Last summer, my wife Becky and I went to The Row House roadshow as part of a year-long study holiday.
After 11 years curating Row House Forum events for our beloved city of Lancaster, I felt the need for inspiration. This would come about by reuniting with many former colleagues and friends across the country. And make new ones.
I was thrilled to attend conferences and read and write reports about the “faces, places and wonders” we encountered.
All of this was intended to deepen the mission of my organization, whose goal is to exalt the virtues of Christianity to a public audience, while adopting poses of courtesy, hospitality, compassion and quirkiness.
Our goals have been achieved and I feel like an Energizer Rabbit again.
Three trips of three weeks each took us to Nashville, Denver, and the Texas hill country. We kept to the smaller roads whenever possible.
We did quite a few cross-country hikes, but great surprises were still creeping up on us. Here are five.
We left our friend Kristen’s father’s house in Custer, South Dakota, sneaked a peek at George Washington’s face from the back of Mount Rushmore, and quickly arrived at the Crazy Horse Memorial.
In 1936, visionary sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski teamed up with Chief Henry Standing Bear to initiate a grand vision: carve the world’s largest stone sculpture, create a university for local students, and create a museum dedicated to our indigenous heritage.
We were amazed at the scale of the Tsiolkovsky family’s plans. All three projects are under implementation and deserve attention. Their completion is in decades.
Using only private funding and in full collaboration with the Black Hills Indigenous peoples, they are creating a worthy tribute to Indian culture that rivals (exceeds?) the grandeur of Rushmore’s Fab Four.
I sipped beer on the glassed-in patio with Chris and Seth, my former students at Millersville University. It was the end of August.
Both of these guys from Pennsylvania shook their heads in disbelief at home prices in their favorite walkable neighborhood called East Nashville.
Not that they complained. They both did well in Nash Vegas, getting good jobs, finding wives, starting families, and going into real estate before house prices went crazy.
The small, high-ceilinged Victorian house we sat in is worth about $850,000 today. Twenty years ago this area of Nashville was working class and mostly black. Some houses cost less than $100,000.
In the 1980s patchwork artists began to arrive, musicians such as Jimmy Abegg, the musician we visited in his painting studio.
You can now be seen at Barrista Parlor sipping on your $7 cappuccino. I know.
The only places where we didn’t see such price reductions were smaller and less sought after markets. They are surprisingly cool, still affordable but definitely not that expensive: Mount Pleasant, Texas; Hot Springs, Arkansas; and Redfield, South Dakota.
Looking at Buc-ee’s
On the day we flew to the San Antonio area, my buddy Ben texted, “Be sure to check out Buc-ee’s!” Some kind of convenience store, as I imagined.
As we raced down the crowded Bay Coast Route 10, we couldn’t help but notice the signs of a smiling, red-capped beaver on a bright yellow circle.
We were counting on another dirty rest stop, forgetting that we were in the Republic of Texas, where everyone… you already know.
If Wawa has their ogi ogi and Royal Farms has fried chicken, then Buc-ee always has them 10 times.
We were greeted by 100 gas stations and a bronze statue of the beaver himself at the entrance.
Entering the Imperial Star Destroyer among the tourist plazas, our eyes began to adjust to its endless aisles of soda bars, general merchandise, and eateries.
I stood stunned as I watched a cowboy cut up a bbq brisket for a breakfast burrito. Drooling, I found my breakfast on my lap.
Then I spotted Becky, in a similar zombie state, clutching her Diet Pepsi. We all uttered this cinematic trope together: “What is this place?”
Yes, you’re riding on the river
As if Buk-ee had little surprise, we headed into the highlands with our written directions to Laity Lodge in hand. Cellular service 1.5 hours from San Antonio was not a given.
Riding through hilly ranches into the sunset, we found camp, the site of my five-day residence. We turned onto one of the many limestone lanes that criss-cross the 1,900-acre site.
Our headlights caught stunted cedar trees as we climbed a few hills. Then we went down a long hill to the river Frio.
The instructions said without explanation: “Turn left to the river.”
“Maybe the ROAD river? Certainly not a river! We were answered by a sign. “Yes, you drive along the river!”
I figured out what the heck and steered our trusty Subaru into the river, which, thankfully, was only two inches deep. We sailed on bedrock that gleamed like crystal in the clear headwaters of the Frio River.
After about one-eighth of a mile, we emerged from a swampy alley and climbed another hill, where we saw our host waving his flashlight at us.
Our road show year ended with a solo flight I did in Seattle last month.
After the conference ended, I bought a $9 ferry ticket to Bainbridge Island, a residential area and tourist center in Elliot Bay.
At sunset, I enjoyed a warm Mexican meal at a local pub where I was treated like a local. Stepping out into the humid pine air, I headed for the ferry terminal.
It was well lit and lonely. I spotted three 50 year olds in the corner laughing and talking in halting sentences. One woman jumped.
These were charades in a public place! I approached, secretly wanting to be drawn in.
Kevin, Pamela and Wendy attracted me not only to playing charades. We ended up sharing a booth and playing cards.
I asked how they knew each other, and there was an atmosphere of inside joke. Kevin started talking about meeting Wendy in college. He liked her, but she felt different.
To my great delight, she began to retell their backstory to the tune of “Don’t You Want Me,” an 80s classic from the Human League.
There was more intrigue about their interesting friendship, but I was busy searching for the song on my phone.
I pressed the game, left the booth and, at the risk of complete humiliation, began to dance vigorously. Luckily, both girls joined me as Kevin walked away in embarrassment.
Walking together through the dark hills of Seattle, we stopped to say goodbye. Cold stars looked down as our hands formed 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 out different phrases that I don’t remember, but for me it was like a blessing.
Tom Becker is a regular contributor to tombecker.substack.com. He founded Row House Inc. in 2010 as a forum for “bringing modern culture with ancient faith”. He tells this story in his book Good Posture (Square Halo Books: Baltimore, 2017). Becky and Tom have five adult children and live in Lancaster’s West End, where he can be seen every day walking his dog down the street or riding Frodo, the gravel bike.