Home is a place and a feeling. A place that’s rich with history and stories and sycamore trees and Indian mounds and old dairy farms. My grandfather—known as ”grandad” by most folks who knew him—raised me much of my girlhood. We lived on Harmar Hill in Marietta, Ohio where he built by hand a deck that overlooked our yard. Honeysuckle and pink rosebushes and his famous tomato plants climbed the lattice work, and a hand-planted mulberry tree grew along its side. Most of our trees were hand-planted—the wild cherry and the silver maple and even the weeping willow tree. Though the apple and pink dogwood trees planted their roots there long before we did. Our apron-clad, white-haired neighbor named Mrs. Apple also planted her roots on Lancaster Street before us. She had a chicken shed, but the chickens were long gone.
I wore frilly cotton dresses and hats with veils that covered my face. I was usually barefoot and wore pearls and messy curly hair with an ice cream smile. In the summertime, I always had a popsicle in hand while grandad had his old manual Minolta in his. He took many photos of me in that yard, often perched on the old, wise branches of the apple tree, or swinging in the swing he cut from wood, knotted with rope, and hung on a dogwood branch. Grandad always wore nicely pressed slacks and a short-sleeve, button-up shirt, usually in stripes or plaid. There was almost always a Peoples Bank envelope in his shirt pocket, and often, a blue dishrag over his shoulder. He always wore a smile too.
We spent days planting gardens and going to Huck’s Farm Market for peaches and tomatoes and plums. Homemade chocolate malts, burgers on the grill, and steamed kale in the whistling pot were summer staples. We went to the bakery at Big Bear for fresh pastries, bolillo rolls, and rainbow-iced sugar cookies. Grandad read me National Geographics and Popular Science and old, dusty books about the curiosities of the world, while I sat wide-eyed on his lap eager to embark upon another big adventure. We collected leaves and picked flowers and pressed them in decades-old dictionaries. Sundays found us driving from Stanleyville Road through the countryside; Grandad told me the swooping valleys were Iowa, and I believed him. Sometimes we’d even drive to Virginia, meandering along the Blue Ridge Parkway listening to Dolly Parton on cassette and taking note of the all the different state license plates we passed along the way. We spent nights on our deck with his binoculars looking at constellations and the Man in the Moon.
Early on, he instilled a sense of curiosity and adventure within me. He shared his wisdoms and his appreciation of history and the importance of knowledge. Because of him, I fell in love with both books and the freedoms of the open road. I vowed to venture to all the states whose license plates I jotted down, and eventually to all the countries and continents we read about.
As soon as I had a license, I was counties away, lying on Wayne National Forest’s covered bridges, dreaming of where I’d go next.
Grandad taught me how to ride a bicycle at Lookout Park and then he taught me how to drive—first at the boat ramp, and later along our signature Sunday route out Stanleyville Road. As soon as I had a license, I was counties away, lying on Wayne National Forest’s covered bridges, dreaming of where I’d go next. I also learned how to calculate my gas mileage and that the first forsythia blossoms mean spring has officially sprung. Grandad encouraged me to go to college, and I did – mostly to honor him – and I graduated from Marietta College with a degree in journalism in 2007. Grandad was my hero. He was the finest, kindest man.
Grandad died in November 2008. Much of me died that night too. Because he once told me his only regret was never seeing the Redwoods, I decided I’d embark on a big adventure to the Pacific Northwest where I’d scatter his ashes. I spent two weeks exploring between Portland and San Francisco, leaving most of his ashes at the base of a giant and majestic redwood outside of Orick, California.
I’ve been back to that tree since, taking our dog Timber and a bouquet of dahlias I picked up at a farmer’s market along the Lost Coast, to say hello five summers ago. There was a little general store along the 101 that had “chocolate malts” hand-painted on a sign. That was our calling to stop and get a shake in grandad’s honor. We did 7,700 miles on that road trip. Timber loved the road too. While he couldn’t jot down the state license plates we passed along the way, he did provide companionship and an enthusiasm for adventure.
I returned to the Redwoods and visited “grandad’s tree” once again two summers ago. I had since said goodbye to Timber, so this time I scattered his ashes beneath the ancient redwood, rooted just miles from the tallest tree in the world. In the hit-the-road tradition grandad shared with me early on, I knew it was time to seek adventure and solace and familiarity on the same open roads that brought healing and clarity just after saying goodbye to him years ago. This time, however, grandad was reunited with our adventure dog who also grew up in that little yellow house on Harmar Hill.
Whether I’m at a Scottish pub or a small-town diner in the Blue Ridges, I take the time to talk to all the grandads. They have the best stories, make for the best portraits, and remind me of the man I loved most.
Today, I live nowhere in particular. I split my time among people and places I love out in the world and along the open road. While I spent eight years in Austin after college, I’ve now found myself completely geographically independent, following windy roads and curiosities and people who inspire me to places where I’ll occasionally pull up a chair and stay awhile—and I’ve carried his trinkets and treasures and wisdoms with me throughout all my journeys. I’m also a writer, and travel as often as I can. To this day, country roads serve as my meditation and my inspiration. And small-town America remains an affinity of mine. Everywhere I go, he’s with me. I’ve toasted chocolate shakes in London and Budweisers in Chicago on the Fourth of July (which was his birthday) in his honor. Fireworks still bring me to tears. Whether I’m at a Scottish pub or a small-town diner in the Blue Ridges, I take the time to talk to all the grandads. They have the best stories, make for the best portraits, and remind me of the man I loved most. Sometimes they’re even wearing Members Only jackets, which is a very grandad thing to do.
In the last few years I’ve embarked upon many adventures around the world – to places like Peru, Nepal, Qatar, Israel, the Netherlands, Scotland, England, Italy, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Tanzania, and Colombia. Here in the States, I’ve driven more than 200,000 miles, chasing whales along the Southern Oregon coast, taking on new mountains in the Sierras and Tetons, and dancing barefoot in White Sands.
I’ll be returning to the Redwoods again this fall as I embark upon another Pacific Northwest journey, this time with my copilot Jack Cousteau. It’s a sacred place I’ll continue to visit as the years pass, occasionally sharing the geographies and backroads and landscapes with folks who mean the world to me.
While grandad was the source of all my wanderlust, I know he’d also call me a “simpleton” with his blue-eyed smile for taking off on unreasonable whims, with too few dollars in my pocket as I often tend to do. But it’s always been my biggest dream to adventure to all the places that filled the pages of those National Geographics, and even the scenes in the Indiana Jones and the Blue Lagoon movies we loved so much.
The confluence of those two rivers will always be a bittersweet place, for which I’m forever grateful.
No matter where I go, Marietta will always be home. It’ll always be a place I must sometimes flee, but also a place I run to when I need brick streets, pawpaw beers, and comfort. The confluence of those two rivers will always be a bittersweet place, for which I’m forever grateful.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t remember something about grandad, about home. Something that makes me smile. Something that makes me cry. Something that ignites my curiosity about the world or eager to solve some ancient mystery. If I had just one wish it’d certainly be more time with him. More milkshakes, more walks along Front and Putnam, more lunches at Third Street Deli, more drives out to Stanleyville. But as the years go by, I’ve learned that so long as I can find a weeping willow, a two-lane road, or something chocolate, for a moment, I’m home with grandad. (And if I can’t find those things, I still have those old, tattered dictionaries with leaves hidden among their pages that take me back at the first flip of a page.)