These Things That Happened

Day 13 (Home)

Kathie Lee Gifford, already said it… Keith Richards, he said it… Kelly Shemanske, not famous… Cory Booker, wrong letter… Kelly Rippa, Clarkson, Osbourne, Katie Holmes, Kyle Richards, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Costner, Kate Beckinsale, Moss, Hudson…I’ve already done them all. 

“Why do you always do ‘K’s!” I say flattening against the car door as if I’m famished. 

Michael shrugs, hardly taking his eyes off the road to look over at me, “Just what comes to mind.” His turn lasted less than a minute. Every name rolls off his tongue where twenty more slide in behind it, like a celebrity name vending machine, endlessly refillable by the ages of TV he’s watched, his inexhaustible memory for pop culture details, especially names. The more obscure, the more he savors the memory. He’s enjoyed naming entire casts of 70s sitcoms I haven’t even heard of. 

But I don’t give up the challenge. We’ve passed half a day this way, effortlessly. But now, fourty-five seconds for his turn, stretching past five minutes for my turn, he’s getting a little bored.

“Common’ Annie. You giving up?”

“No.” I am searching giant bookshelves of names, as I walk deeper into the bowels of my memory. They are getting dustier, greyer, fainter. I have the distinct experience of my mind as a giant building and I have reached the outer walls of the final floor. Or that it’s a sand dune in the Namibian desert that I have been shoveling for hours and finally reached rock. But the more I claw at the surface of the walls or bang at the hard ground with my shovel, it begins to give way to hidden rooms and dissolve into more grains of sand…

“Kate Chopin!” How could I have tucked her so far away, I think to myself, one of my most favorite authors of all time.

“Who’s that?” Michael asks skeptically. I assure him she’s real, she counts, she’s famous. Now it’s his turn, and he has to find a name beginning with C, as in Chopin.

“Clive Owen.” He said in less than ten seconds.

“Who’s that?” I ask as if it matters, as if I’ll remember the name for the next time we play, parked around a backyard campfire. As if I’ll remember the name past this next turn, when my whole mind becomes an “O” the sound of O echoing until it sparks a memory, not so much of a person, or the story of a person, but the memory of a sound, something to dislodge a name from the shelves, to free it from the dust and brambles, from the weight of sand. A name that begins with O. A name like Owen, Oliver, Ol-Ov-Ob-Ok—– “Ottis Redding.”

For hours.

There is nothing to see, nothing to care about looking at. Country I’ve seen before, even without ever seeing it. The flat sprawl of nothingness. Not nothingness, but familiarity, which can feel the same. 

Earlier that morning we’d woken up with the new rhythm of our bodies, at about six. Getting ready was a simple twirl around the room, brushing teeth, putting dirty socks and underwear into an almost empty bag. It took some time to walk and feed the dogs, but I used it to get the kids up and tell them to meet us in the lobby for breakfast. Ian was already awake and dressed so I gave him the key to camper and asked him to take the dogs there and feed them while the rest of us finished cleaning up. At breakfast I snapped a picture. My motherly attempt to turn this tired necessity into a captured memory. 

But the tower of yogurts, the bottomless jug of OJ, the promise of all you can eat waffles was nothing more than a tactical move against the endless driving ahead of us and the probability of forgone dinners, a testament to our waning energy for creativity. We eat all we can stuff into our bellies at 7:30 in the morning and savor the hot coffee, no matter how bad it is. 

When I arrive at the front desk to check out, the manager has been briefed on my overpayment issue, which turns out to be my fault after all. The rooms were under two names, mine and my husbands… which I’d failed to mention to the desperate clerk at our midnight check-in. They refund me the extra charges while I pick out a few Ogallala postcards. I figure a Postcard at this point in the trip is more about the surprise arrival at the recipient’s address and less about showcasing our fabulous destinations, which we’ve recently run out of. I sign paperwork, purchase the postcards and say thank you to the staff just as Michael and the gang are pulling up from their gas station run.  We soar out of Ogallala and head straight across the state towards Iowa.

The kids are reading their books, playing or watching videos and movies on their devices and they never ask once how much longer. They know that only driving with as little stopping as possible will get us home on time. They bury their minds and let the hours pass. Michael and I are on hour 7 of the name game. I’ve come up with dozens of celebrity names beginning with “K” and “B” and “M” always circling back to the same letters, usually immediately after I’ve spent fifteen to twenty minutes coming up with the previous name. I’ve dusted every corner of my mind until it feels barren. But when I’ve almost given up, and Michael is beginning to look for a different way to occupy his mind, a shiny new name pops up and slips out on my tongue and the game is renewed. I’m able to drive for hours on this flat terrain, taking us through half the opening chorus of the Music Man (“Dubuque, Des Moines, Davenport, Marshaltown, Mason City, Keokuk, Ames, Clearlake!”) and into Illinois. We stop for a quick dinner of sandwiches and gas station nuts. The kids use their own money to buy candy. Michael takes over driving until we begin to see signs for Chicago and I-90, words and directions that promise the home stretch is upon us. 

We have one more night to get through and plenty of cached generator hours left on the RV.  That’s how we decide it’s time to include a Walmart Parking Lot in our list of road trip stories. I begin figoogling which Walmarts are open 24 hours just outside of Chicago. We decide on the one in Hammond, just about five miles over the border into Indiana. It’s barely 10pm when we pull into the almost empty lot and pile out of the RV. Ian walks the dogs while the two teenagers and I use the Walmart restrooms. Walking back to the RV we meet a deflated Michael and oblivious Ian, who is walking the dogs freely all over the parking lot instead of sticking to the grassy area behind like we’d instructed. I’m unclear if the look on Michael’s face is because of Ian or something else, until he points to the sign, “No Overnight Parking.” I now see identical signs covering the lot. We consider moving to a darker area near the trees, but the images of being woken up by the flashlights of Chicago Suburbanite Walmart Employees, or worse, cops, is just slightly more sickening than the thought of more driving. We’ve been driving, almost without stopping for the last twelve hours. 

Then Michael spots a mass of 18 wheelers off in the distance, in a lot beyond this one. “I bet that’s something.”  It’s worth checking out. We cross the Walmart lot and enter a lot for Cabela’s Boating Center, a Bass Pro Shop’s affiliate. As we head towards the row of tractor trailers there is a dark green sign that is difficult to read but catches our attention anyway. In friendly yellow lettering it reads,  “Overnight RV Parking: FREE, 7pm – 7am, Potable Water, Dump Station, Horse Stalls…” I pretty much stop reading after the first line. We are saved. 

The lot is mostly full already with 18 wheelers. As we drive around looking for the water hook-up we can see lights glowing in the lofts above the truck cabins. It’s the first time any of us realize that truckers have huge lofts above the cab where they can fit a bed and probably a few other personal items. We consider a few parking spots inline with the Trucks, one is next to the collection of horse stables. But then Michael sees a large woman in bright red clothing that hardly covers her, climbing into one of the cabs, and we worry we may not be welcome among the trucker crowd. We opt for a spot along the back of the lot, parallel to the edge. We kind of can’t believe our lot-docking luck, but we are soaking up the relief. 

While the kids get their beds together Michael and I put on warmer layers and step outside to share a smoke. Neither of us are really smokers, but an end of the day cigarette, much to our parents and children’s disapproval, is sometimes a nice end-cap. For me it’s still a small reminder that I can break the rules, that I’m an adult. Though it’s a feeling that’s finally beginning to lose its power as I age. But tonight we use the cigarette break as a chance to explore the lot and enjoy the midwestern chill in the air. Eventually we give up on finding the dump station when all we can find are drains next to the water spickets screwed shut with steel covers. We’re asking for too much.

When I come back inside to go to bed, Miriam is still awake and calls me over for a last goodnight kiss. She sniffs at my face and tells me I smell. “Michael had a cigarette,” I lie. Later, when we’re home, I think over that moment and realize immediately that of course she already knew what we were doing outside, which is why she called me over in the first place. The next chance I get I sit her down and remind her of that night, I apologize for lying, I acknowledge what she already knows, and that I know she knows it. But I tell her not to worry, it’s nothing dangerous, just once in a while, something that relaxes me. But I also promise that if she’s ever worried, she can tell me to stop and I’ll stop for good. Either way, I haven’t had a cigarette since. Guilt is a powerful motivator.

That give and take, between what a mother needs and what a child needs, that’s what’s changing in our lives. That’s what we’ve seen on this trip. I need time with my kids, my kids need time for themselves. I need to see the things I’ve always dreamed of seeing, my kids need good stories to tell their friends. I need adventure, my kids need assurance that my adventure won’t be too much for them to handle. I need every moment to count. My kids just need to get home. As we curl into bed that night, we are sure of ourselves, sure that we’ll make it home, sure that our planning worked out, sure that we held up despite the constant push of the last 13 days. 

The next day we skip filling up our water, finally assured we have enough, and we don’t worry about dumping the sewer, since we’ll have to dump a final time anyways before we return the RV to its owners. We pull out of our final haven and cross the highway to a Starbucks with a large parking lot and all get out to buy ourselves some breakfast. When I get to the front of the line, Michael starts in on me with complaints about our order, what the kids are getting, and I throw a little temper tantrum in line just to get him to stop talking to me. I can’t care anymore how I’m perceived, or what the mood is between family members. It’s like when you’ve been holding your pee in successfully for three hours but when you get in sight of the toilet your bladder just starts letting go. Not that I’ve been holding anything in exactly, more that I can be easy going when I’m traveling or on vacation. The pressures I usually carry around in my life are on hold, and vacation pressures just don’t stick. But when that time is up, everything matters like it once did, my temper is short, my mind distracted by a thousand different to-do lists. But I let my anger go as quickly as it came, something I could never seem to do before… so maybe that’s new. The poor barista is waiting patiently for me to gather my thoughts, so I finish ordering and parade the kids out of line to wait.

Michael and I continue the name game. Perhaps this game will be record breaking. Yesterday’s names are still off limits, used up. But the break of sleep has refilled my mind’s shelves and the names come more easily. Time, like the memories we will keep of this day, burn up almost instantly. Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania usher us past three great lakes without our notice. Somewhere between Erie Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York I search the internet for a solution to emptying our on board sewer. Turns out there is a world of RV amenities outside of the expensive urban and mountain top resorts I’d chosen for the bulk of our trip. After fourteen days on the road, and thousands of dollars poorer, we discover free overnight parking, a map so full of little circles with dump stations that the country itself is obscured. Boondocking, the word for RV camping without paying, felt unrealistic and scary when I was researching and planning our road trip. But now I can see how easily it becomes a way of life for the untethered.  

We stop at a truck stop a little over two hours from home and take our time. We are ahead of schedule. We get early dinners at the fast food booths across from the showers. Michael and I consider the gift shop for some last minute gifts for someone at work we’d forgotten about. Most of the worthy items double as advertising for New York State and we decide against last minute gifts. I pay $5 for the key to the dump station cover and flirt a little with the friendly cashier who is indulging me in the short version of our epic trip. Michael and the kids empty the black and grey water tanks while I fill our water bottles and walk the dogs. A list of chores we are doing this one last time. 

Two hours is around the corner. Two weeks ago, it took us almost an hour to leave our home town. Michael had turned the wrong way out of our driveway and took five miles to find a place where he felt comfortable turning the rig around and another ten miles before he found a route out of town that suited his jelly legs still getting a feel for hauling 31 feet of steel, the entire family, and… the kitchen sink. But on the return journey, it is no more than looking up from the article you are reading, finishing a text conversation with a kissy emoji, singing along to the chorus of the song on your ipod, finally beating the troublesome level of your mobile game, the sun dropping below the horizon with a final flash of light… and we pull into our driveway and turn off the engine.

I sit in the passenger seat, the speed and thousands of miles catching up suddenly and throwing me physically forward into the next moment, a list of motions. Get out of the car, look in the dark to find the extension cord we’d left coiled beside the garage 13 mornings ago, plug in the vehicle, grab my purse and let the dogs out. The dogs know before I do that we’re home, that the trip is finally over. The pups couldn’t be more excited and relieved to be home. But I don’t feel the same. What happens tomorrow? My kids will wake up with me and help unload the RV; together we’ll carry leftover food to the fridge and empty weeks of life into a pile that obstructs the downstairs hallway. They’ll raid the cabinets for snacks and leave the toilet seat up. They’ll pose dutifully with tired emotions and honest faces for a final family selfie. Then I’ll drive them to their other parent’s house. Say “I love you,” and hug and kiss them goodbye for the next couple days. Goodbye to our solitude of togetherness, our moving as one family over states, up mountains and into canyons, across rivers, and to the ocean. Never having to switch families, never having to say goodbye, only goodnight with a hug, each night, every night. Closer than we’d been since they were all babies. 

The trip has ended. Only the memories remain. Memories I will try to capture with hand to keyboard, heart melted into phrases and perfect words. Only my honest reflection to hold onto, and hope. Hope that the memories will hold and someday come back to visit me like eager children waiting to hear a story. But for now, telling whoever will listen is all I can do to hold on to these 13 days, these 6 thousand miles, these things that happened.

emails from the writer…

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Published by Annie Aaroe

Writer, marketing geek and two decades long restaurant owner.

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