The seventy-six mile stretch of Highway 28 that runs from Mud Lake to Leadore, Idaho is one of the loneliest roads I have ever traveled. With the Lemhi Range providing a boundary to the west, it cuts through a landscape so unapologetically vast that it evoked a mix of emotions I am still sorting out.
The hour it took us to drive it on a recent family road trip felt more like three. The emptiness of the land made it seem that we were standing still, though the speedometer said otherwise. There were two other cars. They were going the other way.
At first, I was dumbstruck. Not by the openness or the solitude but by the relentless sameness. It just kept coming. Then came a feeling of genuine awe. It was so much to take in, precisely because there was so little there. And then, a feeling of dread. A glance at my phone confirmed what I suspected: no service. We were alone without a lifeline, inching our way north toward the promise of something we could not yet see.
Having sworn off navigational devices we were instead employing the National Geographic Road Atlas. Except for the occasional road sign (Leadore – 48 miles) the information we had to go by is what we could see in the book. In these early days of our trip I asked each of our kids to take a turn as navigator, using only the atlas to chart our course. The absence of my iPhone map application and its comforting directional line was no more acutely felt than at this moment.
When we arrived in Leadore, desperate for a pit stop, we found a small general store. Upon entering, the two women behind the counter – a mother and daughter perhaps – looked up and smiled. All I could say was “that is some road!” at which they both let out the laughter of recognition. The girl said in reply, “I have to drive it tomorrow so I’m trying to psych myself up.” I was relieved that even the locals felt the discomfort of that road.
Highway 28 has become for me a potent symbol of the shared risk and opportunity of stepping into deeper personal and relational discovery. In my roles as speaker, teacher and coach I consistently – persistently – sound this refrain: effective leadership in the face of complexity and change requires us to plumb the depths of self-understanding, open ourselves to more intimate connection with others and humbly commit to a lifetime of continuous learning.
I say it and I say it and I say it. And I believe it. And I try hard to live it. But something about driving that lonesome, open road brought home to me the gravity of what I am asking in a way that I have not previously experienced. It gave me a renewed sense of empathy for those who resist the invitation, appreciating their intuitive understanding of just what it will cost to make the trip. It also refreshed my admiration for those who say “yes” and are willing to subject themselves to the discomfort of the wide, foreign territory of themselves.
And what does that “yes” entail?
…progress that feels mercilessly slow against the largeness of the endeavor.
…being caught, equidistant from departure and arrival, with no “service,” no lifeline.
…being alone in the company of others, perhaps for the very first time
…having every moment of learning, growth and accomplishment be matched with a moment of desperation, discomfort or disorder.
…the recognition that you can never go back and the self-assuredness that you would never want to.
It also includes the occasional oasis, a friend or two ready with easy smiles and a warm welcome. In their eyes the recognition of how far you’ve come and in their hearts and hands, the resources and encouragement for what lies ahead.
Highway 28 ends in Salmon, Idaho. It becomes Highway 93 and continues north into Montana. Eventually, it meets up with Canada’s Highway 16 in Jasper National Park. From there you can head west to Prince Rupert or east to Winnipeg.
The road always continues. How you travel it is up to you.
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.