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Heading North

grandpa-webThere’s something about a solo road trip that’s always been vaguely adventurous to me. Even if you know the route—even if you’ve already done it dozens of times before—each time you hit the road, it seems like you’re exploring it all over again. Just you and the car and the highway, and some coffee and a big bag of beef jerky. A destination; a goal. A reliance on no one else to get there. Just yourself. An isolation from the outside world, for twelve or sixteen or twenty hours inside that car. Something out of the ordinary.

I’ve always liked road trips. I do one at least once a year, from Colorado to Minnesota, always getting up early, hours before sunrise, to hit the road and watch the first light break across the Nebraska plains. Thirteen hours through farm country—Nebraska (lengthwise), Iowa, southern Minnesota—doesn’t sound appealing, but I love it. It’s the heartland, the calloused palm of our country, and it’s where I’m from. It’s the places you’ll never see if you don’t go past them, because you’ll never travel there intentionally. It’s windmills and rolling green hills and hog farms. It’s America. The real America.

Last Thursday morning I got the call I’d been expecting. Grandpa died, it’s time to come home.

Paul Neumann was the kind of guy you don’t meet much anymore. Content to work, to make something for himself and his family without the need to show it off. A quick tongue and a razor wit without the need to let you know he had them. One of, in my estimation, the last survivors of polio. A farmer. A man who voluntarily rose before dawn every day to work the fields and tend the animals. Someone without a Facebook page. Someone who knew enough to be happy with what he had.

Grandpa was ninety-two when he died, and as I tell everyone, he was ready to go. For years he’d been dropping hints—“this may be my last Christmas”—not in a morbid way, but with a simple shrug of the shoulders and a statement of fact. He’d lived the life he wanted, and didn’t have much else to do here.

Still, he was my last grandparent, and this one was bugging me more than usual. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt…weird. Uncomfortable. It lingered.

The alarm went of at 3:30 and I hit the road. After a quick stop to drop off the bear, I headed northeast, with two audiobooks, a big mug of coffee, and Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Flights were insanely expensive on such short notice, so I was going to drive. I didn’t mind. Road trip.

The first few hours aren’t fun. Eastern Colorado before sunrise is dark and flat, but the coffee buzz generally keeps things moving briskly. I ate a protein bar and wondered if I had a headlight out.

When someone dies, I usually look around me and wonder why I’m not feeling the same things other people are feeling. Or, at least, what they’re projecting to feel. It’s a weird thing—a guilt that I’m not sad enough. But I’ve always chalked it up to a simple recognition that the person who died was old, and old people die. That crying for someone who lived a full life and then passed on wasn’t necessary; we should celebrate what they had. Did we expect them to live forever?

At its best, this is probably coping. At it’s worst, coldhearted. Either way, it made me feel odd, like I was missing out on something. Like I wasn’t the proper amount of sad. This time, though, was different; this time I was sad. Something was heavy in my chest, something weirdly indescribable. And it’s not a good feeling—it’s all-around shitty—but it felt good. It felt good to feel what I’d been missing out on. It felt good to partake. It felt good to not feel guilty.

I crossed the border into Nebraska and saw the first hint of sunrise to the east. It was energizing, it always is. The rest of this trip would be daylight, and daylight is inherently better than darkness. Everyone knows that.

I stopped in Grand Island for a breakfast sandwich. Nebraska is the bulk of the trip, a seemingly endless landscape of gently sloping farms, and you need to stop a few times to break it up. I grabbed a quick bite and another coffee and was on my way. The sun was up now, shining low through the windshield. I could get away with eighty-five through Nebraska.

Grandpa and Grandma Neumann had ten kids, another sign of a bygone era. To this day I cannot imagine the desire or willingness to reproduce that much. Farmhands, I suppose, but the concept of reproducing your help has always made me laugh, like a mediocre SNL sketch.

“We need more help milking cows.”

“Start pumping out babies!”

Delayed gratification, to say the least.

Last August, my parents and I went to Grandpa’s apartment and sat him down for a video interview. They thought it would be good to ask him some questions, get a few sound bytes on tape, and put together a little story about Paul Neumann’s life. I set up a camera and lights and we rolled for thirty minutes, my dad playing interviewer and prodding his dad along. Grandpa, like many his age, didn’t have a lot to say. Didn’t understand why we were doing this, thought it silly to have so much attention focused on him. But he answered, sometimes short and sometimes adequate, and as he got more comfortable, we’d see bits and pieces of the dry, sharp mind that stayed with him until the end.

“Why so many kids?” I asked at one point.

He answered without a beat. “We didn’t know what was causing it.”

Deadpan. Elite.

The thing I love about driving alone is after about seven hours, your mind begins to tune out the music or talk on the stereo and go about its business. No matter what you’re listening to, no matter how good or how engaging, the human brain can’t help but wander after all that time. And without anything else to latch on to, without any stimuli other than cows and cornfields, you think. No screens, no idle chatter, just thought. And before you know it, you’re making broad, sweeping examinations of your life and your activities. You’re stepping back and wondering, analyzing, asking. You’re introspecting. That’s where I was as I rumbled along between Kearney and Omaha. Wandering. In the shit.

During the interview, my dad asked my grandpa a lot about farming. About the challenges, the worries, the unreliable weather. The things that made it harder than most other jobs on the planet.

Grandpa thought awhile before answering.

“I…never really worried about anything,” he said finally. “Everything just kind of fell into place for me.”

Smoothed by time, dampened by nostalgia? Sure. But what a blessing, to be able to sit there at ninety-two years old, and look back on your life with such carefree simplicity.

Past Omaha and into Des Moines, halfway through an audiobook and just finished with Sea Stories the second time through, I had it all figured out. My life, my work, all of it. I would work harder, smarter. I would write fearlessly. I would build a humble empire and have the good sense to appreciate it. It was all laid out for me, by ten hours in the car and a gallon of coffee and good music and a wandering mind. It was all there. It made me smile as the sun began to drop, and I turned the music up.

Near the end of the interview, the end of the video, my dad asked wrap up questions. All-encompassing, to get any last thoughts out.

“What did you like best about farming?”

“It’s all I knew, Jerry,” Grandpa said. “It’s all I knew.”

He elaborated as much as he could, how he thought he was a good farmer, he had good neighbors, a good wife. How, for at least a period of time, as recognized by the Dairy Herd Improvement Association of America, he had one of the two best herds of cattle in McCloud County. The biggest boast he would allow himself.

“What about dislikes?” my dad asked.

Grandpa shook his head. “I forget all the bad things, Jerry. I just remember the good things.”

No, I didn’t have it figured out. You did, Gramps. You did because you knew enough not to try to figure it out. To make the life you want and be happy with it. To recognize that a good wife and good neighbors and a little professional pride are all you need. To remember the good things and not dwell on the bad things.

Into southern Minnesota, past Albert Lea, my thoughts turning back to the reason I was coming home. I didn’t have it figured out. Nope, not even close. But I didn’t need to. I don’t need to.

Life is a lot simpler than we make it. Thank you for showing me that.

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