Karen and I have decided to test our friendship with Bob and Sheila Martin. The four of us are traveling in a Minnie Winnie RV. Our adventure will take us past Mount Rushmore and the Badlands before turning back south through Yellowstone and Colorado. We spent our first night near Grand Island Nebraska at a KOA.
As usual, when we travel, we meet folks and we hear stories and tell stories. And we belly laugh. It feels good to lose yourself in laughter and stories. I’ll try to share a few here as we travel.
Traveling through rarely visited states reminds me of when Karen and I first moved to New Jersey. When my New Jersey friends discovered that I hailed from Oklahoma, they would ask, “Are there Indians still running around in Oklahoma?,” as if I had grown up in a John Ford western shooting pistols from the hip. It struck me as odd because I saw remnants of indigenous peoples in New Jersey names. My wife went to Shawnee high school and my favorite convenience store, Wawa, is taken from the Ojibwe word for Canadian goose from the Song of Hiawatha.
In early America, Native American Indians, when presented with legal documents that said the white man now owned the land, had this simple response: “If this is your land, tell me your stories.”
We’ve become more ennobled by the legal deed to the land than the story of our soul, we’ve become familiar squatters, no longer strangers and nomads, abiding by what we can tally in our retirement accounts and the property and stuff we call our own. We have lost our unique sense that we are strangers in a strange land.
And so I will try to tell a story or two as a stranger in a strange Winnebago. We sat around a campfire at a very crowded KOA in Nebraska and our neighbor from Lincoln wandered past. His Ford F-150 is pockmarked by baseball size hail which he tells us got him a $19,000 discount on the otherwise shiny blue truck. His daughter is playing in a softball tournament tomorrow and we discuss positions and the things parents talk of when talking about their children and sports.
Sheila makes us think even as we protest. She bought each of us a book called, Burn after Writing or BAW. We are handwriting answers to the deep and the mundane…My earliest memory …As a child I dreamed of becoming…Posters I had on my wall growing up
There is corn and sky and land and tractors in western Nebraska. The land has been shaped and cultivated by strangers in a strange land, like me, mostly Germans and Czechs and Swedes and Danes.
But long before the white people came, the Omaha, Winnebago, Ponca, Iowa, Santee Sioux roamed these prairies we are driving through now. Ironically, we are driving in a Winnebago.
Traveling with Bob is challenging. When he eats a twizzler, I’m compelled to match him. I may become pre-diabetic just from this trip. In the fading twilight of our campfire, Sheila confesses something amazing about her love for Bob and why he can consume an entire package of twizzlers. At least to our ears it begins romantically but detours 180 degrees to the sublimely comical. “Bob has the most amazing pancreas.”
We talked about family tonight and much of the talk wasn’t about children but rather our parents. We see our friends parents in a different light just as our friends see our parents with nuance and a generosity we often fail to muster. Our parents were tough and they find themselves aging into a world they find stranger by the day. And so we listen to stories about two men named Marshall, and Katherine, Shelby, Thom, Anne, Terrel and Charlotte. Karen recalls a camping trip in the rain and her Dad rousing the family from sleeping bags at 3:00 am to dig a trench around the tent.
We smell like hickory smoke from the fire. It’s quiet, hardly a sound in camp, surrounded by campers and tents and a crescent moon shining through the trees. Somehow it is peaceful and I think back to my childhood days of summer camp with frogs and crickets singing a days-end lullaby.
Karen says, “I can’t see you doing this.” I ask her what she means and she says living the RV life. And I agree with her. But for now, sitting in this grove of elm trees in southern Nebraska and listening to the fire crackle, I’m happy. See you tomorrow in South Dakota.