Handwriting on the Wall
“There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years. “
Walt Whitman, There Was a Child Went Forth
An eight-foot canvas-backed wall map of the United States of America hung on the dining room wall in the house where I was born. That map shaped my life—and the life of my brother Winfield—from the time we could barely reach up and touch the colorful panorama.
It hung in the little rented cottage in New London, Ohio. When our parents bought a home the map went with us. When we migrated to Howell, Michigan—where my brother and I went through all twelve grades of school together—the map moved too.
Our father had brought it home from one of his train journeys of exploration through America. It was an established wall-hanging of our dining room when I first became old enough to remember.
I may very well have been teethed on Texas, for the great glob of color which made up that state was the only part of the map I could touch physically as a toddler. Its tantalizing enormity looked larger than life during our mealtime talks.
Apparently our father had never been to Texas because, when I was five, and Win was six, he bundled my mother and brother and me onto a train and we steamed down to the Lone Star State, even to the very tip, at Brownsville, and across the border to Matamores, Mexico.
Before Winfield and I learned the multiplication tables we learned the names of all the states and territories, along with their capitals and principal cities, and their locations and sizes. “Learned” is hardly the word. It was all a game, a threemeals-a-day pastime of effortless absorption. Geography was as easily digested as our Cream of Wheat. Horizon-expanding place-names, like Colorado and California and Arizona, were as common on our tongues as the taste of toast.
Sometime during those days when we were growing into long pants, our folks gave us a jigsaw puzzle of the United States, with the cutouts along state lines. First with my brother and friends, then years later with my own children, a cutout map of America became a necessary part of living. With a little practice I can still put all the pieces together blindfolded.
When I was eleven years old and Win was twelve, the time came for another trip. My father, brother, and I bicycled over the sometimes sandy or sometimes muddy, but nearly always rutty, roads down through southern Michigan, across Ohio, to Linesville, Pennsylvania, our ancestral home. The next year, again by cycle, we journeyed through Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
We made a journey to New York by train. At four o’clock in the morning Pop’s voice came up the stairway to our bedroom:
“All aboard for Detroit, Windsor, Buffalo, Syracuse, Schenectady, Albany, and N-E-W Y-O-R-K C-I-T-Y. ALL ABOARD!”
Before the final syllable sounded, Win and I were out of our beds. NEW YORK!
In 1916 our parents bought a car and, guidebook on our mother’s lap as she read off every schoolhouse or crossroads at which to turn right or bear left, we made pioneering forays into northern Michigan, to several neighboring states, and once down to Mammoth Cave and the Lincoln country in Kentucky. We’d sometimes have to change or repair tires five times a day, such was the frequency with which they blew out or were punctured. And when it rained, stop to rub the windshield with a plug of tobacco, kept solely for that purpose, which made the wet glass easier to see through. When those rains came unexpectedly we would quickly jump outside to put up the car curtains for protection.
The summer before our senior year Win and I set out on foot and caught rides on a thousand mile swing through neighboring states.
Both in the same grade at school (because our mother wanted us to learn together), we earned good marks, usually being the first and second in our class. Graduation from Howell High School came in 1922. Nearby Ann Arbor, with its University of Michigan, became a goal. But not quite yet!
First we wanted to stretch our travel legs and see if all the wonderful markings of rivers and mountains and boundaries on that dining room wall map were really true.
“Why don’t you take a year off and hike around the United States?” our mother suggested. She, too, had lived under the spell of that map.
We began planning, and within a couple of days had devised an itinerary—no easy trick—by which it would be possible to touch all 48 states with little retracing of routes. We’d walk a lot, but also take rides when offered. Four major rules evolved: we would work our own way, never sleep in a hotel room, never ride on a train, and not return home for a year.