Westbound: Day 64 by Stephen Benz

In Glenrock, Wyoming, a municipal park borders Deer Creek, a freshwater stream that once provided a natural rest stop for Oregon Trail pioneers. By this point in their long journey, the trail travelers had become sick of the North Platte’s brackish water. Deer Creek was the best source of “sweet water” that they had found in weeks of hard travel. Laid out over the site of the old pioneer camp, the latter-day park where I’ve stopped to pass the night includes not only campsites but also a kind of recreational complex—softball fields, dirt parking lots, and a rodeo arena. There’s also something I’ve never seen before in a campground: an operating oil jack.

     Alone in the park, mid-afternoon, I set up the tent, a quick task. Then I sit on the picnic table, reading Thoreau and slapping mosquitoes while the creek babbles and the oil jack churns away. Having lost my way on the career track, I am now more or less following the Oregon Trail, camping out of the car, reading the American Transcendentalists and the journals of Lewis and Clark as I go. I’ve told friends I’m doing research, but this journey has become more like a haphazard attempt to reclaim the westering spirit supposedly latent in all Americans—“the prevailing tendency of my countrymen,“ Thoreau called it. He himself wanted to walk all the way to Oregon. “Westward I go free,” Thoreau said. “That way the nation is moving.” And so for nine weeks now, I have been drifting westward, more or less, putting Thoreau’s thesis to the test. The endeavor has brought me here, to Glenrock.

     Later in the afternoon, some other folks arrive, disrupting the solitude I’ve enjoyed for a couple of hours. First, a groundskeeper in a county pickup truck, who unloads equipment and sets to work chalking the softball field. Looks like league action tonight. Then a camper truck that has seen better days tours the campground, driving the entire circle before selecting a site adjacent to mine, as though trying to annoy me on purpose. I can’t understand why with an otherwise empty campground anyone would want to camp next to the only other camper in the place. Nothing I can do about it. It is, as folks readily say, a free country. My new neighbors, an older couple, haul out their equipment and set up camp. Folding lawn chairs. Strings of colored lanterns. An artificial carpet. A shelter that surrounds the picnic table—plastic top to fend off the rain, mesh walls and a zippered door to provide mosquito protection. Meticulously, they conduct their camp chores. Pumping water, lighting a charcoal fire, arranging kitchen utensils on the picnic table in preparation of the evening meal. They’ve got propane lanterns, a gas stove, a radio; in short order, their campsite is up and running, a glowing, humming borough of two. While the woman works the cooking equipment (already the smell of grilling meat fills the air), the man studies the contents of his large tackle box. He glances up to see me watching him, gives a wave. “Hey neighbor, how’s the fishing?”

     “Sorry, not much of a fisherman.”

     A bewildered look crosses his face, a look that says something like, “What the hell? A red-blooded American male, doesn’t like fishing? Well, it takes all types.” Out loud he says simply, “That so?” and I feel like I’ve let him down. “Well, come on over and have a beer.”

     “I was just about to go for a walk,” I say, a small lie to avoid an involved conversation. “Maybe later.”

     “All righty, then, me and Betty will keep a cold one for you.”

     Now committed to my little lie, I set off down the loop road to visit the site’s attractions, starting with a close-up view of the oil jacks. Their sucking-insect motion mesmerizes for a while, then I head over to the ball field, where warm-up is underway. I take a seat in the bleachers. The brilliant fire of sunset flares then fades. The game begins in a pool of electric light, eighteen grown men at play amid the cheering, groaning, and laughing of their families in the stands. When one older player takes his turn at bat, a tiny voice yells out, “Come on, Grandpa!” His teammates take up the chant, laughingly imploring “Gramps” to come through with a hit.

     All over America at this moment, games are in progress, amateur to professional, little children trying to act like grown-up players, elderly folks trying to be kids again. Boys, girls, men, women everywhere engaged in acting out the particular choreography of baseball, a precise choreography that nonetheless allows for the idiosyncratic interpretations of both the virtuoso and the rank amateur. Here in Glenrock, it’s a rather clumsy interpretation of the dance; but such is the beauty of the game, such is its inherent grace even when performed by the graceless, that I am compelled to watch to the conclusion, just to see how this one insignificant performance of the national pastime will turn out.

     Even when the game is over, I tarry to watch, a sideline observer, as the teammates shake hands, slap backs, laugh together. The lights fade on the field. It’s time to go, but they linger in the parking lot by their pick-ups, chatting, making the most of the moment. In a few hours they’ll be back at the plant for another day of work. The kids clamber into the truck beds and are given the honor of holding dad’s glove and bat. The light of headlamps leads the line of trucks out of the parking lot, back to the highway, and soon the park is dark and still. The sounds of crickets and oil jacks take over. I walk back to the campground, cutting across the dirt of the rodeo ring. It’s late, and with any luck the neighboring campers will have retired. I realize now that I’ve delayed my return to the tent in part to avoid the fisherman and Betty, to shirk “the cold one” he’s keeping for me and whatever strained conversation would have to go with it. As I approach the campsite I feel a sense of dismay when I see the propane lanterns lit up and the colored glow of the strung-up globes decorating the neighboring site. It appears they’ve been waiting for me.

     “Here he is, Betty,” the old man says. “Hey, neighbor, ready for that beer?”

     Suppressing the urge to beg off, I take the cold can and drop into the proffered folding lawn chair. Betty is working crochet needles. The old man—“George Henderson, and this here’s my wife Betty”—sets aside a fly he’s been fooling with, and together we form a triad on a patch of artificial grass. We’ve come to the moment that I seem to fear (though I’m not sure why), the moment of small talk, the tedium of chitchat.

     And sure enough, George starts right in with the usual questions, Where am I from? Where have I been? Where am I headed to next? Since the only honest answer is I don’t know, I don’t have the slightest idea, whatever I say comes out evasive and inarticulate:
Oh, well, just following the breeze, no particular plan, going where the road takes me. These are euphemisms, upstanding citizens like George and Betty must surely know, meant to gloss over my lack of any vocation other than drifter, wanderer, vagabond. All of which is to say, No, I don’t have a job. No, I don’t have a purpose in life. Yes, I am aimless and shiftless, the poor wayfaring stranger. I am, I am.

     But to my surprise, George gets a kick out of my answers. He likes the phrase and repeats it: “Just following the breeze, huh?” He comes back to it even after the conversation has moved on to the price of gasoline, good fishing spots, the weather.

     “Just following the breeze,” he says again. “Sound like anyone you know, Betty?”

     “Yes, dear.” Betty smiles wryly and continues to crochet a small sweater. For a grandchild, I’m guessing. She works the hooks quickly, efficiently. Everything about her is neat and organized—her ironed dress, her sprayed-and-set hair, the carefully arranged utensils on the table. Even her wrinkles seem to follow a precise pattern. No question she is a meticulous personality. She doesn’t strike me as someone who would care to associate with anyone “just following the breeze.”

     “She means me,” George says. “I was once like you.”

     “He still is, believe me,” Betty says to George’s delighted guffaws.

     He’s taken two more beers from the cooler. I have to admit the cold beer tastes really good sitting in a campground on a warm evening somewhere in the vast American interior.

     “Oh, yes, a lot like you.”

     The red and green glow from the colored globes above us—the string runs from the side of the camper to a tree—warms his face and makes him look younger. He’s a small, thin man with a boyish face despite the wrinkles. He gives off a sense of energy, somehow, even though his movements are slow and deliberate. I can imagine he was once called a “feisty fellow.”

     George goes on to tell me his story. He quit high school at fifteen and ran away from home. “Couldn’t stand the old man, the way he would beat on me.” George soon fell in with the hobo set and rode the rails all around the West. During his wanderings, he got beat up and arrested more times than he can remember. He drank and did drugs. He fell out of a train car in a small Oregon town and ended up in a hospital where he met Betty, a nurse. For some reason she took a liking to him, or at least felt pity for him (“That’s more like it,” Betty says) and took to preaching to the lost soul and caring for him. By the time he recovered, he had fallen for the pretty nurse, but he knew he had no hope of winning her unless he proved worthy. He went to night school and got his diploma. Then the war came and Betty joined with Red Cross and was sent to Guadalcanal. George enlisted, but was shipped to Europe. He wrote often to her, but nothing arrived in return. When the war was over, he went back to Oregon hoping to find her. She was there, all but engaged to a childhood friend, but inexplicably she still was drawn to the former hobo. He went to college on the GI Bill and graduated with a teaching degree. For thirty years thereafter he taught high school and always kept an eye out for the wayward boys, the potential drifters like he had been. When retirement came, he got back on the road, “traveling respectable” this time and “just following the breeze” as had been his inclination all along. Now, though, he had Betty along to keep him and camp in order.

     It’s well after midnight when the story finishes and we put out the lanterns. George and Betty retire to the camper. I’m left alone, lying awake in the tent, listening to the stream and the creaking oil jacks. In spite of myself, and in spite of my intrinsic reticence, I keep meeting people who seem to have something to share with me, clues to what comes next. And so tomorrow, I’m bound for the next stop, somewhere farther down the American road.

About the Author:
Stephen Benz
Along with two books of travel essays--Guatemalan Journey (University of Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely Planet)--I have published essays in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, and other journals. One of my essays was selected by Ian Frazier for Best American Travel Writing, 2003. Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, I now teach professional writing at the University of New Mexico. I also offer workshops in travel writing at the Taos Summer Writers' Conference.