by Frank Pauc
This first appeared in Frank’s blog on November 16, 2019, as “Riding along with Sister.” It is republished here with the author’s permission.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
― Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road and The Dharma Bums
“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride… and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well… maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
“So, you made a road trip with a nun?”
This has been an often asked question since I came back from El Paso. The answer is: “Yes, I made a road trip with a nun. It was quite enjoyable, thank you.”
I drove to El Paso and back with Sister Ann Catherine. Sister A.C. is, technically speaking, not a nun. My understanding is that nuns are cloistered religious sisters, women who keep themselves separate from the world’s chaos and mayhem. Sister Ann Catherine is certainly a member of a Catholic religious order, but she is definitely not cloistered.
Sister A.C. is very active in the world, probably more so than most laypeople, including myself. She is seventy-five years old, and she hasn’t wasted a minute of her life. She’s done things.
I first met the Sister at the VA hospital in Milwaukee several years ago. We often go there to visit the vets in the psych ward. The psych ward has a transient population. People very seldom stay there for more than a week. Even so, Sister is good at establishing a relationship with the patients. She always tells them, “Thank you for your service”, and she says that in a heartfelt, authentic sort of way. They know that she is being sincere. Sister worked for years as a nurse, and she sees things through the lens of her experience. Her history allows her to connect easily with the folks in the psych ward.
Sister Ann Catherine served as a nurse in Cambodia back in 1980. I’m not sure if Pol Pot was still running the show in that country at that time, but the effects of his genocidal reign were still evident. Sister’s experience in the refugee camps affected her deeply. It changed her life.
I picked up Sister Ann Catherine at 4:00 AM on October 16th. She didn’t have much for luggage. We both like to travel light. Except for the fact that we nearly got hit by a garbage truck before we even left Milwaukee (that was my fault), our departure went well. We drove on I-43 southwest to Beloit, and from there on I-39 toward Rockford, Illinois. We drove through northern Illinois in utter darkness. It’s best that way.
I think that sunrise found us driving through Bloomington, which is kind of like being in the Twilight Zone. We were a long way from St. Louis, and it hurt. For those who don’t know, there is nothing to see on the stretch between Bloomington to St. Louis. I-55 is a highway that begs a driver to speed. A view of endless, flat cornfields makes a person edgy and impatient. The typical driver may think, “Well, maybe if I just go eighty, then this hideous landscape will all go away.” It doesn’t, not for hours and hours. The rolling prairie in the Land of Lincoln just keeps giving and giving all the way to the Mississippi River. Pure torture.
On the plus side, Sister and I kept up a spirited conversation throughout this seemingly endless journey. We both wake up well before dawn each day, so the morning hours are when we are the most lucid. Sister is clear and incisive when she speaks. She doesn’t parrot other people’s opinions. She thinks for herself, and I admire that. She also listens quite well. I appreciate that too.
We got a little bit lost going through St. Louis. The GPS only works if you pay attention to it. We didn’t. Sister and I were in the middle of an interesting discussion, and then I noticed that we had missed our exit. It did not take us long to get on to the right interstate. Then we took I-44 forever.
I-44 goes through hills and forests and farmland through the state of Missouri. It’s a beautiful ride and a long one. Sister and I eventually ran out of topics to discuss. Then we resorted to listening to music. Fortunately, I was prepared for that. My tastes are eclectic. So are Sister’s. We played songs from The Klezmatics (the album “Rhythm and Jews”), Indigo Girls, Santana, and Dylan. The music got weirder as time went on.
After twelve hours of driving (I drove and Sister kept me alert), we arrived at our first destination, the Monastery of St. Scholastica. St. Scholastica is a home for Benedictine sisters in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The sisters there welcomed us with open arms, and unlimited goodwill. My wife, Karin, and I are in the habit of staying at monasteries and Catholic retreat houses.
However, I had never been to this place before in my life. Sister Ann Catherine simply trusted me to find us a good place to stay for the night. That was a gutsy move on her part. I guess her faith paid off.
The sisters at St. Scholastica have a guest house, which is wonderful. They gave us the keys to the place, without hesitation. They also refused our offer of money for our stay with them. The sisters were emphatic that they wanted to provide for our ministry with the migrants at the southern border. Our money was no good to them.
The second day…
Sister and I drove through eastern Oklahoma and Texas for about eight hours. We were on our way to Bryan/College Station, Texas. Let it be said at this point, that I have made the trip from Milwaukee to College Station numerous times over the last thirty years. I know every single path between those two points. The scenery was new to Sister Ann Catherine, but not to me.
Upon arrival in Bryan, we first stopped to visit with my eldest son, Hans, and his family. Hans is married to Gabi, a local girl, and they are the loving parents of Weston, a one-year-old redneck. Sister immediately spent time with Gabi and her little boy. I talked with Hans. Hans is an Iraqi War veteran, and he was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Heavy Metal: Army Style”, showing a picture of an Abrams tank. That’s my boy. I told Hans about our trip to El Paso/Mexico. He shook his head and told me, “Well, y’all don’t call me if you get in trouble down there.” Thanks Hans. Screw you too. Actually, he was just messing with me. I do the same with him.
It’s a family thing.
Sister and I spent the night with a friend of my sister-in-law, Shawn. We stayed at the house of Anne and Kim. Sister and I did not know anything about these people. Nothing. They were total strangers. I am used to this sort of thing. I have participated in several peace walks and other weird trips that required me to stay with complete strangers. I have grown accustomed to sleeping in places with people I don’t know, and who I may never meet again. Over the years, Karin and I have invited other travelers to stay at our house. We offered hospitality to people who we did not know and that we never met again. It’s cool. It just works like that.
The next morning (pre-dawn) Sister and I picked up my sister-in-law, Shawn. She was coming with us to El Paso. She hadn’t slept at all. She told me laughingly, “I knew y’all would come for me early! That’s what you folks do!”
The people at the Annunciation House in El Paso wanted us to be there at 1:30 PM. That meant we had ten straight hours of windshield time to get to their shelter. We drove through the darkness from Bryan. The rising sun caught us on I-10 somewhere west of Fredericksburg, Texas. I-10 is brutal. If you drive to the west, the landscape becomes increasingly more desolate. You start with live oaks. Then you go to junipers and mesquite. Then you go to sagebrush and creosote bushes. Then you go to dirt. Nothing but dirt.
We got to El Paso, which is sort of an oasis. I insisted on listening to Nirvana on the final stretch to El Paso. I cranked up “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:
“Hello, hello, hello
Load up on guns and bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over-bored and self-assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low”
Sister Ann Catherine made no comment at all.