Illustration by Michael Witte

Illustration by Michael Witte

It’s a cliché by now. You don’t really know someone until you’ve traveled with them. Just because it’s a truism doesn’t mean it doesn’t bear repeating—or explicating. In my experience, every journey has taught me things about my traveling companions that I didn’t know—and wasn’t likely to find out any other way. And not just boyfriends.

I have found out many things about my son while traveling along a highway, the horizon wide open to adventure. When it’s just the two of us, our car inevitably becomes a safe place, a neutral zone for observation, confession, musing, and venting. I recommend a road trip to any parent of a teenager. You may face rejection at first, but guarantee a reward to the teen’s taste at road’s end—call it a bribe if you must—and sooner or later you will score a buy-in. For the parental unit, the rewards are whatever is shared in transit.

The basic principle that travel is a road to new understandings holds true for all sorts of companions on any variety of journeys. Join someone you know—maybe even really well—out of the context that usually brings you together and all sorts of revelations are likely. How else but on a work trip to another city would you learn that one of your quieter colleagues knows how to order sushi like a master chef? Or that a middle-aged mom has a karaoke repertoire that slays.

Then he starts to fall backwards, wheels his arms for a moment, and is gone. I am stunned by the galooshh.

Those sorts of discoveries are to be expected, perhaps, when you set out on the road with someone you only know from work. But traveling can open windows into the hearts and souls of our nearest and dearest, too.

I learned this at a young age. To make summer vacations affordable for a family of five children, my parents planned long car trips, often involving camping. Packed in like sardines, the boys and I irritated one another with poking and sniping, while my sister—the oldest—desperately willed herself to disappear. But we only wriggled against our better selves for a day before the magic would begin.

The older boys stopped battling and shared their comic books. My sister’s voice was no longer high-pitched. My baby brother settled into dozing and my mom and dad visibly relaxed. We started looking forward to each day’s journey, sharing what we liked about the pancake breakfasts, scenery, and side trips. I began to enjoy my brothers, but it was a journey to a camp bathhouse that offered a peace treaty with my sister, the oldest, most strong-willed and opinionated of us all.

Judy, it turned out, was reduced to knee-0wobbling fear by any sort of spider, but especially daddy longlegs.

I saw an opportunity. Not only was I unafraid of these funny creatures, but I knew they were not actually spiders and helped to control the population of other insects my sister feared. I liked to catch them, an act of bravery that deeply impressed my sister. In time, she would visit the Opiliones farms I set up near our campsites and watch in awe as I’d make the entire colony bounce up and down in unison. Our relationship changed that summer. I stopped calling my sister Queenie and she stopped pinching me.

Traveling forever changed my understanding of my dad, too. On every trip we towed a boat. Fishing was my dad’s great joy. My younger brother and I were keen for the one-on-one time outings on the water allowed, even if it meant eating powdered donuts with fishy fingers.

Then one day, dad fell out of the boat.

I see it unspool in slow motion. He is sitting on the side of the boat untangling my line. He has on his classic short –brimmed bucket hat and aviator sunglasses. He is focused on the whorls of filament and then he starts to fall backwards, wheels his arms for a moment, and is gone. I am stunned by the galooshh. Jimmy looks at me like I’m at fault.

The whole episode probably took less than a minute, but in memory, time stands still. Daddy has fallen out of the boat.

When he reappears, spouting like a dolphin, he is missing his hat and his glasses. I hold my breath.

My father looks me in the eye. I wonder, was it my fault? Then he laughs. Guffaws. He is laughing so hard that he can barely climb up the little ladder attached next to the boat’s engine. I had never before seen my dad laugh at himself.

In that moment, I realized my dad was vulnerable to life’s surprises. That day, the sun climbing high, the powdered donuts waiting, l saw my dad do something that would have left me mortified. He came up laughing. I never forgot.

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