By on January 21, 2014
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The road led out of town, crossed over a set of rusty, unused railroad tracks and spanned the Pilchuck river via a rickety, one lane, wooden bridge before beginning its climb into high hills above the town of Snohomish. For the most part, the road was long and straight, it’s only when you get up into the hills and forest proper that the landscape becomes rugged enough to force the roads to follow the lay of the land, and although I haven’t been on it in years, I can still see every inch of its length in my mind’s eye. Every dip and bend along its course, the veritable spider web of cracks that decorate its surface, and the broken bits along the edge that claw at the tires and attempt to wrest control away from drivers who are unwary enough to allow their vehicle to stray too far from the center line, are as familiar to me as the faces of old friends and I have carried them, quite literally, around the world and back again.

As I crossed the bridge and began my ascent into the hills on that hot August afternoon so long ago, my relationship with the road was still in its infancy. At fifteen years of age, the lessons the road had to teach about driving were still more than a year away and, instead of being ensconced in air-conditioned comfort behind the wheel of a car, I was out in the heat of the day mounted atop my trusty old Schwinn. It was an ugly, battered bicycle, something my father had found at the curb or fished from some farmer’s junk pile, and it had taken some creative repairs to make it road worthy. Now, it worked well enough that it had become my regular mount for the long trip into and out of town but, like all Schwinns, it was stoutly constructed and weighed almost as much as a horse.

The bike’s weight, though, was no problem as long as you were headed into town, but once you made the turn-around and started back up the hill, you felt every ounce and as the bridge fell away behind I shifted into the lower gears as my real assault on the slope out of the valley began. It was slow going, each turn of the bicycle’s crank sapping some tiny portion of my strength in exchange for a few feet of forward travel. But like all young men, I had a great reservoir of strength and although there were miles ahead, I was confident that I would not be completely tapped before the trip was completed. I had been here before, dozens of times on the back of this very bicycle, and like any kid from the country who wants the excitement that even a small town can bring, I knew this was the payback for my day’s adventure.

Image courtesy of cyclespa.blogspot.com

One turn of the crank followed the next and I was making slow but steady progress when the rear tire gave a sudden snap. As the air that had been captured in the inner tube began to hiss its way back into the atmosphere, I felt the tire go soft and the bike begin to settle onto its rear rim. Knowing that my day’s ride was at an end, I gave the pedal one last kick and, when the bike would roll no further, swung my leg up and over the seat in a fluid, well practiced dismount and stepped off of the pedal and onto the roadway. There wasn’t any point in looking at the tire, I knew, I had neither repair kit nor pump, so I simply started pushing.

I had walked about a mile and was just nearing the top of a small knoll when a Chevrolet pickup truck exploded over the crest of the hill. It was an older truck, but in nice condition, and I would have paid it little attention but for the fact that the driver was someone just about my own age. In fact, it was a someone who had been in my Freshman gym class a year earlier, a skinny, gangly outsider named Rick. He had been new to our school that year and, although he and I hadn’t become close friends, we hadn’t become enemies either. We were, at the very least then, friendly acquaintances and so I gave a slight wave as he sped past and then turned my attention back to the road and the long trip ahead.

I hadn’t very gone far when the truck pulled up behind me and its driver gave a friendly honk. We had a brief exchange, both of us shocked to see someone we sort of knew outside the confines of a high school classroom and after a few seconds Rick told me to put my bike in the back of the truck. It was a simple thing really, but not the kind of thing everyone will do for someone they barely know. It was a nice gesture and it formed the basis of a friendship that lasted through the remainder of our high school years and even into the first few years of adulthood.

But time took us in different directions and by the time I joined the Merchant Marines when I was in my early 20s, it was clear that our lives were already leading us in different directions. While I spent months at sea, life at home went on without me and gradually many of my oldest friends, Rick among them, slipped away. By the time I was closing in on 30 and decided to trade a life at sea for life as a college student, we seldom encountered one another and I heard through mutual friends that Rick was getting a good start on life and holding down a steady job somewhere in town. I suppose I could have tracked him down, but with college on my mind it didn’t make sense to try and pick up old friendships. Too much time had passed.

1988 Dodge Shadow

The road stretched out before me and I pushed my little Dodge hard as I made my way down out of the hills. Gravity pulled on the car as it sped down the long slope of a steep hill, but I paid no attention to the added speed and by the bottom of the hill was running well above the posted 35 MPH speed limit. Ahead, the road dipped as it crossed over a culvert pipe and then rose up and over a small hill where, I knew from prior experience, the car would shrug off a great deal of its excess speed. Still, I was kicking along well above the limit as I crested the hill and flashed past the place where so many years earlier Rick’s kindness had made us friends and I paid it scant attention.

At the bottom of the road, at the point where I could have turned and gone into Snohomish, I headed instead towards the highway on ramp that led to the City of Everett and wound the car out on the long, flat road that followed the river up the valley. The road was wide and fast and I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of the fast little car as it sped along on the hot August afternoon. Racing along above the speed limit, it would have been easy to ignore the man I saw walking alone alongside the road but as I neared, the long, gangly form became strikingly familiar. Although it had been years since we had seen one another, as our eyes met for that one fraction of a second as I raced past, recognition flashed between us.

The man gave a slight wave but I noted in my rearview mirror that he did not turn to watch me pass as I accelerated away. At the first opportunity, I turned around and went back for him and, sure enough, it was my old friend reduced to walking because his ratty old Dodge Charger had run out of gas. He seemed shocked that I would come back for him and I noted as I drove him home to retrieve his gas can that he was both the same person I once knew but also someone profoundly different. Later, I waited while he filled and then started his old Charger and, after a few friendly final words and platitudes about meeting again soon, we parted ways, him towards wherever it was that life was taking him and me in my own, new direction. Our friendship had lapsed, but in the end we were at least, once again, friendly acquaintances.

A year or two ago, more than a decade after I finally left the Pacific Northwest for good, I made the long trip home and, although our family homestead has long-since been sold and my mother has relocated to a smaller place in the valley, l found myself drawn to the deep forest and the high hills of my youth. The road, of course, still leads down into the valley and every dip and bend along its course remains much as I knew it. At base of the road, close to town, however, the one lane bridge has been replaced by a new cement structure so wide that it even has breakdown lanes and the old, abandoned railroad tracks have been pulled up in order to create a nature trail.

The veritable spider web of cracks that decorated the road’s surface and the broken bits along the edge that once clawed at the tires and attempted to wrest control away from drivers who were unwary enough to allow their vehicle to stray too far from the center line have been paved over and I noted that, although many of the houses remained, the names on the mailboxes were new. It was the same, yet profoundly different. Better, but somehow worse. Another old friend and I, reduced once again to a casual acquaintanceship. I guess that’s just how the world works.

Your author at 17

Your author at 17

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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15 Comments on “A Road Runs Through It...”


  • avatar
    TR4

    Nice writing! Just one little nit to pick:
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/cement-or-concrete/

  • avatar
    bachewy

    Great writing. It took me back to the roads of my youth. Those roads we started out walking and riding bikes on, then graduating to our first cars and experiencing the freedom of it all.

    A few years ago I went back to those roads as well and even though I recognized them, they all seemed smaller and shorter.

  • avatar
    maciejewskiadam

    That was a great piece, Thomas.

    • 0 avatar

      Thank you so much. I’m guesing there aren’t going to be a lot of comments about this one but it is the result of me looking at my earlier articles and finding the cars but not finding as much “truth” as I would have liked.

      This article is definitely about the truth, but as I look at it now I feel like it is a little thin on “cars.” Now I’ve just gotta work on getting those two things together. Once I do that, I’ll really have something.

      • 0 avatar
        jhefner

        You must have had a Schwinn Varsity, maybe a Continental. So did I; it was the first ten speed I ever owned. It was heavy, very heavy, at a time when bikes were following the European example, and becoming lighter.

        I kept it until it got stolen; we got it back, but it was trashed from the joyride the theif took with it. I replaced it with something on the opposite end of the scale — a Viscount Aerospace GT.

        The only two things they had in common was the internally lugged frame and ten speeds. Otherwise, it was lightweight – 21 pounds when it had tubular rims and an aluminum front fork on it; compared to about 39 pounds for the Varsity. But while the Varsity (and it’s stablemate the Continental) was rugged; the Viscount was fragile. It had been briefly owned by someone who broke the front fork jumping curbs with it; the frame still bears the marks where it got tweaked from the impact. I put a replacement aluminum front fork on it; and got many happy years of riding out of it.

        Every year, we would spend a week at a state park that was made up of rolling hills. I remember pumping my way up the hills for the rush of racing down the other side; bracing the top bar with my knees to make sure it did not shake apart. I must have hit some insanely fast speeds on one hill in particular.

        Still have that bike today; though it is hard now to crouch over in the racing position it is set up for. And I don’t trust myself or other drivers anymore; so I just ride it on a fluid trainer. The Viscount was the DeLorean of it’s day; Viscount had their own idea of how to do things and save money at the same time; it almost worked; but didn’t in the long run.

        Thanks for the memories.

  • avatar
    centennian

    My family has scattered away from the rural CT roads on which I learned my way. Last night I told my wife I’ve been away too long; it was just a notion till I read this.
    Road triiip!

  • avatar
    Moparmann

    Once again, another great story! Not exactly what I was expecting, but it did serve to inspire a bit of introspective thinking. One wonders about the “ifs, ands, & buts” of life and how that at any point something could have deflected it into an entirely new path. It’s always amazing how the familiar (old neighborhoods, cars, people, even) can be the same, yet so different with the passage of time! Like Jhefner, I experienced the weight of a Schwinn Varsity, but I bought an Atala, instead (whioh I also still own). (c:

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      I remember the Atala; nice bike. I worked through a succession of bike stores as a repairman during my high school years; the first one was sole owner shop which sold Atala and Motobecane (sp?), the second one was a Schwinn store ran by a bunch of potheads I did not get along with who soon let me go; the third and longest was a family owned shop that sold Raleigh, Viscount, and other brands.

      The owner also had an “Ordinary” — the old time highwheeler bicyle with the large front wheel, direct drive pedals, and no brakes — on display in the store window; and apparently would ride it in parades on occassion.

  • avatar
    zamoti

    I also enjoyed this quite a lot. There is something special about the roads that guide us through our youth. I started out in rural Ohio, having first moved from a small town to the country; early on, I tried a skateboard on the country road only to find it too coarse to successfully move and sadly abandoned it. With only an old Raleigh, I rode around my house, eventually venturing miles from home with my older brothers. We knew the road surfaces, the gravel roads, the bumps and heaves, which ones had the biggest holes which made the best bike jumps. We knew the litter in the ditches, occasionally scouring them for bottles to break in creative new ways. Eventually we all got cars, I claiming a battered blue 4-speed Yugo. It was slow as sin an ran poorly, but I got to know each curve of my now expanded world, knew the same heaves and bumps, figured out just how fast one could go down a gravel road before losing control. I knew how many telephone poles a quarter mile was in front of Pete’s house and where the road that wore down to the rubberized tar were good for big smoky burnouts.
    Even as the years went along, my brothers and I would occasionally take to the bicycles for all night summer rides, laying on the warm empty country roads looking up at the stars just remembering when were little kids. We made the yearly last-day-before-school pilgrimage to the nearest town that was a full six hour ride in and out with a stop at the comic book store.
    When I started working, I knew that my drive to Sandusky was composed of three ten minute segments, and exactly where I needed to be in order to get to work on time. Ten minutes to Dave’s house, ten minutes to Rt 2 and ten more to the Holiday Inn.
    Though I have left many years ago and have been back but once in nearly 20 years, I still often think of those roads, what I learned on them, bad lessons of speeding (yes officer, a crappy subaru can do 100 mph), wrecking, (yes officer, that used to be my subaru) as well as the quiet peace of a country road at night. I learned to handle deep snow, ice and breakdowns in the time before mobile phones and how to be self-sufficient and fix my crappy cars on the side of the road with few if any tools. Failing a fix, how to talk to strangers and politely ask for a ride home.
    I don’t imagine that I will ever live out in the country again, but those road are forever a part of me, and reading this article brings back good memories.

    Thank you for sharing it.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    Great story!

    There is a road like that I still know here in Maine. It was the fast back way home in college, and I can still visualize every swoop and turn. Got to drive it again for the first time in many years last summer, and it has not changed a bit. Can’t say the same for some of my friendships though, sadly.

    Kind of off-topic, but I too still have my bike from now (gulp) 30 years ago. A Chas Roberts Road frame with a motley lot of Campagnolo and Shimano components that only a High School bike racer on a budget could scrounge up. That frame though – it was $750 in 1985, paid for by a friend’s parent’s insurance after he coasted out of his driveway on my USED Chas Roberts while looking back over his shoulder at me. Straight into a parked car. Buckled the poor thing’s frame, but luckily no damage to him or car.

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    As a former “Navy brat” I’ve had many such acquaintances over the years due to the constant flux of my childhood. But because of BRAC, most of my old stomping grounds and “roads” are gone.
    -Naval Station Great Lakes: Housing area razed, and turned into a field.
    -NWS Charleston: Neighborhood completely rebuilt. Unrecognizable.
    -NAS Corpus Christi: The entire base has been changed.
    -Camp Lester, Okinawa: The entire base has been handed back to the Japanese government. Half is gone.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Great writing as always Thomas ;

    Growing up in Rural New England I know *exactly* how one felt about those empty back roads , I didn’t get a bicycle until maybe 1964 , shortly before I moved away , I was told the frame was cast iron (?) certainly it weighed more than I did and no one carried those huge fat tires from WWII at that time . coaster rear brake only .

    I’ve been back a few times over the decades , last time was in late July for Mom’s Memorial Service , boy howdy those roads sure did shrink ! .

    Even though most of the B and B here are younger , I think this piece will resonate strongly in them .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    rolladan

    Great piece man I ran into an old buddy of mine recently who I hadn’t seen in over 10 years and this story just reminds me of that. It really is a small world man. Well you’ve seen the world and I haven’t so I guess I can’t say that.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Thank you Thomas. Reminds me of so many friends and acquaintances who have swapped places over the years. The roads have all gotten shorter, but the curves, dips, bumps and sight lines are all still where I left them. You’ll always get more comments by pissing us off, so thank you again for writing this instead.


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