My father told me once that the nicest beaches in the country were in Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama. I was a kid and didn't believe him. I had witnessed the beaches at Patterson Lake in North Dakota and the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, where my mother lived. What could be better than these two places?
And then I went to Clearwater one year.
And then again. And again. Once, when my wife was stressed out, I used airline points and sent her there, too. It was only for the weekend, but she came back sun burned and blisssed out. I was a hero.
Later, I discovered Mississippi and Alabama. Well, "discovered " might be a bit much. Others, probably Native Americans, (North or Central) discovered it long before I showed up to say, "Hey! Look everyone! The Gulf Coast is stunning." My friend Richard and his wife had lived in Naples/Marco Island, etc. I can hear Richard saying, "No kidding?" with a crooked grin.
Bartowsky digs it, as well. However, our Swiss-Norwegian-Scotch Irish-heritage gives us two color options on the coast: "Gulf Coast Sand,"or "Lobster." My wife tans. We only tan after multiple coats of "Lobster," and by that time we are candidates for the melanoma test center.
If there is ever a war on the Gulf Coast, we have the perfect camouflage. Like sand crabs that don't have to bury themselves.
"I didn't see them, sir! Those Fast Present albinos took out forty-seven of our men. It's not our fault... couldn't even see them, sir. They were right there. Right there..." his voice trailing off in disbelief.
"You should stay out of the sun," my doctor said -firmly back in reality.
"I like any place cold," said Bartowsky. Adding, " The colder the better."
But even Bartowsky loves the beach. We just need to love it in the early morning hours, or as the sun goes down.
Otherwise it is Lobster-Boy and Sand Crab to the rescue.
5:35 AM Central Time. I've been awake for an hour. Why? Not sure. It could be that yesterday was an easier day than the day before; a couple hundred or so miles less than the slog from Mountain Home, Idaho to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Or it could be I dreamt of a Yamaha Enduro and an easier, more care-free, time in life. In the dreams I was acting as delivery boy for my lawyer's office. Shuttling documents in a leather messenger bag. In the dream, I was still me. That is, old. And fatter than I should be. Middle-aged. But I handled that motorcycle with ease. A young runner ran by me with a dog. I used to run cross country in high school. That was before I was old. And fat. I woke up thinking about the dream and about yesterday. Yesterday I felt as if I were chasing ghosts across southern prairies. And the dream felt the same way, although the dream was much cooler. It involved a motorcycle.
Somewhere south of the New Mexico State line, as Bartowsky and I nipped the corner of the Enchanted State, or possibly after we crossed over into "Don't-Mess-With-Texas," I thought about my dad within the context of this trip. We used to drive like banshees all over God's creation. Skiing, going to see the grandparents in Pennsylvania, conventions, etc. Dad was the original nomad.
My pops had a series of two-door coupes that varied over the years. Coupes because a sedan would have been very uncool. I bought a slightly used sedan for this trip. Motorcycle dreams or not, I am not as cool as my Pops. I'm old. And kind of fat. Like the way sugar is "kind of" sweet. But I'm working on it. Not the cool part, the fat part.
At any rate, we were driving along yesterday, Bartowsky was reading, and I was thinking of the many road trips I took with the big guy when I was young. The two last road trips I remember were bittersweet. The older of the two involved flying my then very thin butt down to Louisiana from Portland (where I lived at the time) to drive with my father from Pineville, Louisiana, up the Natchez Trace, and eventually to Pennsylvania. I remember a rest area, trying southern Catfish for the first time, and sitting in a room in Pennsylvania with my dad. Across from us, fidgeting with a blanket over her knees, was my non-verbal, and obviously scared, grandmother. Alzheimer's had knocked at her door, found her home, and ransacked the place with her sitting there the whole time.
The second road road trip on this list of "the last two," involved flying down to Louisiana from Raleigh (where I live now) and retrieving my father along with some of his vast array of 1970's ephemera, and driving him to North Carolina. It took us months to convince him that he should be closer to us for health and safety reasons. The plane was delayed due to thunderstorms in Dallas, and a 4:00 PM arrival time became a 2:00 AM arrival time. My father, who had disconnected his phone, was unreachable. And by the time I arrived, he was also scared. And angry. I tried to sleep in a chair he was leaving behind, but my father hovered nearby like a cat on catnip. He was too jacked up. Wired. And he wanted to go. Finally I acquiesced and we left his apartment, in the dark, and headed for backroads and interstates that would wind us North.
I noticed that the electrical system in his GMC Jimmy would short out whenever I turned on the air conditioning. The car would suddenly drag. When I mentioned this to my pops, he shrugged. He hadn't noticed. We drove in toasty warmth for the rest of the trip. Finally, at one point, I told him that energy had left the body and that I, and he, should rest. I pulled off the interstate into a Hampton Inn's porte cochere. I grabbed a room with two queen beds and went to retrieve my father. I found him rummaging around in the back of the Jimmy. He came up for air with two hundred dollar bills.
"What's that?" I asked.
"For the room," he replied.
"Dad, I paid for it. And they don't take cash. It's all good."
"Oh," he looked defeated. "I'll put it back."
The concerning part was that he had fished the cash out of the car. Turned out that he had his "cash savings" in a box in the back of the GMC. How much? He told me the amount with pride.
"Dad! You're going to get us killed." He looked at me blankly. We went upstairs to our room. I tried to sleep but imagined the car breaking down and some shady mechanic ripping off my dad, or worse. Or a highway patrolman pulling us over and inquiring about drugs or cash.
"No drugs, officer, I mean other than some stool softener, but cash? Yeah. Um... about fifty-three thousand in a balsa wood box held together by staples and Elmer's glue. My dad calls it, 'Fort Knox.' Is that a problem, sir?"
I resolved that if we made it to Raleigh alive that I would take my father directly to the nearest bank.
Once again, he wouldn't let me sleep and we ended up leaving two hours later. He was anxious to get back to North Carolina -where he once lived while in the Army. I was exhausted and pissed. We drove straight through Georgia and South Carolina, and approached the outskirts of Raleigh well past midnight. By this time I was weaving all over the road, and my eyesight was blurry. My pops was wide awake.
"Keep going," he admonished, "you're doing great." And then he turned in his seat, looked at the rear passenger seats, and said, "Did I ever tell you what my son did in college?" That got my attention and I was suddenly fully awake.
"Who are you talking to, Dad?"
"These people," he motioned towards the backseat.
"Dad, we are alone. It's just the two of us." He turned around suddenly to look again. I checked the rear view mirror. Could two people have climbed in while I stopped for gas? There was no one there. Dad said nothing. I chalked it up to delusion brought on by fatigue.
I did get him to Raleigh. And we did get him to a bank. And over the months ahead I would eventually come to realize that Alzheimer's had also knocked on his door and was beginning to slip a toe in to the house. That explained the electrical system on the Jimmy. The talking to spirits in the back seat. Alzheimer's! Like a thief. In the pre-dawn hours. Looking for cash in a flimsy box.
Yesterday, I glanced over at my oldest son. He was on another book. His sixth of the trip. Occasionally I would see him put the book down and stare out at the vastness all around us. I remember reading on the Natchez Trace trip with my dad. Perking up when we hit Tupelo -the birthplace of Elvis.
"It's a big country," my son said. I nodded. "It seems like we just started two days ago," he added later. I nodded again. How many times on trips with my dad, had I made similar comments? How many times had he nodded. How lucky had I been to travel so many miles with him before the Alzheimer's kicked in and smashed all the strongholds? I realize how blessed I have been to take this trip with my son.
We have a couple of days left now, as we approach the Gulf of Mexico. Soon our trip will be over. A couple more days of chasing ghosts.
A typical day for us starts with the old man (me) rolling out of bed long before Bartowsky stops snoring. I'll do a quick inventory of wallet, key, phone. I don't have to look at Bartowsky to know that he is okay; he snores like a chainsaw gone bad. But I still do.
I will pray, spend some time in the Word, (yep, I read the Bible), and then catch up on social media. I will also review anything I wrote the night before -just to make sure it is not too awful. Then it's off to the shower. Meanwhile, Bartowsky works hard at his attempts to wake the dead with his snoring.
After getting myself into a freshly laundered state, I will dress and pack. Throwing around bags and the like will usually stir the slumbering snorer in the room, but occasionally I have to grab his toe or bark, "Bartowsky! Daylight's burning, pal."
While Buddy Boy stirs and rolls into the shower, I will pack up the cruising unit. Sounds simple, but it is a minor, junior Olympics rountine that involves reorganizing the stuff we picked up along the route. (Mainly books and a new pair of Docs for the kid.)
Usually while I am wrestling with my luggage and contemplating new combinations of words I learned first on the playground and then in the Navy, Bartowsky will be going through the complex grooming rituals of an 18 year old guy. With a little luck, he's completed the systematic process, production, and mechanics of cleanliness, and is ready to go. Some mornings he is not. I get it, but I don't. I can be cleaned and groomed in 2.6 minutes if need be. Bartowsky; not so much.
After he's done with his cleaning "thing," we will either: A: Load up his stuff with a repeat command performance of Bag Ballet and then go look for a Starbucks. Him: Vanilla Latte and a warmed Croisant. Me: Decaf Americano and some form of pork byproduct. Or, B: Eat at the Hotel and then do the Bag Ballet with his stuff. Or, C: Both.
Usually both. I need the placebo effect of a grande decaf. Well, "need" is a little much.
After all that, we will hit the road. Will it be a long day? Or a short day?
It depends on the destination.
We are racing for the coast. Our aim is to spend a little time in Austin. The old lead foot is coming in handy. Tomorrow we'll back off slightly and shoot for Abilene. But today was a slog. We rolled over 840 miles under the old Toyota.
A few photos from the trip today:
It's been a long day.
We had breakfast this morning with my daughter from a previous gig. She grew up with her mother and her aunts in Portland and still resides within the City of Roses. Stump Town. PDX.
I always feel strange in this role of "biological father." It's a distinction that exists nowhere else with my kids. So I don't need Portland to remain weird (a local favorite bumper sticker saying), it is already foreign to me. Part of this is the "dad" role to a daughter I barely know. And part is the town itself. It is almost as if the moment I moved back to North Dakota from 3.6 years of living there (another chapter for another time), Portland immediately and forever changed into a foreign country that I visit with regularity, but will remain forever alien. And it is not helped by the moment of acquiescence, wherein custody of my daughter reverted to her mother. That moment sealed a silent but irrevocable script that I can neither read or understand.
None-the-less, Portland is a beautiful place. And Bartowsky enjoyed meeting his sister again. She's quick witted, smart, and in his words, "a nice person." He nailed it. The breakfast itself was almost like a prop for the conversation. I tasted nothing. Except for the coffee. It was dark and thick and bad. I gulped it down. I was in such a hurry. Tense. Ill-at-ease. Willing to stomach bad coffee. I noticed that after we dropped my daughter off, my shoulders sank and I relaxed a little. I think part of this tension was the introduction and the hope that my kids will like, and not just love, one another. And part was a disquiet that is hard to explain, but it orbits around the heat of not knowing my daughter as well as I should. Guilt?
I took a picture of her and Bartowsky. She in turn took a picture of us. Always at odds with being in front of a camera, I goofed off in an attempt to make the two kids laugh and avoid looking at the camera. There was a polite chuckle from the millennial contingency, but the jury vote was borderline "awkward." The picture reflects it. It also shows one tired guy. I wanted to sleep this morning. I wanted to avoid guilt. Avoidance made manifest.
At the end of the meal, we had to hustle. A long ways to go and four days behind schedule. But I did promise Bartowsky that I would take him to Powell's -City of Books before leaving the PDX area. He, like his parents, is an avid reader. I promised that there would be enough at Powell's to put some new items in heavy rotation. He was dubious, but masked it well with his ubiquitous, "Oh yeah?"
However, I wanted to show him Lake Oswego first. It was once home to my first girlfriend from first grade, and it was the first place I stopped at when I moved to Portland all those years ago. I drove almost nonstop from Fargo, ND in my little Datsun 280 Z, and pulled into the first hotel in Lake Oswego I came across: the Lakeshore Inn. I have been infatuated with Lake Oswego ever since. Bartowsky found it quaint, but clearly didn't understand my passion for this overpriced gem of a suburb. Oh well. Sometimes memories of rest suffice.
He did get Powell's, though. Man did he get it. We now have a multitude of books sloshing around our trunk for the remainder of the road trip. My only hope is that they don't reproduce back there. Alone. In the dark.
I am guilty, too. I purchased a book on Marcel Breuer -a favorite architect with almost brutal tendencies. This wildman from Hungary was almost more famous for one of his chairs than he was for his architecture. I dig both the chair and the architecture. I also purchased a book on finance. And another on typography and design within this most graphic and widespread art. But this wasn't my favorite moment at Powell's. The books just made me feel guilty for self enabling an already serious addiction.
"Hi, everyone. I'm Dan and I am addicted to books."
""Um... well... I've been addicted to books since I was five and... um... well... look... I guess I stole a Golden Book from Mrs. Birdy -my kindergarten teacher. And I feel really bad about it to this day. I do. But, um... I love books."
(Quiet murmurs of disapproval mixed with understanding and acceptance. One jackass in the back of the room nodding his head vigorously. What does that even mean? A nod.)
No, my favorite moment was the sign across the street from the store as I walked out. That sign across the street seemed very apropos. SIZZLE PIE. Like a hodgepodge mix of ingredients over an open flame. The heat being turned up. You know, like failed relationships. Life. Books. Simple pleasures. Sleep. Driving at breakneck speeds across Oregon and Idaho in pursuit of the Gulf of Mexico. Travel in general. Standing on a beach. Work. Moving on. Loss. A good song. A great building. A kiss. Losing a friend. Emotional tension. Time passing. Children being born. Children growing up. Growing old and turning gray. Guilt. Awkwardness. And gain.
Like reintroducing siblings after 14 years apart.
We left Kalispell early yesterday. Have to say, some of the nicest people on the trip so far have been in Montana. And that is high praise. High praise simply because there have been so many nice people all along our route.
After a long day, we pulled into the Marriott in Seattle and immediately went for a hike; Pike Place and then the Space Needle. Bartowsky was blown away. I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up here. Or possibly New York City. On the other hand, I see him searching for something that is more internal than external, so he could end up anywhere.
Truth be told and ulterior motives laid bare, I would love the opportunity to pursue a new goal. Like the goal of having a pied-à-terre in Seattle or the Big Apple. However, resonance and reason should be in concert with one another. Right now resonance is ruling the day.
I have to mention that this guy, Bartowsky, is amazing.
All parents say that, but Bartowsky truly is. He's currently somewhere between teenage angst and self-discovery, but underneath a strange dichotomy of self-doubt and loathing, mixed with equal measure of bravado and dogged assurance -especially when it comes to politics, is the same tender heart that his mother and I saw in him as a small child.
This good man is so incredibly empathetic towards others, and has a heart for the scarred and down-trodden. He has an eye for good people -no matter what first blush, or society, would say to the contrary. And as his Pops, I have to say that I am amazed by his lack of wisdom when it comes to his self, and on the polar opposite compass point, the magnitude of his wisdom for others.
Bartowsky is salt and light. I am envious of his care.
We woke up early yesterday and left Medora and wound our way to Glacier. Long before the Alzheimer's disease made itself known, my father and I had taken the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier. I wanted to show it to Bartowsky. Unfortunately, the road was closed. None-the-less, Bartowsky's opinion of the park was good. He was less hip to Eastern Montana. I, on the other hand, find the desolate landscape stunning.
At any rate, here are some photos from yesterday. A little montage of activity.
Last night we spent some time in Minneapolis and the suburb of Minnetonka. We met up with good friends and a favorite uncle.
This morning we drove to Fargo for breakfast with our friend Ray. We then went over to his office and met a couple of his associates. I had met some of them before, but Bartowsky was new to the scene. Good people. And that's North Dakota in a single sentence; good people.
North Dakota always feels like home.
I showed Bartowsky where he was born in Fargo. I keep reminding him that he is the exception and not the rule. Which means simply that he never needs to be afraid because he was born with his chord around his neck and blue from the effort. In short, he was dead. The nurses at what was then Dakota Hopital revived him. He is a miracle. One who crossed over from the other side. I just have to drill that into his melon. He can do anything. He doesn't need to be afraid. Ever. He cheated death and won.
After Fargo, we headed towards Bismarck. But before we did, we had to drive by our old (and little) house in West Fargo. A 700 square foot footprint with a dark basement and a half story tucked under the roof. We were poor. But we were happy.
In Bismarck we stopped at a place called, "Crack Magic." We found the place after doing a Google search on the highway. We picked it because of the name. We wondered if they could repair a rock chip in our windshield. The guy said he could. We rolled into his shop and he fixed not one, but three rock chips. All the while we were chatting away with the nice proprietor about his previous life working for the state DOT, his family, our road trip, etc. Good people personified. Afterwards, on the way out of town, I snapped a picture of the amazing North Dakota sky. Bartowsky was amazed.
We then headed to the town of Dickinson where yours truly grew up. It has changed a lot in the years since I lived there. I showed Bartowsky the old house which is looking worse for wear. Countless nights in a basement bedroom listening to rock and heavy metal as I planned my escape. I showed him the mall. Bored hours drifting around the handful of shops. The high school. Four years of breathing oxygen and taking up space. The main drag where we would cruise endlessly looking for our futures. Or at least some answers to so many (too many) mysteries. I showed him his grandfather's places of employment. The battle with his partners over his economic certainty that the oil boom would end. He was right.
And I talked endlessly about way too many memories. Or so it seemed to me. What I didn't say is that amidst all the recalling of angst and being that lippy little smart Alec that every class must suffer through, which I was, I was thinking of things I couldn't put into words. All the memories of his grandfather and the places we inhabited, or went to on a regular basis, flooded my mind. I could not get beyond surface statements about how his Grandfather, a kid from Pittsburgh's bedroom community of Monaca, loved North Dakota. It was bittersweet. Painful. And almost tearful. Like I said, too many memories. Every turn in the road. Every corner holding an image. A remembrance of the good man at intersections and forgotten streets. And then I took Bartowsky to the place that my father and I visited hundreds of times and that we loved the most. I took him to the Badlands.
Theodore Roosevelt had a ranch in North Dakota. It is roughly only thirty miles or so from Dickinson. Teddy R said that he couldn't have been (wouldn't have been) president without having the experience and time in North Dakota. A New York State boy also fell in love with this wild and untamed place. My father would take his car and his kid, turn up the music on the radio, and fly down old Highway Ten towards Medora -the small town within Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We would eventually get on I-94 and spend an afternoon or evening in Medora, returning at dusk or in early darkness to our home on 8th Avenue West in Dickinson.
Bartowsky and I stopped at the scenic overlook near the interstate. I shared with him that his grandfather would always stop at the overlook no matter what. It blew Bartowsky's mind, just like the ever-present wind blew his naturally curly hair all over the place. I caught a shot of him laughing at the wind. The Wind. The. Wind. It has a personality. Bartowsky is a character, as well. He smiles like his grandfather.
We checked into the Rough Riders Hotel. As a kid I didn't know that the Rough Riders was from a completely different phase in Teddy Roosevelt's life. It had nothing to do with North Dakota. His ranch did, but not the name. However, the name fits this traditionally cowboy centric land. I did know that I always wanted to stay at the little hotel on the corner. The Rough Riders Hotel. Of course that would never happen as a kid, especially when one's house was thirty miles away. So...
Bartowsky made the reservation. We checked in. We decided food was a good idea and went to the restaurant within the hotel. The restaurant is staffed by young people from around the world. Our host was from South Africa. The water person was from Poland. Our waiter was Argentinian. The young lady at the front desk was from far-off Dickinson. The United Nations meets Southwest North Dakota. Awesome!
The food was excellent. No kidding. Just fantastic. Bartowsky ordered a lobster bisque to start followed by bison tenderloin. Oh, and ginger ale. I had the bison Osso Bucco preceded by a beet salad. I washed it all down (a nod to the waiter) with a nice Malbec. Bartowsky was dumbstruck with the quality of the meal. And through it all, I wondered what my father would think as I caught a glimpse of holding his hand as a small child right outside of the hotel. Looking at the hotel. Looking at my dad. Questions.
I found myself wishing that he was with us. The idea of him sharing his incredible stories with his grandson made me stare at Bartowsky's food -lost in thought and controlling the threat of tears. I then thought about staying at the hotel that my dad and I had walked by a hundred times. The hotel we walked by when I held his hand as a small child.
And then I smiled.