Cruising Down that 57 Highway

It starts somewhere south of the southern tip of Illinois’ and ends in Chicago.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it. At least it’s the story of my highway 57 and here is where I’ve landed after 57 years: somewhere north and east of Mahomet on the Sangamon River.

Growing up as a Florida boy – and later, yes, Florida Man – I can say that there was never a time when I put my finger on a map and set my compass for Illinois. But that’s not how life’s highway rolls. It’s more like a river: I can’t see what’s around the next bend, so I paddle on to find out. Moving forward, never backward; downstream, going with the flow. And as I reveal what’s around that next bend, I realize I can’t see beyond the next bend after that. So it goes. So I came up the 57 Highway.

Apropos here is a quote from Antonio Machado “Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again.”

It’s true: our old house in Murphysboro is vacant and crumbling, our house in Philo was levelled by the wealthy neighbor that bought it. My daughter’s first two grade schools in Sidney and Philo were demolished just after she left. The campus building where Carol and I first worked in Champaign is now a parking lot. Even our first home here in Mahomet burned down a year and a half after we moved in.  Our paths seem to get obliterated behind us: never to be trod again. So it goes.

My story moves like a drive north on Highway 57. Coming up from the South, we stopped off for a while down at the Marion exit to live in Carbondale. Seven years later, we got back on that Highway and got off at Chambana. Twenty years later, I’m still here off of the Chambana exit, but my younger daughter now lives at the end of the Highway: Chicago.  Frankly, that doesn’t seem like my destiny. Hers either for that matter, but we’ll have to see what lies ahead.

So without seeing ahead, all I really know is that as of this birthday, I just feel like an average 57 year old dude.

So here’s my portrait of the average 57 year old dude, if I actually were average, which I doubt.

The average 57 year old dude has two daughters, both recent college graduates, one living with us and one living in Wrigleyville in Chicago. The average 57 year old dude has been married almost 30 years – this December – to his grad school sweetheart. He’s put in enough years at work to begin seriously contemplating life as a retired (or at least ‘transitionally employed’) person – Phew!  He just had a beautiful grandson bestowed upon him.

In addition to a beautiful new grandson, the average 57 year old dude has two dogs, two cats, three chickens, an inside goldfish and 8 (wait, make that 7), goldfish in his outside pond, and a Leopard Gecko.

(Now here’s where the ‘average’ thing gets a little more sketchy): He serves on four organizational boards in various capacities, most focused on – or somehow related to – rivers, and certainly on getting people outside. He spends time outside kayaking the river that runs through his backyard or riding his bike down country roads and getting lots of flat tires. The average 57 year-old dude (sort of) plays the drum kit, the bongos, and plays at: the guitar (acoustic or electric), the accordion, the Casio electronic organ, the harmonica, the ukulele and the kazoo. None very well (except maybe the kazoo).

(Here’s where things get even more sketchy). The average 57 year-old dude hasn’t watched television in 30 years and prefers the outdoor life to wasting time paying attention to organized athletics – college or professional. On most days, he showers outside. He writes a monthly column about rivers and roads for his local newspaper that some people have even been known to read on occasion. And finally, he’s been known to dress up in a duck costume.

So, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there’s a chance I may be a few standard deviations away from normal on a few things (like playing at the accordion). But still, my point is – at 57 – I feel pretty average.

I imagine that as they age, many people find themselves reading the obituary pages more often. Not only to find the latest updates from their friends, but to keep score. Are more people passing on still way older than me or are a lot of people passing on at my age or younger? I’m happy to report that most are thankfully still just a bit older than me, but the gap is narrowing. It’s the ones that pass at about my age that inspire me to live better, because life is our most precious gift.  That’s what’s written all over the obituary pages.

At 57, the specter of death, with its random swinging of the scythe, seems like it’s striking more frequent and ever closer, taking relatives and friends.

Here’s a list of my recent passings: my cousin Mary, brain disease; my other cousin’s husband Keith, esophageal cancer; my best friend Patrick’s mom; Patrick’s sister Valerie, who used to play with all of us growing up; Patrick’s dad. Compared to Patrick though, the toll at my office seems abnormally high of late: My boss’s Dad, a co-worker’s husband (brain cancer, my age), her mom, another co-worker’s mom. My co-worker – murdered in her 30’s by her opioid addicted husband. Another co-worker (my age) – hit on a sunny evening on her way home from work by a passing pickup at an unmarked intersection on a remote country road (the pickup driver walked away.) And another co-worker (brain cancer, my age). BTW, if anyone needs a job – we’re hiring.

And finally this past May, as I wrote in this space, my brother Randy (heart disease).

But every passing is a lesson, reminding me how I should live my own life. Pay more attention at unmarked country intersections, pay attention if friends say your spouse has a dangerous addiction, stay healthy, don’t smoke, lose weight, eat well.

But in spite of all these passings, I just got an amazing new grandson out of the deal, so I’ll call it even and move on (as if I have a choice).

I read that we should try imagining that we travelled into the future and found that this child before us grew to be an inspiring and great leader of a great nation. Then, returning to our own time, how would we treat this child? Oh!  How we would nurture this child to be sure that he had everything he needed, the best education, the right moral upbringing, that he stayed healthy and fit. Well, of course we can’t travel into the future, so we’ll never know which child this great leader might be. I guess we’ll just have to treat every child this way.  I know I will with my grandson.

At this point on the 57 Highway, I can’t see the future of course, and from what’s been revealed to me so far, I can only know for sure that the path ahead is made by walking. Maybe it’s showing me that I’m now veering off down Highway 74, which would be good. Or perhaps even better, back to where I grew up in Florida: near I-95.

According to Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh, “The future is made of present stuff.” All I can know for certain is what is here and now. All I have is today. And at 57, the present: this day – is gift enough for me.

Appeared as Rivers and Roads, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays, September 19, 2019

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