Traveling the back roads across country is a far cry from driving on the interstates. I’ve done both, and if I’m in a hurry the many-laned, high-speed routes are the best way to go.
This year on my annual trip from Flagstaff to Milwaukee and back, I did both. The best part of the eastbound trip was that my 29-year-old son drove with me partway. I picked him up at the Denver airport, where he flew in from Los Angeles.
Before I got to Denver, though, I meandered through New Mexico and Colorado, stopping for an overnight with my Santa Fe friends of nearly 40 years. We ate dinner in their garden as a small rabbit munched on grass. They were tolerant of the fuzzy one, because he stuck to the grass, and left their gorgeous garden alone. We watched a pink sky over the Jemez Mountains, listening to the sounds of birds and breezes.
In Denver, I stayed with former Flagstaff friends, and we saw Grammy award-winning banjoist Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. The band, wowing the crowd in the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, was joined by the Denver Symphony. When is the last time you heard a banjo player perform his own concertos, along with the music of Dmitri Shostakovich and Leonard Bernstein? For my 10,000-some new friends and me, it was a magical night, with another sunset reflected on huge red rocks.
I picked up my son at the airport, and we headed east. We talked about finding American oddities as we drove, but his main wish was to be outdoors. When you’re a Flagstaff boy living in a giant city like LA, nature beckons. In Nebraska, we hiked at a huge reservoir, and later walked over a bridge stretching above the Missouri River, “The Big Muddy,” between Nebraska and Iowa.
We arrived in Milwaukee happy to see my mother, age 92. For the next two days she and my son talked, napped on her couch and talked some more. Even with Alzheimer’s, she has not forgotten us, and the two had some lefty political catching up to do. Who knows if she will know him next time, if there is a next time.
Nearly a month at “home” flew by, and it was time for the reverse road trip, solo. Ignoring my aging hips, I took the ribbon of highways, as Woody Guthrie said. The Iowa state roads were green with corn nearly knee high flashing by, and farms speckled the countryside. Many businesses along the way were boarded up, though, and small towns fading.
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On this more southerly route, I booked a room in a historic hotel in Wilson, Kansas, population 781 per the last census. After eight hours of driving, I needed to stretch. Online, I located a yoga studio in Salina, an hour east of Wilson, with a 5:30 p.m. class. If I jumped onto I-70, I could make it. Nothing like rushing for a hundred miles to get to a yoga class! A few minutes late, I parked and ran inside, changing my shirt on the fly.
Wait, what? Yoga mats, yes, but what’s with all the weights and “stations”? It was a HIIT class—high-intensity interval training (straining). The buff participants were between 20 and 40, but, hey, there I was. The workout stayed with me for days.
In Wilson, I checked into the remarkable Midland Railroad Hotel, built in 1899. The next morning, I walked through the tiny town and visited the world’s largest hand-painted Czech egg—it towered above me at 20-plus-feet tall. A true back roads find.
From a two-lane highway, I saw a doe and fawn trailing through a tiny, sun-drenched pond; later I glimpsed a black Hereford and her twin calves nearly hidden in tall grasses.
Eating so-so enchiladas in Boise City, Oklahoma, I heard oldsters reminisce about “after the war.” I filled up the gas tank, again.
That day, I talked with six friends, five siblings, my mom, stepdaughter and sons. It was my birthday. Technically alone for the day, on blue highways with an audio book, friends’ voices and spotty NPR, it was oddly sweet. I rolled into Santa Fe behind an insect-encrusted grille, and my pals celebrated with me.
The bunny, quite at home now in the flower garden, was noticeably plumper. I don’t think the creature will last much longer, and I left before being offered rabbit stew. I rode the interstate home.