Traveling Human

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.~Seneca

At a rest stop on Interstate 80 somewhere in Iowa, I ended up in a conversation with a crusty old character from Nebraska. “Nebraska,” he said, “is so wide open that just about anywhere you go, there’s nothin’ between you and anyplace else ’cept hundreds of miles of cows.”Seated on a picnic bench, he leaned back against the table and said with a chuckle, “Yep. Some of our state troopers will patrol up to 500 miles. When one pulls you over, it’s not to give you a ticket. It’s to have someone to talk to.”Neb, as I called him, made me laugh out loud. I met him about eight hours into a two-day road trip my husband Terry and I were taking from Detroit, Michigan to Custer, South Dakota where my father lived.Normally, that conversation would never have occurred. Trips in the past had meant racing to every possible touristy thing in record time. But there was nothing like a life-changing blow to force you to slow down and open your eyes. A recent acquisition and reorganization at work had cost me my job. Seven years of proving myself were wasted, apparently. So this trip was different.A few hundred miles before I met Neb, at a rest stop in Illinois, a man had strolled past me walking a strange little dog. Then I realized it was no dog, but a baby raccoon. Intrigued, I wandered over to where they had stopped.“That’s a baby raccoon,” I said, pleased with my cleverness.“Yep. His name is Buddy,” the man answered. He explained that a car had killed Buddy’s momma.“Can I pet him?” I asked.“Sure!” he replied. “He loves it.”I crouched beside Buddy and started stroking him. He seemed to be enjoying it when suddenly he went rigid and keeled right over.I jerked back, horrified. “What did I do?”The man laughed. “He wants you to scratch his belly.”Tentatively, I reached down and scratched. Sure enough, Buddy stretched out with delicious languor, his little eyes closed.It was a timely encounter with a man and his baby raccoon, a strange and wondrous sight that I saw as I took my time exploring a part of our great country.A few days later we were in Custer, South Dakota, staying in a little hotel called the Bavarian Inn. Every morning at breakfast, Terry and I would see this same big man seated alone at a corner table. He was a huge, imposing fellow with a goatee, an earring, tattoos, and a jet-black Mohawk ponytail. No sensible person would want to irritate this mass of a man.One morning after breakfast I took a stroll to investigate the outdoor pool at the back of the property. The big man was in it, lazily backstroking. I turned to leave when a deep voice said, “Hi!”I turned around. The big man swam to the edge, smiling, extending his enormous mitt at me.“Jason,” he said.I mustered the courage to accept the hand and watched mine disappear inside of it.It turned out that Jason, a mix of Choctaw and Cherokee, was living there for the summer while teaching at a school on a nearby reservation. He was also in the process of obtaining his doctorate in English. English had been my major. Jason and I were kindred sprits with the same love of the written word. More amazingly, this dangerous looking man’s dissertation was on, of all things, female Native-American poets.Over the next week, Jason, my husband, and I breakfasted together, enjoying many lively conversations. One favorite thing about Jason was how he would raise a massive fist and say “Right on!” whenever he really liked something, though the phase has been long extinct. We sometimes honor our memories of Jason by mimicking him that same way.A few days later, I met Linda. Linda owned a small grocery in Pringle, South Dakota, with a population of eighty. That day, we were meeting my father and his wife there for lunch.Arriving a little early, Terry and I waited outside on a porch, seated in a row of eclectic chairs. A dusty truck pulled up and two burly fellows who looked alike climbed out, eyeing us as they shuffled past and into the store.A minute later, one of them stuck his head out the door.“You here for Al Kopka?” he said.“Yeah,” I replied. “He’s my dad.”He came over. “Remember me?” he asked. “I’m Warren Schwartz.”I remembered him then. The other guy, his twin, was Lawrence. They were the locally famed handymen “The Schwartz Brothers.” I’d met them several years earlier when my sister and I flew out for a visit. I realized I should have known them in the first place since they looked to be wearing the same clothes as last time.Warren invited us inside. We followed him through the store to the back where several mismatched tables and chairs were arranged. Several other locals seated inside smiled at us as we timidly came in and took a seat with the brothers. To one side was an open kitchen area where a woman somewhere in her forties moved around like a tornado.Within a minute, the tornado was setting plates of food in front of us. Warren and Lawrence dug in. My husband and I looked at each other. We hadn’t ordered yet. We hadn’t even seen a menu.Seeing our baffled expressions, the woman said, “You’re here to eat, right?”“Uh . . . yeah,” Terry said.“Well, enjoy,” she said with a smile and whirled off.Apparently, if you were there, you were there to eat whatever Linda, the owner and cook, was making. That day it was ham steak, corn, potatoes, biscuits and lemon meringue pie. For six bucks, everyone got the same meal, made from scratch, and more delicious than anything in this world.I managed to have a conversation with Linda afterward. She had purchased the store a year ago and business had been so poor she would cry herself to sleep some nights. Then she got the idea of serving a meal every day to attract more customers, so she renovated the back and built her little café. Word got around and people came — including a couple of tourists from Michigan.Linda made me want to follow my dreams.I discovered treasures of all sorts during that trip, mainly because I thought I’d lost everything else. I still encounter treasures now because now I know where they are. I even became grateful to have lost that job. Away from the chaotic commutes and corporate politics that can turn you cold, I was reminded of what I was part of — a great land filled with heart. The spirit of my home and its people helped me find my way again.~Karen DeVault

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