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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.”