August 2, 2013
When I walked into the convenience store this time, I didn’t ask the cashier my usual questions regarding nearby parks, campgrounds or back roads.
Because of the numerous flat tires I had experienced even while on the highway, I knew there was very little chance of following the temptation to veer off the semi-beaten path of Highway 30. Since I was on the last leg of my journey with only 50 miles remaining, I knew precisely where I had to spend the night. And because I was working on a deadline, I knew I couldn’t linger in town for long.
I had secured my girl on the handlebar of my bike in the shade around the corner, glancing at the time and temperature flashing on the sign across the street, mildly surprised at the quick progress I had made.
When I had finished placing my order for a breakfast burrito, I stepped out again with another customer to show him my rig.
Since I was still wearing my leather coat and had begun to share the road with the hawgs as they began their annual migration to Sturgis, he assumed when I said I was riding my bike that I meant motorcycle. I explained once again that no, I was towing my girl on a bicycle, and he responded, “I’ve gotta see this.”
After calling to a friend to look as well, he stepped back into the convenience store while I admired the flowers planted along the side of the building, still wondering how I had made such good time.
I knew I was almost home. The road from Chicago had been long, but here in Paxton, NE, I was on very familiar ground.
For that matter, the road to Chicago a few years ago had been as equally long.
From the time my children were old enough to travel, we had vacationed in Chicago often, and Paxton seemed to be the one stop we always made along the way.
We returned to Chicago year after year as a family, and snapshots of grade-schoolers, adolescents and teenagers fill family photo albums and boxes stored who knows where.
Each time we went, a trip to Chicago Art Institute was as inevitable as a walk along the Lakeshore, and at one point, because of construction, we had to enter through the doors along Columbus Drive usually reserved for SAIC students. On that occasion, I offhandedly remarked, “I am going to attend here someday,” a comment that went rather unnoticed by my adolescent children and husband.
I had just graduated from the University of Colorado with Honors in my two majors, English and Humanities, and I was determined to earn my Master’s Degree at the Institute.
On what was to be our last family vacation to the windy city, as my teenage daughter and I walked past the distinctively dark, clover-shaped Lake Shore Tower, built by two of Mies van der Rohe’s students, I flippantly declared, “I am going to own a golden retriever and live here some day,” another dream that somehow oddly shaped what was to become my future.
We had taken that last vacation with another family, the pianist from our Methodist Church and her husband, the same woman from whom I received a few texts just days before launching my bike tour.
Memories of these events, and so many more leading up to my trip clouded my mind, bouncing through my brain like lightning and thunder.
“Why did you do it? What made you decide to make the trip?”
With nearly each stop along my journey, I was asked the same questions.
By the time I reached the Illinois border, I had formulated a number of responses.
“I wanted to be able to concentrate on my art.”
“For the health of it.”
"Because I have learned I am really not a big-city girl after all."
“You made it here, in Chicago,” he said, “and you did it without my help.”
“Yes, I did, and I hated every minute of it,” I responded, my eyes filling with tears as I added that I had despised the way he had followed me from afar, watching my progress.
“I am leaving in a few days, riding my bike back to Colorado, towing Stinky in a trailer,” I informed him, quickly adding, “I hope by the time I reach my destination, I will be able to forget you.”
His voice, the sound of his laughter, his hands. He is a ghost that no exorcism — or miracle, for that matter — may ever be able to remove.
Truth be told, I didn’t fully know the answer, or at least the explanation would have taken far too long to ever be told in a single moment, even in the small towns where conversations extend from breakfast to lunch like a lazy Sunday brunch.
As I walked back into the familiar convenience store, for a moment I heard echoes of my children’s laughter as they vied over who got to purchase which bag of candy and caught a glimpse of my daughter’s blond head bob into the bathroom sporting one of the big bows she wore before she was “too grown up” to indulge her mother any longer.
Little had changed in the shop, as it is wont to do in a small town, and time seemed to be circling back upon itself.
The cashier behind me nodded toward my earlier disbelieving companion, adding, “That gentleman bought your burrito for you.”
I was again overwhelmed with the generosity of those I had recently encountered, and it was perhaps for that reason, as well as the visions of my younger children dashing through the aisles of the store, that made me respond as I did when she answered my unusual question, “What time zone are we in?”
“Mountain,” she answered, looking a bit bewildered by my tears. I hastily, embarrassedly filled my thermos with ice, paid for my milk, wiped my gloved hand across my eyes and thanked the patron in the store for his kindness.
As I sat on the curb beside my girl, visiting with a small group of Paxton’s citizens, strangers who had taken the time to ask me questions and share some of their own stories, I again felt at home in the warm, dry sun of America’s heartland.