I have known since the time I can remember knowing anything, that Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, holding that “separate but equal is inherently unequal,” was decided on May 17, 1954, my father’s 11th birthday. He pronounced this fact often, as if it was greatest birthday honor an eleven year old could dream of. This was my father’s liturgy and his lesson: the pursuit of justice and equality is the highest good, and is the domain of law and lawyers.
So when Christopher and I stretched out our paper map on the kitchen counter and trailed a finger along possible routes across the country, my heart quickened when I saw that one route would take us through Topeka, Kansas, hallowed ground.
Is it the rare person who gets excited to see Topeka? We follow directions off the I-70 to the Monroe Elementary School, the segregated school that Linda Brown attended, and now a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service.
It is Sunday, and there’s the matter of the pandemic, so the building is closed. But signs and photos outside tell its story and give visitors a sense of its place in history.
A mural across the street honors civil rights leaders, and includes the legal citation to Brown v. Board of Education in the official U.S. Supreme Court Reporter, volume and page number. My father could have recited it without prompting.
This stop leaves me full up. But the next stop is to fill up with Kansas City steaks. This is Christopher’s domain. He finds a charming little historic district in Kansas City, Missouri, with a local butcher and a soda shop.
Once we are arrive at our campsite, he is determined to grill these steaks over an open flame, despite the remaining heat from the 95 degree day. As the sunlight fades and we sit down to eat, an eery quiet descends around us. The sky turns a dark blue. The river beside us is still. This is when we notice that we are the only ones eating outside; all the other RVs are buttoned up and battened down. No one else is outside. And then we feel it, little bites on our ankles and shins. We are suddenly being eaten alive by mosquitos. The citronella candle in the center of the table is useless. We make a dash inside, but it is too late to outrun these villains. We have to make several trips in and out, carrying our plates, the cast iron pan, used foil, a salad bowl, camp chairs, and the impotent citronella candle.
We are no safer inside. The mosquitoes infiltrate, then multiply, like some B-movie, RV-horror flick. No one knows how they’re getting in, but new ones keep replacing smashed ones, avenging the blood on our hands and fingers — even though it is our own blood.
We clap our hands as if in random spaces, high and low, left and right. Christopher keels to one side: “My back is in spasm from that last smack.” We are locked inside the RV at 10:22 p.m., scratching at our arms and legs, cursing Missouri.
We wake to pouring rain. So much for the kayaks and bikes available to rent. We cut our losses and hit the road, destination Kentucky, Christopher’s 49th state. We wave to St. Louis from the highway, a small fraction of the St. Louis Arch visible behind buildings. “Boys! The arch!” Christopher shouts.
“Yay, the arch.” They murmur the barest acknowledgement, a faux excitement.
We cross southern Illinois without stopping, and pause in Indiana only to fill the gas tank. Filling up is a clunky, time-consuming effort, which requires constant pressure on the handle or it will stop fueling. This does not even begin to describe what is required to remove the bugs that mar our view through the windshield. Holding my arm high above my head, dirty water drips down my forearm and into my blue glove. The bloom, as they say, is off the rose.
After lunch I take over the driving. “I want to be the one to take you to Kentucky.”
We are feeling better now, and have just enough time to make two essential Kentucky stops: Churchill Downs for a photo op, and take-out authentic fried chicken.
The RV smells simultaneously like hunger and satisfaction, as we meander to our campsite in the Daniel Boon National Forest. There we will dive into the best fried chicken any of us has had (and mashed potatoes, creamed corn, mac and cheese, roasted corn, green beans, corn bread, and something else unidentifiable that is likely made from corn). We walk to the lake, and then we go to bed full. We do not know if this will turn out to be the last night of our trip, or second to last, but the kids are pushing to make the long drive home tomorrow. We are all ready for real beds and clean sheets, and tired of transforming the couch and table into beds at night and back again to couch and table each morning.
We have been traveling for a week, making serious mileage every day. The odometer measures our distance from home at almost 2400. It has not been a straight line, but includes detours that are almost enough to satisfy my dual cravings for adventure and captive time with my children — and more than enough to satisfy theirs.