Fiction that explores the monsters and strangers among us.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Day 1

Finding time to post is as difficult on vacation as it is in normal times, with the addition of the challenge of finding both the time and place to WIFI. This post begins the story of the trip. My plan is to use description as a writing exercise and avoid dialogue as much as possible.

August 1, 2009

Joseph’s black Mazda RX8 shines in the driveway at 4:30 am as I load the last of my bags. I have the usual duffel bag of clothes, a backpack of cool weather clothes and an extra pair of shoes. My mobile office consists of two more bags, a small backpack and a brief case. A borrowed Sony Cyber-shot 12X camera fits behind the driver’s seat.

In addition to his bag, my son Joseph brings a case of bottled water and a small supply of beef jerky and snack bars. He also brings a spare tire which eliminates most of the trunk space. Turns out the RX8 comes with a tire repair kit rather than a spare and Joseph decided if a tire went out in the middle of nowhere, then he’d rather have a spare tire than a repair kit. I agree. We both have sleeping bags. You never know when you will need one.

What doesn’t fit into the trunk fits in the back seat. I add four books on CD borrowed from the Warrenville Public Library. And we both bring music CDs.

From Warrenville, Joseph drives north on Illinois Rt 59. It’s about twenty minutes to the on ramp for I-90 West. The suburbs rest silent against the dark overlay of a Chicago sky. Lights from stores add a touch of reds, greens and blues as we pass through West Chicago heading north. Also the bright gold and orange of the golden arches inviting us in for a cheap meal. We turn down the invitation.

Farther along, past North Avenue and then Army Trail Road we see more of the same, but newer than downtown West Chicago with it’s haphazard gathering of stores, parking lots and old dreams needing a tear down and restoration. Here the stores are new as are the subdivisions planted where corn once dominated. We pass Golf Road and then I-90 looms ahead. We take the west onramp.

I-90 takes us northwest towards Rockford where we stop for a quick break, giving small victory to those golden arches. Joseph spots a half dozen eighteen wheelers sleeping with their backs against a rising sun that paints the morning sky red over Chicago. We both take pictures.

At Rockford, I-90 turns north by northwest pointing us towards Madison, Wisconsin. As an expatriate Pennsylvanian, I see the rolling hills of the Chester County horse country, now merely rolling suburbs of Philadelphia, in the bumps and rises of the Wisconsin terrain we pass. Why did we remain settled in flatland when in Madison a dream waits to be fulfilled – sip coffee in my kitchen while looking at a mountain out the window. So what if the mountain is really a hill or berm or bump in the road. Higher mountains await us on this trip with a destination named Seattle.

West of Madison the land rises and old visions of Pennsylvania coal country come into view, except these are the original mountains churned up by an advancing glacier ages before Case excavators and Cat dozers cut a path through them.

Joseph, flesh of my flesh, is Illinois born and bred. Does he share old dreams of Pennsylvania mountains we visited when he was a child, when his maternal grandmother gathered him onto her lap so he could make chocolate Easter eggs with her? He is new blood in a new place and shares his bones with new earth. I am the Pennsylvanian. We see the world with different eyes, his younger, mine age challenged.

The Mississippi River marks a crossing and has marked a crossing for hundreds of years, Asian settlers first, those first tribes to see the water’s majestic flow south, making a barrier to their wanderings while yet feeding them with fish and wildlife along her shores. A thousand upon a thousand moons passed their way until French explorers found the region. The world turned for the natives as first the trappers and fur traders arrived followed by farmers, those fencers in of land. Then in time came the world’s two oldest professions, one feminine and the other lawyers. Soldiers, iron mongers, physicians and educators followed. All with their families so that places called Milwaukee and Madison and points between sprang up, the permanent financial hunting grounds of a new people of European and African extraction.

The river is sunken in the depths of rock bluffs, carved of sandstone and granite. I-90 follows the river north, against the current, much as a man travels against the current early in life only to learn it’s best to flow with the river so that you arrive sooner at your destination. I was a swimmer against the current, but my son sails with it and thus reaps the joys of a well-made life.

My thoughts turn to Westley, now two, son of daughter Heather and husband Jeremy. Will Westley swim against the current? He laughs. What a boy. He laughs. His eyes have the twinkle of a toddler about to tease Grandpa with some new tickle that brings more laughter from him for the doing of it, then Granpa for the being done unto. Yet we both laugh. Westley strikes me as a swimmer with the stream. He is a big boy, a future athlete if he so chooses. I vision him a friendly teammate and leader.

Southern Minnesota is more hills and Pennsylvania reminisces for me. As the land rises so I think of my beloved Lynn and her love of mountains, children, creativity and God in somewhat reverse order. And with me tossed in there somewhere.

Gradually the land flattens along with my thoughts, now focused on snacks and miles. We roll onto the prairie to become high plains drifters. Are the high plains the ones in the West because the land rises as you approach the Rockies? Or are the flatlands of Illinois the high plains because the original grass of those virgin plains grew to six feet and higher? I’ll have to look that up or ask a cowboy in Rapid City when we arrive. Later, I ask Wikipedia and discover the high elevation of the western plains defines them as “high plains.”

As we arrive near Chamberlain, South Dakota, Joseph is driving. He pulls off to a rest area because he sees a sign bragging of the view from an overlook. The sign is correct, the overlook is magnificent. My brother Pat – Joseph’s Uncle Father Pat – has served several times with the Sacred Heart Fathers with the Sioux on the Lower Broule Reservation. Why did he keep this view to himself? Maybe he always turned off the highway to drive into Chamberlain before seeing this view. A river runs through Chamberlain – or is it a lake – anyway it’s a big puddle and the town surrounds it, and it’s all laid out in a valley below the overlook. The sign as you enter the overlook area warns of poisoned snakes rather than advertising the view.

Along the route, we have heard the thundering rumble of Harley Davidsons. The West seems full of them, especially as we close in on the Badlands. In Mitchell, we stop for gas and to see the Corn Palace which a friend told me is a “must see” on the trip. My brother Pat never bragged of the Corn Palace in his years spent blessing the Sioux.

My friend was right, of course. The Corn Palace is a must see if you must see an old gymnasium cum shopping mall with bits of corn stalk plastered about. The corn stalks are formed into interesting art work. It’s the kind of art you can imagine entering the imagination of a grower of corn who himself is planted in the maze of a million square miles of corn. We work with the tools we are given and corn is the tool of choice in South Dakota, the structure seems to say.

We did not build structures of corn in Pennsylvania. There we used native serpentine and granite along with wolf-proof brick brought over from England as ballast in Colonial days. We were a solid people, like bricks and rock, and not given to extravagances like corn palaces. We left extravagance to New Jersey folk who build Elephant houses along the ocean. But that is another story for another day.

Illinois folk are solid, too, yet growers of corn beyond Chicago. With Chicago as a solid lump in your northeast corner, you don’t need the extravagance of a corn palace. Yet in my mind, I see the corn farmers of a long ago Mitchell – perhaps old Mr. Mitchell himself – sharing liquid corn on a Saturday evening and dreaming their own dreams of a palace of corn.

With the Harley Davidsons headed to Sturgis, South Dakota, in their thousands, we realize Rapid City will not be the best choice for affordable sleeping arrangements. Nor will it offer a quiet place of rest. Instead, we stop for the night at the Rodeway Inn in Kadoka, South Dakota – the self-proclaimed “Gateway to the Badlands.” Here we dine on steak and buffalo, reminding us of us the transformation of this land where tremendous herds of buffalo beyond counting thundered through where now Harleys rumble through disturbing the peaceful pasture of horses and cows. In the morning I can’t get the darn shower to work.