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

September 28th – Another Farewell

     My car has clean oil! Wonderful, fresh, new oil!

     I intended to get an oil change done in Colorado Springs, but that didn’t work out (thanks to a sticky drain plug), so I decided to change it myself somewhere along the way. When I mentioned my problem to Scott yesterday, he offered to let me use his tools and to help me as well.

     I went to the local hardware store (fittingly named Rural King) and found the supplies I needed; an oil filter and seven quarts of oil. I was going to change the oil myself, but Scott kindly jumped in to help out. I ended up standing around feeling lazy, so I made myself the tool fetcher, moral supporter, and dog watcher. Dog watching proved to be an entertaining job, as Lola spent the entire time racing in tight circles around the yard chasing her ever-elusive tail.

     After the successful oil change, I did a few things around the house and picked Aden up from the mechanic’s shop where she dropped her car off to get tuned up. On the way back from the shop, we made an important stop at the Bank. But this was no normal bank, where money is the only thing that is exchanged. This was a Donut Bank – where money is indeed exchanged, but the trade results in the receipt of a donut! The old-fashioned donut I had was wonderful, and Aden enjoyed her cake donut as well.

     The rest of the afternoon passed in small tasks I needed to take care of and another trip to the mechanic, where Aden picked up her rejuvenated car. I planned to start driving toward Chicago before the day was over, but I wanted to see Dorothy and her husband, Bob, again before I left. I’d only seen her for a few hours at the family gatherings we’d had on the previous two days. So I arranged to visit with them at their house and then go to dinner with them. At their house, I asked lots of questions about members of my family that I never got to meet. When we went to dinner, we were joined by Laura, Scott, and Aden. We ate at Cheddar’s – a sit-down restaurant that advertises its fresh, “made-from-scratch” food. We all agreed that their onion rings were wonderful, and I enjoyed a country fried steak. Before I knew it, dinner was over and it was time to say goodbye. I will miss Evansville and this vivacious part of my family! 

     Finally, I left Evansville behind and headed for a rest stop I’d found on the I-70 just west of Terra Haute. I’ve been having problems locating campsites after sunset, so I decided to try a rest stop since there would really be no way to miss it while driving along the Interstate.

     I did find the rest stop easily. One point for team Matthew! However, I found a problem as well. There was a nasty sign that said, “NO OVERNIGHT PARKING.” Bummer. That meant I was back to the old “drive around in circles” thing. It turned out well enough this time. I found a what appeared to be a back-woodsy kind of park. I didn’t see any of those nasty signs prohibiting overnight parking in the area, so I pulled into the parking lot and settled in for the night.

September 27th – Evansville, Indiana

     This morning was filled with all of the little things that keep begging for my attention. I checked up on my application status at Grand Canyon University, organized the confusion of papers that inevitably accumulates in my notebooks, and spent some time petting Lola, the family dog. 

     Lunch was spent celebrating the birthday of Dorothy’s oldest daughter. This time, the family gathering took place at a Mexican restaurant in the middle of town. The setting did nothing to quiet the group, so it was another meal filled with entertaining conversation.

     In the afternoon, Laura took several hours to give me an official tour of the area. She started out by driving us a couple miles east to show me the quaint little downtown area of Newburgh, which sits on the bank of the Ohio River and is home to several popular coffee shops.

     As we drove west, toward downtown Evansville, we passed the school that Laura went to growing up. We stopped at a rundown house in the historic district. Scott (Laura’s husband) has been using his skills as an electrician to rewire the house. We got to walk inside and see the remodeled kitchen, the rooms that were works in progress, and the dilapidated rooms that haven’t been touched in a long time. 

    After driving by several Victorian mansions on our continued tour of the historic district, we again encountered the Ohio River. I enjoyed watching a barge (the man-made, aquatic version of a snail) slowly push its cargo toward the Evansville port.

     I didn’t find any incredible views or famous places to take pictures of and write about, but I got to experience the culture of a small town. I heard lots of stories about the development of Evansville and the lives of the people there.

     Mixed in with these conversations, I also talked with Laura about our homeschooling experiences. She homeschooled her two daughters (Aden and her older sister, who moved away recently). Even halfway across the country, in an environment that is very different from my the one I’m used to, I found many parallels!

     In the evening, Aden invited me to join her at the bible study she goes to every week. On the way, she gave me a driving tour of the college she attends (University of Southern Indiana). We talked about being homeschooled, adjusting to college, and the difficulties of deciding on a career. 

     And that brought an end to my second day in Indiana!

September 26th – More Family!

     I left Leawood at 9 A.M., after having breakfast with Ruth and saying farewell. I was headed toward Evansville, Indiana, where Dorothy (another of my first cousins once removed) lives. I called her yesterday and she told me that she had invited her four children and their families over for dinner, so I should prepare for a big welcome. 

     My four hundred mile drive across Missouri and Illinois went by smoothly. There was only one problem; I did not stop to do 200 pushups in Missouri. I decided last night that I wouldn’t have time to squeeze in a half hour, sweat-producing stop on my drive to a dinner with relatives that I have never met before. I also skipped Illinois, but my next stop will be Chicago and I will have plenty of time to fit them in while I am there. So now my record is 7-2; I missed Montana and Missouri and have completed my challenge in every other state I’ve driven through.

     I did make one very important stop though. I found a White Castle location to serve as my introduction to the world of square hamburgers. I bought one of their combos, which included four sliders (with square buns and patties, of course), an order of fries, and a drink. They tasted exactly like hamburgers, fries, and drinks always taste at fast-food restaurants, so I was satisfied. 

     I made it to Evansville at 4:30 P.M., right on schedule. I approached the door which I believed belonged to my relative and hoped that I had the correct address this time. After taking a deep breath, I knocked. To my relief, the woman who opened the door said, “You must be the relative whom Aunt Dorothy is expecting!” Since I certainly was that relative, I told her that she was correct.

     Dorothy welcomed me in and introduced me to the two of her granddaughters who were already there. Over the next hour, the rest of the thirteen family members trickled in. I had been warned to expect a boisterous crowd and I was not disappointed. Conversation at the dinner table was filled with stories, jokes, and good-humored teasing.

     Arrangements had been made for me to stay with Scott (one of Dorothy’s four children), his wife, Laura, and their daughter, Aden. After dinner and dessert, I followed them to their house, which was only ten minutes away. Laura gave me a tour of the house and showed me where my room was.

     It was still only 9 P.M., so Aden invited me to join her at Buffalo Wild Wings, where she was going to hang out with some teammates from her intramural softball team. I accepted the invitation and enjoyed a sophisticated beverage (water) while visiting with them.

     And that was about it for the day! I came back from the restaurant and went right to bed, tired from a long day of driving and visiting. 

September 25th – Leawood, Part 3

     Today I had the chance to live a normal day, just like I would at home. But I’m not at home. I’m in Leawood Kansas. Opportunities like this are the best part of my trip. They aren’t the highlights and there really isn’t a lot to say about them individually, but they are still the best parts. They are full of a thousand little things that we don’t usually think about because they are normal. As I travel the country, they become more and more interesting because I get to compare the thousand little things of one state and city and household with the thousand little things of another.

     I’m not a psychologist or an anthropologist – I’m not building theories of human behavior. I’m just watching people and living alongside them. I am learning to empathize with new people and to uphold my own life choices while I respectfully learn about theirs.

     The day of little things started with a late breakfast and a few minutes of reading A Walk Across America. Then there was a trip to Home Depot with Ruth for some bags of topsoil which we carried into her backyard.

     A friend of Ruth’s came by for a visit in the late morning. Her name is Maureen, and she has done fairly well as a ghostwriter. She encouraged me to continue pursuing my interest in writing and told me I’d better keep my blog up to date, or she would follow me across the country and give me a good whipping. I’ll do my best, but I may have to keep an eye out for the rest of my trip.  

     Ruth had a coupon for a free car wash, which she generously donated to my filthy vehicle. Now it is as good as new! After a quick lunch at Costco, we returned to Ruth’s house so that the neighborhood handyman could install some shelves in the dining room. I helped him as much as I could.

     In the evening, Ruth picked Rachel up from school and Jared came over for a piano lesson, since Jared does not have a piano at his house. I talked to the piano teacher, scootered with Rachel, and tried to help with dinner. Then we were off to Jared’s little league baseball game. Sadly, he did not win – but he did get his first hit of the season. After the game, Ruth and I returned to her house and finished the evening by watching a little bit of TV.

September 24th – Leawood, Part 2

     Being a twenty-one-year-old in an adult Sunday School class and a stranger from California draws a lot of attention. That was the situation when I went to the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection with Ruth this morning. We arrived early to give her time to prepare for teaching the class (today was the first of three lessons she is teaching on biblical happiness), so I had time to visit with the friendly people who came over to welcome me. One man – George – told me about his time as a college student in California when he kept himself employed by cleaning pools in Beverly Hills. Everyone wished me well on my journey.

     After Sunday School, we went home for lunch. We planned to return to the church in the evening for a worship service. At lunch, I met Ruth’s daughter, Rebecca, and two young grandchildren, Rachel and Jordan. We talked about school and sports, and after the meal, I was requisitioned by the kids to join them in their lego building and card game playing.

     Ruth is involved with giving tours of the church she attends (it really is a grand building and it is becoming famous for the enormous stained glass window housed within), so she had to leave for the afternoon. I tagged along with Rebecca and her children to spend the afternoon at their home. In the course of my time with them, I took a tour of their dad’s huge collection of baseball cards which are displayed in the basement, played Spot It (a matching card game), and I was coerced into playing Just Dance (a video game which is exactly what the name makes it sound like).

     In the evening, Ruth and I went back to church and listened to the pastor, Adam Hamilton, preach a sermon on the famous story of Peter and John as they met a met a lame beggar on their way into the temple. Then Ruth had Handbell practice, and I got to catch my breath, write all this down, and get ready for bed.

September 23rd – Leawood, Part 1

     Today I met a very distant relative – a first cousin twice removed. Before leaving on this trip, I knew that my mom had a lot of relatives, but I only knew a few by name. So I called the ones that I did know and arranged to stop by and see them on my trip.

     One of those relatives – my Great Aunt Mary – told me that she keeps in close contact with three of her cousins, and encouraged me to contact them. I followed her advice and found that all three cousins were excited to meet me and also wanted to have me stay with them for a few days. I made arrangements with all of them, and today I met the first one! Her name is Ruth, and she lives in Leawood, which is a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas.

     Incidentally, I’ve found a wonderful resource as I’ve tried to piece together how my family members relate to me. It’s a website called Wolfram Alpha. I’ve used it in the past to solve math equations, but I found out recently that it also has a genealogy calculator. I just had to type “my great aunt’s cousin” into the search bar in the middle of the website’s homepage, and it told me that Ruth is my “first cousin twice removed.” That didn’t do much to clear things up for me, but the diagram that was displayed above the technical name did help to show how our common ancestry works out.

     The meeting with my first cousin twice removed went well.  To be more specific, it went well once I made it to the correct door. Somehow I managed to enter Ruth’s address into Google Maps incorrectly when I left Milford Lake this morning. My phone did its job and directed me perfectly to the address I’d entered, which was not Ruth’s address. Thankfully, no one was home at the address I went to, so my several knocks and rings of the doorbell went unnoticed. After a couple minutes of waiting, I called Ruth to ask if she was home. When she said that she was standing right outside her house waiting for me, I made the spectacular deduction that I was at the wrong address.

     Her house was only two blocks away from the incorrect address I’d found. I got back in the car and found it without difficulty. Now that I’d embarrassed myself before even meeting Ruth, the rest of the evening went wonderfully. We went for a walk, had dinner, and looked at some old family pictures that she had. She told me a lot of things about the parts of my family I didn’t know, and we both talked about our immediate families and our personal interests. Ruth has a daughter and two grandchildren that live nearby. I will get to meet them at lunch tomorrow, after we go to church. 

September 19th – Gold!

     Marie used to drive tour buses around Colorado Springs, and one of her favorite spots to highlight was the old mining operation in Cripple Creek, which is about forty miles west of Colorado Springs. She still loves sharing her knowledge of this area, so I got a free tour! Lou drove as Marie narrated, and Valli and Lou Sr. joined me in listening. 

     We started by driving to the town of Cripple Creek, parking, and taking a short walk. The town was founded in 1892 by the gold miners who started flooding in after gold was discovered in the fall of 1890. Now the town is a small-scale tourist attraction. Because of its status as a historical site, it is allowed to have casinos – and it does. I skipped past those and went straight to the real attraction – the candy store. I picked up a small bag of gummy coke bottles and another of gummy cherries. They also had a wide variety of truffles. I picked two: cinnamon and cappuccino.

     With the essential candy stop taken care of, the real tour started. Marie explained that gold mining still goes on today, but it has changed over the years. We started off by learning about the old style of mining and finished the day by visiting a modern mining operation. 

     We visited the Molly Kathleen mine, which is one of the most successful historical mines in Colorado. If we’d come on the right day, we could have gone on a tour and descended into the mine shaft to see the branching tunnels where miners blasted and chipped ore from the walls. We did not come on the right day though, so we had to use our imaginations.  

     We did find several pieces of mining equipment displayed above ground. This dumper car was used to pick up loose ore and put it into the ore car, which then traveled along the railway to reach the mine shaft elevator.

   In the pictures below you can see the tower that stood above the mine shaft, and to the right, the cable room which housed the ropes and motors necessary to raise and lower the elevator. 

     These buildings were the first stop on a great walking path that looped around and through an assortment of old mining equipment. We found storage buildings, insulated dynamite sheds, and a beautiful view of the countryside. 

     Gold mining still alive and well at Cripple Creek, but it is now done primarily at an open pit mine which sits on the backside of the hill we were walking on. During our walk, we heard an explosion and saw smoke float over the ridge.

     When we finished our walking loop, we drove to the other side of the hill and observed the huge mining pit that has been blasted out over the past twenty-two years. The enormous area dwarfs the huge ore trucks that are used to transport the blown rocks up to the processing site.

     The ore that comes from operations like this is an extremely low grade, usually resulting in less than one gram of gold per ton of ore. The extraction process involves crushing the ore and mixing it with water and cyanide, then allowing this solution to leech the gold out of the ore in a liquid form.

     And that was the end of our tour. We drove back to Marie’s house, then went back to The Mansion and lived happily ever after!