Helen at Garden Grove during her last solo visit to Iowa.
My cousin, Helen Bollen, hit the road again at midafternoon yesterday, departing from the nursing home in Orem, Utah, where she had been cared for since a stroke felled her, age 91, during July at home in Delta. It was a cruel stroke that deprived her of the ability to communicate.
It's tough to be orphaned when you get to be as old as we are, her daughter, Marilyn, and I agreed while visting by phone a little later. But Helen had given every sign during the last few days that she was anxious to be on her way, so hospice had been called in to leaven the instincts of a medical staff geared to conserve life, no matter the quality.
The spirit is free now, but most likely the remains will make one more trek --- to the spot reserved for them in Portland's Willamette National Cemetery beside those of her husband, Howard, who died way too young in 1957 leaving her a widow with two young daughters to raise.
It was Helen's practice during later years to leave home --- most recently Alamogordo, New Mexico, and Delta --- as summer was approaching and remain on the road until late fall, traveling in a van that had been equipped for independent living. Some years it was the West and Pacific Northwest circuit; other years, the rest of the country.
She grew up a Washington state farm girl, but married a career military man and their travels in this country and elsewhere may have been a factor in her unwillingness to settle down and behave as more conventional great-grandmothers were expected to.
Devoted to family and friends and intensely interested in family history --- nearly all of her trips had substantial genealogical components --- she developed a vast network of relationship and aquaintance that stretched from the Pacific Northwest to the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius.
She visited most of us now and then. My neighbors here came to expect the big van with New Mexico or Utah plates to appear, parked beside the driveway, every couple of years. Except in the most extreme counditions, Helen always slept in the van and emerged from it ready to face each new day. She favored Wal-Mart parking lots when friendly driveways were unavailable.
Helen was last here as an independent traveler during May of 2010, when she was 88. We made it a point to visit Mormon points of interest in Wayne County and at Garden Grove because her next stop was Nauvoo, where she met up with her Delta-based grandson, Steve, and his family, and she wanted to be able to tell him that she'd been to those spots.
That fall, headed homeward from Indiana and deep in the heart of Texas, she was involved in a bit of vehicular unpleasantness. After holing up in a motel while getting the van back on its wheels, she limped back to Utah. But daughters Sylvia and Marilyn, quite rightly worried, put their feet down --- and the van was not replaced.
That did not end her travels, however. She made brief stops here during 2011 and 2012 with Marilyn at the wheel and effortlessly managed a solo trek to St. Eustatius, while staying with Marilyn in Indiana, to visit a nephew. Earlier this year, again courtesy of Marilyn, she completed the Pacific Northwest circuit for the last time, visiting something like 40 friends and relatives in a two-week period.
Did I mention that Helen's great-grandfather, Solomon Kelley Brown (brother of my great-grandfather, Joseph Brown), made the trek west to the Willamette Valley on the Oregon Trail during the 1840s?
I'll always think of Helen as a pioneer woman, hitching up her contemporary version of a covered wagon whenever the spirit moved, full of faith, then heading out.
So here's a little traveling music, written by William Clayton in Wayne County, Iowa, but more familiar perhaps in Utah, where this phase of her journey ended. Although her vast Utah family is indeed Mormon, Helen was a Baptist. But I don't think she'll mind.