Tuesday, November 11, 2014

There's No Place Like Home

There’s No Place Like Home

Postponing Re-entry with The Oshkosh Fly-In and The Santa Fe Trail

One starry night lying in our rooftop tent on the banks of the Limpopo River, where anything seems possible, we contemplated what life would be like for us back in America after 15-months in Africa. Could we continue eating fresh, healthy, field-to-stomach meals and foods without preservatives and sugars once we were back in the land of fast and fake food? How long would the forlorn missing-your-lover-feeling we felt each time we left Africa last? We envisioned our day-to-day life in California and tried to remember what we used to do. What we used to do seemed completely uninteresting. We decided doing something “active” upon arrival in America would take our minds off of some of the above and get us in shape to boot. Twenty years ago we enjoyed long-distance self-contained bikes trips in Europe. We consumed all the Brie, baguettes, and wine we wanted and still lost weight. “How about a bike trip?” Scott suggested while searching the World Wide Web where a surprising number of sites pop up when poking “Active trips in America” in the search box. “The Santa Fe Bicycle Trek has a trip starting in New Mexico just after we return to California.” When he added, “It says here that we will cycle pass actual ruts made by wagon wheels in the 1800’s,”  I was sold. We sent an email to the organizer and paid the deposit. We had one more month to soak up enough of Africa to tide us over until our return, whenever that will be. We returned to Hoedspruit, South Africa where Scott again fed his new passion, flying, and we hugged our 40-year-old Land Rover Ndoto, bidding her an emotional farewell (well I did) before she went into storage. We had been through a lot with the old girl. It was mostly due to her good looks and "I think I can!" attitude that we had the adventure of a lifetime. 

The timing for our return was ideal. Our first stop in the States would be Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the annual week-long EAA Airventure Fly-In, a gathering of aviation enthusiasts from all over the world. The Fly-In is a mecca of engineering ingenuity, good old-fashioned heart-warming patriotism, corn cobs dipped in vats of butter, and bratwurst the length of your forearm. There are over 1000 forums and dozens of how-to clinics. For one week a year the number of aircraft arrivals and departures during the Fly-In makes the Wittman Field FAA control tower the busiest in the world with 2000 take offs and landings in one day. Romantic looking Ford Tri Motors fly patterns all morning. The impressive Osprey military plane perform demonstration flights daily. Sleek looking seaplanes dock in a picturesque cove on Lake Winnebago ten miles away. There are daily air shows and nightly concerts. Over 10,000 aircraft – home-builts, Warbirds, by-planes, microlights, gliders, experimental aircraft (for which EAA was named), luxury jets, and helicopters line the fields in neat rows ready to be admired for all that is good in aviation. Pilots bring their planes to the Fly-In for affirmation, to see old friends, and to celebrate their love of flying, and of flying machines. Comments such as, “Beautiful” “Nice lines” “Looks slippery” (a good thing – it means the plane moves through the air nicely) will get a home build pilot talking for hours. 

Scott attended forums all day while I walked the flight line murmuring praise to pilot and plane alike. 
I was asked by almost every pilot I encountered, “What type plane did you fly here?” 
“British Airways.” (Confused look from pilot) “From Africa.” (More confusion) then, “My husband is the pilot in the family. Light Sport. He doesn’t have his own plane yet.” When the pilot couldn’t bare it any longer I would finally asked the question he wanted to hear. “What do you fly?” and out would come the iPad with a planeload of photos and YouTube videos for me to coo over. 
“Beautiful” “Nice lines” “Looks slippery” I said. “How long did it take you to build?” Eighteen years was a common answer. Since there are over 300,000 mostly male pilots in attendance at the Fly-In, I never lacked for company and I never had to wait in line to use the ladies room. The vibe was invigorating and inspiring, yet comfortable. Astronauts stood in the same line for Bratwurst as everyone else. Forty thousand people camped in green pastureland turned into tent and motorhome villages for a week. A large South African contingent camped and partied together near The Red Barn, a campground grocery store. We got blisters just walking to the ablution block not to mention the miles and miles we spent traversing the show grounds from forum to air show to concert to outdoor movie. But it was an incredibly positive week that reminded me of all that is good about America. It is the ideal place to land after more than a year spent abroad. 
If you want to learn more about the EAA Airventure I can't say it better than EAA member Harrison Ford. There's a link to his video at the bottom of this post. 

If Oshkosh provided a good dose for my Mal d’Afrique, my longing for Africa, the Santa Fe Trail was the cure.

Mid Flight-line Meeting Point

"Beautiful. Slippery."

Camped on Scholler Field

Watching the action from the flight-line


Me with WASPS Women Air Force Service Pilots

Only in the Midwest can you get corn on the cob dipped in a vat of butter.

It was always dark when we stuffed our soggy tent into its cold limp bag and made our way to the gym, then to the cafeteria for a hearty breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, bagels, biscuits and gravy, hash browns, bananas, coffee, orange juice, and more coffee. Stuffed to the gills, we mounted our bikes for another long and hot, or long and frigid, or long and windy, or long and rainy day on the Santa Fe Trail. We did the same every morning for 21 days as we bicycled through New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri along the historic mountain route used by settlers in the 1800's. We rode up and down hills and mountain passes, along semi truck populated highways with no shoulders, down the middle of shady country lanes, and through sorghum, wheat, and cornfields of the Heartland of America. Church ladies cooked us brunch and we had a few dinners at Senior Citizen halls along the way. Once, six ladies who were members of a Lutheran Church located amongst fields outside a small town in Missouri prepared an entire Thanksgiving dinner just for our group of forty cyclists. Once again we were eating from field to stomach. The squash, potatoes, carrots and beans were all grown locally. The berries and pumpkins that went into the 14 pies we consumed had been harvested earlier that week. The food was so good and the ladies who prepared it so kind that it brought a tear to my eye. (Or maybe that was my stomach exploding.) My mom was born in the Midwest. I felt at home. “These are my people!” I exclaimed while filling my fork with the best tasting mashed potatoes and gravy I had eaten since my mom passed away 7 years ago. Everything was so good and aromatic and unselfish. Scott turned to me sated and happy and rubbing his swollen tummy and said, “Your mom may have converted to Catholicism, but she cooked like a Lutheran.”
My heroes

Bible Class still taught in German

St Paul's

Even if you are at the lowest level of fitness of your life, you can cycle the 1096 miles of the Santa Fe Trail (or a portion thereof) without dying. I proved this. My husband and I had done nothing more than drive around Africa in a 40-year-old Land Rover for 15-months prior to starting the cycling trip. Sure, we did some walking safaris, but (except for a 75 mile ride I did over 5 days to Masuna in Zimbabwe on a bright yellow bike borrowed from a Rastafarian in Vic Falls) we hadn’t been on bicycles in over 2 years. When we eagerly opened the Santa Fe Bicycle Trek packet I began to perspire. “Eighty miles?! I can’t cycle 80 miles a day! And we start the trip at 7000 feet. I can’t cycle at 7000 feet!” I toyed with the idea of driving the route while Scott, whose legs, no matter how many hours or months he spends on the couch or in the seat of a Land Rover are a thick layer of skin over rock hard muscle, cycled the route. When I emailed the organizer Willard with my concerns he proclaimed, “altitude is nothing!” and “cycling long distance with hills is simply a matter of having the right gears and using them properly.” He was right of course but there was no getting around the fact that my body was a wetsuit filled with cream cheese. Nonetheless, he convinced me to try riding the distance adding, “You can hitch a ride whenever you need.” (This is not really the case. The Santa Fe Bicycle Trek is not sag supported and from the first meeting in a gym in Santa Fe New Mexico to the last in New Franklin Missouri riders are told, “You are on your own.” I don’t recommend it unless you are an avid cyclist with plenty of hill training, or you are stubborn like me or have insanely muscley legs like Scott.) I bought a pretty new bike with more gears and less weight than my old one. Surely with a bike like this I could handle the Rocky Mountains I said to anyone who would listen. “That’s crazy,” they’d say.

Real Cyclists and me.

The first day was 72 miles. I cycled 67 because it was getting dark and I was afraid I would miss dinner. The next day and the day after, I overheard some mutterings, “She has no business. Who comes on a trip like this without training?” Humph. Of course, they were right. I had no business. Nonetheless, every morning I got on my green and silver bike, which I named Daisy after my gorgeous friend Daisy Barber because she has one green eye and one brown eye and would never do anything to hurt me. Most days I sat in the saddle for up to 8 hours and moved my cheesy legs in a circle all day long. As each cyclist passed me I called out, “Hello!” or “How are you doing?” so that they would notice that I was still in my saddle and moving my legs in a circle at speeds of up to 12 miles per hours or less. Because they were nice people and because I had no one else to talk to all day, I learned all their names. “Hi Ron! Hi Doris! Hi Jeff! Hi Kyle!” Sometimes Scott would cycle with me. Sort of.  I would see him ahead in the distance like a beacon atop a hill. A pacing beacon. As I approached breathless and sore, wanting nothing more than a chance to lie in the road and stretch my back, drink some water, eat another bagel, throw my bike in a ditch, he would mount up and say over his shoulder, “Let’s try to pick up the pace the next ten miles.” Grrrr. 

“Hi Richard! Hi Bill! Hi Ralph! Hi Michael!”

Every 5th day we had a blessed day off to not torture our butts and to do laundry. Some of the cyclists (I still didn’t consider myself one. I considered myself a determined woman riding her bicycle named Daisy through Middle America while consuming copious amounts of mostly artery clogging or jiggle-y jello-y food prepared by extremely kind Lutherans or cafeteria staff) began to converse with me. Mostly they asked, “Why did you decide to do this trip?” My answer, “We wanted to do something historically interesting while being active,” was met with a shake of the head. But by the middle of the second week I began getting encouragement and support from the cyclists. “Looking stronger Teresa!” “Energy!” “You’ve finally got a good cadence going!”

“Hi Tony! Hi John! Hi Tim! Hi Barbara! Hi Diane!”

Daisy and I started out every day determined to complete the daily mileage. Most days I did but the cyclists continued to pass me each day and I was always last. Each day our bags where transported to the next college in a Budget Moving Van. There was another vehicle along too. A former pilot named John Bryan (he was Scott’s favorite) drove his passenger truck that pulled a trailer with bike rack. He rode his bike most of the time and mercifully gave me a ride in his truck the times when I was near complete exhaustion. Another participant, Marion, shared the driving with John. I loved Marion. She ignored my pathetic level of fitness and was the first to offer encouragement. “I’m so proud of you,” she said. That felt good. 

The fifth day of riding was a rainy, cold, windy, wretched solitary day. I wore wet suit booties inside my shoes and my ski jacket and ski gloves. I was 35 miles out of Trinidad, Colorado and I was miserable. I knew the truck with bag lunches inside was waiting alongside the road in the rain at mile 40 but it was already nearing 2pm so I wasn’t sure it would still be there. I was only managing 6-8 miles an hour against a headwind. The rain stung my face. Suddenly Ken, Doug, and Don from Canada came up next to me from behind. 
“Hi Don! Hi Doug! Hi Ken!”

“Do you know how to draft? Link up with us!” they shouted. I pedaled hard and joined the mini peloton and felt the effects of the draft. Briefly. I just wasn’t strong enough to keep up. “Thanks guys, but I’m peeling off,” and I quickly fell back. But did they leave me in the mud? No! Don drifted back behind me. Suddenly I felt two fingers on my back and Don pushed, propelling me forward to Ken’s back tire. “Wow! That was awesome! Thank you!” I tried my best to stay there but when I was completely out of breath I gasped, “Thank you again guys but I just can’t do it. See you tonight in camp!” But Doug, retired teacher, now world traveler, hung back and began asking me questions about our travels to Africa. Suddenly I felt invigorated. After 10, maybe 20 minutes he said, “Teresa, your cadence is very good right now.” I looked down at my speedometer shocked to see it registering 14 miles per hour. Soon the truck came into view. Scott, shivering in the cold, and my bag lunch were waiting for me.  I gave Scott my wet suit booties and ski gloves and off he went on his bike. I climbed gratefully into John’s truck with two of the cyclists who could easily have done the distance but who couldn’t bare the cold that day.

Along the route we stayed in small town College gyms. Well not in the gyms exactly, but camped on the grassy areas next to the gyms where we could watch and smell hormone-driven athletes coming and going in the evening and predawn hours to play hard and stink harder. They played so passionately that most exited the gym with bags of ice attached to one or more parts of their bodies. Lucky for us, keeping all these corn fed competitive kids at their fighting weights required a mountain of cafeteria food and hot showers and we ate what they ate and showered where they showered. At night we ate from the pizza bar, the hamburger bar, the pasta bar, the meats-of-the-day bar and always, from the ice cream bar. Consuming nine thousand calories of food was not unusual. I could feel my stomach stretching to the brink of explosion. “Ugh. I can’t eat like this.”

“But you must! You need the energy. Besides, you’ll burn it off no problem” said everyone. They were right. Worried that I would run out of fuel on the road, I even took to cramming my handlebar bag with bananas and bagels each morning before leaving the cafeteria. Most days when there was an option of a small town café stop for pie along the route I would continue cycling because I was afraid I would get to camp after dark. “You didn’t stop for PIE?!” said the cyclists with disbelief when I saw them at night. I learned that cyclists cycle mostly for the beer and pie to be had along the way.

Beer time

Even in the third week everyone still passed me. “Hi Betty! Hi Robert! Hi Lisa! Hi Ray! Hi Mike!” But each day I had more and more support. Especially in Kansas. Cycling Kansas is hard. It’s both flat and hot with no shade for 50 miles, or you’re battered by headwinds and dust. Eastern Kansas is just one hill after another. But I was determined to cross Kansas on my bicycle. The moment I crossed the border from Colorado to Kansas the spirit of my mom was with me on the ride. Mom was born and raised on a farm in Otis, Kansas. It wasn’t an easy life. There were 10 kids in her family, mostly girls who worked as hard as the men in the fields. I wanted to honor her by riding across her state, toiling not as she toiled but experiencing Kansas heat, dust, wind, maybe even boredom as she did. Plus, I felt so at home in Kansas. The women all looked like my aunts Betty, Hilda, Louise, Amelia, Lea, Frieda, the men like my Uncles Aaron, Martin, and Alfred. Martha, my loving mom, was on my handlebars gently leading the way with her serene Mona Lisa smile. “Just keep turning your legs around in a circle and you’ll get through this.” This was what I imagined and this is what got me through Kansas.

At the end of the second week we had a rest day in Dodge City. Looking at the map I noticed that Otis was only 100 miles from Dodge. (Why didn't mom ever tell us kids that she grew up 100 miles from Dodge City?) The next day, through a lady at the college business office where I went to get change for the laundry machine who knew a lady who had a nephew who worked at Toyota, a brand new Rav4 was delivered to the campus for us to use so that we could visit my mom’s farm. I’m sure, somehow, my mom made that happen.

Our visit was nothing short of perfect in a going back to your roots sort of way. We saw the barbed wire museum and the stone fence posts along the way. There were corn fields and wheat fields. Everyone waved at us. The tiny town of Otis was not much changed since when my mom was last there. We saw the spot where my mom drove the wagon to deliver the grain to the elevator near the railroad and we looked off as far as we could see and remembered my mom saying, “It was just dust and wind and hard work.” The one room library on Main Street was closed for the day but the librarian using the computer inside let us come in to do some research. We found out that my mom’s grandfather, part of the German colony that came from Russia to Kansas, came not by railroad as we had always thought, but by wagon on the Santa Fe Trail making my determination to cycle the length of Kansas even more meaningful. “Oh, that’s why we’re here,” I said softly while studying the route taken by my ancestors. The librarian remembered my grandfather and the farm. “Drive 3.5 miles out of town from Main Street to a grove of trees and you’ll be there.” Just before we left she said, “By the way, my father was married to your Aunt Louise,” so I hugged her good-bye in a family way and drove out to my mom's homestead. We trespassed and circled the old barn and the ancient pickup truck sitting in the tall grass, all that was left on the old farm. I tried to recall every single thing Mom ever told me about the farm; “We had no toys so we would dress the barn cats up in the tiny outfits we made from scraps of fabric. Sometimes we played kick the can. When we had big dinners, we fed the men first, then the children, and then we women would eat. Monday was washday. We girls worked like men in the fields. I defied my father and read True Story Magazines in the loft of the barn. I would read to my mother who couldn’t read English. We had one book, the Bible, and it was in German. We weren’t allowed to go to dances….” I wished she were still alive so she could tell me more. I wished she were still alive.

Otis Library

Otis Kansas Main Street

Main Street Otis in the old days

Mom's old farm

Only the barn remains
On the third to the last day of the trip I cycled 83 miles. I was in the saddle for 9 hours. Beginning at mile 50 I sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow and America the Beautiful over and over at the top of my lungs. At mile 60 I wanted to leave Daisy by the side of the road hoping she would be stolen by a young Kansas woman wanting to run away and find adventure and love as my mom did when she left Kansas all those years ago. Every inch of my body ached. As I pushed up another hill I would pray, “Please God” and as I would coast down the other side I said, “Thank you God.” Hill after hill, all day long. Then, at mile 62 at the end of a gentle downhill run, I saw John’s truck pulled over in the grass with Scott standing beside him. “Oh, hi!” I said coming to a stop and straddling my bike. I could tell that Scott, who had been my patiently impatient beacon all day, would have liked me to load my bike on John’s trailer so that he could ride like the wind for the last 20 miles. No one spoke. I stared off into the impossible distance ahead then down at my pedals willing them to become small jet engines. “Boy, this sure is a hard day,” I said looking at John expectantly. He just smiled. “How about some ice water?” I looked at John with tired gratitude.  “Uh, okay, sure.” “Only 20 miles to go!” he said cheerfully. It was the hardest day for me by far, and when we arrived at camp everyone was already at dinner. But thanks to Scott and John and Mom, I did it.

The next day my right leg simply refused to go in a circle. I ignored it at first. Secured in a pedal cage, I compelled my left leg to push down and pull up while my right leg dangled free most of the time until I saw John and his truck pulled over at a gas station. “My knee is done,” I said. He of all people understood. He had recently had surgery on both knees. Still, he is a cyclist. When I hobbled into dinner that night one of the cyclists on the trip – amazing, adventurous, mountain climber Betty Martinsen, a former physical sports therapist for the US Ski Team (how lucky could I get?) asked, “Do you mind if I have a look at your knee?” She poked and prodded and pulled, and concluded, “Oh” in a bad news kind of voice. “You shouldn't ride on these hills. It’s your IT Band. I think you pushed too hard.” I was incredibly disappointed. I was beginning to love the way cycling made my body feel. I loved all the fresh air, sorghum fields, and nice people along the way who waved and offered me water. My legs would miss going around in a circle. But I had cycled over 750 miles when I didn’t think I would be able to do 40. And I was able to be in the company of John and Marion for the last two days and that is always a good thing.

We finished the bicycle trip in new Franklin Missouri, one of the starting points on the Santa Fe Historic route and we flew to California. It was good to be home. We were reminded of all we had been grateful for before we went to Africa. Supportive family, neighbors and friends, our cat Pika, and our home that hugs me every time I walk through the front door. Africa was beginning to become a warm memory rather than a requirement to breathe. It’s true what they say. There really is no place like home.

My compass, Martha O'Kane. With my nephew Colin O'Kane, 22 years ago.


  1. I felt the rush of bittersweet homecoming memories from my own return almost NINE years ago as I read your post. Welcome home. Avoid Costco & Wal-Mart at all costs.

  2. I will wish you as John did! Welcome home!