Tag Archive: Fine Line Books

On a wintry Friday night, I drove along our town’s short Main Street toward the big corner church. There’s not a lot of traffic in town after dark, and I didn’t encounter much, which made me a little sad to think the cold would keep people away from the benefit dinner taking place. But when I turned the corner into the church’s back lot, I suddenly saw row after row of vehicles. “They came!” I said out loud and laughed at the tears in my eyes. “Look at all these people!” Indeed, it looked as if the entire town had turned out.

From far and wide people arrived in order to visit our old Youth Group leader, Jim Gordon, and to donate toward his treatment for Lewy Body Dementia. The place was just stuffed with familiar faces I’d known 20 years ago, now graying at the temples, and it brought back a surge of memories of our Youth Group days.

Years ago, every Thursday night, the senior high students took over Jim and Bonnie’s house for camaraderie, dinner, sing-alongs, skits, and life lessons. After an hour of running around, playing games, starting conversations, and generating fun, I remember we’d pile around the dining room’s picnic tables for potluck dinner. (Yes, wooden picnic tables in the dining room. This was not your ordinary parish house. And 60-some kids wouldn’t fit together in just any dining room.) We’d start out sitting by class, with the seniors on one end of the room and we 9th graders on the other. But there were no rules, so usually by the end of dinner, everybody’d switched seats.

Gordon Bunch IIIAfter dinner, the whole lot of us would grab a spot on the living room floor surrounded by postered walls and memorabilia. The souvenirs that most people lined up on shelves or tossed in a drawer the Gordons put directly onto the walls. You looked for a spot where you’d be comfy, because you’d spend the entire last hour in your spot. Jim, and anyone else who wanted, would start tuning guitars and shaking tambourines. The rest of us would pass around song books–paper binders filled with lyrics in numbered order–and we’d shout out our favorites like, “Let’s sing 88!” and the guitars would start Mellancamp’s “Jack and Diane,” or Jimmy Buffet’s “Volcano,” or Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” The songs were interrupted by classmates, leaders, and Jim’s wife Bonnie doing skits. Bonnie was always a ton of fun. She was tiny, with beautiful blonde curls that went all over, and she wore pink lipstick and smelled like a powdery fragrance that I’ve never found in any store. She’s got a quiet leadership about her, but had no trouble acting in the skits and getting everyone to laugh.

There were religious songs in the books, too, and we’d save those for last–especially if they were quiet because they’d set the mood for Jim to talk. He’d give us a 15-minute sermon, sometimes more, sometimes less, which always began with random-seeming talk–about music, a band, a recent conversation with a man on the street, a memory from long ago–then related what he was saying to a Bible verse that he or a volunteer would read. We were allowed to shout out questions or comments at any time, and he’d address those. Then it would get quiet and he’d make his point, which was always something you could ruminate on for the next few days as you went back to school and headed into the weekend and into the next week. We’d close in prayer, and then listen to the brass of “All You Need is Love” as we got ready to head on home.

In those days, we lived from Thursday to Thursday. [That line isn’t new. I wrote, “We live from Thursday to Thursday” on a scrap of paper back in ninth grade because it was obvious, even then, that we were living out something to remember.] Back then we truly lived for those three hours where anything could happen and everything was possible.

On Friday after my first Youth Group, I remember walking down the hall in school and I passed a group of football players. Two of them, who had sat at the next table over the night before, made eye contact with me and said, “Hey.” I said hey back. (Hello was way too formal.) I also remember a senior, later on that day–probably the most beautiful girl in school–was standing at her locker with her friends and she also greeted me as I passed by because she’d seen me the night before at Youth Group. Class, age, athletic ability, talent, brains, beauty, clubs… none of it mattered. The barriers were gone.

We weren’t told to be nice to each other. We weren’t told to be accepting and kind and to offer help where we could. We learned it. We saw it in action and we absorbed it for ourselves. Youth Group was not a day of the week but a way of life. As Jim’s sister described us on Facebook on Saturday after the benefit, “You are a force. You learned from the best. Make good things happen.” That’s exactly what it all felt like: A force.

There were years of retreats, and breakfasts, and trips to amusement parks—once when our bus broke down a state away from home–and baseball games in corn fields (whispering, “If you build it, he will come…”), and volunteering—like the times we cleaned the carnival grounds and had a contest to find the weirdest items (you didn’t want to win that one)—and the coming years of change ahead of us. There’s so much that I could fill a book (and maybe I will). Yet hundreds of us, many with spouses and kids in tow, returned to the big church on the corner on a cold winter’s night to see Jim again and to donate and reconnect with each other across the miles and years because we share something in common. Deep within, a force has reawakened.

We were, we are, and always will be the Gordon Bunch.

On Lewy Body Dementia
The scientist Frederich H. Lewy discovered the abnormal proteins in the brain (the Lewy Body proteins) back in the early 1900’s during his Parkinson’s research. These Lewy Body proteins can interrupt dopamine flow, resulting in Parkinson’s, or can spread throughout the brain, wreaking havoc in the form of Dementia with Lewy Bodies which causes impaired attention and visuospatial function and can manifest visual hallucinations. Unlike Alzheimer’s, in Dementia with Lewy Bodies, short-term memory is affected later. Treatment involves drawing together a team of doctors, each treating different symptoms according to their specialty and in conjunction with one another so as not to allay the team’s efforts. Research goes on, but as of now, there is no cure.

To donate to the research for Dementia with Lewy Bodies, see the Lewy Body Dementia Association website. To donate directly to Jim Gordon’s treatment, please send a check payable to Saxonburg Memorial Church, Attn: Carol Hines, P.O. Box 466, Saxonburg, PA 16056 and memo “Jim Gordon Benefit.”Jody Brown

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.


gordon-bunch-1On Friday night I attended a benefit for the Reverend Jim Gordon, a spaghetti dinner that called to everyone far and wide to trek home for family time. When I was in high school, Jim (no one ever called him the Reverend Jim Gordon) was one of a team of preachers for one of the churches on Main Street (not mine), and the leader of what seemed to be the town youth group (that adopted me, and everyone else around).

Jim is now living with Dementia with Lewy Bodies, a disease with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s and related somewhat to Parkinson’s. Details on this will come. But for now, we’ll travel back before all of this, to the early 1990’s and a time when the world was just becoming possible.

I think it was my friend Danielle who invited me to come to her youth group one fall Thursday night. She invited the lot of us, really, and soon, Heather, Carla, Jenny—though it was her Youth Group, too–and both Jackies were all meeting up on the hill at the parish house for three hours of music, dancing, camaraderie, potluck dinner, and a sermon that wove it all together. This was the home of Jim and Bonnie Gordon, and it was not your run-of-the-mill parish house.

The dining room, to me, was always the most striking. It ran the length of the house from the back to the front and was not filled with a stately table but rather a series of wooden picnic tables. The walls were stately, however, covered in old license plates from Pennsylvania and beyond. The living room, which paralleled the dining, was a large, open space with ramshackle couches and pillows strewn about, a stereo system on one side geared toward the playing of records, and posters of the Beatles splashed the walls. The small kitchen, that I remember being yellow/orange but it could have been any cheerful color, really, had a poster of a playground and words that I do remember, “It’ll be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” It was right above the stove.

Upstairs, there was a hallway with various rooms jutting off, each so filled with costumes and props that, on any given night, you could put together a skit with cheerleaders, Moses, the T-Birds from Grease, John and Yoko, or all of them at once.

My memory is that it was so cold my second winter at Youth Group, and there were so many people in attendance every week, that the attic was opened up for additional space. It was vast, at the tippy top of the stairs, and contained at least one pool table and virtually no heat. The walls up there were unfinished, so we were given markers and told to add our autographs. This we did, along with poetry, questions, sketches, and the like. We were figuring out who we were, what really counted, what it all meant, and how to get all of it to fit together.

Part II, coming soon… ~

On Lewy Body Dementia
The scientist Frederich H. Lewy discovered the abnormal proteins in the brain (the Lewy Body proteins) back in the early 1900’s during his Parkinson’s research. These Lewy Body proteins can interrupt dopamine flow, resulting in Parkinson’s, or can spread throughout the brain, wreaking havoc in the form of Dementia with Lewy Bodies which causes impaired attention and visuospatial function and can manifest visual hallucinations. Unlike Alzheimer’s, in Dementia with Lewy Bodies, short-term memory is affected later. Treatment involves drawing together a team of doctors, each treating different symptoms according to their specialty and in conjunction with one another so as not to allay the team’s efforts. Research goes on, but as of now, there is no cure.JB

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

Things Given

Things Given‘Tis the season, and I’m thinking about gifts. Not just about presents wrapped with bows and ribbons, but about things given, and a recent conversation.

A friend and colleague told me that, in the world of therapy, you never take anything away without giving first. I’ll mess up his clinical wording, so I’ll give you my own writerly example of what he said:

Say you have a client with an imaginary friend, a major imaginary friend who holds a lot of power and sway over your client’s world. Now, you can’t just blurt out that imaginary friends don’t exist. That would be devastating, and would cause more harm than good.

At this point, I thought about key moments in my own life where the carpet seemed yanked out from under me. Many, many key moments flashed before my eyes and I was heartily amused to think that my own personal cheerleaders in life are brilliant for blurting things out before I’m ready. I think they delight in my hard landings.

The thing of it all has been though: I got good at landing properly–similar to the way they teach you to fall in martial arts classes. And I got good at licking my wounds and good at bouncing back up. It’s become a way of life for me, and not a bad one. I’ve been taught great lessons, and I’ve even managed to teach myself some doozies as well. Resilience, self-encouragement, finding the ray of sunlight in an otherwise dark mess, these are things I know from repeated trial and error.

Now at this point, my writer brain was awakened and starting to line up the words to describe this conversation, and that’s when this happened:

“Never take before you give,” my friend declared. “If you do, you leave a void.”

The writer brain did a flip, but this wasn’t the end of the story. My friend quickly mentioned different techniques for helping the client, and concluded that, rather than working to remove what was imaginary, a person should instead work on building the client’s ability to see all the reality in his or her life, all the flesh-and-blood family, teachers, mentors, coaches, and friends that populate the life of this particular client. He said you fill the client up before you ever suggest letting go of the imaginary friend.

“You give before you take,” he said, and then, “Never in the reverse order.”

These moments in life happen for a reason. Here I sit, in the midst of the holiday giving season, turning this over in my mind. Imagine it: Of all things given this season, our presence fills each other’s lives the best.

Hold on to each other, friends. I wish you all wonder-filled holidays, and an adventurous New Year!

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

End Loop

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 24

End LoopBack on the road, I realize a little too late that my vanilla cream soda has a cork rather than a screw cap. “This is why they offered to open it for me back at the candy store,” I say, showing Brent.

“Oh,” he says. “Look in the center consol. There’s a tool.”

I just blink at him for a moment and wonder what else he’s hidden away in the Jetta all this time. Sure enough, there’s a Swiss Army Knife-like tool, packed so Brent-like in its original packaging despite its use. I get my soda open and wash down my fudge as Brent says, “I’ve been thinking…”

This’ll be good.

“I think we can fit in the State Fair.”

“We have time?” I ask, savoring my soda.

“If we take the right roads from here, we’ll have a solid chunk of time to do it–unless you have things to do back at the apartment.”

“I’m pretty much packed,” I say, wondering if that’s true, and realizing that it wouldn’t be the first time I traveled with a variety of wet, clean-ish clothes.

End LoopWe agree to our no-dawdling rule and arrive at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, which is known for having the highest daily attendance in the U.S., and it’s also known, deliciously enough, for offering all kinds of food on a stick: corndogs, fried cheese, cheesecake, Twinkies, even beer.

In 1758, a fella named Elkanah Watson was born in Massachusetts. That was in the middle of the French & Indian War, which set up the colonists’ fight for independence in America. Well, in 1810, in order to promote better agricultural practices, Watson organized the first county fair in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He organized activities for men, women, and children so that the entire community could be included. Over the years, with industrialization, fairs have expanded to include carnival rides and the unveiling of new and innovative products. And today, the Minnesota State Fair is one of the largest in the world.

End LoopBrent and I strut down the main drag of the Fair in the intense Minnesota heat as zombie-like people wade passed us, looking wilted and some even appear to be wet. There aren’t any water rides, yet everyone looks drenched. We shrug it off, smelling the carnival-like aromas of sugar and fried food, and head immediately to our personal favorites—anything meaty for Brent, and for me, cheese curds with yellow mustard followed by the milk dispenser.

End LoopThat’s just gross,” Brent says, but he agrees to wait in the milk line with me.

“It’s the greatest booth since sliced bread,” I say and we laugh. I pay a dollar for a cup and I’m allowed to have it refilled as many times as I want.

“Two percent or four?” I’m asked. Yeah, I like this place.

We head into the Kemps Creamery exhibit, which is blissfully air conditioned, and proceed to learn some fast facts, milk a fabricated cow, and sidle up to the milk bar. For this adventure, we also get some ice cream on a stick. Score!

End LoopWe round through a kiddie area where Brent finds Math on-a-Stick. Truly this state fair has everything on a stick. Math on-a-Stick encourages kids (of all ages, apparently) to play with math concepts through games and activities. I drag Brent away from the math and we find our way to the St. Paul’s own Summit booth with beer flights on a stick. And that’s when I hear a familiar voice over the loudspeaker. I can’t quite place the voice and, knowing that this fair is huge, I start to feel it’s improbable that I’ll track down its origin just by looking. It’s a woman’s voice, and I’m zeroing in on it in my mind and then it suddenly comes to me: It’s Mollie B.

End Loop“Mollie B!” I tell Brent, wide-eyed, and, knowing the voice, I now know where to look. We approach the stage nearest to Summit, and there she is, Mollie B herself.

“I don’t recognize her,” Brent says.

End Loop“You’ve never watched RFDTV?” I ask, and then I remember this is Brent. I start talking fast. “Okay, while you’re busy watching scifi all-the-time, there’s also a channel on TV called RFD-TV; it’s rural television. Mollie B does a Polka show on Saturday nights, the Mollie B Polka Party, that my parents are crazy about.” He frowns at me, so I go on. “Make that face all you want, but she’s our age; she sings, dances, plays a number of instruments—sometimes simultaneously–and she travels around filming polka dances for her show. She’s even got a Polka cruise. And that’s her! My parents are gonna flip. I’ve got to get them souvenirs.”

End LoopBrent guards our beer on a stick, which I know is disappearing as I stand in line to get t-shirts. Mollie’s on stage talking and I’m filming away with my trusty phone because my family is never going to believe I’m standing so close to her, and that’s when Mollie B suddenly looks my way. I wave like a crazed fanatic dufus, which I am, and she stops what she’s saying for a moment, catches a laugh before it can escape, and then gets back to her speech. It’s totally true; I have it all on film. T-shirts in hand and dignity mostly intact, I return to Brent and what’s left of the stick beers. And maybe it’s the heat, or our incredible brush with fame, but Brent and I soon realize the heat is getting to us.End Loop

“Where were those misters?” I ask.

“This way,” he says. We wander away from the music pavilion, zombielike, toward the open air shower heads we’d seen upon our entry. We find one and hop in, beer and all. The shower heads, for all the water they’re spraying at us, are just misters after all and aren’t cold or refreshing enough, not like the ones at the Minnesota Zoo, so we hop out and decide to track down some final cold items on a stick before leaving the fair. It occurs to us that we’ve now joined the ranks of the wilted, soggy zombies we’d seen upon our entry. We look at all the pretty new arrivals walking into the Fair, fresh as daisies, and Brent and I laugh at ourselves. “Get a good look,” we say to each other. “We’re your future.”

We make our exit and get back to Brent’s with just enough time for me to shower and change clothes before heading to the airport. As fun as it was to get this way, I can’t sit on a plane in this wilted, sticky, zombiefied condition.

With that done, and my belongings literally thrown back into my suitcase, we head out into rush hour traffic toward MSP. Just before the turn onto the highway, the Jetta’s check engine light turns on.

“Look at that,” Brent laughs. “I wondered when that would happen.”End L

“Looks like 1908 miles,” I say, and we discuss sliced bread, the underground bar, Truckhenge, Trampled by Turtles, the Volkswagen spider, the giant cottonwood tree in the road, and all of our things done and things learned in these 1908 miles.

We arrive at the airport, somehow on time, and Brent stops the car outside my flight company. He sighs. Somehow, after all this, it just seems too early to be done.

“This just loops around, doesn’t it?” I ask after a moment, pointing to the airport road.

Understanding flashes across his face. “It does,” he confirms.

Even as I ask, “Do you think we could go around again?” Brent is already putting the Jetta back into gear for a victory lap.

And just like that, with goofy grins on our faces, Brent and I drive off into the loop.

~The End~

Jody BrownMy heartfelt thanks goes out to all of you for reading this saga, sending me comments, and for the encouragement to “write the next segment, ASAP!” I appreciate your excitement for this crazy road trip through the middle of our great country. And, of course, very special thanks to Brent for his enthusiasm, driving skills, photographs, and for thinking up this trip and asking me to tag along.

May all your adventures include joyous wonder. Go forth.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.


This Side of EerieTerminus & GatewayI’m thinking about salt and idioms. That is, I’m thinking, “This is where Brent earns his salt.” (Actually, the idiom is to be worth one’s salt, dating back to those good ole ancient times when Roman soldiers were either paid in salt or paid money specifically to buy salt. Historians have late-night arguments over this, while still more historians join the fray claiming that Greek slave traders in ancient times sold slaves for salt.) In any case, I’m thinking about salt as currency, historians in fisticuffs, and the curious way Brent greets each roadside stop with enthusiasm and gives each one its due exploration. This Side of EerieAnyone else would quit while we’re ahead and would drive straight through to Rochester, or would cut out a stop or two in order to make good time. Anyone else—but then, anyone else would have been antsy about spending a week in the car in the first place. It takes a different kind of person to plan such a trip, a person of commitment and fortitude, and of those, few dare to stay the course.

The Dreams of MenSo, here I sit in Iowa, knowing I’m in the company of someone with the right combination of patience, attention to logistics, determination, and sense of adventure–someone well suited to road exploration. I’m sitting in good company.

Imagination is King

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 23
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

It’s a hot, sunny morning outside in St. Paul as Brent and I sit in his kitchen, running through our options. It’s my last day in town, our road trip was a complete success as we arrived back safe and mostly sound, and my laundry is currently dirtying up Brent’s washer since my clothes have done some serious living lately. But my flight doesn’t leave MSP until 7 p.m., giving us ample time to plan a local venture.

Imagination is King“Do you remember the candy store?” Brent asks.

“The yellow one?”

“That’s it.”

“Is it open?”

He laughs. “It’s open this time.”

A year, maybe two ago, we drove through the rolling hills of Minnesota on our way to a candy store that sounded too good to be true, but Brent said they had the best root beer. After a lazy day adventure, we arrived to find the giant store was closed and wouldn’t open for the season for another week. So, of course we hung out in the parking lot and watched through the windows as workers restocked shelves and readied displays. I was preparing my argument for knocking on the door “just to have a look and not to buy anything, I swear,” when Brent reminded me we had a Wes Anderson movie waiting for us at a historic theater. I have yet to step foot inside the candy wonderland.

“Or we can go to the State Fair,” Brent tosses out there.

“Everything on a stick? Hmm, that’s tough,” I say. “But, I want to do both.”

“You can’t do both.

We negotiate this, based on Brent’s argument of Time-Space-Relativity in relation to getting to the airport on time and my argument of Sure We Can.

“Well, we’ve been to the State Fair before,” I say. “But I’ve not been inside the giant candy store.”

Candy store it is. And after a hearty breakfast of junk food, we’re on our way.

Back in the Jetta—you’d think we’d be sick of it by now—we remind each other what happened the last time we tried to go to the candy store, about finding a sinking barn that we decided looked as if a giant had stepped on it. And then there was this long, lolling road through two fields where we could see what I can only describe as a giant armadillo up ahead.

I laugh as the scenery rolls by. “I remember saying, ‘Is that an armadillo?’”

Brent agrees. “From far off, I had no idea.”

Turns out, it was not an armadillo, which are not native to Minnesota, but a massive snapping turtle with an armored, spiky tail and a shell nearly two feet tall. The turtle was crossing the road–and making good time about it, too. Brent stopped the car to give the turtle room, and we just stared in amazement. We had driven most of the day without another car in sight, and now suddenly there were about five cars behind us, all of us waiting for this giant turtle because Brent had stopped the car mid-road. When the turtle got by the Jetta (the same Jetta), I cheered, “Go, turtle, go!” which prompted this massive creature to turn around fully and look at me, eye to eye. I half expected him to wear little glasses and say hello. We drove on, and Brent and I spent the rest of the trip to the candy store coming up with the perfect name for such a turtle, a dignified and masterful name: Mr. R. Sullivan. And the mind of this writer began weaving a children’s book.

Back at present, we drive along Highway 169, following a long span of bright yellow farm fence that leads to the yellow barn.

Imagination is KingMinnesota’s Largest Candy Store, which is part of Jim’s Apple Farm, is barely contained in a long yellow barn that seems as though someone expanded it, one section at a time, about six times. The heat of the day is surging and we’re excited to get inside to some candy and air conditioning, but we take some time to check out the pumpkins and to threaten each other with the watering hose in the parking lot before finally setting foot inside.

Imagination is KingAnd what awaits us is astounding. Immediately to the right are rows and aisles and tables and shelves of brightly-colored candy, sectioned off by type from hard candies, caramels, flavors of taffies, chocolates, lollipops, gumballs, European candies—over 3,000 types of candy from around the world–as far as the eye can see. In front of us is a section of homemade pies, jams and jellies, brittles, and fudge, and also a section of meats and jerkies. To the left is a section of glass grocery refrigerators filled to the brim with multicolored sodas.

Imagination is KingThe story goes that what began as a family-owned business, Jim’s Apple Farm, expanded into selling candy to offset a couple bad apple years. (Hopefully with the Minnesota-developed Honeycrisp, those days are far behind us.) And now, it’s still family-owned, cash-only, sans website and sans telephone though it does have a Facebook page, and the business has grown and grown.

Imagination is KingThe building is filled with happy nostalgia (Pac-Man Band-Aids!), delicious discoveries (orange fudge!), and new favorites like candies in the shape of Pixar’s Minions. There’s even a shelf of puzzles in their own section among the candy. And in the corner sits a full-size TARDIS, the Doctor Who time machine that travels between worlds. Brent and I, clutching our prized candy and root beer, run to it and act out crash scenes and do our favorite monster impressions.

Imagination is KingEverywhere we look is something we remember from childhood, something that evokes a memory big or small. For me, a slogan I memorized at a Pennsylvania amusement park (Idlewild?) comes to mind: “Where Childhood is Eternal and Imagination is King.”

Imagination is KingAnd in the middle of what feels like an action-packed candy store, I pause and muse that Brent, with all of his reason and rationale, and I, with my heart leading the way, both explore our surroundings with childlike wonder. And with that acknowledged, I dive back into the fray.

–We’re not done yet! The final episode is coming soon!

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 22, Segment 21, Segment 20, Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Home Away From Home

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 22
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)
America’s roads have been our home for this journey—well, the roads and Brent’s Jetta, which is filling up with state maps, brewery t-shirts, a bent peacock feather, and a good layer of sand and soot. Over the miles, we’ve listened to the hybrid folk of Trampled by Turtles, the fast-talking lyrics of Dessa, and the zombie epidemic survival stories of World War Z. As we cross into Minnesota, the tenth and final CD of the zombie war is wrapping up, and it’s been a doozy of a story. But before you think we filled our entire road trip with sound, let me remind you that there have been wonderfully long stretches of road that we spanned in silence, listening only to the wind and the sound of our own thoughts, which is the beauty of traveling with an introvert. The ability to sit in peaceful silence is an old art, I think, and Brent and I are masters of the craft.

What we’re slow to master, but certainly practicing, is the ability to find good road food. By good, I mean local, tasty, somewhat healthy, and best of all: There when we need it. So far, we’ve thrived on classics from Mom-and-Pop shops when we could find them, gas station fatty salty cheesy [and in Brent’s case] bacony snack foods when we couldn’t, and the nightlife of the Applebee’s chain that we turned into two days’ worth of bellyfuls when there was nothing but 80 miles of road ahead. And after days and days of this, the pattern is about to change, because where we’re going, we will feast like kings.It’s dark by the time we arrive in Rochester, Minnesota, and of all the amazing places we’ve been these last few days, Rochester is different. I lived here for a good twelve years, and Brent lived here a bit longer than that. He’s since moved to St. Paul, and I’m now located out of Pittsburgh, but Rochester is still our home away from home.

Home Away From Home

Rochester had once been a great hub for IBM, which now has a smaller presence but is still located on a sprawling campus of buildings paneled with blue glass that is known simply as Big Blue. According to Wikipedia, “As of 2013 the company held the record for most patents generated by a business for 22 consecutive years.” [Brent holds two.] Wikipedia mentions some company inventions/developments that perhaps we’ve heard of, such as, “The Automated teller machine (ATM), the floppy disk, the hard disk drive, the magnetic stripe cardUniversal Product Code (UPC)…” etc., etc., etc. All right here in the plains of Minnesota.

Beyond IBM, Rochester is known for the Mayo Clinic, which got its start after a series of massive tornadoes (two F3s followed by one F5) destroyed much of Rochester in 1883, prompting local physician Dr. William Worrall Mayo, his sons William and Charles, along with Mother Mary Alfred Moes and the Sisters of Saint Francis to start a hospital that is today part of the Mayo Clinic.

In 1907 Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer invented a new system for keeping records and for moving them quickly throughout the hospital via a system of conveyors and tubes. Hospitals worldwide have kept their eyes on Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic and have been implementing Mother Mayo’s practices ever since. Thanks to a sharp bread knife and fumbling fingers, yours truly has her very own Mayo Clinic patient number and a half dozen tiny stitch marks on my right index finger to remember the occasion. I can tell you from experience that as you walk down the hallways of Mayo from one specialist’s office to another, the second specialist has already learned of your situation and is ready to talk with you when you reach their door.

We hop off the highway and approach Rochester from the south. When we get to the big corn water tower on our right, we smile knowing that dinner is just ahead. “The big corn” is a 60-foot water tower on the site of what was the Libby plant, now Seneca Foods. [And as true locals put it, you always give directions in reference to what was there, and then maybe mention what’s there now if you get around to it.] I remember that when I first arrived in Rochester, I organized the landmarks according to where they were in relation to “the big corn,” a funny habit that I keep to this day.

We hit downtown and park the Jetta, and as we step out on the streets of home and stretch our legs, I hear someone calling my name and I turn and see my friend James locking up the patio of the Grand Rounds Brew Pub. (I haven’t set foot here in five months, and this is what happens. That’s home.) James crosses the street to us, gives me a hug, and the three of us catch up for a few minutes. “Business is good!” he tells us as he heads back to it, and if we’d been a little earlier on our entry into town, we could have eaten at the Grand Rounds before they closed for the night. (The last time I was here, they featured a salmon dish that was out of this Home Away From Homeworld.) As it stands, we’ll head to Newt’s for some late-night food.

when I bump into my friend Ellen, the talented violinist, on the patio. Ellen is part of the duo Thomas and the Rain, who have been playing music together for years. “You’re here?” she says and hugs me. “I thought you were on a road trip in the middle of America.”

“We’re still on it,” I say. “We just drove into town.”

We catch up for a minute and then Brent and I head on our way, but just before we do, Ellen elbows me and says, “Hey, can I bum a candy cigarette?”

Home Away From HomeDo you see why we love this place? We head up to Newt’s, sidle up to the bar, and proceed to pig out. I get my favorite: beer battered fried chicken salad with buffalo sauce. Brent gets a giant burger and I help him eat his fries. Full and happy, I check the time and note that we have very little of it before Forager closes.

“It’s over by the highway?” Brent asks.

I nod. “Where the Good Foods Store used to be,” I say. “You’ll see.”

Home Away From HomeWe drive the handful of blocks away from downtown and closer to the highway and make a right. There before us is the backlit sign I had seen on Facebook. “There it is!” I say, and I can’t keep my excitement down. Back when I was getting ready to move to Pittsburgh, this place was just an idea in my friend Annie’s mind and the subject of excited chatter in the building where my writing studio was next door to Forager’s architect. Months and months (a year?) later, and after many Facebook progress reports from a variety of local artists who were brought in to apply their talents, here it is, right in front of me.

We get inside with enough time for me to a have an original draft beer (and Brent to have a soda) and for me to explore and try to stay out of trouble (I only went into the employee area one time, and that was with express permission).

In addition to being a brew pub, I discover that Forager has a wood-fired oven and what they call a Pop Up Kitchen, where any potential restaurateur can try their hand at running a mini-restaurant from kitchen to register to see if they truly like the work before applying for a business loan.

We close the place down, and hop in the Jetta, aiming for St. Paul. And I think that, for all of its familiarity, this home-away-from-home in the middle of America never fails to surprise. At the rate Rochester is growing, generated by thinkers and innovators coupled with artistic doers, I could spend a dozen more years here basking in great friendships and swimming in the concept-to-reality momentum. I pick out the stars in the night sky above and think about how very American it all is.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 21, Segment 20, Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

What Lies Ahead

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 21
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

We’ve been posting all sorts of pictures on Facebook, and we’re getting quite a reaction. It’s prime vacation time and our friends are checking in from exotic world locations—Paris, Rome, the beaches of Mexico–and here Brent and I post from, well, the middle of the road in America and I daresay we’re surprising everybody with the stories we’re finding. Stories of bread-slicing machines, giant ice cream cones, gold mines, happy gnomes, balls of string, underground pubs… America is full of surprises.

At the moment, we’re tracking down a smiley face water tower and a Jesse James marker before we reach Des Moines and make the turn north [toward dinner!]. It’s past lunchtime right now, so we stop for gas and find fuel in the form of pizza and sandwiches, and I’m so hungry I agonize over what to get. I finally decide on a sandwich. Then I stare at Brent’s pizza as we gorge in the parking lot.

“How’s the pizza?” I say.

“Good,” he says with his mouth full.

“Really good? Because it looks really good.”

“You shoulda got pizza,” he laughs.

“There wasn’t any plain,” I say.

“Well,” he shrugs as if that explains it, and finishes the pizza without sharing a bite.

“Well!” I scoff, and he laughs again.

“How was your sandwich?” he asks. Nice distraction technique.

“Good, but I ate it all,” I say.

“Yeah. We’ll feed you again in Rochester.”

I smirk at him, because he likes to say that to me. It’s not that I eat a lot—okay, sometimes I do. But it’s more that Brent gets so focused on the task at hand that he completely forgets to eat. A true engineer, Brent can survive on nothing but soda and chips for days. Part of our friendship has been built around the necessity for me to plan food breaks, coupled with Brent’s patience to “stop the bus” long enough to eat. As we hop back onto I-80, it doesn’t escape me that this time Brent was hungry, too. That was a good stop, even if I didn’t get any pizza.

smileyAs we close in on Adair, we again take up listening to World War Z as we enjoy the Iowa sunshine and deep blue sky. You’d think the sunny afternoon and the spooky zombie war would be a contradiction in terms, but Brent and I find them both to be rather full of hope.

When we reach Adair, as we expect, we easily find the smiley face water tower. One can’t miss it—it’s golden yellow, cheerful, and right off the highway. What Lies AheadWhat we didn’t expect are the myriad people who drive past us on the small side road and honk, wave, and whistle at us as we take our usual array of serious photos. We could be journalists at this point. Or maybe pet photographers (with a good deal of training.) What Lies Ahead

The Googs gives us the vague impression that the water tower has been smiling for decades, simply for the purpose of being cheerful and welcoming. And Wikipedia says Adair is “humorously known as the ‘happiest town on Earth.’” So, as more random cars pass us and people wave, I’m sold. Adair is awesome. (And there’s still more to see!) What Lies Ahead

We get back in the Jetta, planning to turn a couple streets according to Sally the Map App and arrive at the Jesse James marker. But when we reach the place where the marker should be, lo and behold, there’s nothing there. Sally strikes again!

We stare at an open field (with no marker!) and theorize where it could be. Personally, I think we missed it. I must have blinked at the wrong time or turned my head or something. Brent is methodical; he’s sure we didn’t miss it.

What Lies Ahead“Let’s backtrack and start again,” I say just as Brent says, “I think it’s further.” We try my way first (of course we do) and it doesn’t work (of course it doesn’t), but we’re able to rule out a strange turnoff that seemed to lead to railroad tracks. We then try Brent’s way and we find the marker. We hadn’t missed it because it was never behind us; it was always ahead.

What Lies AheadThe marker is on a little knoll and has its own small driveway off the road, which allows us to spend a little time here without worrying about being in the roadway. The marker, a plaque, denotes the first train robbery made by Jesse James and his gang in 1873 just to the southwest of Adair. To pull off the robbery, they had removed a small section of train track—the very section that has been placed behind the plaque and yours truly is lounging on it. What Lies AheadAnd the plaque itself, which is mounted on a train wheel, has a story of its own: Years ago, it was stolen. And it wasn’t until the thief’s house in Ohio burned down that the marker was found and returned.

What Lies AheadWe’re Googling this story as a Cadillac suddenly pulls up the small driveway and a man and woman emerge to join us. This is a first. We’re usually alone at these roadside curiosities.

They tell us they’re retired, originally from Boston and heading back that way, and that they’d heard about this marker and just had to stop. We tell them the story about the Ohio thief and Brent shows them the write-up from RoadsideAmerica.com on his phone.What Lies Ahead

“Now, that is interesting,” the man says.

The four of us share road and weather stories before climbing back in our cars and heading on our separate ways. I can’t help but feel a certain kismet at finding this marker a little later than we expected, yet just in time to meet some kindred spirits–or maybe, in time to meet a version of our future selves. Brent and I widen our eyes at the thought of it. It seems the road never fails to offer surprises of its own.

Back to the Zombie War, and onward to dinner!

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 20, Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Another Way

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 20
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

“There’s 75th,” I say, spotting the small sign among the overgrown greenery of the countryside.

“No, we’re going a different way,” Brent says, and drives on.

“We’re overshooting it?” I ask, dubious, because this is not Brent’s way.

“Yes,” he confirms.

This is intriguing. Brent has a plan—he always does—and whatever it is, he considered it from all angles. Random questions swirl in my mind and a couple even sneak out of my mouth before I stop, mid-question, remembering that I’m dealing with an introvert. Q&A with this particular introvert is much easier than this, more intuitive; the only requirement is using the fewest words possible. I instantly clam up, and just watch him and wait. And sure enough, in a moment he tells me exactly what I want to know. “There were instructions online that recommended it. The direct road is iffy, unless you’re in a truck,” he says. “We’ll only overshoot it by about a mile. I have alternative directions on the list.”

I consult the seven-page list of roadside stops and find the alternative route. “It would help if you’d let the navigator in on the plan,” I say.

“I just did,” he says, pleased with himself. We make a couple lefts and suddenly we’re on a gravel road, picking our way between Iowa fields. The road seems not quite two-cars wide, and it’s got the terrain of a well-traveled farm machinery path.

“I’d hate to see the iffy road,” I say as we bump and lurch along. Brent agrees.

We approach a tree line on our left and travel up a slight grade, but only slight. We’re scanning the horizon and stealing glances at the Jetta’s mileage gauge. “I don’t see it at all, do you?”Another Way

“Nope,” he says.

It’s not every day you find a tree in the middle of the road, and we discuss how grand, or perhaps cute, this tree might be. “Do you think it’s a hoax?” I ask.

“Maybe,” he shrugs without concern. “Seemed legit at the time, but I thought we’d see it by now.” We discuss this, and it’s not lost on me that we’re both chatting happily about being sent on this possible wild goose chase in the middle of Iowa. And really, why not? It got us off the beaten path.

Inching along, we crest the little grade and suddenly the tree we’re seeking is directly ahead of us. Now, we expected a sort of landmark tree between these fields, one that, despite the passage of time no one wanted to cut down, an interesting tree that would charm us as it must have done to the Iowans who circled the road around it. This tree is not what we expect; this tree is huge.

Another WayBrent stops the Jetta about ten yards from the intersection, just in case someone would come by, and we sit staring, blinking, then staring some more. “That’s a tree,” I say, as I stare and blink.

Brent agrees, “That’s a tree.”
We exit the Jetta and walk the distance, listening for distant signs of life but hearing only the breeze rustling in the fields and the gravel crunching under our feet. According to RoadsideAmerica.com, this is a 100-foot cottonwood tree, grown from a walking stick planted by a surveyor in 1850. I dug up this fact via the ever-helpful Google (as I searched for roadside tree hoaxes a minute ago), and Brent and I marvel that there was no telling it was even here until we crested that little slope.Another Way

The gravel road rings around the tree, making a sort of traffic circle with roads jutting off in four directions. There are even stop signs to allow for right of way, and the circle itself seems to have a lot less gravel than the straightaways, all of which suggest to me both heavy travel and roadside fun–and all with a hundred-foot tree smack dab in the center.

Another WayThe more we look around, touch the tree, and photograph it, the more it seems not to have grown up from the ground but to have landed here, set apart and at its full majesty. It seems a trick of the mind, like an M.C. Escher design. And there’s not a soul around to tell us we’re not dreaming. I breathe in the scent of sun and earth and flowers and I switch perspectives, imagining a satellite view of where we stand, like pins on a map in the fields in Iowa while friend and family pinpoints pop up all over the world, and I want each of them to share this feeling with me, the feeling of wonder and potential.

This is why we road trip. This is why a person drives into the unknown and decides to get out of the car. Here we stand in the middle of America and it seems that reality is not the same anymore. And that means we’re standing in a world where anything is possible. Another Way

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

This Side of Eerie

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 19
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

This Side of EerieWe’re on the west side of Iowa, driving east toward a giant Volkswagen spider, the Jetta windows rolled down. I’m digging in my purse, and finally find what I’m looking for: the red packet of candy cigarettes we got back at Fort Cody in Nebraska. I open the pack.

“You’re really going to sit there smoking a candy cigarette?” Brent asks.

“Yeah,” I say, making a declaration of it because I’m funny like that.

He looks thoughtful for a moment. “Gimme one,” he says.

This Side of EerieI oblige, and we sit with our candy cigarettes as the wind whips around us in the car. We’re giddy and gritty and feeling like champions of the road, so I take a picture of us like this. As I post it to Facebook, a friend’s post catches my eye. “Hey!” I say. “We’re stopping in Rochester for dinner, right?”

“I hope so.”

“My friend’s brewery is opening there, today. They’ve been putting a lot of work into it. I didn’t know when they were going to open, but today’s the day. We’ve got to show our support.”

“Okay,” he says. “What’s it called?”


I look over our list of stops yet to make. There’s a whole page of Brent’s scrawly writing. I’m not sure we can add a deadline to the list. “Think we’ll make it?” I ask. “We can’t dawdle.” With that last part I mean Brent can’t dawdle.

“I hope we’ll make it,” Brent says. And then he says, “No dawdling,” implying me.

“Right,” I say, returning the ball to the proper court.

With that settled, we find our exit and I chomp up my candy cigarette. Suddenly I realize how tired I am. The afternoon heat isn’t helping the sleepy feeling. On our quiet side road, we look for a town and I start daydreaming about a siesta.

“Okay, now watch,” Brent says after a few glances at his mileage markers. “There should be a hairpin turn…”

This Side of EerieWe find it, curl the car around to the left, and there, under a tree in the middle of a neighborhood, is the Volkswagen spider. Someone actually took the time to remove the tires from a Volkswagen Beetle, replace them with giant pipe-like legs, then hoist the car about 10 feet off the ground. It’s neat, and creepy, but still neat. And creepy.

“You go,” I tell him, yawning. “I’ll stay here. I can’t take pictures, anyway.” My phone is still on the floor of the car, whining about being too hot and refusing to work ‘til it cools down. “I’ll watch you from here,” I say.

This Side of Eerie“Okay,” he says without hesitation, and hops out of the car. Three seconds later I follow him out, having processed multiple thoughts simultaneously, the way only computers and dreamy brains can do. My first conclusion: It’s up to me. Brent doesn’t care if I sit in the car or not, and I know he’ll never think a cross thought about it. I also know he needs someone to take his picture with the spider. Second conclusion: We’ve come this far. This road trip was never about the destination; we could have flown to Denver easily enough to see Trampled by Turtles play at Red Rocks. Instead, we drove the long way around—indeed!–in order to explore. And I certainly didn’t travel the long way to Avoca, Iowa to sit in the car.

This Side of EerieI exit the Jetta and cross the small street in four paces. Brent is standing under the spider contraption, taking pictures straight up. I sit in the grass underneath it and look up. From this vantage point, it’s especially impressive.

Otherwise, it’s quiet here in Avoca. Birds are chirping, but there’s no noise from the nearby houses, none from what looks like a trucking company down the lane, and just a few buzzy bugs from the green field to the right. Beyond the field, there are some workers tending a bonfire, but no real sound coming from that direction, either. The bugs and birds keep it just this side of eerie.

“What is this thing?” I ask. “Why is it here?”

“I don’t know,” Brent says, snapping pictures with his trusty camera. “But I like it.” Snap. Snap. “Here,” he says, handing me the phone from his pocket. “Get one of me running from it…”This Side of Eerie

Did I ever tell you that Brent was in a spider movie once? He was an extra in a Christopher R. Mihm film called The Giant Spider. He’s officially listed as an “associate producer,” but if you ask Brent, he’ll tell you he’s “screen candy.” (Brent’s part in the movie is to make out with a hot girl at a drive-in.)This Side of Eerie
I get up, take his phone, and the next thing I know, Brent and I are running around the yard, striking poses and one-upping each other’s ideas. We’re yelling, “Get this! Get this!” while pretending the spider’s chasing us, that we tripped and have to roll out of its way, that we’re trying to sneak up on it. Occasionally, I steal a glance at the house closest to us, waiting for someone to run out and stop us. But no one does. If they’re in there laughing at us, they’re stealthy about it.This Side of Eerie

This Side of EerieRejuvenated, and with my sense of wonder restored again, Screen Candy and I hop back in the Jetta, ready to experience more of what myopics mistakenly call America’s “flyover country.”

“When I have a house,” I tell Brent, “I’m going to set something up in my yard and watch the tourists flop around.” He just looks at me. “It’s going to be awesome,” I laugh and roll my hands over each other, plotting.

Now if this were a movie, we’d be driving off into the sunset having escaped the spider’s clutches, not realizing that it’s watching us and readying for the sequel. As it is, we’re driving east, straight into our next adventure.

“Tree?” Brent asks, getting me back on track again.

“Tree,” I concede, as we begin our search for a tree in the middle of the road. We drive off, leaving the giant spider safely in our rear view. Or do we?


Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

Terminus & Gateway

Terminus & Gateway#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 18
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

We leave Omaha behind, crossing the Missouri River into Council Bluffs, Iowa, where we’re tracking down a giant railroad spike. Map App Sally is completely unreliable at this point, having sent us to the Omaha Zoo over and over again and calling it a different landmark each time, but now she’s getting worse: Terminus & GatewayShe’s developing an attitude. Warnings pop up on my phone that it’s dangerously hot and I need to shut down immediately or else, so I do and set it down on the air vent by my feet. Now I’m navigating the old fashioned way with my eyes and a map while Brent uses his chill, un-snarky phone.Terminus & Gateway

We find the 56-foot yellow spike easily, but we’re pretty confused about where we are. Council Bluffs is nowhere near Promontory Summit, Utah, where we learned as kids the Union and Central Pacific railroads were joined together. The wide, grassy expanse around the spike is deserted, and the railroad tracks behind it don’t seem to be connected to anything, giving this place an awesome and quiet creepiness. Terminus & GatewayIt’s also convenient for lounging in the sunshine on the tracks while we take it all in and puzzle it out—until Brent and his camera turn on me. (I need to take that camera away from him.)Terminus & Gateway

I return to the spike, Brent and camera in tow, and we push our faces as far as we can between the fence rails around the base in order to read the signage there. All it says is something about the “Eastern Terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad.”Terminus & Gateway

Terminus!” Brent and I extract our faces from the fence and look at each other in horror. Fans of The Walking Dead understand our terror at this veritable end of the line as we look for Rick and Daryl to be in a jam and for Carol to start blowing things up. When none of that happens, we instead do zombie imitations in the yard around the spike. Then we run for it, straight into the cornfield beside the Jetta, and do our best man-and-woman-with-pitchfork (American Gothic by artist Grant Wood) faces.Terminus & Gateway

We hightail it away from Terminus, and I find that my phone is still too hot to handle. Meltdown seems imminent as Brent drives us toward a bridge and insists I take pictures of it through the moon roof because he’s too busy driving to do everything. I insist I’m busy, but he doesn’t listen. He gives me his camera and I think, “Heh, heh, heh,” but after a little more protest (sheesh, I’m turning into Sally), I do as I’m directed, snapping pictures of the red and yellow spikes on the Broadway Viaduct as one of us says, “Are you getting this?!?” while the other one says, “Slow down! I got it!”

Terminus & GatewaySafely across the Viaduct, I can now figure out what the heck just happened. According to the Googs on Brent’s cool phone, the artwork on the bridge is called the Council Bluffs Gateway, designed by artist Ed Carpenter who worked for four years with the installation team getting the red and yellow 111 light poles tilted into place. Nighttime images of the Gateway are even more stunning.Terminus & Gateway

Next, I read some golden railroad spike history and find that there’s a controversy over whether the rails were joined at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869 or at Comanche Crossing near Strasburg, Colorado on August 15, 1870. As for the spike at Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Googs says it’s possibly a relic from the movie Union Pacific commemorating the eastern Mile Marker Zero.

A movie relic?? Despite being tricked (Terminus strikes again!), we continue our eastern drive full of pride to think about our country’s unification by the railroad line, wherever/whenever it may have happened officially. Our transcontinental railroad allowed for the expansion of ideas, business partnerships far and wide, massive distribution of foods, and travel and exploration across this great land of ours.

As for our own exploration, Brent and I are hunting down a Volkswagen spider…

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 17Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

%d bloggers like this: