Now that I am home, my friends ask me two excellent questions: What was it like to be alone? And, what was a highlight of the trip? Here are my answers:
Being alone. The first day or two, I was frustrated by the extra work it took to be alone. There was no one in the passenger seat to plan routes, get directions, arrange hotels, locate the next restaurant. This annoyance faded once I got used to it. I loved long quiet stretches to think and listen to music.* Sometimes friends met me, and sometimes loneliness did take over. To fight it, I took advantage of everyday human encounters. Since I was honestly curious about places and people, I tried to turn random contacts into conversations. With a grocery clerk, I cheered about the local football championship. With a waitress, I discussed the finer points of smoking pork. A B&B owner told me about renovating her Victorian guest house. I learned to value people I might otherwise have quickly forgotten. This has lasted: Since I’ve returned, I pay better attention, chat more with strangers, and feel extra invested wherever I am – even Concord, where I’ve lived for 35 years.
Highlight of the trip. This was unquestionably the small towns I visited and the people who made them tick. Along the two-lane highways of the country, communities survive in spite of enormous changes in the economy, transportation and industry. Westward migration, passenger railroads, manufacturing, mining and small farms have all given way to superhighways and mechanization. But against all odds, residents invent new dreams, and fight to make their towns thrive.
Winslow, Arizona, population 9500, median income less than $30,000, has created Standing on the Corner Park, with a statue of Jackson Browne, whose song “Take it Easy” immortalized Winslow. The tiny park is a photo op destination and the center of a fall festival.
The park lured me to Winslow, but La Posada kept me there. A local entrepreneur has refurbished the old Harvey Hotel, originally built to entertain travelers on the Santa Fe railroad. The freight train that passes right behind its garden is irrelevant now, but the hotel is an architectural gem, with a fine restaurant and gallery.
Another example of the small town will-to-win is Council Grove, Kansas, 50 miles of cornfields west of Kansas City, Missouri. In the mid 1800s, Council Grove was the jumping-off-point for the Santa Fe Trail. At casual glance, the town is not lively, and only a little picturesque.
But its 2200 citizens are configuring Council Grove as a day-trippers’ destination. There are an old soda fountain, a short riverwalk, and statues commemorating pioneer women and Native Americans. The town has 13 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Post Office Oak, where migrants left mail to be carried on by others.
One local couple has made the restoration of an 1861 home into their personal mission. They run a tiny restaurant in its parlor to defray the costs of restoration, where I had delicious home-cooked beef stew.
So, how was the trip? Well, fantastic. But when it was over, I wasn’t ready. I wanted to keep on driving. And, I think that was the right way for it to end. One of these days, I’ll hop in the car again and find out what’s waiting along another road.
*Thanks to all my friends who contributed music to my Road Trip Play List!