Notes on the way to Red Cloud
“I seem fated to send people on journeys,” Willa Cather wrote.
Since 2002 our Farther Along group of women have written together, traveled together to writing retreats and walked beside each other through life’s messes and triumphs.
This time, three of us are taking the scenic route, driving to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where we will meet the rest of the group. They are flying in.
We will write where Willa Cather lived and sought inspiration for much of her writing.
Carol, Dottye and Kay will be sharing some of our observations here.
Carol Henderson: Heading Out
Dottye texted at 6:38 a.m. to see what time we were planning to leave.
Not that early.
In fact, I was still asleep. I had driven from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Kay’s house in Winston-Salem the evening before. Sometime in the morning, we were picking Dottye up at her place-about an hour north.
Dottye had been packed for two weeks and already had her bags out by the curb. “We’ll be along,” Kay texted back.
Kay and I got up and sipped strong coffee on her back terrace, watching the hummingbirds dart at her feeders, wondering if they’d still be around when we returned in three weeks. We also wondered if the symphony of cicadas would have quieted. We were ready. The question was: would all the stuff of all three women fit in the car?
I love what Susan Orlean writes about how she travels: “I pack and repack; I am shamed by how much I’ve packed and then, as penance, I force myself to remove a few items; then I capitulate, put everything back in, add one or more things just to be safe, and at last, burdened and beaten, limp to the airport or the train station or the parking garage with my gross overload. Why do I do it? I’ve decided that it is a sort of passage I have to make before making my true passage—it’s my ritual of clinging to the familiar before entering the unfamiliar, my resistance to leaving the comforts of home for the displacement of travel, of being a stranger embarking on exploration.” from My Kind of Place
Looking at the piles in her front hall, Kay rejected a few items. I decided I could leave a pile of journals I hoped to read through on our retreat. No. We’d make final decisions at Dottye’s. We could always leave excess at her house.
We arrived at Dottye’s mid-morning, the car already feeling pretty full. But she is our seasoned car packer (and trusty driver). She masterfully tucked our many small bags, odds and ends, and our bulging carry-on luggage into the back and spare seat of my Subaru Forester. We only left a few odd things behind.
The itinerary for this first day was basically getting us together and launched and putting miles and a few states between us and our familiar.
We crossed the New River also known as the Kanawha. It’s one of the five oldest rivers in the world and runs east-west unlike most other rivers in the East, meaning it carries flora and fauna from its Western North Carolina source into the Ohio River and the Midwest instead of the other way around.
We could dedicate this blog to rivers but, well, won’t. We are, though, kind of obsessed. Dottye had put together a three-ring notebook on the history of all the rivers we would cross on this trip. From my perch in the backseat, I would read to them about the geology, trade routes, floods, and dams as we crossed.
Inspired by a book I’m reading called Waterlog, by Roger Deakin, who set out in 1996 to swim through the British Isles, I decided I’d take a dip in each river. Though we crossed the meandering Kanawha several times that first day, we were high above the banks and often in densely urban and industrial areas. Who knows what drained into that muddy meandering ribbon of water and how would I gain access? Maybe I should have left behind that bag–of swim gear
Few in West Virginia were wearing masks, including the guide at the welcome center who directed us to a booklet about Charleston, WV, where we hoped to find a lunch spot with outdoor seating. From the car, we called several eateries listed in the guide. At the most appealing place, the phone rang and rang and finally a message came on saying, “Not available at this time.” Others had new Covid hours, closing early or only open a few days a week. We kept striking out and ended up eating Kind bars from the car stash, deciding we’d find an early dinner somewhere in Huntington, our stop for the night.
No sooner had we settled into our Inn room than Dottye’s daughter-in-law Jonni called, a bit frantic because her daughter’s daycare was closing that day at 4 p.m. (it was already 3 o’clock) for two weeks. Covid outbreak. Dottye, who often babysits for 4-year-old Tayson, shrugged. What could she do from West Virginia but call a few friends at home to try to help set up care.
We sat on the queen beds, helpless and kind of gloomy on the gray afternoon. Both Kay and I help with grandchild care too. Were we going to get bad news about our grands’ schools?
Road trips and Covid. Not a great match. We knew that. But this trip was planned pre-pandemic and early in the summer of 2021 we thought the virus was waning. Then we said: We’re all vaccinated and mask devotees. And we agreed that if we found ourselves in uncomfortable situations, or feeling unsafe, we’d simply pivot and change plans. As a friend told me, “We’re living in a ‘penciled in’ world these days.”
We were excited to be heading to Lexington, Kentucky, in the morning. Unlike today when we basically packed up the car and moved from point A to point B, we had plans for tomorrow—to go to the Mary Todd Lincoln home and to tour Ashland, the sweeping estate of the U.S. statesman, Henry Clay. And we were staying for two nights with old friends.
Kay Windsor: Rolling on the Rivers
We expected to encounter rivers on this road trip, and we listened to river songs playlist during the hours we spent in the car. From Handel’s “Water Music Suite” to Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” (“Rolling on the river”) to “Down to the River to Pray,” the music swept us through water sightings, memory, and landscape.
Of course, the Mississippi slices and sluices through the country north to south, and the Ohio and Missouri are among those that join it somewhere. I remembered tracing the travels of Huck and Jim in high school classrooms for most of the 35 years I taught English. The map I showed of the places along the river and the convergence of rivers was a graphic reminder of how our lives can change course sometimes. Jim and Huck had intentions of traveling on the raft to the north where Jim could gain freedom. Instead, the storm and fog turned them around and sent them south. Sitting on a raft constructed in the Mark Twain museum in Hannibal, Mississippi
Of Marys: While in Lexington, we toured the Mary Todd Lincoln house and held to the worn handrail that Abraham Lincoln used to ascend the stairs in that home. We looked at star-shaped flowers and read about Mary Todd Lincoln’s grief for her children and her husband.
Ginkgo Tree cafe, an outside dining area among the ginkgo trees, the walnut, ash and yews at Ashland, was not open on the rainy day we first visited. I wish I had asked for the story of who and how those ginkgo trees, my favorite, were planted. I wish I’d asked the thoughtful docent who led us on the tour of the house. She shared details of Henry Clay’s life, family and home in crisp, British speech, and acknowledged his roles in the lives of enslaved persons. She shared stories of Madge, who fought for women’s right to vote and lost her foot.
Our Lexington stay was with friends of Carol’s whose generous hospitality gave us laughter, insight and dinners that offered so much more than sustenance.
Dottye Law Currin : Keeneland Magic
On day three of our road trip, I paused my travel thoughts to compose a Facebook message to celebrate my sweet daughter’s birthday. And, as in most years since she has grown up and lived away from home, I called her at about 9:38am – the hour she was born – to serenade her with the birthday song. It’s a tradition in our family, calling and singing, so she was not surprised to hear my now crackly voice greeting her.
It just so happened that Carol, Kay, and I were going to Keeneland Race Course later that day. I was happy to be able to give them a VIP tour and to share a little bit of the joy I always feel when I am at Keeneland. Speaking of traditions, it’s a very special place to our family. We have spent many days settled along the rail in our private little cove, which we create. We arrive at the track as soon as the gates open and arrange two or three benches to form that enclosure.
Keeneland is a beautiful setting that can be appreciated even if you’re not interested in horses, gambling, or racing. I have been to several other race tracks and none compare. The rolling hills and green pastures surrounding the course, the limestone structures, the manicured landscape, and the friendly people all make the place a welcoming environment.
On this day there were no races occurring (the season is April and October) and the fall sales wouldn’t begin until next week. We drove right into the main gate, continued past the grandstand and main pedestrian entrance, and on to the barns at the back of the complex. I parked the car near one of the barns (definitely a case of acting like you belong there and not raising any eyebrows at all!) and we got out and went over to observe a small group of people who were obviously getting a preview of horses they might bid on next week.
The horses did not disappoint. They strutted, kicked, resisted – showing their power and beauty simultaneously. That’s a huge factor in our family’s joy when we visit there. We all have an appreciation in some way of the horses. For example, my husband has been going to the races for over twenty years and has never placed a bet. He does love going to the barns before race time and standing by the paddocks during race day just admiring those animals. While some of us enjoy placing a few bets – just to make the race more interesting – others like seeing the horses up close. It is always special to our children when the companion ponies trot over to the rail to let the little ones pet them.
We also like people-watching: the owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms. And when we are hanging by the rails, we observe the hundreds of fans around us. On race day, the air is electric and the energy is contagious. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than being outside on a sunny day, often in the crisp air of early spring or late fall, and enjoying the company of my family doing a fun thing that gives us immediate pleasure and long-term fond memories.
Now Carol and Kay have also experienced some of the magic of Keeneland.
Carol Henderson: River Plunges Revisited
After a long drive on super narrow shoulder-less roads to the must-experience Raven Run nature preserve, we decided against the 2-mile hike out to an overlook high above the Kentucky River. No way to swim unless I decided to swan-dive to my death from a height of 70 feet. We told one of the guides we wanted to get to a river bank. He suggested we drive to a roadhouse called Proud Mary, not too far away, and with a kayak launch spot. We could definitely get in the water there, well, I could.
The Kentucky’s current ran swift in this spot. I figured if I entered the water I’d be swept fast down river, under a mammoth bridge, and who knows if I’d be able to make my way back to the landing. The water wasn’t inviting, brownish with parts of several swamped tree branches above the surface. I nixed the idea and settled instead to collect some river water in the little bottles Dottye had brought along. For what purpose? Ah, just to have them. To water our favorite shrubs or potted plants when we got home—blessings or baptisms from our trip?
We wandered into Proud Mary’s for a cool drink and a sit by the water before heading back into town for dinner. As we sipped iced tea, one of the new managers stopped by our table to greet us. We saw he was making the rounds. I asked about swimming in the Kentucky.
“Definitely don’t,” he said. “Fallen trees and other debris create dangerous whirlpools. The current is swift here. Polluted silt from the roadways and the two big bridge traffic are another problem.” And he said sewage from a lot of older properties along the river flow straight into the water—the systems grandfathered in long ago. He told me there were places where the water was cleaner and started naming some spots miles from where we were heading.
Maybe I won’t need that bag of swim gear on this trip. Luckily we were driving and I didn’t have to cram swim wear into a carry on for flying.