There are times in our lives when we are reminded of what is truly important. Unfortunately, it is usually some extreme situation that jars us from our routines. For me, it all started with a phone call with my parents in early 2011…
“Your dad has stage 3 lung cancer…”
They had already decided to pursue an aggressive treatment regime, but that was no guarantee of success. The news felt like a punch to the stomach. How could this be happening? Why him? Why now?
After some time our family came to terms with the reality of the situation. Then we prepared for both outcomes as the doctors formulated a series of treatment methods.
Dad went along with the plan. Enduring one round of treatment after another. Losing weight. Losing his hair. Losing some of himself in the process. The periods of time between treatment schedules allowed him to recover somewhat, just not quite to full strength. During one of the scheduled breaks from treatment I asked him if he wanted to drive to Norfolk to see the navy yard. To my surprise he said yes.
The summer road trip was always a source of joy for our family. One of my favorite childhood memories is a trip we took from Florida to Colorado. Instead of going to Tennessee, as planned, we hung a left because my sister and I wanted to see snow. Our snowball fight on the side of the road in some high mountain pass is a memory that still brings a smile to my face. I think that I wanted to bring some of that joy to dad in his time of need.
Why Norfolk, Virginia?
In his younger days dad had served in the Navy. Based out of Naval Station Norfolk. I remembered he had mentioned sometime in the past the desire to revisit the old stomping grounds. He wanted to survey the changes that had taken place over the fifty years since he was last there. It was a link to the past and a reminder of happy times.
With dad and his doctors onboard for the trip, I sat down to plan. The basics were straight forward, drive from Missouri to Norfolk and back. However, I thought that setting up a few stops along the way would allow us to share some of our interests with one another.
Also, at more than 1,000 miles each way there was no way dad would want to do that ride straight through in his condition.
National Corvette Museum – Bowling Green, Kentucky
The first stop on the journey was the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Dad was a car guy to his core. He grew up in the city of Dearborn, Michigan, in the shadow of Ford Motor Company. He worked on cars from an early age. At different points of his career he also served as a licensed mechanic.
To a certain extent I followed his footsteps. I studied mechanical engineering with the main goal of becoming an astronaut. However, when NASA didn’t come calling, I moved into the automotive industry. I moved to Michigan to begin my career at General Motors.
The Corvette was, by far, my favorite car made by GM. The lines and performance of the car put it on my list of dream vehicles. While I didn’t have the funds to buy one of my own, I was given a few opportunities to drive one over the years.
I think, deep down, dad also wanted to have one of his own. In the absence of owning a Corvette, I thought a visit to the museum would be a nice compromise.
The museum contains the living history of an American automotive icon. From the earliest models through the latest, top-of-the-line vehicle, the museum is a car enthusiast’s dream. One of the neat things is that the museum highlights not only the vehicles but the people responsible for bringing them into existence. From the designers, engineers, drivers and visionaries, to the men and women who worked the line to put the pieces together.
We found the museum very enjoyable. If memory serves, we arrived as it opened and closed the place down. What a great start to the trip.
Lincoln Museum – Hodgenville, Kentucky
The next morning we set off on the next leg of the journey eastward. On the road toward Loretto we saw signs for an Abraham Lincoln museum. Wait, aren’t we in Kentucky? Isn’t Illinois “The Land of Lincoln“? While he made a name for himself in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was born in the the small town of Hodgenville, Kentucky.
Hodgenville is the kind of small town that people picture when they think of the heartland of America. At the center of town is a park with statues that honor Lincoln and his childhood. On main street you can find the Abraham Lincoln Museum. The museum houses a humble collection of artifacts and wax replicas of Mr. Lincoln and significant moments of his life.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”Abraham Lincoln
Duty – as seen by Lincoln
“If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks, made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how ~ the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference”.Abraham Lincoln
For more Lincoln history you can drive a bit out of town to see the first Lincoln Memorial. That wasn’t in the cards for this trip since we had some miles to go before the next stop.
Maker’s Mark Distillery – Loretto, Kentucky
I know my dad was recovering from cancer treatment, but who doesn’t like a bit of whisky? Maker’s Mark Distillery, on the legendary Bourbon Trail, makes one of my favorite adult beverages. I thought it was about time to have a proper drink at a bar for the first time with dad. Also, there wasn’t a cooler place I could think of to mark the occasion.
We were about five minutes late for the normally scheduled tour. However, with a little sweet talking about my dad’s condition and the trip got us the last two spots as long as we could catch up with the rest of the group. We were a bit lost and wandered into one of the barns where the barrels are stored. The cool, dark interior smelled of oak with a hint of sweetness.
We caught up with the group in time to see the major steps of the process. From the giant mash tuns to the bottling plant and everything in between. At the end of the tour we were led to the tasting room / gift shop. It was here at Maker’s Mark that I had my first adult drink at a bar with my dad.
After the tasting we decided to buy a couple bottles to commemorate the adventure. As part of the experience, if you buy a bottle of whisky they let you dip your own bottle in the red wax that is a mark of the brand. Dad joked with the lady assisting us the entire time we put the finishing touches on our bottles. Then, instead of signing his name to his bottle, he simply wrote “Matt’s Dad”. Dipped by “me”. I still have the unopened bottle with me today.
Before heading down the road we stopped for lunch at the cafe on the distillery grounds. I might be a little biased, but the pulled pork was excellent. You could taste just a hint of whisky in the bbq sauce. Mmmm Mmmm!
Monticello – Charlottesville, Virginia
The great thing about a road trip is that you can change course on the fly. Traveling through the beautiful hills of Virginia we saw signs for Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate. Dad wasn’t feeling up to a tour of the grounds, but said he was ok to wait for a bit while I went.
Mr Jefferson planned, designed, and redesigned the main home several times. It was a project that took forty years to complete to his liking. At the time of its completion Monticello was the only home in the country to feature a dome. While others have come, there is still nothing quite like Thomas Jefferson’s estate home.
The main building sits amid a massive green space of forests and fields. Although I didn’t have much time to explore the house and grounds I was awed by the history and beauty of this place.
One spot on my quick visit was the Monticello graveyard. Here, Mr. Jefferson and other influencers from the 18th and 19th centuries were laid to rest. A large, granite obelisk marks the final resting place of the Third President of the United States. It is an impressive monument to such an influential man.
Dad enjoyed his time alone at the car. He had a chance to stretch his legs a bit and get some rest in the shade of the oak trees that surrounded the parking lot. This stop was a blessing for the both of us. I got to run around a historic site and dad had a chance to ready himself for another couple hours on the road.
If you’ve ever taken a long drive in the US you’ve seen roadside pullouts. You have probably stopped at one or two along the way. When you are driving down the highway at 70+ mph you see the world as a blur out of your window. However, there are sections of highway that look out on beautiful landscapes of all kinds.
Thanks to highway planning and construction we drivers are given the chance to stop to see the beauty that we’d otherwise zoom past. I don’t remember if we stopped before or after Monticello, but we stopped nonetheless.
Dad and I marvelled at the beauty of the hills and forests of Virginia. The hillsides were starting to come alive with the changing colors of fall. The air blowing through the open windows had the cool, crispness of early October. We both smiled as we soaked in the sights of the passing countryside.
Our desire to stop finally got the better of us at a random viewpoint overlooking a lush valley. Like the tourists we were, we snapped a couple photos of the land and ourselves before moving on again.
Norfolk! WE MADE IT!
We arrived at Norfolk in the early evening. After dropping our things at the hotel we were both ready for some food. A friend who grew up in the area gave us a recommendation for a legit seafood restaurant. Since we were on the coast we couldn’t think of a better way to spend the first meal in Norfolk.
As long as I could remember, dad loved seafood. However, a side effect of chemotherapy is food doesn’t taste the same as it used to. So, while I enjoyed the chowder and fish, dad just seemed to grin and bear the meal. Unfortunately, this was not the first time on the trip that something he onced loved tasted poorly.
Since he really didn’t eat, dad didn’t feel up for much exploring our first night in town. I dropped him at the hotel on my way to buy him some Ensure. For those who don’t know, Ensure, is an adult meal supplement. If dad wasn’t able to eat, he needed calories another way.
In the middle of the grocery store while shopping for dad’s liquid meal I started crying. The trip had kept me distracted from thinking about the negative outcome for the most part. However, shopping for meal replacement formula made the possibility of him not beating cancer feel all too real. It took a few moments in the car to recompose myself and return to the hotel. Phew! That got heavy.
We started our next morning at a naval history museum called Nauticus. The museum houses a history of naval warfare, ship building, interactive exhibits, and is the home of the WWII battleship, USS Wisconsin. I’ll be honest, the Wisconsin was the part of the tour I was most excited to experience.
My maternal grandfather served on a battleship in the Pacific during WWII. His stories of life at sea fascinated me as a child. Actually setting foot on the deck was surreal.
Dad served during a time of relative peace in the world. He served as an electrician aboard a support vessel. He and his shipmates participated yearly exercises in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
Despite not serving in “The Great War”, dad seemed to observe a sense of reverence for the Wisconsin. He moved slowly across the deck lost in thought. He explained to me some of the features that were similar to those of the ship on which he served. Despite lower than normal energy his smile told me how much he enjoyed his time aboard the ship.
Our tour culminated with a sail around Naval Station Norfolk. As the world’s largest naval base Norfolk is home to some serious naval hardware. From nuclear submarines to carrier battle groups we were blown away with the assembled vessels. Dad didn’t say much while we cruised around the harbor, so I left him to his thoughts.
I’d never seen an aircraft carrier in real life before that day. I marvelled at the USS Enterprise. From an engineering standpoint, the creativity behind the development of this machine was mind blowing. Can you imagine being responsible for creating a floating city that houses 5,000+ people, can house and launch airplanes, and can pretty much run forever is incredible. That was my takeaway from the cruise.
Dad too was moved by the time in the harbor. The rest of the day he spent telling stories of his life in the service. He and his buddies would work their butts off during their duty cycles, then head out to explore the area. When they had enough leave, a group would pile into a fast car to speed back home to Michigan or parts in between. Sometimes they outran the cops, sometimes they didn’t. When they were caught everyone in the car would split the ticket. It was a simpler time and the joy of those memories made him smile more with each new story he shared.
Virginia Beach – Virginia
The next day we made our way to Virginia Beach. Dad and his buddies would sometimes head there to rent fishing boats on the weekends. They’d fish all day then head back to the beach for bonfire cookouts. We didn’t get a boat, but we did head out to the end of the fishing pier to watch other anglers try their luck that day.
Dad slept pretty well the previous night. Maybe it was the sleep or being in his old stomping grounds but he had a bit more pep that day. You can tell from the goofing around photo below that he was in a good mood. Also, dad’s sarcastic sense of humor was on display for all to see. His shirt says “Internet was down so I thought I’d come outside today.” We both got a good laugh out of that.
Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
This trip was about sharing experiences that were important to both of us. For dad, it was about revisiting a place that made a significant impact on his life. For me, I wanted to share my love of history.
When I was planning our route I saw that Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was a relatively short drive from Virginia Beach. I have been obsessed with airplanes and space travel since I was a child. I pursued a degree in engineering as a result. Therefore, I didn’t want to miss a chance to visit the place of man’s first powered flight.
We arrived thirty minutes before the park and museum closing time. That wasn’t much time to take in the whole place, but like Monticello, it was enough to appreciate the historical significance. Dad’s energy was a bit low, but he found a nice place to sit and watch as his nerdy son geeked out over the displays. The museum has a full scale replica of the Wright Flyer! How cool is that?
Outside of the museum is a well kept grass runway. At the end of which, atop a small hill, sits a granite monument to the Wright brothers’ achievement. I hustled to the monument and back to dad waiting patiently in the car. I continued to geek out in the car as we headed a bit farther south.
Nags Head Beach – Outer Banks, North Carolina
Because we had planned to start our drive back home that night I thought spending the last few hours of daylight on the beach was fitting. As we cruised down the Outer Banks dad and I were on the lookout for someplace cool to stop. When we neared Nags Head Beach we saw our sign. Gracefully skimming the dunes that separated the ocean from the road was a man in a hang glider. WOAH! Talk about cool!
As we made our way to the beach the hang glider soared overhead. The offshore breeze meeting the sand dunes created a constant updraft the man could use to cruise up and down the shoreline. We watched in silent amazement for several minutes before continuing to the water.
At first, dad was reluctant to take off his shoes. I wanted him to put his feet in the ocean, but he resisted. Finally I asked, “when’s the next time you think you’ll be at the Atlantic Ocean”? That got the point across. He hesitated slightly before taking the first step into the crashing waves but then brought the other foot into the sea. As the water flowed over his feet he closed his eyes and smiled. I never asked what he was thinking about, I just know that it was a happy place.
With the sun soon setting I readied my camera to take a few pictures. The series started pretty normally, then turned into us goofing. In those moments things felt like they were back to normal. Dad was joking around and giving me a hard time. I gave it right back like I had learned to do over the years. We were both having a blast, neither of us thinking about the cancer or what could happen. The two of us were just lost in the moment. This was exactly what I had hoped would happen on this trip.
One last lunch on the road – Paducah, Kentucky
I drove until the wee hours of the night before stopping at a hotel to rest. Walking into our room at the Residence Inn caught dad by surprise. “I’ve got to take your mom to a place like this”. The room featured a separate bedroom with king size bed, a living room with fold out sofa, and a full size kitchen. We didn’t take advantage of the kitchen, but the beds were plenty comfortable.
After some hours of rest, we started the final push back to Missouri. According to our stomachs, we reached Paducah, Kentucky, at lunch time. The word “Catfish” on the sign caught both of our attention.
Sitting down to eat the delicious, battered fish took me back to my childhood. Every summer our family would catch a few catfish from one of our ponds, then have a fish fry. We paired the fish with some corn on the cob and mashed potatoes. Mmmm Mmmm Good!
We said our thanks to the good folks of the Bluegrass Restaurant then set off for the last couple hours on the road.
We started to reminisce when we turned onto the dirt road for the last couple miles of the drive. I asked dad if he had enjoyed the trip. Again, the first thing he mentioned was wishing I had rented a luxury car. After some other good natured complaining I got him to admit he had a good time. He even said thank you and he loved me. For a guy who guarded his emotions my whole life, hearing him say those words almost made me cry.
In March of 2012, dad passed away from lung cancer. While preparing to deliver the eulogy I leaned on the experiences from this trip to help me tell his story. Taking this trip taught me a lot about myself and life in general.
Don’t procrastinate – life is a precious gift
I’ve been a procrastinator most of my life. Inviting dad on this trip was the first time I took decisive action of this magnitude. Because I acted, dad and I were able to share the trip. Soon after we returned home dad’s health took a turn for the worse. If I had waited, he wouldn’t have been healthy enough to travel.
Take action today to avoid regrets tomorrow.
Parents had lives before we came along
This father-son road trip gave me a chance to see my dad from a different perspective. He wasn’t just “dad”. He became Alan Chesebrough, the man. I learned about his hopes and dreams. We talked about love, loss, stupid things we’d done in life, and stuff that made us proud.
He shared stories that I would have never thought to ask about had we not been in the car together. In a way, the road trip made everything feel safe. We could share anything we wanted without anyone else knowing if we wanted. For the first time in my life I really started to appreciate my dad for being a person, not just my father.
Take the time to get to know the ones you love
This lesson is a combination of the first two. One, decide to get to know your loved ones better. Two, learn to appreciate those you love from a different perspective. Not only will your bonds grow stronger but you will probably learn a little something about yourself along the way.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I hope you learned something along the way. For me, spending a week on the road seeing part of the US with my dad gave me priceless memories that I treasure to this day. May this be a reminder to take a moment to appreciate your blessings and the important people in your life. Take care. See you on the road.
Matt is a creative fine art landscape and commercial photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He stepped away from a successful engineering career in the midwest and moved to California to chase his dream of becoming a full-time professional photographer. Over the last two years, Matt has traveled the world chasing light and capturing one-of-a-kind landscapes.
He enjoys sharing his adventures with family, friends, and strangers along the way. When he is not hiking to a remote location, Matt enjoys volunteering for local and national conservation organizations. His mission is to share the world with people, inspire a sense of adventure, and to make a difference for the planet.