Purpose and discovery
You are on your own personal expedition of life. You earned it. I hope you’re journaling, because it’s important that you record your purpose and your discovery.
Woodsman Ron, River’s Edge Steakhouse in Alberton, Montana (May 31, 2019)
Before I left on my road trip across the country from Oregon to Ohio in mid-to-late May of 2019, well-meaning friends and co-workers in Portland cautioned me that I might not recognize my childhood home in Wapakoneta. They said there would likely be few reminders of the town and the house that used to be my home. Advising me to prepare myself for the place to be barely recognizable or the house not to be in good condition, they also speculated that things would appear much smaller than I remembered. No doubt their perspective reflected their own experience and perceptions. In addition, they probably understood how important the trip was to me and did not want me to be disappointed.
My experience was different, however. What I saw of my hometown and our family home was very recognizable, in many ways the same, in some ways improved, in other ways declined – like any place after 40 years and any house built in 1957, I imagine. Wapakoneta has grown from a town of 7,000 to 10,000 people, but I found everything in scale according to my memory. I did not feel out of place. Although I did feel somewhat nostalgic, I did not go there expecting or grasping for anything. My purpose in visiting was not to know if the characteristics I had considered its faults and its charms when I lived there still exist. Nor was it to know if the characteristics I had considered its potential have blossomed into anything I could call broad-mindedness or progress. I imgaine that many people who live there, or visit regularly, are keenly aware of how it has stayed the same and how it has changed.
What I discovered in my hometown was clear evidence of civic pride. Well-maintained sports facilities, thriving small businesses and quaint antique stores, welcoming diners and gift shops, pride of property and home ownership, improved bridge and road infrastructure, pretty streetscapes with healthy trees and safe sidewalks, lovely city parks and community gathering places, natural beauty, accessible pathways to the river, preservation of historic landmarks and architecture, a printed daily newspaper, joyful promotion of community celebrations – these elements of life in Wapak (the affectionate nickname for our town) were evident, even eye-catching and heartwarming.
My visit in May was not enough to know the details of life there these days, but the place I once called home still exists, not just on maps and in my memory, but in reality, today, however changed. I looked at it with a fresh perspective. I took enough time to explore the places I wanted to visit, and I absorbed the sights and sounds. My work in Portland, Oregon, is about protecting the Willamette River watershed, so of course I wondered about the health of the Auglaize River watershed where I grew up, but I did not investigate.
I came home with souvenirs honoring Wapakoneta and the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s Moon landing – commemorative t-shirts, coffee mugs, stained glass art, stamps, note cards, and key chains. I still have the 1969 key chain from Wapak that commemorated Neil’s moonwalk. You see, the first human to set foot on the Moon is also from Wapakoneta. When I was in Wapak in May, the town was preparing for the 50th annual Moon Festival in July. I remember watching the Moon landing on our family’s black-and-white television set, and I recall how Neil’s homecoming parade in September 1969 went right by our house on Hamilton Road, with comedian Bob Hope as the parade marshal and Ed McMahon of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show as a special guest. The monumental achievement of Wapak’s native son Neil Armstrong was a big deal then and a big deal now, as it should be.
During my visit there, something else got my attention. I noticed that the school mascot is still the name “Redskins.” The logo is the head of a Native person in a feathered headdress, like an Indian chief. The image was prominently displayed in Wapak’s downtown storefronts. I don’t know if it is customary in Wapak to wear war paint on game day, give a war whoop, do a stomp dance, and slice the air with one’s arms, doing the tomahawk chop. I did not see any images of that caricature, one that decorated mugs and notebooks when I was growing up in Wapak.
But redskin is a term with a legacy of racism, death, and plunder, and I felt disappointed, although not surprised, to see it. The term undermines the humanity of Native peoples. It is not respectful. The issue is not about political correctness; it’s about human respect and history. And it’s not hard to educate ourselves; people can learn about the issues and the history through minimal research.
In 1863, the word red-skin was associated with a bounty of $200 for “every red-skin sent to Purgatory.” After the Dakota War of 1862, which was an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of Dakota Sioux Indians, the State of Minnesota sent the Dakota Indians to Nebraska, separating families and placing them in war camps. Soon after, the U.S. Congress passed legislation banning Dakota Indians from the state of Minnesota. To enforce this legislation, a bounty was created, awarding money for every Dakota Indian scalp turned in. An advertisement published in 1863 in a newspaper from Winona, Minnesota, announced that if any Dakota people were found still “illegally” residing there after the war, bounty hunters would receive an increased “reward.” So, of course, bounty hunters targeted them. The strategic placement of the advertisement under the names of people running for State and County offices indicates it was meant to get someone’s attention. To learn more, visit here.
The use of the term redskin is an ongoing debate with the Washington Redskins, a National Football League team; their owner is opposed to a name change. The for-profit business of professional sports is a different realm from high school sports, I know, but I think the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s Moon landing was an opportunity for growth in my hometown.
The town of Wapakoneta, like most small towns in America, has its own fascinating history. It gets its name from the Shawnee Indians, the people who originally settled there along the Auglaize River, the same people who were forced to move from Ohio by 1832. The state and federal governments relocated them to Kansas to open up land along the Auglaize for white settlers. The town of Wapakoneta was officially platted in Allen County in 1833.
I do not believe that a sports mascot honors Native American Indians or Wapakoneta’s history. I believe that my hometown still has an opportunity to show both cultural enlightenment and civic pride by changing its mascot name from “The Redskins” to, oh, I don’t know, “The Astronauts,” perhaps? How cool might that be?! I think Neil Armstrong would be proud.
The truth is, the only change that really matters for my life is the change in me – in my attitudes about my hometown, my family, my life, my self. My ideas about my hometown were, and are, just that – my ideas. On my road trip to Ohio, I followed many rivers, including the Auglaize River, to a new awareness and understanding about my life and to a newfound love and appreciation for the place I used to live. I did not leave Wapakoneta 40 years ago for a more exciting life. I left Wapakoneta because I didn’t know what else to do. I needed to get away and make my world bigger so that I could be more of myself in it. And then I needed to go back for a visit. I’m glad I did.
I shared with everyone at my high school graduation in June 1976 that I was ready to leave Wapak. I read the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem “Travel” to them:
Travel – by Edna St. Vincent Millay
The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.
All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.
Most of my hometown relationships faded away over time, many ending altogether when I went off to college and moved out west. Without common interests, shared experiences, geographic ties, and personal contact, the connections broke. The mention of a name, vaguely familiar, occasionally evokes a memory and a smile, but for the most part, the names of my former classmates make me aware that although we once shared a few classes, band, and athletics, it wasn’t enough to sustain a lifelong relationship.
A few relationships from my childhood and young adulthood, however, did survive. Long distances and years without contact through our independent lives and experiences did not evaporate the love in those relationships. The bonds did not break. I have learned that my leaving home did not disqualify me from their love, affection, and interest. They are exceptional people, and my relationships with them are exceptional as well. We found each other again through Facebook, but because I am limiting my time on social media these days, I will find more creative ways to nurture the relationships dear to me.
It meant a lot to me to go back to Ohio and Michigan, to visit friends on the farm, to see my childhood home in Wapakoneta, and to return to The Lake in Coldwater. I felt a warm connection with each person and the spirit of each place. Standing on the Hamilton Road Bridge over the Auglaize River in Ohio, I felt a lot of complicated emotions. I came away with awareness – awareness of the freedom of my individuality; the meaning of the life I have created for myself; the love I have shared with family, chosen family, and friends; the losses of loved ones I will never get over despite their forever presence in my heart; and the gratitude of having grown up in my hometown and loved the river so well.
Sitting on the swing looking out at Randall Lake in Michigan, I also felt the gratitude of having known and loved the North Chain of Lakes so well. I realized that some things, which once seemed so significant, are no longer a part of my life. I was also acutely aware that it’s getting harder to live with heartbreak, but I’m okay. I felt deep gratitude for all the good that is still a part of my life and all the love that made, and makes, it so.
My goal on this trip was to be like a Douglas Fir tree I visit every season in Mt. Hood National Forest above the East Fork of the Hood River: to be present and stay grounded, inhale and exhale, connect with my roots, soak up the sun, smile at the rain and snow, be prepared to bend but not break with whatever I encountered and felt, practice kindness, affirm and express love and gratitude, refresh and renew myself, stand tall and grow stronger, and be still and quiet long enough to hear and listen. I did my best. In addition, I wanted to make Dixie’s world bigger, give her freedom and adventure, enable her to grow her confidence and sense of security, and help her make new friends. I wanted us to have a grand adventure together, and we did.
The Cheryl and Dixie Road Dogs: Ohio Bound 2019 road trip not only granted all I had hoped for Dixie and me, but also affirmed things I had known deep inside myself but couldn’t articulate. I am contented in wide open spaces with fresh air, natural beauty, wildlife, peace and quiet, freedom, the smells of grass and wet earth, the shadows of tall trees, the sounds of river currents and waterfalls, and the feel of soft ground beneath my feet. Forests and woods, prairies and grasslands, farms and ranches, streams and rivers, wetlands and lakes – I feel most at home in these spaces. It’s all about breathing, being present and open, taking chances, trusting my boots, and being creative with my time and choices.
Checking in a few days after I returned home to Oregon in June, my sister-in-law Nancy (my twin sister’s wife) said she was curious to know if I felt like a Midwestern girl living in the Northwest or a Northwestern girl who used to live in the Midwest. Nancy is from Detroit, Michigan; she and Carole have a home together in San Diego, California. Without hesitation, I replied, “Definitely a Midwestern girl living in the Northwest.” Nancy, too, said she is and always will be a Midwestern girl, no matter where she is in the world. Her sister, Bobbie Jo, said the same thing. In addition, other virtual Road Dogs originally from the Midwest and living elsewhere shared the same sense of themselves.
A week or so later, Nancy, Bobbie Jo, and I had a follow-up conversation in San Diego, when we were all together to celebrate Carole’s retirement from teaching. I shared that in Iowa, I felt my body change. All my senses recognized the Midwest, especially my sense of smell. It was as though soil, water, flesh, and blood were the same thing. I felt like a salmon in the Pacific Northwest on her journey home.
My work in Environmental Services is, in part, about restoring habitat for salmon and helping salmon rebound from their status as threatened and endangered species. Salmon’s story is fascinating. Salmon’s parents reproduce in a freshwater stream or pond. Young Salmon hatches and hides in the nest, safe under the surface of the stream bed, growing bigger and stronger. When Salmon is ready, she emerges from the nest and stays in the fresh water for several years, feeding and growing stronger. Teenage Salmon then swims downstream to salt water. It’s a dangerous trip with many predators along the way. Where the river meets the sea, Salmon undergoes a complex internal change that allows her to adapt to the salt water. After several years living in the sea, when she is fully mature, Salmon returns to the river where she used to live and finds her way back to the freshwater stream or pond where she was hatched. There at home, when she is ready, Salmon breeds and dies. No one knows exactly how Salmon returns home. Perhaps it’s her sense of smell or something about Earth’s magnetic fields that pulls and guides her.
Salmon’s story is intriguing and amazing. I made my own journey home to the fresh waters where I was hatched and grew up. Since returning to Oregon, I have wondered what it means exactly to be Midwestern. I’m not sure I know. Almost half of the years I lived there I wondered what was wrong with me. While I take personal responsibility for my issues and choices, I know I was influenced significantly by the Midwest – the settings I loved and the attitudes and behaviors I learned. It was part of the Midwestern code to push emotions away, to shame ourselves for being anything but Midwest-normal, to suppress thoughts and desires, and to avoid addressing anything sensitive because it had the power either to draw another human being closer to us or to evaporate us, or even to provoke hostility against us. I learned restraint in everything. I rebelled to a degree, but consequences were sometimes hurtful and my coping mechanisms were not always healthy.
Sharing my reflections in this public blog space violates the Midwestern code I learned. The act of personal reflection alone might even violate the code. But personal reflection is necessary for me to see and understand myself. It is necessary so that I can be at home in the most important place – within myself. It’s important to me to do the hard work. And that just might be the most Midwestern thing about me.
Dixie has her own story about our road trip. I will try to write it for her someday. I love that we had this adventure together.
Friends I visited in Ohio have their own story about my trip. I cannot write it for them, but I hope they find here the beauty and wonder of the place they call home. I hope they know my love and gratitude for them is everlasting.
My family has their own story about my road trip. I cannot write it for them either, but I hope something I have written here resonates with them and leaves something good and loving.
The Road Dogs who traveled along for the virtual ride have their own story about this adventure. One friend told me she woke up every morning eager to see where I was on the road and what new adventure or slice of history I had shared. She said, “You are the Ken Burns of the Midwest!” I know I’m no Ken Burns, but I appreciated her interest and am glad that she and others were along for the ride.
Every dear friend I visited, every kind stranger I met, every beautiful creature I encountered, every virtual Road Dog who participated, every family member who watched from a distance, and every loving face I remembered and grieved – they all enriched this road trip, its purpose and its discovery.
While the events of my life have happened in some linear, chronological sequence, their significance to me is in a different order. As I wrote in the beginning of this reflection series, a stroll through a Japanese garden is like the perfect road trip. What I know now is that a road trip is a good metaphor for life. Scenic byways offer opportunities for exploration, adventure, fascination, beauteous wonder, and enjoyment. Long, winding, narrow, sometimes perilous roadways and pathways can be challenging, and we wonder how we survive the conditions, climbs, and descents. The wide, flat speedways “get us there,” and if we’re fortunate, we are able to sit on a bench or a rock or a hillside – in solitude or with someone we love – and enjoy the experience of “being here.” Time and other things smoothe and round out some of the rough spots in our individual landscapes. Life gives us new opportunities for growth. But life can also carve broad, deep tracks in us, igniting emotion and leaving buried veins to burn. Rain, snow, moonlight, sunshine, and warmth pour down and it all becomes part of the vast shaping motion of our lives.
This road trip reflection includes and continues with the following:
- Road Trip 2019 Part I: Follow the rivers and red-rutted roads
- Road Trip 2019 Part II: Ohio-bound weather and wayfinding
- Road Trip 2019 Part III: Oregon-bound weather and wayfinding
- Road Trip 2019 Part IV: Going home again
- Road Trip 2019 Part V: Purpose and discovery
- Road Trip 2019 Part VI: A log on rivers and lakes
Composed in December 2019 and early January 2020 – seven months after my dog Dixie and I took a road trip in mid-to-late-May across the United States from Oregon to Ohio and back. I visited the childhood home where I grew up and had not seen in 40 years. Photos by me, except where noted.