It always began with a map and a red felt tip pen.
A few nights before vacation, the map would emerge from my dad’s glove compartment. Pop had more maps in there than the old drive-thru ketchup packets most of us have in ours. Relaxing in his rocking chair, the television humming low just for background noise, he’d lay the map on his lap, a glass of merlot on the table beside him. Out would come the red pen from his breast pocket. He’d draw a line from the I-10 to a connecting interstate, plotting for us a normal established path. But that’s where the norm ended. The line would squiggle onto some random local route, two-lane highway, or maybe even a dirt road. We wouldn’t be reaching our destination in the average eight hour breakfast to dinner drive. Try twelve.
Two hours or so in, the smell of fast fried food hanging in the station wagon, all was peaceful on our family road trips. Then suddenly Pop would sit up straighter and reach for the map. And as he asked Mom to hold it up, a sparkle would light up his eyes. The flick of the blinker trumpeted what would come. Mom would give a measured groan. We were headed for the scenic route, detouring from the predictable safety of the three-way freeway to one lane and God knows what.
Thanks to Pop’s detours I’ve experienced scenery beyond the fastest route. Like that time in the Highlands of North Carolina when we were hushed by the majesty of actual purple mountains, or that day in Bryce Canyon, Utah when I came toe to whiskers with a real chipmunk, who wasn’t in a two-dimensional rock band. I’ve also seen the oddities like herds of tarantulas in Arizona and dive mechanic shops when our rented Winnebago broke down in Texas. Good and bad combined, Pop’s jogs with his red pen exemplified this: Curiosity opens roads others miss in the hurry of here to there.
I first read the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” with a very rudimentary interpretation. When taken at face value, the road itself made all the difference.
Like Pop, I choose scenic routes. Recently I detoured my family through the Blue Ridge Parkway and a town that can only be described as the ideal location for an independent low budget horror movie. A spiral of bizarre after bizarre ensued like legit Wanted posters nailed to trees and children driving vintage harvester trucks. But between the gasps and sharp turns were a million laughs that left our bellies sore once we finally reached the bottom. It was unanimous: That was the scariest, most ridiculous, but best detour we’d ever taken. My choices had been obvious. Did I want to reach my destination uninspired, yet quickly? Or was I willing to extend my travel for nuance? These are chances I spring for, blatant contrasts like concrete and nature.
But when choices are too similar or numbered, I’m not so gutsy. At base level they look equally appealing or equally dull. Nothing about them reveals any obvious tipping point. I hem and haw. Do I even know what I want? I thought I did until the choices varied. Please don’t ask me where I want to eat dinner. And for the love of God don’t ask me where to get drinks after. The options are too vast and I don’t want the responsibility.
When the stakes are higher than dinner and drinks, if you’re like me, hesitation practically paralyzes you because the act of choosing is too definite. What job do we take? What grad school do we choose? What route do we go? Sometimes there’s one in the lot that secretly tugs more at our desires but it comes with detours—a new city, a different career, maybe the loss of prestige, or risks. And although we want it, what we fear from that detour stuns our discernment. This is usually when I ask the opinion of everyone I know when all the while I’m just too scared to own the responsibility of the outcome from the chances I secretly want to take.
This is what made all the difference in “The Road Not Taken.” Two roads were almost the same, their differences not great. Ultimately, the narrator stopped doubting his curiosity. He weighed risk against want, breathed a measured sigh, and moved on. The road less traveled was a faith walk. Maybe that’s why Mom never put up any real fights when Pop detoured? She had faith in him and the journey—and still does.
I know enough to know that any choice breeds either a consequence or reward—sometimes both depending on perspective. Not all choices are as simple as scenic route or highway. But the choice is there to take the road less traveled within—that curious, unexplored, underdeveloped, or forgotten piece of ourselves we’ve yet to walk.
Out comes a map and a red felt tip pen. What are we choosing this time?
The Road Not Taken
By Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
Blog originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.