Late in the pre-kid dawn of our marriage, Lyndsay and I drove a packed-to-the-windows Honda Accord named “Donovan” from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Los Angeles, California—one last hoorah before the great chains of children. It was our first summer off together as teachers, so we had little money, but we did have weeks of time to stay out West drifting freely between National Parks and downtown hostels. Expecting the wide open splendor of the trails to provide fresh inspiration for songwriting, I bought a Martin Backpacker and kept a small notebook at hand.
The real inspiration, though, didn’t come out of the free wilderness, but instead from the cramped confines of Donovan, who held us together and moved us forward through twenty questions and road rage, babyfaced naps and tense interrogations, coffee and Funyuns, wonder and back pain. A continuously moving vehicle is a great image for marriage: the commitment to travel together leaves no good escape, or, as David Mitchel once pointed out to me, “At least not without someone getting really hurt.” At one point we weathered a dark fight while cruising the Pacific Coast Highway, but Donovan kept us going through the venomous jabs, through the cold silence, through irritated boredom and impatience, until we reached camp and enough forgiveness to sleep on. The next day we drove back out to see all the beauty we had missed and eventually a song came.
I would go so far as to say that weeks later when we returned home from our exotic excursion, that experience helped us to become a little readier to move towards that next level of being tied down. That sounds terrible, but it was game changing for us. It is one of the most vivid places in our marriage where we began to see that some of the most beautiful, freeing revelations and experiences come not from liberty, but from limitations—like cars, marriage, and parenthood.
Recently I pieced together an amatuer home-movie music video of footage from our trip. Little known fact: while the song was born of the experience I mentioned, it was also influenced by a Pixar movie released that summer, so much so that a small part of our trip involved recreating one of its scenes shortly after we had stood outside the gates of Pixar studios in Oakland trying to convince the guard to give us a tour. Look for a brief easter egg in the video.
Singer-songwriter Chris Slaten releases music under the name Son of Laughter. His most recent recording, No Story Is Over, was made possible by the generosity of listeners who hosted and attended his house and church shows across the country. He’s currently working on a musical about the life of Jacob, though he spends most of his time teaching high school literature in Chattanooga, TN, where he lives with his wife, Lyndsay, and their three delightful children.