In Sheryl Crow’s song, “Everyday Is A Winding Road,” she sings “I get a little bit closer to feeling fine.” I have been attempting to use this approach to my life as I negotiate the path having a brain tumor has put me on. This philosophy was recently in play as I waited for my flight at the airport in Manistee, Michigan, I noticed a small dog running alongside a man driving what looked like an oversized golf cart tugging a small plane. The flight to Chicago would take less than an hour, and this was my first flight without my husband since my brain tumor invaded my life. I figured the dog would bring me luck.
As the plane rose above Manistee and headed towards Chicago, I watched the incredible view of the coastline and Lake Michigan. Micki Holladay, Jeanne Beilke, and I had decided to rent a car in Chicago and travel Route 66 until we reached Lebanon, Missouri. Once there, we would cut to the west and travel to the Lake of the Ozarks and stay with Gretchen Leonard Steffen and her husband Robert. Rachael Livingston, the fourth member of the Pretzel Tour Gang, would be there waiting for us. Jon Jambor, another high school friend and dubbed an associate Pretzel, would also be joining us.
I had not seen Micki, Jeanne, and Rachael since August 2011 during Pretzel Tour 2. My seizure, followed by the subsequent discovery of my brain tumor, was in late October 2011. I had not seen Jon or Gretchen since Pretzel Tour 1 during the summer of 2010. I wondered if my language, memory, and emotional problems would be noticeable or if I would be able to hide them. I also have balance problems, and I wondered if I would fall down somewhere or wipe out in the middle of a tourist stop on Route 66.
Our adventure started well, and we stopped at a lot of tourist spots on Route 66. On the second day of our trip, Micki slipped her personal mix of music into the cd player. Nat King Cole’s version of “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” set the stage for our journey:
“If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway that’s the best. A-get your kicks on Route 66.”
We were getting our kicks, no doubt about it. However, I was having trouble with the heat and humidity, so I tried to rest when I could and stay out of the sun. I think Micki and Jeanne were afraid to let me try my map skills after my most recent bout of getting lost, but during a torrential downpour, severe weather, a horrific bus accident that shut down 55 on both sides, and crazy detours, my mapping skills were put to the test.
We had been travelling along on Route 66, which parallels 55, when Mother Nature showed us who was boss. With Micki driving, Jeanne riding shotgun, and me trying to negotiate Google maps from my iPhone in the backseat, I thought I was guiding us to a little winery just north of Litchfield.
In what became known as the “Litchfield Incident,” I guided us to Litchfield, where water gushed out of downspouts and small lakes covered the streets. The sky stayed the same dark gray. As Mr. Blue Ball on my Google map happily bounced along as we made forward progress, we stopped in amazement as we reached our destination: Litchfield’s police department and fire station. No winery was in sight. From that point forward, I was relieved of my duty to guide us anywhere.
After a fantastic trip on Route 66, we set aside our quest for the history of the Mother Road, and headed towards Gretchen’s in the Lake of the Ozarks. As a child, my parents used to take me to the Lake of the Ozarks, and they had once taken Gretchen and me there for a weekend of water skiing and goofing off. I was overcome with happiness in this place that was somewhat familiar, but also so unfamiliar.
My friends were incredibly kind to me, reminding me to take my medication, helping me down the steep slope of Gretchen’s driveway, and encouraging me to traverse the floating dock. I tried to keep up, but I could no longer do so. I spent a fair amount of time sleeping or resting, enjoying the beauty of the lake, the joyous laughter of my friends, cuddling next to Gretchen’s dog Dakota, a Golden Retriever, and talking back to a very large parrot named Poncho.
After leaving Gretchen’s lake house, Jon led the way to Lawrence, Kansas, with Micki and I close behind. Rachael and Jeanne brought up the rear of our caravan. Jon parted ways with us, and the four of us had a beer and a bite to eat at the Dynamite Saloon. After walking around for awhile, it was time for Micki, Jeanne, and I to head east towards Chicago. Rachael had to head back to Tulsa.
We spent our last night together in downtown Chicago. I was too tired to go out for dinner with Micki and Jeanne, so I got comfortable in my bed and watched the Olympics. I was exhausted: I wanted to go home. I wondered if I had made a mistake. Had I let enough time go by to be out in the world? Could I last one more day to reach the comfort of my husband and my home?
The following morning seemed to go off without a hitch; no second edition Litchfield incident seemed to be in my forecast. Jeanne was scheduled to fly out of O’Hare airport later in the afternoon, and Micki and I headed to Midway. Although Jeanne and Micki had their boarding passes, I did not: Public Charters out of Manistee was small, and I had to wait to get my pass from their check-in booth. Micki and I arrived around 12:30. She was ready to head to security. Public Charters did not open until 4:00, so I had no way to go through security without a boarding pass, and the section of the airport I was stuck in had few chairs, lots of screaming children, an over-priced snack bar, and restrooms tucked in corners. I panicked. What if I had a problem? What if I couldn’t figure out how to get through security without becoming confused?
In “Modern Friendships,” an essay by author Phillip Lopate, he suggests that “Friendship is a school for character, allowing us the chance to study in great detail and over time temperaments very different from our own.” Learning to understand my frailties over the past year, and even longer as the brain tumor wedged its way into my psyche, I realized I needed to confess my concerns to Micki: I was scared.
Micki walked me over to the escalator and we rode downstairs to a large area filled with people on our right headed to the baggage claim area and people on the left joining the long line of folks waiting to go through security. Carefully, she explained to me just what I needed to do.
We returned to the upper area, where Micki spent time talking to me before it was time for her to go through security and head to her concourse. She reminded me of what I needed to do when I finally got my boarding pass. As she walked towards the escalator, I reminded myself that I used to be the confident one, and the friend anyone could count on to help through a difficult time. Wasn’t that part of me still there? Had the brain tumor eliminated what I considered my best attributes?
I finally secured a seat to wait for my airline to open its booth, and two small boys ran up and sat next to me. Their teenage sister sat down on the other side of them: Our foursome was complete. The children played games; I pretended to read my newspaper.
Once again, in my lucky life, things fell into place. Public Charters opened at three—an hour earlier than predicted. The man and woman behind the counter asked me if I would like to check my bag even though it was a carry-on. I sent it on its way. All I carried now was my small over-the-shoulder bag. I had three hours until my flight.
When I arrived at security, I noticed a sign for an “Express” lane. I asked the woman there if I was a candidate for “Express.” She smiled, said yes, and sent me down the hallway past all of the people standing in line. As I rounded the corner, another woman waved me through. I placed my bag and shoes in a bin, sent everything through the x-ray machine, was waved through the metal detector, and made my way to my concourse.
As I approached my boarding area, I heard a voice call my name: Micki was waiting in the concourse. We had a short conversation and another passenger joined in as we discussed the boarding process.
Later, after Micki boarded her plane and took off for Denver, it was finally time for me to board my flight to Manistee. The pilots flew near the magnificent downtown Chicago area as we headed north and eventually east. We entered a bank of clouds at one point, but soon the clouds disappeared, and I looked out my window and saw Lake Michigan below me. A freighter cut a smooth path across the water, and I realized that I, too, was part of something moving forwards, and what I left behind would be memories in the wake of kindness bestowed on me by friends and shared stories with people from my past.
Lopate, Phillip. Getting Personal. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Print.
“Everyday Is A Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow, Brian MacLeod, and Jeff Trott
“Get Your Kicks on Route 66” by Bob Troup, 1946.
Pretzel Tour Three
In the summer of 2009, Jeanne Beilke phoned me from a road trip she was on with Christopher Cave and Jon Jambor. All of us had gone to Dodge City Senior High together and graduated in 1973. Jeanne, Chris, and Jon had been touring the roads of Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma on their motorcycles. After hearing how much fun they were having, I wondered if Jeanne would agree to hit the road with me the following year. Since Jeanne and I had not seen each other since we had graduated from high school, I wasn’t sure if she would want to spend time on the road with me. When my mother died in 2008, I found myself wanting to see Dodge City, a place I had not been to since my parents moved to Michigan in 1992. Were Dorothy’s words true? Is there “no place like home”?
I contacted Jeanne, and she agreed to travel with me. To visit friends and family in various locales, we planned to fly into Denver, Colorado, head south to Route 66, head east to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and finally wind our way north and west to Dodge City, Kansas. After viewing the strange route we had planned, Jeanne came up with the name of our adventure: “The Pretzel Tour.”
We posted our ideas on Facebook, and our simple plans grew exponentially. Micki Holladay and Rachael Livingston joined the tour. Destinations and parties were planned. I had not seen Micki or Rachael since the mid-seventies before I moved to California. Friends constantly asked me if we would all be able to get along. I had no idea.
Jeanne flew into Detroit from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I saw her for the first time in thirty-seven years. After we were together for about ten seconds, it seemed quite apparent that we were going to have a very good time on our trip. We flew out of Detroit and into Denver. We rented a car, and tried to find our way to Aurora, Colorado, to meet up with a high school friend, Richard Osborn. I managed to get us lost, pointed out the “swirly things” in the distance (tornadoes), and we eventually met up with Richard. Jeanne told me I had been out of Kansas too long if I referred to tornadoes as swirly things.
Jeanne and I headed to Denver. She drove us to her sister’s house, and my cousin Julie Bowline picked me up. The next day we met up with a group of high school friends who lived near Denver: Susan Maynard Wolfe, Marty Goff Hahn, Robin Troyer Friesen, Mickey Webster Winfrey, and the other half of the Pretzel Tour gang, Micki Holladay and Rachael Livingston. Some of us had thirty-seven years of catching up to do. We laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I am surprised the Wynkoop Brewing Company did not kick us out.
Two days later, Jeanne, Micki, Rachael, and I headed to Boulder, Colorado, in Micki’s car to meet up with Ted Larson, yet another person originally from Dodge City. Part of our Pretzel Tour plan was to head south to Route 66, and Ted suggested we take the back roads. We hit CO 286 and the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway. Every time we saw a spot that looked interesting, we stopped. We were in no hurry. As Micki drove, we settled into a routine of telling stories and listening to music. When Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” came on, we talked about how much we loved this song when we were in high school. Rachael and I declared it as our “favorite-favorite.” All of us sang along softly, each of us lost in some memory we decided not to share as Robert Plant’s voice seemed to take us back in time.
We worked our way to Alamosa for the night, and hit the road the next day. During the days ahead, with Micki always behind the wheel, Rachael riding shotgun, and Jeanne and me in the backseat, we eventually worked our way towards New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Rachael and I drove out to the house I had grown up in, and I felt strange as I stood in the driveway. I had been thinking about Miranda Lambert’s song, The House That Built Me, and realized the significance of wanting to go home again. There are a million stories to tell, but I will save those for another day or in a book.
At one point along the way, an old friend asked us who was in charge. We all started laughing. Was one of us supposed to be in charge? Unless you count my penchant for bossiness, we all got along splendidly, and Jeanne, Micki, and Rachael put up with me.
We discussed the possibility of Pretzel Tour 2 the following summer. A friend of mine from California, Denise Manson Torres, joined us. Because of our various schedules, it seemed as if Michigan would be the logical place to tour. We hit Northern Michigan with a vengeance. During the trip, I started missing turns when I was driving. Places I had been many times before seemed confusing to me. Micki, Jeanne, and Rachael gave me the ribbing I deserved, and they found a beer koozie for me with this saying: “I’m not in charge. I just know what you should be doing.” Not only was I missing turns, I was becoming bossier by the minute.
As we parted in early August, we discussed our plans for Pretzel Tour 3, but we did not decide on when or where. Three months later, I found out I had a brain tumor. I figured that would be the end of just about everything in life I loved, including my trips with this fabulous group of women.
Pretzel Tour 3 begins August 1st. Jeanne, Micki, and I will meet up in Chicago and begin the trek on Route 66 as we head towards our destination at the Lake of the Ozarks. Rachael will join us as we spend our days at Gretchen Leonard Steffen’s house. We will tell stories, drink beer, and enjoy each other’s company. All of us have been through many challenges in life, and somehow we have managed to work our way through the losses and disappointments to become the women of substance we were destined to be. We are all damn funny, and we like to tell stories. My friends are willing to put up with me as I make this journey, knowing I will mess up my words when I talk, and my memories will be suspect at times.
Ladies, I am ready for the adventure to begin, and I am still working on getting rid of my bossiness, but I will bring my beer koozie just in case.