Father’s Day 2019
This year for Father’s Day, my gift to my dad was the following short story I wrote about the ultimate road trip we took in my new-to-me Ultimate Driving Machine (aka 2016 BMW M235i Convertible).
With Dad’s permission, I’m now sharing the story with you. I hope it triggers some fond memories of your own about trips you enjoyed with your father—or perhaps your son or daughter. And if it does, please share your story in the comments!
Either way, I hope you enjoy the ride!
Thanks again, Dad, for just being you. I’m looking forward to our next road trip together, although this one will be tough to beat.
A Father, a Son, and the Magic of Super Pursuit
A Short Story by Korry Franke
Shel Silverstein once wrote, “But all the magic I have known, I’ve had to make myself.”
To that I say, how unfortunate. Because some of the best magic I’ve experienced in my life didn’t come from a fancy trick, spell, or potion I concocted myself; rather, it came from my father’s gunmetal gray 1981 Dodge Ram utility van…and the elixir created with a little boost from his right foot.
Of course, I didn’t realize that at the time. Instead, I thought our plain-Jane van’s magical power stemmed from its secret button—a.k.a. its cigarette lighter—that when pressed would summon the same “super pursuit” capabilities of KITT, the high-tech co-star of the 1980’s show, Knight Rider. After all, one single press of that button—and Dad’s accelerator—would throw 4-year-old me back into my seat, grinning from ear to ear, as the van’s engine roared to life and propelled the two of us forward on any number of little two-lane country roads in central Pennsylvania.
That, Mr. Silverstein, is true magic. Not the van or its purportedly magic button. But a father and a son. Together on the open road. And it most definitely could not have happened alone.
A Journey Begins
And so it was, more than 30 years later, when I again found myself together with my dad, making a little magic out on the open road.
This time, we traded the Dodge van for a tiny BMW convertible I had purchased from a doctor in Monterey, California. But as I’d quickly come to realize, its mystical powers were just as strong.
Originally, I had intended to ship the 2016 M235i back to my home in Pennsylvania, but Dad—thankfully—had other ideas.
“Why don’t we road trip it?” he had asked.
Road trip it? I questioned. More than 3,000 miles? That would take six days!
As an airline pilot, I was accustomed to routinely making such cross-country trips in less than six hours.
Then again, I did have a week-long break in my flying schedule that could work nicely for the trip. And it would definitely be quality time with Dad, likely a pretty drive, and perhaps even a fun one…if we found the right roads to take.
After accepting his offer, we set about planning our trek, using motorcycleroads.com to help us plot daily scenic offshoots from what I feared would be long slogs along boring interstate highways.
A few weeks later, in early November 2017, we stood in the driveway of a majestic California home perched high atop a small mountain, the Pacific Ocean visible in the distance, watching as a rising garage door revealed my new-to-me ride.
It was stunning. Perfectly detailed, its estoril blue paint was polished to a glassy shine. And try as I might, I couldn’t find one single scratch, which I guess made sense since the car had only 5,000 miles under its belt, making it basically brand new.
I hope you’re ready for a workout, I thought as I slid my hand over its flawless exterior before opening the driver’s side door and sliding into the black leather seat behind the wheel.
The seat’s side bolsters gripped me like a glove, and it was positioned so low to the ground it seemed to cling like a magnet to the garage floor.
It even smells new, I thought as I wrapped my left hand around the thick steering wheel while resting my right hand atop the six-speed manual shifter in the center console. And I can’t wait to see how it runs out on the open road, I thought, or better yet, in the twisties.
The rest of my pre-purchase inspection went quickly, as did the brief test drive I made with the owner before signing papers and handing over the check.
Soon, Dad and I were loading our bags into the BMW’s trunk and back seat before making a quick stop at the Monterey airport to drop off our rental car.
Then, it was just Dad and me.
East Bound and Down
Sadly, mist and rain negated top-down California cruising out of the gate, so we bagged our plans to begin our journey home on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway.
Next time, I thought.
Instead, we turned east onto California Route 68. I’m pretty sure I even called up Jerry Reed’s iconic “East Bound and Down” anthem on Spotify to serve as a fitting start to our journey—especially for the cowboy-boot and country-music-loving man who is my dad.
I’m certain, however, that I reached down next to the leather-wrapped shift knob to press the car’s cigarette lighter while simultaneously stepping firmly onto its accelerator, instantly commanding all 320 horses from the BMW’s silky-smooth turbocharged inline 6-cylinder engine to gallop, shoving the two of us firmly into our heavily bolstered seats.
“Now,that’s super pursuit!” I told Dad, grinning from ear to ear.
And we were off.
Free and Easy
We made it through California’s fertile central valley to the streets of Bakersfield on night one, undoubtedly calling up the Dwight Yokum song of the same name as we neared the hotel.
The next morning, we rose early to begin our first full day of driving. This time, blue sky reigned supreme, and after stopping for gas, we dropped the convertible’s ragtop, applied a heavy lather of sunscreen, and got back on the highway.
As Dierks Bentley sang “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)”, we wove through rolling savanna hillsides covered with golden grasses and speckled with oaks, evergreens, and plenty of wind turbines, too.
But only the hardiest, scrubbiest vegetation remained after we crested the top of the Tehachapi Mountains and entered into their powerful rain shadow—the Mojavi Desert. So harsh was the landscape that after noticing dozens of jets resting in the “boneyard” of the Mojavi Air and Space Port, we realized even airplanes came here to die.
With Dad at the wheel, I rested my right arm over the car’s side and let the wind slip through my fingers as we trudged through dusty expanses and around barren boulder-covered mountain slopes.
Three hours later, we swapped seats after reaching the entrance to our first scenic offshoot: Needles, California. From there, we snaked our way along old Route 66, weaving back and forth around breaks in sheer desert peaks that looked to be one windstorm away from crumbling into a heap.
I’d like to think one of us called up “I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash as we meandered through the surprisingly busy gold mining map-dot of Oatman, careful not to hit the wild burrows clopping along its narrow streets.
It was in the twisty Sitgreaves Pass leading toward Kingman, Arizona, however, where we gained our first taste of how exceptionally well-balanced the little BMW was. It seemed to crave the hairpin turns, hunkering down as we pushed it into one corner after the next, sticking like glue to the hot asphalt no matter which direction we steered its wide summer tires.
We stopped briefly near the top of the pass to take a few pics of the sweeping desert views that were afforded in every direction, but we knew there was simply not enough time to partake in all of the touristy excursions or photoshoots we would have liked. There were simply too many miles to drive.
Next time, we told ourselves.
The Cowboy and His Bronco
Back on I-40, an accident ahead on the highway brought our progress to a halt as we climbed out of the desert toward the dense forests of Flagstaff with no viable reroutes available.
My left leg got a full workout as it pressed and released the clutch again and again as we creeped along while being serenaded by the diesel engine clatter and the psssst of airbrakes from nearby 18-wheelers (whose towering box trailers mercifully shielded us from the afternoon sun since I was too stubborn to put up the convertible’s roof).
One time, I let the clutch out too quickly, causing the BMW to jerk forward before stalling out.
“Need me to teach you how to do this again?” Dad teased.
I smiled and shook my head in a non-answer answer.
Instantly, my mind returned to the first BMW—and the first manual transmission car—I ever drove: my parent’s 1998 Boston green 318i. Uncoincidentally, it was also the first time I remember hearing Dad use the F word. Then again, I can’t say I much blame him.
During a particularly bad moment of my training for how to start moving from a complete stop while on a slight incline, Dad’s first BMW started bucking like an out-of-control bronco…and its young cowboy seemed frozen by fear, in essence dangling headfirst from its side, badly in need of someone to snap him back into the moment…which Dad did when he yelled, “Push the clutch!! Push the clutch!! PUSH THE F*****G CLUTCH!!”
Needless to say, it worked!
Thankfully, traffic eventually started moving, and before long, Flagstaff was behind us.
After descending into the red sands near Winslow, with Brooks & Dunn’s “Red Dirt Road” surely accompanying us, the signs for Meteor Crater National Landmark again made me wish for more time to explore, particularly since I had seen the massive hole from the air many times while descending into Los Angeles in my Boeing 737. But the traffic jam had put us behind schedule, so I was forced to settle on thinking, Next time, once again.
The same was true for Petrified Forest National Park, which had been on Dad’s “if there’s time” list for our trip. But there wasn’t time; there were simply more miles to go. So we pressed on, eventually making it to New Mexico—my first time inside the state.
We holed up in Gallup for the night and enjoyed steak and red wine at the Badlands Grill, where wood paneled walls and horse saddle decorations reminded us we were a long way from Dad's and my homes in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, respectively.
Miles, Music, and Memories
Miles upon miles continued the next day, with long red mesas—and likely Jason Aldean’s “Fly Over States”—ushering us into the start of our next excursion around the wide-open ranchlands and tree-covered mountains near Albuquerque.
The topography was so different and more varied than I had expected of New Mexico, and we pondered what life must be like to live so far from the bigger, more closely clustered cities Dad and I routinely find ourselves in for work.
Of course, those weren’t the only things we pondered as the miles—and the music—stretched on.
When Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” came on, we talked about the nights my sister Kristen and I spent playing in the concrete basement of our then-under-construction home in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, while Mom and Dad stood nearby staining pieces of wood trim by hand as a kerosene heater and tiny radio roared in the corner.
That led to reflections on Dad’s own childhood, particularly when Aaron Tippin’s “You’ve Got to Stand for Something” triggered stories about his mother’s legendary stubbornness—a strong sign of her willingness to fight for her family, particularly her two boys, no matter the cost. Unquestionably, the trait had rubbed off on Dad in a big way.
As Kenny Chesney’s “Young” played (or was it Montgomery Gentry’s “Back When I Knew It All”?), Dad recalled the days he and his friend Donnie would go driving around in search of mostly-harmless trouble in Dad’s Volkswagen Bug, whose one wheel was notoriously prone to popping off at a moment’s notice.
Then there was Travis Tritt’s “I See Me,” which jogged the memory of Dad asking a 17-year-old me if I knew anything about the dent in his Ford station wagon’s oil pan—the result of Dad’s Taurus catching some air after hitting a cross-street’s crown at far too high a speed.
After Brad Paisley’s “Anything Like Me” finished, I asked him what it was like to see Kristen and me now with kids of our own.
And around the time Alabama’s “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)” hit the BMW’s speakers, I caught Dad using his Nikon camera to take a zoomed-in picture of our car’s perfectly-framed reflection in the chrome hubcap of an 18-wheeler we were passing. I asked what it was like for him to join his brother John on trips in the Peterbilt cabover truck that Dad owned and John drove, which in turn led Dad to ask how my wife Jen and daughter Reagan do as they roll on while I’m out criss-crossing the continent for work.
A different story for every song. Stories about the book I was wrapping up, 3 Feet to the Left: A New Captain’s Journey from Pursuit to Perspective.
Stories about the time Dad flew with me on a 3-day trip to Madrid, where we spent my layover sampling tapas in the Plaza Mayor with other members of our crew.
Stories about the ultimate role reversal that came when I taught Dad to fly, about the challenges of stepping into leadership in the airlines as a captain, and about how there seemed to be so many parallels with Dad’s time as a nurse anesthetist in the operating room.
Stories about how Mom and Dad pinched pennies when he left the O.R. to start his financial planning business, and about how that personal reinvention eventually led him to the credit union board room where he works now.
Of course, other times we just stared out the window onto the passing countryside, watching the mile markers pass by while listening to various episodes of our favorite podcasts or the shuffled tunes of our playlists. And each moment of it—including the quiet moments and the loud moments, the busy moments and the boring moments—was pure magic.
This was particularly true when our offshoot south of Amarillo through the plains of the Texas panhandle suddenly gave way to the undulating and vibrant beauty of the Palo Duro Canyon.
Melded along with the canyon walls' burnt reds and tans was a sprinkling of deep green Rocky Mountain junipers. And nestled against them all were switchback highways made perfect for hard braking, a blip of the throttle with the side of my right foot, the quick pop of the shifter, and the post-downshift throaty growl that came from the BMW’s exhaust as its motor pulled us through one sweeping corner after the next.
While the cool dusk air rushed past us as we were carving up the canyon roads, it was only fitting that one of the many hits from Texas’s own George Strait came on. I’d like to think the song was “Love Without End, Amen.”
But whatever it was, it was pure driving magic.
And Then the Rains Came
Sadly, the good weather would not stay with us all the way across the country. And as we arrived at the start of the Talimena Scenic Drive the next day, instead of 54 miles of breathtaking, peak-foliage views atop the Winding Stair Mountains from Talihina, Oklahoma to Mena, Arkansas, all we saw were rain, fog, and the maroon tailgate of a King Ranch Ford F-150 truck that refused to pull over or even attempt to drive anywhere close to the road’s speed limit.
Next time, I again reminded myself.
It seemed to be an increasingly common refrain in my head, a reminder that this nation has far too much to see in one short six-day trip…or even a lifetime of exploration.
Making matters worse, the rains only intensified as we reached the mighty Mississippi River and Memphis, Tennessee. The raindrops hammered the convertible’s fabric roof and tested the limits of its windshield wipers.
Eventually, we reached our hotel in downtown Nashville.
Pouring rain be damned, we ventured out in search of tasty grub and live country music, finding it—and cold beers—in plentiful supply at several iconic honky-tonks like Tootsies Orchid Lounge on Broadway, where we stayed out later than we probably should have while pretending we were younger than either of us clearly knew we were.
Of course, the expected driving highlight of the trip arrived on my last day with Dad while on the way to his home outside Winston-Salem, North Carolina: the 11-mile and 318-curve stretch of US-129 near Deals Gap on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina that is known to driving enthusiasts the world over as the “Tail of the Dragon.”
Yes, you read that correctly. 11 miles. 318 curves.
Pure driving bliss…except for those prone to car sickness. And it delivered on every expectation.
Taming the Tail of the Dragon
Dad and I reached the Dragon in the mid-morning, just as the sun was breaking through the clouds. I’m quite certain God was watching out for us, because He left the roadway slightly wetted and with just enough downed leaves to make me think twice about tossing the convertible too hard into any one corner. Better to play it safe than end up like far too many other enthusiasts I had read about—and seen pictures of online—who had been bitten by the Dragon and seen their motorcycles and sportscars tossed off the roadway and into the trees.
So I shifted into 2nd gear and kept my hands squarely at 3- and 9-o’clock, weaving left and then right, again and again, through Smoky Mountain forests painted yellow and orange and red from peak foliage. Up hills and down hills, braking and accelerating, listening to the engine’s crescendos and decrescendos as a live album of the Charlie Daniels Band played softly in the background.
Complete magic, I thought.
We thought about running the Dragon again, but, as usual, we settled for Next time, and pressed on for Mom and Dad’s peaceful cabin in Mocksville, North Carolina.
Around 2:30 PM, we pulled into the cabin’s long stone driveway. After shutting off the BMW, we noted that our trek had already added over 50% more miles to its odometer, and the dust and road grime on its paint made that apparent. Sadly, the front bumper also now wore an inch-long scar from a zipping road stone that was kicked up somewhere along the way.
Part of me hated to see it, yet another part was proud of the car’s new battle wound; it indicated this BMW wasn’t meant to be a show car but a car to live in and enjoy.
The visit at the cabin was nice and relaxing, as usual, particularly to have the chance to catch up with Mom. But it was sad to think my trip with Dad was over, a fact that became abundantly clear as I settled into the car again the next morning after hugs and kisses goodbye.
Starting down the lane on the final leg home to Pennsylvania, Alan Jackson’s “Drive” came on, or perhaps it was Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man.” Either way, it was all I could do to keep the welling tears from slipping down my cheeks as I caught a glimpse of Mom and Dad in the rearview mirror, waving, almost like I was 20 and driving off to college again.
Yet while Dad wasn’t with me as I went back on the road again, Willie Nelson was. He and other country legends kept me company until I reached Fancy Gap, Virginia, where I exited I-77, dropped the BMW’s top, threw a fleece over my sweatshirt, and turned the seat heater on high before beginning my day’s scenic offshoot atop the meandering Blue Ridge Parkway.
The cool, crisp air even smelled like fall, and the roadway seemed so peaceful that I didn’t dare spoil it with music.
When I noticed the sight of a herd of deer munching on grasses near an old wooden split-rail fence, however, I realized how much better the moment would have been with Dad there to see it with me. We no doubt would have reminisced about the times he took me hunting as a young man or reflected on how he loves to watch the deer eat from his feeders at the cabin (sans hunting, of course).
Yet alone, it was just me and my thoughts, which I found routinely returning to just how thankful I was for Dad’s suggestion that we road trip the car back from California.
I imagined the BMW merely arriving via truck at my home in PA, no different than an Amazon package. Convenient and timely, yes. But lacking the character and richness that comes from a trip we will undoubtedly talk about for years to come.
And so I pressed on through the Shenandoah Valley and the narrowest parts of West Virginia and Maryland.
Around noon on November 8—my birthday—I crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania, marking the 12th state of my journey.
I think Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town” played as I stopped in Chambersburg to take my best friend from high school for a short ride in the new wheels around our town.
Then I pressed on for the steel and slate country of Allentown’s Lehigh Valley which I now call home, pulling the BMW into its new garage in the early evening.
Home at last, I thought.
After shutting off the motor, I heard the twin exhaust pipes crackling like Rice Krispies freshly doused with milk.
I unfastened my seatbelt and grabbed a bag of trash along with the car’s key fob before pulling gently on the silver latch beside me to open the driver’s side door.
As I swung my left leg out and started to pull myself up and out of the black leather seat, I was immediately reminded of how stiff a man can become after 3,500 miles of cross-country driving over six short days.
Scratch that; six long days. Six full days. Six days of seemingly endless highways and fuel stops. Six incredible days of scenic vistas and squiggly roadways that were simply perfect for a car enthusiast like me. Six memory-making days for a man and his father. Six life-enriching days that couldn’t wait for a next time. Six absolutely magical days. Six days that almost never happened.
And how unfortunate would that have been?
The Magic Continues
In the months and years since that trip, I’ve spent many hours in the little blue BMW wasting—and twisting—away afternoons on nearby mountain roads. Often during those drives, I wonder if Dad and I will have the opportunity to venture out on another memory-making journey in the convertible. I genuinely hope so.
Best of all, I’ve discovered that the car’s magical powers aren’t limited to only a father and a son, but also to a father and his daughter.
And while I can’t say my vision of pure driving magic would have ever involved cruising through town with the top down and the soundtrack of Disney’s Moana blasting through the speakers, I’m pretty sure it might be for my pink-sunglass-wearing 3-year-old daughter, Reagan, especially when I catch her grinning from ear-to-ear in her car seat behind me after a press of the BMW’s tiny cigarette lighter—and her father’s right foot—shows her how special and magical this car’s super pursuit power really is.
Like this post? If so, please share with your friends and leave a comment about a magical journey you’ve taken with a loved one of your own.
Korry Franke is a 737 captain for United Airlines, a leadership speaker, and the author of 3 Feet to the Left: A New Captain’s Journey from Pursuit to Perspective. You can get more stories like this one in your inbox by signing up here.