“Go ahead and place your order whenever you’re ready.” Said the lady’s voice from the little speaker in the red painted, square post next to the big lighted menu board. “Hi, I’d like to get a large iced tea and a large water with no ice please.” I said. She repeated my order, “That’s one large iced tea and a large water with no ice in either one.” “No,” I corrected her, “I want a large iced tea with ice, and a large glass of water with no ice.” She clarified, “Okay, That’s a large iced tea with ice and a large water without ice. Will that be all?” “That’ll do it.” I answered. “A dollar nine at the first window, please.” She instructed.
We pulled up to the first window and paid for our order, then advanced to the second window, where we received our drinks. I placed the drinks in the cup holders between the front seats. The man in the window handed me two paper-wrapped straws. “One is fine,” I said, returning the second straw. I thanked him and pulled away. I started down the road, then turned onto the ramp leading to I-64, eastbound for Stuart’s Draft, Virginia. We only had a couple more hours to go.
I peeled off about an inch or so of the paper from the straw. Rolling it into a little ball, I dropped it down into the straw. I slid the paper down the straw just a bit and rolled the paper ball into the end of the wrapper, creating a slightly weighted tip.
My dog June was sitting in the front passenger’s seat. I shouted with excitement, “June! Quick! Look out your window! Hurry! It’s a purple elephant.” She perked her ears, wagged her tail rapidly and looked intently out the window, “Where? I don’t see it?” She said, asking for help. “It’s right there in the field next to the orange rhinoceros, under the flying giraffe.” With a scowling look of disapproval, June turned my way to glare at me. Holding the loaded assault weapon to my lips, I blew a big huff of breath into the straw. The paper sleeve shot from the straw like a swift arrow, flying through the air and popped June right on the tip of the nose. “Bahahahaha! That was a great shot, yeah?” I boasted. Her scowl intensified, “Very funny, Dad. You’re so childish sometimes.” “Come on Bugs,” I pleaded, “that was funny!” Her eyebrows hunkered lower with distaste.
I poked the straw into the perforated opening on the lid of my iced tea cup. We had been on the road a long time and I was really looking forward to this cold, refreshing drink, but first I removed the lid from the water cup for June.” She gave me another unsettling stare. “What’s the matter?” I asked. June looked into the cup, then back at me. Glancing into her cup, I said, “I’m sorry, June. I told them no ice. You heard me, right?” I felt bad. She looked thirsty and disappointed. “The ice will melt soon.” I assured her as she tried to lap up some water around the cubes.
Meanwhile, I picked up my ice-cold beverage. I took a long pull off the straw. “Ick!” I puckered; making a sour face as if I had just bit into a lemon. “Sweet tea? I did not order sweet tea!” I protested. June looked on with a glimmering smirk. “I should have known.” I told June, “We’re in Virginia – Virginia is in the south. If you don’t specify ‘unsweetened’ tea, you’re going to get sweet tea every time!” I was thirsty so I took another drink, complaining even more. “And it’s warm, too!” I removed the lid. “Great! No ice!” I told June, “They screwed up our order.” June snickered again at my misfortune. I smiled, too. I had an idea.
Nearly gagging on the overly sweet drink, I gulped down a couple big swallows, lowering the level. Then, using my fingers like a slotted spoon, I scooped the ice from June’s drink and put it into mine. I took all her ice, because I knew she didn’t want it. June was pleased to have an ice-free drink of water.
I let the ice chill my tea for a moment, then pulled another drink through the straw. June started laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked. She laughed louder as I took another sip. “It’s not as bad cold.” I tried to explain, but June just laughed harder. “What?” I asked. June confessed, “I already slobbered in my water before you took my ice!” I glared at her, “Very funny, June! You act like such a puppy sometimes.” “Come on Dad,” she pleaded, “that was funny!” My eyebrows hunkered lower with distaste. I said, “I don’t care. I’m thirsty and I’ve had plenty of your kisses before.” We shared a laugh about that.
I recalled a time last year when we were traveling in the south. We stopped at a restaurant, where I ordered an iced tea. The cashier, in her southern drawl, apologized, “I’m sorry darling, we are all sold out of sweet tea. All I have left is unsweetened tea.” “That’s fine.” I said, adding, “That’s what I want.” When she brought me the tea, she asked, “Do you want sugar, sweet-n-low or honey?” “For what?” I asked, not knowing what she meant. “Well, of course to sweeten your tea, darling.” She stated. “Oh, that’s okay,” I explained, “I like it black.” She wrinkled her face, “Unsweetened tea? Ew. Darling, that’s just gross.” June and I shared another good laugh.
“This all reminds me of a story from a long time ago.” I told June, “It also happened in the south...” I then proceeded to tell my tale:
Many years ago, I had another dog named Harry. Harry traveled all over the country with my on my motorcycle. One time, I had a few days off work and decided we were going to ride down to Georgia to try the tree-ripened peaches. They were in season and I had heard really good things about them. We loaded the bike and took off for the south. Arriving in Georgia late at night, I pulled into a rest area. We set up the pup tent in the grass, climbed in and went right to sleep. Very early the next morning a custodian came banging on the side of the tent, shaking the poles. “Hey! Wake up in there!” He bellowed with a gruff voice.
With sleepy eyes, I emerged from the tent opening. “What’s going on man?” I inquired. “You can’t camp in a rest area.” He said. I justified, “We’re not camping. We’re on a motorcycle and we’re just getting some rest like all the other people in their cars.” “You set up a tent in my rest area – you’re camping!” He demanded, “Now pack up and get out of here before I call the state police.” Not wanting any trouble, we did as we were told.
We hadn’t ridden far down the road before I discovered another southern icon – Waffle House. I swear there were times when we would see one on each of the four corners of a busy intersection. Waffle House diners back then were thicker than Starbucks coffee shops today. They were everywhere! We passed several before finally pulling into one.
Harry wanted to come inside with me, but I told him, “They don’t allow dogs in there.” He protested, “Who you calling a dog? I’m a people just like you.” “Yeah…” I said, “Well, you wait out here and guard the motorcycle. I’ll be back in a bit and bring you something to eat.”
Inside, I took a seat at the counter. I’d never been to a Waffle House before. It was simple, basic and efficient, with the kitchen right behind the open counter. I thought the place was really cool - even if it did smell kind of greasy. The waitress came to take my order from the other side of the counter. “What can I get ya, honey?” She asked, flipping to a new sheet on her little green order pad. She pulled a pencil out of the tight bun in her red hair, touched the lead to the tip her tongue and waited for my answer.
“I’d like two eggs over easy, bacon, wheat toast and coffee.” She wrote that down on her little green order pad. “Oh, and a plain cheeseburger to go, please.” I added. She wrote that down, too. Without much expression in her voice, chewing her gum, she monotonously asked, “You want grits with that?” “Grits?” I repeated. “Yeah, grits. You want grits with that, darling?” Being from the north and having no idea what she was talking about, I asked, “What are grits?” She shifted her weight from one leg to the other as if I had annoyed her. It was the first time she raised her eyes from the order pad. She looked at me like I wasn’t too bright and said, “Well honey, grits, is grits.”
Truthfully, I was a little afraid of her, so I said, “Sure. Grits. Yes, of course.” “On the plate or on the side?” She asked. Still not knowing what I was getting into, I replied, “On the side, please.” She asked dryly, “Butter and brown sugar, or maple syrup?” “Sure.” I said, feeling totally lost, but trying to act as if I knew what she was talking about. She looked over the rim of her glasses, then asked again, “Brown sugar or maple syrup?” “Yeah, why not. I’ll have both.” Still chomping her gum, she continued to glare over her rims and said, “Brown sugar and maple syrup? Darling, that’s gross.” She wrote it down on the order pad, tore the page loose, turned around, slid it up on stainless steel wheel above the grill and called out, “Order up.” A few minutes later the cook asked, “Brown sugar and maple syrup?” “That’s what he said.” The waitress assured. “That’s gross.” The cook grumbled.
After I was done eating, the waitress came by, setting my ticket in front of me. She poured more coffee into my cup, sloshing it over the edge onto the saucer below. “How were your grits?” She asked, still chewing on her gum. “Are you sure that wasn’t just Cream of Wheat, hot cereal?” I answered. She peered over the top of her glasses again, giving me a near-death stare. Then she cracked a smile and chuckled, assuring me, “Them was grits.” Shaking her head as she walked away, she muttered, “Yankee’s.”
June and I shared a good laugh over that story. I picked up my cup and took another sip of my drink. I puckered and cringed, forgetting it was sweet tea. “That stuff is gross.” I said to June. June laughed. “I slobbered in your drink, Dad.” I gave her a smile and ruffed the fur on her head. I pressed the clutch and down shifted from fifth to fourth gear, as we drove off, climbing into the Virginia mountains
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/Tom.palen.98
One could easily jump to conclusions, thinking the worst, if one should get a text message such as I did about four weeks ago. My daughter Annie, wrote, “Dad, can we go someplace together for spring break? I want to ride along with you on a trip.” Annie is 23 years old, graduated college last year and is now in her first-year teaching school in Iowa. Hanging out with your Dad over spring break is not something most 23-year old’s want to do. Rather than trying to figure out why she wanted to hang out with me, I started looking for a trip we could take on her available days off.
I knew she would want to go someplace warm and green; a cool destination, where she could go back to work and boast, “I went to so-and-so, for spring break.” Anything opposite of winter, would define “cool.” To get a trip like that would involve driving to California, and she only had five days off. I was offered a trip to Washington state, a cool place, but again, we would spend our entire time together on the road driving. A potential trip to Kentucky came up and I claimed it right away. A few days before spring break, that trip fell through. The only other option on the table was a drive to Port Huron, Michigan – not exactly the warmest place this time of year, but I accepted the offer.
I met Annie in St. Paul, Minnesota, where we spent the night, then left early the next morning. After doing my business in Port Huron, we drove down to the waterfront on the St. Clair River; a shipping channel that connects Lake Huron to Lake Erie. It’s also the border between the United States and Canada. The shipping season wasn’t underway yet, so there were no boats to see and frankly, not much action going on. We considered going to Canada, but Annie doesn’t have a passport yet. Although Port Huron is a cool area, I told Annie I wanted to start for home, “We’ll visit here another time during the season, for now I have something else I want to show you farther north; we have to get there before dark.”
Four hours later, we were in Mackinaw City, Michigan. I wanted to take Annie to the beach at the park, but a ten-foot-tall snowbank at the parking lot entrance caboshed that idea. The lighthouse museum and most other attractions in town were also closed for the season. From the main street, between the high snowbanks on each side and the big ridge of snow down the middle of the lanes, I was able to show her the Mackinac Bridge that we would be crossing to get to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She thought it looked pretty cool.
If you’ve never crossed the Mackinac Bridge, (pronounced Mackinaw) put it on your list of “must do” destinations. It’s the third longest suspension bridge in America, only behind the Verrazano-Narrows, in lower New York Bay, and the Golden Gate at San Francisco Bay. Spanning the Mackinac Straights, the natural waterway which connect Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, the bridge was finished in 1957. The center lanes are open grate surfaces, you can see right through them: the outer lanes are paved. Combine her narrow lanes, no walkways on either side, the short side rails and the deck being some 170’ above the water, and the person sitting on the passenger side is looking right over the edge of the bridge – straight down into the icy waters! Can you say anxiety? If you have no fear of heights the Mighty Mac, just might give you one – but oh, what a thrill to drive over it!
The Mac’s upright towers stand tall and majestic. Huge cables sweep up from the deck, all the way to the top of the towers, then down the other side to the center surface of the bridge, then race back up to the next tower and once again down to the deck. Such a design of strength is an engineering miracle, but to the average person, it is simple grace and beauty on display.
Annie was absolutely glued to the windows; looking over the edge, and all around. It was a real charge for me to share her excitement, crossing for the first time. “We have a great lake over here.” She narrated while panning her video camera from left to right, “and another great lake over here.” On the north end of the bridge, we stopped to pay the toll. I didn’t mind paying this one. It was only four dollars and the toll booth guy, was really nice. He had a wealth of information about the bridge and since there were no cars behind us, he was willing to share.
While Annie was experiencing such a natural high, she asked hurriedly, “Dad, can we please go back over it again. That was so cool.” “We have to pay every time we cross.” I told her. She fired right back “I’ll pay the toll.” I explained, “Yes, but we would have to pay to go south, and then pay another four bucks to come back north again.” “Dad, please! I’ll pay it! We have to do that again!” I was so caught up in her elation, I wanted to cross over again, too! I made a U-turn and went back to the bridge.
Crossing back to the south, Annie was all camera, all windows, looking over the edge again, straight up at the towers, off to the distance in every direction - every angle she could find. But, it was the third crossing, going back north, that was the best!
Semis and vehicles with trailers are limited to 20 miles-per-hour on the bridge, because the winds are always strong that high in the air. The temperature was in the mid-fifties. Annie got up on her knees on the center armrest and had her upper body sticking out through the open sunroof. With her arms extended in the air as if she was on a roller coaster using no hands to hold on, she hollered, “Wooo Hooo!”
Annie mimicked Jack riding the bow of the Titanic. Her body rushing through the wind, her hair was blowing straight back and her eyes watered in the cold air. She proclaimed, “I’m the king of the world.” June watched Annie, then looked back and forth between Annie and me as if to alert me, “Are you seeing this, Dad? I think Annie’s gone loopy.” “It’s okay, Bugs. She’s just having fun.” I assured.
Annie seized the full effect, fearlessly hanging over to the side to look over the edge of the bridge. She was savoring every exhilarating moment, all the way to the end of the bridge. She was still poking out the sunroof when I pulled up to the toll booth. It was the same nice man in the booth. I’m sure he watched her celebrating coming down the lane toward him. From the open top, she handed him four dollars, “that was well worth the money.” She said. He was laughing when he took her money, “Well, that’s one way to cross the bridge.”
The trip was a blast to say the least. We had a lot of fun, saw a lot of neat things and spent much time talking. Annie plug her iPhone into the stereo and introduced me to “DCappella,” an a cappella group that sings all Disney songs. The group of seven singers is every bit as talented as you would expect from any Disney production. In the 23 hours were on the road, Annie got me to like this group as well…and she taught me the lyrics to a few of their songs. I even agreed to someday go to a DCappella live concert with her.
Arriving back at the house around 2 a.m. Friday, the road trip portion of our spring break together was over. Tired, we decided everything in the car could stay there until morning. We went inside and straight to bed. Friday was a day for sleeping in late to recoup, lounge around the house for a while, then get some things ready for Saturday – St. Urho’s Day, in Finland, Minnesota.
If you’ve not heard of St. Urho, he’s worth researching a bit. It’s my understanding he is the saint credited with chasing the grasshoppers away and saving the grape crops in Finland. He has given the Finnish people as much reason to celebrate as St. Patrick gave the Irish. And, celebrate they do! People come from great distances to join the festivities in Finland. One of the bigger spectacles is a parade on Saturday morning.
My wife coordinated the parade float and crew for the North Shore Federal Credit Union, where she works. I was honored to drive the truck pulling their float. Since Annie had been driving with me the previous two days, it only made sense she would be my copilot for this venture as well. My cousin’s Andy and Sarah, rounded out the tow vehicle crew. (Yes, it takes four people to drive the truck!) It was a really good time with many wonderful participants in the annual parade. The crowd was large and the spirit was festive. After the parade, we stayed awhile to join the party.
That night, back at the house, we made a late dinner of homemade beef and noodles. We sat around the fire in the living room telling stories and enjoying conversation. When the others went to bed, Melissa and I broke out a new carton of Moose Tracks ice-cream. Yum… Hey, it wasn’t our fault those party poopers couldn’t hang with us until dessert time!
Sunday morning brought yet another great feast – brunch: eggs scrambled with green pepper, onion, mushrooms and sausage. Homemade buttermilk biscuits, fried potatoes and fresh fruit. Again, we ate well and enjoyed good conversation. Near the end of every adventure, I always ask the kids, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” I forgot to ask Annie at the table, but I would ask before she left town.
After brunch, Andy and Annie helped with cleaning up the kitchen. Sarah and Melissa started loading the car. It was now time for our guest to head south for the Twin-Cities. Annie would now ride back with them as her was car parked at their house. It’s always kind of sad when a visit comes to an end and your guests have to go home. As I stood on the front porch and watched them drive away down the road, I remembered that I had forgotten to ask Annie what her favorite part of spring break was. I imagined she would have told me, crossing the Mighty Mac, or the St. Urho’s Day Parade.
Inevitably she would return the question, “What was your favorite part, Dad?” I thought about it for a moment. I smiled as I could see myself telling her, “My favorite part, was having a 23 year-old daughter who wanted to spend spring break with her Dad.”
I was very tired when I pulled into the Visitor’s Information Center and Rest Area, on I-94 near Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. It was around midnight. I’d had enough driving for the day and climbed into the back of my wagon where I crawled into my sleeping bag and curled up with my dog, June. Laying my head on the pillow, I went out like a light.
I awoke just before seven in the morning feeling rested, but a little chilly. Guessing the temperature was around fifteen degrees, I leaned forward, turning on the key to check. “That’s odd,” I said, wondering why the outside air temperature didn’t display. I hunkered back into my warm sleeping bag; June snuggled inside with me. “Oh well, it doesn’t matter.” I said, “We’ll just sleep a while longer then get up and head out.” I tried to fall back asleep but was burdened by a looming thought. “Why didn’t that temperature light come on?”
I slid from under my cozy covers, into the driver’s seat, and turned on the key. All the dash lights were dim. Suspecting the inevitable, I tried starting the motor but the battery didn’t have enough juice to turn the engine over - it was so dead the starter wouldn’t even click. This is not what I wanted to deal with early on a Sunday morning. Still, being equipped to handle such a situation, I wasn’t too worried.
I pulled on my shoes, coat, and stocking hat. I smiled with confidence as I reached behind the driver’s seat for the portable battery pack my father-in-law gave me a couple years ago. At first, I thought the pack was just a gimmick - sure, it might recharge a cell phone or other such device, but there was no way this little box, only 3 X 8 X 1 ½” thick, was going to start a car.
I had the opportunity to put the battery pack to the test at home one time. My old dump truck had sat for over seven months, through the winter, and the battery was dead as a doornail. I must admit I was shocked when that little emergency power pack actually started that big V-8 engine. That’s how I knew it would also start my little four-cylinder Subaru. I quickly became a believer and carried that power pack with me on all my ventures.
I plugged the special jumper cables into the pack, then clipped them onto the battery posts. I sat in the driver’s seat, pressing the clutch pedal to the floor, I turned the key and…nothing. “Ah,” I told June, “I forgot to push the power button.” I took care of that and went to start the engine again. *Urr, urr, click, click, click.* I climbed out again to check my connections. They certainly looked secure so I checked the LED lights on the battery pack itself. Only two of six lights were on. I recalled on the previous trip using the pack to help a stranger with a dead battery. I failed to recharge the pack afterwards.
Inside the Visitor’s Center, I found an electrical outlet to plug in the unit. I got cleaned up while it charged. There was nobody in the building but me so I left the charger sitting unattended and went for a walk with June. Not long after, people started to show up, so I put June in the car, then headed inside to watch my power pack.
Some of the people seemed way over thrilled with the snow. I struck up conversation with them and learned they were from southern California. They all appeared to be in their later fifties, and none of them had ever seen snow before. How neat! I went outside with them to take several group photos, so they could all be in the pictures. It was fun to share their excitement over snow - something we Midwesterner folks take for granted and frankly a lot of us are sick of it this year!
My new friends moved on, but not before one of the ladies threw a loosely packed snowball at her husband. The snowball flew apart in midair while sailing toward him. He in turn scooped up a wad of snow and lobbed it back in her direction; it also fell apart in the air, nearly hitting an innocent bystander. I shook my head, “Amateurs. You didn’t pack it tight enough,” I muttered while walking through the front door. I’m not picking on them, I’m just saying they were in Wisconsin and if you’re going to throw snow around here, you better know what you’re doing. Those Wisconsin folks will throw snow back and they’re pretty good at it – although I don’t think a bunch of Wisconsinites would stand a chance in a snowball fight against a group of Minnesotans, but I’m not trying to start anything here so let’s not go there.
Inside the building a tall man was standing at the counter with his back toward me, thumbing through literature. He wore tattered, tan coveralls, a heavy canvas jacket and brown knit leggings that came halfway up his shins to keep his ankles warm. He sported a large purple backpack – not like a school kid would carry, but one a serious hiker would pack with all sorts of pockets and places to carry gear and gadgets. Tucked under the top straps was a large, worn, beige teddy bear. An American flag, about 18” mounted on stick was poked into the pack, displayed proudly.
I walked up next to him. He appeared clean-cut and shaven, wore round, gold wire rimmed glasses and a weathered ball cap bearing a tattered patch that read “U.S. Marines.” I greeted him, “Hi. How are ya?” He turned my way and glared without saying a word. Perhaps I should have walked away, but I didn’t. “You look like a man on a mission; a man with places to go.” I said, in a friendly, inviting tone. He again briefly stared at me, almost scowling when he answered, “Yeah. Something like that.” Then he moved farther down the literature rack as if to intentionally put distance between us. I got the distinct impression he did not want to talk, or be bothered. I left him alone.
My power pack was now showing six LED lights – a full charge. I packed up the device and walked to my car. After reconnecting the jumpers again, I sat in the driver’s seat, turned the key and the engine fired right up. June seemed happy to hear the motor running. “We’re in business now, June Bug!” I said. She seemed a little too happy. “You have to go potty, don’t you?” I asked. Once that business was taken care of, we pulled away from our parking space.
At the end of the lot, I signaled to turn left. I looked left, then to the right, “McDonald’s!” I happily exclaimed. A cup of hot coffee was on my mind. I turned right!
Pulling in under the golden arches, I drove toward the back of the lot. I like to park away from the front entrance to keep June from barking at other customers. As I did so I noticed a man walking. The man with the purple backpack and Marines ball cap. I rolled down my passenger-side window, stopping alongside him. “Have you had breakfast yet?” I asked him cheerfully. He looked at me almost as if he was thinking, you again. “I’ve had my coffee,” He replied curtly. “Coffee, yeah. But did you get to eat?” I pressed. He mumbled something, but didn’t really answer me. I pulled past him and into a parking space.
When I got out of the car, I left my door open. The man didn’t seem very friendly, or happy to see me, let alone wish to talk to me. I approached him anyway. “Would you like to come in and join me for breakfast?” I asked. “I don’t know.” He replied seeming quite standoffish. “I’d like to treat you to breakfast, if you have time.” I offered. About that time, June came charging out of the car toward the man. June’s aggressive approach can be rather intimidating to someone who doesn’t know her. “June, come! Now!” I called, but I was too late. June moseyed up to the man, sniffing his shoes, wiggling her rump and wagging her tail as she danced about.
The stranger took right to June’s charm and began to rub her shoulders. He stood up, “Yes.” He said, “I’d like to have breakfast with you.” He extended his right hand toward me, and we shook hands. “I’m Ronnie. Ronnie Wychelewski.” He said. “Ronnie, I’m Tom. Tom Palen. Let’s go eat.” We walked to the restaurant together – he was no longer a stranger.
Inside, we ordered breakfast and sat down to eat. “Where are you off to?” I asked him. “Williston, eventually.” He said, then asked, “Do you know where that is?” I felt like he was testing me. “In the far northwest corner of North Dakota, almost to Montana and not far south of Canada, if that’s the Williston you’re talking about.” I answered. He smiled, “That’s it.” “Why would you want to go there this time of year?” I questioned, explaining, “It’s bitterly cold there.”
Ronnie answered, “I’m a veteran. There’s a VA clinic there.” “There are VA clinics closer…and warmer.” I said. He explained, “Yes, there are VA clinics all over, but they are not all the same. For the medical procedure I need, I’m best off going to Williston.” He added, “I’m not going all the way, now. I’m just starting that way. I’d like to make it to Minneapolis in the next day or so.” I liked this guy and enjoyed his company. June liked him, too, and that says a lot about a man when your dog likes him. “I’m going west on I-94, I could get you as far as Eau Claire, Wisconsin, if that would help.” Ronnie accepted my offer.
Driving down the freeway, we talked about different parts of the country and where we had each traveled. Ronnie said he’d been from coast to coast and asked if I had ever been to California. “Lots of times.” I answered. “What’s your favorite route to get there?” He asked. “Coming from the north, I’ll take I-90 West, then south at Bozeman through the Gallatin River Valley, it’s one of the most beautiful roads in America.” He said, “I don’t think I’m familiar with that road,” I continued. “Just go south on US 191 out of Bozeman. You’ll go through the little town of Big Sky, Montana, and…” Ronnie interrupted me, finishing my sentence, “Yeah, then down into West Yellowstone. I do know that road. Beautiful, man. Beautiful.” I’ve met people who will try to bamboozle me, acting as if they know what I’m talking about when they really don’t. Ronnie wasn’t like that. He was genuine and sincere.
We passed a sign that read, “Eau Claire 72 miles”. After reading the sign, Ronnie said, “If you go north out of Eau Claire, on Highway 53, it will take you Superior, Wisconsin, then into Duluth. They’re both on Lake Superior; they call them the Twin Ports.” He began reminiscing, “I haven’t been up there for at least twenty-five years or so. I’d love to go up there again, it was so cool.” When I told him I was actually going to Duluth, he got excited and asked, “Would mind if he rode along.” “I thought you were going to Minneapolis.” I said. He replied, “It doesn’t matter where I go as long as it’s westward and north.” He went on, “Highway 2 comes out of Duluth and runs all the way to Williston. Duluth would be perfect, if you don’t mind.” “You want to go to Duluth? Then Duluth it is.” I said. Ronnie exhaled, he was pleased with that.
On the way, we talked about a lot of things, including where he would stay in Duluth. “It’s supposed to drop down to about five below zero tonight.” I told him. “I can survive that,” he said, “but I’d rather see if they have a shelter where I can stay.” I made a couple inquiries. A friend told me about CHUM, a shelter in Duluth. I called ahead and they told me they would have a bed for Ronnie that night.
We stopped to use a WiFi signal to get information and directions to CHUM. Ronnie offered, “Would you let me buy you a cup of coffee?” “No thanks,” I replied, “I am completely coffee’d out.” Ronnie went to his backpack and pulled out two cans of beer – tall boys. Earlier, he told me he doesn’t drink a lot, but he likes to have a beer occasionally at night. “They had these on sale at the truck stop, two for three dollars.” He offered the cans to me, saying, “I want you to have these.” “You don’t have to give me your beer.” I said, but he insisted. “I can’t take them into the shelter, and I don’t want to throw them away. I want you to have them.” He extended his hands toward me, saying, “Please.” I smiled and graciously accepted his gift.
We drove to the shelter. Parking out front, I opened the lift gate and Ronnie grabbed his pack. After closing the gate, he said, “I don’t accept rides from just anyone. There are a lot of strange people out here. Usually people avoid me; they’ll go out of their way to escape talking to me. I’m sorry if I was rude when you first walked up to me today. I didn’t know what you wanted.” “Don’t worry about it, my friend. You didn’t hurt my feelings and the day turned out good.” I said. Then Ronnie asked, “Do you know why I accepted the breakfast and your offer for a ride?” I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. “It was the way June greeted and welcomed me. You can tell almost anything you want to know about a man, by watching his dog.” I must admit, that got me.
I asked Ronnie if there was any way I could reach him in the future; he wanted to know why. “I drive a lot and many of those trips are out west.” I said, then offered, “I could probably score a ride for you all the way to Williston, when you’re ready to go.” He wrote down an email address for me and said, “Let’s stay in touch.” Then he lifted his heavy pack. Putting one arm through the strap, he swung the whole thing up onto his back, fastened the buckle on the front, and walked toward me. Ronnie paused, gave me a big hug, then turned to walk away.
A few steps away, he stopped, turned and looked at me. “June is a good dog, because you are a good man, Tom Palen. Thank you for everything. Let’s stay in touch.” He said. I nodded at him, cleared my throat and said, “You take care of yourself, and stay warm, Ronnie Wychelewski.”
I try to walk two miles each day. It’s good for me on so many different levels. I wish I had better self-discipline to walk every day, especially when traveling. Walking is easy to do when I’m at home. I just set the treadmill to run at four-miles-per hour, jump on, and in thirty minutes I’ve done my walk. It’s hard to gauge the distance when walking outdoors. Without a machine setting the pace, my speed varies and I think it takes closer to forty minutes to walk the desired distance.
When I do walk outside, I find it’s better to have June Bug on her leash with me. She’s good company and being a spirited, energetic dog, she is a fast walker. Pulling me along at her pace, I rely on June to assure I have covered two miles in forty minutes.
One particular trip, I was driving on a quiet highway in eastern Colorado, headed for home. I took notice when I passed mile marker 210, on the side of the road. I smiled, thinking, if I stop at the next marker, 211, then walk between the two signs, I would get my full two-mile walk and the distance would be measured. That’s what I would do.
I let off the accelerator and began to slow down, eventually pulling over to the side of the road. Moving off the paved shoulder, I parked in the grass on the edge of the ditch, to keep my pickup a safe distance from traffic. With the truck stopped, the motor shut off and seeing a grassy area just outside the window, June began to bounce around the cab, assuming an adventure was at hand.
It was a good day for such an undertaking: at 52° the sun was shining and the sky was blue. The eastern side of this state is flat and agricultural; brown hayfields lined both sides of the road. They would soon turn green with the coming of spring. This far from the mountains, the area looked more like Iowa than Colorado.
Back home on the Northshore, the temperatures were in the single digits and tall snowbanks lined the sides of every road. Weather at the homestead has often been sub-zero lately. Because her feet get too cold, I haven’t been able to take June on a descent walk outside for a long time. This day was a welcome break from the Minnesota winter and I would take advantage of it to treat my dog to a walk in the fresh air.
Being as mild as it was, I decided to wear a flannel shirt without a coat, although I would still wear my favorite stocking cap to protect my ears from the wind. I considered letting June run without her leash, but we were on the side of a highway and there was still some traffic going by at highway speeds. Besides, June would need the leash to pull me along; helping me stay on pace. I planned to time our walk, to see how long it took to cover two measured miles.
While June stood in the backseat of the truck, I clipped the leash to her collar and said, “Come on Bugs, let’s go for a walk.” She jumped right out to the ground, where she went berserk sniffing the grass, curious about every scent left by other animals. I checked the time on my phone; it was 11:57 a.m. I would give her until the top of the hour to sniff about and take her potty break.
At 11:00, I called, “Come on June Bug. Let’s go.” The first thing she did was run on the opposite side of the mile marker post from me, catching her leash. “Go around.” I told her. She’s such a smart dog, she ran right back to the post, returning to me on the correct side. We didn’t get very far into the walk before June stopped again. She would sniff things, as I kept walking, until the retractable leash was taught, then she would sprint past me to the end of the leash, to find more things that needed to be sniffed. It’s a process that repeats itself, back and forth, over and over again on our walks. At one point, it was June who wanted to keep walking, but I found something interesting I wanted to look at.
June was tugging on her leash, so I picked up the piece and carried it with me. It was a tension spring for an old drum brake, off a tractor or something. It had two springs, one on each end, with a shaft the middle. The shaft had a stop, similar to the head of a nail, on each end that allowed the spring unit to be connected between to two brake shoes. This kept the shoes off the drum, until the brakes were applied. It was a cool looking, rusty old piece. I thought I would take it home to hang a basket with a green plant - maybe in the bay window at home. I carried the piece for a while as we walked. Pretty soon I said to myself, “You’re collecting junk you don’t need. Leave it here.” I dropped it back on the paved shoulder where I found it.
After I dropped it, I thought someone might run over it, possibly damaging their tire. I set the steel piece just off the edge of the blacktop in that little six-inch space of rocks where the pavement ends and before the grass starts. June tugged on the leash as if to say, “Come on!”
We walked farther down the road. In the farm field to my left, there was an old phone pole laying in the taller grass. It still had the insulator on top. Not one of the really old blue or green glass insulators, but a two-tone brown and tan one. It was much larger than the old glass type - probably from the seventies. Anyway, it was cool and I wanted to keep it. June and I walked down through the taller grass in the ditch. I dropped the retractable end of her leash. “Wait here.” I said.
I climbed over the barbed wire fence and walked to the old phone pole. The bracket that held the ceramic piece was bolted all the way through the pole. I unscrewed the insulator from its mount and turned to leave the field. June startled me. She was standing next to me. “How did you get in here?” I asked. She said, “Dad, I’m a dog not a cow. I walked under the wires on the fence. Can we go now?” “Sure, Bugs.” I said and we left the field to continue walking toward mile marker 210, with me carrying the big insulator.
After we reached the marker post, we turned to start walking back to the truck. The ceramic piece was getting heavy. I switched hands and noticed the weather seemed to be getting warmer. I was starting to sweat a little, so I took off my stocking cap, tucking it into my back pocket. June gave a tug on the leash, “Come on, Dad.” We picked up the pace. June continued sniffing things as we went, but we were making good time and soon rounded mile marker 210.
We walked quite a stretch on our return before I stopped again. I found a triangular, flat steel thing in the road. It too was rusty, with serrated edges on two sides and flat across the back. I was pretty sure it was a blade from a sickle mower. I thought it was neat, but had no idea what I would do with it. June gave me an odd look, “Dad, are you collecting junk again?” She asked. “No.” I replied, “One never knows when he’ll need on of these.” I put it in my back pocket. When I did, I noticed my hat was missing. I looked around but it wasn’t near.
Still carrying the insulator, I used my hand with the dog leash to shade my eyes from the sun. Squinting, I looked down the road behind me. I could see the hat on the shoulder of the road about a quarter mile behind us. It was about the same place where we crossed the fence to get the phone pole. I didn’t feel like walking all the way back to get it, but it was my favorite hat. June asked, “What are you going to do?” “We’ll walk to the truck, then drive back to get it.” “Good thinking, Dad.” She complimented, I knew she was getting tired. “That’s why I get paid the big bucks, June. The really big bucks.” I said snickering, as we kept walking.
Not too much farther up the road, I came across the tension spring again. It was back up on the paved part of the shoulder, still by the reflector post where I had set it down off the asphalt. It laid perpendicular to my path, as if it was blocking my way That was really strange.
I checked along the edge where I set it before to make sure there weren’t two of these tension springs. There were not. I looked up and down the highway to see if someone was there messing with me. No one was there and this spring was too heavy to have blown back up on the shoulder – especially with a two or three-inch lip from the gravel up to the pavement. I figured I was meant to keep this piece, so I picked it up to take home. With June’s leash and the spring in my right hand, and the insulator in my left, we continued back to the truck. I laughed, thinking, I’m out of hands, I hope I don’t find any other cool stuff.
I set the three pieces on the back floor, then I looked in both the cab and box for any kind of a wrench. If I could loosen those nuts and bolts on the pole, I could get the bracket for the insulator. I didn’t find the tool I was looking for, so we drove back to get my hat. As I suspected, it was right where the phone pole was laying in the field. I stopped the truck. Looking at the pole, I wondered; those old poles shrink over time. Maybe the bolts would be loose enough, I could remove the nuts by hand. As long as I was already there, I crossed the fence to check it out. The bolts were way too tight, but I had another idea.
The farmer had the pole cut up in sections and pushed to the side of the field. Maybe I could just take the whole top section. The grass had grown up around the pole laying in the field and was holding it down. As I tried to clear some of the grass, I found a second insulator that was nearly buried in the dirt. After digging it out and carrying it to the fence line, I continued my efforts to free the pole. “Well, I’ll be...” I said aloud, kneeling down. I found the third insulator, deep in the growth as well. The last two pieces I found were each still attached to a small block of wood that was the cross bar on the phone pole. They had been cut loose with a chain saw. How cool is that? Now if I can get the pole, I’ll have the whole circuit.
It took a little work, but I freed the pole, carried it to the edge of the field, and tossed it over the fence to the other side where the two insulators laid. Opening the tailgate, I put the two smaller pieces in the truck, then went back for the pole. I carried it up the hill from the ditch, lifting it up into the bed. It was too long for the tailgate to close. “Stupid five-foot box!” I complained. I love the four-door pickup, but I’ve never liked these short boxes.
By laying the pole diagonally across the floor, I was able to get it in all the way and close the gate. Pretty smitten with myself, I climbed into the cab, started the truck and got ready to pull away. I shifted the transmission back in park, jumped out, ran about ten feet in front of the truck, retrieved my hat, then returned to the driver’s seat and headed down the road.
While I was driving, I began thinking about the treasures I found. The insulators are used to hold live electrical lines. If those lines connect with ground, they’ll short out, blow a fuse and become dead wires. One might conclude they insulate life from death. It takes all three wires to make a 240-volt circuit - the three separate wires, make one circuit. Hmm. The wires were mounted high upon a pole with a cross bar. Boy does that bring some things to mind.
I considered the first piece I found, the tension spring. It’s made up of three individual components; a spring on each end and a shaft in the middle, holding them together. The three pieces make one unit. Okay, this now had my attention. What about the sickle mower blade? A triangle with three sides that make one shape. There was clearly a message here.
Having trouble finding the message, I called my cousin, telling her my story. “What do you think this means?” I asked her. Robin responded, “I think God is telling you something.” “Indeed,” I agreed, “but what is He trying to tell me?”
Robin paused for a moment. “You’ve been praying a lot lately. Have your prayers been answered?” she asked. “No, not yet.” I replied. “Maybe it’s God’s way of saying, I’m still here.” “Yes, but why three signs?” I questioned.
Just then, it all made sense. It was the Father in the tension spring telling me, “I’m still here listening. I hear you - keep praying.” The Son was in the insulators and wood pole saying, “I am at your side. I haven’t left you - keep praying.” The Holy Spirit was in that triangular blade, calling out, “Follow me. I will point the way for you - keep praying.” I was humbled beyond words.
I shared the experience with my brother, Gerard, asking what he made of it. He asked, “When you threw the spring to the side of the road, were you rejecting someone?” “I didn’t reject Him,” I insisted, “I just didn’t recognize Him.” Then my brother challenged me, “So, you’re telling me, you carried six-feet of a phone pole, up the hill, by yourself.” “Yes, I did. Why does that seem so unlikely?” I questioned. Gerard answered, “I would think that pole would have been very heavy - too heavy for one man to throw over a fence, then, carry alone.” Then he suggested, “Perhaps someone else carried the wood up that hill for you.” Gerard’s message was clear, and again, humbling. Still, who would have thought spiritual messages could come from, well, just things?
With the season of Lent upon us and Easter on the way, I’ve been thinking more about our walk in Colorado that day, and what came from it. Forgetting to check the clock when we finished, I had no idea how long we had been walking. With all our stops, the time would not have been accurate, anyway. The next time June and I go for a walk outdoors, I’ll still depend on her to keep us on pace for a forty-minute, two-mile walk. The next time I find an inanimate object that seems to be sending a message, I’ll stop to ask, “Are you talking to me?”
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!