So this is sort of about Norway. Obviously I wasn't driving there, but in stopping to see friends in Indiana and Minnesota, I was going back in time almost thirty years. 1989 was when I left home to spend a year as an exchange student in Norway, an act of teenage rebellion (I was 16) that set me on my current path. It was a tough year, especially in the age before email, cable news, or cheap phone calls. When my best friend Erich died a month after I arrived in Norway, I was cut off for a year from my friends and family, and immediately turned to those who understood best my situation-- other exchange students. (They could also reply to a letter within days, compared to the two-week turnaround for letters to the US.)
|Me with Terri and Julia in Paris, May 1990|
Julia and Terri were two of those friends- and with whom I also saw much of Europe, from East Berlin and Prague to Nice and Paris. Julia was a fellow Badger from La Crosse (and later a classmate at UW-Madison), Terri a Hoosier who spoke with an Indiana twang. It was perhaps appropriate that they lived along my route to Alaska, and that I'd planned to stop and see them along the way. Like 30 years earlier, I was in trouble and needed them.
The last time I'd seen Terri was on the broad steps in front of the Oslo train station in 1990. A year older than me, she'd gone on to college after Norway, while Julia and I had to endure a final year of high school back in the US. Terri and I had kept in touch for a time after 1990, then a long hiatus until Facebook reconnected us. Thirty years. Had I ever gone that long without seeing someone? How was that possible, I was barely even 30 years old, right? Right?
I was having a hard time comprehending this as I left Maryland in the early hours on Monday, July 15. I left the DC area on I-270 toward Rockville, a route I'd taken countless times when I used to commute between Pennsylvania and DC. Most of the traffic was going into DC, so once off the Beltway it was quick driving to the northwest, past bedroom communities and Civil War battlefields. Once I reached Frederick I had to remind myself not to exit toward Gettysburg, the old route that Kent Butts at the Army War College had taught me as a way to avoid driving through Philly and the I-95 mess. I then took I-76 toward Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania and then Ohio turnpikes. In retrospect I should have taken the backroads, but was in a rush to reach Indiana.
In Pennsylvania I stopped at a roadside waystation, the sorts of places you can stop for slightly overpriced gas and food and avoid exiting the turnpike and paying extra tolls. I had driven without being able to decide what to listen to, and was too distracted to be able to listen well to audio books. I knew the University of Alaska board of regents would be meeting that day, and while I didn't question the outcome of that meeting, it still felt ominous. The state legislature had failed to override the governor's line-item vetoes the previous week (on July 10), which would have restored university funding. The legislature couldn't even agree on where to meet, with some stubbornly staying in Wasilla as the rest tried to reset the budget in Juneau. So in many ways, the fate was already sealed unless the governor himself agreed to change things. But a vote of financial exigency would allow the university to start slashing programs and positions, including tenured professors. As a new administrator, I would only have a legal right to two month's notice before losing my job. Assuming I even started in August.
All this was going through my head as I stood in front of a Quizno's Subs, waiting for my order. A short woman with long, brown hair was standing next to me, and said something small-talkish meant to be friendly. The usual thing for Americans was to remark on the hot weather (it was baking outside) and how far one had to drive. But asking me that second question, this woman got more than she bargained for. She was from Ohio, she explained, where was I going?
"Indiana, at least for tonight."
"So Indiana isn't where you live? Where are you driving after that?"
She was trying to be nice, but my answers just kept bewildering her.
"Alaska. Wait, what?! Alaska? You can do that? You're, wow, that's far. Where are you coming from?"
"Kosovo, in Europe."
[uncomfortable silence] "Um, I've been to Europe before, but please help me out."
"Former Yugoslavia, north of Greece. I'm American but was based there for four years."
She was beginning to look slightly panicked.
"I taught in Kosovo, and did defense work in Ukraine. Now I'm transferring to Alaska, but because of massive budget cuts to the university I don't know if I'll have a job once I get there." I briefly explained the political situation and the scale of the cuts.
This wasn't the conversation she thought she was going to have. She did rally a bit, but I hardly understood her when she then asked, "Is there some way I can pray for you?"
I saw her t-shirt then, something about a Catholic summer camp. Oh, I was back in the US. I don't remember exactly what I said in response to that- I know she meant well and was confused, so it was along the lines of, "Thanks, I won't stop you." I had grown used to the habit of avoiding asking how someone was in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, you opened yourself up to all manner of answers from personal to war-related tragedies. Greetings were more direct, or a question would translate to "you good?" which didn't require an explanation in response. These crazy Americans were actually asking how I was.
The rest of the drive was unremarkable, and I regretted not taking the backroads instead of the construction-plagued turnpikes (and I had to pay tolls for these?), but DC to Indiana was a long distance, and I wanted to arrive as early as possible. After all, it had been twenty-nine years. How was that possible? Was I even that old? Where had I been during that time? What was I connected to back in the US?
I'd last driven this turnpike in 2006 on the way to a new job in Pennsylvania-- same car, but the car hadn't been this far west since that time. I tried listening to a PG Wodehouse book on audio (The Girl on the Boat) but the characters were annoying me. I shifted to Jane Eyre, which is dark but my Audible version has a wonderful narrator and the cadence was a bit soothing. Besides, I knew the story so didn't have to pay attention.
I finally hit the backroads just before crossing into Indiana, heading south toward Terri's hometown of Auburn. It was a pleasant evening, and the country roads were far more relaxing than the turnpike had been. Lesson to myself: avoid the interstate when possible in coming weeks. I followed the Google directions into Auburn, into a green area outside of town, and found a large house next to a golf course. Terri and her family warmly met me, and immediately put some heavily vodka-ish drink in my hand. I hadn't checked my phone for news yet.
So, there it was. Not a surprise, but things were not improving.
Terri and her family were great at distracting me. There was a large dinner, smores (including with Reeses peanut butter cups-- note: traditional chocolate still works better), more drinks... I sort of lost track. I remember being amazed at Terri's daughter Khloe, in the sense that many of my American friends had kids, but young ones. Khloe was 24, a professional engineer, asking me not about bike glasses but hybrid war and Chernobyl. It was a bit disorienting, not just to see Terri after so long, but to see how different our lives were. While Tracy and I often said that we didn't crave stability, we were at the time on the far end of instability... and I was envious of my friend. Terri herself looked great, in better health than I had known her before, and still had that empathy I had known her for years before. It's the rare friend who can look right into you, where there's no point pretending because she already knows whatever truth you want to hide from the rest of the world. Perhaps I looked just as damaged and shell-shocked as back in 1990.
|Smores with Khloe|
|Terri and me again after 29 years|
Well, it didn't work out that way. The day before I'd tried a 60-mile ride through the Drifltess region of Minnesota, crossing over the Mississippi River and following a route given by a local rider. Crossing the Mississippi was great (I'd done it before, long ago), but I seemed stuck on busy roads in Minnesota, following a long track south along State Highway 26, which was choked with heavy truck traffic. I finally turned off the highway in Brownsville, MN, climbing a steep hill and then a descent toward the town of Hokah. But here the route really fell apart, with a sign stating that the road I wanted was closed, cutting off the loop to the west. Frustrated, I turned back toward 26 and LaCrosse, and while 37 miles is respectable, it was not at all a good ride. (Strava)
But then it got worse. I woke up early the next morning, still intent on riding the Killer Hill loop on the Wisconsin side of the river. I started packing up the car, when something was niggling at my head about what was wrong. My mountain bike was gone. It had been on the car for a few hours already, it had been locked but I was too trusting, as it was an older bike I'd bought in California in 2002. But it was gone, the lock cut right through. Even more infuriating, the front wheel was still on the rack, meaning they'd taken an old, 26 inch wheel MTB but would probably receive almost no money for it. It was 6am, and calling the police would be useless, just a lot of waiting around for someone to appear. And I lost all motivation to try the Killer Hill loop. I was angry, after the day before I could see the roads I needed being cut off somehow, and I just wanted to get away. I texted Julia if I could show up earlier in Minneapolis, and she told me to get in the car and go. I finished loading up the car and my Trek5200, and left Wisconsin.
|With Julia in the Minneapolis suburbs|
Again, it was a good distraction for me. Not at all a fast pace, I had to keep slow for the trail traffic, and especially the fact that while the trails were well kept, they weren't well connected to one another. Doing a 37-mile loop around the Twin Cities was an effort of Google navigation, of constantly referring to a photo map of the trail system, entering an intended destination, and hoping my Wahoo GPS could help me get there.
|This is a metaphor|
The evening was spent with Julia and her family-- as I'd not seen her since 1994, I didn't know her husband Arvind or her five-year old son. Julia had studied in Russia, so asked a fair bit about Ukraine and also the situation (or what I knew of it) in Alaska. Like Indiana, it was odd to sit on the deck of this nice house, leafy neighborhood and yet know I wasn't the only one feeling uncertainty from the larger political environment. It was also still such a contrast from Kosovo (look, trees!) it would take some getting used to.
I don't want to get into details of other people's lives and their kids, but it's worth noting that Julia and her husband sang their son to sleep using football songs from the University of Wisconsin. Jump around and then collapse, I guess. (Varsity, my Badgers.)
The roadtrip for this part of July was intended to be easier. I had spent about a week in Wisconsin, a short drive to Minneapolis, a shortish drive from there to Fargo. It was after that the distances became truly long and epic, with at least five days planned where the driving would go more or less from dawn to dusk. In some ways, this felt like the next step off into the unknown, really jumping toward Alaska and the uncertain future. That's why I was reminded of Norway, not just because of Julia and Terri (though that link was undeniable), but because thirty years earlier I'd done something equally reckless of a sort. Leaving for a new home in the North that I barely knew except from studying, where I had no idea what would happen. In Norway bad things did happen, and in Alaska Very Bad Things were happening, so ... why didn't I choose an easier path than this?
In many ways I didn't have a choice. Erich's death had spun me adrift, there was nothing normal for me to go home to after that. I tried, I seriously tried, but there's that saying "you can never go home again." I was lucky to have met someone who couldn't really go home, either, and found uncertainty more comforting than a fated future. But what I was sensing was that no one felt certain, that by being adrift we were perhaps luckier than many. As I'd written before, while I was torn apart by the news from Alaska, how much worse would it be for students trying to graduate, for faculty and staff who have the kids and dogs and mortgages and the need for a constant experience and steady paycheck? That was disappearing, and not just in Alaska, it was like both Europe and the US were experiencing all the trusted public institutions being torn down, and not being replaced by anything other than gig jobs with Uber or the promise of a new Netflix series. Tracy and I were trained to deal with disasters-- everyone else was facing them, too, but often had nowhere to maneuver.
So while Thomas Wolfe had coined that phrase about not going home again in reference to being nostalgic, that's how I felt at times. That's why I had needed to see Wisconsin again. So before discussing Fargo, let me jump back a week...