Memorial Day weekend's meaning has faded quite a bit over the years. Nowadays it just happens to be a weekend when I have an extra day off, and that's about it. On Tuesday I'll go back to teaching school. When I was in the academic world, my school year was over already, so it was not all that momentous. Growing up, however, it was one of the most glorious times of the year.
Back home the last day of school was always the Friday before Memorial Day. As an adult I really don't have anything in my life like the last day of school, even though I'm a teacher. I just remember the feeling of absolute, complete freedom on that day with summer stretched out before me, and the knowledge that there would never be a day on the calendar when I was more free. This feeling was especially pronounced from the ages of 10-12, when I was old enough to able to go out and do things by myself or with friends, but still too young to have a summer job.
My family usually took to the great outdoors on Memorial Day weekend, and we started an important tradition when I was twelve years old. We drove up to Valentine, in the northern extremity of Nebraska, which became the location of most of our Memorial Day weekends for the following years. We had been there before one Labor Day weekend, but this time around we went canoeing on the Niobrara River for the first time. The Niobrara is not a wide or mighty river, but in the vicinity of Valentine it is absolutely beautiful and only a couple of feet deep, perfect for canoeing and inner-tubing. It cuts majestic cliffs into the sandy soil as it gently winds to the Missouri River. Three years ago I took my wife there for some kayaking, and I was amazed at the river's beauty and warmed by the peaceful feeling I still get while on its waters.
My first time was not so peaceful, since my mother and I tipped our canoe twice, both of us being inexperienced and me being the kind of kid so uncoordinated and lacking confidence in physical activity that I was always picked last in gym class. (My dad and sisters fared better in their canoe.) For the next few years I preferred to tube instead of canoe, which involves sitting on an inflated tractor tire inner tube with canvas stretched across the top of it. This means no steering, no tipping, and a lazy day soaking in the sun and taking in the sights. Once I got a little older, and more confident, I went back to the canoe. By that time we had started going to Valentine with two other families that we were close to, and the trip had become one of the highlights of my year.
After the first couple of trips we established a pretty regular routine, hitting each point along the way like Lenten penitent doing the stations of the cross. For that reason my memories of specific trips are rather blurry, but the regular elements are very vivid in my mind. The first thing to know is that the trip to Valentine involved moving from one world into another. I grew up in the town of Hastings, Nebraska, nestled in the heart of the fertile farm belt, full of corn and flat as a pancake. To get to Valentine meant crossing through the Sandhills, a much less stereotypical Nebraska landscape. The Sandhills are breathtaking in their emptiness, rolling from horizon to horizon under a limitless sky. Whenever I come home to Nebraska I make an attempt to at least drive to the outer fringes of the Sandhills, since there is no landscape quite like it anywhere else.
We often left for our trip on Friday afternoon, after my dad got off work. This meant loading up our 1984 Chevy conversion van, a massive beast of a vehicle with a sliding door and brown/beige interior that would be stocked to the gills with cans of soda and sunflower seeds, my Dad's preferred methods of staying awake on the road. (He doesn't drink coffee.) We typically drove up north to Grand Island and took state highway 2, perhaps the prettiest road in Nebraska, until we hit the Nebraska National Forest, right outside of the hamlet of Halsey. Once there we would have a picnic at the campground built by the Civilian Conservation Corps underneath the tall trees. The forest itself is an experience, located as it is amidst the barren Sandhills. Whenever I go there I feel almost as if I have landed on another planet, the groves of trees are that incongruous with the surrounding landscape. Until the fire tower got so rickety that they closed it down, we would take the stairs to the top, and look out on an emerald expanse of forest amidst the brown scrub of the Sandhills. It's a sight I'll never forget.
From there we drove to Valentine across the rolling hills, occasionally spying alkali lakes in the hollows, so ghostly in such a dry place. Valentine itself has only a couple thousand souls, but it is a metropolis by the standards of that region. It's the seat of Cherry County, so massive that it's the size of Rhode Island but home to fewer than six thousand people. My father, being the skin-flintiest man west of the Mississippi, always had us staying in a cheap motel with me sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag, rather than springing for a rollaway bed. (My parents had one bed, my sisters another.) It's a living situation I endured for years of family road trips, but it has given me an ability to sleep easily on the floor, which served me well in my bohemian 20s.
The next day would be spent on the river, a leisurely few hours that ended with us driving back to the hotel via some beat up country gravel roads. In between we might stop at the wildlife refuge and see some buffalo. At night us kids (with our friends from the other families) would eat pizza ordered by our parents, play cards, and watch some HBO, something my dad sure as hell never sprung for back home. While we had a little party, our parents all went out of a bar and grill downtown called the Peppermill. I was always intrigued by this, since it was all part of an adult world that I wasn't able to participate in. When my wife and I returned to Valentine, I made sure to have a beer and steak at the Peppermill (now in a new location), just to be able to experience what I'd been missing out on that whole time.
The following day we'd go back home, usually stopping at one of the local natural wonders, like Snake River Falls, on the way, or in some cases make a stopover in North Platte and enjoy the water slide and go karts there. As I got older, I started to think I was too cool for these family trips and too dignified to sleep on the floor, and once I was in college, I let my family go on the trip without me (except for a memorable last hurrah before my senior year, when one of my college friends luckily happened to be in town at the same time.) Once my adolescent angst faded, my memories of these trips became more treasured with each passing year. Nowadays I only wish I can give my own children memories half as cherished when they get older.