Back home - sort of


In normal times when a pastor moves on from serving a congregation, the break is final and complete. The general rule is that the former pastor stays away from the congregation and from the people for a couple of years. Contact by phone is limited and a visit to the former church and even the community where it is located is usually not done in the first two years. But these are not normal times. We retired from our congregation in Rapid City during the Covid pandemic. We didn’t get to say good bye with a potluck lunch or with parting hugs. A drive-by of our members wasn’t the same thing. So we have returned, briefly. With the consent of the Interim pastor, we are visiting on a weekend and including attending worship on Sunday, something we have not done in the other congregations we served. The purpose is not to interfere with the congregation or to participate in the transition in any way. Our standing as pastors is no longer in this conference. We will continue to be a part of our new congregation in Washington. This summer’s trip, however, has brought us to Rapid City and we will do a little bit more saying good bye over the next couple of days.

It feels good to be back in the town where we lived and worked and loved our lives for 25 years. We are camped at an urban campground that works just right for us. We can walk, directly from our camper to Rapid City’s greenbelt and take some of our favorite walks. We are next to a small lake that is big enough for a morning paddle in a canoe. We know our way around town. We’ve already met with a few friends, including meeting one at our favorite ice cream parlor last evening. We checked out a new restaurant started by other friends for supper. We drove down Skyline Park and checked out the view of the church building without stopping by.

It is hot here, but we are still in the hills. It has cooled off overnight enough to sleep with the air conditioner off and the windows open. At least one of the campers in the park has not yet discovered that fact and we can hear the sound of their air conditioner running, but it isn’t loud enough to drown out the murmur of the insects in the trees. I walked down to the lakeshore last evening as the sun set and a great blue heron squawked its greeting as it fished the shore.

The skies, however, are smoky. There are a lot of fires north and west of here. I looked at the Interagency Fire System’s incident map and if you zoom out so that you can see the northwest corner of the country it looks like all of western Montana, northern Idaho and easter Washington and Oregon are on fire. There are additional fires in California, British Columbia and Alberta. In that way it is much like last year and the year before. Intense western wildfires are becoming a part of summer in this part of the world. The causes are complex, but it is part of the sudden shift in climate that makes for more intense weather events around the world.

The sunset last night was a typical smoky sunset, with a bright orange-red sun. Looking down main street toward the hills gave a strange feeling, but it is one we’ve felt before.

I suspect that there will be more than a few strange feelings over the next few days. Our time here will be too short for us to see everyone we would love to see. We have really missed the people of our church who had become our friends after so many years of sharing ministry together. Our friends have set up opportunities for us to meet with them and we have brunches, coffees, dinners and other gatherings planned.

Before we left South Carolina our son-in-law shared that he has learned something about going back home to visit friends over his nearly 20 years in the Air Force. “Let them come to you,” he said, “You’ll run yourself ragged trying to go to meet with everyone.” There is truth in what he is saying. This is not a pastoral visit. Our goal is not to get in touch with everyone in the congregation. Our goal is to connect with friends and to see people we know and love. And then, once again, we will leave to our home and our church in Washington and allow the congregation and its leaders to envision and plan their future. With due respect to our son-in-law and his wisdom and experience, our situation is a bit different than when he returns to his growing up home from his service. We want to see the people who we are missing. But we also know that we should not and cannot do so as their pastor. We are simply meeting with friends as friends and our visit will be brief. We are trying to achieve a balance. We have our own home base here in our camper in the corner of the park and we are having a few quiet and private moments reconnecting with the black hills and remembering how much we loved living in this place. The deer and the birds and the water call us as they did when we lived here. The wind in the trees sounds and smells familiar to us in a way that has not been the case in the other places we have visited on this trip. It feels like coming home, but not quite.

So far it has been really great to see our friends. We have been catching up on what has happened in their lives. New jobs, new careers, new graduations have occurred. Children have grown and changed. Elders have passed on. The world did not stop for our retirement. And the church is still the church. People care for one another. Community is being built. There is a vision emerging of a congregation where we are the former pastors and new leadership is coming forth.

I’ve spent many hours of my life, in the quiet of the night and early morning, seeking privacy and “a lonely place to pray” in this area. I know how to find what I need. A simple wooden canoe and a paddle await me in a few hours. In the meantime, i will sleep with the memories of the people of this place.

People and their pets

I’ve been told that RV sales have been very high since the pandemic hit. People want to travel, but are unsure of the safety of motels and other public accommodations. Having a recreational vehicle of some type gives a traveler a portable bedroom, kitchen and bathroom that can travel with them. It certainly seems that there are a lot of travel trailers, fifth-wheels and motorhomes on the highways as we have been making our trip. The campgrounds aren’t quite full to capacity, but there are plenty of campers in every campground where we have stayed on our trip.

I have to assume that there are a lot of folks with campers who are inexperienced. Most are a lot closer to home than we were when we were in South Carolina. The majority of campers that we see in campgrounds are from the state where the campground is located, or from a neighboring state. For example, tonight we are very close to the Minnesota state line and there are quite a few campers with Minnesota plates in the campground as well as a lot with South Dakota plates. Those of us with license plates from more distant places are the minority.

Often we strike up conversations with neighboring campers, so we know some of the stories. The night before last we were in Missouri. We were parked next to a family from North Carolina. It was their first big trip with a travel trailer and they asked us things such as how many miles per day we planned on our trip. On this trip we have planned from 300 to 400 miles for most days, with a couple that were a bit longer. They seemed to be planning about the same distances as us. Their destination is the Black Hills and they, too, were taking one night between Missouri and the Rapid City area.

Other campers are surprised at the distances we cover. The people from whom we bought this camper had never towed it more than 250 miles from their home. They would be surprised that most years we tow our camper 3000 to 5000 miles.

The result of all of these differences is that most campgrounds have their share of campers who are inexperienced with the customs of campground life. In a campground where the campers are parked close to each other, experienced campers know that the driver’s side of the camper is for utility hook ups and the passenger side is for awnings, picnic tables, and outdoor activities. When there is a row of campers all heading the same direction, after you have set up your camper, you spend most of your time on the passenger side of the camper, giving the camper on the other side the freedom and a bit of privacy to do the same. In general, people walk around others’ camp sites, not through them. There are, however, plenty of campers who don’t observe those common courtesies.

Last evening the folks on the passenger side of our camper had their lawn chairs and other items out on the passenger side of their camper away from us. However, they tethered their dog on the other side of the camper, next to their utility hook up. The dog was being ignored by the owners. It was a fairly large dog and it started digging in the ground next to the utility post. It had made a fairly large hole, about 5 or 6 inches deep when the owner came around the camper and discovered the digging. He calmly said to the dog, “Stop digging. Don’t be stupid.” Then he busied himself with trying to get his cable TV hooked up. He didn’t issue a command to the dog. He didn’t stop it from digging. He didn’t go over and pet the dog. He didn’t bring it a water dish or a food bowl. He just ignored it for another hour or so.

We’ve also camped next to campers who put out their dogs in kennels and ignore them. They might put out food and water when the put the kennel out, but then go on with their activities as if they didn’t own a dog. Sometimes the dogs bark or make noise and it is as if the owners can’t hear them. I suspect that those same people put their dogs out into their back yards at home and ignore the barking as well, annoying their neighbors.

A lot of campers travel with dogs. We’ve seen folks stop at a rest stop and take out three or more dogs from a single RV.

I like dogs and cats and other pets. However, we do not currently have pets and when we did we didn’t take them on road trips. We’ve seen plenty of responsible pet owners traveling with their pets and caring for them as they travel. But we’ve also seen others who have strange relationships with their pets. We see folks with small dogs that they carry everywhere they go as if the dogs couldn’t walk. I’m not sure that the dogs appreciate it, but I really don’t know. I don’t want to tell others how to treat their pets, but I have observed some pretty strange behavior.

We’ve seen pets dressed up in costumes, pets that are put out with long leashes and a few that are allowed to run off leash, which in most campgrounds is a violation of the rules. We’ve seen pet owners that clean up after their pets and others that leave messes for others to clean up. We’ve seen signs that use humor to try to get pet owners to be responsible. “There is no poop fairy.” “Our campground is not a bank. Don’t let your dog leave a deposit.” It is obvious that the signs are a response to a problem that campground operators have experienced.

I guess campgrounds are just like the rest of society. There are a lot of good neighbors who are responsible and a few who are less so and don’t seem to follow the customs and rules. It is sad, however, to see pets who are neglected or ignored. They didn’t get to choose their owners.

Meanwhile, driving along . . .

Continuing a theme of he past two posts in my journal, the song for St. Louis has been around for a long time. It was composed for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

"Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the fair,
Don't tell me the lights are shining
Any place but there,
We will dance the Hoochee Koochee
I will be your tootsie wootsie,
If you will meet in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the fair.”

I know that the song is a classic, but it really sounds racy, when you think of it. The Hoochee Koochee sounds suspiciously like the turn of the 20th century version of twerking - sort of like something that might show up on Tiktok nearly a century and a quarter later. And what’s with tootsie tootsie? I guess it is a term of endearment, but it made me think of the rhyme you play with little children while tickling their toes:

This little tootsie went to market
This little tootsie stayed home . . .

I know we learned it as “This little piggy,” but tootsie is a child’s term for toes. Perhaps Meet Me in St. Louis is a bit too sketchy for children, however.

We continued down the highway until:

Everything's up to date in Kansas City
They gone about as fer as they can go
They went an' built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a buildin' orta grow.
Everything's like a dream in Kansas City
It's better than a magic lantern show.
You can turn the radiator on whenever you want some heat
With every kind of comfort every house is all complete.
You could walk the privees in the rain and never wet your feet!
They've gone about as fer as they can go.
They've gone about as fer as they can go!

I guess we owe a debt to 1940’s musical theatre for having both of those songs. Both of the musicals were set in the first decade of the 20th century. In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, they were poking fun at the isolation and backwardness of rural Oklahomans. I suspect that by the time the musical was written, people knew that seven stories wasn’t going to be the epitome in building. These days, One Kansas City Place, 1200 Main, is the tallest building not only in Kansas City but in Missouri. The 42-story building stands 626 feet. And no, indoor plumbing really isn’t as far as they can go. You should see a toilet seat in Japan with sprayers, heaters and driers. That wouldn’t make a very good song, however.

One of the topics chosen for yesterday’s drive was: memorable meals. It was probably prompted by Kansas City barbecue which is a staple for us when we are in western Missouri these days. Our son in law, Michael taught us the joys of this particular style of cooking that involves a lot of smoking, sometimes with dry rubs or marinades and sauces that are added after cooking by the eaters. If you are ever in the area, check it out. You’re in for a treat. But once we got going, we realized that we’ve had far too many memorable meals in this lifetime and the category is not a rare one for us. From bagels and peanut butter while camping to a noodle slide in Japan to Devonshire tea in Tasmania, we’ve had some really memorable meals. Freshly steamed crab on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and real French onion soup served by the wife of one of our professors in seminary came to mind as did a little Thai cafe in Chicago and a Greek restaurant just around the corner from our seminary apartment. We kept listing more and more memorable meals. I guess we’ve done pretty good with eating over the years.

In our rambling way of conversation after passing through St. Louis and St. Charles and heading towards St. Joseph, the topic of “cities with saint names where the saint is a woman” was proposed. We came up with several in California: Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, There are several St. Maries in the country, but we couldn’t come up with any cities named for women saints that are in Missouri.

The miles go by when we are talking and singing together and the traffic in Saint Louis and Kansas City wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. The frogs singing in the trees here in St. Joseph are just as loud and wonderful as the frogs were back in Whittington Woods in Illinois, and we went to bed with our stomachs full of Kansas City barbecue. I had ribs. Susan had a pulled pork sandwich. Coleslaw is the salad of choice in most Kansas City barbecue restaurants, but we often sample potato salad as well to get a taste of how others make the dish. Susan has been adapting and perfecting her potato salad recipe for a long time. The question for last night was whether or not to include the potato skins. Our conclusion is to peel the potatoes first, but there may be sometimes, especially if you have new potatoes, when the peelings add to the salad.

Our lives have been blessed with travel and with good food, often enjoyed with good friends. Having friends from around the world has enhanced our opportunities for eating foods that are different from the things we would eat at home. They also have changed the menus of what we prepare in our own home. Soba noodles have become a staple in our house since we traveled to Japan. Other foods that we cook everyday have been influenced by the friends we have had and the meals we have shared.

The husband of our niece, when responding to a question about special diet needs in advance of a family gathering set for August, wrote that his family is on a pie-based diet and that he didn’t think that the typical raisin-based filling called mincemeat is real mincemeat. Without beef or venison is it really mincemeat? So Susan’s sister is preparing to bake pies for the family. Our son used to specify Kosher meals when flying because he got better food served specially on trips. Of course we don’t get meals on airlines much these days, but it isn’t a bad idea. So I’m wondering if there is a way to describe my love of smoked meats as a special diet requirement.

That could be a topic for more miles of driving.

The Adventure Continues

For starters, I’ll offer just a brief addendum to yesterday’s post. If you haven’t read it, you might want to as I’m not going to explain it today. We hit a category that almost stumped us yesterday. We started by trying to come up with songs about Paducah, Kentucky. We didn’t come up with one was we were driving. There are a couple, however. Here’s the chorus to one:

Paducah, Paducah, if you wanna,
you can rhyme it with bazooka,
But you can't pooh-pooh Paducah,
That's another name for paradise.Paducah

The search for the song brought up the category of words that rhyme with Paducah. Our list was pretty short: bazooka, Luca, and hooka. I guess it depends on how narrow and precise you want to be with your rhyming. I think babushka, palooka, mazurka and Topeka work pretty well. Alaska, Africa, and Jamaica might work in a song, but you have to put the emphasis on the correct syllable. Hanukkah has to be mispronounced to make it work.

We have some interesting, if not very world-changing, conversations while we are driving.

In the part of the country where we now live, Seattle is the city where we encounter traffic. For the most part, we don’t have to go to Seattle very often, but it is a major hub airport and we’ve made the trip to pick up and deliver family and friends to the airport. We also encounter a bit of traffic when we drive through Spokane, which we do when heading back to South Dakota or to visit family in Montana or to go to N-Sid-Sen, one of the camps of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ. Based on our experiences with this trip, however, I would say that neither of those cities has traffic that is as bad as cities we have been through or around on our journey. Columbia, South Carolina, Asheville, North Carolina, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Nashville, Tennessee all had crumbling roads with huge potholes as well as traffic that slowed to a crawl at times. I cut my teeth on urban driving in Chicago, so feel that I can deal with traffic, but these cities slowed us down. We have two major ones ahead before we return to what I call the wast: St. Louis and Kansas City. Both of them are on the agenda for today.

We are camped in the woods in southern Illinois, having crossed the line from Kentucky near Paducah. The frogs and crickets are singing in the woods and we are able to sleep with the windows open. The humidity isn’t as intense as it was in South Carolina and the temperatures are just a bit higher. So far our travel is going very well. Today we’ll cross into Missouri with a major urban center at each end and we plan to camp near St. Joseph tonight. That makes Sioux Falls an easy destination for tomorrow and then on to Rapid City the next day where we will take a break and stay for a little while to visit friends and attend church on Sunday.

Part of what makes a city intimidating is not really knowing your way around. When you are driving in a city that is familiar, you can select an alternate route based on traffic or construction or other factors. When you are just passing through you often have planned only one route. In some ways navigating by GPS makes it a bit easier as the device will seek alternate routes when you get off track. In another way it is a bit harder as when we studied paper maps, we had a more firm sense of how our route went through our around a city. For this trip we’ve been entering the address of our destination for the day into the GPS and allowing the device to choose our route.

I remember the first time we allowed the GPS to guide our travel on a big trip. We were attending the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, held in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2007. We decided that if we drove hard for 2 1/2 days, we could have our camper and a kayak back east, attend the meeting and explore a bit of New England up towards Nova Scotia and then camp our way back across Canada on our way home. We went to AAA and got trip kits and maps for the adventure, but we also had a new GPS unit. The GPS was fantastic for guiding us through urban areas. When we got to Hartford, it guided us right through the traffic to the front door of our Hotel. When we missed an exit earlier in the trip, it recalculated and gave us an alternate route. I decided that the device was a real asset for urban driving. At the time, I still didn’t trust it completely for back country navigation and there were some big mistakes in the database in rural areas. The accuracy of the devices has really improved and the inclusion of them in our cell phones has made us really dependent upon them for navigation. We have a good atlas in our truck, but we haven’t been referring to paper maps on our trip except to record our route after each day’s travel. There is no stack of state maps or AAA trip kit in our truck.

Another difference in this trip, compared with other cross-country trips we’ve made over the years, is that the condition of the nation’s roads and bridges is worse. The creation of the interstate Highway System was a part of our growing up and young adult years and we got used to roads that were in pretty good condition. But the years have passed and maintenance has been deferred. Concrete highways are crumbling and the nation needs another major effort if we are to maintain our highway system. While congress delays and debates infrastructure bills, it is easy to see the need as we drive. The roads simply are not in as good shape as was the case when we made trips decades ago.

The journey, however, has been a grand adventure and the adventure continues.

The joy of rambling conversation

In the bestselling novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles, the protagonist,The Count, and his daughter, Sophia, play a game they call “Zut.” In the game one player proposes a category with a specialized subset of phenomena, for example stringed instruments, or famous islands, or winged creatures that are not birds. The two players then go back and forth until one of them fails to come up with an example within a suitable amount of time. In the novel, they allow two and a half minutes to come up with an example. The first player to win two sets is the victor. According to the Count in the novel, the name of the game came from the expression “Zut alors!” - the only appropriate expression upon losing.

As we have been driving, we have been playing our own version of the game. There are areas of our lives where we are a bit competitive, but for the most part we enjoy working together more than competing, so we’ve eliminated the sense of competition. We don’t bother to take turns. One of us comes up with a category and then we both just try to list as many things as we can in that category. We aren’t French, so nobody has been declaring “Zut alors!” in our conversations. And frequently as we are thinking another topic of conversation comes to mind and we are sidetracked. Sometimes one of us will come up with another item for the category later in the conversation - or later in the day and we’ll return to thinking of items in that category.

For example, “animals that are black and white” generated zebras, skunks, Dalmatians, some cates, orcas, penguins, osprey, bald eagles, and holstein cows right away. Some time later, I added “other dogs” to cover the malamute that we once owned. Siberian husky might also fit the category as would elkhounds. A while later we noted that there are a lot of other birds, such as magpies that are black and white.

We didn’t compile such a long list for the category of “works of art or literature with allusions to purple.” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” came to mind right way, as did Prince’s “Purple Rain.” I recited, “I’ve never seen a purple cow. I never hope to see one. But I can tell you this right now. I’d rather see than be one!” Then we thought of “One Horned, One Eyed, Flying Purple People Eater, and got distracted trying to figure out the lyrics to the song. That led to a discussion about when the song came out. I thought that Chuck Berry was the one who recorded it, and Susan could remember listening to it on a white radio that they had had in their house in Libby. Our memories sort of placed the song in the late 1950s or early 1960s, but we weren’t sure. That led to looking up the song on a phone to see when it was recorded: 1959 by Chuck Berry. Perhaps one of us should have exclaimed, “Zut alors!” in celebration of getting both the date and artist right. I’m thinking that we might have come up with some other work of art or literature that has an allusion to purple. The best we’ve come up with so far is the poem, “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple.” That prompted a few memories of red hat society gatherings in which my mother participated. We haven’t gotten back to the topic of the category yet.

As we were walking in the rain last evening the category that came up was songs that refer to places we have been on this trip. You’ve got to include “Sweet Caroline” (bum, bum, bum) in that list. Since we are camped very near to Rocky Top, Tennessee the song with that name came up. I suggested that since the Tennessee Volunteers went to the aid of Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, and we are staying in Volunteer Park, the song “Battle of New Orleans” would fit.

In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip’
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans

We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’
There wasn't as many as there was a while ago
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico

Susan was impressed that I could come up with those lyrics. I commented that I used to know several more verses, but now I couldn’t come up with any more. That got us off topic and we started to talk about how our memories work and how when I have a partial memory, sometimes singing a song over and over can prompt more lyrics to be remembered. Susan said that other than church hymns, she doesn’t have many songs memorized. I pride myself in being able to come up with at least a song, usually from musical theatre, to respond to many different topics of conversation. The song “Memory” from Cats comes to mind.

Memory, all alone in the moonlight
I can dream of the old days
Life was beautiful then

Of course I can’t remember the rest of that song.

Our version of the game and our conversations around it bear little resemblance to the conversations between the Count and Sophia in Towles’ novel. It is, of course, a work of fiction, and the conversations are imagined, not real. I suspect that most real conversations are a bit less focused and wander off to other topics as often as ours do. We have a lot of shared experiences after 48 years of marriage, so we have a lot of topics about which to converse. Having the travel time gives us more time for conversation and even after all these years we haven’t run out of things to say to each other.

Are all skinks black and white, or just some of them?