Friday, October 30, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Pelican Point Recreation Area, NE

"It's like riding a bike."
"I've scraped my knee a few times riding my bike."
"Well, imagine bigger scrapes, and you'll soon have driving figured out."

Everyone remembers (or should remember) when and where they learned to drive. I learned on the country roads east of Tekamah, NE.

'M' Street goes east out of town for approximately five miles to the farms hugging the Missouri River. I have many memories of this road, some of which are good and some of which are not. I remember one of my first storm chases occurred on this road, as I watched a beautiful storm with impressive cloud-to-ground lightning from the hilltop near the creek just outside of town. I followed the storm all the way to the Missouri River, dodging hailstones and lightning strikes. A similar drive from my grandmother's house back to town was full of nighttime lightning, causing the staccato static I so love hearing on the radio when a storm passes.

I cringe when I think of the summer drives and the tall stalks of corn making that curve toward the north a blind one. I can see the standing water in the fields after a heavy rain, or the cracks in the soil during the dry periods.

The bad memories were of those trips back home after a Sunday meal at the grandparents. School would return the following day, and with it the responsibilities I was not ready for at that age. The drive was not long enough to delay the inevitable. Typically, the moon would shine brightly into the pickup, reminding me that time would not be stopping on my account.

Another bad memory was learning to drive.

I drive a lot these days. I average 20,000 miles a year, although this has diminished somewhat recently because of increased gas prices and decreased availability to take such trips. Driving is "like riding a bike" for me now, but it did not start out that way for me.

That damn white Isuzu pickup. I learned to drive in that jalopy with a cab, and I hated it. I hated the crooked steering wheel, the misbehaving clutch, the piercing sound of the engine, and the high-albedo paint job, making any misstep of mine obvious to anyone within ten miles of me.

I never figured out the manual transmission. I tried and tried, but I never had the patience. I could drive a manual now, but I guarantee there would still be those sudden stops that everyone who has ever learned to drive a stick knows is the quick reaction of the vehicle to "driver error". I remember the dust rising up from those sudden stops on those gravel roads. It was the visual affirmation of my driving idiocy, and the all-telling sigh of my increasingly agitated father was the exclamation point of my failure.

Learning to drive on these rural roads, one begins to appreciate the little things about these lands. I began to notice the see-sawing trees in the wind, the waves in the grass, the happy-go-lucky butterflies, the comforting chant of the meadowlark. I noticed that the drivers passing by would wave to you, suggesting that they made the effort to look at the driver of the other car or that they knew who the driver was simply by the vehicle he or she was driving.

These roads are shockingly beautiful in their simplicity. Occasionally, they would pass a lonely house, typically with a dog barking in the front yard and kids laughing and playing in the back. Poles lined one side of the highway, standing as physical directions for the driver. These drives are stereotypically charming, and reliable in their durability over the years. Time passes here, like everywhere else, but you have to really notice to confirm it.

The 'M' Street road eventually leads to the Missouri River, after a couple of curves to the north. On one side road from this rural highway, the path takes you to Pelican Point. It resides along the Missouri, shrouded in trees. I've stood along the shores here many times, watching the brown water flow quickly by. I would occasionally see a boat pass, or a brave soul on a canoe. A separate family had a few lines in the water, waiting for a stubborn catfish to be hungry.

I remember campfires here, with the sound of the river current masking the popping of the wood fire. We would tell stories, we would stare at the fire, and we would look up in the crisp, cool air to the dark blue glow of a moonlit sky at night.

I learned to drive on this road too. I learned to reverse here, to park here, to shift gears here. And I would roll the window down, waiting to hear the current. I watched this water, always flowing downstream. Another reminder of time's complete neglect of my desire for it to stop, just for a second, and remain in that rural paradise of complete irresponsibility. Inevitably, the keys went back in the ignition, the pickup would abruptly stop from another "clutch malfunction", and eventually I would drive off back to town.

The dust would rise again, slowly disappearing into oblivion. I was too young to realize that that was time's most ominous reminder.