My Cross-Country Road Trip
By Nate Bender
Traveling the open road has long held special meaning and a resulting collage of memories for me. Uncovering unforeseen gateways to new encounters with people, places and experiences permeate my bank of memories while creating new realms of possibilities for living my life. Most of all, traveling alone allowed me to nurture my ever-developing spirit and its quest for peaceful coexistence in our often-troubled world. To this day, that freedom of thought and action holds important ties to my living vibrantly as an elder, and propels me to ‘hit the road’ whenever I can. This life story seeks to capture one such journey, found in my month-long drive across America, starting in New Jersey and ending in California.
In late June of 1972 I ended my first tour of military duty in Germany, imbued with pride, satisfaction and a resolute spirit to make something meaningful of my life. Making the most of my military conscription I used the experience to live and work in two separate parts of the world, essentially devoid of radio and television diversions over a four-year period. The end result found me possessing clearer visions for the awaiting next phase of my life. Moreover, I avoided the perils of combat duty in Viet Nam.
What awaited was a final destination to California, to embark on a loosely planned journey into new territory….namely, graduate school at Pepperdine University, to which I had not even applied! Despite the missing acceptance piece, my confidence meter was strong. I trusted my ability to ‘find a way’ to ultimately be admitted and achieve a graduate degree in psychology. Since Los Angeles was a place I had left four years previously, I was also confident in my employability at my pre-military service job as a Probation Officer.
I arrived in Newark, New Jersey from Germany, with my meager worldly possessions in tow. The first order of business was to ‘out-process’ from the Army at Fort Dix, the location in which my military service began. What a difference four years made in now being an officer vs a lowly private – former derisive encounters now replaced with preferential respect being most evident. Of additional note was being dispensed my final military pay settlement of around $2000, creating feelings of joyful wealth!
The second order of business involved retrieval of my government-shipped bright-orange-in-color Volkswagen square-back car from the port, only to discover the car’s radio was stolen. The scarred condition of my road machine was unsettling, as the hassle to submit an insurance claim seemed to be somewhat of a bother. So, with my affixed green-background USA license plates drawing notice from other drivers and a sleeping bag for lodging contingencies, I was on my way, with goals of making interim stops in eight different States.
I made stops in New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, and New Mexico, before ending my junket in California. Linking up with fellow military mates offered instant contact and support for six of the stops.
Apart from having addresses and phone numbers, locating the various hosts without smart phones and GPS resources seemed effortless, as I relied on maps and strangers to guide me.
My stop in the Greensboro area of North Carolina held a first-time exposure to family ‘help’ for financially well-off whites. While the bonds seemed special and tender between servant and master, it left me feeling uneasy. Subsequent conversations with my hosts revealed an honorable justification and accompanying defensiveness around the subject of racial inequality, so the subject was quickly tabled.
My stop in the Paducah, Kentucky coal mining region exposed me to another side of southern living. Steve Pinkston’s family became my hosts, and quickly embraced my presence with generous offerings of food and a tour of the open-pit coal-mine in which Mr. Pinkston worked. Touring the humongous shovel machine used to unearth the coal deposits was like being in a large house with many gadgets to manipulate the mining process. While the scarring of the landscape was starkly visible, I was assured that reclamation efforts would restore it to a fertile condition. My take-away from this stop was the sense of community and generosity displayed in rural, small town and impoverished America.
Returning to my roots in Westgate, Iowa, a welcome-back embrace was short on enthusiasm and long on bewilderment. No one could relate to the life experiences I had undergone over the past four years, thus limiting the exchanges, apart from learning of the lives of friends and family. I left with a realization that I no longer belong in the place of my origin, save for maintaining family ties.
My stop in Parker, South Dakota held a reunion of sorts with my ninety year-old maternal grandmother and two of her children, uncle Louie and aunt Martha, both of whom lived with total blindness for most of their lives. Of special note was piling these three people into my VW car and treating them to dinner at the local country club, a venue of modest means. This would be the last time I saw grandma and aunt Martha, but their humanity and lives, lived in humility and kindness, hold a special place in my heart. Twenty years later I had an opportunity to visit Uncle Louie in a nursing home. He was still infused with an indomitable spirit of curiosity and peacefulness. I like to think I possess certain of these qualities!
En route to Santa Fe, New Mexico and a visit with my aunt Ruth’s family, I spent one night in a Colorado park sleeping on the ground in my sleeping bag. Encountering Aunt Ruth exposed me to a kind and gentle person, whose spirit was contagious and pure. Here was another relative whose very existence has held a positive reference for me to carry forth. She was and is part of me!
The last leg of my sojourn became a none-stop trip to Los Angeles, and the environment in which I had launched my adult-hood. It ended my free-spirited travel, and presented a new beginning into unchartered territory.