October 6th to 9th – Pittsburgh Part I

After a restful sleep and faithful completion of my two hundred Ohio pushups, I enjoyed a short and beautiful drive from Harrison State Forest to the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When I arrived in the little town of Murrysville, my Great-Aunt Mary welcomed me warmly into her cozy apartment.

My first evening with Aunt Mary (I don’t call her Great-Aunt Mary because it sounds strange to me — and to her) was spent in conversation. We had a lot of catching up to do. The first (and only) time we met previously was about fifteen years ago when my family flew out for a week-long visit. I still remember two things from that visit: a delectable lunch of pigs-in-a-blanket and an afternoon snack of gummy bears that brought unspeakable joy to my young self.

On the first full day of my visit (Saturday, October 7th), I got to visit with Aunt Mary’s son, Kevin. We began the day lazily by watching a movie. After that, Kevin wanted to make sure I got the full Pennsylvania experience. The first stop was a shooting range where we shot several of his pistols. In his opinion, I did very well for a California city boy.

Next, we drove to a neighboring city to visit Jamie and Kim, who are two of Kevin’s best friends. I got to watch Jamie cut up a deer he had shot the previous day and enjoy a tour of their house, which included quite a few guns and a couple hunting crossbows as well.

A few hours of visiting later, we were all a little hungry. Kevin and I went to a popular local pizza shop to pick up a pizza and some local beer, which we brought back to Jamie and Kim’s house. We ate dinner outside in their beautiful backyard. It was such a nice evening that I forgot to take a picture of the scenery.

So that was Kevin’s version of the Pennsylvania experience. I loved every minute of it! Aunt Mary promised me another tour on Monday. First, though, came Sunday. I joined Aunt Mary at the Presbyterian church she attends and enjoyed the Sunday School and sermon. She introduced me to the pastor and her friends. It was fun to be the “great-nephew from California.” I almost felt like a celebrity.

After church, we had a relaxing day at Aunt Mary’s apartment. I gladly joined her in the weekly tradition of having a homemade milkshake for an afternoon snack. I certainly didn’t complain about our dinner of salad, french fries, and bacon-wrapped steak either.

The next morning, Aunt Mary began her tour by giving me my first full view of the big city — Pittsburgh — from the little hill that somehow obtained the official name of Mount Washington.

After enjoying the view, we circled back to a different part of the suburbs so that Aunt Mary could give me a lesson in our family history. As I have met previously unknown relatives on this trip, I have been constructing a family tree to make sense of it all. Our first stop at the family cemetery gave me a very tangible experience of that tree’s roots.

This side of my family (my mom’s dad’s family) established themselves in Pennsylvania a long time ago and didn’t budge for the most part. My great-great-grandfather was born in the late 1860’s. He and my great-great-grandmother were buried in the cemetery in the 1950’s and many of their descendants, including my great-grandparents (Mary’s aunt and uncle), are buried there too. Since Aunt Mary grew up around these relatives, she has been able to tell me many stories about them.

Our next stop on the tour was even closer to home for me. Aunt Mary took me to the house my mom lived in for the first twelve years of her life and the elementary school she attended.

We saw much more on the trip as well: the Assemblies of God church my mom attended as a child, the house Aunt Mary grew up in (which is now a gun shop that has seen better days), and the house Aunt Mary spent most of her life in with her late husband, my Uncle Buzz.

Our last stop on the tour brought us back to the present. We visited one of Aunt Mary’s grandchildren at the creatively labeled salon where he works; Hairy Solutions. I appreciated the name because I had a very hairy problem to solve. My hair has been growing out for two months now and I’ve been feeling rather unkempt over the past week or two. Steven took care of my problem just as advertised.

That is about all the excitement I’ve had in these first few days in Pennsylvania. I have had a few spare moments to discover and visit a nearby basketball court twice to get some exercise. It is relaxing to stay in a single location for a while. I am looking forward to the rest of my visit and I hope it doesn’t go too fast.

October 2nd to 5th – Elkhart, Indiana

Well… I am starting to see that it will be difficult to make daily blog entries through the rest of my trip. Some days I don’t go on crazy adventures and don’t really do anything worth writing about. I am enjoying every day, but some of the joys of this trip are the little things — like rest and spending time with people. And I don’t want to fill these posts with details that are only interesting to me; I want to write about the exciting stuff that I would want to read about.

Also, my slow writing has been up taking several hours each day, which has left less time and energy for the experiences of this trip. I think that I need to re-prioritize. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore new places and spend time with relatives and friends. I have to keep that at the center of my efforts and let writing play second fiddle. So for these reasons, I am going to start grouping some days together and taking longer to post updates.

My parents warned me not to set my expectations too high for this blog Of course, I did — because if I didn’t dream of accomplishing big things, I would never get off the couch to do anything at all. I am glad I started this blog and made it this far because it showed me how hard it is to live life and analyze it at the same time. Now I have to take a step back so that I can make the most of my trip. It may take a while for me to write it all down, but I will finish it eventually. Writing will wait while living won’t, so I will worry about the living part right first.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming! After a night spent at a rest stop just inside the border of Michigan (October 2nd), I drove into Indiana for the second time on this trip. Last week I visited family in southern Indiana. This time I drove into the northern part of the state for a three-day stay with friends who live in the small town of Elkhart.

I spent two days (October 3rd and 4th) with Scott and Ulrike, who have been friends of our family for years. Like all the people who have so graciously hosted me thus far, they made me feel completely welcome and at home right away. Ulrike made the time to take me on a tour of Elkhart on the first day of my visit. We began with a brisk walk along a river that used to power a gristmill.

Our conversation on this walk and throughout the day highlighted a unique experience I have had while reconnecting with people on my journey. When I have visited with family friends before, I have always been with my family. I’ve been Matthew, alongside my brothers and parents. As I’ve spent time with people on this trip though, there hasn’t been a family to hide behind. I am just Matthew, and this has allowed (and required) me to build a more individual relationship with longtime family friends. It makes me feel rather grown up!

Our tour continued with a visit to the nearby Amish community. While driving, we passed a lot of white houses with carriages out front. When we reached the town, we made stops at a cheese factory, a grocery store (where they sold excellent peach ice cream), a donut/bread shop, and a garden. Ulrike had hoped to show me an Amish blacksmith that she had heard about, but for some reason we hadn’t been able locate him or his website with a Google search. Go figure!

Our last stop was a riverwalk that took us to Island Park, where the Elkhart river joins the St. Joseph river.

The next day, Scott gave me a tour as well – although I didn’t get to eat any ice cream while I was with him. His tour took me through the offices, storage facilities, and workshop of SonSet Solutions, which is a missionary organization that seeks to use technology to equip gospel teachers and engage global audiences. He and Ulrike have worked with SonSet for as long as I have known them.

I lacked the technical expertise to appreciate everything that Scott explained to me, but I enjoyed the tour. He showed me one of the enormous short-wave radio towers that SonSet has used overseas to broadcast the gospel, as well as the radio receivers they distribute to people who are interested in listening to the broadcast.

On the last day of my visit, I got to sit in on a meeting of editors and writers at SonSet. I appreciated that opportunity since I am interested in pursuing a career in professional writing, which may include editing or copywriting.

I spent my last night with Marla and Curt, two new friends from SonSet Solutions. We had a wonderful dinner and discussion about Christianity.

I woke up to a beautiful view of the cornfield behind their back yard. We said our goodbyes, and I was on my way to Pennsylvania.

I will be spending the night in Harrison National Forest tonight. My drive was accompanied by rain most of the way. Despite the weather, I had to make a stop for a few minutes at a basketball court along the way to take a break from driving and shoot some baskets.

October 1st – Sullivan Lake

     After a busy day in a busy city, it was high time for a peaceful morning at my campsite. I started by reorganizing all the stuff I packed inside my car, which is a job that always needs doing. With that done, I  took a walk along the beach. Several dogs and their owners joined me on the beautiful shoreline.

     On my second stop of this long road trip, I visited with my friend James, in San Luis Obispo. While I was there, I showed him the route I planned to take. When he saw that I was planning to visit Chicago, he contacted his friend, Richard, who lives close to the city, and asked if I could stop by to say hello. The answer was an enthusiastic yes, and I scheduled my visit for the afternoon of October 1st. Forty-one days flew by and here I was, driving to Sullivan Lake to meet a new friend!

     I drove by several water towers on my way to Richard’s house on the bank of Sullivan Lake. When I arrived, Richard was standing in his front yard with a friend, putting the finishing touches on a new shed door. I got out of my car and was greeted by his huge smile, long white hair, and thick white beard. Right away, I had to tell the story of how I’d met James when I was on a train coming home from New Mexico and he was returning from Chicago.

     The door was almost finished, but (as tends to happen with such projects), a final trip to Home Depot was required. I accompanied Richard on the drive, and we had a great conversation. I told him a little bit about my trip and he told me about himself and the time he spent in California as the owner of a package delivery company.

     When we returned, I met Richard’s wife, Geri and after the door was completed, Richard and Geri took me for a drive around several of the lakes in the area. We ended up at Docker’s, a restaurant on Pistakee Lake with outdoor seating and a full view of the lake. I filled them in on the details of my trip and we watched the beautiful sunset while enjoying dinner.

     The sunset seemed to last forever and to become more incredible every time I looked up. I kept returning to the edge of the deck we were sitting on so I could take another picture. I was eventually joined by several guests who left their seats inside to get a better view of the fiery sky.

      When the light died away, we finished our delectable food and stimulating conversation and drove back to the house. Before I left, Richard and Geri admonished me to be safe on the road and to take good care of myself. I thanked them for their concern and told them that I would be. They gave me a warm and generous send-off and even added two books and two audiobooks to my traveling library!

     After paying several tolls on the Interstate highways I took, I made it safely to the Michigan Welcome Center. It was a successful night! The Welcome Center was open and allowed overnight parking, so I had a safe parking spot to camp in.

Starting Point: Sullivan Lake, Illinois
Route: State Highway 12, Interstate 290, 294, and 94
Destination: Welcome Center, Michigan
Miles Driven: 130