God's Land (Part II)
2nd and final part of an account of a road trip across the USA
Day 4 September 14th, 2012 Powell, WY to Keystone, SD 400 miles / 640 km
I woke up the day after Yellowstone shivering under a blanket of melancholy. I got behind the wheel and wondered what else on the long trip ahead could rapture me like this primordial world. Powell, Wyoming was a small town in the middle of nowhere. The hardships of a failed economy had left their markings on the decrepit buildings and the empty main street. I wanted to stay there a bit longer, for what I didn't know, but my father, a doctor who knew the secrets of the body and mind, had more sense left in him. "Come on! Let's get going", he patted me on the back, shaded his eyes with a pair of sunglasses and took an early nap.
The morning was young when we started an incredible twisting climb up the Rockies, passing 8,000 ft / 2483 meter to unmarked heights. We were crossing the continent's backbone from the American Northwest into the Midwest. Once we reached the crest of our ascent, I pulled to the side. We both stood in awe watching the wild country we were leaving behind, perhaps never to see again. Our descent into what remained of Wyoming was no less spectacular with repeated short stops to cool the scorched brake pads. By midday we traversed the state line as the landscape changed into the rolling Black Hills of South Dakota.
I started drooling over the wild Buffalo Burger I'm going to eat in the little picturesque town of Cody. We reached it in the afternoon but unfortunately the BB Cody's Bar and Steakhouse, highly recommended by my friend, the old biker, didn't open for business till 5:00PM. Too hungry to wait, we decided that we'd better hunt for food somewhere else. We punched in Mt. Rushmore details on the GPS screen. "Take us there Connie. Give me your shortest route."
The next hour was the part my father would never forget on this trip. Connie, faithful to my wish and trying to please, led us on a dirt road across dense woods. Dad swore that we would be lost forever and that nobody would find us. The trail was narrow and bumpy, and as we left a whirlpool of red dust behind, we were getting further and further from the scarce civilization in that part of North America. While the good doctor lost all hope, I was impressed by Connie. Erotic fancies of being stranded in a forest with a bored Scottish housewife distracted me, when all of a sudden the car emerged on an uncharted intersection with a busy highway. I braked hard and sheepishly smiled at my dad. "We made it", I gulped, but he wasn't in the least impressed.
It was written in the stars that we should have buffalo meat for dinner. Five hundred yards down the road, we pulled into the parking lot of the Powder House Lodge where we ate our fill and enjoyed the hospitality of the friendly owners, almost at the foot of Mt. Rushmore. Under the gaze of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln I contemplated the irony of America. Universal suffrage was gained by stripping children of lesser gods of their freedom and desecrating their land. Despite my admiration for these four men, whose actions had shaped the future of the United States and the rest of the world, I couldn't help but stand on the side of the Lakota Sioux tribe and other Native Americans who view it as a grotesque and most offensive monument. Mount Rushmore was once called “Six Grandfathers” by its original inhabitants. Ah, the inequity of a history written by the winners.
Day 5 September 15th, 2012 Keystone, SD to Albert Lea, MI 504 miles / 806 km
We had to finally get on the interstate after days of meandering two-laners and picturesque country roads. I saw cows, hundreds, thousands of them, on both sides of Intestate 90 as the Toyota shot straight like an arrow along a one dimensional course. Occasionally, I chanced upon a pair of deer or a small herd, a sight that eluded my napping old man until our final destination. I reckoned that there's enough corn in South Dakota to feed all the cattle in the world and the people who ate them. Hypnotized by the vastness of the country, I jumped the airways from one country music station to the next to stay alert. Goddamn it, I should've worn a cowboy hat, I drawled under my breath in my southern accent. I pressed hard for 250 miles / 400 km before my first piss-stop and second cup of coffee of the day and a Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken at McDonald's.
No sooner than we finished our light meal and joined the highway again, we crossed into Minnesota. I wouldn't be exaggerating if I say that there were as many wind turbines in Minnesota as there were cattle in South Dakota. It was a crisp day with a steady quartering tailwind blowing from the southwest. The giant propellers ceaselessly spun as they must've been doing since they had been erected there in the vastness of an endless sea of green. Minnesota resembled a pubescent maiden to my licentious eyes, capricious yet shy, a compromise between the titillating savageness of the Wild West and the vestal celibacy of the heartland. Somewhere in Minnesota, between Fairmont and Albert lea, I felt that my voyage of discovery was nearing its end. I was getting closer to the familiar territory of the Great Lakes. This 5th day had been a test of endurance as we covered more distance than any other, and for the first time since we left California, I started glancing at my watch.
Day 6 September 16th, 2012 Albert Lea, MI to Merillville, IN 430 miles / 688 km
There is a high point and a low one on every journey we undertake. Skirting the Chicago Metropolitan area and driving on the Illinois tollway system was by every mean the zero level on an otherwise perpetual high. It was a slap on the face that brought us back to a fallible reality. We endured heavy traffic and road construction for 8 steady hours. We couldn't even stop for a bite to eat until we reached Indiana. I couldn't believe how far removed I felt from the Chicago I lived near in the past and loved with all of my heart. It was like meeting a mistress after many years and discovering that she was a man after all, a transvestite who tricked us into believing that she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
However, a remarkably sexy woman, gift-wrapped in a white towel and wet out of the swimming pool, did greet us in the hotel lobby in Merrilville, Indiana. Both my dad and I were impressed by the cordial reception and thought that it may be a good idea to stay there for a few days. I had a splitting headache after the difficult drive and our hostess suggested that a dip in the indoor pool might be just the right thing to unwind the tensed muscles and ease the pain. Instead, I opted for the well-equipped gym, overlooking the pool area. Getting back to civilization does come with a mixed bag of curses and blessings. Pumping iron after a long spell of inactivity proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered. As for the other doctor, my dad, he enjoyed a friendly chat with the deeply tanned innkeeper, after she got a chance to put something on that is. Quite an adequate consolation prize after a long and tough day.
Day 7 September 17th, 2012 Merillville, IN to Hermitage, PA 396 miles / 633 km
Staying clear of large cities in Ohio, I adjusted to the rhythm of using the highway with other vehicles. After endless miles of trickle traffic, we joined the rushing flow of a steady stream of cars and trucks of all shapes and sizes. Driving there was a full time job that required concentration and undivided attention. My vision of the outside world was reduced to a narrow band ahead and to the sides. We talked less, dad and I, and when we did it was mostly cold facts about the here and now. It was only noon but I was already dreaming of my bed for the night. We reached Hermitage, Pennsylvania at 5:15PM in a light drizzle under frowning skies. After a whole week of incredibly gorgeous weather, a cold front caught up with us at last. The forecast called for a downpour in the morrow and I knew that it was going to be quite a finale.
Our room came with a small window to the back and it opened on a beautiful clearing in the woods. With the last rays of sun seeping through the drenched treetops, I could discern a shed with a tin roof and an outhouse, relics from a past that is still the present in many parts of the world and certainly in Amish country, USA. I've ran across the Amish before on several occasions and they never impressed me as being in any way strange. To me, they were like the millions of deeply religious people of all faiths who chose to follow their own paths and to the beat of drums they alone could hear. What sets them apart, perhaps, is how they distance themselves from the hubbub of secular life. I have mixed feelings, however, about their children and those of others like them. I don't think it's fair to grow up confined in a bubble floating on an ocean of tempting possibilities.
Day 8 September 18th, 2012 Hermitage, PA to Princeton, NJ 381 miles / 610 km
It didn't stop raining for a single minute all day long as we crossed Pennsylvania from one end to the other. When the visibility dropped down to zero I tailgated a truck for hours on end. Parts of the Pennsylvania turnpike were flooded and the driving conditions became appallingly dangerous. I did, however, think it fitting to end our journey under such circumstances. Except for one or two disappointments, this had been a journey of a lifetime for me. The fact that my father was my travel companion, roommate and buddy for a whole week, extended this exceptional experience through an endearing dimension that is beyond my wildest dreams. We never got a chance until this trip, dad and I, to be alone and to share every moment of our daily lives. At 4:45PM I switched the ignition off and handed the car key to a lady at the Hyatt Regency in Princeton, New Jersey. "Of all my travels", my father said, "this has been the most memorable trip ever. Thank you son."
Epilogue April 13th, 1971 Wyoming to Tartous 41 years & 5 months / 15,130 days
I finally understood how people I've never met before recognized, the moment they lay eye on me, that I'm his son. For years, I've been called the “Doctor's Son” in Tartous and the surrounding villages, and although it never discomfited my ego to live in his shadow I finally realized what a huge compliment it was to be called so. I would do anything to age as gracefully as he has, to stay as sharp and focused when I'm in my eighties like he is. He passed his looks to me in his genes, his joy of living and love for women. I always thought of myself as a low maintenance man, but the time I shared with him made me realize that he's practically maintenance free. Ever since mother died, he demanded very little attention and dedicated his life to the wellbeing of his grownup children and theirs. I hope I can be the father he was and still is.
I held his hand and helped him walk over that shaky wooden bridge across one gully in the continental divide. As the ancestral spirits of disenchanted, disadvantaged and deprived Native Americans silently patrolled their lost land, they must've wondered about this odd couple of a father and son, treading gently down the worn paths like shadows from their own distant past. I leaned on the railing and stared at our reflection on the surface of a small pool of the bluest and clearest water on the face of the planet. There we were in a lentil field hunting for quails. He led with his manly gait while I tagged behind, walking as fast as I could to keep up with him. He signaled for me to stop then pointed at Wardo, a black pointer, standing motionless with one front leg hanging in midair like a statue made of ebony. Take your time. Follow the bird with the barrel of your gun until you can't hear its wings flapping anymore then gently squeeze the...” The quail broke cover and flew like a fireball with Wardo hot on its trail. It banked to the left and cleared the edge of the field, accelerating to maximum velocity. I could only hear my heartbeats drumming in my ears then my own gunshot.
“That-a-boy!” My father beamed with pride. “Thank you Baba.” I replied, 41 years later.