Basket leave, basket cases, and an empty nest: A travelog

One of the things I came to accept during our time with the Academy is that time simply does not stop. Sometimes it is to your advantage – like when your kid is going through Plebe summer. Other times, you wish things would slow down – like those final moments of their football season.

But like the tide, USNA time rolls on, even during a pandemic. The Academy also reinforced that everything can change on a dime, so I wasn’t all that surprised when my Mid announced his basket leave had been approved and he was ready to heat out West. His plan has been to use his basket leave for a trip through the national parks and monuments of Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico.

Parts of that plan involved me – I had volunteered to help him drive through flyover country, then drive back. Growing up in the Midwest, I knew how difficult it could be to drive those areas on back-to-back-to-back evenings. The timing would have me home a few days before we left for Colorado Springs and Mid Sib’s induction into the United States Air Force Academy Prep School.

The trip out covered many familiar areas – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois … until my early 20s, that made up most of my world. As we began the second day of driving, my Ensign said, “I don’t really understand why you felt you should come. I think I could have handled this myself.”

Mile 0.

I smiled and nodded as the road began rolling through western Kansas. The gently rolling landscape turned into a tabletop. The slight bends and curves in the road gave way to a yardstick-straight two-lane. Soon an hour passed where we had not seen the hand of man – no electrical wires, no structures, no farm animals.

“I get it now,” he said. “Doing this alone for two days would be tough.”

I smiled and nodded.

Finally, giants appeared in the distance. We couldn’t quite make out their shape, but it was clear there giants – dozens and dozens of them – littering the flatlands, their arms rotating wildly.

It was the first of three wind farms we would encounter. Now, on the East Coast, a wind farm was a generous description of a handful of turbines on a ridge. Not here. Noah did a quick search (yes, we had service in the Land of Wind Giants) and discovered this one had 120+ turbines. They stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. They disappeared from view and another batch arose, another 120-unit farm.

“I feel like we’re in a Rick & Morty episode where everyone has been turned into a wind turbine,” he said.

By the time we passed the third one, we were both certain we had lost our minds.

Nonetheless, we arrived in Denver. As planned, he rolled up to the departure deck at Denver International, and homeward I went as he headed toward the Badlands to begin his real adventure. Me? Yes, insanely jealous.

But I had another job at hand, delivering Mid Sib to the Prep School. So just a few days later, Mid Mom & I packed her up and jumped on a plane right back to Denver.

The time in Colorado Springs was perfect – we had gotten away as a family and our ensign came to join us for a few days. We hiked the Garden of the Gods and Cheyenne Mountain State Park together. The Mid Sib chose all the restaurants for meals – her favorites including two she would love to franchise some day (MOD Pizza and Panera Bread). We lounged by the pool and visited her new home-away-from home. That? Oh, a former piano student of Mid Mom is married to one of the USAFA flight instructors and they just built a house just beyond the Academy gates. They’ve been sponsoring cadets for years and leapt at the chance to sponsor Catie. Not surprisingly, Mid Mom had been anxious for much of our time here and the visit seemed to calm her a bit.

Funniest moment – the Air Force major had been describing life at USAFA and his job and lifestyle now. Our ensign, who had purposefully been degrading his time at USNA and playing up all of his sister’s opportunities (for the benefit of both his sister AND his mother), said, “geeze, it wasn’t like that for us.” The major didn’t miss a beat, “Well, life is all about making decisions … [pause for effect] … sorry about yours.” Biggest laugh of the week.

Our ensign pulled us aside for a moment that evening to reassure us. “You guys, I know you’re worried, but she’s got this. I talked to her and she’s totally got this.”

But it all had to end and the next morning we packed up our girl and after stopping for a Jamba Juice smoothie (yes, her call), we made our way to the Academy where we had some brief, spirited banter with the guard before rolling toward the drop off point.

It’s easy to overlook just how small The Yard is, but when you’re driving across USAFA, there are times where you see no sign that it’s a military operation of any sort. Every so often blue signs pop up for turn offs, then you see the football stadium, but mostly, it’s trees and trees and trees.

We pulled over on the shoulder to say one more goodbye. We got to the lot, followed the direction of some friendly volunteers, were greeted by the chaplains, and then rolled up to woman in a blue uniform.

“She’s some sort of commander,” the ensign said from the back seat. “I wonder what she’s doing here.”

We chatted with her and in a motherly voice, she answered our questions about usage and plans to keep the cadet candidates on the base for the duration of the fall semester. I kept staring at her name tag – Youderian, that sounded familiar – and she quickly pointed out that there were plans to have fun, like having a drive-in movie on the athletic fields.

She said her only son was starting college in the fall and she knew it would be difficult.

“But don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll take good care of Catie.”

Youderian, Youderian.

We rolled up to the final stop. The gentleman said, “Welcome to the Prep, cadet only leave the car.” He paused, “don’t worry, we’re going to take care of her.”

Catie stepped out of the car, adjusted her backpack, gave an ever-so-slight wave, and she was off. Just like that, it was over.

The view from the other side.

We had lunch with some friends who had moved there a few years ago, then the ensign headed out to the rest of his adventure, Mid Mom sobbed on the ride to the airport, and we prepared to return to the empty nest.

Then it dawned on me. Youderian.

“That woman, that colonel, Youderian?” I said to Mid Mom. “That’s the new commander at the Prep School.”

“Really,” said Mid Mom dabbing her eyes. “Well, she seemed really nice.”

We both smiled slightly. The adventure begins a new chapter.

* * *

Side note: Here’s one part of USAFA vocabulary I am familiar with:

2 thoughts on “Basket leave, basket cases, and an empty nest: A travelog

  1. Eat at the Colorado Mtn Brewery off North gate. Also, Manitou Springs has the Bonton Cafe- best breakfast ever! You will love Usafa


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