It was late. The sun had set. I was driving into the pitch of night in unfamiliar terrain. So for the first time in my life I asked my smart phone to lead the way. The voice-activated assistant was female. For fun I put her in Australian mode:
ME: Kind of evening isn’t it?
PHONE: Let’s not quibble.
ME: You’re right. I’m sorry.
PHONE: No worries.
No worries, yet, not much fun: to program an address and let a computer-generated assistant lead the way. How different it was to being in the back seat of a rambling station wagon with my dad at the helm.
Dad was never a patient man. You could see it in his driving. He would do anything to avoid traffic. To ride along with Dad through the streets of Sioux Falls, SD was to see the full grid and not just the thoroughfares like Minnesota and Kiwanis, but also the residential avenues of Brookings, Trapp, Holly and Costello.
Dad’s driving philosophy drove my mother perfectly insane. He was a wanderer who never took the same route twice. Even simple trips to the store could turn into an adventure for why not use Prairie Avenue over Grange; cut through corner gas stations with no intention of filling up the tank; slum through downtown alleys that turned into a dead-end with a delivery truck blocking the way.
MOM: Back this wagon up and call me a cab!
It was in the alleys where mom lost all patience. She could never understand why Dad couldn’t stay on the designated path with the rest of civilization, but I knew. He had a streak that liked to run counter, but there was something more. He constantly searched for different routes, perhaps not for the better, but for something new.
ME: How far are we?
PHONE: 24 clicks.
PHONE: Fifteen miles for you Yanks.
ME: Got it.
PHONE: Off to a barbie, are you?
ME: A what?
ME: No, a house-warming, more of a dinner. I made pie.
PHONE: Aren’t you a screamer, beating out of the big smoke into the bush.
ME: With pie!
Women believe that men don’t ask for directions for we are too stubborn to admit we need help. This is incorrect. We don’t ask for help because we lack the necessary skills to listen. Also, there is an inherent lack of trust relying on those who may not deserve it. For example…
I was filling up my car at a gas station just west of Minneapolis, MN. It was late and I was coming from a disappointing Minnesota Viking’s game, disappointing in the fact that the Vikings played such a great game of football, they decided to celebrate by losing on the last play of the game.
As I quietly filled up my gas tank and contemplated moving to Green Bay, I caught the blurred streak of a neon-blue Chevy Blazer pulling into the parking lot. Then, eight Detroit Lion’s fans with painted faces and authentic team jerseys tumbled out of the SUV and headed into the store. The driver remained behind and stumbled over to me.
GM GUY: Hey Buddy, do you know how to get to St. Paul?
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d been driving in the wrong direction. It would be a long drive, but all he had to do was turn around and head east.
For fun I sent him south to Iowa.
How easy it is to get turned around in the dark in unfamiliar terrain.
LISA: Do you know where you are?
ME: Of course I do. I’m in Eagan.
LISA: Where in Eagan?
At the moment I was unable to answer the question.
My sister, Lisa, was the one asking. She was in the passenger’s seat and not fully confident I would find her friends who made the rude decision of moving to the suburbs.
In Minneapolis I never needed help finding a new place for the town was laid out like a beautiful grid where the streets and avenues went straight and were listed in numerical and alphabetical order. It was simple math. It was elegant geometry. It was all so symmetrical.
LISA: Do you know how to get there?
ME: Course I do. I just need to find Duckwood Avenue. I mean, how hard can that be?
But I was in a suburb that didn’t follow any of the rules of sensible city planning. None of the streets went straight and none of the avenues were in alphabetical order. Plus, most of the traffic was ferried by boulevards that acted more like highways to shuttle cars to and from secluded subdivisions with roundabouts, cul-de-sacs and winding roads. Even I-35E ran on a bias, intersecting the boulevards at an angle, causing the whole suburb to act like a tilted floor of a funhouse where to go straight meant heading right into a wall.
ME: Hey Lisa, what does that sign say? Does it say Duckwood?
LISA: It says Yankee Doodle Drive.
ME: What’s with the cute names? Are we going to run into Patty Cake Lane?
LISA: You need glasses.
She was right. She was also irritated. She had a right to be. At the moment her semi-blind brother was driving around in the dark hoping to catch a street much like a fisherman casting for trout. And the sad fact: it wasn’t the first time.
My cousin, Della, was visiting her sister and Wendy thought it would be fun to take her to an authentic Italian-American, family-dining experience, the kind where Frank Sinatra crooned through the speakers, bottles of Chianti lined the bar and red sauce was poured over everything.
The real reason we went was my brother, Chad, waited tables and he was a real paisano who treated family like royalty. The only problem was getting there.
I had been to Buca before, but never in the driver’s seat. I had an idea where it was. It was off one of the three major highways that intersect the suburb of Eden Prairie, forming a landlocked Bermuda Triangle. I figured all I had to do was find the right road.
When I reached Eden Prairie via State Highway 62, I decided to stay the course and look for Buca from there. Once I saw prairie grass and cows, I decided to turn back.
On my second attempt I took US Highway 212 and somehow ended up on I-494, looping into the suburb of Bloomington.
On my third attempt, I decided to stop at a gas station and ask for direction. I told Wendy and Della I needed gas. So I filled up the tank and went inside.
ME: Say, can you tell me how to get to Buca?
GAS GUY: You mean Kabuki?
ME: No, Buca.
GAS GUY: What’s Buca?
ME: Italian-American, family-dining. What’s Kabuki?
GAS GUY: Japanese sushi bar. You should try it.
I left the store a little confused. So I decided to let my driving instincts take over and head north. But the road wound and curved and only led me to another gas station. So I decided to take up smoking and went in to buy cigarettes.
ME: Camel, non-filters.
GAS GUY 2: Here you go.
ME: Can you point me to Buca?
GAS GUY 2: What’s Buca?
ME: Italian-America, family-dining … They play Sinatra.
GAS GUY 2: No idea.
ME: Where am I anyway?
GAS GUY 2: Downtown Hopkins.
To be in Hopkins was as bad as being home in front of my empty fridge.
As I grabbed my cigarettes, a fellow patron tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I think you are looking for Kabuki.”
My first thought was to push the Good Samaritan into the Hostess Cupcake display. Instead, I left the store, looked over to Wendy and Della and pointed to the pay phone (pre cell phones). I quickly paged through the phone book (pre internet) and dialed Buca’s number. The phone rang and rang until a hurried voice answered, “Bucadibeppopleasehold—”
I lit a cigarette and almost coughed a lung into the receiver. I put the cigarette out and waited but something was wrong. Holds like this one never have a happy ending. The person on the other end of the line was never coming back.
I slammed down the receiver and almost dislocated my shoulder. I quickly turned to see Wendy and Della aghast. I pulled myself together for I didn’t want Della to see one of her relations caught in an emotional meltdown (especially on an empty stomach). So, I casually sauntered back to the car.
WENDY: Do you know where Buca is?
ME: Sure do. Want me to prove it?
DELLA: I’m hungry.
I drove back to Eden Prairie and found another gas station. I told Wendy and Della I needed gum and ran into the store.
ME: Where the hell is Buca?
GAS GUY 3: You mean Kabuki?
ME: No, I don’t mean Kabuki. Why is all of Eden Prairie mad about Kabuki? But when I mention Buca everybody clams up like some Mafia code of silence.
GAS GUY 3: You mean omerta?
ME: How can you not know where the best Italian-American, family-dining restaurant in the Twin Cities is? It’s by a McDonalds.
GAS GUY 3: Oh, McDonalds. That’s only a half mile away.
How simple it was after that. If only I could tell my younger self to always lead with McDonalds when asking for directions. But now I don’t even have to do that with full control handed over to a phone.
PHONE: Servo on your left if you need petrol.
ME: I’m good.
PHONE: Bringing any amber fluid? Should we pick up a slab from the bottl-o?
ME: A what?
PHONE: Beer. Don’t tell me your one of those pikers who only drinks with flies?
ME: I don’t drink much beer.
PHONE: A wowser, are you? Not a fan of the liquid laugh?
ME: Liquid laugh?
ME: Why would I be a fan of barfing all over someone’s new place?
PHONE: To each his own.
ME: (To each his own, indeed.)
When I was younger, family get-togethers involved two things: my Uncle Bucky would find a recliner after dinner to take a nap and my dad would pull out a map. It was guaranteed. With Bucky snoozing in the background, my dad would spread out a folded map on the dining room table and pour over the legends, the landmarks and highways that connected the towns and cities.
For some reason, Dad always looked over the map with one of his sisters. I never remember one of his brothers joining in; just Dad with Margo, Ann, Kathleen, Sarah or Mary, hunched over, the above chandelier casting their shadows over parts unknown.
Dad loved maps. There were at least five in his car at any given time, backup maps for backup maps. Being a civil engineer with projects that took him out of town it made sense. He needed to know where he was and where he needed to be.
Recently, I purchased a US road atlas, not so much for travel, but to pore over when reading about places I’ve never been. I now find myself slowly meandering over the legends, landmarks, winding rivers and roads. I even have a better understanding why dad was so willing to pull out a map at any family function. There is a certain allure in connecting the dots.
For a time Dad kept asking me which websites housed the best maps. I’ve never really settled on one. To me the best is still the one he huddled around with one of his sisters. The worst is the one on your smart phone when you are completely lost and the beeping blue dot looks as far away as a buoy in the middle of the ocean.
(ME: What are you doing?)
It was a legitimate question to ask myself. I knew I was east of the Mississippi River somewhere in Illinois for that was the only decision I made when I set out on my trip.
Management wanted me to come to the home office in St. Louis, MO to train a group of employees on Monday. The problem: they told me on Friday. They wanted me to fly down Sunday evening from Minneapolis. I told them with my ears, I really couldn’t fly. I volunteered to drive. So, I packed my bags, rented a car and headed out Sunday morning.
I knew where St. Louis was for I had driven past it a few years before on a road trip to my sister, Sarah’s wedding. Dad was riding shotgun with Mom and my brother, Chris, in the back. And since Mom was in the car, Dad and I decided to plan the whole trip.
It was the smartest decision we ever made.
Instead of ambling along with a vague sense of direction, Dad and I poured over his maps to find the most scenic route. We set fixed places to spend the night. I searched the web to find the best restaurants and roadside attractions. Everything was planned out and everything went to plan. Even if there was a hitch, Dad was right there with a map.
(ME: How could you not have a map?)
Since our drive to Sarah’s wedding was on the west side of the Mississippi River, there was no way I could repeat the same trip. After all, I was my father’s son. So I made the brilliant move of crossing the river and following the Mississippi from the east.
It was the worst decision I ever made.
There is no natural flowing road that runs north and south on the eastern side. Instead, all roads point towards Chicago like it is the new center of gravity. Even the Mississippi River from Dubuque to Davenport, IA, bends east as if it too is unable to fight the city’s powerful draw.
I knew St. Louis was below me, but I couldn’t find a road to take me there. Every time I started heading south it was only a matter of time before I started veering east. It was maddening. I had to pull out my semi-charged phone to see where I was. Already, the autumn sun was making its descent. And driving in foreign terrain in the middle of the night is not the best way to plan a trip.
MOM: Do you know where you are?
ME: We’re pulling into Ottumwa.
MOM: It’s getting late.
ME: (That it is.)
One hitch on our round trip to Sarah’s wedding was not planning the last day. After spending the night in Springfield, MO, I didn’t know if my parents wanted to spend another leisurely day of sightseeing or if they wanted to make a dash for home.
They decided on a leisurely drive for why ruin a perfectly good trip. So we ambled through the remaining Ozark Mountains, spent a few lazy hours at Ha Ha Tonka State park, drifted past the state capital in Jefferson City and found time to loiter at Andy’s ice cream stand. We then crossed into Iowa as the sun started to set.
Even though we didn’t have hotel reservations, I thought Ottumwa would be a great place to stop based solely on the fact that Walter “Radar” O’Reilly was from this town.
Granted, Radar was a fictional camp clerk for an Army field hospital in the TV show MASH. But he was a corn-fed character with round glasses and a jeep cap. Surely, to drive through Radar’s hometown was to see white picket fences, home-spun cafes, quaint Presbyterian churches, quiet inns and town folk who would welcome weary travelers with a “Howdy Do!”
MOM: Where are the hotels?
ME: They have to be somewhere. I mean, that would be crazy to not have any… right?
Nothing about Radar’s hometown met us as we drove through the darken streets. Instead, we were met with a pungent odor from a hog processing plant. Dive bars and taco joints surrounded the town’s main industry. The cafes were closed. Any churches receded into the darkness. No town folks were out for an evening stroll. Not one lodge appeared.
MOM: What are we going to do if there are no hotels?
Instantly, an energy that had been held at bay with careful planning now electrified the car. To me we could just drive to the next town. But for Mom this was it. We either found a hotel room in the next fifteen seconds or we would be sleeping in a dumpster next to some seedy bar.
I could feel the panic and I quickly tried to push it back.
ME: Look, we’ve had such a great time so far. I only ask that you give me ten more minutes.
It worked. The temperature cooled and it gave me enough time to drive the length of the town and find a small collection of motels along US Highway 63, grouped together like billiard balls blocking a corner pocket.
PHONE: So, who’s going to be at this shivoo?
ME: Not sure.
PHONE: Hopefully, no Banana Benders, right?
ME: What are those?
PHONE: Bogans from Queensland.
ME: Not a fun group?
PHONE: Bit rough round the edges.
PHONE: Sorry to be a sitckybeak. You must think me a cack handed offsider.
ME: Whatever that is, I’m sure you’re not.
She was actually quite helpful. The reason I used her for the first time? I was about to enter Eden Prairie and I didn’t want to reenact another Kabuki fiasco. A friend had moved into a subdivision with roundabouts, cul-de-sacs and winding roads named after birds like kingfisher, tanager, mockingbird and thrush.
ME: Are we there yet?
PHONE: Less that a click.
When I was younger, Mom and Dad made a point to have plenty of outings. But where to go with five kids and no amusement park within hundreds of miles? No worries. They just packed us in the station wagon and headed out of town. With the weekend came the chance to explore more than downtown alleyways. There was Beaver Creek Nature Area, Blue Mounds State Park and Pipestone National Monument. Even if it was a tight Sunday, they still found time for a city park. To them it was important for us to get out, run around and explore.
Mom and Dad may have never agreed how to get someplace but it was important for them that we went somewhere. Mom wanted the to and fro. Dad on the other hand…
It was a late autumn day and I was excited. Thanksgiving vacation had started and Dad was picking me up at my college in Yankton, SD. As always he was late. It didn’t surprise me. After twenty years, I knew he wasn’t going to change. I even told myself that his tardiness was something wired deep into his DNA. He was out there, probably slowly driving past a prior public works project, checking to see if city streets were still drivable, sewer pipes intact, water towers not leaning.
During this time Dad was working in the Twin Cities with the rest of the family still in Omaha, NE. The points of our lives formed a landlocked Bermuda Triangle that caused Dad to drive hundreds of miles every weekend. Miles upon miles didn’t give Dad much time to wander, but still he surprised me.
One time he was taking me back to college after a winter break. He was rapidly moving up I-29 for there is no other objective to interstate driving other than to get it done.
When we reached the outskirts of Sioux City, IA, he wanted to pick up a snack. But instead of pulling into one of the truck stops, he took a downtown exit and turned onto Nebraska Avenue. He then took a right on 4th Street, drove past the convention center and parked his car in front of a movie theater.
He got out and went inside.
I looked around a little confused. Was he going to catch a matinee?
A few minutes later he came back with a tub of hot buttered popcorn.
DAD: Best I found so far.
He was right and that’s why I always gave him the benefit of the doubt if it looked like he made another wrong turn.
When Dad pulled up to my dorm and honked, I bounced down the stairs and climbed into his weathered car. I knew he wasn’t about to jump back onto the interstate and punch it to ninety. There was too much time in the day for a high-speed commute. He asked if I wanted to see Desoto Bend.
Rolling across the open Nebraska prairie, Dad told me Desoto Bend was a National Wildlife Refuge named after the famous Spanish Explorer, Hernando “Get Me Out of the House” de Soto, the first European to cross the Mississippi River.
Dad said at one time the “bend” was a dangerous spot on the river for its currents claimed many ships, most famously, The Bertrand, a cargo ship with over 500,000 items lost to its murky waters.
As Dad filled my head with fascinating information, I kept my eyes out for any Dairy Queen for no field trip can be considered complete without a visit to the frozen empress.
Two hours and four wrong turns later Dad pulled into the refuge parking lot. The nature center was a low-slung building, looking like an extended duck blind. It reminded me of all the centers I visited when Mom and Dad made sure Sundays were meant for getting out.
As we entered the nature center, it turned into a museum for many of the excavated items from The Bertrand were on display.
The Bertrand sank in 1865. A hundred years later much of the cargo was brought to the surface in pristine condition. It was an unbelievable time capsule of what was needed when the states were still territories and buffalo and Native America Tribes still roamed the endless prairie.
The artifacts ranged from rifles and pickaxes to silverware and fine china. There was even a room devoted to the food supplies. There were jars of beets, carrots and hunks of beef jerky that looked as appetizing as tree bark.
The food was over a century old, and yet, in some strange way it made me hungry. So hungry, I tapped one of the employees on the shoulder and asked, “Did the Bertrand carry any ice cream?”
The waterlogged cargo kept our interest, but it wasn’t the reason we came. Dad and I twined through the exhibit until we entered an expansive room with giant bay windows.
Dad and I weren’t the only ones heading south for Thanksgiving. Desoto Bend was the equivalent of a nature truck stop as the semi-frozen waters housed an unbelievable amount of geese. Geese were everywhere flying in and out from every direction. There were so many I would never be able to count them. Even if they stood in line and waited their turn. Forget it. There were thousands upon thousands upon so many more. They were so thick I couldn’t see the water, just bobbing, honking geese, trying to grab a quick breath before getting back on the road.
I stood at the giant bay windows dumbfounded. How did so many birds from the far reaches of the Canada find this one place? Were there maps? Were there travelogues? Was it all right there in their DNA like some voice-activated assistant whispering in a Canadian accent:
CANUCK: Hey Hoser, at a bend in the Missouri just fifteen clicks north of Fort Calhoun, you want to land and grab a snooze.
CANUCK: Yeah, there’s a biffy.
CANUCK: No Timmy’s, but they got a dep. Ya look a little rawny. You should pick up a beaver tail if you got the nangers. Also they got vico and double doubles. Just stay away from the wobbly pop. You don’t want to hork all over the place.
CANUCK: And keep an eye on that stubble jumper, Doug. Make sure he don’t hole up on some chesterfield when you are ready to take off.
I leaned up against the bay windows, my warm breath fogging the cold glass. Dad stood next to me and tried to count the geese in groups of twenty, but even he would be unsuccessful.
DAD: Well, what do you think?
I often wonder if it was moments like this that kept me wandering over the years without locking into a set direction. After all, why stick to the designated path? Why not take the opportunity to see what might be the next street over? This is the lesson that Dad taught me: To push out and always look for something new even if it may involve wrong turns, delayed arrivals and driving in reverse in some downtown alley.
- In 2018 the Minnesota Vikings moved their practice facility from Eden Prairie to Eagan. On opening day of training camp 85% of the players were late because they couldn’t find the new facility.
- Hernando De Soto was not only the first European explorer to cross the Mississippi River; he was also buried in its muddy waters after succumbing to a fever a few days later. Why a watery grave? The Spaniards had convinced the local population that they were more god than man. And the death of their leader would not help advance that belief.
- The best part of our drive to Sarah’s wedding was the Natchez Trace, a National Parkway that runs from Memphis, TN to Natchez, MS. Highly recommend it if you are in no hurry to get anywhere.
- Some of Dad’s public works projects in South Dakota ran from a new sewer system in Scotland to a new running track at Howard Wood Field. He worked on the Dakota Dome in Vermillion as well as a Target Parking lot. Pierre’s airport has his fingerprints as well as many streets and water towers along the way.
- I never did try Kabuki.