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Ribbons of concrete say ‘I love you’

The author at the Rockefeller Center in New York City. (Photo by Julia Rose Brown)

I took a week of vacation in December. I have family in three cities (Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Tampa). But I have friends everywhere, so I rented a car to see as many as possible. This trip created an appreciation for the networks of phone towers and concrete that connect me with friends and family. This trip made me rethink the things I need to work harder to say.

I had never driven through Michigan in the winter. (I have been to Marquette in the summer.) In the summer, I am frustrated with speed limits jumping from 35 to 55.  In the winter, with a fresh layer of snow obscuring the center line and the shoulder, I never went faster than 40.  If I drifted too far, rumble strips (cut into the concrete) signaled that I needed to adjust. I was frustrated, but then I realized relatively few people in this world get access to a highway at all. That I can cross hundreds of miles in the dark of night is something to appreciate.

The Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. (The length of the suspension segment is 8,614 feet;  the total length is 26,372 feet. The bridge carried me through lake effect snow so thick, I could not see more than 100 feet ahead. I placed my phone on my dash and made a video for a small boy back home, a video that took four minutes to complete.  I crossed two more bridges, in Port Huron and in Niagara Falls (the Rainbow Bridge).  

On the way home, I took I-80 through PA, PH, IN and IL before landing in Milwaukee to see my mom and nephew. I bristled at the tolls; it cost me $60 to cross four states. It didn’t take long to slip into gratitude. Being able to drive hundreds of miles safely is worth $60. I felt the miracles of our infrastructure.

I wasn’t able to see everyone. I intended to stop in three more cities, but every six-hour drive was taking seven because of snow. I was arriving later and later, more and more tired, less and less pleasant to be with. So I called friends, safely, using hands-free, voice activated features built into my car, to cancel. Towers scattered across the countryside kept me in touch with friends and family nearly the whole way.

I was anxious. If I didn’t see these friends now, when could I? Christmas comes once a year. My friends reminded me that I could Skype anytime to see their children, getting bigger all the time, and to remind my friends that they never age. I felt the miracle of our communications infrastructure as I felt the miracle of our transportation infrastructure.

When I entered Canada, the border agent asked where I was headed. “To New York City. I will spend the night in Niagara Falls on the way,” I replied. The agent followed with a standard question: “Why are you passing through Canada?”  I replied with an uncertain lift in my voice, “Niagara Falls is beautiful?”

I spent a week driving nearly 3,000 miles to see friends and family. I caught up with their children, I saw their remodeled kitchens. I woke to the sunrises that entered their windows. I slept on their couches, ate at their favorite restaurants and tasted their favorite coffees. I tried to persuade my nephew to go back to school, because who doesn’t dream of being like Uncle David?

And yet, I can’t remember saying “I love you” more than once, to my mother, as I left Milwaukee for home.

Somehow, in the way I expected the border agent to realize that I was staying in Niagara Falls because it was beautiful, I expected my friends and family to know that I was visiting them because I love them.

It would be better for me, for them, for all of us, to never take that for granted. We  — no, I — should tell the people we love that we love them. The ribbons of concrete and of telephone towers that connect us make it easy to say “I love you” today.  

David Beard

David Beard is associate professor of rhetoric and director of the Master of Liberal Studies program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.