Monday, November 25, 2013
The roads home
I was eight years old when we first took Hwy 16 west to LaCrosse and the bottom tier of Minnesota counties. We were going west, Mom and Dad and all three kids. At Niagara Cave, somewhere in the hills along the Mississippi, I first heard those goofy words stalagtite and stalagmite, and saw 'em. Somewhere on that road my dad put me on a stuffed pinto pony, then snapped a picture of his little cowboy, a picture I remember and wish I still had.
Years later, I remember the twisting roads coming up and out of the river valley, hairpin turns almost elegant in design out in front of a carful of college kids who would finally emerge atop the spacious mesa we call prairie, a flat and verdant land that runs as if forever from the southeast corner of Minnesota right up to the Rockies.
Hwy 16 got sectioned not long after I started college, replaced intermittantly by hefty, four-lane segments of I-90, until finally, sometime after my senior year, dozens and dozens of trips east and west, the old two-laner disappeared. At least we stopped taking it. I-90 made those treacherous Mississippi hills into easy slide down to the river and a long, slow grade back up. The new interstate ended whistlestops in a couple dozen small towns and multiplied both the range and number of fast food joints in LaCrosse. We liked that. Still do.
Once upon a time I hitchhiked all the way. An old station wagon filled to the gills with family picked me up when they saw my thumb, and I sat in the backseat beside a child--I really did--and wondered what kind of people would trust a hitchhiker with their baby. They were going farther north, so they let me off in Winona, and I took once more to the side of the road. Hitchhiking didn't take a whole lot longer than driving my own car, I remember thinking. I wanted to prove to myself that I had guts enough to stick out a thumb, and I did.
Once, something went haywire in our own VW when it was full of my own family, somewhere near home, really--our Iowa home, somewhere in southwest Minnesota. We holed up in a restaurant/bar, a place where the waitresses in that establishment gave our young family, stranded on the interstate, the heart of their attention.
Snowstorms? Twice that I remember. Once we stopped halfway and sat out our trip home to Iowa in a motel, our baby daughter wrapped snugly on the floor beside the bed. Once, years before, in the middle of a blizzard a whole squad of college kids got stranded in Fairmont, MN, at a flea-bitten hotel that was cold as ice on the basement floor, where we slept. Middle of the storm that evening, a bunch of us got in the car and looked for a place to buy beer. Don't remember if we found any.
We made a ton of trips later, same path, same highway, on our way home to Wisconsin to visit my parents, who came our way often as not themselves until the drive grew too much. We took two trips home right on top of each other when my father died, another dozen to visit my mom, first to her apartment in independent living and then, finally, the last one, in assisted living. Home was still there, in Wisconsin. And home was here too, in Iowa. No matter which way I drove on that achingly famililar path, I always went home.
My mother died a week ago, left this earth as easily as anyone could, not even a gasping breath. The women in the room, my sister among them, cast a glance her way and almost casually ascertained she was no longer with them or us or anyone below. She was where she wanted to be. If I could have written out a scenario of death for her, for Mom, I could not have created anything better: just like that, gone to what she might have called her own home on high.
I almost felt phony taking condolences in a line at the funeral home. "Our deepest sympathies," people said, with wincing sincerity. I shook my head because it was hard to call my mother's passing anything but a rich blessing from God she prayed to every day.
All the way home, to Iowa, all the way along that old familiar route between my two homes, all the way back, 75 miles an hour, stopping only for gas and a hamburger to go, all the way home I felt as if that all-too-familiar interstate was actually closing up behind me, mile after mile, I-90 turning, Twilight Zone-ish, into a low-maitenance dirt path you travel at your own risk.
The road between my homes was getting old, mile after mile.
Even though there's no one left between me and the grave right now, both my parents gone, it's not as scary as it might have been, years ago, had either been taken before their time. And I'm not willing to sing the old hymn quite yet either--you know, "this world is not my home." One day soon I probably will, but I'm not ready go gently into the heart of its sentiment, not quite.
The interstate looks abandoned in my imagination now, the life gone out of of it, so many dozens of trips behind me, a whole atlas dog-eared. But when I think about it, I am still awed by the spacious Minnesota prairies. I like seeing those black-hooded Amish wagons in Root River country. The mighty river bluffs are still big-shouldered and handsome, as are the coulees east of the Mississippi, Hamlin Garland country. I like the big red cranberry bogs, even the water parks at Wisconsin Dells, and a host of touristy inland lakes. I like Fon du Lac, the Old Wade House, Plymouth, Waldo, Five Corners, Six Corners, Oostburg. I still like home, even if there's now a cave there, an empty one, and no stalagtite in sight.
Even if it all seems low maintenance today, it still looks grand. Someday soon, I suppose, this world won't be my home and I'll think of myself as just a'passin' through; but right now this creation of His is still a wonder, even the highway I've taken for so many years, the one that somehow just doesn't look the same--that old road home is still a joy.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:03 AM