When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch … in middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever … now that I am 58 perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.
So wrote novelist John Steinbeck in “Travels with Charley,” his 1962 travelogue about rediscovering America by rumbling across its belly in a three-quarter ton pickup truck rigged with a camper. Steinbeck wheeled from New York to California and back — including highways through Minnesota’s Sauk Centre, Wadena and Moorhead — because he had lost touch with America. He had grown tired of imagining it. He wanted to see the country for himself. And so he did.
Today, that itch lives on in legions of hunters, anglers and campers who more than ever are opting to be turtles — travelers who haul their homes with them. According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, a record 9 million RVs hit America’s roads in 2017. That number is up considerably from a decade ago. The road is a balm for these adventurers. It is the salve that soothes the pain of rootedness and allows the itchy, as Steinbeck wrote, to move free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something.
It is my good fortune to have several friends who own RVs. I am further blessed that they also possess such poor judgment that they actually invite me on their hunting and fishing trips. This is an honor, for these 60- and 70-year-olds still have strong legs and lungs. Each autumn, like me, they look forward to wading through high seas of tawny grass with shotgun in hand and dog at foot. Further, they fight what Steinbeck fought — the gravitational pull of the rocking chair.
I had seen so many begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. In this they were encouraged by their wives and relatives, and it is such a sweet trap.
I joined travelers unsnared by the lure of a sedentary lifestyle — Greg Kvale, Gary Drotts, Rad Royer and Gary Johnson — this past October on the North Dakota prairie. A troupe of characters from the broader Brainerd area, we were joined by Greg’s son Pete. Our plan was simple: Hunt pheasants by day. Dine in the town’s only cafe by night. Crash late. Rise early. And hope that our trusty RVs (an ancient Minnie Winnie and a much newer 22-foot travel trailer) were up for the task.
This outing was yet another reprise of trips that began nearly 30 years ago. Back then I often traveled in the elder Kvale’s 1978 American Clipper motor home. This rolling calamity was dubbed the Prairie Schooner for the prairie was its frequent destination. Yet, the Clipper was known by less flattering names, too, due to its penchant for mechanical and electrical unreliability.
“I can’t remember all the places we broke down,” Kvale joked. “But it was a lot. The headers on that Hemi were always a problem. Before we left on a trip we used to toss a folded lawn chair on the driveway and roll over it with the Schooner. We did this in the belief that if we broke something now perhaps nothing would break later. It was a fun yet ineffective ritual.”
In many ways, our annual road trips are largely about finding fertile pheasant grounds, and then hoping our collective skills yield a harvest. Each stop is the same yet different. Unkennel the dogs. Load the guns. Don the shell vests. Then watch as setters, retrievers and spaniels nose hither and yon. There is such satisfaction in this. My former canines, Montana, Hallie and Dakota, were never so alive as when a whiff of rooster rose in their nose. The same is true for my current retriever, Storm. His head rides a little higher when a game bird graces his maw, and he prances more lightly on his feet.
Yet these RV trips also are about discovering distant neighbors. We intentionally pack light so we can dine in small town cafes and buy groceries next door. These and other places — campgrounds, gas stations and Main Street saloons — are where many ephemeral friendships are forged. Sometimes they even bloom at the intersection of two remote gravel roads. Such was the case several years ago when the operator of a Kansas road grader stepped from his rig, strode to our truck and asked if we map-reading gents were turkey hunters. When we answered affirmatively, he replied, “Then I can help.” And did he. By nightfall we had plenty of private land to hunt. Shortly after dawn we had a tom in hand.
Steinbeck took to the road because he had not heard the “speech of America,” smelled its grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light for 25 years. As an American novelist living in New York, he confessed to working from memory — and memory, he wrote, is “at best a faulty, warpy reservoir.”
Clearly, my memory is a tad mushy. Worse, it seems to be spiraling in an unfortunate direction. I say this because more than once I have hiked to the far garage only to have forgotten my purpose by the time I arrive. Still, while standing there, I can easily and pleasantly recall a favorite pheasant flush or the bite of a prairie wind or the musky smell that rises with each step in the swamp. Such wanderlust memories cling like burrs to my brain, and I have no interest in pulling them off. In fact, the more stickers, the better. For when the road calls, I listen. It is the path to knowing one’s self and the land in which we live.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.