Emory Report

June 22, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 34

First Person:

Best summer road trip is on road home to the heartland

Summer is here and that means one thing: road trips, as many as I can squish into the 16 weekends spanning from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Maybe it's claustrophobia from the kudzu creeping up at me from every side, or maybe it's just the pioneer blood pumping through my veins. Whatever it is, I've come to know that 15 hours of daylight is 15 hours of good driving.

Since moving to Georgia in 1994, I've road-tripped all over these Southern states. I've scooped sand from a home plate-shaped patch behind Branden Mill in Greensboro, S.C., where Shoeless Joe learned to hit rockets off the wall. I've celebrated William Faulkner's 100th birthday with hand-cranked peach ice cream and cold Dixie beer in Oxford, Miss.; danced til 3 a.m. at an honest-to-God juke joint; and yeehawed for the cowboys competing in World Championship Rodeo in Memphis.

The road trip I hold most dear, however, is the one that carries me to my homeland: Nebraska and Iowa. I love to watch as the Appalachians erode into the Great Plains, as the tangle of kudzu gives way to waving grass, and the sky-I can see the sky again. The horizon touches both shoulders.

Last summer, my boy-friend and I had planned the annual trek for 4th of July weekend when we learned that my grandfather had died. The funeral was to be held July 7 in Mankato, Minn., and the burial at a cemetery in Easton, just north of the Iowa border. We decided against flying and simply hit the road, heading first to David's home in Grinnell, Iowa, and then on to southern Minnesota to meet my family.

Chattanooga to Padukah, St. Louis to Hannibal, Keokuk to Iowa City, we shared the road with truckloads of freshly painted fire hydrants, double-decker stacks of new sport utility vehicles, massive earth movers en route to some sprawling suburb. The entire drive bore evidence of the nation's booming economy. As the land flattened out, the air grew lighter, and I remembered my grandfather. Dangling our feet over a bridge on some forgotten rural route, we had fished with bits of meatloaf tied to string. He taught me to play solitaire seven different ways; I can only remember three. He was a whittler and an accordion player; my sister and I had raced around the pig pen as he played "Pop Goes the Weasel."

David and I drove into Grinnell late afternoon on the fourth, in time for a backyard barbecue. Despite protests that there wasn't time, David insisted on piling into the car to watch the fireworks in the next town. I often think the Midwestern sky is tallest at dusk, when towering cumulus clouds blaze orange and pink on the horizon while, behind you, the stars begin to twinkle in the deepening indigo of the east. Here and there across the prairie as we drove, tiny blooms of light burst and then disappeared-Roman candles and screeching owls in backyard Iowa. We parked just outside the Maytag factory in Newton for a fireworks show that rivaled Decatur's. The booming finale ricocheted off the factory walls to the delight of families who have been building washing machines for decades.

I woke early the next morning and jogged nearly the entire perimeter of Grinnell, pausing to watch the irrigation systems and breathe the fresh-mown clover. Then we headed north to Minnesota to see my grandfather for the last time. Bondurant to Ames, Blue Earth to Mankato, the land is so flat you can watch a bridge coming from miles and miles away; there is nothing else to see but the next bridge and silos.

At the funeral home, we met my family, a Norwegian legion of cousins and second cousins, mostly Torkelsons and no Pauls but myself and my father. He is an only child; my sister is now married. My grandfather's only living sibling, Mary Torkelson, is in her 80s with a smile as rambunctious as the little girl's in the sepia-toned photographs at home. She had saved my grandfather's accordion for me.

A caravan of us drove from the funeral home to the cemetery. It was a long drive, on gravel roads that cut silently through the alfalfa fields. And then we were there, in Easton, where my grandfather and his brothers and sisters had grown up. There was the old farm, long since sold, the abandoned school house, and there, across the road, was the cemetery, its gravestones eroded by wind and rain.

My grandfather was buried alongside my grandmother, Olga. After the service, I wandered the graveyard, sad to see a piece of me now laid beneath the earth. But the farther I went, the deeper I got, I was shocked to see the names on the stones: Pauls. Almost all Pauls. I had never seen so many. Dating back into the last century, here were the generational milestones on the road of my heritage.

When I think back on that trip, I recall a place in Minnesota where Pauls nourish the soil, offer substance for the roots of trees, wild flowers and alfalfa to grip as they grow. I also look forward to many road trips to come, and I keep preaching the gospel of the Midwestern sky to my friends here among the kudzu.

Sharla Paul is a senior editor for Emory publications.

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