Hill: Travels with Charlie in search of America (column)
June 26, 2016
In September 1960, at age 58, John Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, set out on a journey across America in a camper. For three months, they traveled the nation, meeting friends, strangers and relatives and immersing themselves in America while reflecting on its character, racial hostility and particular form of loneliness found most everywhere.
In September 2015, at age 72, my son and I set out on a journey across America in a VW, Chevy Blazer and a U-Haul. Seven months later, after 21 states, 9,000 miles and two residences leased and vacated, I returned to Summit County. What I experienced, chronicled and discovered was an America much different than the one Steinbeck encountered 56 years ago.
First off, when I left, I wasn't going on a fact-finding mission to write a book. I was leaving in search of my roots after a decade amongst the fabric of entitlement, recreation and affluence corporate America has manufactured in the Rockies. What did I find, and why did I come back?
Two days out on the Little Apple side of Manhattan, Kansas was a marijuana fishin' hole along I-70 for the DEA. As we approached a convenient exit, the signs at the side of the road indicated that the flashing lights up on the hill ahead was a drug checkpoint with dogs. With Colorado plates and a U-Haul, we were prime suspects. Instead of continuing along I-70, we exited and went down a country road only to be stopped abruptly and searched. Our saving grace was two-fold: The little bit of grass we had was less than the agents were interested in — "They were after bigger fish" — and, secondly, the head agent had served in the same U.S. Army Airborne my son had. After they left us by the side of the road, we checked to see how wet our pants were and breathed a sweaty sigh of relief as we continued on, wondering if anybody would believe what had just happened to us.
Rediscovering Northeast Ohio from Cleveland to Ashtabula was a mixed bag. The Cleveland Art Museum was awe-inspiring — from Picasso and Van Gough to Egyptology and the Impressionists — as was the drive on Martin Luther King Boulevard past all the cultural gardens. But Detroit Avenue on the West Side was scary in the midst of its homicides and gangsta ethos. The burbs weren't much better with an escalating heroin epidemic capturing all the "privileged kids" in its grasp. Perry, Ohio is the burial place of my great grandfather Charles Lyle. Sitting at his gravesite gave reconnection to my roots to the distant past. He was a Civil War hero in the infantry having fought in the battles of Shilo, Campion Hill, Vicksburg and Sherman's march to the sea. But it wasn't enough. Before Christmas, we left to travel 800 miles south to Savannah, Georgia and Tybee Island.
Tybee is the place where sightings of Sandra Bullock, Robert Deniro and John Travolta are real. Right on the Atlantic Ocean seemed like a dream come true, but dreams of such nature always have a downside. Dangerous shoreline, rip tides, undertows and in-season Portuguese Man-of-Wars. None of this could keep my son from the surf until a 15-foot Macao shark was landed just down the beach. Tybee in off-season reverts back to its pirate days. Referred to by locals as the Red Neck Caribbean, more than one outsider has been found beaten and left for dead outside one of Tybee's many bars. If the shenanigans are locals-initiated, chances are you take your beating and leave Tybee, which is exactly what we did after two such occurrences brought bodily injury to my son.
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Back to Cleveland for one more try. One of the biggest mistakes of my life happened when I thought I had found a good place to reside in a high-rise apartment complex called Harbor Crest on the shores of Lake Erie in a place called Euclid, Ohio. Little did I know Euclid (or U-Kill-It as my son came to called it) is the crime capitol of Cleveland, and Harbor Crest is known as The Projects. In we moved to the fifteenth floor with the best sunsets ever viewed from a living room. Yet two blocks down the street was the Irish-American Club started by Danny Green of Collingwood in the '70s. He was the guy who took on Shonder Burns and the Cavolli mobsters who eventually car bombed him. During our two-month stay there, we were always looking over our shoulders and were packin' with one in the chamber (so to speak). Time to get outta Dodge, but where to? Go West, young men. So we did. Back to Denver and on to Summit County.
Denver is getting too big and, currently, has the most expensive real estate increases in America. We had left Colorado seven months before when our three-year lease was up and so were the rates. I suppose this is OK if it's just not inflation or greed driving the market, and landlords and ladies assume the responsibility to make sure the place isn't going to cause health issues like "mold" and lung cancer, which for us wasn't the case.
Back in Summit again for the first time, we found a one-bedroom with joint bath, frig and washer and dryer for $700 for me and a hotel unit for my son at $1175.00 — rates increasing depending on the season. But that's not why we're back, is it? Isn't it suppose to be a safe, good place to be? Oops — day after I moved in, some dude decided to steal three cars (one of them mine) and total them. Guess that world out there is here, too. So what do we do about it (and I mean "we")?
Two days after the car totaling, a miracle happened in Summit: A friend of mine brought over a replacement car, and — eureka — he gave it to me free of charge! Right here in Summit! Never happened like that before! Now what?
That same guy feels led to be starting a new church in Silverthorne this June called Ten Peaks Church, and not only am I invited to come, so are you. Did I mention that this is my fortieth year of being ordained in Christian ministry? In my seventy-third year on this planet, I am being given an opportunity to be part of something right up my alley after all these years. And after 7 months, 21 states and 9,000 miles, I am back in Summit at the right time.
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