Back to Orlando from Minneapolis, and I’m contemplating the fact that I love travel: I enjoy waiting in an airport and browsing the strange newspapers and buying magazines that you would never buy at home… the glimpses of attractive strangers who speed past you on their way to who knows where… the good meals you can find at terminal restaurants… I love every bit of it and, because I wear hearing aids, am able to tune out the more cacaphonous episodes simply by flipping two tiny switches. Bliss– then it’s just me and the silent air around me as I revel in life’s pantomime. It’s like playing charades with a hundred strangers. And on board it’s just as fabulous; we did another upgrade on the way home, and I highly recommend it. (You can’t take it with you, after all.) In “the back” are fifteen thousand sugared children, noisily and wetly anticipating a trip to Disney. The overhead compartments above their sticky heads are jammed with every child-soothing device known to man, though it’s clear that they would be content with a handful of lint-covered Gummi bears and a coloring book. [Don’t get me wrong; I’m fascinated by children. For a few days this week I was enthralled and enchanted by two of Kirk’s small first cousins once removed– Joshua and Julia– who are each brilliant and beautiful.]
And speaking of cousins– I’m here to tell you that I had a wonderful and welcoming time at Kirk’s family reunion at Abraham Lincoln State Park. (Thanks for the details, Stephen!) While it was a given that Kirk and I would be immersing ourselves in a mostly Republican stronghold, I banked on the fact that these Scandinavians would consider it beneath themselves to comment aloud as to the status of our relationship. And yet, they could not have been more gracious. I was introduced as Kirk’s “friend” as eyes darted to the third fingers of our left hands, where we proudly sported gold bands. We have Kirk’s Aunt Bunny and Uncle Jerry to thank for appreciating the fact that we’ve chosen to live our lives together and, while we didn’t wave rainbow flags aloft, we certainly didn’t pretend to be anything other than what we were– a committed couple of over twenty two years’ endurance. (Cousin Dee remarked that we hold the longevity record in our generation of cousins.) You give a little, you take a little. And you educate simply by being yourselves. End of sermon!
There was food to be had, including some pinkish creamy desserts which, I was assured, could be found in the basements of most Midwestern Lutheran churches at almost any celebratory event. In fact, I rather waggishly referred to gluey squares of Fruity Pebbles as “Lutheran lasagna.” But feed us they did! There was a lot of everything, and all very well prepared. Our kudos to Marcia and Darrold for making sure that our carb allotment was duly absorbed through at least the year 2013.
To compensate for this influx of calories, Kirk and I took a walk “up the hill to the old fort.” Our trek began on a woodsy path close by our picnic pavilion, and led directly up to a road which ended at the stockade from which Custer and his men departed for their ill-fated campaign in distant Texas. We negotiated the initiatory path with aplomb, hardly stopping to catch our breath, but then came to a point where we had to make a decision: do we go right or left? We chose to go to the right.
Miles later, we were still hoping for a turn which would lead us back south to where we could see the fort’s buildings perched on a distant horizon. To our right, the state capitol building in Bismarck would appear and disappear as we wended our way along yard-wide paths cut into the steep bluffs. After awhile, the “von Trapp family escaping over the hill into Switzerland” jokes became tedious. Intrepidly, we eventually reached the stockade and were treated to beautiful views of the distant table lands west of Bismarck, and were able to relax a bit before heading back. I tell you, it’s beautiful up on those bluffs: we saw the prairie rose, which is the North Dakota state flower; bluebells; thistle; and plenty of short cactus. The letter, coupled with the ever-present threat of rattlesnakes, prevented us from climbing over the bluffs toward a hopefully shorter return trip. (There were also ants the size of cows.)
Some time later we came to a steeply descending hill which seemed like it might lead to our pavilion; a stockade fence protected an area that featured a group of Indian dwellings which Kirk was eager to explore, and he hurried down the hill as I lingered behind, taking photographs of the scene. I couldn’t see Kirk once he’d descended; one person was set up below taking photographs, and as I continued down and around the Indian huts, I discovered Kirk in deep discussion with who I assumed was a cousin.
Wrong. She was a park ranger and was giving him a stern lecture about NOT wandering freely into sacred Indian sites, and NOT skirting the rules, and NOT trying to override the $7.00 fee to be on her organized tour. A few feet back, twenty tourists stood in silent formation, waiting for her to finish her admonitions. I arrived just in time to hear the wrap up: “We have to be VERY careful about security here. Thank you for your cooperation!” I didn’t realize that Frau Blucher was now working in North Dakota!
Thoroughly cowed, we went back up the hill, found the main road, and walked toward the entrance. Just as I wondered if we should go down the hill through the woods and then across the train tracks which we had clambered across hours before, the tourist trolley crashed through the undergrowth and into view. We would have been peanut butter!
Almost two hours later, we arrived at camp– MUCH luckier than those Australian girls who disappeared when they climbed Ayer’s Rock. Everyone was eating, judging by the hunched backs we could see from yards away. We fell to. Afterward there were games for the children, which gave the older generations a chance to sit and say “my GOD” to one another numerous times. And what for? Because of the endless food, and the fact that this family was able to get together and marvel at the fact that it had been ten… twenty… and, in some cases, over forty years since some of them had seen one another. I was even included in the Group Photo, guaranteeing that I will be the one pointed at by wizened fingers in fifty years: “who was that again? The funny Italian.” [We wore name tags.] Kirk won a prize for coming the longest distance, and both our names were on the envelope which held our reunion souvenirs: prairie bandannas in many colors (the hanky code wasn’t in effect); pencils emblazoned with the family name, along with sharpeners (“See how practical Scandinavians are?” Kirk remarked.); blue tee shirts featuring the requisite Viking helmet with the horns; and an extremely detailed genealogical booklet. I mean, that thing noted relationships like “tenth cousin / sixth great-grandmother / third cousin four time removed.” And I thought I was bad !! (Remember, Aunt Terry? You always tell me “just say cousins!!”)
That night at the Ramkota Hotel, I observed two tiny souvenirs of my day on the bluffs: ticks! They look like little brown spiders with minuscule sucking tubes jutting from their foreheads; one was on my forearm and another was on my chest, both apparently confused by the gray hair. (It’s a good thing I hadn’t invested in a depilatory before the trip.) Both of them went down the drain, though I did spend some time that night wondering just what the hell might be feasting on me in the dark. (Incidentally, the temperature outside was 46 degrees that night. Can ticks even live in that sort of weather?)
On the way back to Minneapolis, a gas tanker an hour ahead of us tipped over because some idiot in a station wagon cut it off when he missed his exit to the Albertville outlet malls and did a u-turn on the interstate; Jerry’s son Dan, far ahead, phoned us to tell us how to detour, which we did– through miles of rural Minnesota farmland, complete with acres and acres and acres of green crops, silvery lakes, red barns, and white farm houses– just like on the calendars! (I was able to phone instructions to Kirk’s cousins Dee and McKenzie along the same route, an hour behind us, and am proud that I didn’t send them to distant Kreplachia.) I grew concerned at the cows, who seemed to enjoy wallowing in muddy filth, but I was told in no uncertain terms that this was what cows do in order to keep the horseflies away. (I swear I washed a few of those down the sink as well.)
Family: it’s got a lot of definitions. And I’m happy to be part of them all.
Tomorrow: off to Italy !!