“Four Mile Stretches,” Feb. 19, 2019

(NOTE: I’m taking off this week for the holiday. The following column was written in 1997, shortly before my first husband lost a lengthy battle with cancer. It was also reprinted in the October 2001 issue of “Reader’s Digest.”)

From my home on California’s Monterey Peninsula, there is no easy way to get anywhere. To go north, for instance, to San Francisco, you take Hwy. 1, also known as the Old Coast Highway, and proceed to 101, also known as the Freeway to Make You Lose Your Religion.

Most of that route is a multi-lane road, which depending on weather and traffic, can either take you where you’re going or drive you out of your mind. Sometimes it does both. But the part I dread most — or did at one time — is a two-lane stretch of 156 that connects highways 1 and 101. In the South, where I grew up, such roads are called cow trails because they’re frequented by tractors and other slow-moving vehicles that trot along, nose to tail, at bovine speed; and also because if you get on such a road, you’ll be on it until the cows come home.

In some ways, roads are like people; they have personalities that are shaped by how we see them and feel about them. I discovered that when my first husband was diagnosed with cancer and we began what would be a four-year pilgrimage to Stanford Medical Center for treatment — surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, countless appointments and more than a few emergencies.

It was 91 miles — two hours, give or take — and I hated every inch of it, especially, that two-lane bottleneck. I drove it so often I knew it by heart and hated it more with each drive. Then they began construction.

I did everything I could to avoid it. I begged to get appointments at off-peak times, only to end up stuck in rush-hour traffic going home. I spent hours poring over maps and drove miles out of the way trying to get around it, only to realize it really didn’t matter; there was no getting around it.

I had no choice but to drive it. But that didn’t mean I had to like it. I’d clench my teeth, grip the wheel and feel my stomach churn. Once, when running late for an appointment, I muttered, “I hate this stupid road.”

I didn’t think my husband could hear me. Morphine is great for pain, but it doesn’t do much for conversation.

“Four miles,” he said.

I looked over. His eyes were closed. “What did you say?”

“This part of the road,” he said, using his teaching voice, as if lecturing his high school physics students. “It’s only four miles long. That’s easy. You can do anything for four miles.”

I clocked it. He was right. Four miles exactly. I’d have sworn it was 20.

And then a strange thing happened. Somehow, that drive got easier. I don’t mean it seemed easier; I mean it was.

Four miles was not just doable; it was entirely understandable. Four miles was the distance we’d walk from our house to the beach and back. It was half the length of a trail he loved to hike in Yosemite with a baby on his back. It was four times as long as a walk to the park with our kids; and a mere fraction of the 26 miles he once ran in the Big Sur Marathon.

Four miles was nothing. Nothing to complain about. And nothing to waste when he had only months left to live.

So I stopped complaining and started looking to see what I could see. Suddenly, there were acres of artichoke fields. An old barn reflected on a mirror-like pond. Roadside stalls selling strawberries and flowers. And a white horse standing guard on a hill. Those things were there all along, probably. I just never noticed them. But I notice them now, every chance I get. I see new things everywhere I go.

Sometimes, when the road ahead seems longer and harder than I want it to be, I break it up in pieces, in my mind and my heart and even my soul. I divide it into four-mile stretches and take them one at a time.

Some roads seem impassable.

But you can do anything for four miles.

 

Comments

  1. Joan Grela says:

    I am a faithful reader and in fact have several of your columns under the glass on my desk. Your story titled, “Magic Touch” is one of them and “Four-mile stretches” is also a keeper. You have a way of writing what most of wish we could say and you do it with such grace and humility. I hope you never stop sharing your gift with all of us, enjoy your vacation!

  2. Kate Sciacca says:

    156 is a beautiful road… especially heading into Monterey…. heading home, not so much.

    Hwy 50 through the Sierra to Tahoe, then down the hill to the real Nevada can seem an eternity too. Driving that road two years ago was surreal… it was a snow tunnel where none of the landmarks – Kyburz (“Welcome to Kyburz – now leaving Kyburz” on the same sign), Strawberry Lodge and Camp Sacramento were visible. Snow covered them all as sadness gripped my soul…. a dear friend had given up the the fight with cancer the day before. Her eternity had begun – my drive was only a taste of it….

    Enjoy the week off!

  3. SYDNEY S LOVE says:

    I read this years ago when you wrote it and all these years I have remembered, “you can do anything for 4 miles”. I have used that over and over in my life for certain things.
    I have learned so much about life from things you have written. I love and soak in everything
    that you write. You are brilliant and not only that, you have the sweetest heart.
    Lots of days I have to tell myself that I can do anything for 4 miles, and I always remember where I heard it.
    Thank you for helping us do life and for sharing your life with us.

  4. Doris says:

    Thanks for the reality check and renewed perspective….Very much needed!

  5. Patti Peters says:

    Sharon your picture of the “acres of artichoke fields” and the strawberries brought back wonderful memories of Monterey…thank you! Have a wonderful week off!

  6. Mitzi Shannon says:

    What a great column. Definitely puts things in perspective.

  7. Carolyn Jones says:

    This reminded me of when I was driving my husband from Jacksonville, Florida to Gainsville, Florida VA Hospital for Chemo and exams!!! The trip home seemed to go faster somehow! Towards the end of the treatment, a couple from church in the Sunday School class Ralph taught, offered to take us, even tho they would have to wait for us all day!!! We were grateful for the company as well as me not having to drive! They gave Ralph one and a half years after surgery and he lived almost four at home with me and the help of Hospice! I have beautiful memories, keeping me going! He died Jan. 30, 2013! I am 87 and going strong, with the support of my family!!!

    • Sue McDermott says:

      I really enjoyed reading your memories. Sad that
      Your husband has passed away but your strength came
      Through for us to read.
      From Gainesville Fl. 🥰

  8. Neva says:

    Love love love sharon randall…
    I can do the next 4 miles! Thank you.

  9. Lisa says:

    I used to drive that 4 miles often. You’re right, it does feel like 20. Next time I’m sure i will relax and take it in and it will feel like 4.

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