I wish someone would have told me when I was six to value my cousins more. Now that we’re older orphans, my cousins mean more to me than ever. The realization to value my cousins should have come earlier in life; but at least it came—and for that, I am grateful. When we’re together, we marvel at our commonalities. And we laugh a lot.
Last summer a unique opportunity presented itself: To go on a road trip with cousins Donna and Suzanne, from California to Montana, to visit relatives along the way. Most were cousins I hadn’t met before and places I’d never been.
I flew to Sacramento and had a marvelous time with cousins Frank and Rosemary and their family. Then Donna, Suzanne and myself jumped in the car and drove north. I hadn’t seen northern California and the borderlands between California and Oregon. It took my breath away. We have mountains and timberlands in Alaska, but the Cascade Range has a unique beauty all its own.
After stuffing myself at the free olive bar at the Olive Pit in Corning, CA and Granzella’s in Williams, CA, and arming ourselves with olive tapenade and chocolate-balsamic vinegar, we drove to Redding.
After a spectacular drive through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, we pulled into Ashland, OR in late afternoon, a quaint town nestled in the mountains alongside Interstate 5. After checking into our hotel and eating a quick meal, we drove uptown to the Thomas Theatre to attend The Yeoman of the Guard, as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The show was rowdy and fun.
I wasn’t used to driving in the pitch-dark Lower 48, after spending the summer in Alaska’s all-night-twilight. We lost our way back to our hotel, so we had a night-tour along dark, country roads—me peering over the steering wheel, squinting like Mr. Magoo. Eventually we made it back.
Then on to Skamania Lodge, on the banks of the Columbia River Gorge, on the Washington-Oregon border. The sun sank behind us as we crossed the river on the Bridge of the Gods from Interstate 5 in Oregon to Highway 84 in Washington. We were struck by the metal bridge’s brilliant reflection of the crimson sunset.
Skamania Lodge is an impressive resort and spa tucked into moss-covered firs in a rainforest canopy. It reminded me of the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining—except Skamania’s rooms are comfortably rustic (and this hotel isn’t haunted).
The next day we drove along the border, then turned northeast to hit I-90 to Spokane. We stayed at our cousin Nancy’s house, next to magnificent stands of Ponderosa Pine at the edge of town. Nancy was a gracious host and showed us the sights, sounds, and tastes of Spokane. We rode the tram over Spokane Falls and toasted and wined on the veranda of Anthony’s Restaurant. We visited wonderful, talented relatives–quilt artists, painters, landscapers—ate delicious food and saw beautiful landscapes.
We then set our sights on Flathead Lake in Polson, Montana to visit cousin Duane and his wife, Joyce, who have a condo on the lake. One afternoon we stopped at Three Dog Down, a store with touristy stuff. The owner has a room in the back he calls his Butte, Montana Room. He sang and played accordion, serenading cousin Donna (he took a shine to her). Turns out he sang opera years ago. Once he got going, he didn’t stop; he followed us around the store and to the door with song and wit. We were amused that we bumped into a guy with a Butte Room, when Butte was our final Montana destination. What were the chances.
After a tearful farewell to our Flathead Lake cousins, we drove I-90 to Gold Creek, to another cousin’s ranch house, at the foothills of the Anaconda-Pintlar mountains. It was nearing fall and the elk were bugling. Hadn’t heard that sound in years…Cousin Ruth is a historical researcher and a whiz-kid at genealogy, so we learned much about our grandparents and great-grandparents’ families through Ruth’s diligent and thorough research, clear back to Ireland. We said our goodbyes then drove to Butte, America.
It’s weird after growing up in a place, so familiar, yet strange after being gone so long. We toured the Copper King Mansion, The Dumas brothel, and took the perilous bumpy excursion up to Our Lady of the Rockies, where I saw the memorial plaques of my mom and both sisters inside the statue—truly an emotional time. Donna and Suzanne wept along with me—but that’s what cousins do for each other. I am so thankful for every one of them.
The cool part of our road trip was that we joked we were all still speaking at the end of it, with all the little blips along the way—colds, car temps too hot or too cold, hotel rooms too hot or too cold, being too tired or growly stomachs after a day’s travel…but we had made this journey together and it will hold a special place in our hearts forever.
None of us knows what the future holds, so we cross our fingers and some of us pray we can stay above ground a long while to enjoy each other. Sharing our lives with a diverse group of cousins is one of those choice gifts that lands in our hearts. I am grateful to them for showing me what it’s like to be part of an extended family again.
Thank you, cousins. You know who you are.
© Lois Paige Simenson and The Alaska Philosophaster, 2016, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Alaska Philosophaster with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. LIPS