Karen and I decided to do something this summer that we had never done before. We rented an RV and drove through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Colorado with our friends Bob & Sheila. Why? Perhaps this western wandering was a grasping after the nomadic ideal, a searching after stories about the land and of the people. For our friends, it was simply a way to gauge their interest in purchasing an RV. So we embarked on a seven day whirlwind tour of these western states.
We sat around a campfire at a KOA in Nebraska and a man stopped to chat. His Ford pickup is pockmarked by baseball-sized 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 nearby. We sit around our campfire and I imagine Native Americans living here. Long before white people came, the Omaha, Winnebago, Ponca, Iowa, and Santee Sioux roamed these prairies. Now, we drive our decidedly ironic Winnebago through these Badlands. My friend Bob binges twizzlers while he drives and I am compelled to match him twizzler for twizzler. In the fading glow of our campfire, Sheila confesses something amazing about her love for Bob and why he can consume an entire package of twizzlers. It begins romantically but detours 180 degrees to the comically sublime. “Bob has the most amazing…pancreas!”
Smoke clings to our hair and clothes and I remember summer camp with frogs and crickets singing a night time lullaby. This land is remarkable and vast. RV traveling magnifies our freedom and our constraints. We are free to roam and yet constrained. Monitoring our power usage, our waste, our gasoline, our water. What must Lewis and Clark have thought about these plains and mountains and streams purchased from the French for 3 cents per acre for the “preemptive” right to obtain Indian lands by treaty or by conquest, to the exclusion of other colonial powers?
Just a stone throw from Spear Fish, SD, I’m channeling my inner Lewis and Clark, showering in full view of the prairie dogs. A few miles east of Livingston, Montana we stay at a place called Big Timber. I feel at home in the trees, alive and free, yet small and inconsequential all at once. We couldn’t pass up Old Faithful and I wonder while watching and waiting, if the geyser will let us down finally and we can say we were there when the geyser was unfaithful. I wondered who had come to this spot long before me. Kiowa, Blackfeet, Cayuse, and Shoshone traveled these same Yellowstone trails. They visited geysers, conducted ceremonies, hunted, gathered minerals, as well as obsidian, which they used to field dress bison.
I insisted that we stop at Wall Drug in South Dakota where I discovered a melt-in-your-mouth maple donut. There is a parking lot near main street with a long row of Tesla charging stations with several Tesla cars tethered and charging. I wonder how far it is to the next station. Fifty years ago I walked through Wall Drug. It’s changed now, as am I. How am I different from fifty years ago? Where to even begin. And yet I am still that same child in many ways. What makes us the same person as our childhood self despite a lifetime of change? All these places I saw once in my youth are still here and are remarkable. And yet our country has changed so much during the past fifty years just like me. But the roots of our country and the child within us still connect our present self to what once was.
We stood gazing at the Tetons with a Delta airline pilot from Seattle. He bought a forty acre farm down in the valley to the west in Idaho. His wife teaches special education and they have three children. They will move from Seattle and live in this peaceful country we see stretching below us like a patchwork quilt of amber and green. We talk about his hometown of Pittsburgh and his grandfather who once played golf with Arnold Palmer in nearby Latrobe. And we stare at the blue-gray granite peak of Grand Teton in this sanctuary of grandeur. And I thought of Simone Weil who wrote, “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality.” Wandering out west on this RV adventure was about that reality, and not only the overflowing wonder of what we observed in nature, but the everyday solidarity of people sharing a life closer to the earth.
I often think of myself in Wendell Berry’s phrase, “As a young man with unforeseen debilities.” Time is neither young or old, but simply new always. As we travel I understand this. We get up each day wondering where we are and where we came from and where we will go. We eventually settle in for the evening camp and we talk until the stars light up like magic. As we tell stories I think of my grown children. I miss them and am astonished at how I love them so deeply, and my wife, almost as old as me, I love as I loved young. And this land that I loved young, I love more deeply now. Seeing it anew, I am changed, I am grateful.