Light, blowing snow was coming out of the northwest -- just enough to make you wish you were somewhere warmer but too much to make you want to drive there. I have never been one to let reality stand in the way of my wishes, so I was in my truck and headed south. It was at 9 AM on the 30th of January, a Thursday, that my desire for warmer weather and exciting adventures overcame the inertia of another Pennsylvania winter. I had a couple of months to drive around the country and see old friends and new places, and the time was right.
I resisted the urge to drive faster as I crossed into Maryland. The snow stopped shortly thereafter. By noon I found myself in West Virginia, which is not somewhere I had planned to be. It juts out to the east so that people driving south on Interstate 81 from Maryland to Virginia get to see it -- like a bonus state that you don't expect. I looked at the map to reassure myself that I was not lost and spent the next 15 minutes wondering why they didn't call it North Virginia. I hadn't resolved the issue when the "Welcome to Virginia" sign appeared, so I set the matter aside.
Having visited each of the 50 states at one or more times in my life, Virginia was not new to me, but somehow I had missed driving through the Smoky Mountains and Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Evidently not too many people go there in January, because I only saw a couple of cars during the hour that I was on the Skyline Drive. After an hour I realized that the second thirty minutes looked exactly like the first thirty minutes, and I was less than a third of the way to Waynesboro where I planned on exiting the parkway. I don't want to say that Skyline Drive was boring, but it certainly was living up to its reputation as being gray and smoky. I can only take so much of gray, smoky vistas, and I'd given up black and white photography back in the 70's, so I exited at my first opportunity and took refuge back on I-81.
Arriving in Waynesboro I asked directions to an address on Federal Street that Martha Bunch had given me two years ago. Martha and I had kept in touch, albeit infrequently, and now it was time to pay her a surprise visit. She was the first of approximately 50 people I planned to see over the next six weeks. Some of the people were friends I'd met at a Colorado Guest Ranch where I had been working during the last six summers, but most were old friends that I had not seen in many years. I had met Martha and her sister in Colorado two years ago when they were guests at the ranch. When I met them they were two middle-aged, unhappily married women looking for better lives. Two years hadn't changed the situation all that much, except that Martha was now separated from her husband. I had no intentions of rocking that boat -- at least not for more than a few hours
I was planning on surprising Martha, so my pending arrival was unannounced. However the address on Federal Street was a CPA office, so the surprise was mine. My address book had no phone number for Martha, nor did directory assistance, so I checked into a motel on the west-side of town, had a quiet dinner alone at a Waffle House and retired early.
Friday morning I drove by the CPA office and surprised Martha at work. Her sister met us for lunch, and we had a short reunion before I headed on down the road toward Knoxville -- my destination for the weekend. Martha expressed her regrets at not meeting up with me on Thursday night, but on reflection I didn't really share those regrets. Rumors and hearsay have it that I remain a bachelor because I enjoy the frequent company of a variety of women. Those beliefs are shared and perpetuated by all of my married friends who secretly, and some not so secretly, wish to trade places with me. I don't dispel that reputation, partly out of an altruistic need to provide vicarious excitement to these unfulfilled friends, and partly because the image is a more traditionally envious one than that of my friend Scott who is a St. Benedictine monk. Besides, I have always suspected that who you really are affects your life a lot less than who people think you are.
Had I spent the upcoming weekend in Waynesboro with Martha rather than in Knoxville, my life might have taken a turn for the worse. Knoxville, as it turned out, was a wonderful weekend spent with the Krohn family whom I also knew from the ranch. The Krohns have six kids, ranging in ages from 2 to 25, and a large and beautiful home in a remote area south of Knoxville. There is also an in-ground heated swimming pool, a hot tub, a pool table, and they have a condominium retreat in the mountains of Gatlinburg. They are the perfect family -- the kind of family that makes everyone else wonder where they went wrong with their lives. Fortunately for me, I only envied their pool table, so I escaped on Monday with my self-esteem in tact.
My next stop was to have been a step further up the ladder of success stories -- a southern belle named Rena, whom I had met in Colorado the previous summer, and who had no resemblance to Rena the Great Dane that I adored many years ago. Rena was a drop-dead gorgeous 26-year old school teacher and spoiled rich kid living in a gorgeous house her father built for her on the family's 400-acre estate near Rome, Georgia. Rena's house started out as a playhouse that her dad built for her when she was a little girl. She loved it so much that dad turned it into a bedroom for her and built her a large fancy house around it. Evidently Rena had a better offer than a visit from me and had gone to Lake Tahoe for a week of skiing, so I dropped that set of fantasies and headed on south toward Titusville, Florida.
I wasn't expected in Titusville until Wednesday, so I decided to check out Savannah. Savannah might be a nice place in warmer weather, but it had absolutely nothing to offer me on a chilly February evening except a rather deserted waterfront, an expensive motel for off-season, and some food that had been waiting too long for my arrival. It did inspire me to be on my way early the next morning, and I arrived at Penny's house in Titusville just before noon, a day early.
Penny and I had not crossed paths for 25 years, as near as we could determine. We had gone to college together and had been very close friends. My subsequent marriage to Kristina, another college sweetheart, took some of the closeness out of my relationship with Penny. (It also took some of the closeness out of my relationship with Kristina, but that's another story.) Penny came out to greet me as I drove up, but rather than reinforcing the fact that I was at the right address, it almost caused me to continue driving. It is often a shock to see someone after 25 years, and although Penny looked good for her age, she did not look like the mental image I had of her, nor did she look like someone I had known in my past.
Penny was like one of my favorite pair of old shoes that I had put away 25 years ago and suddenly come across again. It was still very comfortable to be with her, but somehow it was not quite the same. Of course most of us eventually become someone's favorite but forgotten old shoes, and I was certainly no exception -- which goes to prove that you shouldn't carry an analogy too far or it will come back to get you. I began to wonder about my ex-wife whom I had not seen for 15 years.
The four days I spent with Penny were wonderful nevertheless. We did lots of sightseeing, talking, reminiscing, and laughing. I figure four days was about right. Like most reunions, they run their course and it's time to move on. Old times aren't supposed to be revived and continued. Like they say on Star Trek, you can't go back in time without changing the time continuum. I liked my time continuum just fine, so I headed to Alabama and my next adventure.
Auburn, Alabama is a college town where Scott and Jamie, two wrangler friends I met in Colorado, were attending college and living in a rented house trailer with a third guy. They all had girlfriends spending the weekend there, so it was a weekend experience that, like my first sexual encounter, I wouldn't have missed but wouldn't care to repeat. Saturday night was, of course, party night in the double-wide, and confirmed a philosophy that I have always held: Never, ever, rent anything to college students.
On Sunday everyone made it up by noon and we went out to a farm where the owner had some "riding stock" that needed work. (Translation: He had rodeo bulls that needed riding before they became completely unusable.) Scott and Jamie were both wannabe bull riders who had tried it several times at the Frasier Rodeo in Colorado. Their total, cumulative time on top of bulls didn't add up to the eight seconds it takes for a successful single ride, but they were motivated. So were the bulls. These bulls were free to ride for anyone with an IQ low enough to qualify, so Scott rode once and Jamie twice. Both spent as much time flying through the air on their way to the ground as they did on the bulls. Jamie's second landing dislocated his right elbow in such a manner that it looked like he had a severe birth defect. He spent four hours in the emergency room on Sunday evening and emerged wearing a full arm cast and a carrying a bottle of pain pills. But his pride was intact.
The second weekend of my trip had passed and, after saying good-bye to my college friends on Monday morning, I headed west. I stopped for lunch in Selma, Alabama where I had gone to Air Force pilot training, and then I continued on to Columbus, Mississippi where I had lived for three years while in the Air Force. That was in the mid 1960s and I no longer recognized anything. Had they not had a sign at the edge of town, I would not have known where I was. Even Penny hadn't changed that much.
The Air Force Base where I had spent so much time was now eluding me, and I finally had to ask where it was, but I did manage to find my first apartment building and the first house I ever rented. Both seem to have weathered the years better than I have. They were the only familiar things I saw. Not a single restaurant, shop, theater, gas station, or business of any kind that I remembered still existed. Neither were any of the people I once knew listed in the phone book. So much for homecomings. These old shoes had been replaced by new ones that were definitely not my size or style. Conclusion: No matter how much you once liked a place; no matter how well you knew it or how fond the memories are; if you don't know anyone there anymore, do not go back. Doing so will only corrupt the good memories and add disappointing new ones.
The next morning Columbus once again, and for the last time, faded in my rearview mirror like so much of my life has done. I took the Nachez Trace Parkway through central Mississippi and I highly recommend the drive, even in February. It is a very scenic drive, the swamps look much like they do in the summer, but you don't have the heat, humidity and mosquitoes to contend with.
After a night in Vicksburg I spent a weekend in Dallas with a buddy of mine from Vietnam and pressed on west with motel stops in Van Horn, Texas, and Tuscon, Arizona where I visited with an old high school friend. I arrived in San Diego on Wednesday, February 19th after being scalped by the Viejas Indians at a gas station on their reservation where diesel fuel cost me 80 cents more per gallon than it did off the reservation. I'd never even heard of the Viejas, but they do have a beautiful reservation. Just don't stop there to fill up.
In San Diego I planned on spending a few days with Cathy, whom I had not seen since she was 16. In a lot of ways she was still sixteen, but her driver's license proved her to be 40. Still, 40 is a lot younger than I am, and she was a lot of fun to hang out with. However her husband didn't share that opinion, which either supports the adage: "One man's spoils is another man's riches," or argues against the adage: "You can't have too much of a good thing." The first is probably true for a period of time, but I am convinced that too much of anything is bad. I practice moderation in everything -- including work, which is why I was on this trip. Still I did "hang out" with Cathy for about 10 days. Had she not been a chain smoker I might have stayed even longer.
Toni, Cathy's mom and a longtime friend of mine, came down from Barstow on Friday, and the three of us decided to go into Mexico for whatever adventures we might encounter. The deal was that Toni would drive her car and pay for gas, I would pay for motels, and Cathy would pay for food. It worked quite well until we extended our misadventures to include Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, and the Grand Canyon. Toni and Cathy both ran out of money in Vegas, but thanks to my Visa card we all continued our spree for four more days. I had picked up my truck in San Diego on the way back from Mexico, so we parted company at the Grand Canyon after 10 days of Thelma and Louise + one. We all figured we had spent enough money and made both of their husbands angry.
In Cortez, Colorado I stopped at the Inter-Mountain Farm Cooperative to see a cute little redhead who I had dated back in the early '70s, and I was once again reminded how much 25 years can change someone. She was now a grandmother who didn't recognize me, and I was an idealist who didn't recognize her. We had a wonderfully short chat, and I moved on to Durango where the Silverton-Durango narrow-gauge railroad was waiting to take me on a wonderful five-hour ride through the snow-covered mountains. People had told me to make reservations and arrive early. I booked the club car, which was more expensive and less likely to fill up, and I arrived 40 minutes early. I ended up being the only person in the club car except for the bartender - and I don't drink.
I have a summer home in northern Colorado that I wanted to check on before continuing my adventure, so after two days in the Durango area I headed north to see if my house was as I had left it. When I pulled up in front of my driveway, the snow in the entrance was higher than my truck roof, so I parked and put on my snowshoes. A 600' hike uphill on snowshoes at 9,000 feet was sufficient to remind me that I had been riding around in my truck too many weeks. My house was fine, but I couldn't stay there, because I had drained all the plumbing and my firewood was buried in snow. I left and checked in at Bob's Motel in Kremmling. Bob's Motel is the kind of place where you either rent by the hour or by the month.
After visiting with a few friends in the area and a less than quiet night's sleep thanks to some hourly renters in the next room, I headed for Ft. Collins where Kris, a 24 year old college student and good friend from the ranch, was waiting to see me. We spent a weekend together eating and going to the movies, and enjoyed an exciting day of snowmobiling up at the ranch. Neither Kris nor I are experienced snowmobilers. Kris managed to get her snowmobile stuck once and flipped it over once. I got mine stuck twice. This may not seem all that exciting except that the snow was six feet deep and we were off trails. That means that when you get off (or fall off) your snowmobile, you find yourself up to your armpits in snow.
I also hit a tree. Actually I hit a small tree which deflected me into a big tree that had a six-foot deep snow well around it. My snowmobile was literally standing nose down in this snow well, as was I. Neither of us could be extracted without considerable manpower -- which is why you never go snowmobiling by yourself. The deeper the snow the more people you should have with you. In my case it took quite a few people to be able to lift the snowmobile out of a six-foot hole while standing in snow up to their armpits.
Monday afternoon I checked into an exclusive 5-star hotel in Denver where rooms average $250 a night and the suites are $1200 a night. It was quite a step up from Bob's Motel, but thanks to having an ex-girlfriend at the front desk who was working her way through graduate school, I got the room for $60. (She told her boss I was a relative, but he must have been dense because she is from Pakistan and I'm from Ohio.) Now that I think about it, most of my non-motel stops this trip were with old girlfriends, which is quite a change from the days when most of my motel stops were with old girl friends. At least that's how I like to think my life was many years ago. But then the good ol' days seem to get better and better as we get older and older.
Two days in Denver were all I could take of the rich and famous lifestyle, so I headed for Cheyenne to have lunch with an old Vietnam buddy who wore a hearing aid and talked a lot about his grandchildren. Then I moved on to the Black Hills where two days of mingling with wild horses, burros, buffalo, prong horn, coyotes, prairie dogs and other wild life provided the absolute highlight of my trip. Below-freezing temperatures and fog provided stunningly picturesque backdrops for wildlife viewing sans human beings. Beautiful ice crystals adorned everything that didn't move and a few things that did. Twice I sat stopped in my truck surrounded by herds of buffalo snorting white vapor and meandering by my open window to be captured on film that I will treasure for the rest of my years.
Leaving the Black Hills (or Colorado, or Wyoming, or Montana,) and heading east, is like leaving your favorite dessert partially eaten and going back to the liver and onions. To make matters worse, I was headed across South Dakota and Minnesota for Wisconsin, which is not a particularly smart thing to do in the middle of the winter. Just past the Bad Lands the weather turned nasty, and a freezing rain forced all traffic off interstate 90 and into motels by 3 PM, so I was delayed in reaching Mondovi, Wisconsin.
Mondovi is where Tracy lives with her parents and three sisters on a dairy farm. Tracy is a 19-year old college freshman, and I am at least 10 years older than her parents, so I was a little leery about visiting her at home. I'm sure her parents were even more leery, but they probably preferred I visit her at their home rather than somewhere else. As it turned out, they were wonderful, and we had a great weekend in spite of the subzero temperatures and blowing snow. Kirstin and Jackie came down from Minnesota to see me, and Christal came over from Eau Claire. Christal is a senior in college. Kirstin and Jackie are 19-year old farm girls. All were staff members at the guest ranch the previous summer. Saturday night we partied until 4:30 AM at a local bar, drinking and playing pool and darts, and then we all crashed in Tracy's living room. By the time her mom and dad got up to milk the cows, their living room looked like Jonestown the morning after. They were very understanding for conservative Wisconsin dairy farmers with four daughters.
My next stop was in Chicago at Pam's. Pam was the head wrangler for several years at the Colorado ranch and was now driving a bus in Chicago, her hometown. She is a great friend, and she also owed me $10,000, so I thought a stop there was important. After a few days there I'd had all I could take of Chicago, so I moved on to rural Indiana to spend time with Jeff. Jeff was 24 and lived by himself with his dog, pregnant cow and horse. It was quite a change from Chicago and Mondovi. Except for the nude bar in Indianapolis where the music was too loud and the women too endowed, my Indiana stay was ultra peaceful.
My last stop was a week-long visit in Ohio with my sister. She has a horse and I was missing mine, so I went riding and got thrown on my head. I was actually quite lucky, because we thought I had broken my neck-- which supports another one of my theories: Good times eventually turn to bad times if you pursue them long enough. Perhaps I should have kept my trip to the planned six weeks instead of the nine it turned out to be. The trouble is I never know when enough is enough until it's too late.
I arrived back in Pennsylvania in the middle of a freak Spring snowstorm just in time to figure out my taxes before the April 15 deadline. I owed an additional $10,000, including penalties. Ordinarily this would have been more than sufficient to send me into a highly aggravated state of mind. However, I had just driven 12,000+ miles over nine weeks, visited 53 friends in 25 states, and had many unforgettable experiences, including almost killing myself. My thinking, and indeed my entire perspective on life, had been forever altered and broadened. Never again will I let the bastards get me down. And if they do -- I'll take a trip.