Tag Archives: Road Trips

The Distance

6 Oct

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“It isn’t what’s left to do at the end, it’s the things left unfinished along the way.”                                                     — Deadwood, by Pete Dexter

Driving in darkness, I hug the road as it rises and falls through the night.  We plunge downward and as trees blow past, I am in a mountain pass, my mind creating walls that can’t possibly exist, for this is Wisconsin, and surely we are surrounded by farmland.  But the road tells a different story.  Veering right, my headlights glare off the window of a small cabin before sweeping back to the asphalt, trees, and the staccato white line I desperately try to follow. Tired, I flash my brights whenever possible, scanning for those little bounces of light along the roadside.  Because the deer are out there, and tonight they’re feeling lucky.

*     *     *

When we were kids, my siblings and I would occasionally find mom face down on the laundry room floor.  Familiar with the situation, we would stand around her.

“Mom?  Mom?  We know you’re joking mom. Mom?  Come on, mom, get up.”

And still, she would remain motionless, to all appearances having suffered some sudden cardiac episode.  This would continue until someone’s voice took on an edge of panic, and then her body would begin to quiver, the movement growing ever more convulsive, until, finally, we’d realize she was laughing.  Releasing the sound as she got to her feet, she’d laugh so hard tears would come to her eyes.  And while down through the years this story has been met with universal horror, it’s always made me proud.  Even at a very young age, when it came to death, no babies we.

 *     *     *

Having eluded the deer, and found our hotel, we continue on the next morning, refreshed.  Unable to find a diner in downtown Janesville, we settle for a chain restaurant out by the highway, the kind of place where the portions are huge, but it seems they occasionally run soup through the coffee maker.

Chicago is Chicago.  Rain, road construction and the slow tide of humanity crawling down through the northwest suburbs, past the rusty overpasses and the neighborhoods of my youth.  Occasionally I miss it.  There’s no better place to make friends, and of course it gave me Amy.  But nevertheless, Chicago and I never warmed to each other.

Back on familiar ground, we fly.  The Skyway, Gary, and around the lake into Michigan.  That great gray swath of the world where the steel plants have been silenced but the smoke never seems to go away.  Cars, campers, exits and boats; a great world of motion that always seems to be going fishing.

And then we’re at Mom’s house.  A quick repacking, hiking boots and dirty clothes boxed up to be dropped in the mail, and off to the airport.  But even before I reach the counter, they tell me my flight has been canceled.  The storms, currently raging over Lake Michigan, have followed us all the way from South Dakota.  There will be no flight home tonight.

 *     *     *

When my father died I was not nearly so well prepared as I’d imagined.  It effected me in ways I still don’t understand.  I know it created a distance.  A safety zone, as it were, from the people I love.  My kids have chopped this down a bit by simply refusing to recognize it.  And Amy, trail-blazer that she is, has grown familiar with the terrain, and is willing to cross it when I cannot.  But my mom, my sister and my brothers are still out there, loved, but at the distance they were placed by a fourteen year old who could not bear another loss.  Each of us, in our ways, living these past 38 years with slowly mending hearts.

But we’re not alone.

From the unexpected death of Amy’s father, which started this journey, to friends along the way, and their stories of prairie wind, blinding snow, and the sudden loss of the people they’d thought to spend the rest of their lives with, we are not alone.  From the families of others, further back, buried beneath the mud of a collapsing dam, to the loved ones of those lost in the violence of a place and time that valued gold above human life, we are not alone.  And with the stories of a family who struggled, built a life, and died, leaving quiet houses, a few gravestones and the fields they worked, we are not alone.

*      *     *

You know when you drink a lot of coffee in the morning, and about an hour, hour and a half later you really need to go to the bathroom?  You know what that’s called?  Prostate cancer.  — Lesson from my mother

Our first days on the road, I was struck by her calm assurance.  Like a bird aloft in strong winds, her mind, of late, had seemed unable to settle and find rest.  But the woman beside me was different.  Seemingly free of worry, she was less a mother, and more a friend.  The comfort of her presence was palpable.  The ways in which we are alike, and the simple pleasures we share, brought days of quiet enjoyment.

But on our return the serenity slipped away.  When I pointed this out, she replied, “Well that’s normal.  To return home is to return to your worries.”  Which I understand, but can’t agree with.  Home is a refuge.  I struggle to make it so.  Where did I learn this if not from her?

*     *     *

It had rained, and the cabbie splashed along the quiet streets of my neighborhood.  He was chatty, which I enjoyed.  I love how easily people talk here.  If the best journeys bring you home, I was glad of his company these final few blocks.

He pulled up to the curb, and as I grabbed my bags I looked up at our house.  Not a worry in sight.

 *     *     *

A few weeks later, in response to something I posted on my wedding anniversary, my mother writes:  “I feel your love for each other when ever I am around you!”

Pleased, I think of Amy, and the gentle chaos that is our life; of Hallie, and the feeling I get when she sleeps across my chest, and of Heath, and how my love for him seems to never stop growing.   Then I write, “When it comes to love, I had two very good teachers.”  And, by just a bit, I feel the distance close.
Todd 4 folks 2

Little Town

18 Sep

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I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.  — Laura Ingalls Wilder

Morning comes early, and South Dakota is empty.  Pull off on the side of the road, stand in the middle and take all the pictures you like.  No cars to the east and none to the west.  Just the sky, luminous and new.  But I’m hungry, and the diners are not leaping out at us.  Few people means even fewer restaurants and on this crack of dawn Sunday morning they are hiding themselves well.

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Thank god for Huron, home of the worlds largest pheasant, behind which Mom clocks a combined bowling alley/VFW hall with a little clump of cars parked out front.

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The Plains Dining & Recreation Center, whose breakfast menu includes The Haystack, The Hot One and of course, Klazy Eggs.  My diner instincts are good, but Mom’s the master, and sometimes the best cup of coffee is the only one you can find.

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A few miles further along we come to De Smet, South Dakota and the home of Laura Ingall’s Wilder.  The family’s final home, De Smet is the setting for Little Town on the Praire, The Long Winter, and These Happy Golden Years.  The house they rented upon their arrival is getting a new coat of paint this morning.

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While a couple streets away the house Pa eventually built stands quietly amidst more contemporary neighbors.

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But the land they homesteaded, just outside of town, is breathtaking.


A memorial to the family and their times, it has a quiet dignity and a strong sense of the beauty to be found in everyday things.


And the world they exist in.

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The Graveyard is not far, and we stop for a few minutes.

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We’re quiet, separating to explore.  The wind rustles the leaves, and after a time I follow Mom up the hill where we look beyond the graves to the surrounding farms.  And then, remembering the distance before us, we get back on the road, heading across Minnesota and into Wisconsin, where dinner is waiting with family of our own.

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24 Aug

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Keep a fire burning in your eyes, pay attention to the open skies, you never know what will be coming down  —  Jackson Browne

Leaving the Occidental early,  we share the morning with some of the gentleman I’d seen the night before.  White haired all, they gas up their bikes as we fill mom’s car, and then drive off ahead of us into the fierce morning light, a vision of what aging should be.


Sailing along at a legal 80 mph, we pull off in Gillette, Wyoming for a quick breakfast at Lula Belle’s, downtown across from the rail yards.  Crowded, Lula Belle’s sports more than it’s fair share of big men with crazy beards; grizzled is not a look that’s shied away from.

A woman at the counter is doing a fair impression of late career Liz Taylor on a four day bender.  With jet black hair going in no certain direction and hand-drawn eyebrows, she is smoking hard and keeping a keen eye on me.  Apparently, I’m up to no good.

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We have a short day in front of us, the only plans being a drive through the Badlands.  But looking at the map, Mom notices Deadwood.

“Let’s stop.  Chuck and I stopped there once.  You’ll like it.”

So we exit and drive seven miles south along Whitewood Creek, into a narrow valley.  It’s crowded.  With motorcycles.

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It turns out that the next town over is Sturgis, and every year they have this little motorcycle gathering.  Today is the 75th anniversary.

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Bikers and cowboys seem to go together, but while their ancestors may have been soldiers, gamblers and gunfighters, the biker spirit seems to have gentled over the decades.  An amiable bunch with a taste for freedom and the wind in their hair, they also have a fine appreciation for fashion.

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I love a good bar, none of which, interestingly, seem to exist in this town whose legend is based largely on saloons. Wild Bill Hickok took a bullet to the head while playing poker in Nuttal & Mann’s No. 10 Saloon, which existed in the space now inhabited by this completely different saloon, which, nonetheless, continues to work hard making money off the dead man’s spirit.

DSC_0214 (2)Tiring of the noise and hucksterism, and just when I thought our homage had been paid, Mom decides we need an old-timey portrait.  Looking at the photographs lining the walls, I note the popularity of nearly naked biker chicks sprawling across Harleys, or wrapping themselves in the American flag, but mom’s looking for more of a “Little House on the Prairie” kind of thing.  Not sure where this leaves me, I go for the duster and the cropped Tom Petty top hat.  Combined with the 2 day beard and the guns they shove into my hands, the end product is more like Ma Ingalls and her son who returned from the Civil War not quite right.

Finally, with little in the way of gun play, we make our escape.

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My spirit lightens as we leave the valley.  After a time, the Badlands begin to appear.

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Seemingly out of nowhere.

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Stopping at a scenic overlook, I hear someone say, “Do you want me to take your picture?”

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It’s Christie, who, with Eric, has traveled all the way from Philadelphia to Sturgis to take part in the festivities.  It’s their first time.  Like us, they’re heading home


Picking up 14 East, the light begins to fade.

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The sky changes minute by minute.  Severe thunderstorms are coming in from the northwest.

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We do our best to stay ahead of them, wondering about Christie, Eric, and everyone else making their way home from Sturgis this afternoon.

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The sky to the east is clear before us, but we make it to Pierre only minutes before the rain, and are just settling in as the drops begin to fall.

Gullies, Ravines and the Clear Creek

19 Aug

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 The women and children ran down the Little Bighorn river a short distance into a ravine. The soldiers set fire to the lodges. All the Sioux now charged the soldiers and drove them in confusion across the Little Bighorn river, which was very rapid, and several soldiers were drowned in it. On a hill the soldiers stopped and the Sioux surrounded them.   — An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse, recorded at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881

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Goodbyes to Jetta, who was up at 4:30am to make us breakfast.  Sliding through the misty fields and into the woods, deer are everywhere.


And then the land begins to shift.  Rocky outcrops are replaced by gently rolling hills.  Signs for the Little Bighorn National Monument appear, and so we stop.  A native american park ranger takes our money, and making our way past the motorcycles and RVs, we come to a visitor center with a hill above, and a valley below.

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The tree line in the distance marks the village where several tribes were gathered.  The trail wending its way down is dotted with white stones, and as I follow it toward the river, and the small grassy hills rise around me, I see what a hellish vengeance this must have been. DSC_0045 (2)

Gullies and ravines all around, and nothing visible until it’s too close to outrun.

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Backing up to the high ground is the obvious maneuver, but by then it was too late.  The tribes had outflanked Custer and his men.  Native accounts note that the whole battle took no longer than the eating of a good breakfast.

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In the late afternoon we arrive at the Occidental Hotel.  Established just three years later in 1879 by Charles Buell of Wisconsin, the Occidental began as a tent set up along the Clear Creek in a settlement that would grow to be Buffalo, Wyoming.  A hole in the ground served as the community’s first bank, a safe place to store the gold dug from the hills Custer was charged with clearing of “hostiles.”

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Eastern European exchange students in flannel shirts and cowboy hats rush out to help mom with her luggage.  A bearded gentleman in a rocking chair out front says, “I hope you have a reservation, because she just flipped the sign.”  I assure him we do, and he smiles, “I just didn’t want you unloading those bags for nothing.”

It’s a nice place, but it walks a fine line.  The history is palpable, but pretty.  Building fortunes was a grubby business.

Exhausted, but having come a long way to see the saloon next door, I say goodnight to Mom and head downstairs.  I’ll poke my head in.  If it’s too crowded or doesn’t feel right, I’ll bail.

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Crowded it is, and looking to see what’s on tap I lose the last seats at the bar to a couple of burly gentleman with great teeth, nice tans and some very clean leathers.  The black fringe is immaculate.  The ghosts of Generals Sheridan and Crook, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane are definitely about, but at the moment their presence is not obvious.  Teddy Roosevelt’s here though.  Making up in zeal what he lacks in authenticity, he fits right in with all the wannabe cowboys.

Failing to get the bartender’s attention, I’m about to leave when I realize that I am listening to one ripping version of “Ring of Fire.”  I take seat at a table and hope the waitress can find me.

“We play old songs, cause basically we’re a couple of old farts,” says the lead guitarist, before leaping back into things with Merle Haggard.

As my beer hits the table, they call up Frederick to join them on piano.  In his pinstripe shirt and pastel shorts, he skews the aesthetic a bit.  But once he starts playing, it matters not.  Over a hard driving acoustic rhythm and the electric guitarist’s walking bass and gentle fills, Frederick coaxes some subtle, Floyd Cramer style piano chords out of the old honky tonk upright, and thinking that we’re heading back down to Nashville it takes me a moment to recognize the song.  “Main Street,” by Bob Seger.  Sweetest version I’ve ever heard.

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The locals walk straight through the place as if the tourists don’t exist, holing up in the back room with the pool table and the stuffed bear.

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The couple to my right relax and take it all in.   “There’s so much history in this room,” I hear him say.

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The boys wind things down with “Pancho and Lefty,” and then one lone couple takes the floor for the final song.  Awkward at first, they warm into each other.

But darling this time
Let your memories die
When you hold me tonight
Don’t close your eyes*

And all of us wannabe cowboys finish up our beers and head on home.

Occidental Hotel, 1902

Occidental Hotel, 1902

* Don’t Close Your Eyes by Keith Whitley


15 Aug

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WEST GLACIER – Officials at Glacier National Park announced Friday morning that the east side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road has been re-opened to vehicles.  The road had been closed due to the Reynolds Creek Fire that has burned an estimated 3,913 acres several miles east of Logan Pass.

I had noticed my eyes burning two days earlier and a hundred miles to the east, and yesterday the mountains before us had been shadowed in a haze.  But today the air at Logan Pass is clear.

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With only one entrance to Glacier National Park open, we leave early to beat the crowds.  Climbing thirty miles on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, we arrive at the pass shortly after 8:00am.

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Open only from May through October, the pass crosses the Continental Divide, has known wind speeds of 139 mph and can be buried beneath eighty feet of snow.  Hard to believe as we make our way through the stillness of the morning.

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Although much better since she’s started walking, stairs are tough for mom, and these are big steps at a high altitude.  She soon finds herself out of breath, and insists that Jetta and I go on without her.  She will sit and rest, and then catch up with us in her own time.

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So we continue on, passing chipmunks, marmots, Mountain goats and a warning that we are entering Grizzly bear territory.  Jetta meets a young man, a friend of friends, who is getting married later that day.  They chat for a time and then, with an amazing lightness, he takes off at a dead run to catch up with his family, heading further up the trail and disappearing over the ridge in a matter of seconds.

Having reached our destination, we turn back to see how mom’s doing.  But she appears just a few minutes later, smiling, her borrowed hat flapping in the wind.

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“How far did you go?”

I point to a large rock in the distance and she takes off, shouting over her shoulder “I want to go as far as everybody else.”

And she does.

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8 Aug


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From her house on house on Echo Lake outside of Big Fork, Montana, mom’s friend Jetta takes us the next morning to meet her friends.

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Today they are hiking at Wayfarer State Park.  Karine and Julie,

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Mom, Jetta and Karen.

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But there’s more than hiking.  There is an ease and a joy.

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Glen helps us with our route, and as I learn more about them all, I find I have misjudged everyone’s age by about 15 years.

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In the afternoon, we go kayaking, something I never thought I’d do with my mom.

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She continues to surprise me.


Water, Land & Sky

7 Aug


One man was killed and seven others were missing and believed dead Thursday night after millions of yards of dirt and rocks slid down the upstream side of the east abutment of the giant Fort Peck dam across the Missouri river here.  —  The Billings Gazette, Montana September 23, 1938


It’s very quiet up on the Fort Peck Dam this early morning.  Five miles of earthen wall holding back the Missouri.

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The building of the dam made the first issue of Life Magazine in 1936, and Franklin Roosevelt came to visit, the work on this dusty prairie a symbol of all that was to be.

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Seventeen miles down the road is Glasgow, shown in Life as a town of dance halls and saloons where the workers could blow off a little steam.

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“Morning,” says a bearded man stepping carefully onto the sidewalk.  “Nice day.  I wore my medium flannel and it’s already warm.”  I agreed it was warm and he blessed me as his dog sniffed my shoes and continued on.


Eighty years on, the stretch of bars and casinos across from the old railway depot is little changed.

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Further down Route 2 we stopped for breakfast.


Two freight trains went by as we ate.  Forest fires on the news.  A group of bikers came in and the owner moved them to the back to make way for the seniors breakfast that was about to start at the round table up front.  H.D. was on the stool when we arrived, and he was still there when we left.


We made a U-Turn for the Dinosaur Museum.  Souvenirs, an explanation of ammonites, and a couple free dinosaur bones from the archeologist on staff.  They were so sweet I left with a smile.

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The mountains shadowed us for most of the day.  Ghosts on the horizon, coming and going, first to the south, and then later to the north.  West of Shelby they became real, and shortly thereafter we began to ascend.  With my mother sucking in air and reminding me of the speed limit for every approaching curve, Marias Pass was like the most beautiful airplane turbulence I’d ever experienced.  But the air, a lush, clean mélange of balsam, cedar and pine was gentle and delicious.  I just kept thinking, “I want to smell like that. ”

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Arriving in West Glacier, the road leveled out and we continued on to our destination, always within sight of what we had just passed through.

The Color of Wheat

5 Aug


“Is this hotel really haunted?” 

“Oh yes.  But just the third floor.  We keep it locked”

Fort Peck Hotel, August 3rd 2015


The morning came early, as promised.  Apologies to Grand Forks.  As wonderful as you probably are, we blew right past you in exhaustion, only to land in a convention center/hotel/condo gulag  to your southwest.  Your sunrise the next morning was, nevertheless, gorgeous.


The morning  sun across the fields is spectacular, teaching me the beauty of grass against wheat against sky.  It becomes clear to me for the first time that great artists learn about color from nature, not a textbook.


And so we keep pulling over to the side of the road and stepping into the morning wind.


And walking through the quiet towns.


We hear the train before we see it, and rush to tracks where we see nothing in either direction.  Getting back into the car we hear it again, closer this time, and we run back.  Still nothing. “Maybe there’s another set of tracks,’ I say.  And then it’s there, coming fast out of the east.


The combination of empty roads, great speed limits and a time zone crossing that works in our favor, allows us to arrive early in Fort Peck, Montana.  A town built from nothing by the WPA to house the men working on the Fort Peck Dam, we are booked into the former workers lodge, now the Fort Peck Hotel.


Beaver pelts, moose heads, a wolf skin and more stuffed birds than I can count, with a bar in the lobby, it is everything I hoped for.DSC_0708

Built on a hill, there’s a loneliness to the town.


And though the it fills up for the afternoon performance of Tarzan, The Musical at this gorgeous theatre rebuilt by volunteers from the movie theatre built for the dam workers back in the ’30s, it is quiet again by dusk.


An island of homes in a sea of sagebrush.


Dark Clouds, Blue Water

1 Aug


She looked at that buck and said “I would love to shoot you,” and, you know, he looked back at her like he understood.  —Conversation overheard this morning Char’s Café, Bruce’s Crossing, Michigan

Leaving New York in the darkness, the quiet morning streets of my neighborhood are like that frayed old blanket that you love for its warmth and comfort.  The flight gets off late, but travels fast through a morning sky of dirty clouds.  Smoky hobgoblins hang in the distant gray.  Chicago bristles in the gloom, the dark buildings flipping me off as I fly past.

Connection made in time for the short hop back over the Lake and into the sun.  Lunch with my brother and we hit the road.  The first gas station we stop at has a live bait refrigerator.  Michigan.


Nine miles into the U.P. we hit a long stretch of route 2 along the northern edge of Lake Michigan and pull over so I can wade into the water.  I climb back into the car and mom pulls back into traffic, the wind hitting my arms, the sand on my feet not yet dry.


Joyously empty roads and a sun that doesn’t want to set, the U.P. is magic.  Like stepping back in time to when there weren’t so many of us,  and the world not quite so damaged.  Mom and Pop motels and motor courts abound.  Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert could be just around the next bend in the road.


Diner Breakfast, followed by a completely unnecessary bakery stop.  Cinnamon rolls and Blueberry turnovers.


Judy Garland’s birthplace, just because.


Abandoned liquor store in Crookston, Minnesota.  At the other end of town mom sees a house from a dream. “I kept trying to buy it” she says.

And there’s talk, lots of talk.  More in the morning when we’re fresh, less as we grow tired.  But these conversations are marked by their ease,  for at this point the road seems long, and our time together endless.

And now I must sleep, for tomorrow we cross North Dakota and on into eastern Montana and Mom wants to be on the road by 6:00am.  Luckily, I’ve booked us into a lodge with a bar.  I can already taste the beer.



Road Trip

29 Jul

Todd 4 folks 2 Mom and Dad, 1967

When I was four years old my mother gave me my first camera.  It was made of plastic and took 120 mm film, which I had to mail off along with a small amount cash to have developed.  Later that year we took our first family vacation, driving from Michigan to New England.  It was there I took these pictures.

Todd 5 Cape Cod

Cape Cod

Todd 2 docks

My Mom and little brother David at The Mayflower

Todd 6 Kennedy's Grave

Kennedy’s grave

When Amy’s father passed this spring, I was talking to my mom and she mentioned that she had planned a trip to Montana, but her friend had backed out because she didn’t want to drive.  She thought it would be boring.  Mom disagreed.  She wanted to get out on the back roads, eat at little diners, see something of the country.  But she didn’t want to go alone

“Wow,  I should go with you.”

“Oh that would be great.  Would you?”

Um… I would.

So, this coming Friday I fly to Michigan and we hit the road.  I have a new camera, and hopefully some time to write.  So I’ll be posting on the fly, doing my best to keep you all informed.

I have not spent this much time with my mom in 35 years, and though I’m looking forward to it, I already miss my family.  And both the world and my mother are far from predictable.

So check in frequently, keep me in your thoughts, and prayers would not be turned away.