This summer—as we have done for three years now—my wife, my five kids, and our good friend Rusty filled every seat of our heavy-laden and aptly-named Odyssey and took a road trip out West. Our farthest reach this trip was Santa Fe where I would attend the Glen Workshop—a week-long arts conference hosted by Image Journal at St. John’s College.
We turned out of our driveway in Sugar Hill, Georgia with that now expected feeling that we had forgotten something. Just to make sure, we tallied our children, 1-2-3-4-5, and drove on.
Of all our trips so far, we were least equipped for this one. Books could be filled, but likely won’t be, with stories of the generosity—of friends, family, and strangers—that smoothed our way.
At our first stop in Clarksville, Tennessee, we were hosted by Clayton and Jessalyn Schmidt, who have long represented for me the best of golden-age America—quiet faith, industry devoted to value rather than profit, strength in the service of gentleness.
Clayton gave me a fine old-style haircut (an “executive contour”) at his barber shop—complete with a hairline shave from a straight razor, a steaming towel, and a massage of the temples and neck.
Clayton and Jessalyn’s generosity, as it tends to do according to its kind, mothered more generosity. Jessalyn’s parents welcomed us to use their pool and their grill. When my son asked in his child-like boldness for the Lego figures he had found in one of their rooms, they didn’t hesitate to acquiesce to his request, though they probably kept these toys for their own children’s children.
We were sad to leave, another expected feeling, when we got back on the road for Kansas City.
Road trips offer a view of the nation that cannot be matched by any other mode of mechanized travel. I hardly need to mention the abstracted neutrality planes maintain regarding the country. But even a train, though it may recite what views it has memorized, will not let you stop whenever you want to.
Taking advantage of our transportational medium, we linger quite typically in national parks, museums, and historical sites.
But many times, the places of necessity—those places happening along our way that we didn’t think to accommodate for a visit—have proved, only upon inspection, to have better warranted our inspection.
I like to think myself virtuous because I am willing to condescend even to things I believe in the moment to be deservedly unattended. Yet I always discover my own poverty when my attention reveals the superior value of meek significance—a value that becomes for me both a reward for my attention and a rebuke of my pride.
And so I keep relearning, though it takes only a moment to forget again, that the unattended obscurities of this world often hold more wonders in their communion than the great and well-retinued clichés, so often spoiled by our uncritical acceptance.
That said, I could not give you an account of every usually unattended thing along our path, nor do you want me to try, I’m sure: for hundreds of miles and as many minutes, the deafening shhhh of the tires on the road doubled the treble wind all around us; train cars covered in graffiti rolled past barns in need of paint; rain practiced its impressionism on and through the windows; the smell of a feed lot reminded me of a freshly opened package of beef jerky—just a matter of time.
My great Aunt Charlene let us stay in her then unoccupied house in Kansas City—in Raytown to be precise, the town where my mother grew up. She apologized to me on the phone because no food stocked her fridge and freezer waiting for us. The power had gone out for a few days, she explained, while she recovered at her grandson’s house from a hospital stay, and he and his son had come over and cleared out the rotting mess. Since she hadn’t been there in months, they hadn’t purchased any more groceries. “I’m sorry,” said the convalescing widow on a fixed income who gave us free reign of her house on short notice.
I remember in my youth spending rose-colored summers in her basement with what seemed to me a never-ending supply of “pop,” licorice rope, and Super Mario Brothers 3. She made her specialties, fried tacos and margaritas, flicking inch-long cigarette ashes into the coffee she was still drinking and laughing with the people she loved until she was stooped over and hacking. Like my grandmother, her sister, it seems her greatest comforts are a good sermon, anything that resembles a massage—even a hand resting on her back, and the happiness of children.
We saw her a few times in the two days we stayed there. I could see the sadness in her as well as the strength. Her sister, my mother’s mother, died last year. They are of the same cloth. I remember them both often.
Pawnee Lake, Nebraska
After that, we stopped near Lincoln, Nebraska to camp at nearby Pawnee Lake. At our campsite, we grilled some grass-fed beef and corn in the husk, fare which seemed fitting to the place. We tried to roast mini-marshmallows (we couldn’t find large ones with Vanessa-approved ingredients) on kabobs to make s’mores. The kids decided not to tell the difference, though we did.
The night air, hot and close, didn’t afford us much sleep. We woke to the morning dew, our tent a greenhouse for the baking of the morning sun. Having woken however many minutes after the dawn it took for the sun to peak over the ash trees, we were set to be on time to church for once.
Last year we went to Redeemer Church in Lincoln, and the congregation familied us immediately. My wife had made an Instagram friend from the church who commented on the sunset pic of our campsite at Pawnee Lake, and my wife responded that they should expect to see us Sunday morning.
We entered the address for Redeemer church, got most of the way there, and parked in a lot on the correct road that had some free spaces in it. We heard the church bells ringing. We were almost late somehow, having taken our time getting coffee and changing our clothes at the Lincoln Whole Foods. We needed to hurry. We assumed that the church across from our lot must be Redeemer.
It wasn’t. We realized this only after we had already entered the sanctuary, our eight additional congregants significantly augmenting the assembly. Realizing we couldn’t turn back, we filled a pew at Immanuel Church and waited for what God had in store for us.
The pastor, one my Aunt Charlene would have liked, was in the midst of a sermon series on God’s body parts. That morning’s sermon was on His everlasting arms. We sang the good old Baptist tune. He asked the children to come forward for a talk, and he spoke to them much like he spoke to the rest of us—with warmth and simplicity. He never even said anthropomorphic that I remember.
He said God holds His sheep, His children, in his strong arms like a shepherd, like a Father, close to His chest so we can hear His calming heart beat. Before the children went back to join their blood families, Pastor Pete gave each of them a Dum-Dum lollipop, a little incarnation of the sweetness of God.
After the sermon, Pastor Pete asked for prayer requests. Rusty mentioned the arts conference I was set to speak at in Appomattox, which had not yet received very many confirmations on attendance. Pastor Pete told us that if we were interested in the arts, we should talk to the couple sitting a few pews from the back. They raised their hands when we looked in their direction.
After the service ended, we approached this couple who had some dealings with the arts. I expected little, but I decided it would be ungracious not to speak to them after such an invitation. As it turns out, they were Dan Siedell’s parents. Barry, Dan’s father, told me his son wrote God in the Gallery, which I would later see featured in the Glen Workshop’s bookstore. I would hear Dan Siedell quoted approvingly during the conference. At the time, I didn’t know his name.
From the start of our conversation, Barry shared my spirit for the arts—to see believing artists with vision supported by faithful congregations with discernment. To think we had come to this church, another unattended thing, to these pure-hearted people, so worthy of honor. To think we had come here by mistake.
Our next stop was Oshkosh, Nebraska—the birthplace of my wife and her ancestral home—for the longest pause of our trip. We stayed in the house that my wife Vanessa’s deceased father, a carpenter and woodworker, had finished for my wife’s grandparents, Norma and King, both also deceased. Vanessa’s mother Pat, like some kind of a kinswoman redeemer, had purchased the house with her brother to keep it in the family. As we had done for years before, we spent about two weeks there, re-establishing our routine: french press, eggs, Bible-reading, work, pool/park/hike, dinner, free time with the kids, prayer, free time without the kids, sleep.
The lesser-known Oshkosh in western Nebraska has none but coal and corn trains moving through it. It’s a three-hour drive from Denver, the nearest commercial airport. The only passengers flying into Oshkosh are crop-dusting pilots returning from their work over the fields or the critically injured.
Oshkosh lies about twenty minutes from Ash Hollow, once an important stop on the Oregon Trail. One of the rare places on the Trail with abundant fresh water, Ash Hollow offered the last real breather for the weary before the Rockies. If you want to know what small things can do with enough time, you should see the ravine that wagon wheels and hooves made out of a dirt path through the plains.
The state built a bridge in Ash Hollow so you could cross over the ravine that used to be the Trail on your short hike up one of the hills that augured the mountainous horrors those pioneer families had to look forward to further West. Convinced by this Windlass Hill, so named because covered wagons had to be lowered from it with winches, many pioneers decided to settle in Ash Hollow or the surrounding Garden County plains. Others turned back East. Pioneers called it “seeing the elephant” when the enormity of the journey finally overwhelmed one’s resolve to keep traveling.
We happened to be in Oshkosh for the sesquicentennial celebration of Nebraska’s statehood, which the Lakota Sioux commemorated with a “Convergence on Sacred Ground” at Ash Hollow. Some Lakota artifacts taken by an American soldier after the 1855 Blue Water Creek Massacre had been gifted to the Smithsonian, and these same artifacts had been loaned by the Smithsonian to the Ash Hollow State Park Museum under the supervision of the Little Thunder family of the Lakota Sioux.
Over 150 years ago, Little Thunder’s family had been nearly wiped out at the Blue Water Creek Massacre. His son, also named Little Thunder, had barely survived, and this son’s distant descendants organized the convergence at Ash Hollow. They camped in tepees beside pioneer re-enactors just a stone’s throw from Blue Water Creek.
The pioneer re-enactors wore canvas and skin. They used oil lamps. They ate hardtack, I think. “Everything has to conform to what was available before the year 1840,” a sweet couple told us, plucked out of time, in the awning shade of their square, yellowed-canvas tent. They said they were getting a little too old to be sleeping outside anymore.
We saw some pioneer re-enactors who sang some old saloon songs while “the highest-kicking dancing girls west of the Mississippi” did the best they could in the dust and the heat. I cannot verify that the toes of these dancing girls reached an apex unparalleled elsewhere in the West, as claimed, but perhaps their announcer was merely re-enacting the hyperbole of campfire tall tales or snake oil pitches.
We saw some cowboys brand a young steer with a red hot iron, stretching out its bound legs with ropes front and back while its mother looked on lowing from behind a crude wooden fence. This branding seemed to us an unnecessary cruelty, though we were assured cattle thieves still roamed the plains. Again, I couldn’t tell if they were just playing a part.
Watching the re-enactors did not prepare me for the Lakota ceremonies. The Lakota carried their gear in pick-up trucks, wore denim and T-shirts, used matches and lighter fluid rather than the flint firestarters they still carried in ceremonial pouches around their necks. They looked a little more like present-day Americans than the pioneer actors.
But this wasn’t dress-up for them. They weren’t playing a part. When the convergence was over, they would pack up and return to the bad land reservation from this more fertile country out of whose hand their ancestors once lived and had been plucked.
The eldest of the Little Thunder family, in full bead and eagle feather regalia, danced to a song his nephew drew out from a long wooden pipe to the accompaniment of a pre-recorded acoustic guitar over the PA. Little Thunder stomped, his legs bent at right angles, his hands meeting firmly at his heart and spreading out to embrace the great sky his face looked to.
Punctuating the drawn undulations of the pipe’s long breaths, Little Thunder would let his passion escape from his open mouth occasionally. The sound he made reminded me of once when my brother-in-law executed a full-grown beaver with a .22 pistol for the crime of felling the wrong trees around our pond. The small-caliber bullet lodged at the base of the beaver’s skull. He went down, but he didn’t die immediately. He cried in forced resignation, a last defiance to inevitable death—a short, stifled moan I will never forget. That sound.
I cried. I felt only helpless remorse and strained, useless pity. I had no idea what could be done to fix this. I still don’t.
After Little Thunder’s dance, his nephew invited us all, all the members of “the two-legged race,” to join hands in a big circle while his family beat on animal skin drums to keep time. The circle of people revolved and snaked around the nylon green pavilion from where the nephew kept repeating some iteration of “Connect over Blue Water Creek.”
Little Thunder led us. The circle would contract in a rush of shouting and then expand back out. It moved too fast for me on one side, too slow on the other, the sweat-moistened hands in mine would start to slip, my shoulders started to ache, our arms hand-tied in opposite directions, barely holding on. Whenever the circle broke, Little Thunder’s nephew would say, “Heal the circle.” Or he would say, “Reconnect over Blue Water Creek.”
I did not know what this meant. How could I reconnect with the victims of so much abuse, since I am identified with the very people whose abuse shattered their way of life and relegated their existence to marginalized wastelands? Would this forgiveness cost us nothing, when the offense had cost them everything, and even now?
We don’t usually call it “The Blue Water Creek Massacre,” even now. We usually call it “The Battle of Ash Hollow,” as if our army won some victory for us against the armies of our enemies, as if using infants for target practice could ever be justified by the exigencies of war.
This all started over a Mormon pioneer’s runaway cow found on Lakota lands that a man named High Forehead killed for food and shared with his family. They called High Forehead a thief and tried to force him to pay. Blood fathered blood and retaliation fathered retaliation until everyone finally had just cause to hate and distrust each other.
But the American troops prevailed in cruelty. Then U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis finally got his way concerning the natives, his cause later aided by William T. Sherman’s ruthlessness. On the same side at last. And our military completed what Sherman proposed, in an 1867 letter to Grant, as the “final solution of the Indian problem”: “killing hostile Indians and segregating their pauperized survivors in remote places.”
Will these, the “pauperized survivors,” shake my hand in forgiveness and reconciliation, part with me as friends, and return to their wilderness with nothing more than they already had? Did the Lakota allow that we, the impersonator sons of their ancestors’ murderers, were also victims of Blue Water Creek, victims of our father’s legacy? I certainly felt helpless against it all, but they were too generous. I had trouble accepting such terms, even for their sake.
My son Ephrem wanted very much to talk to Little Thunder. As we walked back to our van, we saw the old chief coming out of his tent, half-changed out of his ceremonial dress, going back to his lifted black Dodge Ram to get something.
Ephrem, a good twenty feet away, stopped in our path and turned his body toward Little Thunder. “What’s your name?” Ephrem said too quietly.
“Huh?” Little Thunder replied. “Where am I from? Where am I from?”
“No!” Ephrem replied, a little louder, “What’s your name?”
Little Thunder introduced himself. Then Ephrem introduced himself, though Little Thunder didn’t repeat his name correctly. No one ever does. Ephrem, not bothering to correct him, extended his left hand for a handshake. Not bothering to correct him, Little Thunder extended his left hand as well.
As Ephrem was rejoining our party, Rusty told him, within earshot of Little Thunder, “Usually, you shake with your right hand.” Little Thunder spoke up in Ephrem’s defense, “No, you know, I heard something about that. They say your left hand is closer to your heart.” And he put his left hand over his heart. I could hardly look at him. I must never forget his grace and the suffering of his people.
A few days after the convergence, it was time for us to make our way toward the Rockies. We planned to camp in Colorado Springs, but the forecast said rain. As Rusty grew fond of saying, “We’re not camping to punch our man card. We do it for economy!” Dubious as the prospect may be that my wife and kids have or want man cards, he had a point—none of us had any desire to camp in the rain.
While we put the kids to bed the night before our departure, Rusty searched the internet for cheap lodgings in the Denver area. He didn’t find any. At the point of despairing, he remembered he had a Facebook friend, Alan Moore, who lived in Littleton, Colorado. They had met at a church in Florida seven years ago and enjoyed a fifteen-minute conversation, but their interaction since then had been exclusively on social media.
Knowing our need, and knowing that he himself would have been upset if Alan had not asked him for help in similar circumstances, Rusty began composing a request to send. Then, hearing Vanessa and I coming down the stairs, and pre-empting any reasons we might have to talk him out of it, he quickly finished up, copied the message into Facebook messenger, and pressed send.
“Did you find anything?” Vanessa asked him.
“No. But I sent a message to a Facebook friend who lives in Littleton,” Rusty replied.
“Wait. What? What did you say?”
Rusty proceeded to read the note back to us, but before he had finished, Alan replied. Two lines: his address followed by “my house is your house.”
In God’s providence, Alan’s wife and five children all happened to be on vacation in Florida to visit family, so there was plenty of room for all of us. As Rusty also grew fond of saying, “We probably wouldn’t have contacted Alan if we had a bank account full of money.” But then we wouldn’t have gotten to receive this blessing from God and His people.
The next morning, we packed up our dispersed, well-settled belongings and headed West. Our farewell to Pat is always the hardest one of the trip. She has two weeks every year to spend time with our five kids, her only grandchildren. On every major holiday (and even the minor ones sometimes) and on each of their birthdays, she sends each of them cards. She’ll send sheets of stickers. She composes child-like poems and riddles for them, all hand-lettered in her exquisite script. And she sends letters to Vanessa and me too.
Our mothers love us a lot. We depart from them in much the same way. They stand in driveways as we pull out, utilizing every moment they have, waving to us with the same smile on their faces as we leave, always vigilant to spare us from their sadness.
To give in secret is perfection, but every deed in secret will come to light. My mother hides cards in our baggage while we’re not looking almost every trip, cards stuffed with encouragement and with cash. And Pat also fabricates reasons to give money to us:
“Mom, why are you giving me money?” Vanessa might ask.
“Didn’t you pay for the groceries?” Pat might reply.
“Yes, but we ate them as well,” Vanessa would counter.
“Well, would you just take it?” Pat would conclude.
My mother does the same thing. It’s not mothering merely to bring a child into the world, though what a sacrifice that already is! The best mothers never stop giving to help you make your way, even if that way takes you far from them. They’ll stand in the driveway with a smile on their face as you drive away, a stuffed note hidden in your baggage.
As you might have expected, Alan turned out to be an excellent and meek person. The Moores run a family folk art endeavor—Alan and his kids work together to create pieces from, among other things, bottle caps and vintage cans. He got into this when he realized that soda and beer cans, quite a number of them anyway, already have a good amount of art pre-included in their designs. But people don’t generally notice the art on cans. We drink their contents and throw them away. Alan collects, lovingly deconstructs, and transforms them.
While we were there, Alan received a shipment—a single, mint-condition Coca-Cola “Pop Art” can made in limited quantities only for the European market in the 80s. He held it up and turned it around in the light. “It’s beautiful.”
But art doesn’t pay all of the bills, I say for not the first or last time. For his “regular” job, Alan oversees school construction projects. This is why he was at home while his family vacationed—since no one is in school, summer is school construction season. The logistics of God, what a thing to behold—that He prepares for us in all the little things long before we know what to ask or where to look.
Before we left for Santa Fe, I noticed a fine-looking old Schmidt beer can in Alan’s collection. The tagline on it was, “The Brew that Grew with the Great Northwest.” I noticed the beer came out of Wisconsin, Clayton Schmidt’s home state. I thought the can would look great in Clayton’s barber shop, so I made like Ephrem and asked Alan if I could have it. Alan didn’t hesitate; he insisted. He refused payment.
Embracing the can, something I would not have stooped to analyze until I met Alan, was a painting—buffalo grazing in the golden plains on one side, black and white Holbein milk cows on the other side, drinking from a blue water creek which curved up the middle of the single, two-legged image.
This was part one of a two-part retrospective on our 2017 summer road trip. Part two will cover “The Attended Things”: two arts conferences in two weeks, one in the West and one in the East. I know this was quite a long piece, so thank you for reading!