“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye.
But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Stars. What is it about looking up into an ink black night studded with stars that makes you feel at one with the universe? Living in New York City doesn’t give us too much opportunity to really see stars. They’re too dimmed by the massive amount of light set to a permanent on position. But now I was in Colorado, my aunt had died, and I was on a back porch in a small town just outside of Denver, gazing up at the heavens and the wonder of it all. In the distance, a coyote yipped.
It’s a funny thing to travel to a place and have no agenda. No travel agenda, that is. There’d be no activities, no wandering. I was there to be with my cousins, to celebrate their mother’s life. On the porch the next morning, I wanted to jump into the wide expanse of big blue sky, not a cloud in it. Birdsong rang through the air, settled around us and came in spells from the reserve the house borders. This breadth of land is a plain field of tall, pale grass but there’s nothing plain about it. To the west, the Rocky Mountains were as majestic as ever. Their snow-capped peaks shone bright in the sunlight, like massive Hershey Kisses in their foil. This mountain range humbled me. I’m not the first person to feel their awe. Nature does this to us in thousands of ways, large and small. It was going to be a heavy trip for sure, but there was something about the sweet scent of grass, and the bigness of it all that I disappeared into. The doing of…nothing, the just being, the simplicity of it all put life and death into perspective. Made it easy to give comfort. These mountains have been here long before us and will be here long after the last of my family has turned to dust.
My aunt was born a Kansas girl but eventually set her roots and boots in Colorado. This side of my family, and the rest of my cousins and older siblings who came to pay their respects, hail from Topeka, the Land of Oz, and when we gather it’s like a trip back in time. We don’t see each other often but when we do there seems to come alive some semblance of a childhood preserved by the memories we share of that place and the grandparents we lost long ago. My brood of cousins, and siblings, has the greater history of the Midwest. They are the Kansas of my childhood visits. They are the brilliant fields of sunflowers and tall stalks of sweet corn, and the clink-clank of the Santa Fe Railroad that chugged and whistled behind my grandparents’ faded out white house. They are the scent of the penny candy shop that no longer exists, a barefoot walk on a hot summer’s day to the Dairy Queen, drive-in movies, and lakeside camping. They are mid-Western mannered, speak in “yes sirs and no ma’am’s,” and have a gentility those of us who grew up on the East Coast lack. “It smells like Topeka in here,” I said when I entered my cousin’s Mel’s home. “I couldn’t ask for a better compliment,” she said. In some ways, I guess I made two trips.
Flying back, the plane had a fiery sunset on its tail all the way home and I gazed out the window until I could no longer see the fields and the Rockies. The rest of my cousins were also flying or driving back to their homes. We all had living to get back to but I hoped my aunt was somewhere in the springtime of her youth, running wild through a field of sunflowers.