Driving through Iowa, 20 Questions becomes a hateful game.
Me: “Okay, question one. Go!”
Ashley: “Is it corn?”
Years ago, I read Kerouac’s On the Road. Maybe, I was too young for it. Maybe, like Thoreau’s Walden and Ginsberg’s Howl, I had expected too much—as though these authors had discovered a mystical ordering of the mundane English syntax that would, upon reading, simultaneously invoke awe, orgasm, and inner-peace. One over-arching aspect of On the Road stuck, however. Travel, exploration, and experimentation are all interconnected elements of maturation.
With typical 20-something aimlessness and Kerouac’s narrative fresh on my mind, I left my Alabama life in the summer of 2011 to return to my childhood home and the purportedly recession-proof job market of Houston, Texas, via a 3300+ mile detour through North Dakota.
In Minneapolis, Ashley and I rode roller coasters in the Mall of America. I helped her unpack her new apartment.
Ashley: “You can stay here with me.”
I drove west through North Dakota to Mandan and camped in nearby Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park on the western banks of a thin bend of the Missouri River and its confluence with the Heart River. I fell for the Almost-Canada Midwest—her big skies and countless lakes that speckle the prairie.
Me: “Nobody ever wants to visit North Dakota but nobody talks about all the lakes. I’d market that.”
Park Ranger: “Lakes? Oh… Ha! Those are just flooded fields. We’ve had a lot of rain lately.”
That evening, the sunset blazed gold, a wild fuchsia, and then violet before being extinguished behind grassy, rolling plains like swollen waves in the gray ocean. No one ever wants to visit North Dakota. I’d market sunsets.
Beneath the shadow of Devils Tower, in the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming, I mingled with black-tailed prairie dogs and became acquainted with a pine that I had never met before.
Park Ranger: “It’s just ponderosa.”
I must have cut a laughable shape—measuring, photographing, and generally scrutinizing the magnificent honey-tinted bark, so alien compared to the long-leaf, short-leaf, and loblolly I had known back east. Of course it’s ponderosa, I thought. Yet, nothing is mere, only, or “just” about ponderosa pine.
I pitched camp across the South Dakota border in Black Hills National Forest. The campground host and I talked of the few but worthwhile work-stay opportunities with federal, state, and private parks, forests, and campgrounds. I began to see my life unfold in thick forests along lonely roads.
Under-outfitted, I retreated on a rainy day in mid-August that peaked at 56˚F.
There’s something asinine about trying to “improve” nature by blasting the likenesses of our nation’s canonized political heroes into a mountainside, like some Euro-American totem pole. Mount Rushmore is well worth visiting, anyway. Sitting on my tailgate in the parking garage, I ate ham and cheddar on wheat and jested with a gang of middle-aged Harley Davidson enthusiasts—the kindest folk on the road.
Twenty-three road-miles southwest, in Custer County, South Dakota, a stone-carved face (larger than the Presidents of Mount Rushmore) glowered over the prairie. It’s meant to represent Crazy Horse—far from finished, then in its 63rd year of construction.
In Wind Cave National Park, I photographed bison. From afar, silhouetted against the treeless horizon, they looked like lawn decorations of their own likenesses. Only the twitch of an ear or the sweep of a tail betrayed life before I was immediately upon them. I jumped a mini-van with a drained battery and asked the father of the family within to pay-it-forward.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site closed at 5:00 pm sharp. I arrived at 5:07. Even from the gates, the clay, volcanic ash, and sandstone pillar that rises 300 feet over blacktop-flat Nebraska demanded attention. I snapped a few blurry photos with sunflowers in the foreground for “perspective.”
Driving toward Kansas, somewhere near the I-80 / I-76 junction, a sign for Denver beckoned that I turn toward Colorado. My funds were scarce—a slack leash now taut.
The first 20-minutes-or-so of The Wizard of Oz is a faithful representation of Kansas.
I spent my last days on the road in southern Oklahoma near I-35, calculating my chances of making it home on my dwindling checking account. Fate to the wind, I splurged on a room in a dingy, one-story motel north of the border from Denton and savored my first real shower in weeks. Roadside sponge baths do the job but that infinite cascade of warm water, though really a trickle from a rusty faucet, soothed the nerves. I slept late and missed the sunrise. I ate buttered toast and a boiled egg with an 18-wheel diva and the wiry front-desk clerk, who was a bit of a diva himself. He talked of returning home to a suburb near New Orleans.
I drove straight through I-35 to I-45 to Houston.
Student loans and TA stipend depleted, I limped to the yellow-brick home where I had learned how to ride a bike, throw and catch a baseball, grill a steak, wash my own laundry, and drive a car. I parked my pickup in the driveway. Arms limp, dangling from the steering wheel, I thought of the man who had taught me those things and had left the little pickup that had carried me across America.
My father’s obituary, like most (if not all) obituaries, can be summarized as follows:
Charles H. Chadwick was born and then died. Sometime in between, he fought in Vietnam and married his wife. He was survived by various relatives.
Beginnings and endings. Too often, we mumble-over the seemingly humdrum journey—a long and well-traveled road with pit-stops at the popular attractions—to accentuate those first and final lines: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And that has made all the difference.”
My father’s obituary should have read something like this:
Charley Chadwick cooked excellent vegetable soup. His secret: chuck roast.
His favorite t-shirt had a photograph of his granddaughter printed on the chest. He drank his coffee black and by the pint (from a mug with a photograph of his granddaughter on it).
He never missed football games, band gigs, dance recitals, or drill team performances. He was his older brother’s lifelong best friend. He jarred pickled shrimp with his mother.
A Tide fan, Charley made a life, for 38 years, with his War-Damn-Eagle bride in a home that was only divided during the Iron Bowl.
He battled multiple-sclerosis and often volunteered to support the bicyclists in the MS 150 charity ride for a cure from Houston to Austin.
He had a youthful, chipped-toothed smile.
He loved duck hunting, cheap/cold beer, Labrador Retrievers, fat house cats who’ll share his ice cream, and, most of all, good people.
He was not ready to go.
For the first time, Dad did not await.
The house settled, still and empty.