I once drove ten straight hours from a rest area somewhere along interstate 81 in Tennessee to end in the parking lot outside of Daniel Burnham’s Union Station.
It had been the last of a series of unplanned events surrounding Spring Break 1999. A friend and I had planned to leave our dorm in Amherst to go to Virginia Beach. For a reason I now forget, she couldn’t go, and I was never much for bikinis, so I packed my ’87 Nissan Sentra hatchback for a solo trip to music city.
The car, I had won the spring before in a raffle. A local car dealership gave a car away annually to a graduating senior, and that year I was the lucky winner. The year before the winner had received an ’86 Camaro. A nice ride for an 18 year old boy. But the Chevy didn’t make it through the summer.
I had a bit more luck with the little black hatchback bestowed upon me. I slapped some flower stickers on it and drove it down the shore all summer, and then the five hours through New Jersey, New York and Connecticut to my school in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. It had a bit of a transmission leak, but nothing a bottle of fluid once in a while couldn’t fix.
When I decided to take the trip down to Nashville, I had no concerns about the 12-year-old car’s reliability.
It made it through waffle house country without a glitch, and only on the way back north did I find myself in a sticky situation. I had stopped to use the highway facilities, and when I returned and turned the key, my gal refused to give any signs of life. There I was eighteen and alone in the middle of nowhere Tennessee with nothing but some dirty restrooms and a vending machine.
I put some more red transmission fluid in through a funnel, the only mechanical expertise I had at the time. And I and took a nap. Through some grace, the car started when I awoke. Fearing that I may get stuck again, I made the plan to drive straight through to Washington D.C. where I could take a train north to my parent’s house near Philadelphia if all went south with my Nissan.
The stations of the 19th century are truly worthy of marvel. Trains are a particular soft spot of mine, and a good old-fashioned station with it’s distant ceilings and magnificent arches is to me much like Tiffany’s is to Holly Golightly.
Daniel Burnham failed admission tests for both Yale and Harvard and abandoned early political aspirations before going on to design Union Station. He also assisted in the city planning of Chicago and Washington D.C., and coordinated the creation of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. It is no wonder that he is quoted as saying:
“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”
My car did start again after an hour and a couple slices of pizza. And I had a lot of plans. I was going to drive across the country, ride a freight train, learn to sail, become a senator and play on the U.S. Lacrosse team. Well. I’m halfway there.
I think the point is less of realizing all of the big plans, and more about continuing to make more. Sometimes one plan is only to lead us to the next. If I had not had the aspiration to try and fill my mother’s world-class athlete cleats, I never would have considered the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Their coach would have not recruited me and I would have still though the school was closer to Boston and full of chowderheads.
My entire adult life began to form in that valley east of the Berkshires. Maybe not the way I had intended, but it all came from that big plan. All of our lives are untraceable and interlinked formulas. Like in math, where we can never prove that a theorum is true, only that it is not. Life is a constant testing of equations.
The big plans keep us on track, even when they lead us astray.