Travelling across the country wasn’t just about places, it was about people too. We met so many different individuals that I need help from my family to remember them all! Our first real conversation took place in Niagara Falls with a very friendly lady from Pennsylvania; she was travelling with her husband and teenage son and daughter. We had found a snake in the rock ledge along the sidewalk and she stopped to talk about the raccoons that run around the city in broad daylight.
In DeSmet, South Dakota, I particularly appreciated our tour guide, a dark-haired, fair skinned, college-age girl, dressed in period clothing who taught us all about pioneer living.
While at the Badlands, we met a middle-aged husband and wife who had planned to drive cross-country on their motorcycle (wow) until the husband tore his rotator cuff; so they rented an RV instead.
The next day we walked around Devil’s Tower with a man retired from the military and his 10 year old daughter, Kirsten, who live in Virginia. Every summer the two of them hook up their camper and head out for 6 to 8 weeks on the road. His wife, employed in the defense industry, flies out to meet them at the place she most wants to see and stays for a couple weeks before returning to work. Christina and Kirsten, both 5th graders, really enjoyed chatting together as we circled the monolith. Kirsten and her dad (we never did learn his name) are quite the adventurers, from rock climbing to white water rafting, they do it all! We actually bumped into them several days later in Yellowstone and met Kirsten’s mom! (See a pic of Kirsten early on in the blog.)
One night, after arriving at a hotel in Gillette, Wyoming tired and hungry, the front desk clerk, who had all her family and friends visiting her on the couches in the lobby, baked a fresh batch of cookies for us! She’s at the top of our list of favorite front desk associates.
We had an interesting encounter in Yellowstone. A white haired gentleman saw our license plates and asked where in Connecticut we were from. Turns out he lived in Avon! (Read about him somewhere around day 7)
We also met an amiable man from Great Britain while waiting for Old Faithful to blow. He had travelled the U.S. to visit his brother in Oregon, was touring the northwest alone by car for a few weeks and then returning to Oregon to visit his niece – who, by the way, no longer speaks to her father (his brother) so he visits them separately. Ahh – family struggles abound everywhere, don’ t they?
That night our stocky, waiter, with crystal blue eyes, chestnut colored hair and full, yet perfectly trimmed beard served us a delicious meal and dessert ~ we later found out it was his restaurant. Looking for a good meal in Gardiner, Montana? Go to Rosie’s.
While stopped for construction in Nevada we got out of our cars (if you’ve read my previous blogs you will know that we were really stopped) and talked with the young couple that was parked (yes parked) behind us. They were relocating from Boston to Sacramento because the wife was beginning her medical residency at UC-Davis.
In San Francisco we shared a tour trolley with a kind, married couple and their son and daughter. They shared lots with us about the city and we eventually deduced that they were real estate agents. (The continual pricing of every house we drove by kinda gave it away.) Their four year old son would hardly look at me the whole trip, but after I gave him my blanket to keep warm (because someone had taken theirs) he developed a new fondness for me. I actually got an invite to his 5th birthday party, next January, on 17th street in San Francisco. Or was it 16th? I can’t wait 😉 Even got a high five as we were leaving the trolley!
I sat on a bench to rest at the base of General Sherman’s Tree in Sequoia National Park where I met an elderly woman who lost her husband last year. She shared with me that her travels were bittersweet because, while she was enjoying her family, she missed her husband with whom she took many cross country road trips. I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather who only lasted 4 short months after losing my grandma. This woman has been in my prayers.
In Disney, I met a hispanic grandmother and L.A. native who vowed she’ll never leave because that’s where her kids and grandkids live. Our conversation began when we moved over on the Disney Train so she could have a seat. “Wow. You guys are wonderful people! You moved over!” she practically hollered. Sometimes it really is the little things that matter. I learned she likes California weather but fears the earthquakes – and like most women, she loves her family.
In Phoenix, Doug was walking into a Wal-Mart and he said his classic, boisterous “Good Mornin!” to a middle-aged african-american woman as she passed by. “You ain’t from around here, are ya’?” she replied, “Most people around here treat me like I’m sh–!” Doug was a bit surprised but he finally said, “Nope, I’m from the northeast and most people actually say we’re unfriendly! You have a good day!” I don’ t think he’ll ever forget that exchange.
We drove along the ridge at the Grand Canyon and there we met an african-american man returned from a tour overseas and moving with his wife and daughter to a new base. They decided to make a vacation out of it and visited the Grand Canyon along the way. Turns out he’s originally from Windsor, CT; said he hadn’t seen a CT plate in a long time.
In Amarillo, Texas, we met Bob and his teenage granddaughter, Amber. The two of them were travelling from Oklahoma City to the Red River in Mexico to go fishing and then to Denver to visit his daughter. He shared so much with us – about sorrow for friends hurt in the Oklahoma City bombings to the joy of his granddaughter’s turnaround since changing schools to the pain of recently putting his wife in a nursing home. He and she had travelled together often. Oh how my heart goes out to him.
Sitting just behind us at the Grand Ole Opry were two very friendly, elderly couples. One of which had travelled cross-country by train in 1999. We loved listening to their stories and they, the lady especially, enjoyed watching Christina. She said she missed her grandkids back home in Kentucky.
There were many, many more people that we met. Others we just observed. From wealthy white-haired women in Rolls-Royce’s on Rodeo Drive to the middle-class vacationers everywhere to the homeless man we bought a newspaper from in Nashville, (If you have a minute google “The Contributor” a newspaper by the homeless in Nashville); from the farmers in Minnesota to the Amish couple driving their horse covered wagon in Wisconsin to the ranchers in Wyoming ; from the real estate broker in San Francisco to the man talking Christian apologetics with perfect strangers while waiting for a bus at the Grand Canyon to the retired couples at every stop to the struggling musicians in Music City. This is my America. This is your America. This is our America.
There is so much that divides us. Sometimes its the real mountains, rivers, oceans and deserts that keep us apart. Other times it’s money, class, jobs, religion or race and culture. Then there are the barriers we build ourselves – our opinions, judgements, politics or even our busy schedules. And we always have a few mountains that we pretend we don’t see so we don’t have to climb them – the emotional separations, the personal isolation, family divisions and damaged relationships.
While on this trip my girl’s kept telling me that they want to meet their “other” grandpa – my biological father. We were driving through Virginia, where he lives, after all. 31 years since he moved away and made a new family, 9000 miles around the country and I still couldn’t bring myself to climb that mountain.
Even at the best of times, we will find something to divide us. I believe that’s just human nature. But as I travelled along roads built from coast to coast, highways that cut through cities and farmland, traversing deserts and mountains, bridges and tunnels to cross rivers and even the ocean, I thought about those things that connect us all: our passion for family, a love for freedom and liberty, a desire to succeed, a loyalty to our country, a need to be loved unconditionally, a longing for peace, security and a place to call home, a hope for a future and a yearning for something more than this…for meaning or purpose.
Connecting the American landscape was no easy task. Think of the years of back-breaking work it took to lay the trancontinental railroad, the lives lost building the GW bridge or the billions of gallons of asphalt that made our summer vacation possible. But somewhere, somebody had a vision of a country, a people, even a world, connected – despite our differences.
Where is that vision today? In America? In your neighborhood? Your church? Your family? I am talking to myself here, too. I mean, we never went to see my biological father. Even after a couple years of talking on the phone, I am not ready to see him or let him into the lives of my children. I’m not saying I want to turn around, but maybe some canyons are too wide to jump across – sometimes we need to stop and take time to build a bridge.