Last summer, my wife, Becky, and I embarked on The Row House Roadshow as part of a yearlong study leave.
After 11 years of curating Row House Forum events for our beloved city of Lancaster, I felt the need to get some inspiration. That would come through reconnecting with many former colleagues and friends throughout the country. And to make new ones.
I was stoked to attend conferences, read and write dispatches about the “faces, places and amazements” we’d encounter.
All of this was intended to deepen the mission of my organization, whose purpose is to commend the merits of Christianity to a public audience while assuming the postures of civility, hospitality, and sympathy and whimsy.
Our objectives were met, and I feel like the Energizer Bunny again.
Three trips of three weeks each took us to Nashville, Denver and the hill country of Texas. We stuck to the smaller roads whenever possible.
We’ve done a fair amount of cross-country trekking, yet wonderful surprises still sneaked up on us. Here are five.
A ‘Crazy Horse’
We left our friend Kristen’s dad’s place in Custer, South Dakota, sneaked a peak of George Washington’s face from the back side of Mount Rushmore, and arrived quickly at Crazy Horse Memorial.
In 1936, visionary sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski partnered with Chief Henry Standing Bear to initiate a grand vision: Carve the largest stone sculpture in the world, create a university for native students, and amass a museum devoted to our native peoples’ heritage.
We were blown away by the immensity of the Ziolkowski family’s ongoing vision. All three projects are underway and worth lingering over. Their completion is decades in the future.
Using only private funding and fully partnering with the indigenous peoples of the Black Hills, they are a creating a worthy homage to Indian culture that rivals (surpasses?) the grandeur of The Fab Four of Rushmore.
I was sipping a beer in a screened-in patio with Chris and Seth, former students of mine at Millersville University. It was late August.
Both of these PA guys wagged their heads in disbelief at the price of homes in their beloved, walkable neighborhood called East Nashville.
Not that they were complaining. They’ve both done well in Nashvegas: Landed good jobs, found wives, started families and got into real estate before home prices went completely bonkers.
The small Victorian with high ceilings we sat in would list today for around $850,000. Twenty years ago, that section of Nashville was working class and largely Black. Some houses were well under $100,000.
In the 1980s, scrappy artists began moving in, musicians like Jimmy Abegg, a musician we visited in his painting studio.
Now, you can be seen at Barrista Parlor while sipping your $7 cappuccino. I know.
The only places we didn’t notice such price-outs were in smaller, less sought-after markets. They’re surprisingly cool, still affordable, but definitely out of the way: Mount Pleasant, Texas; Hot Springs, Arkansas; and Redfield, South Dakota.
Gawking at Buc-ee’s
The day we took off for the San Antonio region, my pal Ben texted, “Be sure to visit Buc-ee’s!” A convenience store of some sort, I imagined.
As we raced along crowded Route 10 on the gulf coast, we couldn’t miss the signs wooing us in of a smiling beaver sporting a red cap on a brilliant yellow circle.
We expected just another dumpy rest stop, forgetting we were in the Republic of Texas where everything is … you already know.
If Wawa has their “hay-oagies” and Royal Farms has their fried chicken, Buc-ee’s has it all times 10.
We were welcomed by 100 gas pumps and a bronze statue of the beaver himself at the entrance.
Stepping into The Imperial Star Destroyer of travel plazas, our eyes began to adjust to its endless aisles of soda bars, general merchandise and food stations.
I stood dumbfounded, watching a cowboy chop up barbecue brisket for breakfast burritos. Drooling, I had found my lap breakfast.
Then I noticed Becky in a similar zombie state clutching her Diet Pepsi. We collectively uttered that cinematic trope, “What is this place?”
Yes, you drive in the river
As if Buc-ee’s wasn’t surprising enough, we made our way into the hill country with our written directions to Laity Lodge in hand. Cell service 1.5 hours beyond San Antonio wasn’t a given.
Driving into the sunset through rolling ranches, we found the camp, a place for my five day residency. We turned onto of the many crushed limestone lanes traversing the 1900 acre property.
Our headlights caught scrubby cedar trees as we ascended a few hills. Then, we descended a long hill toward the Frio River.
The directions said, without interpretation, “Take a left into the river.”
“The river ROAD maybe? Surely not the river!” A sign post answered us. “Yes, you drive in the river!”
I figured what-the-heck and pointed our trusty Subaru into the river that was thankfully only two inches deep. We cruised along on bedrock that glistened like crystal from the pure headwaters of the Frio River.
After an eighth of a mile or so, we lurched up out of the watery lane and ascended another hill where we caught site of our host waving us on with a flashlight.
Our road show year came to a close with a solo flight I made to Seattle last month.
After the conclusion of a conference, I bought a $9 ferry ticket to Bainbridge Island, a residential community and tourist destination in Elliot Bay.
While the sun set, I enjoyed a warm Mexican meal at a local pub where I was treated like a local. Stepping out into the moist, fir-scented air, I made my way down to the ferry terminal.
It was well-lit and lonesome. I noticed three 50-somethings in a corner laughing and talking in halting phrases. One woman was bouncing.
It was charades in a public place! I walked over, secretly wishing to be drawn in.
Not only did Kevin, Pamela and Wendy pull me in to play charades. We ended up sharing a booth and playing cards.
I asked how they knew each other, and an air of inside joking arose. Kevin began to recount meeting Wendy at college. He liked her, but she felt differently.
To my utter delight, she began to retell their back story to the tune of “Don’t You Want Me,” the ’80s classic by Human League.
More intrigue was shared about their interesting friendship, but I was busy searching for the song on my phone.
I pushed play, stepped out the booth and risked utter humiliation by commencing to dance vigorously. Blessedly, the two gals joined me as Kevin retreated in embarrassment.
Strolling together up into the dark hills of Seattle, we stopped to say goodbye. The cold stars looked down as our hands fell into a circle like a team at the start of a game. Another one of my risky ideas.
I counted to three. Our hands went up. We all awkwardly shouted various phrases which I don’t recall, but it felt like a benediction to me.
Tom Becker writes regularly at tombecker.substack.com. He founded the Row House Inc. in 2010 as a forum for “engaging current culture with ancient faith.” He tells that story in his book, “Good Posture” (Square Halo Books: Baltimore, 2017). Becky and Tom have five grown children and live in Lancaster’s West End where he can be seen daily walking Rue the dog or riding Frodo, the gravel bike.