Ohio-bound weather and wayfinding
Driving across the country from Oregon to Ohio during the two-week period of a prolonged series of destructive tornadoes and frequent roaring thunderstorms, which affected much of the United States in mid-to-late May of last year, was remarkably exciting. While numerous tornadoes were confirmed in tornado-prone areas across the Great Plains and the Midwest, other tornadoes touched down in areas well outside of these regions, including in California, Idaho, Arizona, and New Jersey. No U.S. road trip, no matter where the destination, could have escaped the numerous storm watches, warnings, and events of those two weeks in May.
For the first time in the history of NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center (SPC), a threat of severe weather was issued for an entire eight-day period in Nebraska, the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, and western Kansas. The first day of that eight-day period was May 17, the planned departure date for my road trip. NOAA’s SPC reported the threat five days prior, on May 12. Then this headline on Tuesday, May 14, got my attention: “Severe Weather to Return to Plains Friday Into Early Next Week With Tornadoes, Hail, Damaging Winds, Flooding Rain” (weather.com).
At the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, where I work, my manager joked, “Cheryl, it will take two tornadoes to get you to Kansas. There’s a transfer in Oz.”
According to NOAA’s SPC website, if a severe thunderstorm watch or a tornado watch is issued this is what that means:
A Severe Thunderstorm Watch outlines an area where an organized episode of hail one-inch diameter or larger and/or damaging thunderstorm winds that equal or exceed 58 miles an hour are expected during a four-to-eight-hour period. A Tornado Watch includes the large hail and damaging wind threats, as well as the possibility of multiple tornadoes or a single intense tornado. Typical watches cover about 25,000 square miles, or about half the size of Iowa.
By the time I left Portland, Oregon, on Friday, May 17, the SPC extended the risk area across the Central Great Plains, much of Nebraska, and southwestern Texas. But the weather in Oregon was perfect for sightseeing, so I enjoyed a leisurely drive on Interstate 84 through the beautiful Columbia River Gorge, up onto Mosier Plateau, into the sagebrush plains of Columbia Plateau and Cabbage Hill, and across the foothills of the Blue Absaroka Mountains.
The car loaded with food and supplies, an adventure road atlas handily placed on the passenger seat, my dog Dixie snug in her co-pilot basket, and my CarPlay app. tuned to the great Spotify playlist that my friend and virtual Road Dog Ariella made for me, I had all I needed. Aside from the goal of arriving in Ohio in a week, with a stop in South Dakota on the way, I had no plan, no reservation, no place I needed to be any given day or night. I was free.
Climbing Cabbage Mountain viewpoint was on a stretch of Interstate 84 about 3,000 feet above sea level. The road was full of hairpin turns and steep grades through the oldest mountains in the state. It was exposed, windy, and cold.
As an amateur rockhound, I like gemstones, minerals, crystals, and interesting rocks, especially pocket rocks. I found my first interesting rocks on Cabbage Hill, including my first pocket rock.
We connected to Oregon Route 82 for a scenic drive through Minam State Recreation Area; it was a long and winding road along the Minam River. After enjoying a riverside picnic with several dapper Black-billed Magpies foraging nearby, we took a hike through the primitive campsites, where we found a decaying elk carcass and cougar tracks, not fresh ones.
Following Oregon Route 82 north as it curled up and around into the northeast corner of Oregon, I could not believe my eyes at first. Spectacular beauty arose suddenly, as if out of nowhere – the majestic Wallowa Mountains to the south and west, and the vast Hells Canyon to the east and north.
In the middle of it all sat the small town of Joseph, named for Nez Perce Indian leader Chief Joseph and nicknamed “The Swiss Alps of Oregon.” I lingered there, surrounded by the beauty of the Wallowa Mountains, and explored where Imnaha River led me. The peaceful green and golden wheat fields, the cattle and horse ranches, the painted barns, the beautiful turquoise-colored Wallowa Lake, and the scenic alpine backdrop – it was breathtaking, worthy of the nickname. Joseph was the perfect getaway for a person seeking refuge in nature.
Enjoying a sticky roll and a cup of coffee at Old Town Cafe, I talked with the local patrons. One of them commented, “It was one hell of a long winter down here. I thought we’d never thaw.” Due to recent storms and a hard winter, the Eagle Cap Excursion Train through the scenic wilderness area was not operating, so my waitress at Old Town Café in Joseph recommended I take a drive to Imnaha.
From Joseph, I followed Little Sheep Creek on Oregon Route 350 to Imnaha and collected a few rocks along the way.
Descending into Imnaha River Canyon to Grizzly Ridge, I took a scenic drive along Lower Imnaha River. It was a different landscape, one of high grasslands, rocky cliffs, and mountain valleys.
The Imnaha area was historically important for the Nez Perce Indians and their herds of horses. The warmer environment of the canyon still provides good grazing land.
Imnaha Store and Tavern, in business since 1904, was a fun place to stop for a root beer and check road conditions and alternate routes to Idaho. An hour drive from Joseph, Imnaha is connected to some of the most scenic outdoor adventure destinations in the United States. I would like to return someday and explore more of it.
I had never seen a penis crutch before. It’s the object hanging from the antler in the photo above. As Cody explained it, a man in need of a crutch for walking could have probably also used some help urinating. The small tray near the top of the crutch dropped down for a man to rest his penis on when he urinated. That’s the story; it’s history.
While I drank a Henry Weinhard’s root beer at the bar, Amy and Cody helped me plan an adventurous 60-mile drive on a dirt and gravel road along Imnaha River to North Pine Rest Area in the Wallowas and Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Although I had read that Forest Service Road 39, which connects the Wallowa Valley, Wallowa Lake, the communities of Enterprise and Joseph, and Hells Canyon, was still closed due to snow forces of nature, Cody assured me it had opened that day. My other option was to backtrack to Joseph and reconnect with state highways. I chose the less-traveled way – the scenic byway through the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Dixie and I enjoyed a picnic by the roaring river and followed it into the wilderness.
On May 18, driving through Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, I was puzzled that the route I was on had continued much longer and farther than Cody, the owner of Imnaha Store and Tavern, had described. Reviewing the map he had drawn for me, I wondered if I had missed the connection to Eagle Cap Wilderness Area and Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. I decided to talk to the first person I saw to verify I was headed in the right direction.
Outfitted in western boots, blue work shirt, leather jacket, and a big cowboy hat that revealed graying hair was a man repairing a roadside fence; the sign read “Grouse Ranch.” He paused his work to talk with me. Hearing my road trip adventure tale, he shared a tale of his own – a sad, unfortunate tale of a man who had died on the mountain under wintry conditions the year before; the man had gotten stuck in the snow and suffered a stroke when he got out of his car to dig out of the snow.
Concerned for my safety, the rancher advised me to turn back because he thought Forest Road 39, the road I needed to connect to in Halfway, Oregon, was still under a heavy snowpack and not passable by a passenger car. I heard and appreciated his concern, but I was determined to keep going. And besides, I was in a Subaru! I assured him I would turn back if conditions were bad. He made me promise not to get out of my car in the snow, and I agreed.
Undeterred, although not unaffected, by the rancher’s cautionary tale, I continued, climbing high into the Wallowas, trusting Sialia Mountain Bluebird Subaru Crosstrek. Before connecting to Forest Road 39, Dixie and I hiked at North Pine Rest Area in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and a stretch of Eagle Creek on Hells Canyon Scenic Byway.
At North Pine, something got Dixie’s attention and she became extra alert, in the same way she acts when Coyote is nearby in our Summerplace Woods in Portland. Although the forest called me deep into its solitude (or haunts, perhaps), I trusted Dixie’s instincts and guided us back to the car, ready for the uncertain road ahead and the climb over the pass.
Although the forest road was still snow-covered and not clear of tree debris and rocks from Winter’s storms, it appeared that a plow truck had gone through earlier that morning, clearing one lane through the center of the two-lane road, just enough to get me through safely. As I had promised Grouse Rancher, I did not get out of the car in the snow; I didn’t even stop to take photos out the window, because of concern that another vehicle could come around the hairpin turns and not be prepared to stop.
We didn’t encounter another vehicle, and when we arrived at Scotty’s Hells Canyon Outdoor Supply and met Scotty, he couldn’t believe our “itty bitty Subaru,” as he called it, had made it over the pass. Impressed, he treated me to an ice cream, treated Dixie to a cookie, and helped plan our route to Boise, Idaho, a scenic drive on Oregon Route 86 along the Snake River.
And so the adventure continued. Following the river, surrounded by the Blue Mountains, Elkhorn Ridge, Wallowa Mountains, and Strawberry Mountains, we drove to Idaho. The scenery was beautiful, and we enjoyed many opportunities to stop and enjoy the views, including a stroll along the Snake River at a day use park and campground.
Driving Idaho Route 71 along the Snake River, we curved through mountains and headed inland into agricultural communities and fruit orchards along U.S. Route 95. We spent the night at a place on the Boise River.
We awoke the next day, on May 19, to a gray sky and light rain that continued all day.
Pausing to read a map painted on the wall of a roadside rest area off Interstate 84, I noticed a place called City of Rocks and knew I had to go there. Almo, a.k.a. City of Rocks, is home to Castle Rocks Sate Park, the National Reserve, and the Back Country Byway. Checking my road atlas, I decided to take Idaho Route 77 to Conner Creek Junction and then drive southwest on Elba-Almo Road. Elba is surrounded by the Sawtooth National Forest and Albion Mountains. The scenic byway was surrounded by farmland until snow-capped mountains and granite contours appeared.
When the asphalt pavement of Elba-Almo Road ended, a muddy road took us the rest of the way to City of Rocks and Castle Rocks State Park, which sits at the base of Cache Peak (10,339 feet) in the Albion Mountains. Snow-covered mountain peaks dotted the horizon, and a vast array of gray spires and knobs rose out of the earth. The granite spires, some of them 2.6 billion years old, reminded me of South Dakota’s Black Hills.
After parking the car, I met Bunkhouse Cory, who informed me it was pre-season, the park was empty of people except for three climbers, but I was welcome to walk around, Dixie too. He also advised me to “be careful out there” because he had sighted Cougar, Coyote, and Moose recently near the yurt. And so, Dixie and I walked, drawn in by the landscape.
While the geological formations surrounding the place were stunning, I was also attracted to the variety of textures, colors, and shapes of rocks at my feet. However, I did not pick up or disturb any rocks in Castle Rocks, except for walking on them.
We followed the two-track trail into a landscape that looked like a scene from a scary fable: ominous skies hovered and dripped precipitation over gray, dark, and ragged granite spires shooting up in the distance. I had a vague sense of being watched, but Dixie and I were unalarmed, eager to explore.
Enjoying the vast quiet in the mist, I breathed in the scents of wet sagebrush, grasses, and Pinyon Pine trees. The phenomenal rocks and boulders among sagebrush, Arrowleaf Balsamroot wildflowers, and Prickly Pear cacti were so appealing that I was tempted to step off the trail to study them but did not. Dixie Rockhound, however, climbed as many rocks and boulders as she could reach on-leash.
It was hauntingly beautiful in the rain clouds and mist, creating a somber feeling. The air was damp and gray, turning the trail into chocolate frosting, caking my boots and faded blue jeans and Dixie’s paws and belly. Late spring in Castle Rocks revealed many shades of gray and green in the landscape as light rain revealed the character, pattern, and color of rocks. I recognized quartz, feldspar, granite, petrified wood, agate, obsidian, black mica, and jasper. No wonder Idaho’s nickname is “the Gem State.”
The land has a rich history. It has been home to the Shoshone-Bannock Indian tribes for 9,000 years, and it’s estimated that some 240,000 pioneers in the 1800s traveled through the area along the California Trail and set up camp. Bunkhouse Cory said that Castle Rocks attracts climbers from all over the world, the rock formations containing some of the most difficult routes and caves in the United States. Dixie and I met the three climbers Cory had told us were in the park and watched them make their way to the spires, with massive boulder pads strapped on their backs.
Dixie and I took a short spur off the main trail to Tiny Town, a narrow trail thick with grass, sagebrush, Pinyon Pine trees, Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany, and other scrub plants. Rain intensified, pelting down on us as we hiked the spur trail. The weathered features, twisted shapes, and bizarre rock formations looked like ancient creatures, wild beasts, and birds of prey.
Before making it to Tiny Town, we discovered a large deer or elk carcass with a hooved leg ripped from its body. It looked like a recent kill. Not wanting to encounter Cougar or other predator, and recalling Cory’s reminder to “be careful out there,” I decided to return to the main trail. Dixie readily obliged.
We enjoyed a slow, steady, gentle walk back to the parking lot, where Bunkhouse Cory gave us a friendly, exuberant wave of recognition and a big grin. I think he was relieved we hadn’t been Cougar bait or lunch.
In the covered shelter, I made a picnic for Dixie and me and watched as a thick blanket of clouds concealed Cache Peak completely. Part of me wished for sunlight to know what the landscape looked like with light bouncing off the boulders against a blue sky, but the springtime gray and green of the boulders, rocks, shrubs, grasses, and short trees was another kind of magic.
Castle Rocks State Park was one of the most intriguing places we visited on the trip. A short way up the road from Castle Rocks, we stopped at the National Forest Service Ranger Station and Visitor Center, where Rangers Jen and Roberta informed us that earlier in the day, at 4 a.m. that morning, May 19, the City of Rocks and Castle Rocks State Park were covered with four inches of snow. Rising temperatures and steady rain had melted the snow by the time we arrived. And the birds were singing.
Every night and morning of the road trip, I tuned into weather reports and learned that the severe weather and tornado risk areas kept expanding. By May 19, thunderstorm and tornado warnings stretched across the South, Central, and High Plains, basically the entirety of Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota and parts of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming. So concerned were my friends in South Dakota that they advised me to alter my route and not make my planned visit there due to the risks. Flooding on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation earlier in the year (March 2019) had stranded residents for two weeks.
At a roadside stop straddling the Idaho-Utah border, I heard a train whistle blow, saw a Union Pacific Railroad engine roll out from the trees, and watched train cars wind around the bend along Weber River. It was there I decided, sadly, to change tracks and not go to South Dakota. When the train was out of sight, I scrambled down the riverbank and stared at the swift current for several minutes, present with the meaning and emotion of my decision. I had been to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in February to be with my friend Miya (a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Indians) when she died; perhaps it was too soon for me to return in May.
Then Dixie and I sat at a picnic table, and I mapped out a plan to take Idaho Route 42 to U.S. Highway 30 to Utah, take Interstate 84 to Interstate 80, and try to make good time through Wyoming.
Leaving Idaho and entering Utah, I was astonished how dramatically the landscape changed. Utah’s iconic red rock suddenly appeared, sprouting up from the earth.
I learned later that a large storm brought heavy rain and historic late season snowfall to the Black Hills region on May 20-22. A powerful weather system prolonged precipitation in west South Dakota and northeast Wyoming. Parts of South Dakota got 10 to 12 inches of snow overnight, even as much as 30 inches of snow in the foothills southwest of Rapid City, which had been my destination. For the Black Hills and west South Dakota plains, this three-day period was among the coldest, wettest, and snowiest stretches on record over the latter half of May, with several temperature and precipitation records set.
On May 20, meteorologists continued to report tornado threats extending across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana; then into Michigan; down through Indiana and parts of Ohio and Illinois; into upstate New York and Pennsylvania; and through parts of Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. Threats intensified across Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas and expanded into Missouri.
A scenic stop at Point of Rocks Stage Station in Wyoming, situated in a valley framed by steep cliffs, was an all-wheel-drive adventure. It wasn’t easy to get to the old stage station, a resting place on the Overland Stage Route in the late 1800s, but a Subaru was built for the narrow, deeply rutted track in soft earth overgrown with sagebrush.
Point of Rocks Stage Station was the meeting point of the Overland Trail and the Union Pacific Railroad in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, in the late 1800s. Trains, stagecoaches, horses, mail carriers, miners, and other passengers – they all found respite at the stage station. In the 1870s, it was the closest railway station to the South Pass gold mines.
As soon we left Point of Rocks and got back on Interstate 80, thick clouds moved in, the temperature dropped to 34 degrees, and snow fell across Wyoming and through the Rocky Mountains. As a long string of vehicles in front of me exited the interstate, I drove on, wondering if they knew something I didn’t. I took the next exit and followed a truck driver into a service center to talk with him about what I was hearing on the radio and reading on electronic message boards about the weather.
Trucker Ron advised me to keep going because a more severe storm system was coming that night, and he offered to lead me out of Wyoming. I weighed the risk, knew there was no guaranteed outcome, and decided to follow Ron’s lights. I figured we just had to plow through or get stuck in Wyoming.
Dixie and I made it safely across Wyoming and through the icy Rocky Mountains, stopping to spend the night in North Platte, Nebraska. Driving Interstate 80 from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to North Platte, I navigated us through torrential downpours and bouncy bumper-car wind. We pulled off the interstate a few times to wait out the worst of it. My singing songs helped to calm both of us, and I told Dixie, “Let’s think of this as a Disneyland E-ticket car wash ride!”
In North Platte, I found Penny’s Diner. Advertised as “Step into a time capsule,” the train car diner had a classic 1950s interior, played 1950s-60s music, and served traditional American food and desserts. It was old-fashioned, straightforward goodness!
We made it through snow and ice in Wyoming and torrential downpours in Nebraska on May 20 only to get caught in another series of strong thunderstorms the next day, May 21, driving from North Platte, Nebraska, to Iowa. Hail turned to rain, accompanied by strong winds that blew the rain sideways and jolted the car so strongly that it was hard to stay in my lane.
I took a break from tense driving to check the weather forecast and tour The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, a giant log bridge that stretched over Interstate 80 in Kearney, Nebraska. The structure housed a pioneer museum, gift shop, and visitor center. I learned that widespread thunderstorms and tornado warnings were issued in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and the Ohio Valley.
In The Archway, I met Crazy Meek Mountain Man, who said to me after I introduced myself and shared my Oregon to Ohio road adventure, “You’re going the wrong way, Miss.” Crazy Meek’s real name is John Meek. Marshall Bob told me that John Meek is related to Stephen Meek, an Oregon frontiersman after whom Meek Cutoff was named. It was a covered wagon road that branched off the Oregon Trail in northeastern Oregon and was used as an alternate emigrant route to the Willamette Valley in the mid-1800s.
Hired to lead the first wagon train along Meek Cutoff, Stephen Meek offered emigrants an alternate route to avoid the Blue Mountains, where it was reported that Walla Walla and Cayuse Indians might attack the emigrants. Although his blazing of the trail was a particularly hard journey and many emigrants died, the trail led to the establishment of wagon roads and the settlement of eastern and central Oregon.
After a stop along the Missouri River in Nebraska, I struggled to make it out of the Omaha metropolitan area, getting turned around a few times, confused by the highway signage. After checking weather reports, I got off Interstate 80 and headed north to U.S. Highway 30 to get above the worst of the storms. That was a good decision. Our destination for the night of May 21 was Denison, Iowa.
When I drove into the Iowa countryside, I had a sudden sense of being close to home, and my olfactory nerves stayed active the rest of the way to Ohio. Before the sky turned gray again, the agricultural landscape was beautiful under a partly cloudy, blue sky.
John Deere was everywhere. Note that its headquarters are in Moline, Illinois, so that’s why it’s written on these Iowa mailboxes.
On the country road to Denison, an ominous slate-black shelf cloud came from the south and moved swiftly overhead us. It made me stop and look all around for a funnel cloud. Scanning the flooded roadside ditches and fields and seeing no place to take shelter, I kept driving. Fortunately, there was no tornado in sight. Driving through snow, ice, hail, and heavy rain across Wyoming and Nebraska had made me tense, but driving under that shelf cloud in Iowa worried me.
After Dixie and I settled into our Denison motel, a thunderstorm put on a show outside the window. Thunder, lightning, hail, wind, and rain continued until we fell asleep long after midnight. I thought to myself, “Be careful what you wish for,” because I had told people I was looking forward to a good thunderstorm. Ours in the Pacific Northwest are mild compared to those in the Midwest.
The next morning, on May 22, The Weather Channel reported that a tornado had struck down after midnight in Adair, Iowa, 74 miles southeast of where we were staying, with one fatality and one injury reported. With winds blowing through the area at 120 to 130 miles per hour, the tornado traveled three miles over Interstate 80, damaging farms and buildings and dropping debris before it lifted. It had given no warning.
Turned out it was a good decision to get off Interstate 80 the day before and go north to U.S. Highway 30, because not only did we escape the tornado but we also avoided a major delay. On May 22, a long stretch of Interstate 80 was closed for cleanup due to tornado debris.
Nature and nurture gifted us with another highlight of the trip that day. Virtual Road Dog Kris had been tracking our route via the Facebook group and recommended I check out the painted barns in Iowa. She even provided directions to help me find the wonderful American Gothic barn, a hidden barn-sized rendition of Grant Wood’s painting on a private farm in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. It was another highlight of the trip.
The large replica of Wood’s painting covered the barn’s entire façade, with the barn’s sides painted to depict, on one side, a bison in the prairie and, on the other side, an image of the Iowa countryside (read more here).
The hunt for painted barns also led to the discovery of barn quilts. Quilt patterns are painted on square, eight-foot panels and installed on barns or corncribs, most of which are at least 50 years old. The geometric patterns, colors, and images typically depict something about farm life. The quilted panels I saw made me think of fields, corn, and rivers.
According to Sac County Iowa’s website at www.barnquilts.com, barn quilts have been called the largest grassroots public art movement in the United States. The movement started in Ohio, when a woman named Donna Sue Groves painted a quilt block on her tobacco barn to honor her mother, a master quilter. The movement spread westward and soon became popular in Iowa. Fortunately, the weather enabled me to have a pleasant, leisurely country drive in search of barns with color, character, and history, and I found several.
The thunderstorms associated with this severe weather outbreak not only produced violent tornadoes but also produced frequent heavy rainfall, sometimes at record levels, on previously saturated ground across the country. Listening to the radio and talking with farmers on my stops, I learned that widespread river and lakeshore flooding existed along the Maumee, Mississippi, and Missouri river systems at record levels.
I saw the evidence in the Midwest – bloated river basins and waterways, flooded ditches and pastures, standing water in woodlands and fields, uprooted trees on country roads, heavily eroded riverbanks and lakeshores, murky river water, and the eerie absence of farmers working the fields. I wondered what was underneath all that water, and I wondered what the Auglaize River, the river that flowed through my hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, would look like. Friends had tried to prepare me for the astonishment. I write about the Auglaize in Road Trip 2019 Part IV: Going home again.
As we made our way through Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana to Ohio, I listened to radio reports about soybean and other crop prices and heard the angst of farmers eager for fields to dry out so they could plant crops. Radio broadcasts about the effects of the trade war with China, tariffs on soybeans, climate change, unusual seasonal changes, and extreme weather made me think, “That’s a lot for farmers to deal with.” Working out exactly how to deal with it will require work at all levels, local to global. There are tough conversations to be had and tough decisions to be made. Farmers here in Oregon – hazelnut, fruit, wheat, beef, and dairy farmers – feel the effects also (read more here).
On the night of May 22, in Monroeville, Indiana, having spent the day looking for painted barns and barn quilts in Iowa, then navigating heavy traffic around Chicago, Illinois, and dealing with the effects of my third time zone change, I was too tired to keep driving. Not even Karri’s message of “cookies in the oven, Chex Mix just out of the oven, and tapioca underway” could tempt me. I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and I was afraid of getting lost in the dark.
The next morning, on May 23, greeted by a beautiful Blue Jay in flight and fortified by a slice of rhubarb pie from Nick’s Country Café in Huntington, Indiana, I found Ohio Route 66 and “the Buckeye State.” The giant welcome sign across the highway read, “Ohio: find it here.” I found “it” in Ohio, most definitely, and it was all good. And most of all that good was found on my friends’ family farm in northwestern Ohio.
Dan welcomed Dixie and me to the farm, Karri drove in from the market and presented Dan and me each a large root beer float, and I knew I was home. Ohio hospitality at its finest! Later in the day, we even tried some Ole Smoky Tennessee Root Beer Whiskey. Note to self: get some!
Dan drove all of us to Lima for Kewpee burgers, frozen malts, and other Kewpee treats. The iconic Kewpie doll, the mascot of Kewpee hamburgers, was still prominently displayed in the restaurant. When I was a child, the Kewpee had a turntable, a drive-in/drive-through service operation. Best. Hamburgers. Ever. Anywhere.
The Kewpee restaurant in downtown Lima is considered a historic site. According to their website, Kewpee opened their first Kewpee Hamburger shop in Flint, Michigan, in 1918, near the end of World War I. In 1928, Hoyt and Julia Wilson built the first Kewpee location in Lima, Ohio, which offered curbside service. As downtown Lima grew, so did the Kewpee. With curbside service impractical, the downtown location went back to using a drive-thru window. Then they installed a turntable to spin a car around to exit the lot. That’s the design I remember.
When I went to my first Wendy’s hamburger restaurant in California, the square hamburger and thick, chocolate frosty made me think of Kewpee Hamburgers. Turns out, the founder of Wendy’s, Dave Thomas, loved eating at a Kewpee in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when he was a child. He said it’s what inspired him to go into the business. The Kewpee sold square hamburgers and thick, chocolate malt shakes, very similar to the Wendy’s food chain that Thomas eventually founded in Columbus, Ohio.
On the century-old family farm in northwestern Ohio, where I enjoyed a four-day visit with my friends, the land was slow to drain and dry out for the farmers who work their field. The Midwest had been battered with heavy rainfall and flooding since March and the earth couldn’t soak up the water. Although most of the water had receded from their field when I was there, it was not yet ready to be planted. My friends speculated that the field might not dry out in time for the farmers to plant a crop that season. The unspoken consequence of that situation I understood all the same: farmers could lose a year of income.
Almost everywhere we walked, the ground was saturated and smelled stressed. Their lovely woodland had deep pools of standing water, making parts of the woods challenging to navigate without walking sticks to help us maintain balance in the saturated soil and deep mud. Despite those conditions, we walked the woods every morning and every evening, because the place was beautiful with magnificent tall trees and thick groundcovers. Dixie and I loved it!
Dixie enjoyed romping through the woods, climbing on logs and woodpiles, hanging out with the other dogs, and sniffing her acquaintance with everything! I watched her have the time of her life exploring the farm off-leash, playing with and snarling at their dogs and greeting their cats.
Don’t miss the other cat under the car by the left tire!
Wondrously decorated with solar lights, metal art, chimes, and painted love posts to discover and contemplate along the path, the woods would call and the walks comfort. I liked getting my boots muddy from walking right down the middle of the path and my blue jeans smudged brown and green from soaking up the soil, grass, moss, and dampness from Dixie’s paws.
During my four-day farm stay, the weather was pleasantly warm and mostly dry, enabling several outdoor adventures. I slept well in a charming room they prepared for me at the top of the stairs, feasted on Karri’s tasty home-cooked meals and local diner excellence, drank fresh-brewed coffee every morning and iced tea every afternoon, and enjoyed marvelous sugar cream, peach, and blackberry pies made by Karri’s sister Kris. Food, glorious food!
Dan showed me around the barns, sharing stories about the history of the place, and introduced me to his donkey and pony. Karri set me up to paint a love post and created a wonderful tray of goodies to feed the artistic process. I enjoyed being with my friends and learning more about their lives on the farm.
I thought the painted barns and barn quilts in Iowa were special, but my friends’ barns were even more wonderful.
Here’s the post I painted for them:
Together, we visited with their family and explored the Auglaize River watershed, where I met a White Pine coppiced tree (affectionately called “The Seven Sisters” by Kris, who introduced me) and a magnificent Shagbark Hickory (affectionately called “The Old Crone” by me as I put my arms around her, narrowly escaping a poison ivy leaf). On our walk, we saw raccoon tracks and a crawdad hole.
We looked across a field to the Fort Amanda Memorial, which was the site of a major supply depot for the American Army during the War of 1812.
We strolled the streets of my childhood home in Wapakoneta (more about that in Road Trip 2019 Part IV: Going home again), selected souvenirs of the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s Moon landing, and made surprising discoveries together.
Back on the farm, huddled around the kitchen bar like family, we shared good stories and connected with another childhood friend, Beazy, who came to the farm for a visit and told fun anecdotes, calling up people and place names from our youth. We had all been classmates and bandmates growing up in Ohio. To reunite for a visit meant a lot to me. And I thought of my twin sister, Carole.
Below is one of my favorite photos of us as children. Beazy is always so great to share it with us on our birthday each year. Whenever we went to Beazy’s house to play with her Creepy Crawlers set (my personal favorite) and other games, her father would joyfully proclaim, “Here comes Double Trouble!” Carole and I liked to pretend that the three of us were triplets.
In the farm kitchen, where Karri had hosted an old-time taffy pull party when we were teenagers, I was happy to be together again. Miya would have referred to us as Hunka, the nickname she called me, which is a Siouan Indian word meaning “chosen family.” I wasn’t someone they needed to impress, and I didn’t need to impress them.
Eager to get back out there and get muddy again, the dogs joined us for a romp and a walk (they romped; we walked) in the woods. There was always more wonder to discover on the path.
I experienced peace and contentment on the farm. It’s a peaceful place. There was nothing exhaustive or overwhelming in being with my friends, and we didn’t rush through anything. Oh, I created a few awkward notes and moments of not knowing what to say, but they were few and fleeting. The easy informality of our time together was lovely.
While the springtime severe weather system had figured significantly in planning the way to Ohio, it would figure even more significantly in planning the route back to Oregon. It was the center of one of the most memorable and simple pleasures of my trip: route planning with Karri and Dan in the kitchen of their farmhouse.
After I informed them of my plan to head out on Memorial Day and make my way back to Oregon, they asked me what route I would be taking. My plan was to drive to Raymond’s Landing, located on the North Chain of Lakes in Coldwater, Michigan, where my family vacationed for more than 20 years. I figured I would find a good spot to hang out and plan my route home from there. I hadn’t thought much beyond that, and I still hoped to stop in South Dakota, weather permitting. Well, they both got to work immediately on weather tracking and route planning, and I joined them.
Karri turned on the television to The Weather Channel, Dan pored over his road atlas at the kitchen bar, Karri fired up their computer on the dining table, and I opened The Weather Channel app. on my iPhone. I have many fond memories of my visit with them; the time we spent route planning ranks high on the list.
As we studied weather systems around metropolitan areas between Ohio and Oregon, determined distances and travel times between possible destinations, and noted attractions for three different routes back across the country, they shared stories of their own travel adventures, favorite places, places they want to see again, and new places they want to explore. Together we did the research, considered forecasts and facts, did the math, announced our findings to each other, speculated where we didn’t have firm information, and problem-solved our way late into the night.
We considered a northern route where I could have explored the wonderful wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but we figured I wouldn’t have enough time to make it home to keep my work commitments. I was determined to go to Coldwater, Michigan, so the challenge was how to route me home from there. Together, Karri and Dan steered me to the car ferry the SS Badger for a transportation adventure across Lake Michigan, a “boat ride” from Ludington, Michigan, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
A 410-foot passenger and vehicle ferry in service on Lake Michigan since 1953, the SS Badger is the last coal-fired passenger ship operating on the Great Lakes and is the only moving National Historic Landmark in the United States. On the water the ride is four hours, but, considering the time zone change between Michigan and Wisconsin, it would cost me just three hours. And Karri estimated the ride would save me more than 10 hours of driving around Chicago. We also figured it would steer me away from severe weather in the Midwest south of Michigan and give me another unique experience on the trip. It penciled out to be a good plan, so I purchased online SS Badger tickets for Dixie and me and made a phone reservation for a hotel in Ludington, Michigan, for Monday night.
When I departed Ohio on Monday, May 27, destination Coldwater, Michigan, the NOAA SPC issued an enhanced risk of severe weather, including tornadoes, for northern Illinois, western Nebraska, northeast Wyoming, and the High Plains. That day turned out to be the most active day for tornadoes during the outbreak sequence, with a total of 59 confirmed tornadoes (read more here). Ten of the 59 tornadoes were significant (rated EF2 or higher), with seven of the ten rated EF3 or higher. Five of them struck the Chicago metropolitan area during the afternoon. Severe weather produced multiple tornadoes across Indiana and Ohio throughout the day, and strong tornadoes touched down at night.
The most significant tornado was an EF4 that struck parts of Dayton, Ohio, 80 miles from where I had been staying with my friends on their farm, causing widespread damage and killing one woman. Another tornado-related fatality occurred in Celina, Ohio, 20 miles away, also on May 27, when an EF3 moved through the town with winds ranging from 140 to 150 miles per hour, severely damaging and destroying some homes. These place names were part of my childhood vernacular, as familiar to me as the names Wapakoneta, Auglaize, Buckland, Lima, Spencerville, Cincinnati, Bowling Green, Columbus, St. Marys, Springfield, and Coldwater.
While tornadoes raged in Ohio on May 27, I enjoyed a warm, breezy, and sunny day in Coldwater, Michigan. It was, as they say, “Pure Michigan” and brought back wonderful memories from my childhood.
I drove state highways to the North Chain of Lakes, where our Kuck family vacationed from when my twin sister and I were in our mother’s womb in 1957 until everyone eventually moved out west by 1980.
Raymond’s Landing campground, RV park, mobile home park, and boat launch all appeared to be thriving. Although the office was closed for Memorial Day, within a minute of my pulling into the park someone rushed up to me. After I told Shirley my brief Kuck family story, she directed me where to park and said I could walk around for as long as I wanted, “and your little dog, too,” she said warmly.
In the late 1960s, my father built one of the first wood and aluminum boat docks, with steel posts anchored in the channel. He also helped several neighbors build theirs.
The fishing boat in the foreground of the photo above is similar to the 16-foot fishing boat my parents used. I never saw Mom happier with Dad than when they went fishing together in the early morning, returning at noon, each with their daily individual limit of 25 fish. Together, they cleaned their catch, sharing stories with other fishers about where the fish were biting that day and what bait they were biting on. Mom would put some fish aside for dinner and freeze the rest so that our family could enjoy Friday night fish fries throughout the year.
My twin sister and I had a smaller, 14-foot fishing boat with a red-painted bow and a six horsepower, blue-and-white Evinrude motor. It was perfect for our scenic boat rides to the different lakes in the chain. On Randall Lake and North Lake, we went fishing, sometimes stretching out in the boat with a library book, sunning ourselves, just content at the thought the fish were out there. On Cemetery Lake, we went exploring, anchored at shore to watch horses grazing on a hillside. On South Lake, we went turtle hunting, careful to avoid the Eastern Snapping Turtle if possible. On Messenger Lake, we went swimming, diving off the large floating platform in the center of the lake. The SS Sue-Lou, named after our middle names, took us everywhere we wanted to go.
For longer, faster boat roads, Dad fired up the 85-horsepower Evinrude motor on the family tri-hull boat and took us all to Craig Lake, Long Lake, and a placed called The Narrows Resort, where we would dock the boat and walk up to the restaurant for a fish fry or burgers and fries. Those were such good times.
Happy to be back, I walked along the channel and boat docks at Raymond’s Landing, stood on the shore of Randall Lake, and looked out across the water. The smell of motor boat oil and fuel from a pontoon pulling into the channel brought back vivid memories. Boat rides and life jackets, anchors and tackle boxes, fishing tales and fish scales, frog jumping contests and turtle races, lakeshore explorations and swimming holes, card games and library books, lawn jarts and July 4th sparklers, barbecues and fish fries – they were all part of our family fun at The Lake.
Being in Coldwater on Memorial Day, the official opening day of the season, was extra special. It marked the anniversary of our family’s annual trek to The Lake every Memorial Day weekend to open up the trailer for the season, fire up the furnace, launch the boats into the channel, and unlock all the magic.
I remembered, too, that it was also opening day of the boat rental on Blue Lake back home in Oregon, where I have an annual, Memorial Day tradition of taking a paddleboat ride for an hour or two on the lake. Blue Lake always makes me think of Coldwater, Michigan. For a person like myself, often dismissive of tradition, it’s surprising how meaningfully my life is anchored in tradition.
Hanging out with Dixie in Coldwater, I connected with my twin sister, who lives in San Diego, California, to share my wonder at how familiar Raymond’s Landing was to me. I told Carole how glad I was to see that it had maintained its charm and simplicity as a mobile home park and campground for lakeside vacationers. Viewing the photos I had posted online, she, too, could see how little it had changed and the pride that current property owners take in caring for the place.
While my visit to our childhood home in Wapakoneta, Ohio, had felt more private to me and involved more complicated emotions (see Road Trip 2019 Part IV: Going home again), I wished I could have shared my visit to Coldwater with my twin sister. I wished Carole were there with me to walk through Raymond’s Landing, sit on the swing at the point and look out at the lake, go on an imaginary boat ride, enjoy a fish fry and an Orange Crush soda pop, take a drive around the lakes, and share memories.
Our happiest family times growing up, to my recollection, were at The Lake in Coldwater, where my father let go work-related anxieties and was gentler to everyone; where my mother relaxed and played; and where Carole and I had a fun, active, creative, and adventurous social life with each other. We also looked forward to seeing a few Lake friends once or twice a year when they visited their grandparents who had mobile homes at Raymond’s Landing.
Because we were in Michigan every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day, along with at least three or four full weeks of our father’s vacation, Carole and I didn’t see our Ohio friends much outside of school activities. I wasn’t practiced at friendship; I was practiced at twinship and scholarship, and all the real and perceived expectations that came with each.
These thoughts, and others, occupied my mind as I sat on the swing at the point with Dixie and looked out at Randall Lake. I was reluctant to leave, but I had a ship to catch in the morning. Walking back along the channel, I talked with a few of the current property owners. Cookie and his wife, Lois, weren’t familiar with my family or any of the other family names I recalled from when we vacationed there. But Cookie got a kick out of the fact that we had a dog named “Kucky,” and that I have a friend who calls me “Kucky,” our names pronounced the same but spelled differently.
From Raymond’s Landing, I drove River Road to the place where our family originally vacationed in Coldwater, Michigan – a lakefront resort on North Lake called Snyder’s Landing. This was the place our family vacationed the first 10 years of my life, the first trip being a getaway for Mom and Dad when she was pregnant with Carole and me. Her previous physician had cautioned her against having any more children after the difficult pregnancy and birth she had had with our brother. Her new physician advised her to go to a peaceful, quiet place to relax; he assured her everything would be all right in Coldwater.
On my drive from Raymond’s Landing, I found North Lake, but Snyder’s Landing no longer exists. The land has been developed into private, lakefront residences. I turned at the Chain-O-Lakes street sign, pulled over, and snapped a few photos of North Lake.
From North Lake, I continued driving River Road to The Narrows Resort, to a restaurant and bar called The Willows, and to the other lakes that are part of Coldwater’s North Chain-O-Lakes. Because it was Memorial Day, several places I had wanted to see were closed, so I treated myself to a hamburger, fries, and root beer float at a drive-in before leaving Coldwater.
Being back in Ohio and Michigan made me think a lot about our Kuck family history in all its beauty and its messiness. My older siblings moved to southern California in 1965-1966, after completing their college undergraduate degrees in Ohio. I moved to southern California in 1978, after temporarily withdrawing from college. One year later, in the summer of 1979, Carole moved to southern California after completing her undergraduate degrees in Ohio. But she had been a “California Dreamin'” girl (1965 song by The Mamas & the Papas) long before then. Shortly thereafter, our parents followed us kids out west, selling the family home in Ohio and the family vacation spot in Michigan, so that by 1980, we were all living in California.
In the 1980s, Mom and Dad rebuilt their lives in the Kern River Valley of California, and our family gathering place became their home in Wofford Heights. A small town located above both Lake Isabella and the Kern River, Wofford Heights was surrounded by the Greenhorn Mountains, a protected mountain range within the Sequoia National Forest. In short time, we all affectionately referred to that beautiful place as “The Lake.” We fished both the river and the lake, hiked the mountains and the forest, swam in the deceptively calm swimming holes of the Kern River, took boat rides around Lake Isabella, and enjoyed family fish fries, like old times.
Then in 1991, I moved to southern Oregon to live on the Umpqua River. Southern California was not the place for me. The name Umpqua is said to mean many things – “thundering water,” “dancing water,” and my personal favorite, “This is the place.” The river was named by the Umpqua Indians, one of several tribes who lived in the Umpqua River Valley in the early 1800s. I thought it might be the place for me, too. In the 1990s, however, conservative and Republican Douglas County was not welcoming to members of the LGBTQ community (it was hostile and violent to LGBTQ people, in fact), so I eventually moved to the more progressive and Democratic Multnomah County, further north in the Willamette River Valley. My home is a place of many rivers, where almost every weekend you can find me exploring the Willamette and Columbia rivers and their tributaries.
My parents enjoyed the rest of their lives in the Kern River Valley. Over the years, my siblings and I populated our own lives with friends, sweethearts, partners, spouses, and many cats and dogs. Only my brother and his wife had children, a son, who now also has a son. None of us Kuck girls had children, but through our teaching and coaching careers, community non-profit work, musical and artistic endeavors, environmental stewardship activities, our extended families, our travels, and other associations, we have been enriched by young people in our lives.
Our Kuck family experienced separation in various forms as a consequence of events and choices. My leaving Ohio for California and then leaving California for Oregon were significant, but no more significant than the rest of the tapestry. For the most part, we grew to forgive the hurts, grieve the losses, overcome the misfortunes and misunderstandings, adjust to each other’s choices and realities, reconcile our differences, take responsibility for our own lives, and relate to each other with acceptance, love, kindness, and generosity. My parents loved each other and all of us kids; they were devoted to our family, gave us a good home and a solid start, taught us to work hard and play harder, supported us throughout their lives, believed in us, and celebrated our every achievement. I miss them.
I feel fortunate that my parents built our family home beside the Auglaize River in Wapakoneta, Ohio. I am glad they liked to explore, play, and spend quiet time in open spaces on rivers and lakes. While writing this reflection series, I tallied up the rivers, streams, and lakes I have lived beside or nearby throughout my life; I came up with two dozen. Only two lakes on the list hold for me the familiar name of simply “The Lake” – the North Chain of Lakes in Coldwater, Michigan (all seven as a whole), and Lake Isabella in Wofford Heights, California. Only one river on the list holds for me the familiar name of simply “The River” – the Auglaize River in Wapakoneta, Ohio, where I grew up. For all the moving and traveling I have done in my life, I still prefer the places most familiar to me, where I can get to know their seasons, the rise and fall of their waterways, the lines and shadows of their trees, and the pathways in their landscapes.
That said, when I left Coldwater, Michigan, on May 27 and headed to Ludington, where I would ride the SS Badger across Lake Michigan the next day, I was ready for a new adventure. I had never been on Lake Michigan before.
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.