When I was a teenager in Hannibal, Missouri, (a lifetime ago), my friends and I spent most of our weekends cruising up and down the endless miles of gravel roads that connected the communities of Saverton, Palmyra, New London, Center, and Perry to America’s Hometown. We were young and carefree—and careless and reckless and thoughtless and lucky we didn’t accidently drive straight into the Mississippi, Fabius, or Salt Rivers.
To be clear: a car full of teens and a cooler full of beer is a stupid and dangerous combination. Don’t do it, kids.
Nevertheless, I became believer in the magic of gravel roads. Thirty-odd years later, my love for crushed limestone lanes has not waned. These days, I like to take my rusty 1971 Chevy truck for leisurely drives along the dusty river road from Hartsburg to Wilton or from Wilton to Cooper’s Landing, stopping now and again to watch the Big Muddy as it tumbles by. It’s a great way to escape the stress of the paved world for an hour or two.
Ever since Boone County and state officials started issuing stay-at-home orders in response to the pandemic, I have come to love an entirely different type of gravel road trip; one that doesn’t even require a driver’s license.
Almost every night after dinner, when the weather allows, my family takes a slow walk to the top of our gravel road and back. Most evenings, Bethany and I are accompanied by our kids Truman and Tiana, and often our oldest, Alex, and his girlfriend Sarah, join us, too.
Our fifteen-year-old cat Bootsie always follows us from our house down our long, tree-lined driveway, but wisely stops at the cul-de-sac where she patiently waits for as long as it takes us to meander up to the blacktop and down to the driveway again. Our other cat Ginger, (technically our neighbors’ cat who just happens to eat, sleep, and demand human affection at our house), usually tags along, flopping on her side right in front of us in a pathetic and successful attempt to get us to pet her.
Recently, one of our neighbors’ other cats, (we think his name is Oreo, but I like to call him Bert), has started following us at a distance, curious but unsure about our traveling sideshow. I find it humorous and oddly comforting to see three socially-distant cats waiting for us at the end of our evening strolls.
On our way up the road, we make a point of saying hello to another neighbors’ pet, a beautiful horse named Cappy. Whenever I wave and yell, “Hi Cappy!” Bethany invariably hears, “Hi Cathy!” and becomes confused when she sees a horse and not our neighbor. We also encounter wild animals on these walks such as deer, rabbits, geese, squirrels, turtles, toads, and songbirds, though we are not on a first name basis with any of them.
Of course, my favorite thing about our walks is spending quality time with my family. No phones, no video games, no emails, no Netflix. Just a bunch of goofy Naughtons laughing, talking, skipping, kicking rocks, and walking down a gravel road—together.
A half-mile saunter won’t do a whole lot to make us physically healthier, but it has already done wonders in making us spiritually healthier. And all the credit goes to my beautiful bride. When the world went on lockdown, Bethany suggested walking on our gravel road as a way of getting out of the house. For weeks, I declined her invitations. I was deeply depressed and had a hard time motivating myself to do anything that didn’t involve sinking further into my recliner. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Eventually I started talking to a doctor, taking prescription medication, and joining my wife and kids on their evening walks. I’m happy to report that I feel much, much better now. And I feel much closer to my family.
Even though the stay-at-home orders have been lifted and life is starting to return to normal, our family still makes our evening stroll a top priority. As every parent knows, life with kids comes at you pretty fast. Walking together on our peaceful gravel road has proven to be a beautiful way for our family to slow things down a little.
That’s what I call magic.