I crawled out of my nice warm camper into a cool North Dakota fall morning and it felt great. My last day on the road and I am so excited to reach home. To Mabel it was just another day of riding in the back seat, another day of new sites and smells and possible adventures. But to me it is a day, actually hours, closer to Sheri and the boys. Eighty-Two days is a long time away from home, a long time to experience the uncertainties of the road. A long time to be away from your love. I don’t know how the Army could do a full year in Afghanistan back when it was a fresh war. My four months was enough, and this trip came close to equaling that time away. The saving grace was that I was always a hard-three-day drive to home or just a few hours by plane. But then that played on my mindset, now it was my choice to stay on the road instead of Uncle Sam saying I couldn’t go home.
It’s nice to be close enough where a car problem isn’t the big deal it would have been a week or so ago. If the unthinkable happens, much like it did on day one, I just make a call and hunker down in a motel, or Arabella waiting for friends to come and get me. And if need be, there is always Uber; I would just hate to see the bill from Jamestown to Hopkins.
There were a few times I was ready to cry “Uncle” and throw in the towel, but now, looking over a leaf strewn, mostly deserted campground, I am glad Sheri talked me into continuing. The places and things I saw since that crappy night in Needles, California far outweighed the loneliness I was feeling. Northern California, The Pacific Northwest, Glacier National Park, Little Big Horn, and everything in between provided an amazement I have never experienced, and Sheri deserves to see it all. “Someday,” but isn’t that what everyone says when discussing their dreams, their actions that fall out of the norm. I can’t express how blessed I was to experience my “someday” on this trip and my good fortune in seeing the wonders we call America is not lost on me.
Mabel was good, so we walked twice around the campground’s perimeter, the wet grass soaking my sneakers and her paws. But I didn’t care because we were heading East on the final push. The campground looked tired and ready for a long winter’s nap, the spring anticipation of a new season is long gone with the falling yellow leaves providing a blanket for its slumber. There was little activity in the campground, no hustle and bustle like I saw at Holland State Park in Michigan at the beginning of the season. School had just let out and families crowded the campground, rigs tightly packed nose to tail, leaving just enough room for clusters of campers gathered around smoky fires. It was exciting and new to me, these gatherings of people, packing large campers with all the stuff they had in their homes, all so they could experience the great outdoors. And when they got tired of the heat, or bugs, or the smoke, they retired to the air conditioning to watch large TV’s on their queen size mattresses. Everyone considers “camping” something different.
We quickly packed up. After so many days on the road, the routine has become second nature, part of our road rhythm. Everything has a place where it fits just right, and I seldom deviate from the plan that just sort of happened. It was a bittersweet morning, me standing in the leaves surveying the campground, our last one of the trip. There are a lot of miles behind us, but I feel so much more awaits once I get home.
We were back on HWY 94, our route through the entire state of North Dakota; no straying from the straightest route to the Minnesota border. Moorhead was 97 miles away, roughly 90 minutes if my driving held to the familiar pattern. I didn’t drive fast on the trip, usually between 60 & 65 mph; speeds I felt safe pulling the trailer. A flat tire on Arabella was a big fear and with my luck it would have been at the worst possible location. I had visions of dragging her across three lanes of traffic, sparks and shards of rubber trailing behind us only to find a shoulder too narrow for a tire change. So, I figured, keep it slow, I was on an “experience” no need rushing it and chance an issue.
I am seeing more of the familiar white and blue license plates of Minnesota the closer we get to Fargo. I don’t feel the uniqueness that my out of state plate provided when I was farther from home. Or at least that was how I perceived it as I drove down the road. In my mind people noticed I was different and probably wondered all these great things about me. “I wonder where he is going”, “Who is Mabel?”, “Wow, he’s from Minnesota, that’s a long way from here.” Of course, they would think of the cold and exclaim “I hear it gets cold up there, I don’t know how they do it,” and the accolades would pour out of their mouths and I would feel special, be special, even if I didn’t hear them. But all that disappears the closer I get to home , as I mix in with my fellow state citizens and drive back to Minnesota’s borders.
There were times when I got excited to see a Minnesota license plate and wondered if they felt the same about mine. Being so far from home, it’s human nature to want the familiar; the kinship provided from residing within the same lines on a map. But, just because we live in the same state doesn’t necessarily provide for anything. The person speeding up on my left may hold beliefs exactly opposite of mine which could cause a thorough dislike on both of our accounts. Can shared state residency overcome our oppositeness? I think it can, when so far from home.
It was mid-morning when I pulled into the rest stop after seeing the “Welcome to Minnesota” sign on HWY 94. I gave a few small horn blasts when I saw it and the heavy traffic had no idea the reason of my excitement. Mabel didn’t seem to notice, we had stopped at just another rest stop, a chance for her to exercise and leave her mark. I told her we were on friendly soil, but she didn’t seem to care.
I decided to continue with the true essence of the trip and continue on HWY 10 towards Detroit Lakes instead of heading South on HWY 94. It was the last chance of the trip to meander down slow back roads and see country. Mabel did her usual, roaming between the back windows until she got her fill of fresh air and settled in her bed which had become travel worn and filthy.
We passed through towns I had only heard of through state athletic competitions: Perham, New York Mills and Long Prairie. There were a few “so this is where that team came from,” moments on this leg of the trip. In Wadena, I spotted an Amish buggy travelling in the opposite direction. We both looked over at each other and I wondered if they wanted what I have while I want what they do. Is the simplicity of life the answer to all our problems? We were both travelling the same road but in different directions, both figuratively and actually.
I looked for something to eat and felt like sitting down for my last meal on the road. Preliminary calculations had me around my own table for tonight’s dinner. The first one in a home since Texas. But nothing seemed to work so we turned off HWY 10 and headed South on HWY 71. A quick stop in Browerville provided some exercise and a nice photo shoot of a small-town Minnesota church. The weather wasn’t the best, some drops and a lot of clouds.
HWY 71 ends at HWY 94 and Sauk Center, the boyhood home of Sinclair Lewis. Steinbeck visited Sauk Center, on the westward leg of his trip and stopped for some supper. As the story is told in TWC, the waitress didn’t know who Lewis was or his importance. I’m not so sure that would be the case today. I really enjoyed reading Babbit and Main Street was a glimpse into Mid-Western life. The goal was to buy a Sinclair Lewis book in Sinclair Lewis’s home town but today it wasn’t to be. The weather had turned, and rain was the prevalent condition which dampened my appetite for meandering Sauk Center’s streets. After a few passes through town, and no book store in sight, I snapped a picture and considered the trip a success.
The immediate decision was to continue on back roads taking us West of Hopkins or jump on the highway for the quickest route home. The weather was bad, and storms were showing on the weather APP so I decided the speediest route was how Mabel and I would finish the trip.
The storms flared up and the rain became torrential downpours. It was so heavy the higher wiper speed did nothing to clear the window and I could barely see. Cars zipped by me and I stayed in the slow lane, at times using my hazards to promote visibility. What a way to end the trip, I hadn’t seen rain like this since the East Coast. But we pushed on, and I talked more with Mabel, mostly to calm my nerves. Eventually the storms passed, and the wet road was my greatest concern.
I used an older Tom-Tom GPS to navigate on the trip and for the most part it did well. I had a signal when I needed it and the maps were close to actuality. My home address has been programmed in it from the start and it has helped me get from Minneapolis to home on many occasions. I know, I shouldn’t have to use a GPS to travel the 10 miles or so Hopkins lies from Minneapolis. There were many times on the trip I wanted to punch in “Home” and see how far I was; how long it would take me to drive back. But I never did, I held off, partly in fear that I would veer off and point the car towards Minnesota. But now, as I was so darn close, I hit “Home” and saw there were only 105 miles left to go. After all the time on the road, the months of planning, anticipation, and then the doing; I was less than two hours from home and it being over.
The time took longer than I expected, and I hit some Twin Cities traffic, but I remained surprisingly patient. Mabel was the object of more conversation, but she remained quiet. Funny how not once on the trip did she ever answer me. She never talked back. I guess that is a good thing but think of the book that would make.
Surroundings were familiar as I traveled South on HWY 494 and I knew I was home. Sheri and I had been texting and I provided location updates via SIRI’s voice to text function. Just before hitting HWY 7 and the last few miles a text came from one of my oldest friends wishing me a safe and happy return. It was kind of fitting that it happened when I was so close.
Mabel, Arabella, and I turned down 12th Ave and headed towards Main Street. A triumphant victory cruise in my mind similar in manner of Caesar or Napoleon. Rain had come through earlier as I passed the store fronts last seen in July. The town was busy, but a good busy, with people that seemed to have purpose. We made a left at 8th Ave so I could pass the giant Raspberry, still looking as regal as when I left.
I thought Mabel might have known we were so close to home and if she did, she didn’t show it. I opened both windows and talked excitingly hoping she would share my enthusiasm. But she seemed content to sit in her bed and listen to my ramblings. We cruised down 7th, me trying to hold my enthusiasm and there it was, my little home just waiting for me to arrive.
Sheri came out to greet us and I have never seen anyone more beautiful. Mabel and Evelyn didn’t seem to remember that they were great buddies just a few months ago, their pecking order needed a re-establishment. The boys filtered in and I saw yet another change to the home had occurred during my absence. The living room was noticeably brighter as Sheri painted over the summer. The change was like the ones during my previous deployments.
A final feeling of relief overcame me, I had done it; circumnavigated this great country safely and returned home to my family. Just like John.