Oklahoma Road Trip Provides Perspective on People, Politics, Passages . . . and Home

Two-dollar-a-gallon gasoline and a new Honda Civic prompted me to hit the road last month to see an old friend in southwest Oklahoma. Something about a trip alone in a car, rolling down that ribbon of highway, listening to your music, tends to bring a little perspective on people, politics and passages.

First of all, I listen to the lyrics, not distracted by speeding cars and scheduled appointments. Bob Dylan and I don’t have an appointment, but we have no failure to communicate.

“We eat and we drink,
We feel and we think,
Far down the street we stray.
I laugh and I cry, and I’m haunted by
Things I never meant to say ...
Soul to soul, our shadows roll,
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”

Driving past the light brown stubble of corn fields in southern Iowa, I recall a few deals that “went down,” a couple causing enough existential pain to bring me to one knee gasping for air. By the time I pass into the rolling hills of Missouri, however, my mood and my mind have turned; I’m thinking of how lucky, how blessed, I have been most of my life.

No blessing has been greater than spending part of my retirement at St. Thomas. I think of my last 24 hours before hitting the road on this journey, beginning with Monsignor James Lavin’s 90th birthday party.

Several hundred staff, faculty and alumni showed up on a Wednesday night; they told stories about the priest who gave the last rites to the Episcopalian father of a student, loaned his car to dozens of young men who needed a ride and provided sandwiches and sacraments to more Tommies than he could count.

The following morning, 16 students in a capstone journalism course sorted through ethical dilemmas in a half dozen actual news and advertising cases. As a judge, I found their thinking serious and sophisticated.

When I sneaked down to Scooter’s for a cup of coffee, I paused to listen to a pair of seminary students singing a Christian folk set, accompanying themselves on guitar and drums.

Then I hurried to a retirees’ lunch, where I joined political science professor Nancy Zingale to talk about the recent presidential campaign and election – and the media coverage of it all.

That’s a rich stew for the mind and soul in 18 hours, and now I add a little seasoning on the road.

Technology Marches On: South of Des Moines on I-35, I spot a rest stop sign and have to smile. In addition to toilets and travel posters, this stop proudly provides “wireless internet” connections. Whew! For a moment I thought I was going to be out of touch.

Poles of Progress: Part of that wireless world is enabled by microwave towers, and in one shape or another, shorter or taller, they seem to multiply from one border to the next. From Cannon Falls to Clear Lake (Iowa) to Cameron (Missouri), they stick up like pins in a cushion.

Magic of Open Space: As I leave Emporia (Kansas), the tall grass prairie starts to rock ’n’ roll: hills, gullies, dry washes, creeks, ponds and an occasional sentinel tree. Colors change from brown to grey to green to blue on the horizon, which I can see 20 miles away. I’m trying to sing harmony with Aretha Franklin on “Amazing Grace.”
Kindness of Strangers: Ninety miles away, in Oklahoma, I run into one of a dozen strangers who seem to get warmer and friendlier as I go south and west. This one collects coins at a toll booth.

“Hello pardner,” he says, as I roll down the window. He asks my where I’m from, where I’m going and how I am. Since no one is behind me, we chat for three or four minutes.

“Take care,” he says, “and have a good time in Oklahoma.” I did: driving and hiking, catching up and kicking back, listening and looking.

Of all the sights, the one that offers the most comfort is the one I start and end with: the cornerstone at Summit and Cretin.

Welcome home.