besides, we're only going to pitch a quick inning or two. My guess is, nobody will have a clue what we're really up to."
The hike up the famous long hill, as my huffing and puffing proved, was either harder than it looked or I was simply in worse shape than I feared. In either case, the enclosed stone terrace of the Royal Observatory was indeed crowded with packs of giggly, jostling French and Japanese students who'd already occupied most of the space around the Prime Meridian, our trip's first objective, zero degrees longitude, the place where measured time begins.
Starting here and now, the plan was for Jack and me to dosomething we'd talked about doing since he was a small boy perched on a large bed in a quiet dormer room demanding I read him one more adventure book of far-off places or, better yet, make up one of my ridiculously embroidered stories in which he and I wander about the ancient world slaying dragons, saving beautiful damsels, meeting friendly wizards, fighting black knights, and feasting on M&Ms and popcorn, generally having a legendary high old time.
"Dad," he said to me one night after I'd made up a particularly rollicking adventure which included storming a dark castle, becoming invisible in the nick of time, being personally thanked by the good Queen Gertrude, and riding a loyal camel named Sam all the way across the Sahara to enjoy a swell Kool-Aid party at the foot of the great pyramids, "do you think we could we really do that stuff sometime?"
"What's that, Boss?" I was hoping he meant fall asleep.
"See dragons and wizards and visit real castles and things like that."
I hated to have to tell the cute little cuss that even though there might be a few Medieval castles left standing around Europe, there really weren't wizards and dragons and such roaming the world anymore. Pity. So I said what any self-respecting parent says when faced with the reality that the only person in danger of falling asleep is them.
"Sure," I promised. "Someday. When you're a bit older."
Well, a promise is a promise and Jack was a good bit older and someday, as they say, was finally here. Only the stated objective of our long-promised odyssey had changed and matured a bit over the intervening years. Thus, instead of going in search of dragons and wizards, per se, we embraced the more ambitious and perhaps more implausible aim to try and travel entirely around the world during the first full summer of the new millennium, to wander like a pair of Mark Twain's proverbial innocents abroad and see whatever we could see for the two months of summer freedom allotted to us before Jack (a big fan of mythology, a good student of history) moved on to the mysteries of Mount Ararat Middle School.
The emphasis was on try because forty thousand miles, the approximate distance I calculated we needed to cover in order to see the exotic places we hoped to see, is a lot of ground to place beneath your feet in less than eight weeks. The experienced traveler in me was realistic enough to think we'd probably only be able to knock off all of Continental Europe, several Mediterranean countries, and possibly a bit of Africa at the tail end of the enterprise. Jack, on the other hand, fueled by those distant dormer room dreams and unburdened by too much travel experience abroad, was thinking big and appeared to have no doubt that we could somehow manage to squeeze in the Pyramids of Giza, the River Jordan, and maybe a friendly hike along the Great Wall of China on his birthday at the end of August. As unlikely as I knew it was that we could reach these exotic compass points in the course of just fifty or so days of dedicated vagabonding, I also didn't want to dampen my son's appetite and enthusiasm for exploring a complex world he was on the threshold of inheriting by insisting those places were out of the question.
By design ours was a largely unstructured and open-ended odyssey and the simple truth was, we-well, I-had no firm idea how far we might get and no clue where exactly we might wind up, because the point of embarking on a journey of discovery is to let the road unfold and lead where it will, show you what it needs or wants to show you. Thus, aside from a couple advance hotel bookings (one made in London and another in Paris on Bastille Day) plus a refundable reservation deposit plunked down on a ten-day safari I dearly hoped we would be able to take in East Africa toward the end of August (my own childhood fantasy trip), we had no accommodations reserved in advance, nor any firm travel schedule etched in stone.
I realize no one in their right mind really travels this way anymore, of course, certainly not abroad-going where personal whimsy and the winds of chance blow them, with little more than a good road map and an atlas of curiosities in their own heads to guide them. But it struck me that if ever there was maybe an opportune moment in time to undertake such a boyishly unstructured tromp through the Old World, to see what was beyond the horizon of our safe and conventional lives on a seaside hill in Maine, that moment was this summer.
Western Civilization, after all, was celebrating its second millennium of survival and Jack was about to turn eleven, the age boys in Medieval times were apprenticed to knights in order to learn the ways of the world; the age boys in Periclean Athens were dispatched to the country to learn the art of civility at the elbows of rural scholars; the age scientists say a boy first begins to notice the musk of life and almost every religion insists he's finally a young man.
As for me, the expedition's de facto field commander, chief financial patron, and head bottle washer, well, I was rapidly approaching the end of my forties, fast nearing that celebrated plateau of midlife when the intelligent man, as a valued older friend of mine likes to point out, honestly appraises his various strengths and weaknesses and begins to accept the remote possibility that he won't ever pitch for the Boston Red Sox, not even in short relief.
Between the idea and the action, as some celebrated poet or possibly bitter ex-Red Sox manager once advised, there lies the shadow of the matter. Though the world, for the moment at least, seemed no more acutely perilous at the start of summer 2001 than it had at any given point in my memory, I was old enough to realistically understand there were enough natural and man-made dangers on this planet to keep me on my toes and Jack's mom-my friend, coparent, and former wife-gently worried out of her mind back home in Maine, reminders that there were plenty of people who do unspeakable things to each other and perfect strangers every minute of the day and maybe twice on Sunday. History, with its impressive ledger of Holy Roman Crusades, conquests, civil wars, Inquisitions, jihads, plagues, mass murders, revolutions, and Reformations, as someone who was clearly on the losing end of things was supposed to have said, is simply a laundry list of man's staggering inhumanity to his neighbor, and if you think about it too long and hard it's a wonder anybody has the nerve to leave the yard for a quart of milk.
But having said this, civilization makes up pretty nicely where history sometimes makes a real sow's breakfast of things, and you don't have to be related to either Kenneth Clark or Ariel and Will Durant to realize that the origins of such wonders as the Italian Renaissance, English poetry, French food, Greek mythology, and the black rhino of Kenya were pretty nifty things to consider leaving home to investigate, even at the risk of making the evening news in the most unpleasant way possible.
There were other less glamorous obstacles to our trip, to be sure. Jack would have to miss theater camp and playing Cal Ripkin baseball and I'd have to forfeit most of the decent all-too-brief gardening and golf weather in Maine. Both of us would miss the heart of Red Sox season (no great loss to me-I'm a seasoned Fenway sufferer-but Jack is a true believer in the boys from Beantown) and Jack would miss trips to Moosehead Lake and vital general goofing off time with his best pal Andrew Tufts. To be blunt about it, I also wasn't even certain my wallet could deliver the grandiose boys' adventure my mouth had promised so many years ago up in that dormer bedroom. I mean, honestly now, all security concerns aside, how much did it cost to wander around the world like a couple New Age Medieval spiritual pilgrims? Frankly speaking, based on my own work-related travels, I didn't have much more than a few unsettling rough cost estimates tapped out late at night on the office calculator to go by, and those totals were almost enough to quell the budding world explorer in any responsible American middle-class taxpaying grown-up. Not to put too fine a point on the naysaying, that sum didn't even take into consideration the nearly two months I would have to take off work in order to try and do the trip.
No, as several of my fellow parental contemporaries at various youth baseball and basketball games in the days and weeks preceding the start of our unplanned global caprice took pains to point out, there was no shortage of perfectly good and practical reasons why it was one thing to talk about doing this sort of thing with your kid and another to actually try and do it.
At the end of the day, I decided, there was really only one reason that mattered to Jack and me-we simply wanted to go.
On a deeper level, I had a few private best hopes for believing a trip of this nature would be good for the Jack of the New Millennium. Recently, he'd played Nibs the Lost Boy in his school production of Peter Pan-perfectly cast, in my view, as a boy who's having so much fun in Neverland he can't see the point of going back to the real world, where he has to remember to pick up his towels and make up his bed and make certain his book report is properly signed and turned in on Thursday.
If my Nibs the Lost Boy was polite to a fault, sweet to the core, an excellent student, and almost equally smitten with Pedro Martinez's fastball and the flattering attentions of a certain pretty girl called Bethany Bellnap, he was also one of the dreamiest boys you're ever likely to encounter, prone to forget where he left his geography project, ball glove, or even good old Jack Pillow, the somewhat tattered, frequently mended icon of those distant storytelling days up in his dormer bedroom, a small Peter Rabbit-themed pillow he'd had since his mom and I brought him home from the hospital.
The fact that he still had good old Jack Pillow in tow spoke eloquently about his innocent view of the world beyond our hill in Maine. He was, as they say in guidance counseling circles, a "young" ten-year-old-unspotted from the world, as the Book of Common Prayer so aptly sums up the profile. A bit of a worrier, a deep and sensitive thinker, clearly a lad who took folks directly at their word, he didn't appear to have a cynical bone in his rapidly growing body. And as much as I wanted to nurture and preserve these admirable qualities in him, it was illogical and perhaps even dangerous to think I could keep him safely swaddled up this way-and hidden from the perils and seductions of the world at large-forever.
Travel broadens the mind, I suppose it's true, while TV simply broadens the butt. Thanks to his passion for playing until he dropped at any game involving a ball, Jack's rear end was probably in pretty good shape for the start of a New Millennium, but a summer away from the influence of Game Boy and the Disney Channel and maybe even Red Sox baseball, I calculated, wouldn't do either one of us on the home team any particular harm.
On the contrary, apart from the sheer boyish fun we might kick up on a freewheeling road trip to parts unknown, the real benefit of a summer jaunt around the Western civilized world on its two thousandth birthday, in search of the origins of some of our species' higher achievements in art and science and history and faith-my unapologetic paternal hidden agenda, as it were-was that such a roving chautauqua might go a long way toward broadening a young man's thinking and responsibly prepare him-not to mention me-for that sad but inevitable day when Nibs the Lost Boy finally grew up for good and said a fond goodbye to a dirt road in Maine and ventured out to find his own way through life, a tale as old as Telemachus and his worrying dad, Odysseus.
I think Mark Twain, patron saint of lost boys everywhere, stated the case pretty nicely when he set off on an almost identical journey of discovery two years after the end of the American Civil War. The man who is a pessimist before forty-eight knows too much, he declared. If he is an optimist after that, he knows too damn little.
As the ancient gods of sweet irony would have it, the father of this unlettered enterprise was exactly forty-eight years old this first summer of the brand-new age. And to be blunt, I still wasn't certain whether my collected years of wandering about had made me a natural optimist, who stubbornly refused to accept the verdict that the world is crowded with too many perils to consider leaving home, or a learned pessimist afflicted with terminal wanderlust, who simply chose to hope for the best and was willing to risk whatever it took to get back in touch with his inner eighth grader in a place most folks only read about in picture books.
On the title page of my own favorite childhood book, an Illustrated Treasury of the World's Greatest Legends, Myths and Poems, which still reposed somewhere on a shelf in my office, my late father, an adman with a poet's heart whom I affectionately called Opti the Mystic, quoting some long forgotten Eastern sage, inscribed these words: A great man is he who does not lose his child's heart. Wherever this world takes you, Bo, please keep yours ...
Excerpted from The Road to Somewhere by James Dodson Copyright © 2005 by James Dodson. Excerpted by permission.
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