New Year’s Day, my dream came true through the kindness and generosity of a complete stranger.
Christmas and New Year’s Day were just around the corner and my mother had recently had a surgery that prohibited her from driving for six weeks while she recovered.
A few days before Christmas and about a week and a half before New Year’s Day, I got a spur of the moment idea.
My mother was already staying with me, my husband, and our two youngest daughters who were almost one and three years-old at the time. I was helping to care for her while she was healing.
The thought ocurred to me that it would be fun and adventurous to take my mom and two toddlers on a cross-country trip for two months, all expenses paid.
The timing seemed perfect. My mother normally worked very long hours and I recognized that with her usual work schedule, an opportunity like this for us to have an extended trip of several weeks off together, would likely not happen again for a very long time.
My children all loved road trips, were seasoned travelers, and my youngest was still breast feeding so that would make feeding her easy.
I had just bought myself a brand new four-wheel drive SUV with snow tires. My husband gave his blessing for the trip. I had a green light. It all seemed to line up effortlessly.
I contacted some state tourism bureaus and PR professionals in a few dozen states, highlighted a map with a route, packed the bags, and the day after Christmas 2002, my mom and two tiny daughters and I set off on a 7000 mile road trip, with the plan to make it to Wisconsin by New Year’s Day.
My mom wanted to see Niagara Falls, the Smithsonian, the Liberty Bell, Ground Zero, the Statue of Liberty, and Mount Rushmore. Those were a few things on her bucket list. We both wanted to stop at all the Little House on the Prairie historical spots.
That is another story within a story as I have spent a great deal of time at all those spots across the United States and with all the cast of the TV series Little House on the Prairie; but I digress. You can read those stories and articles and see those photos another time.
What could possibly go wrong driving across the United States in the middle of winter with blizzards, freezing temperatures, and white out conditions? I wasn’t worried, and my mom was excited to be chauffeured across the nation and back on a grand adventure with her two youngest grandchildren in tow.
We spent the night in a beautiful and luxurious hotel in Mankato, Minnesota on a freezing New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day we set out for Pepin, Wisconsin, where Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, had taken place 135 years prior. That was our first Little House on the Prairie historic spot on our itinerary.
We visited the little cabin replica, museum, and historic spots and then decided to drive into the town of Pepin to see the lake itself. From reading the Little House books, I had enjoyed the chapter called Going To Town and the part where little Laura Ingalls had put too many pebbles from Lake Pepin, into her pocket and it had ripped the seam of her dress.
Once we pulled up to Lake Pepin, my two toddler daughters had just fallen asleep for their early afternoon nap.
My mom and I got out of the SUV while the girls slept in the warm vehicle and together we collected a few pebbles from the shore of the lake, wondering if those pebbles looked anything like the ones Laura had once collected there over a century before. We reminisced about when my mom had read me those precious stories as a child just like I had done for my three daughters.
I had grown up as a competitive ice skater and one of my life dreams was to ice skate on a real, natural, frozen lake because I had only ice skated on indoor rinks as a child and teen. I used to love to watch videos of Brian Boitano ice skating, free as a bird, on natural lakes as he inspired me to want to do the same.
I had always watched ice skating movies like Ice Castles, with a deep desire in my soul to experience the limitless freedom and majesty of soaring through the air, floating on ice with only the wind and the solitude to embrace me.
It was freezing cold that New Year’s Day, with a high of 19 degrees as my mom and I collected pebbles. We stopped to gaze out at the expansive frozen lake where one man skated and skated, all alone, living my dream. It was difficult to see him clearly, as he was skating and gliding way off in the distance, across the enormous vastness of Lake Pepin.
My mom looked over at me and saw my eyes well up with tears as I watched the lone man doing exactly what I had always dreamed of doing. I had shared my simple dream with my mom several times over the years.
Just as my mom mentioned to me that she was getting cold and was going to get back into the SUV to warm up where the girls were napping, the man on skates made his way across the lake and over to where we were standing.
I wished him a Happy New Year’s Day and he asked where we were from. I told him we were from Northern California and that we were driving across the United States on a road trip and that we had stopped in Pepin for its Little House on the Prairie history.
I chatted with him briefly about the lake and told him I had once been an ice skater but had never skated on a frozen lake. Without hesitation, he asked me if I would like to borrow his skates and take a whirl.
I was literally stunned. He must have seen my face light up. He told me that he would be at the little coffee shop in town, just a few blocks away and that I was welcome to skate as long as I wanted. He said that I could just return his skates and bucket to him there, when I was all done skating.
He looked at my feet with a smile and suggested I try doubling or tripling up some socks to make his skates fit.
My mom had just bought me an enormous red, wool, full length coat for Christmas and it was all I had packed for an outer layer to guard against the sub-freezing temperature. I remember digging through my suitcase in the back of the SUV for extra layers and extra socks as quietly as I possibly could, in a valiant attempt to not wake up my slumbering daughters.
Nothing was going to stop me from embracing this opportunity of a lifetime.
I will never forget the sheer exitement and anticipation that I felt as my mom sat in the SUV with my napping daughters while I sat on that bucket and worked hard to lace those ice skates as tight as I could get them.
The sheer sense of limitlessness, of utter tranquility, of being completely in our Creator’s hands and the sounds of the wind breaking the deafening silence, the immense vastness of a canvas with no boundaries that lay before me, are all things I can’t quite quantify in words but will be etched deep in my soul forever. I am still overcome by emotion just now, as I recall it.
There were no other skaters to avoid, no Zamboni, no music, no costs, no expectations, no limits, nothing man-made, no over-skated ice begging to be resurfaced…just me doing jumps, spins, and skating as far and as fast as I dared.
Most mothers of young children get very few moments alone and this was the ultimate gift anyone could have given me at that moment. I was overcome with joy and gratitude.
I skated and skated until I couldn’t skate anymore and then I sat down on the bucket and removed the man’s skates and walked back to my mom and girls who were just beginning to stir from their naps.
In the car, my mom had the biggest smile on her face from watching me experience my dream.
I drove over to the coffee shop and returned the bucket and the skates to the man who had made my dream a reality. I tried to express my gratitude. But I probably did not convey the depth of the meaning that his kind and trusting gesture had made.
We continued on our cross-country road trip for the next several weeks. We saw all the points of interest and monuments my mom had wanted so much to see that had always been on her bucket list.
The trip was a wonderful treasure and adventure. Tourism and visitor bureaus in many states extended generous tickets and comps for astounding hotels, resorts, museums, spas, and dining which provided me excellent content for many articles that I later published in magazines and newspapers.
But one man in the tiny village of Pepin, Wisconsin provided me with a priceless memory that I will cherish forever. He, and his small town of less than 800 residents, will probably never know how much his generosity touched me or the priceless worth of his simple act of kindness on that special New Year’s Day.