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The Road to Independence

Elderly man in 1800's period costume
Charlie Beck, Vaile Mansion, Independence, Missouri

A man in his early 60s sat at a video game machine as the gas station clerk, a heavy-set man in a red polo shirt, was on the phone with a friend explaining that he wouldn’t be able to get time off work to attend the concert.

Down a short hallway, a handful of people sat at tables in a small café that had all the ambience of a high school cafeteria.

It was Sunday morning at the Midway Travel Center about ten minutes outside of Columbia, Missouri, and I was about to begin the second half of my trip from North Carolina to New Mexico, following the approximate route of the Santa Fe Trail.

While my journey wasn’t intended to explore the history of the trail, I thought about the people who made the journey across the plains during the trail’s short but impactful lifespan in the late 1800s.

While I had wanted to make the drive for many years, I was glad I hadn’t.

Loosely retracing the footsteps of settlers who opted to leave everything behind for a new life somewhere else resonated with me a lot more after Corie and I have moved overseas.

It also made me reflect on how much we take our modern world for granted. Nearly two-hundred years earlier, settlers would have started their journey by loading up their wagons with the provisions they would need on their two-month journey across the plains.

My provision stocking that morning consisted of topping off the gas tank and grabbing a packet of Reese’s Pieces and a Diet Dr. Pepper, an unusual combination that one can’t find in Georgia, and I indulged in throughout the trip.

A settler at the time would have been amazed that I could make the same trip in three days even after stopping off at a motorcycle museum, a castle built by the Works Progress Administration, and other distractions along the way. He would never have been able to comprehend that I could arrive from overseas and make my way from Appalachia and across the prairie in a tenth of the time it would take him to go from Independence to Santa Fe.

As I plopped my sugary provisions on the counter, I asked the gas station attendant, “How’s it going?”

“I’m here,” he replied. It was probably the thirtieth time he repeated the same answer in the past hour.

The exchange would have confused most foreigners. I’ve had to explain to several people from other countries that when Americans ask, “How’s it going,” they’re simply saying hi. We might be a friendly bunch, but we really don’t want to hear a drawn-out response to the question. The attendant’s response summed up his real statement, “I’m at work and there’s about a hundred places I’d rather be right now,” in the appropriate amount of time.

The morning light amplified the green landscape in front of me, but the humid air quickly washed the color away, becoming more and more muted until the landscape's gray outline on the horizon.

Famers and their help were busy cutting down scattered fields of withered corn stalks, giving much of the landscape a stubbled appearance.

As the miles passed, I thought about the question my friends asked me a couple nights before. What makes me happy? I didn’t know by the end of the day, a man named Charlie Beck would unknowingly answer that question for me.

I pulled off the highway at the Katy Trail State Park, just outside of New Franklin, Missouri, and a few miles away of Boonville, Missouri, the actual start of the Santa Fe Trail.

For a while, I was the only one near the entrance of the park and enjoyed the solitude, listening to the birds chirping away in the trees above.

An older couple drove up as I was taking photos and started getting ready for a bike ride along the park’s Rails-To-Trails route through the countryside. As was common for the trip, we struck up a conversation that eventually got around to where I lived now and my trip through the States.

Like Michaela Suver, the mural painter I had met in Mount Vernon, the couple pressed me with questions about living overseas, as they had been considering spending the rest of their retirement in Portugal.

The conversation would mostly repeat itself later that day at the Vaile Mansion in Independence, Missouri.

The mansion was one of the stops I had planned ahead of time, emailing the staff beforehand to ask if photos were allowed and, if so, could they be posted on my website and newsletter. The kind staff told me yes to both and requested I include the mansion’s website, that has a brief overview of the property’s history and restoration efforts.

When I finished the tour, I asked Charlie Beck, one of the docents, if I could take his photo.

I noticed Charlie right away when I walked in that afternoon. He was dressed in period attire with a old-style hat perched on his head. He was more than happy to stand in front of the camera.

“I heard you say you live in Georgia,” he asked with much excitement. When I told him he heard correctly, he peppered me with informed questions about living in Tbilisi. I told him he had a better knowledge of the country than most expats I know.

“Do you want to know how I know about Georgia,” he asked with a wide grin like he was sharing a secret with me.

When Charlie was in elementary school, his class had a special visitor one day. It was a man from Georgia who talked about escaping the Soviet occupation.

Charlie remembered that day in vivid detail. It was the moment that inspired him to keep learning about the world.

Charlie later became a high school Spanish teacher so he could satisfy his two curiosities, language and travel, subjects he was still quite eager to discuss.

As we talked, it was evident that his love of learning and ongoing curiosity about the world never slowed down, and it wasn’t going to anytime soon.

He seemed so… happy.

I got back in the car and continued toward Kansas. I thought about Charlie for the rest of the trip and was grateful for our conversation.

I hope you’ll join me next week for a night under the stars on the Kansas prairie.


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