August 12th, 2000

Devil's Tower

AOL Homepage: The Road Trip, Part One

From my original AOL homepage:

Road Trip!

This summer featured some changes in my plans, but nevertheless was perhaps one of the most fun breaks I've ever had. I finished the school year at the beginning of June, graduated the class of 2000, which was the very first group of students that I taught at St. Joe's, and proceeded to jump right into teaching summer school. I was worried that I was going to be too tired, too burnt out from the end of the year, but teaching a completely different course actually was refreshing enough for me to still feel as though I were getting some sort of break. Actually, I ended up teaching two courses, one a basic catechetical course based on the Nicene Creed, and the other a version of my Sacraments course for two of my students who will be juniors this year.

After my teaching was complete, I had a week off and then took a fabulous theology class over at Notre Dame, taught by Philip Sheldrake, who has been teaching spirituality at ND during the summers, getting away from his native England. The class, Theology and Spirituality: The Self, Transformation and Holiness, was far and away one of the more worthwhile and engaging theology courses I've taken. It grabbed me especially for the way it raised the issues of what the study of spirituality actually offers in our intellectual context today and then how the class examined these issues in a variety of distinct historical circumstances. If you are an odd duck and are interested in the course itself, you can examine the syllabus here.

I met a great many wonderful folks in the class, topping off the whole experience by spending a night at The Vine with one, the young Jesuit Michael Conley, busily examining the inside of a bottle of wine and finding out why I "fit the profile" for the Society of Jesus. Privately alarmed by this turn of events, I led the way over to Corby's Pub, where we met various Jesuits and M.Div-ers for some end-of-session festivities. As we walked in, we were approached by a beautiful "Black Irish" young woman named Shannon, who was starting a doctorate in Biology, who said, "You guys look like theologians." Only in South Bend.

The next day I was off to the West! The next three weeks were to be spent hanging with my friend Kevin Fleming, Ph.D., who was finishing up his post-doc at the University of Wyoming. Although our original plan had been to head off to Ireland, his relocation costs were nixing that idea for a year. Now our plans were for a week in Laramie, for me to see the rugged western life, and then two weeks of traveling, road-tripping through the west to end up out at Kevin's folks' place in Massachusetts.

Traveling to Chicago turned into great fun as I feel into talking with a woman who was also a teacher, Christine, and her delighfully precocious three-year-old daughter. I was able to give her a hand while we talked about education and such and so a potentially dull bus ride became quality entertainment.

Then I caught my plane and before I knew it, I was landing at that weird Denver airport that I remembered from the news a few years ago--the one that cost millions of dollars to develop a system to destroy people's luggage. I suddenly became nervous. But my fears were groundless: Kevin met me and my luggage was safe. All was well with the world.

We got into town and before I knew it, I was not only meeting Kevin's girlfriend, the charming Miss Sarah Jackson, but her entire family as well, including her sister-in-law, Megan, who was introduced to me still sprawled out in bed having just given birth to her first child. She was immensely courteous, given that neither of us had ever been introduced to another person while in such a situation (respectively).

Over the next few days, Kevin, Sarah and I spent our time wandering the countryside, sampling the resaurants and looking for good views despite the haze from all the wildfires that were raging in the west. Out here near Centennial, we spent an afternoon in the sun up on an open meadow.

When we weren't outside, there was still plenty of entertainment. Along with many hours of conversation, including one night that went until 4am, Kevin and Sarah would get into the most amazing wrestling matches. Although Kevin had a definite size advantage, Sarah was able to hold her own, especially with her vicious hair-pulling tactics....

Yes. Well. [Ahem] Anyway, we continued the process of packing, even with all of this fun. We spent as much time as we could socializing during the day, even while Kevin had to deal with wrapping up his affairs at the counseling center. One afternoon we had lunch in a cute little ice cream shop/deli type place. Here I took what I think might be my favourite shots of the entire trip. As we finished lunch, Kevin and Sarah were having a lot of fun flirting and just looking at one another. All of a sudden, I realized that I loved the look of them sitting there and I grabbed these two shots....

For me, this was just one of those really fun moments in life where you feel like you're really seeing your friends: what it is that you love most about them. Sometimes we complain about being around people who are in love, but I think other people's love gives me (in a different way) as much pleasure as a love of my own. Perhaps it's easier just to enjoy your friends' loves. I don't know. Maybe I'm talking nonsense. Anyway, this time in the ice cream shop was characteristic of our afternoons of hanging out and, for me, is what the Laramie part of my journey was all about.

The toughest thing in all of this, however, was a drama that had been going on since Kevin had met Sarah: she, like everyone else in the family, was a Mormon. Months earlier, when he called me up and told me excitedly about this first date he had been on and mentioned that she was very pious, a Mormon in fact, I just started laughing and asked him what he thought of his first date with a pagan. "Huh?" was more-or-less his response. I explained that while Mormons use many of the same words and names as Christians do, (Jesus, etc.) they mean by them completely different concepts. It is, in fact, a very recently-created polytheistic religion, completely distinct from Judaism and Christianity, although in what amounts to a very deceptive way, they do not reveal this. Sarah liked Kevin a lot, and wanted him to come into "the true faith." My biggest beef with Kevin through this whole thing was that he was not honest with Sarah about how strongly he felt about his Catholicism, for fear of driving her away, I supposed. As it was, this constant confrontation of faiths caused Kevin to learn more about his own faith at a rapid pace. And made our phone bills extraordinary.

While in Laramie, Kevin and I attended a Mormon service with her family, which was quite an interesting experience for me. It began with a fairly bland hymn and testimony worship service. Very straight-laced and restrained. Much to my utter annoyance, they had a hymn based on the text of John Henry Cardinal Newman's "Lead Kindly Light." He would have been spinning in his grave! Their "stake center" (from the Mormon pioneers' using stakes as they journeyed west: they don't call the place a "church") is a very stark, functional, and suburban meeting place. It is very remeniscent of many evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant assembly halls. After this, there was "bible study," which was really Book of Mormon study. The "worship" then climaxed with an hour-long presentation (with video!) on Fire Safety, through which Kevin and I struggled to keep a straight face as everyone listened intently. There was no sacramental awareness, no hint of the mystical. There was no sense of transcendence, whether in God or over such aspects of human existence as culture or politics. It was, in fact, an orderly, democratic meeting. Period.

This was part of the emphasis Mormons put on caring for their families, which is always presented as a very noble part of their ethics, but I began to see a very dark side to their language while observing them. They use people's families as weapons against them. Any questioning of Mormon tenets is met with the threat of eternal separation from their families: this is an intolerable fear for most of them, so Mormon doctrines (and the difficulties reconciling them with history, science, logic, consistent ethics, et cetera) go unchallenged. The ultimate Mormon test for the authenticity of faith seems to end up being "a warm feeling" inside that tells you that this is the truth. My long, 10pm to 4am conversation with Sarah the one night came about as she asked a fairly random series of questions, trying to understand the Catholic faith, which Kevin was inexperienced at articulating. She ended by saying in disbelief that she couldn't believe anyone believed in anything so complicated. Like I said, she had asked a fairly random set of questions, so I hadn't given her anything very systematic. I simply said that reality is complicated and Catholicism/Christianity reflects that. We couldn't believe that anyone could believe something so simplistic, as Mormonism strikingly resembles the basic, "picture-ish" way that we try to "dumb-down" Christianity for five-year-olds in Sunday School: God as a Man in the Sky; that kind of thing. As a professional educator in history and theology, it was also interesting to notice how blatantly Mormonism is a modern, American religion. So much of it screamed its development in 19th century American culture and philosophy. It would have been obvious without any specific knowledge of its origins, and it made it more mind-boggling to me that they really saw themselves as proceeding directly from the New Testament.

This tension behind everything didn't stop us from really enjoying one another's company. I adored her in many ways, she was great fun and terribly kind, especially when my father called a few days into my stay there and told me that Grandpa Novak had died on August 1st. I was sad, and just empty somehow, although I'd known before I had left that it was going to be a matter of days or a few weeks by my dad's descriptions. Sitting on Kevin's porch over the next few days, when he was at work and I was just picking the guitar, gave me some time to think about Grandpa talking with me over the years.

Sarah had to leave us, though, and Kevin and I continued the process of packing, while being a bit more lonely (him more than me, no doubt). Our last evenings also featured a few gigs for Kevin in nearby Cheyenne, where we were joined for one night by several of Kevin's friends and colleagues. On the night that only I was there, Kevin made $55 in tips. On the night he had a full cheering section to let the resaurant know that this was quality entertainment, he made nothing. This is a mystery.

Kevin and I journeyed out into an amazing sunset one evening to eat back in Centennial, in a steakhouse located as the road just begins to curve up into the mountains.

There we had a great conversation, veering, as our conversations often do, into psychology and spirituality. As I sawed into my steak (and the wine began to saw into me) I noticed that the two cowboys at the table next to us had become very quiet over their hamburgers. They hadn't said much to one another anyway, but it seemed that they were eavesdropping on our conversation. Apparently, two guys discussing their psychosexual development was not something you saw very often out on the range. We just pretended that we didn't notice them listening and hoped that they might find something educational in what we said. Or at least amusing.

Back in Laramie, I also had the opportunity to see where Kevin worked at the counseling center and even to have Kevin conduct some kind of arcane experiment on my mind that he said was "very illuminating." You get used to this kind of thing hanging out with a pshrink. Actually, I found that be an profitable experience myself. I was also able to see some of the other attractions of the UW campus, including the art museum and this amazing T-Rex in the campus zoo, which is kept behind this sturdy safety fence.

I discovered that the University of Wyoming features one of the most kick-butt Geology departments in the States, since one thing Wyoming does extremely well is have rocks. You could hear people talking around town in accents from all over the world about rocks. And fossils. In rocks. When Kevin and I traveled over to the campus geology museum--which featured an incredible dinosaur collection, by any standard--we ended up there during the afternoon with hardly anyone around. In a fit of juvenile enthusiasm, I had Kevin jump over the guard rail (there to prevent this exact occurance, I know) to give me a visual demonstration of his ferocity versus that of a T-Rex.

After we finished cleaning Kev's apartment, we headed off to Mass at the Newman Center where I was able to briefly meet Fr. Roger, the Benedictine that had been Kevin's local touchstone for the faith. Seemed like a good fellow, and I remember enjoying the Mass heartily. We then had a farewell breakfast with Kevin's incredible colleague Frances, a lady I'd been hearing extraordinary things about all year. It was tough for them to say good-bye to each other, but that's all good: if the friendship wasn't of the best kind, then it wouldn't have mattered. You could see that it mattered a lot. Once we hit the road we began singing as the CD randomizer began blaring Creedance Clearwater Revival's "Up Around the Bend." I assumed that this would be the fated theme song for the journey, but I think it was played by the CD angel merely as a prelude. The real theme song for our trek would actually be the Saw Doctors' "Joyce Country Ceili Band." This song kept popping up at just the right time, always highlighting moments of divine significance. The image of a fairly cheesy group of musicians tooling around begging for attention seemed to fit pretty well, too. We are the Joyce Country Ceili Band.

Are you bored yet? If not, you can continue to follow the road trip.

AOL Homepage: The Road Trip, Part Two

From my original AOL homepage:

The Road Trip

So. You've decided to come along!

We journeyed across the desert basin of southern Wyoming. I was amazed and somewhat horrified as I thought of what the settlers that pushed across this territory must have experienced. I kept murmuring to Kevin about it as we would crest a rise and see nothing but wastelands in front of us. Maps were unbelievably deceiving: the dot that would have indicated a small town of a few thousand in Illinois would be a dusty trio of beaten mobile homes. The lack of water and the constant brutality of the sun must have been the simple elements of despair for many people. Yet they came. And past mobile homes, wind farms, an oil refinery and seemingly-infinite stretches of barbed wire, we went also.

Eventually we turned north and began to notice that we were out of the hazy air of the fires and that we were venturing back into areas where life was more apparent. The land grew more fertile as we moved along the underside of the Wind River Mountains. You can see the clear light of that land here in this picture. As we heard later, on the other side, in the reservations, the fires continued to rage....

We wove our way through the hills that appeared in front of us, coasting down canyons, following in the flow of streams and trying not to disturb the meditations of trout fishers. At the end of a long day's travel we arrived in the Jackson Hole area. We were lodging for the night at a hostel in Teton Village, where the locals had wisely bundled up all the hotels so that they wouldn't be spread all over the feet of the Grand Tetons. After a stretch, a read for me and a conversation with a few horses, and a good run for Kevin, we headed out in search of a superior dinner. We were not disappointed. Fortunately, the first Italian place we looked into, right off the road, was completely packed, and revealed to be a colossal tourist trap. We drove on to find a place we'd heard of in the town of Jackson itself.

After untangling ourselves from the "authentic Old West" decor of the downtown strip, we found ourselves outside the unassuming little lump of a restaurant known as Nani's. Here we were treated to an exceptional Italian evening, from a restaurant specializing in the regional menus of Italy, determined to prove that "Italian" is not a "singular" concept. From their "Sardegna" menu we consumed the following treasures. I tried the Bistecchine di Cinghiale ($ 19.50 L. 41.750--I actually had lire on me...) which was described as "wild boar chops in a dark, sweet and sour sauce with Sultana raisins, prunes, pancetta and a touch of bitter chocolate and aromatic spices served with potatoes." The sauce incredibly rich and quite unlike anything I'd ever had before. Kevin contented himself with Pasta con Burro e Parmigiano ($ 10.00) "a heaping bowl of pasta with sweet butter and lots of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese." We baptized all of this with a bottle of Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Reserva ($ 31.00) and with continuing talk about women, the past, the food and the sights we'd seen so far, this rated as a particularly fine evening.

The plan for the next day had us heading up to the top of Rendezvous Peak, located just behind the village, where instead of skiing, we would just enjoy the view--and what a view is was! We rode up the tram (something I'd never done before) and quickly found ourselves at 10,450 feet. With the valley of the Snake River stretched out below us, we had all of the "Hole" in our sight. To the north was the Grand Teton itself, and the gusty winds and mid-40s temperature made the whole atmosphere up on top wonderfully energizing.

From up there we let our conversation wander as freely as our eyes were able to. From the lay of the land, the way that the shadows of the clouds glided over the mountainsides (particularly delighting Kevin), the little flowers blooming amidst the stones, to the mysterious white substance coating some of the mountain peaks--I thought it was "snow," but Kevin insisted that it was in fact a "white algae" as he'd been informed by his straight-faced boss at the University--we enjoyed everything that we saw. At one point, we even caught a glimpse of that legendary Folk Choir creature known only as "The Face," but one blurry photograph perhaps isn't enough to make the skeptical believe that this creature is real....

As we sat on the mountaintop, looking mostly at the valley on the other side of the mountain, undeveloped and seemingly untouched, we had one of our best "slow" times of the trip. When you are going to cover 3500 miles in nine days, with plenty of social stops along the way, you just don't have a lot of time to sit. But we did manage to squeeze this in. Without any need to ski or hike down the mountainside, you had the rare luxury of just being able to enjoy a particular place for itself, rather than it being so much of just one place on your journey to another place. I don't know if I'd been able to sit and feel a piece of land like that since laying on the top of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland back in 1997. Maybe it's this kind of place that affects me the most. I hadn't been in the mountains since visiting my college roommate David Nutting and his wife Priscilla in Las Vegas back in the middle 90's, so for me, just getting back into the strong bones of the world was pure bliss. For me, there's something about being around rock that allows you to sense the grandeur of the world more than anything else.

Tired? But there's still miles to go....
Devil's Tower

AOL Homepage: The Road Trip, Part Three

From my original AOL homepage:

The Road Trip

We set out from Teton Village and drove north out of the Hole. Our destination this day was Red Lodge, Montana. Distance-wise, we had a much shorter day's journey in front of us than we'd had the day before. Just a jaunt across a few great national parks. Here we had a grand gift. In Jackson, as we filled up the Probe, now christened "Therese," one of the fellows at the service station pointed out that our rear tires were almost worn flat, with cracks and holes developing. No way would we get to the east coast, much less over the mountains, on those--"You're going to have a blow-out," he said matter-of-factly. It didn't take much of a look to realize that we weren't being scammed. Quickly we replaced those sad cases and headed out with Kevin being especially effusive in his thanks to God, St. Christopher, and kindly mechanics.

We passed into Grand Teton National Park before too long, driving north along the mountains and then beginning to weave our way through the park. We took our first stop along the shores of Lake Jackson where Kevin was able to indulge two of his great loves: mountains and water. Not quite the ocean, but perhaps that would have been overkill.... Before too long, Grand Teton National Park gave way to Yellowstone National Park and the Tetons were lost to the hills and distance in the south.

This was the first sign of the great difference between me and Kevin: he was, in his words, "an east-coast driver," with all the impatience that that implies. And I was something of a midwestern slowpoke, thinking that it made perfect sense to stop for a few hours in every place that I wanted to "take a look around." To be honest, though, we did have a bit of a time commitment in that we were supposed to meet Mike Holly, a classmate of Kevin's from Notre Dame, for dinner that evening in Red Lodge. So as it turned out that getting through the parks meant a lot of slow driving, the tension level in the car began to rise.... Naturally, of course, I wasn't going to be able to get much of a look around from a car while just passing through, so I had to adjust. No hiking, though. Tough on me! We still saw some amazing and unexpected sights, from the vast grey vistas of burnt trees from the great fires in Yellowstone a few years back to the sudden appearance of a cow moose and her two calves as they ran across the road in front of us. One point where we did stop for a bit was along some of the thermal activity in the park, after driving by some geyser fields, we pulled over at the "Mud Volcano." Here Kevin is posing very patiently in front of the incredibly bad-smelling, near-boiling waters of the "Black Dragon's Cauldron." Doesn't he look happy?

As we began to move far more slowly than we'd planned, the need for haste grew. For me the killer was when we passed a herd of buffalo grazing just opposite of us on the other shore of the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley. Kevin slowed down enough to let me get three photographs. This is the best one, and it's pretty bad. Those dark lumps are buffalo. Really. I swear.

Finally we reached the northern end of park and Kevin was able to indulge his need for speed to such an extent that I began to tell him exactly what I thought in the most untheological language I could think of. Yet even with such tensions, we remained surrounded by beauty. Here we have the gorgeous Lamar Valley and all our road before us.

Once we got up to this part of the park, I was surprised to see how few people there were. To my mind, there was just as much to see and explore up here as there was in the rest of the area. Yet while there were very few people in this area, that didn't mean that we were hurting for company. Up in this region, Kevin and I were introduced to the "free range," the only unfenced areas in America that I've ever seen. I cannot even begin to describe to you how good that looks! Here one of our free range buddies ambled over to the car to say, "Hey." Or maybe it was "Hay." Hmmmm.....

The road goes ever on and on....
Devil's Tower

AOL Homepage: The Road Trip, Part Four

From my original AOL homepage:

The Road Trip--Beartooth Mountain Pass

As we left Yellowstone, we came to what for both Kevin and me was the most incredible part of journey. Early that morning we had taken a tram up to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, an experience that I had obviously very much enjoyed. Now about to make the same ascent, but in the car. We took the Beartooth Mountain Highway from Wyoming into Montana. This highway is only open from Mid-May to Mid-October because of the snow and danger. We began to climb and before too long, we were saying very little but "Oh, wow...." Soon, we were looking down on the August snow/algae. (This is where Kevin realized that he'd been had by his boss, although he still wasn't admitting it. In the face of his denials, I was almost frantic: "Okay, stop the car! I'll go freaking get you the snow!")

You can see as we go up the road that there are poles set in guard rail through the whole upper range of the road. This, we found, was to guide the plows so that they didn't inadvertantly drive over the edge of the cliffs that the road was carved out of. The fact that these poles were 10-15 feet tall seemed rather ominous to me....

We were now about two hours behind the schedule we thought we could achieve, but now it didn't matter so much. As we neared the top of the pass, the sun was setting behind the mountains and we were treated to a display of beauty. Nature is not neutral.

At the top of the pass, 10, 940 feet above sea level, we had to stop. The road at this point might be labeled "insane," with hairpin turns twisting back around themselves. I, however, prefered to reserve the "insane" label for Kevin's driving, which had continued at a pace that I couldn't reconcile with my survival instinct. As we got out of the car, we saw a pair of other cars creeping along the same turn we had just made. Kevin wondered aloud if perhaps he had been driving too fast. Apparently, my word hadn't been strong enough testimony. Hmpf. We left the car on the side of the road and walked over to the guard rail and looked down. And down. And down. The road at this point was perched hundreds of feet above the valley, if not a few thousand. Unbelievable. Pictures, I'm afraid, cannot even begin to describe the view and the experience. You must go there, but only when it's safe. Actually, I don't know if it would ever be safe, really. Anyway, Kevin nonchalantly went over and sat down on the guard rail, with the abyss yawning behind him.... I was a bit more tense as I took this shot.

Honestly, there may be nothing that can compare to this place in the United States. I've heard many different places described as the "most beautiful drive in the country," but this one may have a real claim to that title. Despite being on a highway, one of the things that stands out in my memory is the silence of the place: hardly any sound but the high mountain winds sighing past you, unconcerned and unstopping.

At this point, the altitude and comparative lack of oxygen apparently began to have a negative effect on Kevin. While we were both abnormally giddy and giggling wildly, Kevin suffered even more strongly than myself and began to roll around in the middle of the road, posing provocatively and screaming about his love for life. Well, we were quite literally on a high. I suppose I should have been prepared. As it was, at the time it seemed pretty normal and appropriate to me, so I suppose that I was pretty far gone, too. We were rather surprised when we developed the pictures, though.

As I'm typing this, I happen to be hearing Mozart's "Rondo alla turca" in the background. That might be the best music to understand what this place felt like, especially as it moves to its conclusion: giddy, joyful, uncontrolled. Going to places like this fills you with pure joie de vivre. Life itself. I don't know--words fail me. You know the experience. Madness. Sanity. Leap into your friends' smiles and laughter. Go to church.

At last we climbed back into the car and began to inch down the mountainside, perhaps a bit more slowly now. I had a moment of absolute confusion as we drove across a field and as I looked out of the window, there was a covered wagon parked on the plateau with two horses unhitched and grazing nearby. I was so perplexed by this sudden vision from the Old West that my camera sat completely forgotten in my hands as I stared and shouted to Kevin, "What the hell is that?!" In a moment, the vision was gone, hidden by rocks. "What the hell was that?!" I continued to yell with undue frequency. Hallucination? I couldn't imagine anyone getting horses to haul a wagon to this height. For that matter, I couldn't imagine anyone getting road-building equipment up to where we were either. Only later did I find out that the area had many Basques who've come into the area to continue in their high-mountain, heavily-isolated grazing culture. Technologically, they continue to live simply, not caring for much of the 20th century's clutter and mess.

We continued to head down the mountainside, weaving back and forth across the face of the mountain. The air grew hazy again with smoke, and for the first time I could smell it: I had never thought of what a forest fire smelled like before. Burning leaves. Naturally. In Illinois growing up, that was the smell of autumn: burning leaves in the yard. It might have been a chore, but it was a good homey smell that meant all was right in the world. Not here. Here, in the west, that was a smell of terror. I had never even considered the idea. A bit more nervous, we headed down in to the smoke and made our way to Red Lodge. That night we were staying in the comfort of the Willows Inn. You couldn't ask for greater hospitality in the States. Under a smoky twilight, we pulled into town, a few hours late, but still five minutes ahead of our dinner guest, who was also running behind.

What a trip! How could there be more?
Devil's Tower

AOL Homepage: The Road Trip, Part Five

From my original AOL homepage:

The Road Trip--Never What We Expected

So we arrived in Red Lodge Montana, staying at the lovely Willows Inn. We cannot recommend it enough if you are in the area. Although we were later than we figured, we ended up beating Mike Holly by about five minutes and soon found ourselves tucked in a booth at the fabulous Bridge Creek Backcountry Kitchen and Wine Bar, surrounded by the shining wood interior, chatting with our waitress and catching up among ourselves. Once again, I found myself able to explore new areas of cuisine as I set into a buffalo steak, served with a customary pile of potatoes. After some walking when we were done with dinner, I let the old roommates catch up alone on the porch of the inn as I curled up with another chapter of Stephen Lawhead's Byzantium up in our room. Other than a little rattling around by the bikers from Denmark in the next room, it was a refreshing and peaceful long night.

The next day saw us served a great breakfast from our hosts and then heading out to the car, which was dusted with a light coating of ashes from the fires in the area. After brushing off Therese, we got out of town, just before the local roads were closed down because of the fires. I stopped to take a picture overlooking the town, and was waved to by a unusually beautiful blonde biker as I stood next to the road. Kevin and I launched into a long discussion of the virtues of biker chicks as we tried to find our way back into Wyoming.

This section of the trip didn't have any pictures worth reprinting here as everything was so hazy from the fires. We had a very difficult time seeing the Bighorn Mountains as we came up on them. Naturally the views, once we got to the top, weren't all that compelling. The Bighorn River itself was more of what the locals around where I grew up would have called a "crick." I was rather surprised, but you could see the much wider banks of what the river was during its flood stage. The most exciting moment of the afternoon was seeing a guy selling beef jerky from his '57 Chevy along the side of the road, miles from nowhere. You just don't see stuff like that anywhere else. And so we made our way to the incredibly rural areas of northeast Wyoming, heading for the metropolis of Sundance, (over a thousand people!) while Kevin related stories of his month-long rural placement there the previous February. He pointed out some of the tiny villages in the area that he had visited and told me horror stories of family trees that had no branches.

We got into Sundance, which was pulsing with bikers gathered for the Sturgis rally. We checked out our accommodations right off, quickly finding out that we were not staying at the clinic as we had hoped. After a few moments of crisis, we found that a doctor friend of Kevin's had arranged for us to stay in her backyard outside of town, where her husband had pitched a tent for us. Very, very cool of them.

After a quick circuit of the town to say "howdy" to old friends, we dashed out to Devil's Tower, so that I could take a long look at this wild piece of geography.

When we got back into town around sundown, we grabbed a spot at the Aro Restaurant, where Kevin had been a regular during his placement. The place was absolutely packed with bikers and Kevin and I managed finally to get seated in a corner by the bar, where we both sat so that we could watch the crowd. We found out later from one of Kevin's waitress friends that several of the bikers noticed us as the only two non-bikers (at least the only two guys not wearing leather) and also the only two drinking wine at dinner while everyone else had beer. Apparently a number of them asked if we were "together!" Little did we know. As the crowd thinned out, Kevin was persuaded to grab his guitar and go up onto their little stage and play some tunes. Kevin had been very nervous about this possibility and was worried that the bikers wouldn't like his music and would decide to kill us. I just kept telling him to concentrate on his more humorous music, which he did, along with a good handful of classics. The audience was immensely positive, laughing and calling out for more. This is another point where I deeply regret not having my camera. One giant, shaven-headed, goateed, Jesse Ventura-ish fellow was requesting an Eagles tune that Kevin didn't know. Kevin started playing another one, and (full of our wine from dinner) demanded that the fellow join him on stage. When he got up on stage, he was hunched over in a shyness bordering on terror, but then as the crowd continued to cheer, began moving to the music, bobbing his head, and by the end of the tune was back-to-back with Kevin singing into the mic with the happiest look on his face. As the crowd screamed its approval, Kevin raised both fists into the air and shouted out "Rock on, Sundance!" This totally ridiculous drunken shout would be bellowed out every time he paused. And we would all cheer. I was still sitting in the corner with the locals that Kevin had gotten to know while he was there: the owner of the Aro, her daughter, who was waitressing for the week and joined Kevin to do some incredible spontaneous beat poetry on stage, and Anna and Rick Breese, another waitress and her husband who was one of the local deputies dealing with the crowd for the rally. These last two ended up talking with me the whole evening and made me decide that this was one town full of good people. Kevin and I agreed later on that the Aro was the only place in America that made us think of an Irish pub: a local place with good food, good music that made everybody part of the family.

After leaving the Aro at about two in the morning, we went out stargazing and wandering the countryside with a few of the waitresses who had been friends with Kevin. By the time we had to try to find where we were staying for the night, it was a lot closer to sunrise than sunset. I grew up in a place with backroads, but the house we were looking for was on the far side of nowhere. Kevin and I missed the road for the longest time, and then we had to drive down a gravel lane for five miles--without seeing a house--before coming to the right spot, pausing only to let deer run across in front of us and to ask one another, "Are you sure this is the right road?" We finally arrived, giggling at the strangeness of it all, to fall into the tent that these folks had pitched for us in their backyard.

The next morning, after some good conversation with our host (and terrified silence from his toddling twin daughters), we headed into Sundance to say some good-byes, grab a few supplies and hit the road. The bikers were out in force.

As we got going, we were having a blast looking at all the different bikes, talking about all the outrageous styles we were seeing, and speculating about the people participating. After a while, though, the crowds began to go from being interesting to being endless, and even irritating. Here we hit the most dangerous point of the entire journey.

I wanted to take a look at the Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore memorials. Looking at the photocopied map that we had of South Dakota, it looked like it would be a detour of two hours to squeeze that in. Kevin agreed, reluctantly. With the addition of bikers everywhere and the fact that what appeared to be a normal highway going through Custer State Park was in fact a continual 20 MPH zone, our detour took five hours and I began to fear for my life. Kev was open that he was an east coast driver – just wanting to "get there" – but now things got tense as we made slower and slower progress. Having a rock fly off a passing truck and crack Kevin's windshield just added more plutonium to the bomb. I seriously began to contemplate not completing the journey after we got to South Bend.... I did get to see the memorials, though. I was surprised how little progress had been made on the Crazy Horse memorial since I'd read about it in grade school, although what I saw of the visitors center was fabulously impressive with its Native American collection. The only other highlights were that as we followed these bikers along the winding road through Custer we saw a buffalo along the edge of the road (free range agian) and we were passed at one point by Jack Nicholson on a bike, revisiting his Easy Rider days. But this wasn't enough for me to think that Kevin still might not kill me.

Yet this is what friendships are made of: weathering times like this. Not weathering them is what unexplained disappearances are made of, but we didn't travel down that route. Once we got on the highway, we made our way east. I didn't ask to detour into the Badlands. We stayed in Murdo, South Dakota that night, a town that seems to only exist to give travelers a place to eat and sleep. We rested early that evening, and watched the only episode of Survivor that we ended up seeing and had a lively talk on the ethics that the show demonstrated and what ethical mindsets it tried to force viewers into adopting.

The next day we continued our journey across South Dakota. I didn't take any photographs at this point, although I have created a computer, web-page simulation of what driving across South Dakota was like. Just scroll down.

Wasn't that dull?

Fortunately, dullness was broken for us as we got into the Madison area for the evening as crashed at my Mom's place for the night. She had a good, home-cooked meal waiting for us and we couldn't have asked for more. We got to share some of the stories from our journey thus far, enjoy some conversation, and even visit Grandma the next morning. This is where I had to admit just what a charmer Kevin can be, when I saw even my Grandmother get all giggly talking to him. Then we hit the road, heading south through Wisconsin and into northern Illinois, making for the town of Oregon, where I grew up.

As we came down the Rock River, I was able to point out some of the sights: Stronghold Castle perched on its bluff overlooking a bend in the stream; Lorado Taft's Native American statue, which we all called "Blackhawk," although it looks nothing like the man; and then on to my old house. This, unfortunately, had been decimated by tackiness: painted an ugly color and having had the lawn destroyed and covered with old children's toys and junk. Redneck heaven. We also went by my old parish, St. Mary's, which is now decorated by statue of the Holy Family that I adore. It seems to me to represent the best of what a family can have: that eager, affectionate love. A good model for a parish to have in front of it.

After this glance around town, we headed west. We stopped by DeKalb, so I could glance at my old undergraduate digs and grab lunch at an old restaurant I used to go to. Then we pushed our way through Chicago traffic and headed on to Purdue University, where a party was awaiting us. And the Road Trip continues....
Devil's Tower

AOL Homepage: The Road Trip, Part Six and Conclusion

From my original AOL homepage:

The Road Trip--End of the Road

We arrived in West Lafayette, Indiana, at Purdue University where Kevin had served his intership year at the end of his doctoral course. There we had a grand party waiting for us as his entire staff was throwing a shindig for him. Much music, conversation and consumption ensued. I spent the entire evening in the company of psychologists and still walked away a free man. I was content. Late at night, we made our way back to South Bend and crashed at my place.

The major event of South Bend ended up being a dinner with Kevin's dissertation advisor, Professor George Howard of Notre Dame's psychology department. I had met Prof. Howard and his wife, Nancy, who is a counsellor herself, before since I taught their son John last year. As we were talking over dinner, Nancy brought up a project Kevin and I had been working on before his move out west disrupted our work: roughly 150 pages of text of a work looking at lifestyle in the teachings of Jesus, from the dual perspectives of a therapist and a theologian. Listening to us, George suddenly asked if we would be interested in presenting our work to the Erasmus Institute. A word of explanation: the Erasmus Institute is an institute at Notre Dame geared toward overcoming the sillier heritage of secularism by re-engaging dialogue between theology and other disciplines. This year, they are focused on the social sciences and George had applied for and received standing as a senior fellow, working on a project about religious outlooks regarding environmental concerns. Kevin and I, especially I, who knew what the Institute was, were stunned. We enthusiastically agreed. As we left that night we were already planning our presentation. When we got into the car, the CD randomizer began, out of roughly a hundred songs, to play "Joyce Country Ceili Band." We had the blessings of heaven. There was much rejoicing.

After Mass at the crypt at Sacred Heart on Sunday morning, featuring a most painfully out-of-tune guitar, we set off for the suburbs of Buffalo, there to stop for the night at Kevin's brother's place. Scott and his wife Diana and their incredibly cute little gnome children Jake and Tucker were our hosts. Standing around the kitchen we laughed and laughed telling stories and dealing with the hyper cleverness that only three-year-olds can create.

We finally made it to Massachusetts and Kevin's family. And as we ran out of steam, so are my words drying up. This was, at last, rest. Kev's folks have always been very kind to me, but they're also Irish and therefore deserve my best Irish hassling. As we tramped in through the door, Mrs. Fleming gave me a delighted "Hi Mike!" I simply jerked my thumb over my shoulder, gesturing out the back door to the car in the driveway, and said, "Babs: bags." As she stared at me in disbelief, I glowered at her and clapped my hands, shooing her towards the door. "They're not going to unload themselves!" I snapped. Then she broke into delighted giggles.

Time with the Flemings turned into lots of good food and conversation with the folks and with hometown sons Chris and Dave, who'd I'd met over the years on other occasions. I took a few photographs of the clan over a light dinner one night in the kitchen. Mysteriously, what appears to be a halo has appeared over Mr. Fleming's head in the developed photograph, however unlikely this seems. (Who said that?!) Here I present the undoctored photograph with no further comment.

Kevin and I also spent a day down at their Long Island Sound cottage in Connecticut. So, from our heights in the Rockies, beyond the continental divide, we had at last come to the sea. As I felt the waves hit my feet, I really felt that we'd come to the end of the trek.

All that remained was a few days more of rest, reading and really good company. Then I had to be off to start the new school year, and Kevin would be flying out to Los Angeles to play drums on Seth Sholmes' new album, (Dan Folgelberg producing!) and then moving down to New Jersey to begin work with a practice along the coast. I simply just tried to soak in the pleasure of it all. A few more dinners, including a great night with Kevin's Uncle Ted, some glimpses of the New England architecture and a few historical sites from Kevin's youth used up the rest of our time.

I had a frustrating time right after Kevin dropped me off at the airport in Hartford. The American West counter handled only a dozen people in about half an hour and I found myself uncertain about getting my luggage and myself to the plane on time as I waited and waited. Finally, they called to see if anyone was on that flight about 20-25 minutes before departure and I got to jump the half-dozen people still ahead of me. Annoying.

But it was so pretty flying over Connecticut and the West Point area before the clouds set in. Yeah, I was definitely loving New England.... I finished my novel as we landed in Chicago and found myself very melancholy. Byzantium really had a major struggle with faith as the theme towards the end and it clicked with some of the self-examination / look-at-emptiness themes that had come up for me as we traveled. I realized that the "time to pull over and sit somewhere in the mountains" urge that I was feeling was really stemming from those thoughts. Somehow I can't do that kind of thinking on the road itself. Perhaps there is too much movement or noise or change. I'm not sure.... Anyway, some more lyrics for a song that I'd started writing on Kevin's porch back in Laramie came to me then, and the song was finished on the bus as I was leaving Midway.

On My Way
The summer that my grandpa died
I journeyed way out west
A time to think. A time to mourn.
For seeing what was best.
To see that my horizons
had yet to be discerned
To come to be comfortable
that I'd so much yet to learn.

The land was broken. The land was fenced.
Was it open or was it tamed?
The long Wyoming highways
are really a narrow range.
But the sky was vast and conquering
of every borderline:
life and death, time and space
and maybe yours and mine.

The old man at his rest now
This young man on his way
No set destination
I'm just here today....

Grandpa was a character
a stubborn, solid soul.
Up was down, blue was red
that's the way our talks would go.
The man could try the patience
of a stone, that much is true
But he built a family, he built a home,
hell, he even built a school.

The mountains stand together
yet each peak is alone
I rode on with my brother
and our thoughts were not our own:
Highway conversations
past and present scenes
Hopes fears jokes regrets
All that our lives might mean

The old man at his rest now
This young man on his way
No set destination
I'm just here today.
I'm just here today.

I sought my own emptiness
'cause a friend said that's what I fear
And the rhythms of the world
they brought that silence near
And here on bus near journey's end
I grope for words to cast
my feelings into sculpted thoughts
to make some wisdom last

Oh grant that leaves may comfort me
as I blow on my way
Oh clear from me this summer's haze
let me see the depth of day
And bring at last that pleasure's smile
that simple, subtle grace
of seeing in each moment
my God face to face

The old man at his rest now
This young man on his way
No set destination
I'm just here today.
I'm just here today.

I then had an encounter that turned into a lot of fun. As I waited in the bus station to switch from the Tri-State to United Limo, I was starting to watch Al Gore's speech at the Democratic convention and was also keeping an eye out for the Notre Dame bus, due in 45 minutes. I noticed others headed to ND, including a cute Irish-looking lass, auburn/red hair, shorter cut, brown eyes, round-faced with a very pleasing air to her. Anyway, as we sorted ourselves out from a false alarm, with a few people asking, "Going to ND?," she asked me, "Are you in the Folk Choir?" This turned out to be interesting because she--Katie was her name, Kathryn Weil, an actress majoring in literatures--was just starting her Junior year, so I have no idea how she would have ever seen me with the Folk Choir, since my last year in would have been her senior year in high school. Anyway, we had a fun conversation for the next three hours as we made our way back to campus. She was just coming back from a semester in Chile and would be heading off to London in the spring. So we compared adventure notes. It also turned out that she knew Jeni Rinner and Dan O'Brien out of the Folkheads--Folk Choir members--that I knew. (And--oddly enough, I found out from John Welsh--she was his brother Tim's best friend or somesuch in kindergarten who then met again at Notre Dame.) This then turned into hours of conversation and laughter, making the bus ride an absolute pleasure rather than a long, lonely roll through the dark.

After parting ways on campus, I dragged myself and my luggage into St. Ed's Hall and up to Erik's apartment for a promised ride down to my apartment. It was midnight.

And that was the end of the Road Trip.