The Great American Road Trip: Part One. That Distant Point in Time

Posted: March 26, 2022 in Memoirs/A Teacher's Life
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This piece is adapted from a manuscript I wrote about my teaching career and travels around the world. ‘A Teacher’s Life’ is the working title (Feel free to offer title suggestions). On this blog I will add a few other excerpts about different topics. In time I hope to find an agent and get this properly published as a book. Feedback, suggestions, assistance are all welcome. Enjoy.

I don’t know when I’d first thought of the idea of doing a cross country road trip. I do recall, as a substitute teacher in Bethlehem Pennsylvania, looking at classroom maps of the United States and daydreaming about driving around. It never occurred to me that I could have done this trip over one of the summers I had off when I was teaching in South Dakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Of course, it also never occurred to me that I shouldn’t have been subbing in the first place and should have kept my full-time position teaching at Saint Francis Indian School, but that’s a whole other story (and mainly what my book is about).

Regardless, years later I was teaching in South Korea, and, having saved a lot of money, decided when went back home I would do a big road trip. Other short-term plans included self-publishing some books and comics and sell them at comic book conventions. October of 2011, I came back to the United States, and my original plan was to do my road trip in the spring of 2012, the tail end of which would involve hitting a few comic-cons (I would do these shows after my trip, which you can read about here). However, in late February I was talking to some people about different plans, and things weren’t lining up well for a later trip. It was looking like an earlier trip might be in order. Among other things, my friend Night Shield was hosting a birthday bash in Sioux Falls South Dakota in just a few days, so I decided fairly spur of the moment to leave soon. Since I’d been home I hadn’t bought a cell phone yet. At the local Wal-Mart, I got a trac phone, emailed a few other people to try to make an itinerary, and off I went. At first, I wasn’t sure if I really would go coast to coast as originally planned. Perhaps I would just do South Dakota and then head back east for my shows, but either way I was at least going back to where my teaching career started.

 After this trip my friend Tom asked if I’d kept a diary, which I hadn’t. He was really interested in hearing about my travels, so I decided to write a quick outline while I could still remember everything I did. Later, I wrote it out in more detail and emailed it to him. I didn’t know how interesting this would be to other people, but as I was emailing Tom a piece at a time he was really enthusiastic about it and encouraged me to continue. Thanks to him I have a pretty good record of my trip. I won’t bore you with every detail about it, but here are the highlights. 

Night Shield had a lot of success since I’d last seen him eleven years prior, becoming a successful independent rap artist who’s made a name for himself in his area and in the Native rap scene. VIBE Magazine listed him as one of the top 50 unsigned artists in the nation, and he’s won Native American Music Awards. What I’m most jealous of is that he appeared in a DC Comic. Scalped, is a series about Native Americans. In one issue, Gabe’s CDs are on someone’s car seat, and some of the characters are dressed in Rez’d Out & Famous gear, which was a clothing label Gabe briefly had. I could still remember that conversation all those years ago where he said he was thinking about starting a record label, now here he was putting the Midwest on the map.

Bumping his music, I pulled into the parking lot of his apartment complex as he stood outside waiting for me. I couldn’t believe it; we’d met up at last. Inside we caught up and he asked me all about Korea. After a quick trip to Little Caesar’s, Gabe’s rap partner in crime, Maniac the Sioux-pernatural, came over and we rode off to Gabe’s birthday party. There I was with the two hardest rappers in South Dakota, and on the radio was an easy listening station playing the Delilah show. As people called into the station to tell their personal stories accompanied with sappy love songs we had a laugh about the irony. Gabe simply liked this station and always had it on. 

At the bar hosting Gabe’s party, I finally got to see him perform, and also got to meet some of his friends in hip hop. Afterwards, Gabe and I had our first beer together, as I had been straight edge for years. When the show was over we made a booze run which ended up being a bit of culture shock to me. Korean bars stay open all night. Forgetting where I was, I heard people saying, “Yeah we have to buy a case before 2am,” and I was like “Why?” Next was the after party at Gabe’s. All kinds of people showed up and it was pretty crazy. I learned what motorboating was that night. His apartment was packed with people drinking and jamming to music and we stayed up till the break of dawn.  

Me with the King of the 605, Gabe Night Shield, having our first beer together.

The next day we walked down to TommyJacks, his local pub. Some of Gabe’s friends came later and we played darts and listened to music. There was this older, half-drunk native guy that started talking with us. Gabe told me he’d seen him before. He came off as a little strange but had some funny jokes. One I remember is about a snapping turtle.

A Tribal Chief wanted to show how strong he was; so he stood before his people and revealed that he had a snapping turtle biting the end of his pecker. “See how strong I am!” he said. Then he poked the turtle in the eyes and it fell to the ground. “See.” he said. “Do any of you think you can be as strong as me?”

One man raised his hand. “You think you can be as strong as me?” the Chief asked.

He answered, “Yeah, I can do that just don’t poke me in the eyes.”

We hit a few other places that day, but eventually went back to Tommyjacks. Later that night Gabe and I were laughing about how we were at Tommyjacks for just about the whole day.

Then, after all those years, I finally made my way back to the Rosebud Reservation, or rez as they say. Driving into Saint Francis, I pulled up to the post office and got a drink at the convenience store next door. Last time I was in Saint Francis there were three convenience stores, now there were only two. By the time I got to my old school it was after hours and the doors were locked. Right after I left in 2001, they got funding to make a new middle school/high school building. I got to see this now completed building from the outside. I took some time to drive around the rez and nearby Valentine Nebraska. A few times I randomly stopped in a store to get gas or a snack, wondering if anyone would recognize me. No one did. I was like a ghost, floating around this place I used to live, remembering and reliving an old life from long ago, but no one noticed. 

Saint Francis Indian School, where I began my teaching career.

From the rez I planned to return to Rapid City. The night before going to Rapid I went to the Rosebud Casino. Still not seeing anyone I knew I sat down and played some slots. After some time, a man walked up to me and asked. “Are you James Murray?” I didn’t recognize him, but it was Buzz, one of my better students from way back. He was there with his girlfriend, and I bought them a beer (at the Casino you can only buy a beer every thirty minutes) and they asked me about my traveling. After telling them all about Korea and other places I’d been, we had that conversation of which old students of mine were doing well and who was in jail and all that fun stuff. One student who back in the day was mad that I was leaving ended up in jail for murder. Another student became an EMT, which was a little more encouraging to hear. 

The next day I headed to Rapid City where I’d be staying with Mike Reardon, one of my artsy musician friends. He was now hosting an open mic downtown at Dakota Soda, a 50’s style burger/malt place. When I first got back to Rapid I stopped at Books a Million, which used to be the Borders where our old open mic was. Walking inside, I saw a brown chair in the corner of the coffee shop area where people used to play music and read poems. I sat in that chair for a moment and reminisced about all the performances, including some of my own, that took place right at this very spot. 

Former spot of the Borders open mic.

Then I went downtown. Despite the cold I was really excited to be walking the streets of Rapid again. Downtown was built up a little more; with a small public skating rink and a few upscale shops around it. Next to the rink was Dakota Soda, and I have to say their burgers were terrific. Soon my friend arrived. We greeted each other and the open mic began. A few musicians played and I read some poems while people ate their burgers and fries. For years I envisioned this triumphant return doing a big reading with everybody, but some of our old crew were now scattered into the wind, and there I was reading poetry in a malt shop. 

A few months before this trip, I visited my college town of Bloomsburg. It was such an incredibly strange feeling going back, half of downtown looked exactly the same, while the other half was completely different. One of the strangest things was going to the Bloomsburg diner. I couldn’t tell you the last time I was there. Sitting down with a coffee, I suddenly had a flashback of being there with my college girlfriend. She hadn’t crossed my mind in years, but I swear it was as though I could see her sitting across from me, I could practically feel her hand in mine. It was like in the film Rocky Balboa when Rocky walks by his old apartment and sees a ghostly image of Adrian in front of him. A piece of music called “Mickey” from Rocky III played during that scene in Rocky Balboa, and that’s what it was like for me. That piece played in my head as I walked around these old spots.

Over the next few days in Rapid City, it was a similar sensation. I went around my old Rapid haunts and got to visit with a few friends that were still around. Among the heavier things for me was visiting one of the public parks. Years ago, when I had a girlfriend in Rapid, I took her and her daughter to this particular park which had two slabs of the Berlin Wall on display. Being here now was like that moment in the Bloomsburg diner. I could almost see the two of them standing in front of the concrete slabs, looking toward me from a time so long ago. Sitting in that park, a lot of other things hit me. All those kids on the rez, some of them weren’t doing so well. That community desperately needed me to stay back then, and I didn’t listen. Back in my hometown and around Pennsylvania I was really proud of myself for having gone to Australia and China and India and all these other places I’d been the previous five years, but here in South Dakota I felt guilty. I was so sorry and was really aching for forgiveness, but how would I ever find it?

Two slabs of the Berlin Wall at a public park in Rapid City South Dakota.

When I first got to Mike’s house he gave me a CD of his music. One of his songs was about how he’d lost a brother. As an only child, I obviously couldn’t relate to what the song is directly about, but the refrain was really powerful to me just for the general theme of memories. Driving around Rapid, it was so haunting playing this song. I asked his permission to include the chorus, which he granted, and I would like to share here.

“I can only see you from this distant point in time.

When I hear your voice,

it echoes through the years,

saying

don’t give up, no don’t back down, no don’t you shed a tear.

Don’t give up, no don’t back down, no don’t you shed a tear.”

To purchase my full account of this trip, click here.

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