Phil Gulley: I Love The Idea Of Trying New Things

Each week, I drive past a car dealership, see the rows of shiny new vehicles, then glance around my own car at the dust lying in the unreachable crevasses, the check-engine light that glows no matter what, the ketchup stain on the seat belt, and think how nice it would be to have a new automobile. I resist this urge by running my car through a car wash, vacuuming the inside, spritzing my dashboard with Armor All, and snipping the wire to my check-engine light. Then I’m good for a week or so until the new-car itch returns.

I suspect it isn’t a new car I need, but a new passion, something to revive those corners of my mind dulled by tedium. For many years, I accomplished that by getting fired or switching jobs every decade or so. But now I’ve been pastoring, speaking, and writing so many years I’m useless at everything else except riding motorcycles and being a grandpa. I’ve heard of people returning to college in their 50s and 60s and starting new careers. In 2017, for instance, an Indianapolis woman named Delores Eldora Johnson earned her fifth college degree from Ivy Tech at the age of 87. I couldn’t be happier for Ms. Johnson, and I admire her deeply, but I can’t muster the energy to switch breakfast cereals, let alone attend college.

My older son has been hinting that I should work on his farm. When I asked what it would pay, he said, “The satisfaction of helping your son.” Having bills to pay, I don’t think I’ll take up farming anytime soon. Though I must admit there’s a certain manliness about farming. Right now, when people ask me what I do and I tell them I’m a pastor, they look at me as if I’m a ballerina, wearing satin slippers, standing on my tiptoes.

But to tell someone you’re a farmer, to casually mention you wrangle steers, drive tractors, and pitch hay, what could be more manly than that? Plus, you get to wear cowboy boots, which look phony on anyone else but rancher-types. Then there’s the cowboy hat. Lord, what I wouldn’t give to have a job that required a cowboy hat. My church wouldn’t even have to pay me if they let me preach in one. Can you imagine standing somberly beside a pine casket, removing your cowboy hat to say a prayer in a Sam Elliott voice over the dearly departed, then kicking at the dirt with your boots when you were done? What else would you need?

But back to reviving the corners of my mind dulled by tedium. This past summer, I took two motorcycle trips, one along the Mississippi River and another through the Appalachian mountains to Georgia. I have since revisited the journeys several times in my mind, recalling the peculiarities of each little town. No matter what anyone tells you, American towns are like fingerprints, no two are alike. Some are more lovely and livable than others, but even the shabbiest municipality has a handsome, pleasant stretch of homes, usually built in the early 1900s, with long porches stretched across the front and trees casting shade over the yard. I picture the people who live there. In my mind, they grew up in that town, perhaps in that very house, couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, and wouldn’t if given the opportunity. Riding on, I wonder why some people, every few years or so, pull up stakes and strike out in a new direction, while others would rather die than alter the slightest detail of their lives.

If I had to divide our nation into two groups of people, I’d forego the Republican and Democrat groupings, and place folks in the movers or stayers category. Movers try new things, stayers don’t. Movers move, stayers stay. Movers leave one job for a better one, stayers stick with the same old job even when their pay is cut and they’re flogged with a horsewhip. Of course, none of us are entirely one thing, which explains my fondness for motorcycle trips, which offer the illusion of movement, while allowing me to come home anytime I please. Every intersection presents choices—right, left, or straight ahead. While each choice might seem similar, they couldn’t be more different. Left will take me to the Gulf Coast, right will get me to Canada, and straight will carry me across the prairie, then over the mountains to the Pacific. Theoretically, anyway. I always seem to turn back at the Mississippi River. But it’s the possibility that thrills me. I could go anywhere, see anything, meet anyone.

When I was a kid, I would sit on the bench in front of the Rexall drugstore, watching for the occasional motorcycle, a sleeping bag and tent strapped to the back, to throb past on Highway 36. I knew from the atlas that Highway 36 ended high in the Rockies, 1,100 miles west of Danville. When I was 16 and bought my first motorcycle, a Honda 50, I tied my sleeping bag to the back and struck out for the West, riding the shoulder of Highway 36 all the way to the next county, where I pulled into a farm field and spent the night, 1,080 miles short of the mountains. It was an autumn evening, clear and starry, and though I had only gone 20 miles, it satisfied my desire to see something different.

It occurs to me that I’ve been looking for a similar satisfaction ever since, something that offers the thrill of change without upending my life. A new car does that, but not for long. I suppose even the exhilaration of preaching in a cowboy hat would wear thin after a while. I could try it and see, but even Quakers have their limits. The problem with me is that I want to be a mover, but I’ll always be a stayer. It’s like becoming a farmer. I love the thought of it, but it isn’t likely to happen.

Several years ago, a friend of mine moved to Australia, something a stayer would never do. We’re Facebook friends, and it’s apparent she hasn’t suffered a moment’s homesickness. She posts pictures of waterfalls, sunsets, endless beaches, and emerald forests. She brags about Australia’s universal healthcare, low crime, and affordable college education. She has pointed out more than once that Australians receive a legal minimum of 27 vacation days each year. But I’ve noticed she never mentions that Australia has 21 of the world’s 25 most venomous snakes, including the Inland Taipan snake, whose venom is so toxic a single bite could kill 100 people. There are like a trillion snakes in Australia, many of which fall from trees and land on your head, which is why so many Australians wear cowboy hats. I hate snakes, so even if I were a mover, there’s no way I’d move to Australia. My mind might be dulled by tedium, but I haven’t lost it altogether.