Monthly Archive: July 2010

Western Nebraska………Wow

The little town of Paxton, Nebraska, pop. 614, is not far off Interstate 80, about a mile to be exact. It is a farming community and one that is still intact in this area when so many small towns seem to be struggling to stay alive. To the north are the sand hills of western Nebraska in a long winding line set beyond the shores of the North Platte River. To the south, wheat fields recently harvested and an abundance of corn higher than my head for as far as I can see. It is here in this tiny hamlet that I would be shown first hand, the hospitality of these wonderful Midwest people.

On Saturday morning, Dale my host, introduces me to Fred the Pilot. Fred is retired from farming and a veteran. He will take me in his small Piper Lance on a tour by air through the county. We fly over the sand hills and irrigation ditches that flow from Lake Maconoughy. He gives me a history on the homesteaders back at the turn of the 20th century. A rugged, hard life and when given a parcel of land you merely had to have a building and plant a tree as a requirement from the government. In North Platte we fly over the largest classified switching rail station in the world. I am amazed by the Ogalalla aquafir that has provided much needed water to this area resulting in fantastic crop growth. After landing I get the word we are going on a prairie dog shoot. Now this should be interesting. Prairie dogs are a huge problem and can decimate a field easily, hence their removal is welcomed by many farmers. It reminds me of a military operation. Me, with a rifle equipped with a silencer, scope and tripod and my “spotter” with his binoculars. In short order three go down and I have passed that test. On to the combine. Now for a guy who pushes a stroller all day this is a big deal. After climbing up, Dale explains the working parts and allows me to take over. Now this is the real thing…..air-conditioning, music, bathroom (coke bottle) oh ya, show me the fields, I’ll drive all day….3 things down for the day and still one more to go…….”Tanking” Now I had thought I had seen a lot of strange things till I saw this. When he first mentioned it I figured it was some weird drinking game….I was wrong……we loaded up an 11 foot horse tank, the kind they drink out of, on to a flat bed trailer. Haul it down to the river. It then gets rolled down the bank to the water. We load lawn chairs and coolers into it and because we forgot our push pole, use 2 garden shovels as paddles. I am speechless. This is better than the teacup ride at the carnival. I kid you not. Life on the road does not get any better than flying in the morning, shooting a couple of prairie dogs, driving a combine and then floating down the river in a horse tank…………and then we head for Ole’s……..established on the day prohibition ended, August 9, 1933, Ole’s is known nationwide as a great bar and restaurant but mostly for the collection of over 200 stuffed animals from around the world acquired by Ole Hermstead throughout a hunting career that spanned the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Next to Ole’s was once the Cheetah Lounge….this was run by one of Paxtons finest. A rather large, boisterous, make-up laden woman never seen without her leopard skin tops and skirts and whose presence was preceded by the best perfumes Avon had to offer.

I could not imagine a more colorful, event filled day along this stretch of Route 30 nor more accomadating and gracious hosts….Paxton….you gotta see it and experience it…..

Life, Love and Luck

I entered  Nebraska this morning at 6:45 a.m. the sun was hidden behind gray clouds yet the air was thick with humidity. It is familiar to me. Growing up in rural, northern Illinois, one never really escapes the summer heat and it has stayed with me over the years, buried deep in the memories that run through my body.

The smells of corn, tall and green fill my nose. There are random feed trucks that go by and wisps of hay flutter across the road. I know I am far away from where I grew up but if I close my eyes I could very well be there. I have spent much time this last week pondering 3 subjects: Life, Love and Luck…..so I have looked at them and how they pertain to this trip.

I have been blessed each day with eyes that see everything as I move at a snails pace down the road. From ocean swells on the Pacific the day I left to the rainbow that appeared after the first flag was placed. Lakes and rivers and open fields of wheat lay stretched out before me. I see far away mountain ranges with snow topped peaks and aspen trees that shudder in the wind. I hear crickets and birds and silence is truly golden even when broken by the sounds of cattle as the gaze intently at me. This life on the road is a pandoras box of emotion. I see wet eyes and feel the sadness as a former Marine in his 70s places a flag and salutes with me.

I have had tremendous love out here. I feel it grow stronger for the country and this project as the miles grow. I feel it for the woman in my life whose kind heart and compassion and thoughtfulness radiates from her even though she is miles away. I awake each morning and absolutely love starting the day and running these miles and sharing it with each name I read.

My luck has been eerily consistent. There are times when I have just missed bad weather. Times when traffic disappears when I need it to vanish the most. Times when the sun slips behind the clouds and the temperature recedes.When my legs feel like they did 30 years ago and when, more often than not, a porta potty will magically appear. I have had the luck if you call it, of meeting the most amazing people in this rural America and hearing their stories and the history of their small towns.

Why do I talk of these things? Why ponder over 3 little words?

Simple.

Last week as I left Golden I pulled off the side of the road to a small spot of gravel to add some water to my bottles. When I finished I happened to look down on the ground and caught the glint of silver in the sun. Near my stroller were 3 tiny pendants. The chain they were on was long gone and they looked like they had been on the ground a while. Each one had one word on it.

Life, Love, Luck………………

Of all the miles, all the random 30 second stops, all the places I could have pulled over that morning, it was that place that I chose to stop and it had a message for me in the form of those pendants……………

Where Roads Meet……

Coming out of Conifer, CO I meet Joe the Trooper. The heat this morning has given me a taste of things to come in the days ahead. We chat briefly at a roadside stop about my journey and I learn that he has 28 years of military service with two tours in Afghanistan. Joe will escort me down a sketchy section of the highway through the canyon, to an exit I need to get to, courtesy of the Colorado State Patrol. I realize as I descend, that I will not see these Rocky Mountains again for a very long time and it saddens me. The fresh, clean air, the smell of the pines, the cool summer mornings have revitalized me in the same way warm summer rain can turn the grass green in a few short hours……As I approach my exit I motion Joe to stop and come up to me. He deserves the honor of placing this young Marines Flag and accepts and we salute together….there is a moistness, a sadness in his eyes and I sense his duty, his time, has been difficult. Joe is gratious and appreciative and walks back to his car. He rolls away. As he served from afar, he serves now, a protector to us all.

In the days to come I would pass through Golden and Boulder and move on to Loveland and Fort Collins. Each step taking me closer to the plains of eastern Colorado and on to Nebraska.  It is near Loveland,  coming down an overpass, that I see the older couple standing by their car, in the shade, waiting for me. He is Bob and she is Maryanne. They have been married 65 years. Bob served in New Guinea and the Phillipines in WWII. They remind me again of what love should be, valued and preserved each year and growing richer even as the body and mind age. Maryanne holds their tiny, brown dog Cocoa then hands him to Bob and pulls out a piece of paper. It is the story of the “Guardian”. You see, in my story, the Guardian is their son Dick and they wanted to share that with me. She pulls out pictures of her son with the rail yard he has created. Complete with a working steam engine, train cars and tracks and trestles, his skill with replication is magnificent. They are very proud and their faces, like Joe the Trooper show much gratitude.

As the sun climbs higher the temperature rises and as I get closer to Fort Collins I see my next encounter. He is parked just off the road in a maroon SUV and as he steps out, he proudly places his black 1st Calvary hat on and greets me on the road. Army Sergeant Blake Harris was his son and was killed in June of 2006. I placed his flag in Teton National Park last month. Like his father, he too was 1st Calvary……… His father shakes my hand and thanks me from the heart. He gives me a picture of Blake, one that I will take across the plains that lie ahead, all the way to the Atlantic.

Many, many days I am alone on the road with only my quiet thoughts to entertain me but it is the chance encounter, fleeting and far between that refuels me and makes the miles as short as the breadth I take, as pavement disappears under my feet and my day draws to a close.

Cali

IMG_0633     Leaving Buena Vista, CO, I climb to the top of Trout Creek Pass through reddish canyons and sage brush that open to wide valleys with snow topped mountains in the distance. It is a road I had driven many times. While living in Crested Butte, CO I would often go to Boulder to visit friends, never imagining that years later I would be running this same road. On this day I am lost in quiet thoughts. I need no music. The road is busy with people leaving the city and headed for the mountains. I am lucky, the shoulder is large enough to accommodate myself and my stroller. Puff clouds are gathering in the distance and I think that I may not escape the rain today.

Then she appears.

At my next mile marker is a young girl. Her mother is nearby and it is obvious they are waiting for me. She stands there, her blonde hair tucked under her helmet as she stands next to her mountain bike. Her name is Cali. Her mother is Clo. Cali has two white roses in her hand and when I place my flag she lays the roses next to it and thanks our young Marine for his service while I salute. Together, we move down the highway. I run, she rides. For the next 4 miles we repeat our procedure. I salute, she places roses. I learn that Cali is 13 years old. She has a brother in the Marines and I sense she adores him. She is witty and smart and devoted to Veterans Causes. I find this fascinating and admirable and see maturity beyond her years. There is more though.

You see, Cali has a prosthetic leg. Four years ago it was partially amputated.  She has survived 14 major surgeries and bacterial spinal meningitis. She will eventually lose her leg just above the knee as her body grows and her leg doesn’t. Her prosthetic is camoflage and bears the logos of our Armed Forces. On the back of it are the initials of her brother. There is a guardian angel which represents those we have lost, still watching over us.  A butterfly represents the casualties.

Her mother says Cali is unique, that she is raising a difference, not a child who is different but a child who has a calling and who is making a difference in those that she touches. In a world that so often seems so self absorbed, this angel took the time out of her young life to find me on the road and she takes time out of her life to reach out to those Vets that feel that their life is empty and meaningless. Hers is such a selfless, genuine act. Her love of country, her love of those that are serving radiates from her beautiful eyes as we talk. Her innocence, her energy are contagious and I know truly, that she is a today person, that her goodness and her direction isn’t put off till tomorrow. This is a rare thing to experience these days.

Later we would we say goodbye and hug and I could still feel her warmth and compassion long after she disappeared down the road. I realize then that there is hope for our future. There are lessons to be learned.  There are great things happening around us if we open our eyes, if we listen to our children and most importantly if we believe in them. I saw it today,  on Highway 285 when an angel appeared and her name was Cali.

The Guardian

The road from Rifle, CO to Silt, CO is wearily long to me on this day. Long and flat and running parallel to Interstate 70, it is a hot day and the pavement shimmers. What little wind there is blows the heat in my face. Beads of sweat fill the lenses of my sunglasses, wiping them is futile. It has been hard finding a soft spot in the ground where the flags would penetrate easily. Sometimes I use my screwdriver to make a hole. I want them to be solid and as permanent as possible in the earth. Approaching Silt I see an older man standing out by the road. He wears blue jeans and his hands are in his pockets. His eyes are hidden under a ball cap, yet I feel his gaze from a hundred yards away. It is time for me to place a flag, a young Marine from California. As I finish and move down the road I slow to a walk and meet “Darryl”. He knew I was coming.  He asks if I would move the flag down a hundred yards to a spot in front of his machine shop so he can watch over this young Marine. I oblige and replace his flag amidst the flowers that are out front. I am touched by his gesture. We make small talk and I learn that Darryl had worked in Uranium Mines in the Machine Shop back in the 80’s. His belt buckle displays the logo of his work back then. A proud man I can tell. A man wanting to help in a small way. As those that have left us watch over us, Darryl now watches over this young Marines flag. Each contact, conversation and gesture of kindness continues to instill my belief of goodness in this country. The “Guardian” waves at me as I roll away, my mission to honor is complete and his task to remember with vigilance has just started.