Tracing Lines, Touching Stones
We had talked about walking the Line since I was a kid, but we had never done anything about it. I was surprised to hear from my father. The old man was older now and walking was not an option, if it ever really had been, so we drove. He insisted we take his car, a long boat of a vehicle with plushy seats that hid all sorts of ancient crumbs. I picked at them with my fingers as we drove west to start our trip where the Line begins and head east, looking for each marker along the way until we ended up on the eastern shore, then we would turn south on the Delaware border and follow it down until it ends.
When I was a kid, I obsessed about finding every single marker, whether they were in a forest or a parking lot or someone’s backyard. It seemed like this great adventure we could have together and say we did, practically in our own neighborhood. My father had given me a map one year for my birthday and I had always held onto it.
“You still have that map?” he asked, half-joking I think, when he called. I told him I did and he sounded surprised, maybe a little touched or saddened that so many years had gone passed and we had still never used it. I wasn’t sure what he felt. I have always been bad at judging my father’s feelings.
Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, British astronomers and surveyors, first met on a Royal Society-sponsored voyage to Sumatra to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun. Dixon was assigned to assist Mason and the two became close friends and partners although they did not reach their destination, their ship attacked by a French man-of-war, stranding them at the Cape of Good Hope to view the astrological phenomenon. Little did they know that a half a world away an 80-year-old land dispute between the Penn and Calvert families who governed Pennsylvania and Maryland would turn violent and make Mason’ and Dixon’s names synonymous with a black line on a map. It took them five years to mark the line, one stone per mile and a crownstone every five. My father and I planned to do it in a long weekend. I could just look at the old guy and tell there was a good chance we didn’t have five years.
It was important to me that we find as many of those as we can. I am not sure what was important to my father. I only knew to say, “Yes” when he called.
We stopped the car at in an I-Hop parking lot not too far from Cumberland, near what had been called the Great Warrior Path in Mason’ and Dixon’s time and for centuries before that as well. They and their 24-person crew of axmen ended their survey here in the face of mounting native hostilities. We had only stopped here because they did. We picked the I-Hop to turn around because the gas station lot next door was crowded. Some adventurers we are, I thought. It was already afternoon and we had accomplished nothing.
We had not really talked about anything on our way out of town. I felt like we were in a competition, like a travel game show or an Easter egg hunt. My father just held the wheel proudly, a calm smile stretched across his face. He was not in the rush that I was. I was still old enough to understand why.
The first marker we found was on the roadside. I was happy to just point it out and check it off our list, but my father wanted to get out and see it, touch it, walk around it in a little circle. I did not understand that either. Weren’t all the markers the same, more or less? It seemed to me that all we had to do was catch site of each marker, as many as we possibly could, and our mission could be considered a success. A collection, a checked off list, these were the things I valued.
At the next marker, we stopped. And the next and the next, as well. One marker was deep in a field on somebodies farm and another was in a wooded area off the highway off-ramp. I had brought binoculars and we could see them, or at least where the little stones were, but my father wanted us to walk out to them and touch them together. He was in no hurry at all. I thought we would never make it to the eastern shore and the start of the survey, but he didn’t seem concerned.
Finally, after seeing maybe five stone mile-markers in about as many hours, I asked him.
“Don’t you want to see all of these things, Dad? We don’t have all the time in the world, you know.”
“That’s all we have,” he told me. “Here come touch this.”
“But where is the adventure in that?”
“In touching stones?”
“No,” I said, getting frustrated. “Where is the adventure in not even trying to see all of them? Where is the urgency? The quest? Mason and Dixon had to measure and lay these stones correctly in order to end a border war. What makes our quest important if we are barely even trying?”
My father knelt down and rubbed his thumb over the mile marker. “Feels good,” he said.
“Dad,” I said. “Come on. They all feel like that. Let’s go.”
My father just kept rubbing.
“I used to feel the way you do,” he said. “”It is probably why I gave you that map.” He looked up from the rock and we made eye contact for the first time since we got in his car. “We don’t need the map though, son. The adventure is between the stones, not at the end of them. And adventure was never the point to begin with.”