Top Picks For You

I Discovered America With My Dad Years After His Death

I set out on a cross-country drive, accompanied by a dusty box of my father’s recordings. Little did I know what discoveries the cassettes would lead me to.

S

omewhere in New Mexico, the truck’s stereo went silent. Swiping my phone awake, I found the music app stuck in signal purgatory. Continually searching, never finding.

I knew all too well how the phone felt. Continually searching. Never finding. I’d spent the previous month on the road. A trip with no set finality. No set itinerary. A journey without a plan other than to just drive. To discover. What I desired to discover, I didn’t know.

The truck’s engine hummed as we continued along the rarely-used state highway. One of the dogs licked at a paw in the back seat. The dusty box next to me rattled. A reminder of its presence. A reminder I hadn’t opened it over the past month. A box of cassette tapes, plastic covers clinking and clanking like the sound of a hundred voices wanting to be heard. Yet I knew each contained the same voice. The voice of my father. A man who died a decade earlier.

Words of The Fallen, Words of The Familiar

Before setting out on my journey, I helped my mom go through a few crates of my father’s things. Crates she’d struggled to go through on her own. Each box opened a tangled web of memories for her, and whenever she tried, she found herself emotionally trapped. So I went through the crates on my own to find what should remain, what could be donated, and what no longer held meaning. 

Continue Reading Article After Our Video

Recommended Fodor’s Video

I came across dozens of cassette tapes, some labeled with dates, some (most) not. As a minister, many of his sermons were recorded. I don’t know if anyone ever listened to them. But I collected the tapes and put them in a separate box. A box I’d eventually slip onto the passenger seat of my truck. I’m not sure why I decided to. I don’t even know if I decided to, or if my body disconnected from my brain and carried the box with cassettes and tape deck on its own doing.

Voices of my father sat there on the passenger seat.

A Faded Memory

I pulled the truck over, tires kicking up New Mexican dust. A mountain range in the distance, lording over the road.

In the box, I found the metal tape deck. After connecting it through the headphone jack with the line-in port on my stereo, I removed an unmarked tape, snapped it into the deck, and pressed play as I pulled back onto the highway.

atk work/Shutterstock

Analog snow from decades past filled the speakers before a church organ took over. The sound wobbled like a grandmother singing hymns, on the verge of passing out with each expelled verse. The microphone clicked and a man began to talk. It took me a while to realize whose voice surrounded me in the truck: my father’s. Everyone questions whether they sound like their voice recording. The memory of my dad’s voice did the same. At a higher pitch than I remembered, he began to talk. It was a sermon given in my dad’s voice, and yet I had no connection to it.

I let it play as I continued toward the town of Lincoln in New Mexico, west of Roswell. I wanted the tape to have meaning, but it was the voice of a faded memory. Eventually, the tape ended. I didn’t flip it over. I continued onward into Lincoln and the small mountain range it clung to.

Discovery

Rock formations cracked and split the Arizona desert. With every mile of road, the rocks spilled outward and grew, lifting trees from sand into the cloudless sky. The transition of earth happened so slow it barely registered, until I blinked and found myself driving past a Flagstaff mile marker.

During the drive from New Mexico, I’d tried a handful of tapes from the dusty brown box at my side. As I turned away from the Painted Forest and past Monument Valley, the voice of my father filled the truck, yet couldn’t penetrate my mind. I considered packing up the tapes and deck and putting the box away. But something wouldn’t let me. A feeling. An idea. Or at least the formation of one—like a thought bubble without words. I needed something on the tape, something from the man I hadn’t spoken to for a third of my life, to fill.

Aivoges/Shutterstock

I put in a new tape. It started with the familiar wavering organ music. The sound of a microphone stand knocking against a podium as papers and books were sifted. Then the familiar, distant voice. He started out with a summary of his message as I followed the highway. The pine trees guided me to the city. To the national park beyond.

“When I was a boy,” the voice on the tape said, pulling my attention. “Well, not a boy, but a teenager, my parents, my sister Kim, and a few cousins traveled to the Grand Canyon.” I turned the volume of the tape up. Over the hiss of recorded age, he detailed his experience of losing his breath when approaching the canyon for the first time. He let out an audible gasp over the microphone and held the pause for effect, before detailing how the family took mules to the bottom of the canyon, and how they needed to trust the mules as the pack animals clomped down the trail–on one side the canyon wall, on the other a steep and sure death.

On the tape, he gasped once again. I felt the gasp in my chest. Behind my eyes. His experience became my own. My experience became his as we discovered the Grand Canyon together.

I listened to a half-dozen tapes prior to this one. For a few minutes, I could feel him next to me, there in the truck, recounting his experience. A story between a father and a son. I didn’t look away from the road. I didn’t look to the box, to have the idea of him vanish, replaced by cardboard and plastic. I let him talk through the tape as I twisted through Flagstaff on my way to the Grand Canyon.

I rode my bicycle into the park the next day (a bicycle path cuts through the Kaibab National Forest from the nearby town of Tusayan into Grand Canyon National Park). I brought a handheld cassette player with me and listened to my father as I peddled in. But I saved the Grand Canyon tape for my approach to the South Rim. He talked as I set my bike aside and walked inside. To the open expanse of the canyon.

Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

On the tape, he gasped once again. I felt the gasp in my chest. Behind my eyes. His experience became my own. My experience became his as we discovered the Grand Canyon together.

A Journey Through America

I continued my drive through America. Along the Mexican border and through the Florida Keys. From sea to shining sea, accompanied by the voice of my dad. Most tapes did not recall events of his past or trips of his life, but the emptiness of those tapes made the handful that did more impactful. One was of my father’s nervous laughter as he recorded the ultrasound heartbeat of my older sister. Another was the wedding of my parents. Events of his life. Events I never knew. Discoveries along the way.

One rainy evening driving through North Carolina, the voice of my dad sounded more like I remembered. Perhaps the dozens of recordings changed the pitch of my memory. At the beginning of the tape, he apologized for missing the previous week. He had been in Savannah, Georgia, helping his son move for college.

He talked of the city, its beauty. The waving of Spanish moss unable to break loose of tree limbs like ghosts of the dead stuck on their way to the afterlife. He talked of cobblestone, my dog, and of course, the food. And then, his voice cracked. He paused, but it did not steady his speech. It wavered, as it would when trying to talk through tears. Through emotions. He talked of me, of hugging me goodbye. He said he loved me and hoped I would discover what I needed.

As I continued along the North Carolina highway, wipers fighting off rain, my own eyes fighting off tears, I finally understood why I brought the box of dusty tapes with me on my drive. So I could discover my father, and so he could accompany me as we discovered America, together.

0 Comments