Road Trip 2008, Day 16 and 17: Home, Home on the Plains

“Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer.”

Oscar Wilde

With the flat chested landscape of Nebraska ahead, I took one last glimpse at Wyoming's massive mounds..

We left the Abe Lincoln rest area and continued on our way east toward Cheyenne where Paul planned for us to meet up with his old high school friend Val.  Traveling toward the edge of Wyoming, I admired the last few rock mounds in the distance, knowing they’d probably be the last rocky terrain I’d see for a while.

We exited the interstate in Cheyenne and found the Applebee’s, located in a cookie cutter shopping center found in every American city.  Inside we found Val sitting in the bar area.  Awkward introductions were made, and then I sat back as Val and Paul caught up on life.  Once we had food ordered, I stared off into the TV screens watching the nonstop coverage of the Brett Favre hostage exchange. Midway through our meal, Paul excused himself to the restroom, leaving us in that uncomfortable “we don’t know each other” silence.  Finally, she spoke up.

“So, you guys are staying at his parent’s house tonight?”

“Yep. I’ve never met his family before.”

She paused, and then responded, “Yeah, they are nothing like Paul. He’s the wild child of the family.”

“I figured,” I responded with a giggle.  We continued our conversation, loosening up with stories of his craziness.  Our storytelling ended when he returned.

As they continued talking, I thought about what she had said.  Ever since I’d known Paul, his relationship with his family had always been kind of a mystery.  He probably makes it home once a year and only stays for a few days.  In the ten years we’ve been friends I can only recall a couple times that he actually went home for the holidays.  Every Christmas I can’t help but think of my buddy Paul sitting somewhere alone, sipping a glass of goat’s milk and listening to Norwegian death metal.

Paul's Egg Nog

Once finished with our food, we said our good byes and continued on our way toward Lyman, Nebraska. Further up the road with rock formations transforming into fields of wheat, Paul put in Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night”. We sat in silence, both enjoying Neil’s soothing falsetto voice and growling guitar – the perfect soundtrack for our last leg of the trip.

Rolling across the Nebraskan Plains, Paul interrupted my meditation saying, “We’re getting close … it feels weird going back home.”

“A good weird?” I asked.

“It’s always weird going home,” he said, and our silence returned.  With Young’s music in the background, I couldn’t help but think about how Neil and Paul are long lost souls, making it on their own, always jumping from one endeavor to another unpredictably: Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, Crazy Horse, Pearl Jam Or his sound: from folk to rock, grunge to rockabilly, or even his meanderings in the experimental with “Trans.”

Neil always seems to play with a band or a sound for a few months and then jumps ship, much like Paul’s college career.  Both are loners, there and gone before you know it.  As we rolled down a gravel road, the lyrics to “Mellow My Mind” seemed fitting with Paul’s home approaching in the distance ahead:

I’ve been down the road

and I’ve come back
Lonesome whistle
on the railroad track
Ain’t got nothing on those
feelings that I had.

After 10 minutes, listening to the soft jingle of beer bottle souvenirs in the back seat, we approached Paul’s driveway.  Moving up the gravel lane I could see a modest farmhouse nestled behind bushes and trees.  We parked next to a beat up old Chevy truck and hopped out of the Element.  Paul seemed to stall for a minute or two, digging through his bags in back, but eventually he led the way, bursting into the house like a rural Kramer.  Inside Paul’s brother Josiah greeted us with a surprised smile.

“Well look who just walked through the door,” he announced to the others who hadn’t noticed the arrival of their guests.  His dad and brother Caleb turned from the computer and Paul’s mother appeared from the kitchen.

“I thought you said you’d be here a week ago?” she asked. “We got steaks and everything for you guys.”

“Awesome. That sounds good right now,” Paul replied. The entire family shook their heads and smiled.

“We already ate them Paul. We got them a week ago.” Obviously Paul didn’t let them know when we would be arriving, but they didn’t seem surprised in the least at his unexpected arrival. Suddenly his sister Sarah appeared from the hall.

“PAUL!” She shouted, running out and hugging him.  I couldn’t understand why Paul felt so weird coming home. Everyone seemed excited to see him and very welcoming.  But as I watched them continue their conversation, I began to notice a distinct difference between Paul and his siblings. For one, none of them had the same crazy fire twinkling in their eyes.

At one point Paul’s dad joined in on the conversation, walking up to Paul and giving him a hearty pat on the back.  Based on the little Paul had told me about his family, I knew he felt closest with his dad.  As they talked, I could see a resemblance between the two: the same curly blonde hair and mischievous grin.  His dad walked up to me and gave a strong handshake saying, “Nice to meet you Andy.  I’ve heard a lot about you.” In my head I hoped he heard all good things.

The three of us sat around the kitchen table and Paul told him about our trip.  As he told the story his brother Josiah would occasionally interrupt with “you hippie homos.”  His dad would chuckle and continue listening intently to his boy Paul.  I could tell through his father’s excitement at hearing our trip where Paul got that adventurous spirit. Sure, he may be planted by his farm, but I could tell part of him yearned to let his seeds be sewn.

As we sat talking, Paul got distracted by two four-wheelers parked outside the house.

“Why’d you get those?” he asked.

“To help us run chores. It makes it easier to get to the field and back during the day.”

“You guys are so lazy.  Why didn’t we have anything fun like that when I was growing up?” Paul inquired.

“Because you would have crashed them,” Josiah interjected. Everyone laughed, except Paul and I.

Ignoring his brother, Paul asked, “Can Andy and I take them out? I want to show him around the land.”

His brothers began chuckling uncontrollably as his father calmly responded, “Paul, those things have immense power.”

“So?” Paul scoffed.

“Well, they are very difficult to drive if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“I’ve driven a four-wheeler before,” Paul responded.

I could tell his dad was getting a bit irritated by Paul’s questioning.  “Well, they cost a lot of money, and they are extremely powerful vehicles.”

“And he doesn’t want you to crash them,” Josiah added.

“You let Josiah and Caleb drive them – ”

Josiah interrupted, “Yeah, because we’re responsible.”  The conversation continued for the next 30 minutes. I sat back and watched it, seeing part of the reason Paul didn’t like coming home.  They didn’t trust him.  Maybe this lack of trust was warranted, but it still seemed a bit cold.  Eventually it was decided that Josiah would drive us around in his truck (he didn’t trust Paul driving the truck either).

With Caleb in the truck bed and the three of us crammed up front, we headed up a gravel road.  A little up the path we began passing the Peterson’s fields.  Josiah told us a list of rare crops his father was growing this year.  Instead of growing common wheat and barley like most Nebraskans, Paul’s dad opted for an odd combination of crops like cloves, alf-alfa, and some strange strand of hybrid wheat.  I could tell where Paul got his quirky obsession with obscure music.

 

Alf-Alfa crops: Mother Nature's version of Gang of Four

Throughout our drive, Josiah would stop on occasion to point out a landmark saying, “That’s the drainage ditch Paul got in trouble for swimming in” or “That’s the bridge Paul crashed a stolen three wheeler into”.  Each story ended with Josiah’s tagline, “That’s why I’m the responsible one.” Obviously someone had been pumping the mantra into his brain from a young age in order to avoid another rebellious son.

15 minutes later we came to a stop at the family’s final plot of land. Josiah began doing a u-turn to take us back home, but Paul kicked his foot onto the brake pedal and said, “Let’s go right here.”

“No, no, no, you’re not going to get us into trouble this time.”

“Just do it,” Paul said.

Like a good little brother, Josiah turned, but as he did he kept repeating, “If we get in trouble you’re taking the blame.”  For the next dozen intersections the same scene played out with Josiah begging to take us back home and Paul enforcing his older brother influence onto him, pulling on the steering wheel and kicking the gas pedal.

To keep his mind off the prospect of actually getting in trouble, Josiah told us about how Abraham Lincoln was a dictator and the confederacy should have won.  Even Paul who thinks Abe gets too much credit disagreed with his brother’s extremist views.

Abraham Stalin looks a bit like a flying monkey.

40 minutes later, after passing through a road that said “Do Not Enter” and passing what looked like a missile launch center, Josiah’s wariness returned.  “Where are we!? You got us lost Paul!” From the back of the truck Caleb conveyed the same uneasiness about where Paul’s directions had led us.

Paul laughed. “You guys have no idea where we’re at?”

“No!” they shouted in unison.

“Don’t you guys ever leave the farm, explore the area? That’s all I did growing up.”

“Why? There’s no reason to leave the farm,” Caleb said leaning into the driver’s side window.  And right there in a nutshell I saw the dichotomy that is the Peterson brothers: Paul, like a city mouse without a worry in the world or concern of what his decisions may lead to, and the cautious field mice, afraid to stray far from home. And why would they?  Everything they needed was at home.  After Paul got kicked out of Christian school and a rebellious tenure at public school, the Peterson’s chose to home school all of their children.

“We’re never going to get home,” Josiah whined. “It’s your fault and I’m not taking the blame this time.”

“Quit being a puss. I’ll tell you which way to turn.”  Within 15 minutes Paul miraculously led us back to the farm.  He knew the area like the palm of his hand.

Inside the house Paul’s parents and sister were huddled around the computer watching some evangelical show, so we tiptoed downstairs.  Josiah led me to his room and told me I’d be sleeping there.  On the door I read a warning sign Josiah had posted, written in large Arial font:

WARNING: The presence of the Lord is so intense in this room for the following: Those who don’t know God, obey the gospel, the religious backsliders, slanderers, fearful, unbelieving, idolaters, atheists, and liars.  Direct contact will result in EXTREME HUNGER for more love for Jesus and his words. Do not enter unless you desire to be changed by the glory.

I would be the old/wise Morgan Freeman while Paul would be the dashing young Brad Pitt.

I closed the door behind me and flinched fearing the wrath of God smiting me for my sinful ways. The seven deadly sins alone would grant me eternal damnation: my lust for women throughout the trip, my gluttony for tasty beers, my greed for more and more CDs, my slothful approach to Long’s Peak (too lazy to finish the climb), my King Kong-ish wrath upon the hipsters of Denver, my envy of those who live in Montana’s Godly splendor, and the pride I displayed in Bozeman (treating Paul inferior because he wimped out on The Dodos).

I braced myself for a moment, realized I was safe within the Lord’s mini-sanctuary, and sat down on the bed. Turning to flip off the light, I had a moment of clarity as I came eye to eye with Jesus himself, staring back at me with those warm blue eyes.  Right above the bed hanging next to an American flag was a painting of white Jesus.

 

Never have I seen such a literal interpretation of God and country.

I flipped the light off quickly, fearing that Jesus’s loving look would transform into a judgmental glare. I took comfort knowing I’d be safe with God literally looking down on me as I slept.

The next morning I awoke early to the creaking of floorboards upstairs; the farm family was up and preparing for another day of field work.  I returned to sleep, and awoke again hours later when the sun had actually risen.

I headed upstairs to find the house empty except for Sarah doing her daily school lessons on the computer.  I moseyed over to the couch and sat, admiring the view of the fields from the bay window. Part of me has always wanted that farm life – the seclusion and freedom to live as you like.

20 minutes later Josiah returned on a four wheeler, and like clockwork, Sarah got up and went out to the field while Josiah sat at the computer and began his lessons.  I sat back and admired the family’s resourceful vigor, working together like a machine. I was watching self reliance at work. Emerson would be proud.

With Paul still in bed, I returned down to my room and read my book for a few hours.  Around noon the entire family came back for lunch.  Paul’s mom cooked up some burgers and we sat with his dad.  His dad kept asking Paul what his next plan was after graduating college. I could tell he was proud of him for graduating from college, but he also seemed worried about what his unpredictable son would do with his diploma.  Paul seemed a bit uncertain on what he planned to do, which I’m sure didn’t sit well with the hamburger in his dad’s stomach.

Around two, Paul and I decided it was time to head into town to visit our old friend John John.  A get-together had been planned, with all of Paul’s friends coming over to John’s for what they called a cream can dinner.  Since Paul didn’t want to drive my car through the gravel, he suggested we ride bikes into town.  He promised me it wasn’t far, so I agreed. I could use some exercise after our to day marathon through brewery country.

Paul led me out to the barn and located two dusty bikes parked near the back.  We rolled them out and Paul grabbed an air compressor to blow the dirt off of them.  He then began filling up the empty tires, but his father’s bike tires seemed to have a hole.  We were left to our second option: Josiah’s bike.  This bike was dustier than the first two, and smaller in size, but the tires seemed fine.

With me on the little bike and Paul on his mom’s, we set out on the gravel road with the sun beating down on us.  Paul quickly disappeared in the distance ahead of me as I struggled to figure out the gears.  Eventually, he stopped and waited for me at the next intersection.  When I continued struggling with the bike’s gears, Paul stopped again and offered to switch bicycles.  Being selfish, I agreed.

The switch didn’t make much of a difference. Paul quickly figured out the gears and once again disappeared in the distance as I pedaled slowly, like a fat kid riding home from the swimming pool.  I’ve never been a “bike rider”. The idea of riding Ragbrai across Iowa has always sounded fun, but the whole “bike riding” part of it just doesn’t settle well with me.  The penis shaped seats are uncomfortable, and my back always seems to ache within ten minutes. The ride from Paul’s farm into Lyman was no exception with my back throbbing as I struggled to catch up.

I preferred being drunk on this immobile bike over riding a real bike sober through the countryside.

When we finally reached a paved highway, we turned left and headed into town.  I followed Paul to Jon Jon and Tif’s house where we parked the bikes against the fence.  When we got inside the air conditioned trailer I quickly went to the sink and filled up a glass of cold water, then grabbed a dish cloth and wiped off my sweaty bald head.

Tiff came out from her room and joined us.  Since John was still out at his parents house preparing for the cream can, she sat with us and told us all about their motorcycle trip to Yellowstone.  We exchanged stories of the amazing scenery we encountered while “The Big Lebowksi” played on the television.

When John got back home, he mixed us up some whiskey drinks to start our celebration off on a good foot.  While we sipped grandfather’s medicine, Jon showed us pictures from their motorcycle trip. Instantly I was brought back to our experiences from a week prior.  Some of their shots were even more spectacular than what we’d seen, to which Paul mentioned, “We’ll have to take that route next year.” I smiled, enjoying the idea of traveling through mountain country once again.  I’ve always wanted my road trips to someday take me all across the country, and world for that matter, but if the remainder of my road trips all take place in the mountains of the West, I won’t be disappointed.

After slurping down our drinks, Jon told us he wanted to show us something.  We followed him on foot to a run down school a few blocks away.  A friend of his bought an abandoned school for $4000 dollars from the city, an unbelievable price considering the size of the land alone.  We walked around the back and into the garage that once served as a automotive classroom.  Now it functioned as an actual biker garage, filled with old bikes and pieces.  John’s friend sat working on a bikes motor when we walked in.

“I wanted to show these guys around the school. Is that cool?”

“Sure man,” he smiled, wiping his greasy hands on a rag.  The garage led into a kitchenette area, that I guess once served as a home economics room.  As we looked around at the ancient counter tops and refrigerator Paul commented, “This would make a great bar.”  He had a point.

Jon then directed us into a large room that served as back stage to the theater, then walked us onto the stage.  The rows of old wooden seats reached upward and the balcony frowned from above.

“The acoustics are great in here. I brought my guitar over here once and jammed,” John said.

Paul’s eyes grew wide as he took in the whole auditorium.  “This is friggin amazing! He should fix this up! You could have concerts in here!  Dude, you should have bought this John!”  I could tell by the crazy look in his eye that Paul was caught up in one of his big ideas.  I had to agree that it would be a pretty sweet venue, but then again, how many people would travel to Lyman, Nebraska to see Man Man in concert?

 

Lyman Rock City

As we toured the remainder of the school, Paul continued his reverie. In Paul’s dream the upstairs classrooms would be apartments, the downstairs rooms would house a brewery and a recording studio, and the basketball court would be used for even bigger concerts. As we looked out of the window of one classroom Paul noticed a football field (a campground) and a softball field (where he imagined bands could play the fans in a game of softball before a concert).

Needless to say, Paul’s imagination was running wild, and I just sat back and enjoyed his vision. He wasn’t rambling just for the “what if” factor; he really believed this dream would someday be accomplished. I guess that’s what I admire most about my friend; he thinks big and doesn’t worry about the obstacles that may arise along the way.  I must admit, I wish I still had a little bit of that childlike wonder, that same dreamer that once believed he’d someday be an NBA All-Star.

Ladders make dreams for adolescents

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