Route 655

The back window of my 1968 Plymouth Satellite Station Wagon bore testimony to the many times I drove that dirt road as a teenager on the edge of manhood. The view through that dust covered pane may have been obscured but it made my path ahead clearer.

How does a city boy from the San Francisco Peninsula learn from a dirt road?

When I was 16, my parents moved us from Belmont, California to Spring Valley, Virginia. We actually lived on Route 604, another dirt road, but Route 655 was a much longer dirt road that had a deeper role in my coming of age.


The first time I drove down 655, I pulled to the edge to let another car pass.

I misjudged the edge.

My big old wagon with the black California plates was quickly stuck.

I walked to the nearest dwelling with lights on. A small shack of a house that looked like it was held up as much by prayer as by wood offered my only hope.

I stepped onto the porch in my flip-flips, shorts, tank-top, and coat. I was on my way to a Halloween party dressed as a beach bum. I’m not kidding. I really was.

An older man answered the door. He and his twenty something son looked like true hillbillies. They smiled when I explained my costume.

They helped me out of the ditch in no time and refused my offer of payment.

They were some of the nicest people I had met in my young life.

I learned not to judge people by their looks or situation.


I got a job at a farm on that road.

In fact, it was at the farm with the Halloween party – for the people whose car caused me to slide into the ditch. I never told them.

They were business owners from North Carolina who spent a lot of their time away from home. They needed someone to drive their kids and help take care of the farm.

That’s how, one day, I found myself on foot going down the middle of Route 655.

The neighbor’s bull had broken through the fence and I had to prod it back to the neighbor’s farm.

I was scared out of my wits, but I did it.

The bull was more than 10 times my size but it went where I directed and was soon back in the neighbor’s barn.

I learned a little country confidence.


My Plymouth had a similar dashboard to a popular TV car – the General Lee.

The Dukes of Hazzard always drove like their tails were on fire and no one complained but the inept and corrupt police in the show.

I somehow thought that’s how one could drive on dirt roads.

That was dumb.

One day a neighbor flagged me down and tore into me about going too fast. I was caught off guard. I knew I drove fast but had no idea that it upset people.

Yes I was clueless.

I apologized profusely and asked how fast I should take that road (there were no speed limit signs). I think they expected arrogance from me and were taken aback by my attitude.

I learned to try to see things from other’s perspectives.


My old wagon was in bad need of a tune-up the day I crawled it up a hill.

The top of the hill was blind.

The big Plymouth took up two-thirds of the one lane road.

The Ford pickup flying over the top of the hill took up two-thirds.

That math don’t add up!

I was stopped within a second of the sight.

The truck couldn’t stop.

My wide eyes saw the truck veer to my left.

A thick tree stopped it cold right next to me. It leaned steeply over the embankment.

The driver, a young man I vaguely knew, stumbled out and collapsed in pain on the road.

The sight of his passengers shocked me. It was two of the kids from the farm where I worked. The 10-year-old boy had a bloody face. The 13-year-old girl was screaming and holding her wrist.

There were flames under the hood!

They got out with a little help from me.

Thankfully, the flames died out.

I ran to their farm just up the road. As I called the rescue squad, their 16-year-old sister and her boyfriend rushed to the scene.

By the time I got back to the hill, the young couple was about to take the kids to the hospital. They refused to take the driver, a friend of the boyfriend. They were beyond angry.

The driver tried to blame me for the accident. No one but a couple of his friends believed him. I don’t think they believed him long.

I learned the results of unsafe driving.


I could go on about the lessons from that road.

  • Don’t listen to peer pressure egging you to go faster.
  • Make sure you have the right size chains before driving backroads in the snow.
  • Always make sure your spare tire is good.
  • Don’t fear the dark that far out in the country.
  • Ditches hide under leaves in the Fall.
  • Station wagons aren’t made for off-reading!

That last one wasn’t really on Route 655, but you get the point. These were just a few stories that happened on Route 655.

I dare say the two years of country life taught me more about living than the previous 16 in the suburbs!

The next time you’re tempted to complain about a route that takes you over a dirt road, slow down and listen. The road might just teach you something.

Close Encounter of the High Voltage Kind

Southwest Virginia in the early ‘80s

 

It was just beginning to sprinkle as we started up the trail. Thinking the rain would cool off our hike on that hot August day, we happily hiked on,

blissfully ignorant

of what lay ahead.

I was one of thirty some 17-year-olds spending a week at Lynchburg College competing for scholarships. After a busy day of classes, this hike at Sharp Top on the Blue Ridge Parkway was just the diversion we needed.

Our steep mile and a half hike did indeed cool off. The sprinkles turned to rain.

We quickened our pace when we heard distant lightning. Someone said something about a cabin at the top.

The true downpour started as we approached the cabin. We all crammed into the small stone building. No one was brave or foolish enough to go out to the overlook just beyond the cabin.

We were young. We didn’t worry.

Besides, we knew there was a shuttle that would take us back down the mountain. We’d hike the quarter mile to the shuttle stop as soon as the lightning let up.

It didn’t let up.

If anything, it increased.

And the last shuttle of the day would be there soon.

Half of the people in the cabin decided they would stay put where it was safe.

I was not one of those people.

A dozen or so of us rushed out through the deluge.

I couldn’t see a thing. I just followed the person ahead of me. Lightning crashed every couple of seconds all around. I got soaked to the bone.

After a couple of minutes that seemed like a couple of hours, we made it to the bus shelter. I plopped my waterlogged self down on the bench on the far side of the shelter, glad to be safe.

Then it hit me.

Technically, it hit the shelter and the electricity ran through those of us on that far side of the bus shelter.

It was lightning.

Oh, and deafening thunder.

It was literally a pain in the rear. Very painful, in fact.

When it happened, a girl seated on the other side started screaming hysterically. Once she calmed, she explained that she saw us all light up and thought we would die.

The only casualty that I know of was my digital watch, which started flying forward in time. We were sore and soaked and had a new respect for thunderstorms.

As for those stayed in the cabin, the college had to send out another bus. They didn’t return until later in the evening.

Whether we played it safe or braved the storm, we each came home with quite the story to tell.

This story has found it’s way into many children’s and youth lessons. It even into Wil Clarey, The Impossible Summer (as told to Wil by his grandpa). My lessons and my books tend to be filled with stories like these. They tend to grab attention and illustrate a number of points.

Do you have stories?

Let ‘em out!

Write them and share them. If possible, teach with them.

Don’t let them fade in your memory.

Oh yeah, and don’t go outside in thunderstorms!