Sunday, May 3, 2009

Doesn't Get More American Than This

For reasons that still aren’t clear, Wyatt Edward McLaughlin just didn’t want to be in Amelia County, Virginia anymore. So he packed up some horses, his dog and some supplies and left, by himself, for Weatherford, Texas, which is about 20 miles outside of Fort Worth.

He arrived safely in Texas after driving two days and logging almost 1,200 miles. Having performed at the rodeo before, it was natural for the police to find him there; uninjured, his horses well kept, his dog wagging its tail.

After all, it was his parents who, on a hunch, told the police that the boy might wind up there.

Wyatt McLaughlin is just 13. And I have all the respect in the world for him. In this hyper-protective, helicopter-hovering- parenting society we live in, the first instinct is outrage, pointing accusatory fingers at the parents for letting this happen and law enforcement for not being able to catch Wyatt before he got to the Lone Star State.

But after reading this story last week, I smiled.

Think about it; this kid loaded up his parent’s 2002 F350 pickup, took a four-horse trailer with two horses inside, his pet dog and had enough forethought to pack enough money and clothes to last a week. He also brought propane tanks to cook with as well as a tent.

Now you’re probably thinking that I am crazy for supporting a kid for running away. But there’s where you’re wrong. I am not supporting the actual act of running away, but I admire a child who can pack, plan his route, and have the forethought and rational thinking skills to take care of animals, not to mention he got to Texas without a single accident or traffic stop. He knew the rules of road well enough not stand out but also responsible enough not to get into an accident. There are plenty of adults who couldn’t make that cross-country trip without being pulled over for some traffic violation, wrecking or running out of food.

When cops were tipped by Wyatt’s parents as to where he could be, they got a tip from someone who had seen a truck and trailer with Virginia plates at the rodeo grounds. They searched video surveillance at a gas station in Mount Pleasant, Texas. Sure enough, there was Wyatt on the tape, pumping his own gas; buying some stuff for the road. In fact, the manager who waited on Wyatt described him as someone who was in no hurry when he pulled in. “He was just calmed and relaxed.” When the manager was asked why he didn’t think it was odd for a kid to purchase $40 worth of diesel fuel, the manager was stunned to find out he was just 13. To the manager’s defense, even though Wyatt is only 13, he’s 6 feet tall and 160 pounds and can pass for 18 or 19 easily.

I don’t pretend to know what Wyatt’s home life is, but I do know that Amelia County, Virginia is a beautiful place with its rolling hills, miles of fencing and acres of farmland. I just hope this is a kid who is a little too independent for his own good and not a sign of something worse.

I have made that same trip three times before, without the horses, trailer, or a dog. Once from Maryland to Texas, twice from Texas to Virginia and it’s not easy, no matter how many times you’ve done it. Driving by yourself on roads that you’re unfamiliar with, through states that don’t like “Yankees” can be treacherous and downright dangerous.

But I also remember how exhilarating it can be. On a long stretch of highway in Arkansas, two truckers who were driving extremely close to a camper with plates from Mississippi boxed me in. I realized what their fascination was with this particular camper when every time they blew their horns, a different woman would appear in the back window of the camper, flashing everyone rolling down the highway at 75 MPH. They must’ve blasted their horns for the next 50 miles, until the camper turned off an exit to go to Mississippi and I turned off to go to Texas. I can only imagine what the CB chatter was like.

Wyatt Edward McLaughlin defines what America has always been about: self-sufficiency, a sense of adventure, with a little bit of wanderlust mixed in for good measure.

Sure, it’s a bit premature and reckless to let a 13 year-old drive across the country by himself, but I wish I had his confidence and calm assurance at that age.

I don’t know many adults who do.


  1. All I can say is that I want to meet this kid - and if he was just doing this as an adventure and not running away from some abusive situation (let's hope for the former), then, you know what? Good for him. He's got a great story to tell his grandkids someday!

  2. Can we bring him to Arizona to teach the guy turning right from the left turn lane today that it's not okay to do that.

    It's amazing what kids can really do that they are never given credit for. I can't even plan a trip without forgetting something.