The Ditch

My great grandmother had a completely over-hyped impression of my abilities. She would give me gigantic books and old coins and civil war doo-dads and books and more books, and more weird knick knacks that she always said, she’d “know I’d appreciate.”

The fact was, I did grow to appreciate them. I read the books. I learned about the artifacts and coins. And, you know, it was actually kind of interesting. I read Sandburg’s Lincoln, well, two and and half volumes of it, before I was 12. (Honestly, Volume I and I didn’t agree until about half way through.)

But the book she gave me of which I have never forgotten was “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal.” It was written by David McCullough in 1978. I think I was about 14…so my great grandma would have been around 86 (she lived by herself into her 90s, only to die in a kitchen grease fire baking chicken).

What I remember is the way she explained why the Panama Canal was important.

Let me digress…

My great grandma was awesome at this type of story telling when she was on her game. She taught me all I needed to know about faking things in Scrabble into her late 90s. Her dog was named Oggie (even the next dog, and the dog after that), and she was as tough as sandpaper about some things.

So, back to the Panama Canal…

She told me the story from her perspective…

Theodore Roosevelt was the greatest president that ever lived. The only great feats of anything were because of Democrats, she said. And (now remember this is the 1980s, so we had put a man on the moon and won two world wars, etc.) “he made that Panama Canal happen before I got married.” (Actually, no, but close…she got married in 1917, and the Canal was completed in 1914.)  She declared it was still more important than anything else that has happened in her lifetime. I mean, this was a passionate rant that I listened to…nothing was more important than the Panama Canal. And (as she called him) “T.R.” was the last great POTUS.

But I won’t bore you with the whole discourse. She was pissed off that it all went to hell when Woodrow Wilson got into WWI and sent her husband off to Europe. And the last great president was T.R. because of the Canal.

(I just saved you about 45 minutes of her diatribe…)

But the gist was this: The Panama Canal was the greatest thing that had ever happened and great things only happen under Democrats. And she didn’t vote for another Democrat until Johnson. But she never voted, ever, ever, ever, for another Republican…because Wilson promised to stay out of WWI. (Actually, it’s funny as I type this, because it might have been around January 1986 when I had this conversation with her, because I remember that she said Johnson wouldn’t have let the space shuttle blow up…but I digress.)

Anyway…I read the book. I’ve read it twice since then. I even just bought the post-hand over edition to see how that played out.

I had to see it.

There are easy routes to this. I had my chances. I could just figure out how to skim off a business trip and pay my own dime and be in Panama City and take a tour boat through the locks.

But no. I wanted to, as a friend of mine said, “Do it like it was meant to be done” and go from one coast of the United States to the other. I have read the books, I know the history. Heck…you can stream it on Netflix with a PBS special.

In my head, I checked off the other stuff in the meantime. Man-made icons of the modern world. I went to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. I took a train across the country. I went down in the London sewer system. And I’ve been inside the Hoover Dam (pre-9/11, of course).

So about five years ago, I really started to push on this. My wife had no interest. In fact, no one had any interest.

Basically, it’s 14 days and nights on a giant cruise ship with me going from one coast to the other. And to make it work, we’ll just have two twin beds with a couch in between and a shower in the bathroom.

But I was serious about this.

And here’s were it gets me. My grandma said that the only people she had ever met which had been though the Panama Canal were soldiers. She hoped people would someday go through it just because it was “neat.” (Her exact word.) In grandma’s head, T.R. was the reason Woodrow Wilson didn’t screw the country up too badly, because people came home faster from the war.

So I asked around. And I asked some more. I even had a little savings account. I was going to go through the Panama Canal from one U.S.A. coast to the other because it was  ”neat.”

This went on for years.

And then, one day, I was chatting with a friend and I asked, “You want to take a two-week trip through the Panama Canal?”


“How about September?”

“Doesn’t work for me.”

“April 15?”

“Sounds good. Let’s do it.”

It took as long as it took you to read that. I spent the next 10 minutes doing all of the “are you sure” stuff. Discussing costs, blah blah blah…and we were on.

Within 48 hours I had our room from Miami to LA on April 15, along with flights.

I’m scared as hell…I won’t lie. Two weeks is a long time to share three beds and a cabin. But I’m not going to war…and I like my travel mate. An old friend and foe that has known me long enough to know me long enough.

I know there are a whole bunch of great things that will happen on this trip. I am going to see stuff in Colombia and Costa Rica and Mexico, etc…but I will think of my great grandma and the reason I really, really have always wanted to do this.

Just because it’s…



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