The Road West was Invigorating

The road west was invigorating.  I felt like a 21st century Daniel Boone.  How nice, for once, to be heading west away from Interstate 95, away from the suffocating traffic and the grinding slowdowns, away from the endless progression of mega-cities, formidable in their inescapable blockade of cement, bricks and steel.

After two years of driving east and visiting the cache of schools catering to the upper crust, I had had enough.  Taking our daughter westward to college in Chicago was a welcomed change, a drive into the America never seen, the American Heartland, wide open, and inviting in its geographic splendor.

Sure, I have been to Chicago, though mostly to transfer planes in O’Hare on my way west or on my way home.  Always my mode of travel had been through the air and, if the city itself was my destination, my stay was brief.

Often it was to visit the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a significant foundation in the U.S. and a frequent funder of our work.

On one occasion, back when my daughter Helen was a baby, we actually hosted the MacArthur Board of Trustees at our La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica.  At the time, the MacArthur Board was comprised of a distinguished group of seventy and eighty year olds, including a Nobel laureate, but, if truth be told, the closest that any of them had gotten to nature was the one or two who played nine holes of golf once or twice a month.

We treated the twenty member board to the joy of entering our research compound through the primary forest.  We drove them by four-wheel drive vehicles to the Puerto Viejo River, asked them cross the river in small motor boats, and walked with them into the station over one of our most scenic trails with several of the world’s top tropical biologists as their personal guides.

It was an incredible day, but I’ll never forget standing next to the massive buttress of a huge forest canopy tree listening to one of the biologists explaining to a small group of board members the close relationship between certain species of trees and ants and realizing the tingling sensation that I had been feeling was hundreds of ants crawling over my shoes and up my legs.

I can remember the ants crawling up to my crotch while the distinguished group of octogenarians listened enthralled to the researcher.

As the group walked on with their guide, I whipped off my pants, inspected my shorts, and stomped on my trousers over and over until I absolutely was sure every ant was either dead or dying.  For a fundraiser, saving the world’s biodiversity only goes so far!

As a dad, when my wife Karen and I took Helen to Costa Rica back when she was in middle school, we assured her if she ever had ants in her pants, I would stomp on them too!

Perhaps my favorite time in Chicago occurred when Helen was about three or four, my staff and I had organized an evening fundraiser in the windy city for our field station in southern Costa Rica which had suffered from a devastating fire the year before.

We held our event in the board room on the 45th floor of the Stone Container building in downtown Chicago; I remember the room had a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan and all the surrounding neighborhoods in their twinkling glory.

The special guest that evening was Josette Figueres, the wife of the president of Costa Rica at the time.  She was a beautiful woman who flew up to Chicago to help us attract friends of Costa Rica to the event.  She was surrounded by four burly body guards, but she couldn’t have been sweeter and stayed the entire evening.

We invited her to go out to dinner with us after the event, and she almost did, but the guards wouldn’t let her!

This was the first of several fundraisers that year, including one that President Figueres, himself, participated in at the Rockefeller Center in New York City, and through these efforts and the generous support of hundreds of people from Costa Rica and the United States, including a wonderful group from the University of Chicago, the station was able to recover fully.

As a result, from my various trips and interactions, I actually liked Chicago a lot, and, for the life of me, I don’t know why we never took time to visit the University when we were looking at colleges in Helen’s junior year in high school.

At the time we didn’t think twice about driving to DC and then onto Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Penn in Philadelphia, Columbia in New York City, Yale in New Haven, and Harvard in Boston and, of course, the numerous schools in between.

In fact, during the period when Helen was considering Columbia as her first choice, we drove to New York City three times; I remember seeking out different ways to puncture the membrane of highways protecting Manhattan, hating the downward bumper-to-bumper swirl of congestion that is the Lincoln Tunnel, or suffering through the confusion of entering and departing the George Washington Bridge time and time again.

Yet when it came to the University of Chicago, we decided hands down not to visit.  However, in the end, when Helen couldn’t decide between Columbia and Duke here at home, we flew to the University of Chicago almost out of desperation, and even though Helen only spent three hours on campus, she declared that it was exactly what she was looking for in a school, strong, science-based, seven miles from the downtown area with a beautifully gothic, urban campus.

Just one problem, it was fourteen hours from home, nowhere near family and friends, and on roads never explored.  Well, that’s not exactly true, but the roads that my friend, Lynn Ramsay, and I traveled after college (me) and the military (him), and the roads I traveled with my teenage friends, Ron Utz, Max Hutton, and Russ Pensinger, back in high school when we visited my oldest sister Holly and her husband Pete at the University of Tennessee, and the roads my family and I traveled in our station wagon back when I was in elementary school when we drove to Disneyland and the Seattle World’s Fair, all dissolved into a soup of conflicting routes and vague remembrances.

On this particular occasion, the road west would be a hard-driving trip straight to Chicago, the result of which would be not a campus visit, not a class trip, not a summer camp, not even a vacation, but a loss, a significant loss.  We would leave with three and come back with two.  The child who always sat in the back would no longer be back there, but would go on with her life, while Karen and I simply went home.

A joyous trip, then, of impending sadness.  On this final occasion, the road to separation went west through Winston Salem, turned north past Hanging Rock and straight into Virginia.

I remember catching Helen’s eye in the rearview mirror as we crossed the North Carolina line and smiling, looking for her smile too.

The road turned west again, climbed over the first range of mountains, went under the Blue Ridge Parkway, before descending down into Shenandoah Valley.

A short stint on Interstate 81 with its fleeting memories of roaring to Knoxville with Ron, Max, and Russ, and soon it was back into the mountains again heading north to West Virginia.

Long after Virginia should have faded in my rearview mirror, it was still with us and refusing to let go.  The second tunnel did the trick though, and bursting out on the other side, we were suddenly in the bright light of West Virginia.

I announced we had crossed the state line, but Karen pointed to Helen who, like on so many other occasions when we drove somewhere far away, was sound asleep.

The southern part of West Virginia was beautiful, and though the mountains define the area and the state, they seemed more graceful and easier to navigate in the south.  However, we were heading north and after sweeping bends, long climbs, and steep descents, we soon were driving along one well-defined river valley full of steel mills and industry, tough, tight-knit neighborhoods and dirty buildings, and everywhere commuter traffic.

A statement from Helen saying something like, “What’s that smell?” announced she was awake and that we had arrived in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia.  Soon we would have the choice of heading west to Eastern Kentucky or turning north again to Ohio.

With Helen being the deciding voice, north we went and shortly found ourselves in the first of thousands of acres of corn that, we discovered, is the core crop of America’s farmland.  Corn fields to the right and left of us that rolled along with us as we drove 70 to 80 miles an hour for two days on end.

It appears that Ohio and Indiana must have given their souls to the corn, and I can’t help but believe many other states have done so as well.  However, it was beautiful, the endless rows of corn as far as the eye could see.

In the rearview mirror Helen was chewing on her lip, and this time I didn’t reprimand her, but, in fact, assured her, once more, she would love college.

We drove northwest across the very heart of Ohio, and I realized in seeing signs for a small town ahead, that this was where Lynn Ramsay and I had stopped to borrow thirty dollars from his grandmother in order to make it back to Gettysburg from our trip out west nearly 35 years earlier.

I tried to remember if we ever had repaid her, but as I drove past the exit, I literally couldn’t recall.  Could it be in bringing our five-month camping adventure to a fitting conclusion, we had totally forgotten to send her back her money?

I had an urge to turn around and apologize for our embarrassing failure, but realized just as quickly that Lynn Ramsay’s grandmother was long dead; Lynn’s mother was dead too; his brother was dead, and Lynn was hiding from the grim reaper in Northern Maine.

Yet, now, with this memory of being in his grandmother’s house so close by, our trip seemed like just yesterday; where did the time go; why were we driving Helen to college so soon?

A short while later we entered another world when we turned west onto the Ohio Turnpike; I realized quickly that trucks of all sizes and speeds literally dominated the road.

Though, that evening, I’ll never forget, once again, like on so many trips in my life, rolling west toward a glorious sunset and experiencing that old familiar urge to drive on, to never stop.

When I suggested we keep on going, like the truckers, all the way to California, Karen and Helen thought it was a great idea, but that night, outside of Indianapolis, we did stop, as planned, and got a room in a local Best Western near the highway– Helen and Karen in one bed, me in the other.

We had stayed in hundreds of hotels like this from when Helen was a baby through the many years in between.  Would this be one of our last nights sharing a room together?

The next day we woke up a little tired, a little more melancholy.  (For the first time I can recall, Karen told Helen not to put her dirty clothes in our bag but pack them back in her own luggage and wash them at school.)

A horrible continental breakfast later and we were on the highway speeding north to Chicago.  However, it was seeing the hundreds of windmills in the distance that perked us up and told me things were going to be different.

Rumbling through a massive windmill farm right in the middle of Indiana’s cornfields, just south of one of our largest cities, now that had to be a good sign!

Subsequently, the first thing I realized in entering Chicago was the lack of struggle navigating the local highways.  The city is located quite literally next to Lake Michigan on the East but is open to the great expanse of the heartland on the west.  It appears to have room to stretch; neither incestuous nor cannibal-like, yet with space to reinvent itself over and over.

At our exit, it started to rain, and, surprisingly, within minutes we were parking on the university campus.  With the rain, our unease increased ten-fold, and, to add to the tension, no one could remember where we had packed our umbrellas.

For our trip we had rented a Chrysler Town and Country mini-van that we had loaded to the windows with boxes and boxes of clothing, dormitory needs, including pictures, cds, dvds, laptop accessories and food, a half dozen blankets, desk materials, loads of coats and hundreds of shoes and boots, but where the heck was her umbrella?  –Clearly this was a case of a bunch of hick Southerners getting their only daughter ready for the much-dreaded-and-talked-about-all-summer Chicago winter, while at the same time forgetting about its rain.

Our first stop, then, was to the campus bookstore for three cheap umbrellas; our second stop was for hot chocolate; and our third stop was back to the van for coats to take a rain-soaking walk to the center of the campus!

The heart of the University of Chicago is a beautifully landscaped square two blocks long in each direction surrounded by large gothic buildings.  Behind these buildings are smaller quads of additional gothic buildings.

Most impressive for us walking in the rain were the gardens and scenic greenery surrounding the buildings.  I loved the benches strategically placed on the grounds obviously intended for students, faculty, and visitors to enjoy the views.

Unlike Columbia which had ropes to keep people off the grass, here one could walk on the grass, lie on the grass, eat the grass, and no one, it would seem, appeared to mind.  Perhaps, this was because most of the year the grass was under a foot of snow, who knows…

Actually, though, the University of Chicago is located not above the Arctic Circle but in the South Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, a beautiful, tree-lined neighborhood of brownstones and apartment buildings.

As we drove around that evening, I was reminded of similar streets in the Eastern cities where the young well-to-do live just minutes from the downtown.  I could see in the rearview mirror Helen was definitely checking things out.  Was there a smile?

We were told President Obama maintains his residence here, but it was not worth the effort to find his house as the street is heavily guarded.

Once, before Helen was born, on my first trip to Costa Rica, my Costa Rican colleague stopped across the street from the house of Oscar Arias in San Jose; Arias was the president at the time and had received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the settlement between the Sandinistas and the Contras in Nicaragua.  His house was guarded by a single policeman sitting in a car reading a local newspaper.

My friend suggested quite proudly that I could run up to the front door and have my picture taken.

Now, more than twenty years later, I was stuck finding mundane things for my daughter like a hardware store, a supermarket, and, finally, the local pharmacy.

Later that night we ate Italian and Helen ordered a small Chicago-style pizza, which I thought was getting into the spirit of things, until after one slice she announced she was full!  We couldn’t leave the pizza with so much uneaten, so Karen gave it to a homeless man outside the restaurant.

Unfortunately, with so much to do in Chicago, our last night together was spent lying on two queen-size beds in the glare of a tiny television at the Ramada Inn.

The next morning it was hard getting Helen up and, on top of that, breakfast seemed to be delivered from the Best Western in Indianapolis.

This was not a good sign for Helen’s move-in day, but surprisingly, like the glorious autumn morning that we drove into from the hotel garage, we were in store for two tremendous days in the hands of U. Chicago.

At the dorm, teams of students ran up to our car wheeling large yellow bins and emptied everything from the van into three of them.  In minutes I was driving the empty van to a distant parking lot while Karen and Helen were moving all of her stuff into her fifth floor room.

It was hard not to linger, to stay, to hover, but soon we were off to the house master’s tea on the first floor and a family lunch at the cafeteria near her dorm.

That afternoon was filled with joint activities, and, at one point, we had our picture taken by the IT staff.  In the picture we appear to be very happy and the sadness of the occasion seems to be long gone from our faces.

At 5 PM though, it was time to let Helen go to a mandatory dorm meeting and her first night with her new roommate, a girl from Menlo Park, California.

Interestingly, every student we met was from somewhere in America other than Chicago.  It was incredible how far students had come: in California, in addition to Menlo Park, we talked to kids from San Diego and Sacramento. We interacted with families from Arizona, Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Indiana, Virginia, and Colorado…

It was reassuring in a way; Helen was entering a collegiate melting pot, and we were no different than the hundreds of other parents facing similar issues of distance and loss.

The next morning, we were invited to a parents breakfast on campus, to a series of parents-only presentations, to lunch with our daughter in her modern cafeteria, and, finally, to sit together one last time for a mid-afternoon convocation at the beautiful Rockefeller Chapel on campus.  This was all scripted, and we followed it out to its dramatic conclusion.

The University has a long-held tradition in separating the students from their parents.  After the convocation, students, parents, staff, and administration stream out of the chapel and fall in behind four bagpipers and two officials carrying the University and Class maroon banners as they walk up University Avenue and then turn to lead the procession across the quads to an iron-wrought gate at the far end of the farthest quad where it is tradition for the parents to turn aside while their child walks on through the gate to the cheers of hundreds of upper classmen.

For the students, the schedule calls for them to get their class picture taken on one of the athletic fields, followed by meetings in their dormitories, dinner, and an evening social at their house master residence.

So the tradition is that the parents will say goodbye before reaching the gate.  Those parents who want to linger could go to a special reception hosted by the president, but, otherwise, their day is done; they were expected to make their long treks home back to California, Arizona, New Jersey, Colorado, or North Carolina.

For us, the morning went quickly, but things started getting heavy by lunch time.  Karen and Helen were reviewing check lists verbally for the tenth time, questions were being asked about procedures with a lot of “I don’t know’s,” and packages were promised on items suddenly needed or perceived missing.

At the chapel, waiting for the doors to open, it was like living in a time warp, time was racing by, but each minute was long and lasting, or later, sitting in a pew with Helen between us, feeling her presence, just like on so many occasions, or, more importantly, like six months earlier when we witnessed the joy of a family wedding or two months later the sadness of Karen’s mother’s funeral.

Together again for another family occasion: Helen’s convocation.   After songs from the choir and speeches from a number of deans and vice-presidents, the president of the University stands at the podium and talks about the University of Chicago’s long history of academics and its accomplishments, and he ends his speech with a statement something like, “parents, we trust you have raised your children right, to work hard, to be good citizens, and we ask you now to trust us with your child for the next four years; students, we trust that you have earned your place in our institution, that you deserve to be here, now, we ask you to trust us with your education, no one is more important to us than you.”

For some reason this really got to me.  Trust.  Helen, you have trusted us all of your life, now we trust that you can handle Chicago, that you will make smart decisions, that you will have hundreds of wonderful stories, that you will push yourself academically, that you will do the right things in your life.

Helen!  Listen to me.

Everyone in the chapel stands and joins the choir in singing the school’s alma mater and then outside I can hear them, the bagpipers beginning their joyous yet mournful drone.

The chapel stirs, the bells start tolling and everyone files out into a long procession, just like they said.

And we’re walking up the street and the bells and the bagpipes are filling the air.

And it’s hard to breathe; it’s hard to say important things.

Across the center of campus we go with Helen between us hand-in-hand, and we’re struggling to get it out:  we trust you, trust in yourself, you belong here, we love you, we love…

Too soon, too soon, the gate is upon us and the momentum of the procession is pushing Helen away from us and toward the gate.

Hundreds of students on the other side are cheering and blowing horns and waving signs and clacking bells and there’s no time, no time, a quick hug, a squeeze of hands, and she’s gone.



Categories: Essays, Memoir, Travels

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