Today is the day of leaving. It’s an odd thing to leave home without a real idea of how long you will be gone or exactly, precisely, where you will be while you are gone. I notice this each trip, but I don’t think I ever really spent much time on it before. Most of the time any of us goes anywhere, we have an exact idea — flight times, hotel reservations, outings, dinners, the works. When I leave, I know which direction I am going and I know the place I last stopped and I know when I have to be back home. That’s it. I believe it makes me more reflective on this first day. Whereas the night before, heck the weeks before, I’m all excited and thinking about the trip, on the day of leaving I tend to spend most of the day thinking about home. About how lucky I”be been to be able to go off on a wild hair like this. About how hard I worked to get that lucky. About how ridiculous it is to have a wife who loves me so much she is excited for me to go off on a wild hair like this. It’s completely nuts. But it also completely glorious. I don’t know how much time I have here and neither does anyone, but we can all make the most of what we have while we can. So, let’s go. Let’s leave.
I’ve talked before about the getting to and the going from. I have to get back to where I last left the edge before I can go from there around the edge some more. I hate boring drives, so I try to make the getting to as interesting, or at least marginally so, as the going from. For this leg, I need to get to Grand Forks, ND and go from there around the northern edge of Minnesota, the Upper Penninsula of Michigan, down the eastern edge of the “thumb” of Michigan and around the southern shore of Lake Erie to Niagara Falls. So, how to get from home to Grand Forks in some manner that holds one’s attention? My choice was the trail of tears to basically the Mississippi River, and then up the Mississippi via the Old River Road to its source near Bemdji, MN, and across the border to Grand Forks. Today was the Trail of Tears.
There isn’t one Trail of Tears. There are several. They represent the pathways some 16,000 or so American Indians — Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole and Chickasaw — travelled from the southeastern United States to Oklahoma. Oddly enough, my Great Grandfather would one day open a general Store in Oklahoma that served the coal miners and what was left of the Cherokee Indians who were trapped there. My Grandmother told stories about serving those people in the store and of their quiet dignity as they found ways to trade for their needs and somehow survive in a manner they’d never been taught among people they did not know. ONe a story of generations on the rise, the other, a story of the inevitably downward spiral of a people who were wards of the state. The tribes on the trail of tears didn’t go because they wanted to. They went at the less than cordial insistence of Andrew Jackson, primarily because there was gold in North Georgia and the Indians were in the way. As many as 5,000 Indians died on the way. I followed what was known as the Drane Route and the Deas-Whitley Route from. Fort Payne, Al to Tuscumbia Landing on the Alabama/Mississippi border. Today, that’s basically US Route 72. I’m sure the landscape was dramatically different back in the day, but there is no escaping the change from the rolling tail of the Appalachian Range to the flat lands of the Delta. A subsistence people must have wondered as they walked — in addition to to where in the world they were going — how they would apply their skills in their new land. How would they hunt, gather and commune in a country so different than their homeland. How they would establish the same pride and leadership without their freedom. How they would mourn those who died along the way, strangers in a strange land. Today it’s just a road from one place to another, but for them it was a death march to an unknown place and an unknown future. For me it is the beginning of a journey, for them it was the end of everything.
I enjoyed the drive — despite the awareness of its history. The soybeeans are yellow in the fall sunlight and, further west and north, the cotton fields reflected bright white in the setting sun. Traffic was light and the road was smooth and good. I was glad to be aware of those who had come before and glad to be able to appreciate their struggle in the context of their own time and in the context of the terrible choices made on behalf of a growing nation. I didn’t have to agree with those choices now anymore that I had to participate in them when they were made. But I did need to know about them. To reflect on them. To wonder how to manage change in a confusing time. And it helped to take it all in.
It’s possible that one way I ease the leaving is to make my first stop at the home in which I grew up. I did this last Spring, and I did it again today. I ended the day of leaving at my childhood home. Familiar, comfortable, and imminently safe. A good spot to leave my real home and proceed to the unknown. There will be challenges, choices, learnings and failings over the next weeks, but I will, like many before me, head off without expectations, hoping to find things of value. Tomorrow I will strike the Great Mississippi River and turn north to follow in the wake of Zebulon Pike in search of the source. I will use the Great River Road on both the east and west banks of the River as I head north, to the source and, ultimately to the edge, again. I have now left, and I’m ready to begin.