Park It Here

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RV Park in Clear Lake, Iowa. No extra charge for Sunday services.

Like a turtle, I drive across the country within the shell of my abode. At the end of the day, I have to hunker down somewhere in my camper/van. I have yet to hang out with other RVs in a Wal-Mart parking lot. That’s called dry camping — relying on your vehicle for power and water. My vehicle has the capacity, but I lack the audacity. I prefer snuggling up with other rigs in the tight quarters of an RV park just so I can plug into that lifeline that RVers call “shore power.”

I’ve paid anywhere from zero to $49 for an overnight stay. The latter sounds like a lot, but RVers in those big fancy rigs expect a lot in addition to basic water, power and sewer: wi-fi, a full spectrum of TV channels, swimming pool, game room, miniature golf, laundry, etc. Some parks won’t accept rigs older than 10 years. Mine is a 1996 Dodge — usually the oldest and smallest outfit in the park. I’ve never been turned away, because—explained one park employee—I stay only one night.

At the high end are the KOAs—the Holiday Inn Express for RVs. You always know what to expect at a KOA. There’ve been a few long days of driving when I’ve been darned glad to land at a KOA. More often, I look forward to a certain element of surprise that independent parks offer. Why else bother to travel?

I rely quite a bit on the RV community, which reviews parks at various sites online. The reviews often tell as much about the reviewer as the park. I’m amused by RVers who want easy access to the park but in the next sentence complain about freeway noise. If I end up near a freeway, I just close my eyes at night and pretend the roar of vehicles is the pounding of surf on an ocean beach.

One of my favorite places this trip was an old park with new owners in Waco, Nebraska. It’s a mom and pop operation—a couple in their 30s or so. They bought the place, said the dad, “because the location was right, the price was right and it was so terrible I wouldn’t let my own family stay here.” They’re well along in fixing it up. They assigned me a spot where I drank in the view of pond and neighboring golf course while sitting in one of several old-fashioned, wooden porch swings that the owner and his dad made.

The most iconoclastic find was Oakwood RV Park in Clear Lake, Iowa, where amenities included a country church, built in 1890 and still active. I wasn’t there on a Sunday, but the park brochure informed me services are held at 9 a.m. Park brochures list various rules, usually about quiet hours and keeping dogs on leash. This one added, “Please don’t feed the chickens.”

Last night I pulled into my favorite park of all. After 5,063 miles, it’s good to be home.

Traveling Companions

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Tawny (left) and Daphne at our campsite on the bank of the Ohio River

“Oh, you have dogs!” the woman exclaimed with a combined tone of relief and comprehension. She’d been walking purposefully toward my campsite in a crowded RV park when she spotted my dogs, Daphne, the aging black lab mix, and Tawny, the adolescent every-breed mix.

About my age, Joan from Pennsylvania had spotted me an hour earlier as I was checking into the park. She and her sister were traveling cross-country in a camper van the same size as mine but much newer. She immediately wanted to know how an older woman dared to be on the road by herself. When she saw the dogs, she quickly understood.

It’s true that the dogs provide a sense of security, both at home and on the road. They’re friendly, yet they have loud barks that might ward off danger. Their companionship is far more valuable than just the warning bark. A person who lives alone, and especially a person who travels alone, is in danger of becoming totally self-absorbed. Tending to dogs doesn’t allow that. Their needs have to be addressed first thing when I get up in the morning, last thing before I go to bed and throughout the day. On the road, when I’m tempted to pass up rest stops so I can clock more miles, I know they need the break, so I stop. In truth, I probably need the break more than they.

Today as I drove, I managed to find a public radio station amidst the FM static and heard a report about a new study that determined dog owners in their 60s and older walk more than non-dog owners. Another study by the American Heart Association concludes dog ownership probably leads to a lower risk of Cardio Vascular Disease.

Most of all, dogs are bridge builders. They inevitably spark conversations with strangers who want to pet them and know more about them, who want to tell you about their dogs. The other morning, in a crowded campground, a toddler had his first opportunity in his short life to pet a dog. He fondled Tawny’s silken ear, to the delight of them both.

Driving, living, eating, and sleeping in an 18-by-8 foot space with two large dogs does not make for a pristine environment. Both dogs shed. I could sweep and vacuum on a daily basis, but I’ve given up. I’ve adjusted to the fact that I’m privileged to be traveling in a four-wheeled dog kennel with air conditioning, running water and canine companions.

Digressions

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Driving through the Badlands on paved roads–almost too easy.

If you want to get to the Badlands of South Dakota in the worst way, I can tell you how. First, however, I must say that the Badlands are badly named. The designation apparently originated with natives, because the harsh environment was not favorable to subsistence living. For the 21st century traveler, however, venturing through the massive, wind sculpted formations with their brilliant coloring is like entering a grand cathedral, hand-designed by the Creator.

But I digress, and because as a traveller I am prone to digression, I also get lost—at least once a day. My GPS voice has adopted an exasperated and sometimes irritated tone as it instructs, “Make a u-turn …”

I favor roads less traveled by and that, as Robert Frost advised, makes all the difference. In my case, the difference between smooth sailing from Point A to Point B at 70 mph on the Interstate, as opposed to rumbling across gravel, washboard roads while choking on dust at 15 mph tops. That’s the worst way to get to the Badlands.

I’ve driven through the Badlands in the past. This trip I wanted more time and fewer crowds. I consulted a map—never a good idea—and found a two-lane highway that would take me into Badlands National Park from the rear. Not only that, I spotted a gravel road that would cut off a number of miles. You can always count on a shortcut to extend travel time. The road was so rough, everything inside my van shook. The vehicle has been quivering ever since. When I finally reached blacktop, I wanted to jump out, get on me knees and kiss it.

My proclivity for misdirection landed me onto another gravel road in Indiana. I was headed for Harmonie State Park, only I wasn’t. One of my problems is an inability to cut my losses. When I’m on the wrong road, I stubbornly stick with it until I can’t go any further. In this case, I ended up in someone’s backyard. I was turning around, being careful not to hit the owner’s truck when I heard a bang. I’d knocked over a portable basketball hoop that was in my blind spot.

The owner came charging out of his house followed by his wife. He immediately pointed out that the post was rusted at the bottom, had long been a goner, his grandkids hadn’t used it in years, and was my van OK. Then we had a long chat about their visit to Washington state a few years back and various other topics. Do you want my insurance information, I asked. He guffawed at the idea and waved me back up the gravel road to the park, which had a paved road.

They were the first two people I met in Indiana, and they surely gave me a grand welcome to their state. If I hadn’t been lost, I would’ve missed it.

Oregon Trail

DSC_8700I was inspired to travel the Oregon Trail after reading “Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey” by Lillian Schlissel. The book is a compilation of what women’s records of their experiences during the massive exodus between 1840 and 1870. The women bluntly describe the hardships, danger, congestion, duplicity, disease and starvation that were rampant. A quarter of a million Americans gambled that they’d survive the trip. Ten percent lost the gamble. A not infrequent cause of death for women was childbirth.

Those phenomenal three decades of expansion created a nation, as the politicians planned. It was also an invasion of holocaust proportions, all but extinguishing native cultures that had thrived for thousands of years.

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Sculpture of pioneer emigrant at National Trail Center in Independence, Missouri

There are four trails, really: California, Oregon, Mormon and Pony Express. Today’s roads sometimes cross, sometimes parallel, but only rarely duplicate the early trails. It took the emigrants up to six months to make the journey. These days, it would take at least six months to visit all the historic signposts, sites, museums, cemeteries and roadside attractions. I’m trying to do it in six days. Experiencing the landscape, even though it’s greatly changed from 150 years ago, sharpens my sense of incredulity. However did they do it?

The immensity of the migration is mirrored in the vastness of the territory. I drive at 60 to 70 mph, trying to imagine walking this distance, step by step. The story is too big for telling. So many books have been written about the trail, their assembled pages would probably more than paper the thousands of miles. Still, much is left to imagination.

I pick and choose my stops, absorbing maybe one or two stories a day. At the grave of 18-year-old Rachel Pattison, I learned that she and her 23-year-old husband Nathan were DSC_8682newlyweds, on the trail with Nathan’s parents, five brothers and other relatives. They’d gone no further than current Nebraska when Rachel came down with cholera one morning and died that evening. Nathan buried her there, finding a rock on which to carve her headstone. After great privation, the Pattisons ultimately reached Fort Vancouver. Nathan never remarried. He died in Olympia at the age of 67.

I was amazed and delighted to find some of the most sensitive writing about the trail in a series of small, free trail guides published by the National Park Service. The text articulates the complexity of the era and its events.* The fatality rate on the trail,  the guide concludes, “was no worse than that of eastern cities, where disease and poverty ran rampant. Hope wrestled with fear as Americans started out across the Kansas prairies — and hope generally won out.”

*Small print in the back indicates the writing and editing were by Lee Kreutzer and Chuck Milliken of the National Trails System.

Walking With the President

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Truman Historic Walking Trail in Independence, Mo.

It dawned on me that our 33rd and 45th Presidents have four things in common: the first four letters in their surnames. Surely someone else already figured this out, but I haven’t heard or read any commentary on this coincidence. Their names also uncannily reflect their character. Truman could be parsed Tru[e]-man. Trump has a variety of meanings, including—in cards—a superior suit or a surprise card that can win the “trick.”

I don’t know that the two Presidents have much else in common. Admittedly, Truman was, like Trump, capable of venting publicly, especially in response to negative critiques of his daughter’s short-lived career as a singer. While Trump follows Truman’s footsteps chronologically, I followed those footsteps literally yesterday. I walked with my dogs along the Truman Historic Walking Trail in Independence, Mo., Truman’s beloved hometown.

I’m too young (Oh, gosh. That was so much fun to write, I’m going to repeat) … I’m too young to remember Truman as President. Eisenhower was the first President I was aware of. His grandfatherly image is the one I’ll always superimpose on the office. Succeeding Presidents either live up to that naive childhood perception, or they don’t.

Only in college did I become intrigued by Truman and the ongoing debate whether he is to be considered one of our “great” leaders. After leaving the presidency, Truman returned to Independence. Reportedly, his daily routine included a walk around town. His walk has been memorialized with maps and large signs. Plaques are embedded in the sidewalk in front of gracious, large homes of the era. You learn where Harry’s poker playing buddies, Bess’s bridge club members, and even a “staunch” political opponent lived.

As I walked, I wondered. What if I were the person who’d approved the unleashing of atomic power to end a war, causing the horrific deaths of innocent civilians. What would I be thinking about on my morning stroll past the homes of my lifelong friends.

I know that if it’d been my decision to make, it would’ve ultimately driven me mad. Perhaps it was returning to these Midwestern neighbors, who just wanted to live their lives simply, as good people, that kept Truman sane. Or so it would seem.

Butterfly House

IMG_4030Fortunately for me, my sister’s personal totem is the butterfly. Otherwise I probably would’ve skipped visiting the Butterfly House & Marine Cove in Sioux Falls, SD. I stopped, planning to pick up a postcard to let her know I was thinking about her. Turned out, her devotion to butterflies was a gift to me.

The Butterfly House is way more than a tourist attraction. Situated in a beautiful city park, the building even looks butterfly-ish. The facility offers a range of educational and healing programs.

There’s an aquarium room with an array of brilliantly colored sea life, even a shark petting pond. But I didn’t linger. I was there for the butterflies. To enter the butterfly room, you open a heavy door and wait in a small, dark foyer until the door has closed. This is to assure no critters escape. When you open the second door, the first thing you do is smile. You can’t help it. C.S. Lewis himself could not have created such a scene behind his fabled wardrobe.

More than 800 butterflies from all over the world are flying freely. They present a range of colors, sizes and intricate wing patterns that push the boundaries of imagination, much less description. Their habitat is Eden-like. In the 80 degree climate, tropical flowers burst with bloom. A pond is filled with small fish. Scurrying under the lush plants are tiny Asian blue quail.

The website claims, “Research shows that viewing peaceful nature scenes helps reduce blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and stress while improving mood and speeding recovery time.” I don’t know about my heart rate, but my joy quotient skyrocketed. I strolled and watched, grinning like an idiot.  A woman walking toward me had the same kind of smile on her face.

I wanted to stay all day, but the road beckoned. Leaving was the same process as entering. A volunteer checked me over to make sure I had no hitchhikers on my body. No butterflies escaped with me, but the joy lingers. I was reminded: there is much goodness in this country.

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The Butterfly House in Sioux Falls, SD

Last Stoplight

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The I-90 viaduct left intact the historic railroad building and other period architecture in the lovely town of Wallace, Idaho.

I usually avoid interstates, but my meandering along secondary roads is limited this trip. I have to be in Golconda, IL, by June 2 for a birthday party. I’m clocking many miles on the longest interstate of them all, I-90.

The interstates are a legacy of President Dwight “I Like Ike” Eisenhower, the first president I remember as a child. He thought it would be dandy if Americans could “See the USA in their Chevrolet” (to quote the Dinah Shore theme song of the day) and drive coast to coast with nary a stoplight. He and his battalions of engineers hadn’t reckoned on the people of the small mining town of Wallace, Idaho. The last stoplight between Seattle and Boston shone defiantly in Wallace.

The plan had been to tear down Wallace’s buildings — they were old, after all — and ram the freeway through the narrow Silver Valley. Wallace citizens staged a two-front war: they sued the government demanding an Environmental Impact Statement under legislation that’d been passed only recently. At the same time, they quietly had every building in town listed on the National Historic Register. They held off construction for 17 years, finally getting a viaduct that cost $42 million. Wallace’s elegant 19th and early 20th century structures remain intact.

The last stoplight was retired in 1991 with great ceremony. It now lies more or less in state at the town’s mining museum. Harry Magnuson, one of the leaders in the fight to save the town, gave a eulogy as the stoplight was laid to rest, concluding:

“And today, we can be thankful that we live in a society in which we can make things happen, a society in which we all have the ability and opportunity to make a difference in our world.”

First Salmon

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Colville Tribes fish hatchery employee shows chinook smolts to students from Inchelium

If you’re heading out on a cross-country road trip, your first stop should be at a beautiful place close to home. That way, when you discover you’ve forgotten something important, you can return for it without too much backtracking. More significant, no matter how exotic the sights on your journey, you’ll remember that home is beautiful, too.

My shakedown cruise for this year’s cross-country sojourn was a night at Bridgeport State Park on the Columbia River, just 45 minutes from my house. A friend and I spent the night in my camper van so we’d already have that drive under our belts, giving us 45 minutes more sleep before the 5:30 a.m. First Salmon ceremony at the adjacent Colville Tribes Fish Hatchery.

The park is beautiful: lush green lawns, plenty of space between camping sites, trees, birds, walking paths and views of the rugged cliffs that border Rufus Woods Lake, the reservoir behind Chief Joseph Dam.

But what caught my heart was the ceremony. An early morning sun highlighted cascades of water thundering over the dam, landing in a tumultuous spray. Prayers were sung in a language I don’t understand, yet the message of thanksgiving was as clear as mountain spring water. Elders spoke longingly of their fishing traditions before dams on the Columbia blocked fish migration. The massive concrete structure—“Chief Joe,” as the locals call it—loomed in the background as native fishermen stood on a steel platform, struggling to net that First Salmon. The scene was a pale imitation of the ancient fishery, yet it represented hope and determination.

This year’s ceremony was especially meaningful. The hatchery was promised when Grand Coulee Dam was constructed in the 1930s.  That promise wasn’t kept until this century. The hatchery was completed in 2010. The tribe released its first ocean-bound smolts —1.8 million Chinooks — in 2013. Those are the fish returning this year. Sadly, there won’t be many of them. Tribal biologists forecast a seriously diminished spring chinook run, due to a variety of environmental issues.

Ultimately, the tribe plans to release 2.9 million smolts annually.

“Mother Nature always has something to say about that,” smiled one of the tribal scientists, adding confidently, “We’ll get it figured out.”

The First Salmon ceremony is deeply spiritual, also incorporating the science, culture, history and politics of the fishery. We listened to speakers as the fish was roasted on sticks over a fire. Then a small bite was given to each of us — about 150 people.

“It is our sacrament,” a tribal member said to me. Just as that mysterious connection with the divine is celebrated through the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion.

When the dams were built, it was not simply a food supply that was lost. Salmon nurtured the soul of a culture that had thrived for thousands of years. That soul still flickers with life, just as this year’s First Salmon thrashed in the net before giving its life for the gathered people.

Passing the Torch

The Native American man was calmly describing his lifetime of encounters with prejudice, first as a little boy at the movie theater, then at school, later as a Viet Nam vet, and just last week, in the Walmart parking lot. He’d been sipping his morning coffee and reading the paper when someone yelled at him to go back where he came from. Racism is not without its irony.

As he was speaking, a student seated near me bowed her head, her long blond hair shielding her face. Even so, I could see tears streaming as she silently wept.

It’d been an emotionally fraught day — the local “Stand Against Racism” event at Wenatchee Valley College-Omak. Faculty member Livia Millard began by clarifying what race is all about: “a false classification of people … not scientifically true.”

If you live in the United States, your race is determined by your ancestry. If you live in Brazil, it’s determined by your skin color. In the U.S., said Millard, five primary racial colors — white, yellow, black, red, and brown — date from Revolutionary times. They alter like shifting sands depending on the  latest court ruling or U.S. Census Bureau decision. People of Mexican ancestry were considered “white” until the 1930s. What it took to be “black” varied from state to state.

“People considered white now may not be by the 2020 census,” suggested Millard. If race is so nebulous, how can it be so deeply ingrained?

One after another speakers reflected on the tragic results of racism from perspectives across the spectrum:

  • the near-extermination of American Indians and a culture representing 10,000 years of learned wisdom about the land and its inhabitants;
  • the struggle to overcome “imposter syndrome,” described by a high-achieving Latina who couldn’t believe she’d ever belong no matter how many degrees she’d earned;
  • xenophobia that has historically tainted immigration policy and remains alive and well today, and;
  • “environmental racism” — industrial dirty work located where marginalized populations, such as minorities, try to live. For example? We heard a first-person account of events at Standing Rock from a man who’d been there and will return.

By the end of the day, the crowd had dwindled to just a few of us watching the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary, “13th,” a hard-hitting exploration of America’s prison system. Our land of the free has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners. African Americans and Hispanics represent 25 percent of our population and 58 percent of our prison population. With privatization of those prisons, we’ve established a new era of slave labor. Literally.

Only a handful of us remained for the question and answer session after the movie. The Native American man spoke and the blond girl silently wept. As I was leaving, I touched her shoulder and murmured my thanks.

“I’m old. My eyes are hardened and dry. I fear I’ve shed all my tears,” I told her. “I’m thankful that you’re able and willing to cry.”

My Two Percent Worth

I’ve never aspired to be among the fabled “one percent” — our nation’s richest people. Thus I was surprised to learn, as the tax deadline looms, that I’m among the lesser known “two percent.” Seventy percent of tax payers qualify for Free File, a program that provides free tax preparation assistance and software. Only two percent of us take advantage of it. On average, says the IRS, taxpayers spend $261 annually for tax preparation services from companies like H&R Block or Turbotax or accounting firms.

Free File is (incredibly) provided by H&R Block, Turbotax, TaxAct — in all, 13 companies whose best interest is served by keeping our tax system as complicated as possible. Don’t look for Free File on their web sites. It’s a well-kept secret, accessible through the IRS site. It’s not like the limited free services offered from the companies’ web sites for people who are filing a 1040EZ or “simple” return. Free File users can earn up to $64,000, including investment earnings that require additional reporting forms, and they can itemize deductions. To learn why it’s such a hush-hush offering, listen to an entertaining podcast, “Out With the Old,” from On the Media. (Skip the first 12 minutes, then hang on for the full 16-minute interview, including a lively exchange with an apologist for the tax preparation industry.)

I stumbled onto Free File while trying to figure out which tax prep software to buy. I’d decided to try doing my own taxes again after giving up a couple years ago. Despite hiring someone to relieve me of tax-time frustration and stomach tension, I received a notice from the IRS last year that I owed more than $16,000 for 2014. I’d made a reporting error, which my accountant didn’t catch. I consulted a different accountant, who spotted the error within seconds and assured me that what I owed was nowhere near $16 K. She was right, and I learned that dealing with the IRS is not so scary. It requires only patience, a virtue I need to cultivate anyway.

While I chafe at the complexity and blatant inequities in our tax system, I am not, in principle, anti-tax. Taxes are the dues we pay to belong to an exclusive club. Membership in Club U.S.A. is limited to five percent of the world’s population. The many privileges I’ve enjoyed during my seven-plus decades of membership include personal safety and security, 13 years of tuition-free education, and freedom of movement (as long as I stay off airplanes).

I frequently don’t agree with how the club leadership spends my dues, but I have the right to speak up about that. And I have the power to change it — at the ballot box. So I had to smile when I hit “send” on my Free File return.

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If you’ve finished your taxes, you might enjoy this speech by journalist T.R. Reid, author of “A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System.” Could it be true that other countries know how to do this better?

If you’re still fretting over your tax return, you might find this meditation on mindful filing helpful.