In early 2013 Julia and I took a road trip to visit where I grew up for a family reunion. Over the weekend of April 27, the two of us trekked across a national border, three states and deep into the green cornfields of Nebraska, the Cornhusker state. It was a fascinating trip with lots of memorable moments.
We packed the Mazda full and left on the Friday after work. Crossing the border was smooth and easy, which was nice! While it wasn’t Julia’s first time visiting the states, it was the deepest in that she’s been. North Dakota was flat and very similar to Manitoba. South Dakota however was a real treat. The evening sunset was just gorgeous, so I stopped to take photos. I was reminded how the indigenous peoples considered this land sacred. With scenery like this, it’s pretty easy to see why. Overall, we took our time, stopped when we felt like stopping and enjoyed the ride. We were bracing for an intense return drive in two days.
We stopped for the night at Watertown, South Dakota. The next morning, instead of heading directly to Henderson, we stayed along the border, following the Missouri river to Omaha. The Lied Jungle was calling for us! It didn’t take too long to get to Omaha, but man, the city driving was nuts! It was hard to know where one was going in an American city with all the freeways! Yikes!
We reached the Henry Doorly Zoo in the early afternoon. It was PACKED. I haven’t seen so many young families, ever, I think. Children were everywhere, and the paths were stroller freeways. It was nice being in that energy, but it was, yes, a zoo. We went through the aquatic exhibit where we saw penguins flipping, sliding and diving. Polar bears swam around and looked cuddly enough to pet through two-inch thick glass.
Then we entered the jungle and took a nice walk through the treetops where we saw marsupials chillaxing in the trees, leatherback turtles so slow down below, bright birds fluttering madly and massive fish leisurely swimming around. We ducked into some dark places and saw lizards, snakes and tarantulas. After the jungle we walked through a desert exhibit which brought us up close and personal with an arid climate that reminded us of Portugal. We cavorted with foxes and hummingbirds and ferocious looking plants. It was late afternoon when we said goodbye to the zoo.
We then met up with an old friend I had grown up with from Henderson. Tim Friesen and his lovely wife Karla welcomed us into their home. We swapped stories, reconnected and learned about each other’s life paths. Tim then grilled up some fantastic Omaha steaks and we played a board game called Ticket to Ride late into the evening. It was great meeting and seeing old friends and being introduced to new games!
The next morning Julia and I checked out a restaurant that Karla had suggested, Wheatfields. And it was unbelievable! Their breakfasts were spellbinding. It felt like a Stellas in Winnipeg, as it had that kind of air and the same kind of attention to detail. Most everything on the menu was locally sourced. It’s one place Julia and I will visit when we are in Omaha again.
Then, with Omaha at our backs we headed across the flat belly of Nebraska under a clear sky streaked with a few high clouds. It’s around a two-hour drive from Omaha to the town where I grew up. Or, one and a half Hardy Boys books away. Driving into the town was pretty eerie. I haven’t visited in a very long time. I turned onto Main Street and there was a crowd! The crowd consisted of perhaps a half dozen vehicles and a dozen people. Otherwise, the street was entirely empty. Good ol’ Henderson.
I pulled up and people who looked like they had stepped out of a time machine greeted me. Cousins who I last remembered as adolescents now have miniature versions of themselves! (Chad, I’m looking at you!) Everyone was familiar, but not. The welcome was warm, and hugs and smiles were shared all around. We went into a restaurant called Dutch Kitchen and had what would have been a Sunday lunch for us all about twenty years ago.
A perogie stuffed with cottage cheese, vrenika is a favorite Mennonite food for much of the family. At Dutch Kitchen, they also served it with kiltke, a white sauce that was dripped over. Often there is diced ham in the kiltke. Mashed potatoes rounded out the high-carb lunch. This was the real deal, made by someone who had been making it for years, and it brought us home! We sat for a while, talking and chatting with each other, just getting caught up. It was good to see the different families. Ardean and Julie live in the Henderson area, as well as Kermit and Mary. Neal and Anita Buller were up from Kansas with their family. Of course, then there’s the cousins, the group of people that I’m most familiar with, as we’re all around the same age. It was really awesome seeing and meeting everyone. I hadn’t seen people for a very long time, and it was great reconnecting.
After lunch, a few of us went and checked out the car that Matt had been working on for a while. It looked and sounded awesome. That was a real powerhouse!
Then, on the way out to Ardean’s, my parents decided to swing by our old place. Dad pulled into the driveway, and the people that live there were in the yard. We stopped, said ‘Hi’ and they welcomed us with the warm Midwestern hospitality. The house had been updated and didn’t have wallpaper from the eighties any more, so that was different. A lot had been done to the interior, and it looked fantastic! I had a chance to see my old room, which had a big bed blocking most of the light from the window. It was a darker room now. It was when we visited the back yard that I got the biggest shock.
Right where my old sandbox had been, a large oak tree had grown up. It didn’t look like it was only twenty years old. It looked like it had always been there. And hanging from the tree were massive wind chimes. I kind of wanted to climb it and sit in it and read a book. That was hard to wrap my head around.
We said our goodbyes to the people living there, and then continued on our way to to Julie and Ardean’s place. They have a very nice home a few miles from town.
We played botchee ball that afternoon with the kids and chatted and swapped more stories. I shared booklets of my story ‘Bluebirds’ with people. The cousins, meaning myself and my brother, Chad and Todd and Chris and Matt decided to play a basketball game on the driveway. A few fingers got sprained, but I’m pretty sure we all had fun. Julie had prepared dinner and it filled us with warm comfort food in the places of warm, comfortable memories from twenty years ago.
The sun began to set and cast its long shadows across the prairies. Evening came, and despite the feeling of only just starting to reconnect with others, it was time for people to move on. Neil and his family left for Kansas as it was a considerable drive. Julia and I retired to my cousin Chris and his wife Cami’s house, where Chris and I had a few beers at a fire pit and talked life. It was really good to have a heart to heart with family I haven’t had the opportunity to visit with in such a long time.
In the morning it was time to book it back to Winnipeg, as it was a LONNNG drive! I think we got back to Winnipeg around 10 that night.
I just want to say thank you to everyone who made this happen! Thanks to everyone for making the effort and coming out. Thanks Julie for hosting and planning the event! Thanks to Chris for opening his home and letting Julia and I stay. Thanks to Mom, Dad and my brother for making the journey out to Nebraska from Virginia! Thanks to Neil and his family to coming up from Kansas! I’m sure there’s more thanks to go that I don’t remember right now, so I just want to say THANKS to everyone for the great reunion.