Unexpected trip yields tales tall and small

Published 9:34 am Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Column: Creative Connections, by Sara Aeikens

Unconnected steppingstones of adventure filled one of my recent weekends. Looking back at the pathway they formed I wondered — how did this all unfold? A decisive moment happened as I left a summertime potluck picnic. I considered wandering among the nearby cemetery gravestones where a few years ago I met an intriguing Spanish-speaking woman looking for family names. She lived in the Twin Cities, but called South America her “real” home.

Sara Aeikens

Sara Aeikens

That brief connection with the woman in Albert Lea motivated me to apply for a position with Minnesota Global Volunteers, resulting in assisting for a week in an orphanage in Lima, Peru. As I stood by the cemetery roadway reminiscing about my good fortune, a friend from the picnic walked by to her brand-new car and stopped to say hello.

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I asked if she had any plans for the weekend, and she told me she planned to attend a family reunion west of the Twin Cities. She shared she’d be driving alone and needed to study her new owner’s manual.

By chance the day before, another friend recommended to my husband and me the new movie release “The Butler,” and we decided at the last moment to see it the same evening. That prompted me at the cemetery to inquire of my 87-year-old friend if she would like me to accompany her as a “butlerette” on her two-day road trip.

We left early the next morning after I canceled my previous daily exercise plans. The straight shot to the Cities turned out to be full of hundreds of orange construction cones and made my “butlerette” job meaningful, especially when we took a wrong squiggly arrow turn near the southwest corner of Interstate 494 and went in circles several times, which added confusion and adventure to our journey to the rural lakeside reunion.

Even though we arrived in plenty of time at our ultimate destination, because of the cone confusion delays we decided then our trip home would utilize the back roads and we’d employ the sun as our main directional guide.

We checked in at our motel in Clearwater and met some of the family clan for supper at a popular bakery/restaurant combo. Later before dusk I sat quietly on the dock, fascinated by a large, ring-necked loon floating only several feet from me. The family hideaway lake home had a brook edging it where our state bird found refuge, and I also felt calmed by nature and the woods.

The next morning, before we joined the daylong family reunion picnic, I sat alone on the motel patio at one of a half dozen black tables in a row. Soon a tall, thin, tan, blond man, looking like he could be in his mid-40s, sat down at one of the middle tables with his back toward me.

When I decided to go inside, he craned his neck around to the left, and I asked him the time. He responded twice that it was 8:05 p.m. and then shifted his chair closer to me. I then inquired where he was from, and he replied, “California.” He stated that he planned to travel extensively, maybe even abroad.

The shock of his next statement caused me to wonder if I’d heard him correctly. He shared that his grandfather happened to be President Richard Nixon and mentioned Whittier, Calif.

I then asked him the name of his mother, and I thought I heard him say that she was both insane and dead, but he never gave me her name. At that moment I began to wonder if this traveler had some of his own mental health issues, since both of Nixon’s daughters are still living. He next explained that when Nixon began running for political office, he changed his last name from Gorman to Nixon since he thought the name Nixon would be better accepted by the public.

He mentioned the date of 1989 and started explaining how Nixon used Watergate to get himself out of the presidency role; I didn’t track the logic of that very well, but he went on to say that hundreds of books had been written about Nixon, but very few of the authors knew him or were close to him.

I stood up to leave and again asked him his mother’s name and belatedly introduced myself. He said that her name was Christine and that his was George, and we departed. I appreciated it as another interesting detour on the road trip. After breakfast at the bakery with my friend’s family from California, I told them of my dubious California/Nixon connection, adding levity to our conversation.

During midmorning the four of us carpooled to the reunion. Minnesota picnic food, hundreds of family reunion photos and simultaneous storytelling surrounded the lake cabin. Near the dock, where I had silently observed the loon, I produced the bubble-blower I brought for the young ones and delighted in watching a half dozen or so children create a bit of fantasy by the lakeshore.

My friend and I said our goodbyes, gave thank-you hugs before the sun hit the western horizon and headed south on the Minnesota back roads. Despite our best-laid plans, we encountered a few more detours than on the interstate and also mix-ups such as between county Road 7 and state Highway 7. Again, our confusing moments turned into adventures, and we arrived home safely before dark, full of gratitude for the experiences.

I thought I’d had plenty of surprises for this sliver of time, but one more awaited me during a thankful look toward heaven. I got a peek at a hand-made wooden toy truck with an additional purpose, hidden high in the rafters where the Methodists in Albert Lea unite to worship. Share your smile if you unfold this simple secret, and perhaps you’ll notice where the journey has taken you and how openness may lead to unexpected treasured experiences.


Sara Aeikens is an Albert Lea resident.