Leaving Denver for Chicago set in the undeniable sensation of the road trip entering the home stretch. It didn’t matter that I was still taking the van further and further away from its port of call, as aside from the attractions that had been visited and checked off along the way, Chicago was the ultimate goal; it gave the road trip a very tangible purpose. It was also the first section of the road trip that had any feeling of barren landscape; not because there was nothing in between Denver and Chicago, but because we had not defined any incomparable sights or attractions, and we were almost all approaching the next two days as more of a means to an end rather than an appreciation of the journey itself… we were all too antsy to get to Rockford, Illinois and see the rest of our friends.
We left the Denver area in the late afternoon of the fourteenth and drove into the night, our goal was simply to tackle as much of Nebraska as possible. Follow I-70 on the Platte River as far east as we reasonably could until we had to call it a night. Emerson had the foresight to log onto his Couchsurf account and throw out requests to anyone anywhere in central Nebraska who might have a chance of hosting us. It was a long shot to say the least. We were after all, a van of ten people looking for lodging on a half-days notice. It was little more than a shot in the dark. Or so we thought, as Emerson’s request was answered by an overwhelmingly unconditional response by a pastor in his late twenties, Brady, who was more than happy to house us for the night, no matter how late we arrived, and in no way worried about the fact that it was not one, or two, but ten people. And so it was done. We hauled to Kearney, a college town in central Nebraska, arriving just before 1am. Brady eagerly welcomed us, and made sure we all had a place to sleep. As I walked into his house which he shared with several other roommates, I noticed his dining room immaculately set with ten chairs and place mats. In return for his amazing hospitality we cooked Brady his breakfast of choice the next morning, biscuits and gravy with bacon, compliments to the two chefs of the morning; Ben and Emerson.
We left Brady’s house by late morning and covered ground quickly over the vast flat plains of eastern Nebraska. A group decision was made to stop in Omaha, partly because it was the perfect time for a lunch break, and also because it validated our claims to having visited Nebraska by seeing its largest city. Omaha was relaxed and welcoming, its old market in downtown a surprise of refurbished and re- purposed century old brick architecture turned into boutique shops and affordable restaurants. I had all-you-can-eat sushi for lunch, and was surprised at the quality of it, considering I was in the dead center of the country nowhere near any ocean. George loved it to the point that we almost had to roll him out of the restaurant. Once we’d all had our lunch fill we crossed over the Missouri River, through Council Bluffs, and into the rolling hills of Iowa.
Iowa surprised me. I thought the western part of the state was beautiful, with gently rolling hills punctuated by broad flat rivers and dense waterside foliage. It was a partly cloudy day, with varying spots of overcast and strong sunshine, and when the sun did shine through, the rays cast a dancing glare on the rotating blades of the giant turbines that dotted much of the state’s western landscape. I had trouble grasping the scale of the turbines. They were scattered over the hills, but stood independent of any other landmarks, making their size deceiving, and their presence foreboding like the giant heads of Easter Island. At one point I passed an 18 wheeler carrying a single turbine blade, nearly 100ft long and ten feet wide, dwarfing the powerful truck that towed it.
Ben’s dad graciously hosted us for the night. He was a physics professor at Iowa State University in Ames, now retired, and lived about a mile north of the campus in a modest and comfortable duplex. His only roommate was a big, sluggish, and friendly tabby cat named Sid who loved to meow and hold a stare with his globe-sized eyes. Ben’s father declined the offer for us to make him breakfast in the morning, instead opting to have a one-on-one breakfast with his son. I thought it was perfect, as they would not have had the opportunity to get any personal time otherwise. Once we had all eaten, packed, and taken the obligatory panaromic photo with our host, we were again on our way, and merely five short hours away from Rockford, Illinois, and everyone else. It was a drive we did quickly and barely noticed, as our minds were all on the reunion.
The kinetic energy of our first ten minutes, of our first night in Rockford, was unreal. So many strong friends and personalities back together again. An odd grouping of people that in many ways had little in common, although everything in common over the last three months. It is a strange bond we share, and one that isn’t easily equated or explained. For the month and a half that we had been displaced back to our homes in America we felt as if our cohort of 55 was the only group we could relate to, and for many reasons it was true. Being pulled together once more made it like old times, like our seven weeks in Bo and Freetown. And that’s how it was for four days. We partied, visited Chicago, went to a Cubs game, made our own slip-n-slide, had jam sessions, played any and all drinking games that came to mind, and took advantage of all ways to enjoy our company for one last time.
That was very much the final reality of the experience. As much fun as we all had together, as much as we clicked in many ways and exhibited similarities that we rarely found in life otherwise, our Chicago reunion was closure. Most of us will not see each other again, ever. We were thrust into a situation in Sierra Leone where we would have formed strong bonds and a very real reliance on each other as a necessary support system for two years. Many of us could have surely been friends for life. Instead we made a handful of very close friends each, and the rest of the people we encountered and had the chance to interact with, briefly or even consistently, will probably fade into old contacts or brief encounters that won’t mean much years down the road. It makes me think of the last encounter that Emerson and Mary, the PCV now in Yellowstone, had. Mary helped us book a campground for two nights, and showed us around Yellowstone; a wonderful host. Our last minutes together were spent in the Old Faithful Lodge; we were taking turns stealing showers in the hotel bathrooms. I was in the shower, but after we left Emerson relayed his last talk with Mary. She’d told him, “We didn’t really hang out in Salone, but it’s been cool getting to know you and everyone else the last two days,” He told me how he agreed with her sentiment, and added that he’d see her soon. Mary replied “No, I’ll probably never see you again”.
That sentiment inevitably came too in Rockford. After several days partying, watching and playing games, people had flights buses and trains to catch. New obligations starting soon. We slowly said goodbye to each other over those four days, and as we were magnetically drawn to Chicago for the weeks prior, we shot away, polarized by our different new commitments, and different directions of home. The Peace Corps road trip hopped on the freeway and finally turned back west.