On the Vast, Open Road

It really seemed we might never leave for this road trip.

This is what head injury travel feels like.

I am still struggling with the ninety percent obstruction they found in my nasal passages before my sleep study, which won’t be able to be fixed until we return.  It’s very uncomfortable, and the lack of oxygen makes me sleepy and weak, and ultimately restless, which seems ironic given all the sleep I seem to be getting.  Once I finally packed, I needed to shower, and then surprise–nap again!  Plus, Rich was frustrated that we lost the bid on a condominium near my parents’ village.  Sick of house hunting, we had taken the leap and found a nice place, reasonably new and newly painted and carpeted, albeit much smaller than we originally considered.  Rich and my father were especially excited about it, and Rich wanted to pay full price, but I discouraged him because it was a bank owned property.  Something about their delays just didn’t seem level.  In the end, the other guy, a fireman, bid full price, and we lost it by just a couple thousand dollars.  I was good with it, because even though the location was perfect—in the heart of town, and right next not only to the fire station, but also to a large library–there was virtually no storage and only a one car garage.  Our search will need to continue when we return from this trip, but then the holidays will be here.  No one wants to house hunt during holiday season, let alone show their home.  Who ever thought “retirement” could be so stressful?

I plan on calling my parents every day while we are gone, just to see how they’re doing, and hopefully keep them from dying of boredom.  My dad gets fidgety in the house all day, and my mother is for the first time ever feeling a little vulnerable to be left alone for long.  I am even worrying about leaving our dog, feeling so horrible about it I snapped a photo as Rich left for the kennel with him.  I’m going to miss my baby (dog) Romeo so much while we are gone.  I don’t know what is wrong with me. Sometimes it feels like I went from Wonder Woman to Wonder Wimp.  Travel is always difficult on me now, no matter what we’re doing or where we’re going, whether by train, plane or automobile. My neck and spine (not to mention head) are still tender from the (severe) whiplash, arthritic already, and the vehicle and road vibrations still cause fatigue and a low-grade sort of nausea.

Rich, however, wanted to drive to Aspen, Co, our final destination, because he enjoys seeing the USA from two-lane highways, taking short off road excursions whenever we pass places of interest.  The post-traumatic anxiety I get from Rich’s driving, or really just from being beside trucks on the highway (all that steel) keeps me intermittently panicked, whether I arouse from sleep or am wide awake.  It is all stuff I never before had to cope with, and the coping detracts from the pleasures, which is why I sometimes dread traveling.  Did I mention how difficult it is to stay awake in a car, and how equally difficult to actually reach REM sleep?  I’m not as bad as I was, but there is still a good deal of a sort of semi-consciousness–enough to keep me reminded of what I’m trying to forget, anyway.

Our first stop, long anticipated by both of us, included a trip to Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, near the University of Iowa.  Since we were nearly a day off schedule, we couldn’t browse leisurely as we had planned.  We still managed in our short stay to spend well over a hundred dollars, and even picked up an audiobook to listen to on the drive, Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott (which turned out to be a good decision).  Not all authors read their works in a way that compliments their text, but Anne Lamott’s steady cadence, coupled with her son Sam’s interspersed excerpts in his own voice, made for compelling listening through the lush and rolling farmland of Iowa.

The fall foliage along the way was far more colorful than we imagined possible after this summer’s record-breaking drought.  As we traveled the first four hundred miles, and certainly by the time we left Prairie Lights, we both began to experience a transformation nearly as magnificent as the beatific site of those hardwood trees blazing their glory. Suddenly we were smiling again and light-hearted, the way we were pre-fitness-distress, pre-post concussion syndrome, pre-house hunting.  Our thoughts, our senses, our hearts began to fill with images we wanted to take in, images we longed to behold.  Our souls had grown absolutely weary, but this trip, the trip that very nearly didn’t happen, was off to a perfect start.

Things only got better when just a few doors down from the bookstore, we happened on an Indian restaurant named Masala.  No one was in the restaurant, but we took a chance and stopped in for an early dinner.  I ordered tea, which came to me as chai tea, an acceptable variation.  Looking over the menu, I paused at Saag Channa, a vegan and gluten free dish of spinach delicately cooked with chickpeas.  Then I saw Vegetable Jalfrazie, fresh seasonal vegetables sautéed in spices, ginger and garlic.  Rich was still studying the menu when I located still a third possibility, a rice specialty, Lamb Biryani, a Basmati rice cooked with pieces of lamb, herbs, spices, and nuts.  I couldn’t taste the nuts (if they were there), but, upon our waiter Bilal’s recommendation, Lamb Biryani won the competition nevertheless. When Bilal came to take our order, Rich also asked him for guidance, more specifically what their most popular dish was, said in a sprightly narrative, “When I go back to work on Monday and tell everyone I ate at Masala, they’ll say, “Oh, did you try the ________?”  Bilal smiled jovially, saying in his lovely accent, “Okay, gotcha!” He proceeded enthusiastically to solve the word puzzle promptly by eagerly flipping menu pages and pointing to the Chicken Tikka Masala and Malai Chicken (chicken barbequed in a clay oven and cooked in a rich and tasty sauce), which turned out to be both Rich’s choice and the most delectable authentic Indian cuisine either of us had ever tasted.  With our meals, Bilal brought Garlic Naan, a leavened bread stuffed with garlic and baked to perfection, as well as some Raita, which he said was a yogurt for my rice.

Bilal was actually from Pakistan, “But it’s right next door,” he said in a charming, boyish way (meaning, to India).  He was an undergraduate at the university, wanting to live and study abroad, which led to an interesting analysis of diverse cultures.  As I listened to Bilal, he reminded me of my own son and a few former students, expressing a familiar lamentation that seems to be shared by many intelligent young adults.  Or perhaps it’s one that has been experienced by the generations, the anxiety that popular culture coupled with capitalistic ideals just leaves them feeling disillusioned.  This exchange paralleled our nourishing and flavorful meal, fresh and exquisite to the palate.  As I ate, it felt as if a few vibrant folk dancers had taken up residence in my mouth, heels popping and skirts swirling.  The fullness of it all made me feel almost as if I’d been airlifted back to the life I’d lost five years ago.  If life were a story, I might have lingered there in Masala’s for another chapter or two.

We drove another 250 miles to Council Bluffs, IA, then left the next morning for Scottsbluff, Nebraska.  Iowa, with its expansive, lush and rolling farmland was so beautiful, in contrast to the desolate, flat prairies of Nebraska, so uneventful that even the trains didn’t move.  I slept most of the time Rich drove, but not by choice.  I couldn’t seem to stay awake, although I was actually doing better than the day before. Rich’s fascination with the sprawling vistas made the trip pleasant, and we would enjoy a good laugh on me when we reached the Windlass Hill at the Ash Hollow State Historical Park in Lewellen, NE.  “What were you saying about Nebraska being flat?, Rich chided.  Here the terrain suddenly exploded in to hills and hollows that left me breathlessly saying, “What?” and “Wow!”

looking west from Windlass Hill
at the wagon ruts on the Oregon Trail

We walked up a steep path to the top of Windlass Hill to view ruts made from the pull carts and Conestoga wagons. Standing in the path of history, forged by the pioneers well over 150 year ago, we marveled over the long, rugged trek they somehow completed.  The desolate and dangerous Oregon Trail, once only an idea, was sprawling before us.  Somehow, I didn’t find Nebraska boring anymore. Also on site was a replica of a sod house, which the pioneers built for shelter out of grass and sod.

replica of a pioneer sod house
on the historical site at
Ash Hollow

Only two trucks and one car passed on the entrance highway in the hour we spent walking in sunshine and gentle breezes.  It was a phenomenal experience, and I loved listening to Rich relay all the history he learned as a boy, as we enthusiastically explored the area.  Plus, the fact that I stood there breathless from walking up one steep hill made me think of those pioneers carrying bags and sacks and all their belongings, hungry and tired, thirsty, and perhaps even injured also, and those thoughts humbled me.  I really have nothing to complain about.  I may not have been a pioneer, but I have survived my own sort of Oregon Trail, and for that I rejoice.


Celebrating Tough Journeys
on the Oregon Trail



© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.


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