Car trips have ups and downs

By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
Biker's Diary

Nothing seems to remind me of my advancing age as much as spending a lot of time in the car. I have never been fond of autos as a form of transportation. It has long been my expectation that if I can’t fly there, I can’t get there.

I remember well the first time I really had to test that likelihood as an adult. I had returned to Minnesota on an educational leave from the big airline and the first summer decided to drive to the western side of South Dakota to visit my son. Of course, there were no more free passes so I was going to drive, and also for the first time would do so in my baby car. I departed from St. Paul, top down on the car on a beautiful summer day, and thought I was in for a really pleasant drive.

By the time I got as far as St. Peter, I was tired of it, and realized I had barely made a dent in the mileage I had to cover. I had to drive across the entire state of South Dakota, but first I had to get across the state of Minnesota. Uffda.

I decided I would bite the cost bullet and fly, so I stopped at a gas station, found a pay phone (remember those?), and called the airline that I knew had routes from MSP to Rapid City. However, being a student again, to my chagrin it meant that the cost was not in my newly reduced spending power. I had to get back on the road.

When we were living in St Paul and bought the country place in Lanesboro, my dislike of being in a car meant that at first, it bothered me that we had to drive two hours and 15 minutes (I timed it more than once!) to get there. Because we were completely rehabbing the place, we spent every weekend and holiday and vacation time there. That was a lot of driving, and we soon learned the landmarks and also where to stop. We figured that Cannon Falls was approximately one-third of the way, and the location of the former Golden Fox was the halfway point. Since its demise, we now consider Zumbrota the halfway marker, and Rochester is about two-thirds of the distance.

I got used to that commute, and that familiarization was helped along when we moved to Lincoln, Neb., and started making the trip from there to Lanesboro at least once or more a month. That made the trip to and from Lanesboro to St. Paul seem like a short jaunt.

Again we found familiar landmarks that served as regular stops, or just as reminders of how far we had yet to go. One, gone now I’ve noticed, was a handmade sign, just before we got to Preston, across the road from a farmstead. It changed every time we went by, always wishing someone a happy birthday or anniversary, or some other happy message. It was a happy reminder that we were almost there. I sort of, but not quite, got used to that trip so it didn’t seem like such a long journey. But I was younger then.

Now, I am reminded of my age at every stop. We also have recognized that we need to stop more often, because we stiffen up. We both stand in place for a few seconds, then gingerly stretch out and get sort of back to “normal.”

Last week, when we left St. Paul, we drove for almost two hours without the need for a break. The second stop was only about an hour later. Maybe during the day we did make another longer stretch of driving, but I lost count after our sixth stop. We have to build in those extra stops to our estimates of the time required from point A to point B.

As we tooled across South Dakota last week, I was reminded again of my first such trip. I had made it through St. Peter when I had stopped to call an airline. But by the time I got to Sioux Falls, I was really bored. I spotted a hitchhiker, and noted that he was a Native American. I knew he didn’t have a big chance of hooking a ride, so to have some company on the drive, I stopped and asked him where he was headed. His response was “south of Rapid City.” I told him to hop in, as I too was going all the way across the state.

He was good company, and he was going home to the Pine Ridge Reservation for his vision quest, a sweat lodge ritual that young males do on their journey to becoming an adult. He told me about his life in Sioux Falls, and about the need to stay connected with his American Indian heritage. I had taken the Dakota language as my undergraduate language requirement at the University of Minnesota, and had done a major in minority group relations in the American Indian Studies Department, so I was particularly interested in everything he had to say. The time went quickly, and I wasn’t bored with the drive; I wasn’t wishing I could find the money to fly there. I had time to take the scenic drive, and take him right to his mother’s home on the reservation.

We didn’t have that kind of company on this trip. However, reminiscing about that journey so long ago helped to pass some time last week. It didn’t do much to help avoid being stiff after sitting in the car for so long, but it did serve to remind me that driving doesn’t have to be punishing. With a little more effort, that time too can be interesting and even useful.

However, I don’t think we’ll be picking up a hitchhiker, even if we had room for one. After all, my body isn’t the only thing that has changed over time.