Beautiful Rain (written 09/13/15)

Keith and his cousin Kurt.

Keith and his cousin Connie.

It’s Sunday here, and on our ride out from the campground to see Lincoln’s birthplace, we passed towns filled with churches, cars in the parking lots.  We’re camped at Nolin Lake State Park in Kentucky, down in the heartland of the country, and when you enter a town, it seems like every corner has a church on it.  Reassuring to the stranger.

Our campground is in a nice park with plenty of public lake access, and when we returned to our campsite this afternoon, the beach area parking lot adjoining us was filled with cars and people, all seemingly from India, with lots of shouting and carrying on, even a cricket game in the parking lot.  If I close my eyes, I could be on a New Delhi street.  Flowing sarongs on the ladies, but plenty of young girls in more American attire, and the boys are all dressed neatly, no slouchy pants here.  I learn from one of the men they are all one big extended family, about 125 attending this event.  And this one, he says, is lightly attended!  Wrestling matches on the beach have started, with the contest seeming to be just to get the other off his feet.  From the crescendos of cheers, it looks like everyone is having the time of their life.  Cricket round-robin in the parking area, where Jalene and I help shag balls while chatting with a few of them.  One of the men in that huge Indian family expressed that without family there is nothing.  For him, no matter what happens in life, family will be there for support.  It takes all the fear and worry out of his life. 

I enjoyed hearing this because I’ve been thinking a lot about families for the past couple of weeks while visiting cousins I have in the Midwest.  What makes a family? Seems there can be several types.  Families made of relatives, families made of friends, and families of society structures such as churches, schools, and community organizations. Families made of people we work with.  What would we do without them?  And what happens when a family is spread out across the whole country? 

The cousins I visited are from my mother’s side.  Mom was one of three Horton sisters, no boys, and I visited a cousin from each of her sisters.  The Horton sisters went the way of the winds from Pennsylvania, with mom ending up in Tacoma, WA, her sister Jean ending up in Michigan, and Jane going to Dallas.  And so all of us Horton cousins were raised a great distance from our grandparents in Pennsylvania, and from each other.  I never really knew my grandparents.  Before this visit, I had seen Kurt four times in my life.  My cousin Connie, now living in Indiana, grew up in Dallas, and I had seen her a total of five times.  We’ve had two cousin’s reunions in the past five years, and these have become an important family happening.  Same on my dad’s side – he grew up in New York, but his sister ended up in California, and he in Tacoma. (Had they not moved, I would have been raised in New Jersey.  Hmm.)

Kurt lives in Michigan, and Connie lives a day to the south of him in Indiana.  When I last wrote, Jalene and I were making steady tracks across the north central US.  We met up with cousin Kurt at a campground in northern Michigan and popped up our tent as it grew completely dark.  We had a beer and talked a bit around the fire, and met the friends he was camped with.  Soon sleep overtook all of us and we called it a night.  In the morning, we had an impressive campsite breakfast prep, complete with four-burner propane griddle, on which Kurt’s friend Greg, along with help from Kurt and some of the others, cranked out breakfast burritos filled with sausage and bacon, potatoes and peppers, jalapenos, and your choice of about a dozen different sauces.  Along with Greg was his wife, Julia, son Steven, daughter Lauren, son-in-law Sean, brother Arn, his wife Rhonda and their dog Shilo.  We soon had made friends with all of them, and felt warmly welcomed into the camping fold.  Greg’s family shared their kayaks with us, and invited us into everything.  We went swimming in the creek, and Jalene went kayaking in the lake with Rhonda and others while Kurt and I hung with Arn and generally lazed in the creek and caught up.  Not too long ago, Kurt lost his mom and dad, quickly followed by both parents-in-law, and then suffered an unexpected divorce in the space of less than two years.  With no immediate family anywhere near, these friends have been there for him in a big way, and I’m grateful.  They made it clear that my cousin is in good hands, and I shouldn’t worry because they feel Kurt is part of their family.

On Labor Day the freeway south was a mess, so we rode the back roads southward through Michigan to Kurt’s house in Lapeer, just east of Flint.  Michigan has some beautiful farms and houses, with that classic American farm home look.  About 20 minutes before arriving, we came into a black wall of clouds in front of us.  Jalene asked why I’d suddenly pulled over, and I said “Time to put rain liners on” (we have helmet-to-helmet communication).  She whined that it was too hot (it was) and didn’t want to, and so against my better judgment I said “Okay, just the jacket liners and rain mitts.”  Bad move.  Three minutes later we were dry from the waist up, and soaked from the waist down as rain was coming down so hard it started to flood the road.  As I asked Jalene if it was running down into her boots too.  She admitted that I was right while I just felt like a damned fool that should have insisted.  We won’t have that problem in the future.  Eventually the water was running about 2-4 inches deep on the pavement, and we had to roll along at about 25 mph to keep the rubber in contact with asphalt.  Through my head was running the Ladysmith Black Mombaza choir singing “Rain, rain, beautiful rain”, and was thinking how beautiful this kind of rain would be on the fires out West.  But when rain comes in fast, it generally leaves fast.  Soon we were out of it, and shortly after pulled into Kurt’s garage for the night.

Next day we headed south again for cousin Connie’s house in Carmel, Indiana, which is right outside Indianapolis.  For this day, we stuck to the interstate to get us there in a reasonable time.  It was a hot, humid day, and we were very glad when it was over, and my Texas-raised cousin welcomed us with her incredible hospitality.  We spent three days with her, waiting for Jalene’s front tire to arrive and then spooning it on.  The new tube they shipped with it was faulty, so I had to re-use the old one, but it seems in fine shape so I’m not worried.  We carry spare tubes anyway, so if it fails, I’ve got a backup.  We had a relaxing time of it, hanging out and seeing Connie’s new, full warehouse for her furniture resell business.  We even “worked” a little that day to help with organizing. We slept downstairs in comfort, but the basement was another warehouse, and was a bit spooky in a fun way, with all kinds of things stacked in there.  We used their grill to make dinner one night, and also benefitted from Connie’s great cooking.  One whole afternoon I just hung out in the yard with their dog Dakota, a young lab mix, and we worked on “drop it” and fetch the Frisbee for a while.  A totally relaxing time after so many days on the road.

Connie’s husband Verne died a few years ago, leaving her with two young boys to raise and her immediate relatives way down in Texas.  Without Verne, everything was up to her, and fortunately she had the church to fall back on.  Churches are wonderful when it comes to supporting members of the congregation.  Over the years, she has struggled to raise these boys, has downsized houses, and now is starting a business reselling furniture, and by the looks of things, she’s going to do great.  While visiting with her this week, we talked about how after Verne’s death, (and after my divorce,) we thought at first we were recovering.  In reality, we were really just starting to poke our heads out of our shells, having no rudder at all, and no way of knowing this.  Bad decisions are easily made during this period soon after a personal tragedy.  We both made some.  Fortunately friends were there to pick us up again when we got off track, and steer us right.  I managed to finally find Jalene (what luck!), and now Connie has found Tommy, a man I immediately liked.  When I first saw him, he was changing out a differential he’d gotten from the junkyard in the truck they bought together for the business.  Dirty hands and a calm demeanor.  Great guy.  As Tommy himself said, it seemed like we’d known each other all along. 

What started these family thoughts was how even though Kurt lost his mom, dad, and wife almost at once, and Connie’s husband died, they had friends to pull them through for the long haul.  I’m grateful for that.  Because though I’m a part of their family, and care deeply about my cousins, I can’t be there for them as I’d like to.   This is why I’m so grateful they have their friends, and it’s why I’m so grateful for mine.


To see the photos of our Michigan days, visit our Photo Gallery and scroll down to "Michigan."

Between Field and Sky

I’m discovering a new rule about traveling and needing stuff.  If you know where you’re going to be in a few days, and you order it intending it to be there for you, it won’t be.  In Michigan, I ordered a tire for Jalene with plenty of time to be shipped to my cousin’s house in Indianapolis.   It never shipped because we made an ordering error, but on the road we weren’t connected to the internet-cell world for several days, and we never found out.  With no tire to be found in stock in Indianapolis (!!), we reordered yesterday, next-day free shipping, great!  Now UPS says there is a hang-up and gives no reason, except that it may be delayed another day.  And so we sit at cousin Connie’s house in Indianapolis and wait.  But travelling, it’s all the same day.  “Late” doesn’t have so much meaning anymore.

This past week has been a family time for me, as we’ve been visiting with two of my cousins.  When we were in North Dakota, we learned that my cousin Kurt would be camping with friends in northern Michigan and he suggested we meet him there if we could.  That sounded great, and so we decided to make tracks east, following Hwy 2 straight across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan.

Still, we wanted to stay off the big highways, so we found smaller roads running to the east, tracing a long, straight route across North Dakota.  At first we followed the north side of the Missouri River, where a dam transforms it into Lake Sakakawea.  After that we were heading across the flats, with corn and soybeans to our left and right continuously, save where the land was used for grazing.  At times we could look off the road and the planted fields stretched on forever, rising to be lost in a hazy line where the green met the blue. I got to thinking of how the light from the sky entered the leaves in the field to make food for the plant (and us), and so the blur between field and sky seemed right.  It’s all the same in the end.

We camped one last night in North Dakota at Turtle River campground just west of Grand Forks.  A nice surprise was that there was a motorcycle-specific camping area, where seven sites are grouped in a shaded, grassy meadow, and each site has a small concrete pad where the bikes are parked.  Nice touch.  The pit toilets and water spigot are a short walk away, and showers not much farther.  For the modern folks, there’s Wi-Fi up at the entrance office with ice cream, too.  We had our “usual” dinner of fresh corn on the cob, and a veggie and meat stir-fry with sauce.  We used local-made sausage in the stir-fry, and it was delicious.  We were quickly learning that sausages and cured meats are something they do well in this region!

As we followed eastward across into Minnesota, I looked for the picture in my imagination that books and such had formed of this state, but I just saw more of same farm fields, flat as flat can be.  Only after we were getting into the middle of the state did it change, and rather quickly, to a place of water, gently undulating earth, and trees.  Turns out Minnesota is a beautiful state, with varying landscapes as you cross.  At first it was leafy deciduous trees, not the conifers I’d expected, but soon they came along and the picture was complete.  Often there would be lowlands by the road where flooding must have lasted long enough to kill the trees, as a forest of standing dead trunks would silently watch over new young trees below.  This was the birch-bark land of the trappers and voyageurs we read about in stories as kids.

On the eastern side of Minnesota we rolled into the city of Duluth, a major shipping port on Lake Superior.  The cold waters brought the air temperature down as we approached, giving welcome relief to the heat that day.  It could have been Tacoma or Portland, except that instead of container ship terminals, there were great grain elevators of immense size – far larger than anything I’ve seen on the west coast.  Also there were huge mountains of what must have been ore material for loading and transport to where it could be smelted into iron or other metals.  Rail yards brought it all in, ships took it further on its way.   The freighters and grain ships were every bit the size of ocean-going vessels.

A highlight was a stop at Aerostich on Friday afternoon before the holiday.  It was quiet, and much of the staff already gone from the big brick building down along the waterfront.  We were soon introduced to Andy Goldfine, the founder of the company, who gave us an impromptu tour of the place.  We all went out to the bikes for photos, and spent time talking motorcycles and learning more about each other.  I picked up a few needed spares and a secret stash pocket for valuables in less reputable locales.  I was somewhat embarrassed not to be wearing my Roadcrafter R-3 suit, but Andy understood that we had reasons for using off-brand mesh gear this time.  I wear Aerostich Combat touring boots and highly recommend them, and I’m also using their tank panniers on this trip.  Their elkskin roper gloves are also superb day in and day out, and we couldn’t go anywhere without the Ortlieb bags they supplied.  I’ve always been impressed with the customer service and product quality from Aerostich and recommend them without hesitation.  The visit was super-fun and I’m so glad to have met the fine people there.

I think it was the people of the upper Midwest that most impressed me.  Absolutely solid, frank, and open, and the most helpful attitudes one could ask for.  Several times complete strangers came to my aid unasked, such as the fellow in the grocery store who I mistook for a clerk.  I asked him where the milk was kept, and that I’d like a pint or half-pint carton to go with lunch.  He said that, though he didn’t work there, it was in the back corner, and proceeded to walk me over to it.  He then showed me what they had, and that these here were the smallest ones, and he hoped they’d be okay.  I assured him they were and took one, and he walked me back to the register.  It’s hard to transmit the earnest, friendly attitude we ran into many times throughout the crossing.  After listening to A Prairie Home Companion every weekend on the radio for years, I noticed the big Lutheran churches, community halls, and other touchstones of this culture.

Moving through Wisconsin was more of the same, plenty of farms, trees, water, and friendly, open people.  I remembered reading A Sand County Almanac years before, and how each month became a lesson in the ecology of Aldo Leopold’s farm.  Sand County is imaginary, of course, but all around me lay the elements he used as he taught us about the habits of birds, field mice, hawks, and other citizens of the state.  Here, as with Minnesota, the fields were often lined with trees, making this seem superb deer habitat.  To back that up, many of the farms had permanent tree-stands visible from which one could stand watch in comfort for dinner to come into range.

Soon we crossed into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and after hearing so many people wax ecstatic about it’s beauty when they learned we were crossing it, I was disappointed when the expected fanfare and angels didn’t appear as we crossed the line into the state.  Rather than a golden road in the clouds, there was more of the same gently rolling terrain, with trees and fields and picture-perfect farms with the dome-topped silos and old red barns that let you know you’re back east somewhere.

Eventually we neared Lake Michigan to the south of us, and the air cooled right down.  The breeze coming off the lake carried fog with it, and it was exactly like riding on the coast again.  But whole families were out swimming in the water and having a great time, not freezing in huddled misery and dressed like, well, coastal Oregon.  Nor were we cleaning the cursed salt-fog off our shields.

The Mackinaw Bridge stretches five miles to the southern half of Michigan, and rises high to let shipping through.  The slope is long and gentle, and the views around are long and gentle, too.  The center lanes are steel grate, so if you want to look down at the water below past your boots, you can.  Only bummer was we paid $4 each for toll, same as cars.  We blasted down the interstate to the campsite, arriving as darkness fully enveloped us.  Kurt flashed his truck lights and we were home for the night.

Take a peek at Jalene's Self Curiosity blog for insight into the inner journey happening as a result of our travels and our updated Photo Gallery.