The last leg

We left our friends in Minnesota and the realization that the journey of a lifetime is coming to an end. We were charting a course straight south through the Great Plains, hoping to hit the remaining four states of our goal to stay in 49 states. Although we stayed in Iowa once before, we had business to conduct in Clear Lake. 

Clear Lake, Iowa, is best known for the final moments of Buddy Holly. A modest memorial stands in the downtown area of the city, next to the Surf Ballroom, where Holly and Richie Valens and JP Richardson last performed before the fateful, blustery day when their plane went down five miles north and the music died. But for me, Clear Lake is something of a beginning, the start to this great adventure. Nearly four years ago, I bought Adie from a couple in Clear Lake who listed her for sale on eBay. My buddy, Neil, and I drove eleven hours in December of 2018 to pick her up. His wife, Kay, had passed away a week earlier and within the next month I would be in the throes of a divorce where I would lose most of my possessions, save the VW bus. I had no idea where the next several years would take me, where the bus would take me, that Neil would be along for the ride and sometimes be our savior and always our friend. I had no idea I would end up living with Neil or later the bus, that I would be married to Miracle, the reference librarian from work, one day. I didn’t know there was a perfect rescue pup named Jolene out there and that she would be the consummate travel companion. Hell, I didn’t know I would love wine or grow my hair long again. 

I wanted to go back to Clear Lake and talk to the folks, James and Miranda, who sold me Adie. I wanted to get them on tape, hear the stories of this bus I now call home, learn a little more about her life before. They obliged and we met up. I was nervous, unsure what they would think about my renovations, hoping they could appreciate that I had to suit Adie to my needs. I remembered that James said he and his father-in-law spent hours working on it together and I hoped that I hadn’t sullied their memories. They were incredibly gracious and gave a great interview (and Miranda’s dad was there for it!). 

For the past few days, the bus had been leaking. Well, more than leaking—spewing, spurting—oil. I told James I planned to fix it at the campsite that evening and he implored me to check my pride and use his driveway where he had tools and a decent jack. So, the next morning, we drove Adie back to her former residence where we made one last driveway repair. 

Then we barreled south, breaking our vow to keep to the backroads, we merged onto I-35 South, toward Kansas—state #46. 

As we met folks along this journey who had lived in or frequented Kansas, we would ask what we needed to see or do when we passed through. Time and time again, we heard, “nothing!” or “drive quickly.” But doing nothing is not our thing and VWs—especially one who only a day ago was bleeding from the gut like a Western duelist after a last heroic gun battle—do not go quickly into any good night. We had a destination—a driveway stay with a gentleman named Pat who contacted us on Facebook. He said he had a cool spot to park by a pond and showers. In a follow-up email he said we could come in for dinner and that his area, the Flint Hills, were worth seeing. 

I could go on and on about the Flint Hills—how the wildflowers and thistles stand out vibrant and vivacious against the last stands of tall prairie, how the roads sling and roll high and low with vistas to each side, strong trees with Atlas shoulders and stone houses, how the sky stretches to the very edge of vision and it feels like you could look east to west watching sunset and rise in all one breath—but Pat and his family are the real story here. 

We arrived and Pat asked how we liked our steak. Steak in this region is like seafood on the shore, beer in Ireland, bread from an Amish farm, or poutine in Canada. It is serious business and Miracle has had a hankering for steak for some time. Meaning months. Like several months. 

We pulled over an isolated restaurant/post office/axle repair/RV park in the middle-of-nowhere Alaska because the sign outside advertised steak. Predictably, they did not have steak. In fact, the woman who took our order laughed at Miracle when she asked about steak. “For the price I would have to charge you,” the woman said, “I would need to wear a bandana over my face and have a pistol in my hand.” She had the twenty-dollar chicken nuggets. 

So a steak from the heart of beef country was a real treat. Pat’s wife, Steph, prepared pasta salad, corn on the cob, and sautéed mushrooms. Our hosts—who we had never met in person until just minutes before we sat down for dinner—were beyond hospitable. We interviewed Pat the next morning and he shared part of a manuscript about his bus that he has been working on. (Tune in to Season 9 for that episode; you’ll want to hear this interview.) 

Pat also has a VW Thing. If you’re not familiar with the Thing that’s because most of them are stored in barns moldering away in various states of disrepair. Not Pat’s. He offered to take me out on the trails of his property and then on the gravel roads of the Flint Hills. It was the way to experience Kansas: windshield down, dust flaring up behind us, open land stretching out to either side. 

We continued on to Oklahoma for our final interview of this project—a woman, Amanda, who contacted us a year ago and said we should swing through Bartlesville and she would tell us about her sustainable farm, Ragtag Resilience. When we arrived, we were greeted by the sweet, savory aroma of curry turkey with a full spread of sides straight from Amanda’s garden. Curry, as it turns out, is Miracle’s other favorite dish and an itch she has rarely been able to scratch over this past year. Not only was the food delicious, but Amanda’s interview promises to be amazing as well. She catered and provided food for the cast of the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon. (Again, you’ll have to wait for Season 9.)

After taking in the only Frank Lloyd Wright skyscraper and the last of the tall prairie, we turned west to Arkansas, hoping for cooler weather, fewer oil leaks, and the climb northward, back toward home (with a few planned detours). 

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