TRAVELS WITH HOMER

 

It seemed like a decent idea at the time.

“Would you have any interest in a little road trip to the old family cottage in New York? Sue is about to sell it, and I want to collect a few things before she does.”

Homer was referring to his sister and the cottage on Lake Chautauqua in western New York where his family had spent time during the summers of his youth. Sue was now the sole owner of the cottage and intended to sell it lock, stock, and barrel.

“If there’s anything you want, you better get it soon,” Sue told Homer.

When Homer asked if I would come along, I agreed without giving it much thought. The idea was to find a block of ten days or so in early fall before waterfowl season when we could both get away. We would drive east in Homer’s car, rent a U-Haul, fill it with booty from the cottage, and make haste back to Montana. But as the time approached, it became apparent that any window of opportunity would be small indeed. Because of a number of obligations, we decided to make the trip out and back in a week at the tail end of summer.

“Are you guys crazy?”

That question from friend Elrod was echoed by many friends who wondered at the wisdom of the trip across the country with such time constraints.

We dubbed the trip our Dumb and Dumber Reunion Tour. It would not be the first time we had toured a big hunk of country with the help of our friends at U-Haul, and Homer is a master at squeezing a lot of travel into short time frames. Perhaps you remember the story of how he and Zonker celebrated his fiftieth birthday by canoeing the entire Smith River, all 55 miles of it, twice in one day. How could driving to New York and back in a week be too much of a challenge after that?

Along with Daisy, Homer’s Chesapeake, we left Helena at dawn on Thursday morning. After a brief stop in Billings to stretch our legs, have a cup of coffee, and score a bag of chocolate chip cookies from our friend Mary, we headed for the southeast corner of Montana at Alzada, which we reached by mid-afternoon.

Everything was green for this time of year all the way to South Dakota. The little stock ponds and reservoirs visible from the road looked bank full, and it appeared that everyone had a bumper crop of hay baled up.

About the time we entered the little wedge of northeast Wyoming, I realized we had not yet begun our license plate list. I scrounged a sheet of paper and started a list of the states represented by the vehicles we encountered.

I also began a list of wildlife species. In eastern Montana, Wyoming, and our first few miles of South Dakota, we saw pronghorns everywhere we looked. But the wildlife thinned out markedly after that. Once we joined I-90 after Belle Fourche, South Dakota, we didn’t spot another four-legged wild creature until early in the morning on Day Two, when we came upon a lone white-tailed buck along the edge of windbreak in the eastern part of the state.

We followed I-90 most of the way to our destination, including driving right through Chicago on a busy Saturday afternoon. The only diversion was a side trip into Pennsylvania for a brief visit with some of Homer’s favorite relatives on the afternoon of Day Three.

On the morning of Day Four, having arrived at the cottage on Lake Chautauqua the previous evening, we filled a U-Haul trailer with some furniture, a couple of outboard motors, several tackle boxes filled with old muskie lures, vintage fly lines, and classic reels, and a small treasure trove of fly rods and casting rods, and other odds and ends. Then we strapped Homer’s old racing canoe to the roof of his Subaru and headed for home. That evening found us firmly encamped somewhere in the middle of Illinois. We had diverted south to avoid the Chicago traffic mess. Day Five got us all the way to Chamberlain, South Dakota, on the banks of the Missouri River.

When we crossed back into Montana near Alzada, Homer pointed out some purplish grasses on the prairie and identified them as little bluestem. He confided that when his son was born, he had secretly wanted to give him the scientific name of little bluestem. If that had happened, Malcolm would instead be known as Schizachyrium scoparium. “It sounds sort of like shazam. Wouldn’t that have been neat?”  Homer asked.

We pulled into Helena on the evening of Day Six. Amazingly, Homer and I were still on good terms, although I am sure there were moments when one or the other of us wanted to abandon the effort and catch the next bus home.

Sadly, we did not complete our license plate list. We never saw Rhode Island, Alabama, Arizona, or Nevada. I could leave home on my bike right now and find all four of them in fifteen minutes.

But, along the way, we did keep track of a few other things, including:

  • Although the Chinese ring-necked pheasant is the State Bird of South Dakota, we saw no living evidence of these birds anywhere along the roughly 800 miles we drove while crossing the state twice.  Of course, Homer referred to them as “ditch parrots.”
  • We observed a small herd of “Live Buffalo” in a pasture adjacent to I-90 beneath a large billboard advertising the opportunity to see them up close by taking the next highway exit.
  • We were disappointed not to have time to visit the many roadside attractions along the way, particularly the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, and dozens of others that cropped up especially in South Dakota and in the Wisconsin Dells area of–you guessed it–Wisconsin.
  • Once we were irreversibly committed to driving through downtown Chicago on a busy Saturday afternoon, we learned that such an excursion is something we both preferred to enjoy only once in a lifetime. The one plus about Chicago was that we saw our only Hawaii license plate right in the middle of the city.
  • We drove for much of the time across the country amid beautifully kept ranches and farms. Once out of Montana, it appeared that almost nothing but corn and soybeans are farmed all the way to the other end of Ohio.
  • Signs along I-90 recognized groups for their willingness to keep certain stretches of the highway looking nice and tidy. In several Minnesota counties, a group called “Sentenced to Serve” was credited with cleanup responsibilities.
  • Our last living wild mammal, a white-tailed doe munching on shrubbery in a residential area, was spotted on Day Three on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, New York.
  • Our road kill list on the 4,400-mile trip consisted of: approximately 100 raccoons, several dozen possums, 20 skunks, 6 foxes, 2 coyotes, 2 great horned howls, one barn owl, and several critters we couldn’t identify.

 

Any lessons learned? Well, yes. We live in a big and beautiful country that should be experienced at a leisurely pace. And, oh are we fortunate to live right where we do!

Now, Homer and I will be getting ready to enjoy the autumn.

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