My grandfather, Morton B. Stratton, never told you what he wanted. At the dinner table, for example, he wouldn’t say: “Please pass the butter.” He’d say, “I wonder if there might be room for the butter at this end of the table?” He didn’t ask for another helping of dessert; he asked if I thought the edges needed to be straightened on that pie.
Grandfather was much like his brother, John, who owned and ran the family farm outside Philly. For years, John acted as a father figure to generations of men and some women in my family who went to work on the farm for the summer. John never told us farmhands which field of sweet corn we were to pick; he asked: “Do you think Field 17 is ready to pick today, Tom?”
Some of their gentleness and indirection sure came from our family’s Quaker heritage, which expressed itself not in religious terms but in never telling others what to do or think, preferring that they develop the tools to decide for themselves.
But John and Mort were also just inherently decent, kind, fair men. John’s daughter Betsy and I joke that in a different context, a different age, John would have been a saint. Mort was more of a rascal, but he shared John’s gentle demeanor.
I was thus a little surprised one summer day some 15 years ago when my grandfather pulled me aside and said, “Tom, don’t you think that with a young family to support, your mountain climbing is a little selfish?” My hikes with the Caribunkle boys had grown from quick one-day scrambles into something closer to full-on mountaineering, including ascents of Adams, Baker, and Rainier, and my grandfather knew all too well those were mountains that people died on. Still, he asked a question; he didn’t make an accusation. But I knew what he meant, just as I knew to pass the butter or go pick in Field 17.
I sidestepped his veiled criticism. I assured him—truthfully—that I took great care and that I always prioritized coming home safely over reaching the summit. But I wasn’t about to quit climbing. I loved and still love the freedom and the thrill of it. It makes me feel alive.
Grandfather didn’t like my answer very much, but he didn’t press me and we never spoke of it again.
I wonder what Grandfather would say if he knew that I was about to go on a six-day excursion across state lines, right as the Western states issue a tightening of restrictions on commerce and contact, all for the purpose of driving on a race track? Would he use the stinging word “selfish”? Would he ask why I was willing to put myself and others at risk for the pure thrill of a track drive?
I hear those questions when I first rise in the morning, when I’m drinking coffee at 5 AM. I wonder: am I doing the right thing? I believe that responsible people act not just for themselves, but with the good of the community in mind, or at least that they don’t act against the good of the community. If this is what I value, is my trip a violation of those values? I’ve been visiting this question a lot.
Here’s what I’d tell Grandfather: I’ll mostly be alone alone in my car; I’ll limit my contacts with others (gas stations, hotel, at the track); I’ll be outside; I’ll wear a mask at all the right times; my COVID test came back negative. In short, I’ll take all the precautions that one can reasonably take to reduce the risk to me and to others.
But dammit, I’m not willing to give up on adventure. I’m going to keep climbing mountains, driving on race tracks, and yeah, I’m going to cross state lines in the midst of a pandemic to do it. To live fully is to experience risk.
This may sound like a suitably “principled” justification, but I’m not trying to get myself an easy pass. I’ll admit, I’m an arrogant ass who thinks most rules don’t apply to me. I’m the guy who dropped his shoulder and sent his mother to the ground when she tried to get in the way of me chasing my brother (when I was 17). I know I have it in me to go after what I want, damn the consequences.
I’ve been waiting all my life for a chance to drive at Laguna Seca, and it’s going to take more than some COVID restrictions to turn me back.
But I won’t deny that hitting the road Thursday morning will be a kind of relief: it will no longer be a question of if I’m going; I’ll be gone.