I know a family that visited the capitol buildings of all Lower 48 states last year, traveling in their Class A motorhome. They carefully described each capitol on their blog. It sounded like a very thorough and impressive quest to me.
Last fall I went on a quest of my own. My husband had died and my life at the age of 37 was suddenly upended. I needed a big, adventurous goal to take me out of the constraints of this life, and what could provide this better than an RV trip across America?I sold my Jeep and many possessions, and I moved out of my rented house into a house on wheels, a newly bought 24-foot Class C motorhome.
The next question was where to go. From my New Jersey home, westward was certain, and since I am a musician, I needed to go where I could play.
The answer was the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival in Portland, Oregon.
Jim Pepper, or Flying Eagle, was a well-respected Native American jazz saxophonist from Portland. He made a recording with lyrics taken from a Native chant. Together with the rhythms and chords of rock and blues, this song delivers a magical message of hope and simple joy. It is called “Witchi Tai To.” It is one of a handful of songs that most clearly represents the human spirit, to my ears.
The festival organizers agreed to have me come and perform it.
The Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend, I set off. With a small motorhome and nothing to tow, I could go wherever I wanted to go, wide highways or narrow small-town streets.
In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, I witnessed a town square full of statues of groundhogs in various poses, attitudes, and dress (yes, dress). You may recognize Punxsutawney as the origin of Groundhog Day. Punxsutawney Phil himself was in residence in a large glass terrarium at the library.At Elkhart, Indiana, the self-proclaimed “RV Capital of the World,” I toured the industry’s Hall of Fame and realized it is a rare thing for a young woman to drive herself across the country in her own RV. Often along this trip I was called “brave.” But I was not trying to be brave, or even thought of being brave. I was simply too excited and grateful to be scared.
On a long, isolated stretch of Montana highway, I stopped at a store devoted to the memory of the Indian massacre of Custer’s army in 1876 at Little Bighorn. There were enough books to fill a small library, all dealing with that specific subject. There were many scenes of bloody battles, and aisle upon aisle of Indian war culture artifacts. A store like that makes history real. Feeling uneasy in my Caucasian skin, I was turning to leave when a woman delivered a warning to me in Irish or perhaps Scottish brogue: “There’s bahhd wither cohmin’.”
An RV on an empty highway is not the place to be in bad weather. My eyes widened and I asked her for specific advice. “Just wotch the skuy,” she told me.
OK, I thought. There’s the sky. It’s huge. It’s swollen, whitish gray, and sinking low and heavy above us. I’m watching it and it’s staring back at me. Now what?
But the urgency had come across, and like a turn-of-the-century wild cowgirl would grab her horse and skedaddle—I jumped into the seat of my RV and took off. The weather nipped at my heels for hours as I raced westward and found safety.In Centralia, Washington, I browsed through a secondhand women’s clothing store called The Shady Lady, feeling the energy of the past darting through the place. An alcove here, a curtained doorway there led to rows of neatly hung skirts and jackets, as if the retail clothing business had been grafted upon the original purpose of those deep colored carpets and lush drapes. It all made sense when I discovered a poster of century-old newspapers sensationalizing the characters and drama of The Shady Lady’s early days as the town brothel.
My quest came full circle in a high school in suburban Portland, playing a high school grand piano like many others, in an auditorium with about 40 people and my cousin scattered among the rows of seats. I played my heart out for Jim Pepper, for my lost husband, and for all those early pioneers who reached the Pacific shores searching for something, in the days when everyone in a covered wagon was like an RV traveler.Not only was I called “brave” for making this trip—I was also, on more than one occasion, called “crazy.” It was truthfully a crazy thing to do, in this economy, at this young time in my life, with not even a dog along for the ride. When I barreled the RV over Crazy Woman Creek in southern Wyoming, it resonated just a bit too well.
But I can’t be judged harshly.
You see, now I know why people make their journeys. Some, like my Class A friends who toured the capitols, have specific and noteworthy goals. But some of us have lost the goals we had before. And by taking a crazy step, we begin to feel something new.