Part 3 here.
Two weeks after we moved to Kansas City, Missouri, the family loaded into the car and drove back to Colorado for the weekend. Over the next few years, we would make the eight and a half hour drive every other month, and by the time I was in high school, we had memorized that length of I-70. The halfway point is Walkeenee, Kansas, and always has a trooper parked by the westbound exit; the museum in Hayes has a life-like animatronic t-rex which made Kiefer cry; there’s a silo on the Kansas-Colorado Border which informs passersby that “Happiness is a Crock of Beans.” Sometimes, you would wake us up in Colby, Kansas, which is home to a college and a large industrial feed lot. This “Oasis on the Plains” is bookended by two white statues of anatomically correct bulls, complete with low-hanging testicles that stand out against the blue Kansas sky.* One time, you banged on the steering wheel and pointed out that some wise guy had painted the bulls’ scrotums fuchsia. We laughed about that for several miles.
There are camels in Kansas, as well. A herd of them. You were the first to see them, and for a long time, you were the only one. They used to graze along I-70 in the eastern part of Kansas which is marginally less flat than the other half and you would often declare, “Camels!” and point emphatically out the window. By the time we looked the camels would be gone.
“There are no camels, Mom.”
“Yes there are!”
“There were never any camels, Mother.”
Eventually, you would provide photographic proof that the camels were real, and our game of gaslighting you would end. They were dromedary camels. One hump.
Those drives along I-70 cut across Tornado Alley, the flat stretch of country between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River through which tornadoes tear with desensitizing frequency. Sometimes the violent winds would force the van towards the edge of the road and you would fight against it, your forearms flexing and cramping as your hands gripped the wheel to compensate.
You called home once when you were making the drive eastbound, and I picked up the phone. I listened to your awe as you sped along the interstate and watched three twisters touch down around you. No rain falls during a tornado so the air is clear enough to see the clouds churn and contort into a funnel which gradually descends from the pewter grey canopy until it finally connects with the earth. Tornadoes have been recorded to span up to two and a half miles across and you estimated yours to be between three and five miles away. You weren’t nervous or scared, just incredibly excited, and I wanted to be there with you. I didn’t ask you to pull over and lay down in a ditch, a strategy given to me by my fifth grade science teacher. I knew tornadoes to be selective in their destruction, leveling one side of a street, while leaving the other side intact. I knew these tornadoes wouldn’t touch you.
By the summer I was thirteen, we had been living in Kansas City for nearly three years. Our trips to Colorado were becoming less regular, and Emma and I were finally warming to a few aspects of living in the Midwest. We took sailing lessons on our small lake and learned how to tie knots. We went to soccer camp at KU, and discovered frozen custard. Our proximity to the eastern half of the country led to road trips to Florida and the Northeast. The farther east we went the more densely populated and twisty the states became. Major cities were more frequent, leading us to drive fewer miles but longer hours through thick traffic and low speed limits. We expanded our definition of what a road trip was, and that summer when I was thirteen, we altered it to include the drive between Kansas City and St. Louis—a mere 246 miles—when you and I went to pick Emma up when she flew in from Paris. For you and me, the drive was more important than the destination.
I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis crosses the Missouri River several times which used to confuse me. Rivers are rare in the west and roads hardly ever encounter them, so I had come to associate crossing the Muddy Mo with crossing the state line between Kansas and Missouri. You and Dad used to kiss every time we crossed the border between states, and when I was in the passenger seat, we would blow air kisses. I puckered my lips every time we crossed the river in central Missouri, but my kiss would go undelivered.
We listened to Sister Hazel’s album, "Fortress", in the car. The opening track, “Change Your Mind,” was your new anthem, its poppy refrain calling you to change your mind if you are tired of fighting battles with yourself and if you “wanna be somebody else.” The entire album is a reminder to be grateful for what you have and its super saccharine message coupled with the movement of the car seemed to tickle you. During the line “I’ll follow you wherever when you lead me by my nose on another great adventure,” you gently punched my shoulder.
“See, that’s like us. I’m leading you by your nose on another great adventure.”
You said this with a self-consciousness that you had adopted recently when talking to me, as if you were pleading with me to forgive you for something. You still do it sometimes. I sat with my feet up on the dashboard with my hands pinched between my knees and looked at you through a pair of dark sunglasses. I smiled a small smile and you continued singing along to the song and I watched central Missouri slide by.
You liked to plan special stops when we took road trips, a few hours here and there to stretch our legs and learn something. Most trips included pit stops at monuments, historical reenactment sites, battle fields, and occasionally complacency bought by peppermint sticks and rock candy. The drive to St. Louis takes about four hours and my sister wouldn’t land until the next day, so we decided to stop in Fulton, Missouri, to see a section of the Berlin Wall. This sojourn took us off the interstate and onto a State highway, where the speed limit was slower and the scenery was closer to the road.
Central Missouri is full of Anytown, U.S.A.s where the cars are old, the Main Street is well manicured and freshly painted, and fences white, and picketed. Fulton appeared to be much of the same, so the twenty four-foot section of the Berlin Wall covered in anti-war graffiti was surprising and out of place. The Wall was part of a sculpture called “Breakthrough” and was given to Fulton to commemorate a post WWII visit by Winston Churchill to the local college. During his visit, the former British Prime Minister delivered his infamous “Iron Curtain” speech where he coined the phrase to describe the division between Western powers and the area controlled by the Soviet Union. The speech marked the onset of the Cold War, and 43 years later, Churchill’s granddaughter, Edwina Sandys would cut two human silhouettes into the wall in a sculpture that would mark its end.
The Wall appealed to you for a number of reasons. You were a self-proclaimed “punk rocker with a hippie soul” in your adolescence, and a cold war relic covered with anti-war graffiti spoke to that sensibility. But what really seemed to draw you to Fulton was intellectual starvation. You dropped out of college when the hills and valleys of your depression blurred your academic focus. You were too smart to be left alone with your own mind and for a while your daughters were too young to keep up with you much less challenge you. You hungered for information, especially information that most people knew nothing about. The Berlin Wall in Fulton, Missouri the perfect coalescence of history and random chance, about which most of the country was oblivious.
Our trip through Fulton and subsequent attempts to find the interstate again got us lost on dusty roads between bucolic pastures. Rain had battered the Midwest throughout the summer, and the rivers had over-spilled their beds leaving many fields submerged. No rain had fallen in over a week, though, so the roads were dry until they vanished into a premature horizon, the reflections turning farmland into sky. We approached one of these evanescent lakes standing between us and the interstate and drove through slowly. The water rose faster than we expected, reaching our door handles before we had driven 10 feet. We stopped.
“Lets go on,” I said, “we can make it.”
You looked out at a yellow road sign, its post visible only two feet above the water.
“That’s probably only three feet deep,” I urged again. “Let’s do it.”
I can’t remember whether we made it through or if we turned back. I only know we didn’t get stuck.
*When I wrote this, it was before I had a license and would make the drive across Kansas on my own, so I accidentally combined details about Colby, Oakley, and Hayes, Kansas. To figure out what I got wrong, you'll just have to make the drive yourself!