I dragged myself to the Badlands, cursing my journey the whole way, and made it to the national park entrance around 6PM. Almost as soon as I entered the park, the winds that had hounded me through western South Dakota upped their efforts to an all-out attack, swatting me into the oncoming lane of traffic in one powerful gust and leaving me clutching a now-stopped Rousseau with all my might, it being all I could do to keep her from falling over. Thankfully no oncoming cars whipped around the bend during that minute, for that was how long it took to pull the bike back into its rightful lane, and recognizing that it would be suicidal act to drive the precipitous Badlands canyons in that weather, I turned around and scurried a few hundred feet to an overlook's small restroom, whose wall I used to protect Rousseau from the bullying winds.
I ducked for cover myself along that wall, passing the time by staring at a map and determining just how I could make it back all that way in my present demoralized state. I thought about cutting out my scenic return to Canada, about foregoing Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Toronto and instead simply skirting along the Midwest through Chicago and Cleveland. I thought about a lot of things, most of them negative, the violent winds doing little to brighten my mood. Those winds, unbelievably, had picked up even more, forcing me to pitch my tent, itself an impossible task, on the concrete behind the restroom and diving in it before it could blow away, unstaked and held down by nothing more than my body weight.
Several hours later, the winds calmed if only by a bit, and I hastily crammed my tent back into my pack, hopped aboard Rousseau, and made for the campground twenty-four miles in the distance, too conscious of the possibility of flash flooding to chance a more primitive camping adventure. That ride through the Badlands at dusk, quite possibly, may have saved the remainder of my trip, for driving through those decaying canyons, those sandy gorges and alien sandcastles, I felt my spirit returning, the fond memories of canyon country creeping back into my consciousness. Deadened after a dull day, I felt a breath of life work its way back into my inner vagabond.
I completed that eerie ride in the dark, enchanted by the mysterious landscape. Of those very Badlads Steinbeck once wrote, "They deserve this name. They are like the work of an evil child; such a place the Fallen Angels might have built as a spite to Heaven, dry and sharp, desolate and dangerous, and for me filled with foreboding. A sense comes from it that it does not like or welcome humans."
Welcome or not, I needed rest, and shelter, and I pulled into the campground around ten, pitched camp, and slept, my first night of the entire trip in which I did not feel cold, that arid South Dakota summer keeping me warm throughout the dark starry night.
I woke early the next morning in better spirits than the last, and a new approach to boot. I needn't concern myself with making it to eastern Nebraska that day, I told myself: just the Route 83 junction, some sixty miles ahead. And when I got there, I thought "well that wasn't so bad," and so I shot for Valentine, just another eighty miles south, nothing more than a short drive away! Arriving in Valentine, I set my sights on the Sandhills Journey Junction, a nice little trek, and from there to Mullen, and Thedford, and so forth, until I found myself, late that afternoon, pulling through Grand Island and sprinting the remaining twenty miles to Central City, at my destination but for the grace of incremental mental trickery.
And, I found, I didn't mind the trick. For one, I had enjoyed the drive, and had given little thought to my spatial hopelessness, and besides, I had now earned a day of rest, and one with great friends at that.
I had traveled to Central City, a hefty detour but a worthy one, to visit Steph and Chase, friends from my Georgetown days who had moved back home, where they met as childhood sweethearts, to have a daughter and be by family. I hadn't seen either of them in nearly two years, and so there was no greater reward for days of thankless driving and cold weather and overall defeat than to see Steph's beaming smile on the porch of their lovely house, green and homely and full of warmth. We greeted each other with a long embrace, and then headed inside to see Lily, their precious two-year-old daughter, who sat innocently in her high-chair finishing a snack.
Lily largely ignored me, which she continued to do for most of the trip, but that was quite alright, for it allowed me to witness her interactions with her mother, and later Chase, in such a natural state. Instantly, it amazed me how much Steph had grown into her new role, such a loving, adoring, caring matriarch who understood each and every of Lily's garbled words and knew just how to best assuage her cries and demands.
While Steph cared for Lily, we caught up on our respective lives. I recounted my travels and my past few years in DC, and she told me of her move and new work and time with family in Nebraska, and we whittled the hours away until Chase, Steph's husband, came home from work. Seeing Chase was just as lovely, and as we chatted, Steph began to prepare dinner, a thoughtful vegan alternative for me, and we passed the night sitting about the kitchen table and simply talking like old friends.
The next morning, with Chase at work, Steph aimed to show me as much of her hometown as we could squeeze in, so we got Lily into the car and drove around town, stopping here and there along the way, and later arriving at Steph's old school and present employer, a terrifically pleasant little institution with a great little compact building, a nineteenth-century castle of sorts, serving as its flagship edifice.
We walked the campus grounds, from administrative offices to dormitories to gymnasium to chemistry lab to art room, and it was simply wonderful to experience Steph and Chase's childhood in this way, to see their yellowed class portraits on the wall and to gain such greater visual and sensory detail about the places they held most dear. Wrapping up at the school, we drove a short distance to Steph's old home, where I met her sister, and that magical feeling persisted, persisted all day really, following me all around Central City, Nebraska.
Steph, Lily, and I stopped at the library after that to return some of Lily's well-read borrows and replace them with some fresh reads, and for a moment, Steph left me with Lily, who still refused to acknowledge my presence, to go check for a book in the catalog. I sat by Lily while she rifled through a small toy bin, and used to working with and talking to kids of a slightly older age group, I struggled to make conversation, opting to simply teach Lily the words of what she was drawing from the chest, for she ignored my inquiries as to what they were. "Mickey Mouse," I would say as she pulled a domino with Mickey Mouse stickers stamped to it. "Minnie Mouse." And then, her grabbing onto a fluffy plush kangaroo, I said "kangaroo."
She continued to play in solitude, but once Steph returned, she ambled clumsily over to her mother with kangaroo in hand and shouted "kang-a-roo!"
Steph beamed. "Yes, Lily: kangaroo! I didn't know you knew that word."
So Lily was listening, I learned, and to her credit, warmed to me just a pinch as time wore on, sneaking a wave every now and then, and smiling when I handed her a book. Later, she learned the phrase "bring Jay" from Steph, and would ask it as we would move from one place to the next, appearing to have some interest in whether I'd be coming along.
And move we did, from the library to the popcorn factory, where Steph's mother worked. It was a pleasure meeting her, and doubly a pleasure to be invited to tour the popcorn plant, where millions of pounds of popcorn each year were cleaned, filtered, sorted, and packaged. Leaving Lily with her grandmother, Steph and I followed the plant's quality assurance manager to a room where we dressed into gowns and hairnets, and then into the plant we went, listening to our guide's excellent explanations of what we were seeing over the roar of menacing machinery and growling gears.
After getting our fill of robots and conveyer belts and, of course, fresh popcorn, we thanked our guide and Steph's mother for their kindness and returned to our vehicles, Steph to her minivan and me to my scooter, where we drove to Grand Island as a caravan of two.
I had mentioned to Steph and Chase the previous night that my scooter was having fuel trouble, and it just so happened that Chase's brother owned a shop that serviced scooters, so hoping he could give Rousseau a little love and care, we dropped her at his shop and then rode together back to Central City, after a quick stop at the grocery store, to wait for Chase to get home from work.
When he did, the four of us loaded back up into the van and drove just a few miles down the road to a lake, where the two had access to a friend's cabin. And so, relaxing by a lake with the barbecue smoking, Steph and Chase and Lily and I had a dinner of watermelon and asparagus and cauliflower and hot dogs, tofu kielbasa for me, and then waded through the lake's warm waters to a neighbor's rope swing.
This rope swing was no simple string on a tree; it was a towering structure of lumber and irrigation pipe and cable that offered the daring jumper two options: sit on a thin wooden board and swing a few feet into the waiting lake, or climb a rickety ladder and swing from up top, ten or fifteen feet above the sand, arcing down and then back up in a high-velocity parabola and then flying off the seat of their pants, up and out and then down in a climactic, plummeting splash.
We adults started small, on the short ledge, but thirsty for more thrills, we quickly graduated to the upper swing, where we each catapulted ourselves off, time and time again, drinking in the momentary weightlessness of the fall before dropping into the inviting waters and spluttering back to the dock, where Lily sat watching, one of us with her, of course, and apparently not enjoying seeing her loving parents rocket into the air and then disappear into the lake's depths.
After subjecting Lily to enough fright for one night, we secured the swing and walked back through the lake to the cabin, where we cleaned up and closed up and then headed back to their home, putting Lily to bed and ending a marvelous day with hot tea and more jovial conversation.
Lying in bed that night, I thought about what a special place Nebraska was. It was my first venture into the heartland, indeed, and I loved it, everything about it: the wide open spaces and the golden fields and the sun that seemed to shine more warmly than anywhere else I'd ever been. I loved the tractors and the pivots and the host of small towns scattered across that gorgeous state, small towns where everyone knows each others' names and people know how to take care of themselves and their neighbors, where doors can be left unlocked and keys can be left in cars, where your business is everyone's business, where everyone is okay with that.
I thought about Steph and Chase and how much they belonged here, how much they thrived in their tiny hometown of 2,500. I thought about how clearly they were loved, two exceptional people the entire community seemed to adore, genuine smiles and warm welcomes everywhere they went, everyone, indeed, knowing their name. And for the first time, I really got it, the whole ethos behind America's conservative thought.
Steph and Chase are, they would not and should not be afraid to say, confident conservatives, whereas I, I suppose, am something of a left-leaning libertarian, so left-leaning I may have toppled over at some point, hit my head, and become a libertarian. Politically, we do not share much in common, and if our current political war is any indication, we probably shoudn't be friends, but bitter rivals staffing the lines of a growing culture war.
And yet, talking politics with Steph that Wednesday afternoon, there was no animosity, no tension, no outward need to convert the other to a particular viewpoint. No, we were happy just chatting, sharing opinions, content trying to learn not how to change the other's beliefs, but why they believed what they did, curiosity over conversion, and away from the political frenzy and ideological puppets of DC, I was so thankful to share such honest, thoughtful conversation, to learn about conservatism not through the mouthpiece of a slanderous Democrat, but through the kind words of a true, sane conservative in the heartland of true conservatism.
I guess where I'm going with this is that, lying in bed that night, I got it, I felt conservative thought. Having spent just one day in Nebraska, it made perfect sense, what with a self-sufficient community that takes care of itself and its own, why the government wouldn't be welcome in those parts, why the way America's cities were headed would terrify those kind souls. It made sense just how someone born and raised in Nebraska would nearly have to be of that mindset. Were I to settle there, I'd probably be too.
I can't say I agree with conservatism, and I do not have to, for that is the true beauty of our political system, but there in Central City, I felt closer than I ever had to the essence of it, and I welcomed the reminder that people we don't agree with are still people, some of the best people in fact, something we often forget while tucked away in our respective fortresses in Washington.
Leaving the following morning with a renewed respect for the political differences that make America great, and though that may be a cliche, it was something of a revelation to my cynical soul, I bid Steph and Chase and Lily a sad goodbye, and grabbing a ride with Chase back to Grand Island, I boarded Rousseau, fresh sparkplug and oil, and took off into the cornfields of Iowa feeling better than ever about the future of my trip.