The trip began in the foggy mist of Sunday morning, when traffic was light as drips from a faucet.

I had a computer bag in one hand and a large cup of coffee in the other. Settling into the back seat, I took a long sip and looked out the window.

There were four of us in this silver van, heading to an NFL game in Cleveland: Gene, the sports editor of the Free Press; Bob, one of our copy editors (and a native of Ohio who still lives and dies with the Browns); Justin, a WJR radio producer, and me.

I swigged more coffee. The van lurched forward.

Normally, I fly to games. But “normal” disappeared 13 days ago when terrorists captured the skies for one awful morning and threw America over a cliff. Flying was still sketchy. The airports had long lines for security. So on this Sunday — the first day I would write a sport column since the attacks, the first day pro football resumed, the first somewhat familiar Sunday of the rest of our lives — traveling by ground seemed faster.

The terror mongers had nudged most of us off our paths. This was how they nudged me. I was in a van for a four-hour commute.

Here were our provisions: Bob had some gum. Justin had his coffee. Gene, for some reason, had a copy of the Weekly World News with a story about Hillary Clinton having an affair with a space alien.

“I knew it,” I said.

In my possession? A bag of CDs, two newspapers and the parking pass for Cleveland Browns Stadium.

“So,” one of us asked Bob, starting the mandatory sports talk that guys do when they are going to a game, “how long have you been a Browns fan?”

On the all-news radio stations they spoke of America’s coming military action and Afghanistan’s refusal to turn over Osama bin Laden. For the first time in a long time, however, we did not immediately turn on the news. Instead, we rolled across the Michigan-Ohio border, chatting and sipping as the sun began to peek over the highway trees, causing drivers to squint.

Crossroads of America

After a few hours, we stopped at a rest stop on the Ohio turnpike. There was, to my surprise, an entire circular food court: Burger King, Starbucks, Sbarros, Cinnabon with the arresting smell of hot sugar frosting.

There was even a Max and Erma’s with a breakfast buffet — a buffet? at a turnpike rest stop? — so we grabbed plates and filled them with eggs and bacon and biscuits and fruit.

A teenaged waitress brought coffee and, being guys on a trip, we joked about getting the eggs for free, har-dee-har-har, and she indulged us and laughed and everybody felt good.

“I know this sounds stupid,” I said, “but how many places on earth have a food court, a newsstand, a video arcade and a breakfast buffet on their highways?”

The guys all nodded. This was as ordinary as ordinary could get. But on this given Sunday, it was — how can I put it? — reassuring.

I watched the customers come through this place, this dot on a map of the U.S. freeway system, black men and Asian women, Italian looking teens and blond girls who must have had Nordic roots.

I watched them wait in line together, make jokes together, head for the bathrooms together. The newspapers spoke of mistrust between ethnic groups, but here, in line for burgers and coffee and eggs, there was no distinction between Americans.

Just smiles, nods and napkins.

Back in the van, stuffed and satisfied, we took a vote — guys always vote — for musical selections. Jazz won, so I popped open a CD by Kenny Burrell, a terrific guitar player from Detroit who played with everyone from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis.

As the first silky notes burst off his strings, we all seemed to settle into our seats. Gene adjusted his sunglasses. Justin tapped his fingers. We rolled on.

Simple joys of life

What is it that we really cherish in this country?

The grand ideals? Of course. The tenets of the Constitution? Sure. The rights to free speech? The pursuit of happiness? Certainly.

But what we also cherish, and what we long for immediately, is our everyday routine. It’s like our need for water. There may be grander concepts than thirst — politics, economics, philosophy, religion — but without water, in three or four days, none of those things matter.

So it is with our lives. We all want to tackle the war, the terrorists, the stock market. But our stability comes from our Monday-through-Sunday schedules. We need to return to those now, to feel comfortable in them, to even, sometimes, revel in their simple charm — a sip-top on a cup of coffee, a multi-ethnic line at a Burger King, getting on the highway, taking a drive.

Later on Sunday, the NFL would turn up the volume. It would have special pre-game ceremonies and a united country singing “America the Beautiful.” There would be footage from the World Trade Center rubble, heroes, victims, smoke, fire, tears.

Moving, yes. But I will remember a different moment, a moment, during our impromptu Sunday trip, where the conversation took a rest and Kenny Burrell was softly playing his guitar over the speakers.

Justin was leafing through the New York Times magazine. Gene had one finger curled on the bottom of the steering wheel, his jaw chomping with gum. A ladybug had found its way into the car and landed on Bob’s arm. Bob gently rolled down the window and let the ladybug out to freedom.

Suddenly, for no particular reason, I found myself smiling.

The sun was out, and leafy trees rolled past our view. So did telephone poles with wires connecting a mother in Toledo to a daughter in Akron and a grandpa in Cleveland to a grandson in Miami.

The dotted white lines of the turnpike seemed to lead us to our destination, four guys, heading to the game.

It was church time in Ohio; it was autumn in New York; it was Sunday in America, coming back to life, minute by minute.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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