On the road, it's always easy to find a new path

On the road, it's always easy to find a new path

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re on vacation, say in Yosemite National Park, and there, among the sequoia trees and granite cliffs, you spot someone you think you might know.

You’re not sure, of course, because what would a guy from your American history class be doing here, in your world, 50 years later?

It stumps you, not only because the odds against it are staggering, but because it makes no sense, and so you convince yourself it’s someone else entirely.

And that’s somewhat of a relief because you don’t need the drama.

After all, no one wants to run into someone they know while they’re on vacation. It’s just plain uncomfortable.

Or was that just my mother?

Maybe you’re the kind of person who welcomes that kind of serendipitous happenstance, the kind of person who would approach someone from the misty past, flash a winning, sincere smile and say something like, “Don’t I know you?”

Not Mom.

She had enough trouble negotiating a trip to the grocery store, sometimes skipping the frozen-food aisle because she thought she recognized a lady from our church lingering over the tater tots.

Mom would have absolutely adored the idea of wearing a mask in public places like the library or the post office or the doctor’s office. To her, it would have been a blessing in disguise, if you’ll pardon the pandemic pun.

Let me share a quick story from family vacation lore.

In summer 1970, I think it was, we found ourselves in upstate New York, stopping for the night at a Holiday Inn on our way to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was just a layover, a place to rest after a long day on the highway, Dad having done all the driving from our Ohio home.

We stayed at Holiday Inns when we could because most of them offered the four luxuries we three kids coveted when on vacation.

I refer, of course, to a color television, a swimming pool, air-conditioning and a pop machine.

This, to us, was the height of conspicuous consumption, and we took almost sinful pleasure wallowing wantonly in the tempting excess of those modern conveniences.

And if the room had a Magic Fingers bed-vibrator option, well, I’d have been content to spend the rest of the week there, despite the fact I’d been begging Dad for a year to take us to Cooperstown.

So there we five were, lounging poolside, when all of a sudden there was a commotion coming from one of the balconies. It never occurred to me something crucial was happening, something so unexpected and bizarre it could tip our trip into chaos.

Let me get right to it.

The man and the woman whooping it up, waving their arms, shouting with delight and calling my parents by their first names were colleagues from the college where Mom and Dad taught.

Nearly 500 miles from home, we were no longer anonymous.

Dad, who had earned his Ph.D in political science but also had a doctorate in socializing, was on his feet immediately, returning those balcony salutations in kind. He seemed genuinely pleased by unexpected collision of two worlds but looked at his wife, our mother, with something approaching guilt, as if he’d messed up.

“Children,” Mom said, “we’re going back to the room.”

And when I protested that we’d just sat down, I got The Look, the one that said if I knew what was good for me, I’d shut up and obey.

“Now,” she said.

I firmly believe if she’d have had her way, we’d have checked out of that Holiday Inn as fast as we could throw our stuff into the back of the car, just fire up the station wagon and get out of Dodge.

And if that meant leaving Dad stranded in a motel lounge with their friends, well, that was too damn bad.

“I didn’t come all this way,” she might have said, snapping her suitcase shut with the same vitriolic energy she used after she’d given my grade card a disgusted glance, “to be reminded of where we came from. I agreed to this trip to get away from all that.”

Of course, it didn’t come to that. She played nice, and the four of them had a nice, quiet drink, reliving old times and sharing tales from the road while we watched a “Mod Squad” rerun in color.

One of the great regrets of my life is that Mom never got the chance to meet my wife.

I’m absolutely sure they would have gotten along famously, especially when it came to things like jolting vacation run-ins.

She and I were making our first visit to the Outer Banks in fall 1996, never imagining in four short years we’d be living in North Carolina, just a few hours away from the Hatteras National Seashore. It was one of those crisp, azure-skied afternoons with a warm breeze blowing off the Atlantic, perfect for a picnic lunch.

As we were savoring our shrimp-burgers and hush puppies, a couple approached us with big smiles. Because the place was nearly empty on that autumn afternoon, they had to be heading for us.

Turned out they had spotted our car with its Ohio license plates, ones that also included the name of our home county. They were from there too, so, small world, we invited them to join us.

It was awkward, even for me, someone who likes to schmooze, and I was happy when they left after 15 minutes or so. My fiancée and I took our time exploring the Hatteras Lighthouse and its endangered and precarious cliff-side perch, then decided to visit the gift shop after our excursion to get a souvenir or two.

But once inside the front door, who did we see?


The same Ohio couple.

“We’re getting out of here,” my fiancée said, grim-faced, taking my arm in a vise grip that cut off all blood circulation, “right now.”

The gravel sprayed like BB pellets behind us as we fishtailed out of the parking lot, leaving a cloud of oyster-shell dust in our wake.

So if you’re taking a summer vacation, take care, beware and remember: There’s always a road to somewhere else, just in case.

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