With friends, family and fruitcake behind us it’s time to fill the tank and start driving westward toward the desert, mountains and sunshine. It’s also time to embrace the New Year. For some that means a night with friends and loud music combined with dancing and drinking until dawn. Not a bad start to the year but I never took to that kind of New Years celebration. For me the welcoming of a new year and bidding farewell to the old one is a quieter, more reflective process that includes only a glass (or two) of Champagne.
December 31, 2013, New Years Eve, I spent in the mountains of West Virginia at a state park lodge. As I sat quietly wedged between the fireplace and Christmas tree reviewing a years worth of experiences in my mind Earl started talking to me. Earl was a seventy six year old local who came to the lodge every year to ring in the New Year with his neighbors. He and his friends spend the night joking, drinking and dancing then retire to their rooms to safely rest up for the drive home. He appeared much younger than his stated age and happily talked to a stranger, me, about his thirty some years of teaching industrial arts at the high school and community college, his career in the National Guard and the new house he and his brother were building on his farm. The conversation included thoughts on tractors, trucks, must-have-features of a back hoe and horses. Earl doesn’t ride horses he just keeps a few on the farm as pets. “They give me a reason to go out to the barn twice a day.” The new house also includes two full size stoves which I didn’t understand the need for but Earl was very happy about it and that’s reason enough. Finally after sharing a few more stories about his life and how he arrived in West Virginia by way of Pennsylvania Earl bid me farewell and headed back to the party. I have always enjoyed how open and friendly Southerns are, especially those from the smaller towns and hollows.
In the morning Sue and I hiked around the frozen lake then headed toward Indiana to visit a good friend. To everyones surprise our friend told us how she had a new love – bicycling. Her body clearly illustrated the physical benefits of cycling, I’ve never seen her so fit but the more interesting observation was the mental benefits. She showed an increased energy and enthusiasm that I hadn’t seen before and based on her conversation it was at least due in part to having started bicycling regularly. It began as a way to enjoy time with her nephew during his two week visit. Initially it was difficult not fun but after a couple of weeks the body adapted and she started to enjoy traveling through her small town on two wheels. As her fitness improved her desire to bicycle longer distances also grew and by fall both she and her mother (on an old Schwinn Stingray) were cycling along the back roads past the cows, corn and soy beans. I found the purity in her joy and the simplicity of their bicycles most refreshing. For years I tried to get her to try cycling with absolutely no luck. Perhaps my fancy bike and clingy lycra clothing was a turn off. Do all those gears and aerodynamic features actually add to the enjoyment of a ride in the country or just add complexity, cost and unsightly curves and lumps? A chain and two wheels are all you really need to fall in love with bicycling. I am thankful she reminded me of that simple truth.
Due to the approaching “Arctic Blast” or “Polar Vortex” we quickly headed south out of Indiana. The normal daily high in Indianapolis is around 35 F but due to the cold front they were expecting -10 to -15 F along with almost a foot of snow. We stopped in Bowling Green Kentucky then Memphis Tennessee where the snow was scant and the temperatures were ten to twenty degrees warmer. Unfortunately Graceland was closed so the highlight was a rack of ribs at Corky’s BBQ. After one last round of sweet tea it was onto the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum.
The Memorial and Museum is dedicated to the those who died or were involved with the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. One hundred sixty eight people were killed including nineteen children, it’s an incredibly moving memorial. I didn’t appreciate the size of the blast and the amount of destruction until I toured the museum. If you thought there was no reason to travel across America via Highway 40 through Oklahoma a visit to the memorial may change your mind. (Route 40 parallels Old Route 66.)
Oklahoma City has a cowboy feel to it and was the first town we came to that made us feel like we were finally entering the American West. On the south east side of town sits “Stock Yard City” where you can buy a good hat, solid boots and a great steak. At the “Cattlemen’s Cafe” I had one of the most tender steaks I have ever tasted for only ten dollars including a potato and salad. The restaurant has been serving cowboys for over a hundred years, brewed it’s own spirits during prohibition and changed hands in 1945 as the result of a throw of dice, a “hard six”. It’s not a fancy place, boots and jeans are fine. Some of the building’s interior has not been updated since the “hard six” was thrown but don’t let that scare you away. The steaks are great and the ambience is far more real than any Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse I’ve visited.