{ The Sue and Jerry Peterson Journal, December 2001 }
Sue and Jerry Peterson

windmill[ From before my birth until the summer of 1998, the Petersons lived in the house across the street from my family's. In 1998, Sue and Jerry—the former, a cigarette-smoking, Baltimore Orioles-loving librarian/airline booking agent; the latter, a fiercely intelligent archeologist/computer whiz—sold their house, bought a pickup truck and recreational vehicle, and took off for the West. Periodically, my parents would receive e-mailed journals updating the Petersons' friends on their various travels and episodes. Written in tag-team, these journals were always entertaining, mixing genuine awe with endearing curmudgeonism and matrimonial bickering. Here, now, is their last journal ever sent. —D.M. ]

Yes, we are still alive and bumming around, happy as can be. Or, at least we were until an old lady backed into the side of our truck (it's twenty feet long and six and one-half feet tall but she didn't see it). The entire rear side panel needed to be replaced, which took six days in the shop. This all happened in the middle of the desert twenty miles north of Carlsbad, N.M. There were no towns closer than eleven miles, so we were really remote. It was very hot and the snakes in the desert were active. There are four varieties of poisonous ones there, and they all were spotted when we were in the area.
   We had a disappointing winter weather-wise. The Texas gulf coast was especially cold and windy early this year so we didn't spend as much time outdoors. I did learn how to play poker, and now I am addicted. I was the one person in the park who was ready to play anytime day or night. We attended a performance by the St Olaf's choir, who were on tour from Minnesota. We went back to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and actually saw the whooping cranes this time, as well as egrets, blue herons, roseate spoonbills, etc. Because of the cold weather, there were not as many birds in the pond behind our RV this year, which was disappointing. They had started to return by the time we left. We also went up to Gonzales, Tex., which is famous in Alamo history. What we liked best about it was the old jail. It dates from about the 1840s and was still used till 197? something. It was horribly cramped, damp, etc. but the best (or worst) part was the original gallows still in place in the middle of the cells. Even Jerry, with his background in history and archeology, had never seen anything like it.
   We left Corpus later than we wanted, in April (more on that later), but when we did finally hit the road, the wildflowers were out in full bloom—absolutely gorgeous. I would guess that Texas has the most variety of any state—maybe thanks to Lady Bird. We stopped in Austin for a few days to see [youngest son] Clay and had an odd experience there. Somebody stole the box containing our sewer fittings and cleaning gear from the bed of the truck. The stuff is totally separated from everything. It was actually labeled as sewer fittings and strapped down. They had to undo several straps to get to it. I can't imagine who would want our sewer fittings. Luckily we were close to a camping store, so could replace it easily. Jerry now has the container labeled "CONTAMINATED sewer fittings" (are there any other kind?).
   Our next adventure occurred as we were driving across Texas to Big Bend National Park. We pulled into a rest area for a picnic and discovered the door to the trailer open and swinging in the wind. I was the one who had supposedly secured it, so I got the big lecture and was looking forward to hearing about it for the rest of my life but, as we were leaving, someone came running up to tell us that we had left the steps down. That would be Jerry, so we cancelled each other out and now don't have to mention either incident ever again.

Our initial journey, for the 2001 traveling year, took us to the Big Bend country of southern Texas. While less visited than most national recreation areas, Big Bend National Park, bounded by the Rio Grande to the south, provides stunning views of its mountains and the winding river. We visited Turlingua, an abandoned and decaying 19th-century cinnabar-mining town. The area around the old ruins is still inhabited by the descendants of the Mexican miners—true mestizos—and the old company mercantile store still opens for tourists and locals. Your first impression on entering this establishment is of a museum. You can still buy copper-plated washboards, lye soap, and wooden butter churns. There is a shelf of toys for Latino children (or tourist collectors of the macabre) containing little skeletons pounded out from tin cans, painted devils' masks, and other artifacts so reflective of the Mexican culture's preoccupation with death. If you should have the urge to see the meld of cultural and religious elements of both the prehistoric Central American Indians and 17th-century Spain, go to that Turlingua store.
   Turlingua is unlike any community we have experienced. Other than the general store, the only business establishment is an excellent restaurant (catering to tourists and locals) situated in what was once an adobe movie theater, and before that, in the mining years, a bar and dance hall. For the most part, employees of the store and eatery live outside the ruins and commute from the surrounding area. Travel guides noting the so-called "ghost town" describe its very few inhabitants as comprising equal parts New Age California expatriates, ageing hippies, and escapees of modern American culture. Everyone seems to live in harmony, however. Jerry and Sue, in particular, were somewhat shocked in the restaurant when their waiter, a man, appeared suddenly to take our food order—wearing a dress and sandals. Jerry said the dress was reminiscent of those once worn by his mother.
   Driving along one of the rural roads near Turlingua we came upon one of the many carved stone images of a saint (Francis or Anthony?) at the entry to the hacienda several hundred feet from the road. These are also called santos, hand crafted from soft stone by a member of the family in remembrance of relatives who have gone before. These primitive little statues are decorated with many gaudy strands of colorful beads, fragments of cloth, fresh flowers, and small memorabilia and offerings. The one we saw included a small toy matchbook car and a toy animal, obviously children's sacrifices. At the foot of the statue, about two feet high, were many offerings, including half-filled bottles of whiskey, tall votive candles, and small dishes. These images are not abandoned, and are clearly cared for and fussed over by the women of the family.
   After leaving Big Bend country, we headed north through the barrens of New Mexico and into the llano estecado, the Staked Plains of McMurtry's novels and the trials and escapades of Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. (Remember "Lonesome Dove", and "Horseman Pass By"?) We eventually wound our way to the hills south of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and the lands and people beloved of Willa Cather's dying frontier archbishop.

Jerry skipped most of the summer, so let me backtrack to Big Bend. We didn't take the trailer to the Park, as we were unsure of the camping facilities there. Instead we left it parked in Alpine, Tex., about 100 miles north, and stayed in a motel for two nights (we love to soak in a bathtub). What we didn't anticipate was that the high heat there would bake our sewage since we weren't there to be adding water by flushing. That took some work to unplug—just one of the joys of life on the road. It involves adding a lot of water to the tank and then driving on the bumpiest road we can find, preferably one with a lot of speed bumps. Jerry thinks I am giving you way too many details of our travails but I thought people would be interested in the details of our day-to-day life. Don't think all our moments are real fun.
   We were originally intending to head through the Phoenix area and visit with some really neat people that we had met last year in Idaho, but thought that we had time to head north to the Carlsbad, N.M., area for a quick visit. Good thing we are flexible because that was where our truck was rammed by the little old lady. It actually wasn't too bad waiting two weeks for it to be repaired as we had a rental car and did quite a bit of touring. We loved the white sands of Alamogordo, although the town itself was nothing much. To get over there from Carlsbad requires driving through the desert and the White and Sacramento mountains, which are just lovely.
   We really liked N.M.—the humidity is very low, there are not a lot of people and the life seems very low-key. Plus, of course, it is the only state in the West that didn't go Bush in the recent so-called election, a big plus with me.

Our summer plans included a trip to and through Valentine, Neb., where Jerry and his brother Bob went to elementary school sixty years ago. Jerry was interested in seeing what had become of some of his earlier haunts, and wanted to take some pictures to share with Bob. The little pond fed by Minnechaduza Creek was still there, and was being restored and improved with a larger dam and a new beach for the children. It was here that the brothers spent a good part of their summers, fishing for bluegills, swimming, playing cowboys and Indians and, when they had a nickel, slurping up Cho Chos (frozen chocolate concoctions served in small paper cups). Jerry remembered them well, served with a wooden stick, and the image of a clown on the exterior of the cups.
   We found the elementary school quickly. It now serves as the historical society and museum. When we walked in the door, Jerry was struck with a sudden memory of climbing the wide-angled stairway to upper-level homerooms. It is strange how selective these memories are. Images of the clowns and stairway remain, but no memory of the grocery store the brothers' father, Ernie, managed. The old storefront (now housing an antique shop) was pointed out to Jerry by the wife of one of Ernie's fishing cronies. We searched for the site of the old Peterson home. It had been replaced with a new brick home. Alas, the confectionary, with its penny candy counter, was no more.
   It was in Valentine that two of Jerry's most vivid memories were formed: One Sunday afternoon, in 1941, his father came home from hunting pheasants. He rushed to the radio and gathered the family around to hear the newscaster report on the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The newsman spoke of war, the killing of many Navy men, burning ships and airplanes in Hawaii. We children had little conception of war, nor were we aware that most Americans' lives would be changed. Jerry, age eleven at the time, doesn't remember being particularly frightened, but he was plenty uncomfortable nevertheless. He wasn't sure how far the Japanese planes could fly. Young Jerry thought during those war years that he might make a good aircraft spotter, if someone would only ask. Unfortunately no one seemed to want his services.
   The second vivid memory: Sue and Jerry were in the RV at a nice Valentine campground, watching television this past September 11. We watched the horrible images of the terrorists' destruction of the World Trade Center and Pentagon, another event that will forever change the lives of Americans and others throughout the world.
   Jerry believes it is best in future that he avoid Valentine.

Well, here it is almost December and we have not e-mailed for almost a year. It was interesting to reread our opening line and see that in September we were loving this life and now we have decided we are tired of it. That is our big news—we almost simultaneously decided that we had had enough of the gypsy life, for now, at least. It happened as we were approaching Arkansas, which we knew from last year's visit was almost exactly what we wanted for a nesting place. Apparently, most full-time RVers make it about three years, which is exactly how long we have been bumming around, so we fit the profile. Anyway, Hot Springs Village, Ark., is a very large gated, mostly retirement development about ten miles north of the National Park. Prices are reasonable, the climate is very mild (although it does have four seasons) and it is centrally located for visits from all of our friends and family.
   We are very excited about the prospect of new furniture and stuff, not to mention garbage disposals, dishwashers, bathtubs, etc, etc. We will sell this big fifth-wheel trailer and truck but will probably still travel with some sort of smaller unit—we really do love this life, just not full-time anymore.
   Merry Christmas to all. Clay is in Virginia with [older brother] Mark for a couple of weeks, with a side trip to New Jersey to spend the holiday with [girlfriend] Melissa and meet her extended family, so we will be alone family-wise but surrounded by our RV friends. The campground hosts a Christmas Eve cocktail party and Chinese gift exchange, which is lots of fun, and then a big dinner on Christmas Day, so we won't be lonely. On New Year's Eve is another party, and brunch on New Year's Day.Also we are planning a football party on Jan 3—there are about ten other Nebraskans here and some more people who promise to behave and not boo, so they are going to be honorary Nebraskans for the evening. Sorry it took so long to get this out. Write us!!!!

Love to all,
Jerry and Sue

[ Jerry and Sue Peterson can be reached in care of this magazine at letters@newyinzer.com. ]

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