The old-timers in our family–three uncles aged 89, 90, and 93–arrived early at the front door of the family reunion while cooks in the kitchen worked feverishly to get hot food out on the counter for the expected sixty relatives. I helped my cousin out in the backyard get his barbecue ready and sweep down some of the overhang along the porch sidewalk, so that visitors could come outdoors during hurricane Isaac’s continual down pour. The party began at 2PM and went on until about 11. Talking, picture-snapping, joke telling, performing magic tricks, playing guitar and singing, playing cards with children, hugging and kissing babies, commiserating with those who had lost loved ones this past year (or were about to lose them), laughing heartfully over ancient memories, and, of course, poking down lots of Kansas City-style barbecue (except for a few vegans in the crowd).
Remnants of the party will continue to unfold for a few more weeks through emails and internet postings, but I am hopeful that the memories will last way beyond that short and electronic spell of time. This bunch is all from my dad’s side of the family and I have never had the honor of living in Missouri with them. When my dad died in 2003 my sister and I made an effort to not forget any of them. Our Missouri roots have produced the California branch that we have become. My mom’s Oregon side of the family is what I remember more of when growing up because that branch is much closer to where I grew up, but most of that side of the family we have lost touch with, except for cousin Cheryl in Utah. When mom died in 1999, the Oregon bunch had already become fairly cloudy and distant to us, but certainly the memories created from family reunions still stir us inside.
We spent the next day at the Santa-Cali-Gon Days Festival in downtown Independence, Missouri. I’m not big on festivals. There is simply too much commotion, too much random and frenetic activity going on for me to relax and enjoy. We attended for the sake of my cousin’s kids, who wanted to play games in the booths and eat corn dogs. I stumbled around , tripping over the feet of little ones while trying to understand how the festival was not just a big mob scene. The principle idea that birthed this annual celebration forty years ago was that this town was where the three historical pioneer trails began–Santa Fe, California, Oregon–but to me, the festival celebrated nothing more than some really poor quality food sold out of pop-up tents, a long chorus of hawkers pushing their wares, and in the backdrop some old brick buildings that would have collapsed in 1906 had they been built in San Francisco. But after reflecting a few moments over this conglomeration of people gathered here for this celebration, the thought occurred to me that the people who lit out west on these pioneer trails beginning in the 1840s were probably not much different than the crowd I viewed today. The pioneer festival or parade back then was not confined to a civic center, but spread out over the hills and valleys, the mountains and prairies, all the way to the Pacific, although I hope that the early western settlers did not partake of fried Snicker bars, as is done in Independence.
We went gambling the next day with my elder uncle on the casino built on a barge on the Missouri River. My cousins explained that to satisfy state laws they scooped out part of the river, blocked it off from the main current, and plopped down this massive building in the pond. I have such little gambling blood in me that I felt as out-of-place here as I did the day before at the festival. Being with the cousins and uncle and doing what they like to do was the most important thing. In the late afternoon in the home of another of my Kansas City cousins, my sister and I, with recommendations from our cousins, began to map out our return drive to California. Tomorrow would be the Tuesday that follows Labor Day and all would be returning to that daily festival of life that consists of school and work. After much discussion, I took a yellow high lighter to my fold-out map of the United States and traced out a driving route that would follow the Oregon trail where possible, but would include detours to Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone.
We slept in my cousin’s old mansion one more night, saying bye to everyone the night before. When we awoke at 5AM, they were already awake too, so there was more good-byeing among us, as we slurped coffee and went over the details of our remaining journey. We got out the front door and into the cab of Rosie while darkness still hid the new day. It felt good after three days of visiting, three days of eating home-cooked food and sleeping in a real bed, to feel the smooth-running roar of the engine, with a tank of gas and a driving plan in hand.
The stretch of road north from Kansas City to Omaha, Nebraska on Interstate 29 looked interesting to me as we followed the contour of the Missouri River and passed through wildlife sanctuaries. Broad fields, old farm houses, and barns dotted the landscape all along our chosen route, but the road was fast and the viewing time minimal, so that we had no opportunity to become more intimate with this corner of the world. We somehow slipped into the state of Iowa for a few moments, then back into Nebraska. On the edge of Omaha we stopped and had an oil change done on the truck. The young people crew running the garage had that midwest kindness about them, but were murderously slow in how they went about their business. I could have changed the oil in ten trucks by the time they had changed mine.
Nebraska seems to be sort of wedded to Kansas, since one is stacked on top of another. The two look similar, with rolling hills and grasslands. We followed the Platte River for several hours, seeing signs along the way that pointed to historical monuments. I wanted to stop, linger, mingle with the locals, watch a fish jump in the river, somehow become engaged with this enormously wild and free America that my ancestors had walked through more than a hundred and fifty years ago. My sister and I felt an urgency to keep on the beam toward our next destination. We had left spouses and houses to make this journey, and the joy of wandering freely across the map made it difficult to ever want to stop Rosie from rolling beyond the boundaries of sensibility and intent.
We picked a jagged route, a trail of towns on smaller roads, to climb north into South Dakota this day. It was a long tough day of driving, with twists and turns in the road, but the feeling of having the earth rolling by under my feet through Nebraska City, Lincoln, Grand Island, Broken Bow, Atkinson, Ainsworth, Valentine, and Kadoka, made the day one of great pleasure. We stopped in Broken Bow for gas and Valentine for groceries so that we might camp out that night. The terrain changed just before Valentine, Nebraska. We came upon large ponds, or shallow lakes, that scattered for miles in all directions from the main highway. On the outskirts of town we crossed a bridge over the Niobrara River. In this late afternoon, the river looked like a wonderful place to camp. We should have stopped here and called it a day, but we did not, because we assumed that the rest of the countryside from here to Kadoka, South Dakota, would be about the same as the Niobrara. The grocery clerk in Valentine told us that the lakes and ponds we’d just passed through was the surface of the largest natural aquifer still intact in the world, a bird hunter’s paradise.
Just a mile or two out of Valentine the terrain quickly changed back to what we had seen for most of that day, hills and grass, except that now the hills became steeper and bolder outcroppings of rock began to appear with more regularity. I wanted to stop, rest, even sleep, but nowhere along this long stretch of road through Sioux Indian country did we encounter a place that seemed hospitable to weary travelers. We reached the big wide Interstate 90 later in the day than we had expected. Our goal had been to reach Kadoka before dark, so we pushed west another hour.
Kadoka is not much of a town–a stop, a bump in the road with a cafe and a gas pump. We found an RV park on the edge of town, but nobody came out of the office–an old mobile home–to check on us or collect money. We had arrived with some sense of accomplishment, knowing that this was one of the longer of our driving days. By Google accounts, we would have driven 622 miles today on the interstate system, but our side route through the small towns of Nebraska made the amount feel more like about 800 miles. I slept soundly that night, even though the wind whistled through the thin and scraggly trees. We knew that tomorrow we’d be entering into some of America’s finest scenery, so the sacrifice of this day of hard driving seemed inconsequential.