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13 July 2009 – On our way out the door in search of history and fish
I tried to slip out of bed without waking Jim this morning but he rolled over and mumbled, “Is it time for coffee? Are you up for all day?” I told him he could go back to sleep but that I was debating whether to read or write. The reading almost won out because I have an interesting library book about Etan Patz, the six year old boy who disappeared on his short walk to a bus stop on May 25, 1979. The author wrote the story because, even though this case changed everything about the way our society responds to child abductions, very few people remember exactly what happened in the years after Etan vanished from the sidewalk in his SoHo neighborhood.
I actually woke up thinking about white crosses and thinking about all the years Jim and I traveled with two little girls and their schoolbooks. One of the unexpected perks of teaching our own children was the ability to plan family vacations during the slow seasons in scenic mountain campgrounds and teaching in the classroom of the great outdoors. When the rest of the world had to get back to the routines of a school calendar we had the luxury of packing books into our little trailer and pointing our old Bronco west or north or toward any destination that sounded like fun. We did a lot of “delight-directed learning” in those days and found that the girls absorbed their lessons like thirsty sponges. Museums, old cemeteries and stunning landscapes were our classrooms and we all learned so much together.
Colorado and much of Wyoming get delicious weather in September and October. The heat of summer has peaked and is on its way back down into the moderate ranges. The mountains create their own weather but you can often find long stretches of bright sunny, warm days that dissolve into crisp, cold night air. I lost count of how many glorious autumn days we spent tromping through National Monuments and nights in front of a campfire discussing the English translation of words like Mesa Verde and Colorado. I remember watching my Dad teach Bradi how to create fire with friction and watching him set a paper cup full of water into the heat of the campfire. I remember listening to Heather reason why the cup wouldn’t burn and watching it singe down to the line where the water was slowly boiling itself away.
Forest Rangers and Tour Guides were happy to give our kids individual attention and would spend lots of time answering billions of questions. I remember a Ranger who was surprised at what the girls already knew about the Petrified Forest and their long discussion about tree identification as the three of them shook hands with “spiky Spruce” and “friendly Fir” trees. The girls were fascinated with a collection of 19th century toys in one old cabin and insisted that Papa build them each a set of their own stilts. He did and they practiced walking tall all over the state for years. We celebrated an old time Christmas in an old cabin one year and I came home with the best Gingerbread recipe. I can’t bake those cookies without remembering two little girls in prairie bonnets who helped the miner’s lady take the first fragrant batch out of a wood burning stove.
I remember a misty weekend in Georgetown when we took a history tour in a horse drawn wagon. The guides were grandparents of new homeschoolers and invited our girls to ride up front with Grandpa and the team of horses. The girls learned a little bit about the horses, a little bit about the historic Colorado mining town and they taught a few lessons of their own to a fellow who had never met homeschooled children. Grandpa and Grandma both thanked us for the visible proof that kids didn’t need to be “socialized” in a traditional classroom and that an individualized education could produce bright, inquisitive children who really enjoyed learning (and enjoyed Grandparents!). They were both thrilled to share the morning with us and reassured that their grandchildren could get a good education in this very traditional/untraditional fashion.
My folks traveled with us in those years and Jim remembers following their motor home through so much of scenic Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and even into the Canadian Rockies for weeks at a time. My Uncle Harve would host a huge family reunion on his Wyoming ranch during those years and even though it was summertime our kids were still learning. My Uncle and his family had parts in the Green River Rendezvous Pageant every year and our girls loved all the horses and teepees and the colorful history of mountain men, Indians and missionaries who met for this annual party on the plains. And when we weren’t at the pageant or in the museum the girls spent wonderful hours catching up with far flung cousins and learning the music and the family stories that tied me to my own far flung cousins.
This brings me to the white crosses that woke me this morning. We were traveling through South Dakota one summer in the 80s when we first noticed them. The small white crosses on the side of the road. When we got home I talked to a friend who was born and raised in South Dakota and asked if she knew anything about the crosses that dotted her state’s highways. She told me that she wasn’t really sure but it seemed that the tradition started on reservation lands and the crosses marked a location where a traveler was killed, a silent memorial to a victim of an auto accident. It wasn’t long before I noticed more crosses in Wyoming and Colorado too. Most were simple white wooden crosses but as the years passed we found more elaborate displays of affection and loss.
The newspapers picked up a debate between the state workers who were responsible for maintenance on the roadside and the mourners who kept planting memorials. Experts couldn’t decide if the markers were distracting drivers or were standing in mute testimony to draw attention to tight mountain curves or blind intersections. I know a treacherous curve where two larger crosses flanked three tiny crosses and even though the crosses aren’t there anymore I still pay particular attention to that spot where an entire family perished. Eventually, many highway departments conceded the need to mark these spaces where a life met eternity but they do it on their own terms with a memorial or “Don’t drink and drive” type of sign. The states must stamp out thousands of the same nondescript signs and add the name of the victims at the bottom. But I miss the uniqueness of the white crosses and pay special attention in the places where they still exist. I started my own tradition of uttering a prayer for the families represented by each cross. In some places I know the story behind the accident so I know a little about the people that I’m praying for, but it doesn’t matter because God knows each person affected by that particular tragedy.
I guess the tie between white crosses and a homeschooling family of vagabonds is just that I have my own white crosses of memory. Like the real white crosses, some remind me of sadness and loss. I pause before the houses where my aunts and uncles lived and loved me through my childhood or I stare at the lot where my Grandmother’s tiny house used to sit and those white crosses make me miss my loved ones even more. But most of my white crosses pop up as a delightful surprise when we drive through a town and Jim asks, “Do you remember our tour of the old jail and the way Bradi told the guide that she could break out of that rusty old cell just by talking and talking to the sheriff until he finally went crazy and let her out? Your Dad had a good laugh about that one!”
An imaginary white cross marks a mountain campground where I can see my newlywed husband crawling out of a snow covered tent and years later a Papa and two girls kicking through the rich smell of autumn under aspens ripe with golden leaves. I see an imaginary white cross every time we hit a certain barren section of Wyoming highway where I remember reading aloud from a book about an Amish woman’s life in Pennsylvania on the same trip we all learned how to spell the word “rendezvous”. A white cross marks the campground where Grandma taught Heather how to build a rock house and another marks the lake where Bradi earned the title “Wilderness Woman” from the boys who admired her ability to maneuver the canoe.
My life is rich with memories in these western states, some sad but an abundance of good and happy memories. I find a memory down every road I travel nearly every day and I feel blessed to have my own set of imaginary memorial markers planted here and there across this world of my own. I guess the most important thing is that I still remember to whisper a word of thanks.