On the road, from MO to FL (or summer travels: Part Ten)

What follows is a lightly edited and mostly stream-of-consciousness travel log of my journey from Florida to California and back again.

20160617 – Friday

I woke up in the morning around 730a, and felt like moving. On the drive over to the campsite, I had indulged in some gas station pizza and a donut and Pringles, to keep me awake and fed while I drove through the food desert of Missouri, especially at night. Feeling groggy and slow, I knew that moving would reinvigorate me.

Additionally, this was my first morning back around sea level— at altitude, I thought the added stress of a movement session would be excessive. So, I got to a simple workout with my kettlebell, some overhead squats, and lunges. After that, I brewed the morning coffee, rinsed off with a quick bandanna shower, and packed up the tent.

Camping by myself is a very lean process, I’m learning what I need to bring and what I don’t. What things are toys that are fun to have, and what things are dead weight and taking up space. I unpack and unspool the Toyota in waves, more and more of my things are brought forth with a longer stay and more comfort implied. Only the essentials for a quick 8hr stay like last night. I fully unpacked, cleaned, and then repacked the Camry at my partner’s home. I think the next time the silver steed will get a good scrub is back in Jacksonville at my parent’s, tomorrow. Then, the long road trip is over.

But before that, I need to cross Missouri and visit Big Spring, the site of my engagement on the westbound journey.

Since last time, about three weeks ago and with my partner, the water bubbling out of the eponymous Big Spring seemed to calm a bit, though still quite vigorous. The water is a lovely turquoise and I’m glad to see that the water level no longer covers part of the path leading to the bridge and the foamy mouth of the spring. The constant churn of water is the only sound nearby and a stone walkway takes you along a cliff face to an odd convergence of rocks, with the active river on the other side. As you walk the trail, you approach what seems to be a bridge over the river, when you realize that the path merely hugs the cliff face and continues further along solid rock, while the water comes directly from the earth below. A small set of caves hide along the faux bridge, ones I never explored because I am not a cave person.

A few weeks ago, with my partner, I proposed on this little bridge. It felt right, as we had conferred and discussed marriage many times with the engagement strongly implied but never performed. So, I bent on a single knee and said the words, and she said yes. Coming back here, it feels very familiar like an old childhood playground, though my partner’s presence is dearly missed.

I’ve written a great deal while standing here, in front of Big Spring, with the thrashing flow of water playing as my background music. I cannot wait to return here— the water is tasty, the acoustics divine, and the memories sweet.

To be honest, I am a bit troubled by the idea of Big Spring. If the thousands of gallons of water a minute were not actively streaming out of the bedrock, then there would be a significant hole in the earth leading down into the depths. The deep depths. Big holes concern me, as they should any engaged citizen: look at what happened to Bruce Wayne.

My next stop will be in Tennessee. I’ll be visiting my paternal grandmother in her skilled nursing home. My mother asked me to bring her some Chinese food and I look forward to the charming and probably awkward meeting. She doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Korean, but we do love each other in an abstract idea sort of way.

With fresh spring water collected from the site of my engagement, I hit the road and continued east, hoping to arrive at my grandmother’s around 6p, before sunset.

In the suburban, but hilly, outskirts of Clarksville, TN, I stopped at China Chef to pickup a small order of egg drop soup for my grandmother. A mere minute or two drive later, I’m standing outside Grace Healthcare, an L-shaped building with a small courtyard beyond the parking lot. I parked next to an empty school bus and walk into the busy lobby.

The lovely southern and dark-skinned receptionist was deep in conversation with a cheerful black couple while the dining hall across the way teemed with life as a bunch of high schoolers chatted with the residents. I wait for a lull in the discussion, to ask the receptionist if I can see my grandmother, when I realize that I don’t actually know her name to identify her.

Growing up, I had always called her the korean word for a paternal grandmother: harmony. She never spoke any English, and I never learned any Korean, so we were in a constant communicative stalemate. Sometimes relatives would translate for us, the intermediary dissolving most of the emotional intimacy, but usually our conversations would be a loud “I love you!” followed by a louder and equally charged, “I love you too!”.

The last time I had seen her, probably two or three years ago, she had been living alone in her small single story home a stone’s throw from one of my aunts and her family on the other side of Clarksville, TN. She had been lively and engaged, during a heated discussion with my father, and a little overweight despite her recent hospitalization following a fall.

This time, she was a wispy gray-haired little thing underneath her hospital bed sheets. I had called my father to find out the name to provide the receptionist, and she led me cheerfully to the room. I asked a nurse outside the room for a spoon, since I didn’t grab one at the restaurant for the soup. Walking into the dimly lit room, with the sun dipping toward the horizon, there were two beds— the farthest one unoccupied and the one closest to the door and myself held my grandmother.

She had lost about half her size in weight, since I last saw her. A recent string of health and medical issues had ravaged her body, leaving her in this cute but sterile nursing home. Her knees poked up like bivouac tent poles through the sheets, her hair a shock of white, and her eyes were milky around the edges and did not recognize me. I put my things down and said hello in a soft, gentle tone. She murmured a bit as she resettled herself into the bed while I called my father to translate for us, to facilitate the relationships between grandmother and grandson.

With my father a few hundred miles away and tethered to the little nursing home room via cell phone, I asked my grandmother how she was doing, if she needed anything, and if she wanted some soup. After a few rounds of my father answering the questions for her— effectively cutting her out of the conversation— I shifted and placed the soup on the rolling table/tray next to her bed. Eventually, my father adapted to his role as translator instead of simultaneous son and father, and I was able to take a few photos with my grandmother and watch her carefully drink small spoonfuls of egg drop soup, before putting her utensil down with a sense of finality.

When my father began asking me about my drive and my trip, in English, I knew I should end the phone call to stay present and engaged with my grandmother— I imagine that she turns off mentally when folks speak English around her, in much the same way that my mind wanders when my parents or family friends start a conversation in Korean. I told my father I’d call him back when I left the room. With my phone, I showed my grandmother pictures of her future granddaughter-in-law and while she wore one of our rings.

Eventually, I packed up the remaining soup (valuable road food) and said my goodbyes to my ailing grandmother.

It’s an odd thing to say goodbye to someone, knowing that you can’t say what you want to say and what you feel— wild gesticulations and earnest tones work well enough. On my way out, I was followed like a pied piper by the teenagers as they filed into their bus and I entered the address for the Atlanta jjimjilbang into my phone’s navigation. I left the nursing home after the sun had set, driving away from my grandmother and toward the final legs of my month-long road trip.

The drive to Jeju was long and unremarkable. Filled with podcasts, large highways, and gentle rolling hills, I arrived at the jjimjilbang around 3a, with the nearly full moon at her apex in the sky.

I knew that the in-house restaurant of the korean spa would be closed, and yelped a nearby 24hr korean restaurant to help me relax a bit as the road had me wired. I ate some bibimbap and walked the half mile back to the jjimjilbang parking lot, enjoying the cool night air and a chance to move my body. I briefly considered staying out until the sun rose, but threw that idea out when I realized that I would have to burn another two hours.

I entered the jjimjilbang and quickly found a place to sleep.

20160618 – Saturday

I woke up in a haze around 10a. My only goal for the day: get to Jacksonville, FL. It was about a six hour drive from ATL to JAX, and this would be the last bit of open road on this trip. After staying with my parents as the final pit stop, then I’d be returning back to Tampa, FL to officially end the month-long ramble across the United States.

That’s a bit startling to write— a whole month? June has fallen away because I spent each day focused on that day: where will I stay tonight, from which spring will I drink, what to eat for dinner? These practical concerns kept me rooted and present. This travel log also allows me to let the adventures live on, rather than forgetting Leroy and the free coffee.

The drive from ATL to JAX was decidedly uneventful. I took my time, stopping every two hours for a quick stretch. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t rush to the end, sprinting the last leg at the cost of enjoying a journey’s completion, or fall during the last three steps.

I arrived right around sunset, the final bit of daylight peeking out from the horizon, lighting the sky in a beautiful swirl of purples, crimsons, whites, and pinks. I came home to a lively dinner of ssam, or korean tacos, with my mother, my father, and my brother. He’s here for a few days, having surprised my father the night prior by arriving unannounced for father’s day, tomorrow.

My mother clearly expects me to attend church with her and the family, and I’m glad for a bit of regularity in my schedule. Things slow down here in Jacksonville, with my parents. The road trip won’t really feel over until I am back in my Tampa apartment, but for now I can consider that an epilogue.

I’m already planning my next road trip, this time up north to my true home: New Hampshire. I’ll drive up for an overnight whitewater rafting trip with my high school athletes from Great Bay Rowing Club during the first weekend of July. Two weeks later, I’ll head down to PA for Camp Bisco, another music festival, this time with college buddies and seasoned festival-goers. After that, I gotta head back down to Florida for the start of school at the end of July, for the second year of my medical education.

It’s been a wacky summer:

I’ve seen my first dust devil in the deserts of Nevada.
I’ve felt my first earthquake on the third story of a building in LA.
I’ve inhaled the crisp, thin air of the Colorado Rockies.
I’ve proposed to my partner while next to a raging spring.
I’ve benefited from the kindness of strangers.
I’ve seen the glorious natural majesty of this land.

This has been a trip, in the truest sense of the word. I don’t know when I’ll next ramble across the country, sleeping in tents on public land, drinking wild water from quiet springs, but I hope I get one more.

If not, this grand adventure will do just fine.

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