Outside of Dallas the riding population thinned out enough so that everyone had their own seats on the bus, even leaving a few rows entirely empty. We made the mandatory stops through northern Texas and Oklahoma with few departing for whatever else better they had to do that day than ride a Greyhound but, as the day stretched into night, few boarded the bus.
It was not my original intention to travel on the Fourth of July but it turned out to be the perfect day for a 20-hour bus ride from south to north. The few travelers meant I could ride somewhat comfortably, blocking the world out to only my iPod and my constant ruminating thoughts.
Weeks before a friend had asked me to drive down to Texas to help her and her husband move. Practically, I wasn’t the best of choice as I can’t life real heavy things, but I was an extra set of arms and I had something most of their friends didn’t: mobility. I could easily pick up and go to Texas for a few days and while others had spouses and children my pride came in that freedom and the spirit to chase it. We drove down there – her husband in a U-Haul and she and I in the pick up truck – and spent a few days unpacking their house and making it a home.
A one-way ticket back to South Dakota was too expensive and I liked the idea of a bus simply because I hadn’t done it before. The cheapest ticket was on July 4 and her parents offered to pay for it because they were unable to help move them, so a few days later they drove me to the Dallas bus depot and I boarded a north-bound bus.
I was rather unfazed that it was the Fourth of July and was secretly excited to have an entire-day obligation. To me the Fourth of July is a loathed day the way New Year’s is to introverts and Valentine’s Day is to single people who pretend that they like being single but actually really hate it.Independence Day is at its greatest in small town America. Entire communities come together with lackluster parades that are drenched in pride and loyalty to their homes and their country. Friends and family combine all of their favorite foods – meat, meat, potatoes, meat – into meals that just taste better on this particular day. City bands, composed of that girl from high school, the guy at the bank, and the woman who works at the grocery store, play “Stars and Stripes Forever” under uninhibited stars before the most gorgeous fireworks display a Midwestern seven-year-old has ever seen.
Or, so that’s how Norman Rockwell and John Cougar Melloncamp tell us it should be. I often put a lot of pressure on this day to make it the epitome of America and the greatest day of the summer. In Pierre, where I grew up, it is certainly that for many people. Boats clog the Missouri River and ever year there is an all-class reunion on some sandbar that I would not know how to get to if asked. We didn’t have a boat and I wasn’t in that crowd, so I spent many of my Fourths working as lifeguard, which was usually great because it included time and half, and then playing for the city band. I was rarely ever able to achieve that whole barbeque, beach, camping, American wholesomeness and so resented those who did and the day. That’s not to say that I never had good Fourths – the year prior I drove out to Pocatello and had a wonderful time singing songs around a campfire – but the day always came with disappointment.
On this particular Independence Day, on a Greyhound, I could forget my expectations for the day and focus on the intoxicating feeling of being in the middle of two points. The nomadic feeling – even if only for a day – is one I never tire of and it gives me such confirmation in myself that few other things do.
There was a cast of character, getting on and off at various locations that I never bother to note, who entertained my long journey. One man was traveling home after visiting his children and asked if I had kids. He later asked me if I was married and, at 24, it struck me as so odd that it would be more normal to him if I had children than if I was married. Another man, also traveling between children and home, smelled of smoke but was polite and asked quite a few questions about why such a beautiful girl was traveling by herself on a holiday.
The journey was so long because it required a seven-hour layover in Kansas City. The bus depot, although situated in a questionable area, was walking distance to downtown so I locked up my bag and found myself in the city center. It was the second time that year I ended up in downtown Kansas City by myself, but I wasn’t bothered. I had the choice to eat where I want, wander down streets that looked appealing, and change my mind on fireworks watching places, which I did. Thanks to the suggestion of an old acquaintance, I found a grassy area near the Mississippi River and laid still as reds, purples, blues and greens fired through the sky.
That Fourth of July was at a beginning point in my life. A month later I would move to Sioux Falls to launch The Post. A year later I would be packing all I could into two suitcases as the next day I would depart for Peace Corps Niger. Things were not perfect and being with others would have likely been better than being alone, but I was so at ease on that Independence Day. The beer I had at dinner, the noise coming from the Power and Light District, the color of the wood at a dock along the river, and the touch of the grass on a cool Missouri evening all seemed as if they were placed intentionally for me. Young, restless, and confused, this Fourth was a flash of a life I never thought I could live.
My last few Independence Days were barely noted, an after thought in a rural African life. Last year I planned a special American history lesson for my students while teaching them “The Star Spangled Banner” and showing them a video of fireworks that my mother had sent. On the way home, I bought a liter of Coke to share with my family because they love the drink and, despite all things I hate about the soft drink, it always, always tasted like home. I did not need a lot of flare, though, I was in a different world and former expectations had no power.
I had been worried about this Fourth, though. I am in a new city with few connections and little knowledge of what to do and where to go. I was afraid loneliness and doubt would be my only true companions on this day that is heavily marketed as one that you should not, under any circumstance, spend alone. Before I could wallow and make single girl plans, a friend invited me to a cookout.
Although I won’t know anyone, I woke up with reassurance from merely having a plan. Then something else took over. I went for a run, stopping to meditate and do yoga on a pier, then running the last bit along the shore, kicking up water like six-year-old. I couldn’t contain the huge smile that stretched across my face. Others were already grilling and beaching, but I was entirely happy making my own fun.
My disdain for the Fourth doesn’t come from the actual day but from my insistence on that only others can make me happy, that if I am surrounded by others and doing the things that I ought to, then I will be happy and be “right”. The older I get the more I am learning that the only approval and company I truly need to be happy is my own. It’s OK to be alone on this day, and any other day, as long as I am doing what makes me happy, even if things aren’t perfect and they never really are. I am really content with where my life is and where it is headed right now; it’s probably the best I’ve felt since returning to the United States. It doesn’t matter what I do today, because I feel good with who I am and where I am at and I don’t need large cookouts or a big boats full of people to confirm anything.