Before we leave the KOA in eastern Colorado and head to Kansas, there is one dirty job to do. Christopher dons rubber gloves and heads outside to connect the toilet discharge tank via plastic tubing to a hole in the ground. I am still lying in the bed that we’ll need to fold up and slide back into driving shape before we leave.
“I love you more than ever,” I say, and I mean it with every cell in my body. “Boys, go help your father!” I implore. “Or at least go record him.” At this, Emmett goes out. In a moment I hear his news announcer voice through the window. It is 6:45 a.m., Mountain Time.
When Emmett returns, I go outside to offer moral support. I see my hero bent over a yellow hole in the ground, inspecting the connection between it and the tube he has inserted. My gaze follows the tube to its connection point at an output under our RV, and observe with a queasy repulsion a steady drip of liquid falling.
“Oh my–!” I whip my head back to Christopher, who is watching me go through the same series of realizations he has already been through.
“I know, baby.” He nods solemnly.
We cannot wait to get out of here. We can have breakfast somewhere else, anywhere else. We return the RV to driving shape, and head past rows of RVs holding sleeping families toward the exit.
A yellow sign bears friendly reminders — don’t forget to detach your hookups, cover your valves, and bring your wife. Hardy har har. (You know that I do not let this teachable moment pass me by, and am heartened that my boys see the gender stereotype for themselves.)
And then, the open road. Kansas, here we come. For years we have looked down on these miles as we crossed the sky from California to Pennsylvania. About halfway through every flight one of the kids has asked Christopher where we were, and every time Christopher has looked out a window and answered, “Kansas,” yielding an aggrieved observation: “Kansas is SO BIG!”
As I drive, Gig sets about figuring out how to connect to the Bluetooth so we can listen to music. Through the middle of the country, tunes will be essential.
We sing along with Pink and Bruce and Mellencamp, and each of their songs lend a different spirit to our drive. We “Raise a Glass” with abandon; we meander down Thunder Road; and when we sing, Ain’t that America, you and me/Ain’t that America, something to see/Ain’t that America, almost free…, it feels as if we are singing these words differently than before, as if they are a prayer for justice that is almost within reach.
Kansas is not all flat, but a series of swooning green pastures. I hold the wheel steady during bumpy, windy stretches, passing cornfields for ethanol and wind farms. We switch drivers, and when Christopher pulls off the interstate and heads us north a few miles to a state park he found on Recreation.gov, I am made breathless by bales of hay scattered across the hills, punctuating groves of wild sunflowers. “It looks like Monet.”
We pull into our campsite overlooking Lake Wilson, and our jaws open at our good fortune. “Full hookups and a pull through spot!” Christopher says .Then, “I can’t believe that’s what I’m excited about first, and not the lake.”
Hot wind hits us as we step off the RV. Seeing no shade, the boys and I start setting up our portable canopy, which until this week has known only our front yard on the Fourth of July, and the rain in the Rockies two nights ago. We struggle as its blue tarp blows like a sail. A fellow camper rolls up in a pickup truck and stops to chat.
“Cleanest lake in Kansas,” he says, nodding at the water. His job is running the wastewater plant here in Russell County, so I guess his information is good. “But that canopy won’t last a minute,” he warns. The boys and I squeeze its white legs back together and lay it down in the grass to deal with later. It’s too hot to wrestle it into its case now. We get our bathing suits and walk to a spot of the lake away from the populated beach and boat dock.
We step through a parting in the wild sunflowers, down a smooth packed earth path, and past three or four crushed Bud Light cans to reach the water. The boys go first, shrieking like little kids about the slippery rocks, an occasional underwater tree stump that catches them, and the slimy lake bottom.
I scoot to sit on a wet boulder and put my feet in the water. It is cool, not cold, and I know that I will be able to enjoy it without too much courage. Still, I have to ask Emmett to “count me in.”
“Just get in, Mom.”
“Emmett, I need a 3-2-1. Please?”
That’s enough to pull me forward. I keep my head above water to account for my baseball cap, but I am in. When I am deep enough, I tread water, swirling my arms and legs in all directions under the greenish water. My limbs hoot and holler in gratitude for this wild freedom after four or so hours in the driver’s seat.
Out in the middle of the lake, a few boaters pull kids on inner-tubes, but somehow the sound of their motors are muted. One passing boat lofts a Trump 2020 flag, and Aaron implores, “Mom, take a picture.” I do; it is part of the local flora and fauna.
As we return to our RV, the park attendant pulls by and asks us if we’re the folks with the “lil’ camper.” Out here, our 27-footer looks like a small rig. We start to notice that our neighbors are mostly 40-footers, parked next to muscular motor boats and pickup trucks. What looks and feels to us like a monster truck is to them the mini Cooper of camping.
It is too hot to make a fire, so we cook dinner on the RV’s propane stove and microwave — sauteed onions, zucchini, cauliflower, and chicken sausage, over brown rice — a California jambalaya. We eat in the shade of RV at our picnic table, then play cards as the daylight starts to fade — not until after 9 pm here on the western edge of the Central time zone. The air is finally comfortable.
The sound of music wafts over from one of the campsites with a supersized RV, Counting Crows and Tracy Chapman. These are folks who earlier warned Emmett not to watch too much news. I would have expected something more country here. I find myself wishing I had a way of showing them who we are — maybe a Star of David on my neck, or a mezzuzah on our RV, or an Elizabeth Warren t-shirt — some way for them to see that such people are also just people, to break a possible caricature they may have of who “the other” is, the way their friendliness (and good music) has reminded us that people are multi-faceted.
But maybe they do know, to wit: our teeny RV; the California license plates; and they may have glimpsed our dinner.
The next morning, after breakfast and cleanup, Christopher and I take one more walk. (The boys are done with this place; they stay inside the air conditioning.) He leads me down a path he scoped out at sunrise. “I had a nice time communing with my Dad,” he says.
This path hugs the lake and passes through a field of wild sunflowers to a dock. The morning air is warm but not yet suffocating, and our bodies are compelled to stretch before the next long drive. Before we know it, we are doing full blown sun salutes. Let the Kansans with their hulking boats who are starting to show up at the boat ramp watch us do yoga. Let the blooming wind grace our skin and stretch the muscles that have tightened on the long ride.
Finally, we tear ourselves away. Back to our temporary home, too small or too big, depending on who you ask and where you are. Onward to the next place: Missouri.