From cigar to cigar, 2,061 miles

The trip started with cigars.

The night before we launched on our 2,061-mile trip, my sister Carol and I sat out by her pool in the moist dark with crisp glasses of white wine. We each sparked up a skinny, cherry-flavored cigar with a filtered end. A girlie smoke. As a general rule, neither of us smokes. But it seemed that we needed something a little bold, a little silly, to bond over before we climbed into the car for the long, long trip. Carol’s kept going out. I, on the other hand, had no problem rhythmically puffing streams of smoke out over the glassy still water in front of us. We talked about many things; husbands, kids, grandchildren, our work, even my little dog. I began to worry if we covered all those topics now, there would be little left to keep us going on a trip that would span roughly 40 hours. I shouldn’t have bothered.

I intended to blog as we traveled, posting an update when we reached each day’s destination and I did manage a short, rather dull post the first night. But after that it didn’t get done. In fact, several of our expectations were unrealized. The little bottles of wine we stashed in a small cooler went unopened, the remaining cigars unsmoked.

Here’s the thing about spending hours on end in a car. Even when the forward motion mercifully stops, every nerve in your body keeps going. There is a ghostly sensation of the rumbling road, your ears continue to strain for the humming of the engine, and your brain … well, your brain impulses seem to be struggling through a thick bowl of guacamole. Every thought, every word you endeavor to speak, is a slow go. So, we tended to just flop into bed, feeling fortunate if our synapses coordinated enough to allow for face washing and teeth brushing.

That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy ourselves. As Carol noted on our way out of Jacksonville, “We may have to make our own fun.” That’s where sisters Mary and Donna came in. In the tradition of Flat Stanley, we carried a picture of each of them. Posing them became one our chief amusements. They appeared on every “Welcome to …” sign we found as we entered each of the seven states. They were propped up amongst bottles of locally brewed beer. They were posed with two separate police officers and a couple of friendly bikers. For all our time in Texas (and believe me, we spent a lo-o-ng time in Texas) a picture of Rick Perry was taped to Donna’s shoulder. When we left the state we took a picture of the crumpled Rick and posted it to the family, announcing he was “crushed” to be left behind. We taped our sisters up in a sheriff’s office window like wanted posters, and hung them on cacti. They were photographed on the bank of the Rio Grande and on an ordinary bus bench. As we shared the photos by email, family members joined in, spinning tales of their naughty behavior or protesting their innocence, even as they marked the progress of the trip. As long as the pictures kept coming, they knew we were just fine.
You can see some of the flat sisters pictures at the end of this post.

We bought funky Western shirts in New Mexico and microbrew and po’ boys in Louisiana. We ate boudin sausages with cracklin’ as we streaked down the interstate. In San Antonio, where we spent a day off the road with Carol’s college roommate, we lounged by the pool, were treated to much-needed massages and talked religious philosophies (with a dash of politics) into the night.

It was a ghastly hot summer all over the country, but with the drought poor Texas is nearly burned up. In San Antonio our friend drove us around the end of an extinguished wild fire, the acrid, smoky smell still permeating into the car. Foraging deer with their fawns were out in the middle of the day, starving and looking for water. Even the humans couldn’t not feel it. The air seemed to suck any moisture right out of our skin. Lip chap was indispensable and we swilled bottles of water as we traveled.

Everyone warned us about the drive through West Texas, but even though we were prepared, the sand and mesquite was so vast, so seemingly endless, that we had the sensation of running in place, the engine grinding monotonously but the view never changing. Both of us had a shocking moment behind the wheel to find the speedometer hovering at 100. And still it felt we were getting nowhere. Any break in the monotonous landscape was cause for comment, and we had an entire conversion about an ordinary freight train we could see miles in the distance. When we finally met it we spotted a small grass fire that must have been kicked up by a spark from its wheels. I called 911 and the dispatcher seemed grateful for the heads-up, saying they’d send someone right out.

A small rainstorm did come up that day, dropping the temperature to a merciful 65. Less than 20 miles later, the sun was out again and the car’s outside thermometer was pushing 90. Yes, it is a land of extremes.

At one point we had to drive 13 miles off the interstate to find gas. You’d think that would have made a lasting impression on us, but somehow when we left El Paso both of us flat-out forgot that the tank was low again. Somewhere in the New Mexico badlands Carol was behind the wheel and gasped, “My God, we’re out of gas!” She had no idea how long the low fuel light had been on and the needle was on empty. The next 15 miles were mighty quiet. Happily a gas station hove into view in the nick of time. They commanded a premium price for their gas, but we felt lucky to get it. We figured there was only 2/10ths of a gallon left in the tank.

At a temporary border patrol stop, we fished in our bags for our IDs, both profoundly uncomfortable first at having to “show” our papers, and secondly when we were waved on through with barely a glance, presumably because middle-aged, very white women didn’t fit the profile. We talked about that through many of the following miles.

When we finally rolled into Scottsdale, five days from when we started, we looked at each other in wonder, as if the city had snuck up on us. It felt like we’d gone down Alice’s rabbit hole and come out the other side. For a split second after Carol killed the engine we were silent. And then I said, “We did it.” And she sighed, “We sure did.”

That night, on the patio of her temporary home, we lit cigars and looked out on another, very different pool. Were there any new insights gained? Any wisdom about our country or the people in it? All I can say is that everyone likes to have fun. A surprising number of people joined into the game with our flat sisters. At the James Avery Jewelry showroom we visited, nearly the whole staff laughed over hanging pieces all over sister Mary’s picture. And, to my surprise, off-duty cops have a better sense of humor than I would have guessed.

For me, the meaning of the trip lay in reconnecting with my sister. We’ve always shared the bond of growing up in the same house, with common parents and siblings. But we’ve been adults for a very long time, with different homes, spouses, children and experiences. For five days, we shared a one-on-one experience, arguing a little, laughing a lot and making memories that are special and unique to only us. Bottom line, it was fun. My sister and I spent time together and it was fun.

And we both like the occasional girlie cigar.




Day One: 605 Miles


It was a good day, in the way a goal accomplished is a good day. Nine and 1/2 hours, 603 miles and four states: We said we’d make it from Jacksonville to Baton Rouge and by golly, we did! Right now we’re stumbling around our hotel room, muzzy and travel worn, fighting that odd sensation that we can still feel the road rumbling under us.

Sisters Mary and Donna couldn’t take the trip with us, so we brought their pictures. Much of our day’s entertainment was finding places to pose them and then emailing out the resulting pictures with cutlines Carol and I thought were funny. Or, maybe they just seemed funny after an hour or so of humming road noise. My favorite is above. (No, the officer did not stop us. He was just a nice guy who was filling up his cruiser at a gas station where we stopped.)

As evening drew on, and it became clear that Baton Rouge wasn’t appearing over the horizon any time soon, we hopped off the interstate to have a look around rural Louisiana. Men who spoke softly, with liquidy vowels, directed us to the little town of Abita. Carol, who had been there before, remembered a good restaurant there. The town was pretty, and with the sun going down it was nice to walk around, chatting with a few people who were out on the street. But the restaurant was closed on Mondays, so we went on to find a funky bar with great brass rail and a Louisiana-cool mural on the wall.

The shrimp po’ boy was great, and Carol enjoyed her red beans and rice. Our only disappointment was that they ran out of fried green tomatoes before we got there.

Tomorrow it’s on to San Antonio. It’s 455 miles. That’ll be a piece of cake.

And away we go!

About six weeks ago I got a call from my sister Carol. Her husband, Mike, works for the Mayo Clinic branch in Jacksonville, FL. I already knew that Mike had accepted a temporary six month assignment for the Clinic at the Scottsdale location, and I knew that Carol was considering joining him there. It would mean taking a sabbatical from her work tutoring dyslexic children; a vocation she loves. I hadn’t heard what she’d decided to do.

We chatted for a moment about our kids and grandkids, and then she told me she felt she was ready for a change. The time in Scottsdale was a chance to experiment a bit, try a few new things, maybe do some volunteer work. The only problem was transportation. The Clinic provided a company car for Mike, but if Carol wanted to be free to roam, she’d need to drive her car out. How would I feel about coming along with her?

The first thing that hit me was that Jacksonville to Scottsdale was roughly 80% of the country. And a good chunk of it was that vast, almighty empty known as West Texas. I drew a breath to say, ” No, I couldn’t possibly.” Instead I heard my rather cheerful voice respond, “Sure. Why not?” It was Carol’s turn to gasp.

Why did I say yes? Honestly, I’m not really sure. Maybe it just felt too stuck-in-the-mud to decline. Maybe, as I age, I’m getting more like my grandmother who was always up for a car ride, be it to the Grand Canyon or just a few blocks down to the liquor store. As quick as she could grab her “pocketbook” she was in the shotgun seat. Whatever, I was in. Carol was so shocked at my easy agreement she called back several days later, just to make sure I understood; 2,061 miles. She impressed it on me firmly. Got it? 2,061 miles. Yep, I got it. I was still in.

So, the bags are packed, the car is loaded. We have pictures of our sisters who couldn’t make the trip, Donna and Mary, strapped firmly into the backseat. The plan is to prop them up at various locations so they can vicariously join in the fun (or tedium.) I have practiced driving Carol’s six speed, and only killed the engine once. The husbands have been kissed goodbye. At 9 a.m. we launch ourselves toward Baton Rouge, the first stop on our journey.

I have my pocketbook, and I’m ready to travel.

I envied my son embarking on his Washington adventure, and then …

Everyone has their 9/11 story, and each is important. Mine is one of the milder ones, a quiet one. A lucky one. I was over 1,000 miles away from the cities where terror rained down, in Omaha, NE, sitting in my calm, peaceful office at Creighton University. I believe when a coworker stuck her head in to tell me the news, I even had my feet up on my desk.

A year before, my oldest son, Michael, graduated from Creighton with a degree in Political Science. More than one friend sniffed at his choice of major, asking “Well, what’s he going to do with that?” What Mike did was go to work as a communication aide for a United States senator. In Washington, D.C.

If I was a little envious of the boy, it was because of the city. It was where my parents met during WWII and the stage for the great romance that launched our family. We’d visited in my youth, and later in Mike’s youth, and I loved the city for its beauty and mystique. I was (and still am) proud of my son. My husband worked for the World-Herald newspaper at the time, and a colleague at the paper’s Washington bureau told me Mike’s senator was a tough guy, saying he went through aides quickly because “he chews them up and spits them out.” More than a year in, my kid had proved resilient, learning how to navigate a huge city and a demanding boss.

As I walked out of my office on that pretty fall morning, to a meeting at the Student Center that would last until noon, I heard that the second plane hit. And any small hope that the country wasn’t under attack was gone. It was a painfully quiet, distracted group that met, and it was clear that a few of us near the door were trying to hear what the giant TV that hung over the atrium outside was saying. When we took a break, the group moderator told us before we walked out that another plane had struck the Pentagon. It was unclear if there were any more to come. All I could think was Washington, DC.

I ignored the video of the burning towers on the huge TV monitor and went to the nearest office. I commandeered a phone without even asking the woman who sat at the desk and called my husband’s number at the World-Herald. When he answered the first thing I said was, “Where’s Mike?” He told me everyone on Capitol Hill had been evacuated. “Was Mike with them?” He couldn’t tell me. “Evacuated where?” He didn’t know. He interrupted me to say the towers had come down and I turned to look out the office windows to see film of the first tower falling. A young student worker behind me gasped, “Cool.” I don’t think she understood she wasn’t watching a movie special effect. Then my husband started to say he had a story to write and my temper broke. “Find him,” I snapped. He started to stammer, groping for words, but I didn’t want to hear them. “You know how to find things out, Steve. Find him!” And I hung up the phone.

Somehow we went back to the meeting, although I didn’t pay a bit of attention and to this day couldn’t tell you what was discussed. Shortly before we finished, a woman from my office came in. I watched her cross the room, her face blank, and I knew she was coming for me. It was something about Mike. She leaned down as I turned toward her and she whispered, “Your husband called. Someone from the DC bureau found Mike. Mike asked him to call his dad. He’s fine.” When I looked up with a shaky smile the whole room sighed in relief. Mike and I finally talked later that night. He told me it took him hours to drive from the Hill back to his Alexandria apartment, the gray haze from the Pentagon fire hanging in the air. The next morning he drove past it in the pre-dawn and saw the flag that had been draped there. It was, he still says, a watershed moment.

The Friday after the attack Mike flew into Omaha. The plane he took was one of the first ones out of Dulles. The Nebraska senator he worked for had planned the trip earlier, and they were trying their best to pick up their work. His father and I met him at the airport. Intellectually I knew my son had changed. He had told me so himself. But I didn’t expect to see it so plainly in his face. When he saw us coming toward him, he stopped and leaned a little on the wall, exhaustion in every line of his face. But something else was different, something about his eyes, that made me start running. But I was too late. Much too late. His eyes had changed days earlier, when he stood in the Lower Senate Park and watch the smoke rise over the Potomac.

It’s hard to describe what had gone from my son’s eyes. If there’s a word for it, I don’t know it. The closest I can come is lightheartedness. It’s a spark of assurance that nothing can be so bad, so serious, so dark that it cannot be overcome. It is a look that all the young have and some lucky few of us never have to outgrow. I had seen it in my son’s eyes from the time he was a little boy. That night I realized it was gone forever. Here was a man who was left with no choice but to accept the unacceptable, who understood that there is no way to understand a day where people jumped from skyscrapers, rather than endure the horror within. As he hugged me close and whispered, “Mom,” it seemed in that instant that he was suddenly older than me.

I know that my story is a lucky one. Mike went on to fall in love and marry. He and Susie gave us our darling grandchild Julia a year and a half ago, and now there is another baby on the way. But when I watch Mike with his daughter, see him hold her close, or rock her with a gentleness I never suspected, I sense there are memories that haunt him. Every parent needs to believe they will always stand between their child and disaster. But Mike and I both know it’s all a matter of fate. Insisting down a phone line, “find him,” didn’t help. Watching the smoke across the river didn’t change anything. The only thing we could do was ride it out.

Our light hearts were broken that day, when my son and I both grew up.