When Did I lose My Pioneer Spirit?

My people didn’t stay put.  They came from Ireland to Oklahoma sometime in the mid-1800s,  a famine and poor prospects driving them to docks, and then onto rolling and crowded ships, to heave up in some port on the eastern seaboard.

Some went  south to Florida, but the boys, the boys who wanted to be cowboys, pitched up in Cincinnati for a while to shore up their resources before moving on to Indian Territory in the West. 

When my grandfather was fifteen, his parents decided they should move again, this time to New Mexico.  I don’t know the reason, perhaps Oklahoma didn’t fulfill their dreams as they had hoped.  Maybe they were simply restless. Perhaps the grass was just greener somewhere else.  I am guessing they had never actually seen New Mexico to understand that not only was the grass not green, it wasn’t even there. They did not hit the big lick in New Mexico, either. 

My family, it seems, runs from bad dirt, broken dreams, or toward pretty promises, the ones they tell themselves and gussy up with all the fantasy they can muster. 

But my grandfather didn’t want to go.  He rented a horse and wagon and hauled pipe and lunch and supplies from town to the new oil fields being developed, so he could support himself.  I have no idea where he slept. He refused to go with the family and made it on his own—fifteen, remember—his own individuality on display, a study of self-sufficiency and get up and go.  

Only he stayed. 

The owners of the oil company were impressed by this young man making his way, and soon he was working for them, taking time out for the Great War, an experience I understand he never discussed.  My grandfather left Oklahoma in the early 1920s to open up the oil fields in western Kentucky, and his branch of the McDonoughs have more or less stayed put ever since. 

I think of these things as I sit in bumper to bumper traffic on I-65, vowing to never leave home again, at least not in summer and certainly not to go to a sweltering and crowded beach town.  I am a calm and cautious driver so I don’t gasp and make comment every time someone in front of me does something stupid—I expect it and prepare for it in advance.

But still, the traffic.  It was bad. I was tense with attention.

I became mesmerized by the spinning wheels on the tiny pink bike clamped to the back of the car in front of me. I see lots of cars with bikes leaving the beach, but something about this one, so small, so bright, streamers flying away from the handlebars, just  tickled me no end.  A banana seat, white pedals, it was the picture of hopes and dreams and promise, and I tried to imagine the little one who maybe mastered that sweet ride on this particular trip.  

This little fantasy took a good five minutes, and I was glad for it.  

But the rest of the trip was torturous.  Stop and go traffic, forty miles an hour if I was lucky. By Columbia, Tennessee my head was rolling around like a melon on a pike and I truly thought I might die. 

I came off the road, then, not knowing or caring I was less than three hours from home. Food didn’t perk me up and before the check arrived I had procured the last hotel room in the Hampton Inn down the street.  

Now, here is the question.  How have I let my family down, those roamers, settlers, dreamers?  Would they even claim me?  I struggled driving, both coming and going to Florida,  with all that mass of humanity off in search of fun—through the remnants of a tropical storm going down, frightening and difficult traffic coming home.

And soft, I am so soft compared to them.  My air-conditioned car, with cooling seats, no less.  A playlist of my best open road music, expensive protein bars and electrolyte water on the seat beside me, as if I am running a mini-marathon.  

And still I can’t take it. 

I know when to claim defeat.  

If you are traveling south, as I know some of you are, be prepared.  It’s like the Oregon Trail out there, prairie schooners packed and tilting, everything lashed down and covered in tarps. Me, I’m not moving ’til fall. 

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