In Today’s Mail

This is my new shirt.

I was never one for belligerent t-shirts but when I saw this one on Facebook, I fell for it.

I had just had a conversation the night before with a much younger woman who was interested in our trip out West. When I told her we had camped half the time, she shook her head, seemingly awed, and then said, “That’s really something. Old people usually don’t want to sleep on the ground. My mother, she would never do that.” “Oh really?” I answered.

It’s always fun to have someone forty years younger tell me what old people usually do and don’t do. Smiling benignly (because that’s what old people do, right?), I watched my little friend trying to sweep up her words and rearrange them into something else. Her discomfort was obvious and I was surprised that I enjoyed it. But then the conversation evaporated and we were both glad.

Last year, the newly-elected sheriff of our town, a very smart, experienced, progressive law enforcement guy, appointed a 20-year old as his chief of staff. Now this is a big county, nearly a million people, with the state’s largest city. The sheriff’s department budget is nearly $44 million, not a little Barney Fife type operation.

So I thought the appointment of a 20-year old for such a huge position was crazy, wacky, somehow weirdly indulgent. The 20-year old had been instrumental in the sheriff’s successful campaign but what 20-year old is ready for a job at that level? Well, this one, apparently. I’ve only met with him once but he was informed, analytical, measured, and sincere. Others have come away with the same impression. He is apparently very good at being the sheriff’s chief of staff.

So back to my belligerent t-shirt.

It might be enough to have it. I might not need to wear it. We’ll see.

Padding Around Town

I have a truck loaded with incontinence pants.

Not a lot of people can say that.

There are other things in the truck including a five-gallon gas can (empty), a fold-out table in case we tailgate, a giant gray metal tool box like your grandpa probably had, and firewood from South Dakota. There is also an axe in the driver’s side door pocket, you know, just in case I need to fend off somebody who wants to rob me of my many incontinence pants.

But why on earth would I have a truckload of incontinence pants? I am not incontinent. Let me say that again. I AM NOT INCONTINENT. Although there is no shame in incontinence or any other kind of physical fucked-up-ness. It’s just life and bodies and things not working. We all have something not right but some people’s something requires special pants. That has to be a bummer.

I have all these incontinence pants because some very kind people wanted to give them to me for people who are homeless. There was no way to say no because the one thing I’ve learned doing this work is that homeless people need all kinds of things you’d never think of, including a way to deal with incontinence on top of the everyday struggle of finding a place to stay and something to eat. It would be pretty rough, don’t you think, to have to figure out an incontinence strategy when you only have the clothes on your back? And even rougher to suffer people’s looks, their crossing the street to be away from you, if you can’t figure it out.

Be still my bleeding heart.

Last winter, a woman in a homeless warming room asked me if there were any incontinence supplies. I looked at her puzzled for a minute and then went to ask. When I came back a half hour later with supplies, she said, “I thought you didn’t hear me.” But I did.

36 Years Later

I haven’t written about it for a long time.

When I wrote about it, it was still oddly fresh, even though it had happened so many years before. That’s what the first telling is always like. After the first time I wrote about my illegal abortion, I walked down the street to Lake Michigan feeling like layers of old wet wool sweaters were being stripped from my shoulders. I marveled at this. Had I been walking around for decades with all those thick, scratchy sweaters buttoned up to my neck? It had been so long, I scarcely noticed how damp and heavy and burdened I had become by what had happened when I was just a young woman.

The first telling of my experience with domestic violence had a similar effect. I had never put what had happened to me into words on a page. When I did, I made it a quick story, almost like a graphic novel without the pictures. Shorthand. Because, you know, it wasn’t all that serious what happened. Although it could have been.

Basically, for several years I had a boyfriend who had periods of psychotic depression. These episodes had occurred long before we met although I didn’t know that until a former girlfriend called me one night to fill me in. She told me that when he had these breaks, he became very threatening to himself and to others. There was a long history, she said, “you don’t know what he’s really like.” With me, his threatening behavior was rare and indirect but terrifying. I managed these episodes in strangely calm ways that even now make me feel I could talk someone down from committing mayhem. Maybe not. But let’s say I have experience.

There were several years of his threatening, dangerous behavior interspersed with the kind of companionship and regard that keep people attached to one another. I thought I could help him get his illness under control and then he could be his easy-going, funny self all the time. I tolerated his breaks as a mental health issue, deciding that because he hadn’t put his hands on me, the situation was still manageable. Until it wasn’t. And that’s a whole story by itself. The gist of which is this.

He didn’t have a gun.

Everytown for Gun Safety posted this yesterday on Facebook: “In states that require background checks for all handgun sales, 47 percent fewer women are shot to death by their intimate partners.”

It stopped me in my tracks.

It would have been so easy for him to shoot me, to keep me from screaming for help, running away, getting into my car and speeding away on the night that he finally did put his hands around my neck. Because, you see, in his frame of mind, he wouldn’t have cared about killing me, he just wanted to keep me from leaving. He wouldn’t have cared about being arrested or going to jail, he couldn’t think about that. There was no space in his head for those things. He just didn’t want me to leave and shooting me would have made sure of that.

But he didn’t shoot me because he didn’t have a gun.

He did, however, shoot himself many years later. I went to his funeral and talked to his sisters. They were angry at him for having ended his life. I wasn’t. I was surprised he’d lived as long as he had, the suffering I’d witnessed having been so acute. And I was grateful, deeply grateful, that I had decided to leave him, to give up on him, before he got a gun. It sounds heartless but it’s true.

Day 15 of However Many: 10 Things I’ve Learned

  1. Roughing it is challenging and fun when it is a choice and not one’s only option. Yes, I am thinking of the people I’ve handed meals and socks to on the Street Angels route through Milwaukee.
  2. Tent flaps don’t have locks and so one has to just sink into the ultimate vulnerability of sleeping unprotected outside. Oh, I’ve camped in a tent before so this isn’t the first time this has occurred to me but it is the first time it’s sunk in. And for the same reason as above.
  3. You can cover a lot of territory in 11 days. We have driven through the U.P. of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, close to 3,300 miles and we’re not done yet. But you have to like being on the road in a serious way.
  4. If a two-lane road goes pretty much the same place as the interstate, take the two-laner. You will see and feel a thousand times more. Favorite roads on this trip U.S. 2, U.S. 12, U.S. 212 and any road in Canada.
  5. Taking a dog on a road trip will save you a ton of money, especially if it’s hot and you can’t leave the dog in the car to eat in a restaurant. Which is fine with me because I’d rather pull off the road in some beautiful place and make a sandwich.
  6. If you are in a small town and have no internet, go to the local library. They will always be nice to you and the bathrooms will be super clean.
  7. Map-reading skills are still important because, guess what, GPS doesn’t work if you have no internet. I spent this entire trip with our big road atlas either on my lap or tucked in the seat next to me. And, yes, we got turned around several times much like our non-internet-using parents did, but in the turning around saw a lot of things we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
  8. The West is vast and there aren’t a lot of people. Sometimes we were on roads that were so lonely that I wondered how long we’d sit there if our truck broke down. We had food and water and blankets so it would be okay no matter what.
  9. As in every endeavor, it is best to have uncomplaining, stalwart companions. I had two on this trip – my intrepid husband, Howard, and our sweet, calm dog, Swirl, with whom I watched an impressive lightening storm from our truck at 4:00 in the morning as it passed over our campsite and, when it was over and just flashing off in the distance, went back to sleep in our tiny tent until the sun’s light and heat woke us.
  10. The sky – when your view of it is unencumbered by buildings or traffic or your preoccupation with terrible things in the world – is a panorama of hope and danger and redemption. You just have to watch for it.

Days 13 and 14 of However Many – 50 Cents

I’m not even sure which day this is. That’s how feral I’ve become.

The half and half is curdling in my coffee and I don’t care. That’s how feral I’ve become.

This, after spending the two nights before last night in hotels, ostensibly because it was too hot (92+) but really, in my mind, because the campgrounds we drove through were too creepy. It doesn’t take long, though, to go feral. Just spend a night in a $19.99 tent with a 70-lb dog and have it rain a bit, just enough to dampen things up.

As I sit here with my Coleman stove perked coffee in my camping kit red plastic cup, I think why aren’t I making this an “On Walden Pond” experience and writing great thoughts? Oh wait. Did Thoreau camp? Did Thoreau even write “On Walden Pond” or was it Walt Whitman? I ask my husband if it was ON Walden Pond or just Walden Pond and he answered, it was “On Golden Pond” with Henry Fonda. Help.  I can’t Google it because, of course, there is no internet. I’ve realized, just in the last five minutes, that not having the internet cuts the amount of knowledge I think I have in half. 

We are in what I would call a Holidy Inn Express type campground. These are my favorite. There are still pit toilets but there are showers, water, a giant garbage bin and really great, concrete picnic tables with no bees. And the grass is short so you can see the critters coming at you. In the past few days we drove through a couple of campgrounds looking for a spot to camp and the lurkiness was overwhelming – bear-wise and snake-wise. We stopped at one for lunch and I was a trooper figuring we have this big dog, who, unfortunately, still doesn’t ever bark and I thought, is the dog protection or bait?

Still, despite all that and more, much more, there is this, sitting here, my disheveled, unspeakably feral self, typing on my trusty laptop, the lake in front of me as still as can be, a fish every once in a while breaking the surface with its little lips and making a tiny circle that fades so fast that it might not have happened. There is  waking up, so many times, yes, so many times, and seeing the stars right overhead through the open roof flap of our tent, it seemed as if the Big Dipper had been put there just for me to see. There is the fisherman leaning over his boat’s engine, diagnosing like my dad used to do, and I’m betting the smell of gasoline hangs like a cloud over him and his mate. They are trolling. That’s what we used to do. I wave but they are too busy and don’t wave back.

We pack up and head to the showers where for 50 cents I take a 3 minute shower that is very hot and sharp like someone aiming a firehose at me. But the shower is good anyway, very good. While I put on my shoes, I see two very large spiders stroll up the wall near the shower and tinier spiders parading near the bench I am sitting on. I keep an eye on them but I’m not creeped out. Anytime I want I can crush them with my shoe.

Our camp is in Wyoming at Keyhole State Park, just east of Gillette, a town known for its giant, record-breakingly large swimming pool in which I swam twenty-eight years ago when we brought our two young sons camping “out west.” We went from Gillette to the Tetons where we camped for a week, taking a shower just once, and then we drove to Cody for the rodeo. I have a picture of them outside of Cody standing on a big rock. They were 4 and 6, wearing cowboy hats and holding little six-shooters. We were so happy then. We still are, but in a different way.

Day 12 of However Many – Traffic Jams

This morning, seeing this red barn and the old corrals, I asked Howard to stop and then back up, and even then I had to walk just a bit further to get this picture of tranquility and peace. This is my most vivid sense of Canada, probably because of the contrast to my own country right now.

I’d looked forward to driving the Going to the Sun Highway through Glacier National Park but the road was jammed with cars, the turn-outs filled to overflowing, our drive-through not much better than one would have on a tour bus. Thousands of people seeing the beautiful things all at once shouldn’t make the beautiful things less so but it did somehow. No place to park meant every look was fleeting. After a while, it felt like a movie.

Last night we camped on what was essentially a prairie dog village on the side of a river next to a big dam. We arrived late and while Howard went off to register I stayed behind with our dog lest someone else showed up to claim the space, it appearing to be the last remaining one. While he was gone, I saw that the picnic table was covered with bees. My feelings about camping have not yet settled into a reflexively positive spot. There is the coffee in the morning, though, which makes up for quite a bit.

We hit Missoula, Montana, late this afternoon, heading to a campground in the Lolo National Forest, when we saw the temperature on a bank sign – 95 degrees. So we found a pet friendly hotel and ordered a pizza. Too hot and too big a risk that the campground might not have showers which after last night’s prairie dog extravaganza we sorely needed. Here is a picture of Swirl checking out the accommodations before he settles down for the night.

The stories from El Paso about the baby who lost both parents and the grandfather who protected his wife and granddaughter, the rivers of tragedy, and the needlessness of it all, weigh on everything, weigh on me, on my husband, I can tell by how he listens to the radio and what he writes on social media. It seems crazy that we are just driving around the west when all this is happening, stopping in the middle of the road for pictures, fending off bees, and eating pizza in an air-conditioned hotel room. But that’s what we are doing. When we get home, we will do more. We will do what we can as long as we can. I know that so it makes this time spent here, doing these things okay.