Remembering Jim Britton, The Traveling Kind


James S. Britton (1947-2018) in a good place: Bozeman Brewing Co., Bozeman, Montana, July 2017

On Sunday, February 25, I drove a rental car north toward a week of teaching at Penn State (described in the previous post).  As I motored west and north through the Maryland suburbs of Washington, I cued Emmylou Harris’ and Rodney Crowell’s “The Traveling Kind”:

In the wind are names of poets past | Some were friends of yours and mine

And to those unsung, we lift our glass | May their songs become the traveling kind

My brother Jim was the traveling kind.  He died unexpectedly in early February at age 70.  In coming to grips with the sadness and grief of losing my only true sibling, I have thought often of brother-and-brother travels through the years.  The first trip I recall with clarity was our 1956 family vacation to visit Uncle Harold and his kin in Montana.  And the last was also to Montana, we two brothers exploring our paternal roots, just seven months ago.


Two brothers, Castle Mountain Ranch, Montana, July 1956

Here are some brief vignettes of other travels with Jim, mostly from a long time ago:

The North Shore and Gunflint Trail, Northern Minnesota, 1957 and many more times

On our first visit in 1957 and every year save one until 1966, Jim and I marveled at the Northern Lights, enjoyed pan-fried fresh fish at Greenwood Lake Lodge (cabin 9 was our favorite), tucked into blueberry pancakes at the East Bay Hotel in Grand Marais, and went fishing by ourselves and with our father – best place was tiny Sunfish Lake, brimming with walleyes.  Dad trusted Jim with the aluminum fishing boat and 5½ horsepower Johnson motor, and we two zoomed around the lake a lot.


Two brothers, Cabin 9, Greenwood Lake Lodge, Minnesota, August 1957

Trips on the Burlington Zephyr (passenger train) to see kin in Chicago

The train rides on this streamliner, down to see family, were formulaic, beginning with our mother dispatching Jim and I to run down the stairs of the Great Northern Station to the platform, hop on the coach just in front of the dining car, and grab the four seats facing each other at the base of the Vista Dome. Chairs secured, we headed upstairs to enjoy the scenery, especially the hundreds of miles in the Mississippi Valley.  I can still recall sights from those rides, and even smells: the hot metal smell of train wheels and brakes, and the wool seat upholstery, infused with tobacco smoke.  And the taste of freshly-grilled hamburgers for lunch in the diner.


Our mom didn’t have a camera, so I had to grab this pic off the Internet, and the image of the postcard below



The short trip to Marshall Field’s in Chicago, November 1957

Though our Gram (maternal grandmother) often took Jim and me from their big apartment on Logan Blvd. into the Loop (downtown) by El (elevated train/subway), I have vivid recall of one trip.  It happened when our family was moving to Cleveland, and on a night when Field’s, Chicago’s vast department store, stayed open past dinnertime.  Jim and I had misbehaved earlier that day – I can’t recall the transgressions – and Gram axed a promised trip to Field’s enormous toy department.  Our comportment must have improved, because just before dark she relented.  “Hurry,” she said.  We left the apartment and walked briskly west and south to the El station on California Ave.  I remember waiting on the wooden platform for the train as if it were yesterday, Gram holding Jim’s and my hands.  I don’t remember what toys she bought us, only the joy of grandmotherly kindness and redemption.


No pic from that trip to Field’s; and none of the two brothers with Nonno and Gram, but this one of Jim in about 1953 makes me smile

The road trip to Florida, August 1964

Jim’s friend John Lillejord tagged along for the adventure, a circuitous route south in the big blue Oldsmobile, to visit grandma Florence, Uncle Walter, and Aunt Mil, who had moved to the Sunshine State two years earlier. We boys hung out in the TraveLodge in Holly Hill, body surfed at the vast Daytona Beach, ate fresh shrimp along the Intracoastal Waterway, and more.

Lutsen, Minnesota, March 1969

A weekend trip to ski fast, then Jim and his buddies partied hard in a room in Olson’s Motel in Tofte.  That time and almost all the time, he let me tag along. And on that trip he taught be how to drive the stick shift of his Sunbeam Alpine, winding south on Highway 61, hugging the North Shore of Lake Superior.


Not long after that spring ski trip up north, Jim moved to the West, where he stayed for the rest of his life.  He remained “the traveling kind,” moving by car, truck (for years and years in a reliable Ford F-150 pickup), and by bicycle.  Jim and I shared a passion for two-wheelers.  Though he bought a skinny-tire machine years after me, he quickly bested me, routinely riding 100 miles in a day, taking on some astonishing road trips through the mountains, and competing vigorously in a range of road races.  It was in those events when he was strongest.

After marrying his beloved Pam in 1989, the two of them became the traveling kind, by car on many trips across the west and occasionally further afield.  A couple of decades ago, they ventured across the Atlantic, and made a number of way-cool bike trips through Italy, where Jim decided that he ought be also be called Giacomo.  In that country they would be known as tipi da viaggio (special thanks to my paesano Massimo in Milano for nuanced translation; as a sidebar, just before he died, Jim and I started talking about a trip to Italy to meet Massimo and see some places described in the touching new novel Beneath a Scarlet Sky).


Jim and Pam, Crater Lake, Oregon, 2009

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Jim and Pam at home in Jacksonville, Oregon, July 2017

In the five decades he lived in that spectacular and mostly empty part of the world, I visited far too infrequently.  And I’m sad that we never traveled together again until last summer’s trip, which he correctly described as “epic.”  I am grateful for that last time together (my loving account of that trip is here).

Further along I-270, Emmylou and Rodney sang:

When the music slowly starts to fade | Into the light’s last soft decline

Let us lie down in that evening shade | And rest among the traveling kind.

Like me, Jim was the traveling kind. We miss him.  His newspaper obituary is here; I’m working on a eulogy, which I hope and pray I will be able to deliver later this year.

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Jim loved all mountains; here the Bridgers north of Bozeman, Montana



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2 responses to “Remembering Jim Britton, The Traveling Kind

  1. I’m sorry to hear about your loss

    On Tue, Mar 6, 2018 at 11:05 AM, RobBrittonTheTraveler’s Blog wrote:

    > robbrittonthetraveler posted: ” On Sunday, February 25, I drove a rental > car north toward a week of teaching at Penn State (described in the > previous post). As I motored west and north through the Maryland suburbs > of Washington, I cued Emmylou Harris’ and Rodney Crowell’s “The Travel” >

  2. phil

    So sorry, Rob! Just stumbled upon this while recuperating from getting a new knee. Glad you had that last EPIC trip with Jim!

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