Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Me and You and Kids One and Two

The summer really began for us on June 30, when we flew to Spokane, WA, where I grew up and where my parents and my older sister and her family still live. My parents, both about 60 years old, now live in a beautiful, relatively isolated log cabin (it's up on top of a high hill, overlooking the Spokane Valley, with clear views well into Idaho), and we'd never really visited there during the summer months. So off we went for three weeks. Eastern Washington is dry country, and never more so during the high summer and into the fall. My father managed to buy, somehow, an old firetruck, which he fills with water once a day at a fire hydrant at the base of the hill, and uses to haul several hundred gallons of water up to fill up the cabin's well. It was a delight to spend time with them, to see my parents at home as they ease into retirement, and to give them a chance to get to know better a couple of grandchildren that they rarely see. While there I revisited many old haunts, and renewed my appreciation for Spokane and the whole "Inland Empire" region (so called because the interior of Washington and Oregon was among the last settled in the continental U.S.; though much more agriculturally productive--thanks in part to many dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers--than the high desert basin of Nevada and Utah which borders the Columbia Plateau on the south, it was similarly bypassed by settlers on the way the Pacific coast, and to this day remains, except for outposts like Spokane, the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, WA), Boise, ID, and Pendleton, OR, quite empty). It was a good place to live, a land of wheat fields and apple orchards and open ranges. I feel comfortable there, and hope I can often return.

While there, we borrowed a car and made two excursions, in opposite directions: to the Idaho Panhandle, where my grandfather (now passed on) built a small cabin over thirty years ago, and out to Pacific coast, to visit Seattle and Portland and three siblings of mine who live there. The old family cabin is located along the Moyie river, only about seven miles from the Canadian border. Many of the towns you drive through to get there (like Bonners Ferry) are tiny; they even lack a McDonalds, as our kids pointed out as we drove through. The Rocky Mountains of northern Idaho make for numerous hidden lakes and streams and valleys; the family cabin is built in one. We went up there with assorted cousins for the Fourth of July, and had a grand time setting off fireworks purchased from a local American Indian reservation. We stayed for three days, and it was good to be reminded, if only slightly, of what life is like in the evergreen woods. Our second excursion took us across the state, through the Cascade Mountains and down the Washington coast. It had been years since Melissa and I had visited Seattle, and the kids had never been there. We didn't stay long, but our visit was long enough to go down to the harbor, take a boat tour out into Puget Sound, and check out the sight and smells and tastes of one of America's busiest ports. Then it was back on to the freeway, encountering the worst traffic I've seen since we moved from Washington D.C., and south to the Willamette Valley and the beautiful chaparral country around Portland. I'd never been there before, and found it to be a gorgeous environment; more northern California than Pacific Northwest: warm and breezy, perfect for growing berries and grapes and roses (Portland's International Rose Gardens were a highlight of the visit). Of couse, most importantly we were able to visit my brothers and their wives and kids, and see them on "their own turf" as opposed to meeting them at family reunions. They're all younger than me (my only older brother lives in Utah), so there's a certain disconnect there....but I was also impressed at how grounded they were, how much they'd grown up into there corners of the world. They took us out the the Oregon coast, where we spent the day fighting the wind and the surf and having a grand time.

We returned to Spokane and flew home soon afterward, but the summer wasn't over yet. Melissa's younger brother Wayne was married in D.C. at the end of July, and at the beginning of August there was a reception for him at the Madsen family home in Ypsilanti, MI. We drove up, making the drive there (and a week later, back again) in a single day, something that I think we won't ever do again. I like visiting Michigan; it's always nice to escape the heat of Southern summers without necessarily having to trade it for the "dry heat" of the West. We spent a week there, doing our bit at the reception and helping to pack up all the newlyweds' belongings into a 14ft. truck in preparation for their move to Utah, where both of them will attend BYU. Melissa and I also took two days to drive all the way up to the forest and hay country of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and visit Mackinac Island and the Soo Locks--huge, marvelous locks which lower or raise the water level as needed for American and Canadian cargo ships traveling along the St. Mary's River from Lake Superior to Lake Huron (the river makes a rapid plunge of about 20 feet over a short distance as it flows from the Superior side to the Huron; until the locks where built, serious shipping between the two lakes was hampered by the need to unload everything and carry it overland). The name "Soo" comes from the Canadian city directly opposite where we stopped to watch the ships: Sault (pronounced "soo") St. Marie. The influence of French Catholic-Quebecois culture has almost entirely disappeared from Michigan (the same as it has from the Mississippi River region, despite their early presence throughout as explorers), except for the names, and even those have now mostly adopted English pronounciations: Detroit, St. Louis, Marquette (though Mackinac is still "mak-in-aw"). Still, some towns in the area do a good job trying to acknowledge it; the little town of St. Ignace (where we stayed and from which we caught a ferry to Mackinac: there are no bridges to the island, and no cars are allowed on it; only bikes and horses) was founded by and the final resting place of Father Marquette, one of the very earliest French explorers of the Michigan/Wisconsin area and the upper Midwest, and has a nice little commemorative park and monument to his life. We stopped by before we grabbed a couple of pasties ("pass-tees": traditional Upper Peninsula meat pies) for dinner before heading back to Grandma Madsen who was watching our children. And then, after a day to recuperate, back to Arkansas, back at last to the old routine.

Lot of driving, lot of visiting, lot of scenery this summer. Perhaps the most interesting realization Melissa and I came to as we did all this traveling is that....we like it. I mean, we've always liked being able to visit family and see new parts of the country, but we found ourselves talking about buying a big RV or mobile home someday, about hitting the road regularly every summer, and seeing some more of this nation, and all the amazing and wonderful places people have found to be, in the midst of diverse (yet interrelated) histories and geographies and weather patterns and ethnic genealogies. There's still so much we'd like to see in the South; we've yet to visit New England and the far northeast reaches of Canada; the Grand Canyon and much of the American Southwest is still foreign to us. We both grew up, we realized, in families that did your classic cram-the-kids-in-the-car road trips; rather than blowing the family fortune on big trips to big destinations, we both remembered--and felt comfortable continuing--to see America a little bit at a time, from one interstate and one Best Western and one national park and one roadside marker to the next. I can remember long drives, trading back and forth with my dad and brothers, as we wandered from our Washington home across the United States in the spring and summer. We drove to New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles; we lumbered along (all eleven of us after the last child was born) in a massive gas guzzling RV across all the country in between, and saw America not only (if I may say so) well, but also on the cheap. Tourists? Yep, that was us. Not the best thing in the world to be, perhaps, but better than staying home and watching all the Lucky People talk about the best bed and breakfasts and cycling tours along the French Riveria on the Travel Channel. So were aren't, and probably never will be, part of the cosmopolitan jet-set; probably that which we will take home with us from every place we visit will be more connected to city parks and tacky festivals and roadside cafes than fine restaurants and the art scene. I don't see that as any reason to avoid the road, and maybe the greatest blessing it gives us: the ability to have a feel for where other people stand, and thus more sympathy for them, and (I suspect) a greater ability to express where oneself stands as well.

My dad used to listen, on these long drives, to cassette tapes with all sorts of soft rock and country pop (the slick, MOR and "urban cowboy" music of the 1970s and early 1980s) on them. Now, when I'm behind the wheel, I surf the stations, looking for something by Ronnie Milsap, Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, the Eagles, Jim Croce, Linda Rondstadt, the Carpenters, James Taylor, B.J. Thomas and all the rest. Good music? Well, not the best music--it's mostly derivative, a knock-off and mainstreaming of something else. I think it can be defended though. More importantly, it's good driving music--or at least, good driving music for me right now, a 35-year-old taking his kids and wife out on the road to see the country. The title of this post is a reference to the early 70s tune by Lobo, "Me and You and a Dog Name Boo." I know: terrible title. And the lyrics don't really fit my life. But still: it's a song about the simple pleasures of seeing this country as it is lived in: the "bright red Georgia clay," the "wheat fields of St. Paul," motoring "stately into big L.A.," with the lights "settling down into your brain." Broadly interpreted, I too live "travellin' and livin' off the land"; and despite being married and the father of two great kids, I think I too--so long as I'm willing to take my limitations and make the best of them--am "a free man." (C'mon, sing along, ok?)

I remember to this day
The bright red Georgia clay
How it stuck to the tires
After the summer rain.
Will power made that old car go
A woman's mind told me that it's so
Oh, how I wish we were back
On the road again.

Me and you and a dog named Boo
Travellin' and livin' off the land.
Me and you and a dog named Boo
How I love bein' a free man.

Now I can still recall
The wheat-fields of Saint Paul
And the mornin' we got caught
Robbin' from an old hen,
Old MacDonald, he made us work
But then he paid us for what it was worth
Another tank of gas and back
On the road again.

Me and you and a dog named Boo
Travellin' and livin' off the land.
Me and you and a dog named Boo
How I love bein' a free man.

Now I'll never forget that day
We motored stately into big L. A.
The lights of the city kept
Settlin' down in my brain,
Though it's only been a month or so
That old car's buggin' us to go
You gotta get away and get back
On the road again.

Me and you and a dog named Boo
Travellin' and livin' off the land.
Me and you and a dog named Boo
How I love bein' a free man.