Road Trip Postscript: People Along the Way

Michael Hasch, a seasonal National Park Service ranger and battlefield interpreter at the Little Bighorn National Monument, during a talk on September 4, 2021.

I wish I could say that in a trip that covered something like 6,000 miles over 23 days that we met lots of people and had deep conversations that led to profound personal discovery. We didn’t. And maybe the stats mentioned in that first sentence explain part of the reason. We were actually actively traveling for just 15 or 16 days, which means we were covering 400 miles a day on average. That’s nothing for The Great American Road Warrior, for whom 500 or 600 or even 1,000 miles a day is routine (I once took a trip back to Chicago from Berkeley with my son Eamon that covered 2,100 miles in all of 40 hours, even with an overnight stop in Cheyenne, Wyoming). The point being: Even at 400 miles a day, the modern traveler isn’t going to spend a lot of time in intimate conversation with random acquaintances on the road. Even if you’re the kind of person who easily strikes up a conversation with a total stranger, which mostly I am not.

On the other hand, the conversations that do happen tend to stand out.

When John and I stopped at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, one of the main destinations on our trip, we encountered a group at the top of what has long been known as Last Stand Hill, the place where Lt. Col. George A. Custer and the remnants of his command died together on June 25, 1876. People were listening to a ranger named Michael Hasch recount the progress of the battle. I was impressed by Hasch’s command of the lore surrounding the battle, including the many first-person accounts from Native American participants. One moment I remember in particular from his talk: The moment when a Cheyenne named Lame White Man rallied fellow warriors to the attack by shouting, “Come! We can kill them all!” Hasch has a deep voice, and it carries. He spoke slowly, deliberately, and when he intoned those words, it was like the moment was coming alive again. After his presentation, I talked to Hasch and discovered he is a former Pittsburgh newspaper reporter who began volunteering at the battlefield a decade ago. One of the people listening to that conversation was a woman who used to be a local news anchor in San Francisco, and that led to yet another conversation with a stranger. But that’s another story.

So, that’s one encounter during our trip across the country. Here are a couple of others:

Laura and Jamie at the top of Teton Pass, Wyoming.

We met Laura and Jamie at the top of Teton Pass, Wyoming (elevation 8,432 feet above sea level). We had driven up the west side on our way from Idaho to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. They arrived pushing a heavily-laden tandem bike up the east side.

Jamie and Laura’s custom-built tandem, complete with trailer. I believe they said the total weight of their outfit was about 200 pounds — no joke when climbing steep mountain roads.

What was their story? They said they had both quit their jobs, sold their home and most of their belongings and had a custom tandem built. Their plan was (presumably still is) to spend five years cycling around, mostly in Europe. They had ridden from Connecticut by way of Louisiana to get to this spot on Wyoming Highway 22, and planned to cycle up the west flank of the Tetons before heading east into Yellowstone. After that, they’d make their way east and south to Florida, where they planned to spend the winter before heading to Europe. The biggest impression they made on me was how cheerful they were after pushing their machine up the last two miles of busy roadway up to the pass. I, too, have pushed my bike up steep mountain roads, and I’m not sure I was smiling all the way.

What more can I say about these two? Godspeed, Laura and Jamie.

The motive for our road trip (or excuse, maybe) was to commemorate what would have been our dad’s 100th birthday in early September by visiting his birthplace and first hometown in northwestern Minnesota. We got to Marshall County a few days after the actual centennial, and spent much of the day taking pictures at a rural Lutheran church where our grandfather, Sjur Brekke, was pastor a century ago. The we headed to Alvarado, population 300, where Sjur, our grandmother, Otilia, and dad lived (and where Sjur saw to another Lutheran congregation). After that, we drove the five or six miles east on Minnesota Highway 1 to Warren, the county seat, where Dad was actually born. One thing I had discovered about Warren during a 2018 trip through the area (and somehow had missed during a couple of much earlier visits) is that the town’s drive-in theater, the Sky-Vu, is still in business.

John and I pulled in to the Sky-Vu to take a look. Like everyplace else where we stopped for more than a couple of minutes, we brought out cameras and started strolling around taking pictures. Next door, a man on a riding mower was cutting the grass on a sprawling lawn in front of a big ranch-style house painted the same pink color as the concession stand/projection booth at the theater. After about five minutes, he drove the mower over to see what we were up to.

“Your place?” I said. Or something like that. And it was. His name: Leonard Novak, and he said he’d bought the Sky-Vu in the early 1970s and that he and his family have been running it since; a grandson is doing most of the work now. As it happens, KFAI in Minneapolis did a nice radio documentary about 10 years ago featuring the Novaks and the Sky-Vu in which Leonard says he doesn’t foresee the theater closing, ever: “We’re the only one (drive-in) between Winnipeg and Minneapolis.” And judging from the fact it’s still open, and still showing first-run movies, maybe he’s right.

Leonard Novak. Owner, Sky-Vu Theater, Warren, Minnesota.

Road Blog: Berkeley to Butte


This morning I took a 6:35 flight from Oakland to Seattle–the packed zoo-ish Southwest Airlines variety–then, in the company of my son Eamon and daughter-in-law Sakura, made a sharp right turn (if you’re looking at the map with north on top) and headed over the Cascades and well beyond on Interstate 90. We wound up in Butte at nightfall. I figure the day involved about 750 air miles and another 600 on the road. All set up with two hours of sleep, the result of a push to get some work done yesterday evening. That seems like a long time ago.

From out of the overload, one image that there’s no picture for: a pair of sandhill cranes winging across the Interstate, somewhere in that last hour on the road, an apparition in the long light of the last day of May, after crossing the Cascades, the Palouse, the first low passes of the Rockies, with rivers in every valley running full, the higher peaks all gleaming mid-winter white. Kind of hard for me to figure what season we’re in. The cranes have a bead on it, though.

Tomorrow? There’s talk of the Little Big Horn and Deadwood. We shall see.

Two much more prosaic snapshots go into the book for today, though. Above: On the Palouse, west of Spokane. Below: Serious advice from the state of Washington for a certain class of drivers and their friends.


Road Blog: Ode to California

(Upon crossing the Colorado River)

Ah, California!
Your fiscal mess, your taxes, your repossessed homes;
Your Governator, your initiatives and your political schemes;
Your freeways and traffic and drivers yearning to speed;
Your 36 million people and all that they want;
Your deserts, your mountains and valleys and rivers, your dams;
Your stunning weather, your drought and your thirst;
Your condors and salmon and spotted owls, your smog and wildfires;
Your ports, your cities, your suburbs flung every which way;
Your towns: Beverly Hills, Oakland, Weed, and Shafter; Berkeley, Compton, Taft, and Fort Bragg;
Your prisons and prisoners, your guards, your cops;
Your students, your teachers, your school segregation;
Your sunshine and field workers and endless farms;
Your agribusiness, your entrepreneurs, your next big things;
Your visionary schemes and your reluctance to pay.

The limitless dream, the busboy, the kid who can’t read;
The redwood, the dead mill, the air you can’t breathe;
The surf, the oil spill, the guy asleep on the street;
A million reasons to stay and a million to leave.

On the prairie and over the mountains I roam;
Crossing the Colorado, California, I’m home.

Road Blog: Kansas City to Lamar, Colorado


Got a late start from Kansas City this morning, and took our time in Chase County–home of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve–before doing some serious driving starting at about 2:30 in the afternoon. Well, we had lunch in Cottonwood Falls, the Chase County seat, and since we had just one key for the car and were concerned about locking it in the car–we stopped by a general dry good store with a sign that said it made keys. Getting the spare key was a half-hour process that involved the store proprietor expressing doubts about his ability to cut a two-sided key, a long search through the blanks he had in stock, and a digression about a locking gas cap that once had failed him. We did not hurry him along. Finally, he chose a blank he thought might work since he didn’t have the one specified for our Toyota Echo, and cut it with no problem. He said he thought it would work in the car, took our buck-eighty, and we were on our way. The new key works fine and all we have to remember to do now is not to leave the spare key in the car where we won’t be able to retrieve it when we lock the other one inside the vehicle.

We also wasted some time trying to locate Kansas Highway 150, which our map sort of implied might head west from Cottonwood Falls. Eventually we found it, but not before driving back and forth on a back road that goes past the town fishing lake and through a dying hamlet called Elmdale–still on the map–just off U.S. 50.

Elmdale looked desolate and much the worse for wear. Only one business appeared to exist in town–a grocery that except for the soda vending machines outside looked like it might be shut down. Just down the main street from there was a small edifice built from the same sandy-colored limestone that appears in many substantial buildings in the area. It was the city hall, built (according to an inscription at the lower right of the picture) by the Works Progress Administration in 1936.

Chris remarked that the place reminded him of a desperately poor town in eastern Kentucky, Pineville, that we had driven through with our dad in 1966. The shattered houses, some abandoned, some still occupied, reinforced the impression. So did the scruffy city park and the nearly empty streets. The one sign of activity was someone unloading a truck full of wooden pallets, adding them to the hundreds of pallets already stacked near one home. I wondered whether they were intended as firewood.

There’s a story to the town, one that naturally is not evident from a five-minute look at the place. By way of the town’s Wikipedia entry, I came upon a terrific (though undated) story from the Emporia Gazette that chronicles the town’s decline over the past 60 years, mostly due to a series of floods. The piece is accompanied by some nice shots from a Michigan photographer, Galen Frysinger.

Trip coordinates:

Departure point from Chicago: 42 degrees, 0 minutes, 32 seconds N. latitude
87 degrees, 41 minutes, 21 seconds W. longitude

Day One stop: 39 degrees, 6 minutes, 52 seconds N.
94 degrees, 45 minutes, 46 seconds W.

Day Two stop: 38 degrees, 6 minutes, 13 seconds N.
102 degrees, 37 minutes, 6 seconds W.

Home (Berkeley): 37 degrees, 52 minutes, 39 seconds N.
122 degrees, 16 minutes, 53 seconds W.

Comment: We’re within a quarter degree of our destination latitude. We’re about 20 degrees east of it. I don’t believe we’ll find a straight-line route.

Tuesday Notebook

Today’s best journal titles: Thorax and Chest, both encountered in the midst of a writing project.

Today’s top concern: Getting everything packed as I get ready to take my slow-motion, long-distance cycling thing on the road (translation: I’m leaving Berkeley for a cross-country road trip today; we’ll wind up in New York, where I’ll get on a plane for Paris-Brest-Paris).

Today’s related concern: Gas mileage. We’re renting a car to drive across the country. I’m bringing too much bike-related crap to do the smart thing and get a small, relatively fuel-efficient car. So I opted for a Subaru Outback, which is actually OK mileage- and emissions-wise. I booked it last week and showed up at the Hertz counter at the Oakland airport today to pick it up. My reserved car wasn’t ready because it turned out they had no Subaru Outbacks; when I complained — mildly, for me, mentioning that it was “weird” that there was no car since I made the reservation last week — I was told that the outlet was expecting an Outback but the current renter hadn’t returned it. Uh huh. It just so happened that they had a not-so-spanking new Toyota Highlander, non-hybrid version, ready to roll. So that’s what we’ve got. Crude oil just hit an all-time high today. Gas prices in the Bay Area are at about $3.10-$3.20 per gallon of regular, ethanol-doctored fuel. Big surprise — we’re going to get murdered on our gasoline bill.