Though we’ve been back for almost two weeks, I’ll write about our trip in present tense. It’s more lively that way. Pretend I was sending back postcards and letters that got lost in the mail and arrive long after we’ve returned home.
“Bugs and rainbows,” my husband observes as I lean across the RV dashboard to get the shot. “That’s life right there, isn’t it?”
“Always some of both,” I agree.
“Did the camera focus on the rainbow or the bugs?”
“Both, I think.” I lean back in my seat and return to my primary responsibility. A friend who has made several RV trips warned me to secure at least two or three campground possibilities before 5:00 p.m. local time each day. “Do it while rolling down the highway,” she said. But we left so late on Friday that it was practically 5:00 local time when we first pulled out of our driveway. I’m rolling down the highway with nothing lined up for tonight.
Construction slows us down in spots, making it hard to estimate where we’ll be at bedtime. I have a list of names, addresses and phone numbers of campgrounds located along our route. I phone all of the places with decent reviews, but no one answers. The offices must be closed for the night.
Finally, we see that we aren’t going to make it to the city, so we stop at one campground east of St. Louis (but not East St. Louis) billed as a “resort.” It does look nice, actually, with a pretty fountain out front and plenty of fancier RVs than our old Bounder. My husband hops out and studies the papers and posters taped to the office door, hoping to spot a late registration process. Nothing.
It’s close to 10:30 our time, and we have to move on. Nothing is guaranteed; we just have to drive to the next campground and hope for the best. I’m still uptight about the problems we might encounter along the way. Like not finding a campground.
My phone navigation guides us to the next one on my list, but we’re running out of options. Just in case the next campground doesn’t work out, I start scouring Google maps for a Wal-Mart, where RVs are often allowed to stay overnight for free.
The next campground proves difficult to find in the dark, but we eventually turn a corner and discover it tucked behind some buildings. We pull next to the office and find late registration instructions. Yay! We locate a pull-through campsite close to the bath house so that our three teenage girls can conveniently access the showers. After everyone cleans up, we level the RV, pull shut the curtains, and drop into bed.
In the morning, we fix bowls of instant oatmeal before continuing toward the Gateway Arch. Weeks ago, my son insisted, “We have to stop at the Arch. It’s the Gateway to the West! We can’t go west without passing under the Arch!”
As we’re cruising down the highway toward St. Louis, one of my daughters speaks up from the couch. “Mom? Dad? I just realized I forgot to pack my leg brace.” She had ACL surgery last fall and the surgeon advised her to wear—for a full year after surgery—her custom-made leg brace during sports and while hiking unsteady surfaces. We’ve planned hikes in several national parks and assume most will be unsteady surfaces.
After we all sit quietly for a moment in disbelief, the reality setting in, my husband says, “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to evaluate each hike along the way. If some seem too rocky, we may have to ask you to stay in the RV while the rest of us go on without you.” I glance back and she stares straight ahead. I ache for her. I want to turn back time and nag her to grab that brace before we leave, but here we are on Interstate 70, hours from home, just about to enter St. Louis. And the brace is in her room somewhere.
Then I think about my dear friend and neighbor. She has a key. Maybe I could ask her to grab the brace and meet up with our good friends who will be heading to Colorado in a couple of days? We have a special day-long Colorado hike planned with those friends toward the end of our trip. If we could get the brace to those friends, my daughter would at least have it for the longest, rockiest hike.
I contact my friends and launch a flurry of texts and phone calls, learning that my friends aren’t leaving for Colorado later in the week—they’re leaving today. In fact, they just left their home and ask if I can arrange for my neighbor to meet them at a nearby freeway exit in 20 minutes?
My dear neighbor is willing, and so, God bless her, she finds the brace in my daughter’s room and converges with my Colorado-bound friends at the agreed-upon exit—it couldn’t have been more perfectly orchestrated. My neighbor and this family have met in the past, so they aren’t total strangers, making the leg brace hand-off less awkward. I promise to buy my neighbor dinner when I get back, and I thank my new leg brace transport team profusely for taking it to Colorado for us. They text, “Are you going through Tulsa?”
“Yes,” I text back, “but first we’re visiting the Arch in St. Louis.”
She phones and explains, “This never happens, but we’re stopping in Tulsa to see family before going to Colorado. Let’s keep in touch—who knows? Maybe we’ll be close enough to meet up?”
“That would be crazy!”
“Crazy-fun!” she exclaims. “It would be so fun to see you. Plus, wouldn’t it be helpful to get this brace to you for the first part of your trip with all those hikes?”
I thank her again and ask if I can call her back, because we’ve entered the city and spotted the Arch.
We have trouble maneuvering the RV through the city due to some low overhangs. At one point, my husband has to back up, turn around in a tight spot, and head the wrong way down a one-way street. Fortunately, the street is short and the one car we encounter seems to understand our dilemma and backs up. The driver doesn’t even seem annoyed, and I’m grateful. I look down from the RV window and mouth, “Thank you!” She looks up, smiles, and nods.
The city doesn’t seem crowded on this Saturday morning, so we could park in several lots. We choose a deserted lot with only one attendant—a guy wearing a reflective vest, sitting on the bed of a pickup truck. He asks for $20, five dollars cheaper than the lot down the street, closer to the Arch. My husband asks if he would accept $10 since we are staying only a couple of hours. The attendant agrees to $10 and my husband feels good about his negotiating skills. We lock up the RV and head to the Arch.
We catch glimpses of it between buildings as we make our way to the grounds and start snapping photos from all different angles. Then we round a corner and see the whole thing, like a rainbow arcing across the sky, both ends within sight. The kids run their hands along the cool metal, snap pictures of each other leaning this way and that against it, and then lie on the grass and stare up at it.
We visit the museum and get our National Parks Passport Gateway Arch/Jefferson National Expansion Memorial sticker and stamp, buy our America the Beautiful Pass, then head back out.
We hear Dixieland jazz playing on the vintage steamboat docked below. The kids admire the Mississippi and my son announces he wants to take a riverboat ride. We have neither the time nor the money, so we tell him it’s time to move on; to go west, young man.
All four kids turn resolutely toward the west and walk, together, under the Arch. I’m next to one of the girls. “There,” she says. “Now I’m totally ready to go west.” My son shouts pretty much the same thing. There’s some discussion of Lewis and Clark heading out on their expedition as we stroll up the stretch of green grass to the sidewalk.
We’re making our way toward the RV when I hear the snapping of a flag and look up.
An American flag furls and unfurls above us. I take a series of photos and hope at least one captures these artistic swirls. “Yesterday was Flag Day,” I say out loud to whoever is listening, but my son is jumping this way and that to avoid stepping on a sidewalk crack, and the girls are laughing about something. My husband smiles. “It was Flag Day?”
“Yes. We were packing and driving on Flag Day.”
He nods and looks up. I think about the flag and how we’re about to explore this great land of ours.
When we arrive at the parking lot, the RV is still there but the attendant is gone.
I turn to my husband. “I think that this was always just an empty lot and the guy was some local dude who came up with a great way to get some spending money.”
He nods. “And all he had to buy was a reflective vest.”
We look over the RV exterior and the compartments seem secure, so we head out of the city, west, toward Tulsa. I phone my friend and we compare distances, reading off signage. After our long stop in St. Louis, they aren’t that far behind. “Let’s stay in touch.”
Somewhere in Missouri we encounter a thunderstorm with torrential rain, and to cope with the wind, we slow down to 40 miles per hour. I’m researching campgrounds, but once again we’re unsure how far we’ll get. Meanwhile, our friends text us. They’re closing the distance between us and so we agree to meet in Tulsa, even if we have to wait an hour or so. It’ll be worth it to have that brace and see our friends.
We emerge from the storm front and find ourselves on a clear stretch of road. Sunshine. We’re close to Tulsa, so I text my friend again—we’ve been sending silly notes about the leg brace offering bionic strength, like the Six Million Dollar Man, but now we actually make plans to meet at Coney I-Lander, a local hotdog place.
We exchange texts, and the closer we get to Coney I-Lander, the closer our friends are to us.
We pull into the parking lot outside the restaurant and wait maybe five or ten minutes at most before we spot our friends. We wave and laugh and tumble into a big mess of kids and grownups hugging one another, the leg brace held high over their heads and passed into the grateful arms of my daughter. We head into the hotdog place together, talking about the thunderstorm and the brace and the amazing timing of arriving within ten minutes of each other in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I keep giggling and can’t help bursting out again and again, “This is crazy! This is so crazy! I can’t believe we’re together in Tulsa!”
We’re a little giddy as we eat together, but we can’t linger. On this day, their schedule is tighter than ours. Thankfully, the leg brace transport and transfer has not slowed them down, but they have to visit someone, so we all hug each other again, every combination of adult and child reaching out for another set of arms.
My friends roll down their minivan windows and call out, “In Colorado?”
“In Colorado!” we exclaim. We wave them off and then climb into the RV to continue west, toward Oklahoma City. We’re all smiles when we joke with our daughter, “So you have the leg brace in this RV, right? It’s not driving off in that minivan?”
It’s right next to her on the couch. She grins and pats it. “I have it right here, safe and sound.” We laugh and sigh and settle in for another couple of hours. With all the leg brace hubbub, I forgot to secure a campground for tonight. But we found a place to stay last night. I’m sure we’ll find one tonight.
Posts about our trip:
Photos by Ann Kroeker.
For about a year, I’ve followed this blogger with interest. His stories and photos inspired some of our planning.