I have just returned from an epic trip, as you likely know if you are a regular reader of this blog. I love seeing new places and it doesn’t have to be some exotic port of call. I get a lot out of seeing small towns in upstate New York. I still do some consulting for the New York State School Boards Association and that often requires driving 3-4 hours in various directions around the state. Anytime I can see a new town, I am interested. My most recent engagement took me to Warsaw, New York. The route to and from that town went through the Finger Lakes. On the trip out I took the most direct route, the New York State Thruway, which is not the most fascinating ride – partly because I have traveled the length of the Thruway many, many times over. On the way back, though, I took Route 20 part of the way so that I would drive past some of the lakes. I also made a stop in Seneca Falls to pay my respects to the courageous and visionary suffragettes.
I walked the Main Street of Seneca Falls looking at the shops and cafes. I went into the little museum and I walked along the river. I am always drawn to sculpture gardens and the local map indicated that there was a sculpture trail along the river. Who knew? I followed the trail and found some lovely spots.
I find the display of both natural beauty and human creativity very satisfying – it celebrates the best things in life. I had lunch in a small cafe and then got back on the road. I drove briefly on a rural route to get back to the Thruway and made my way home.
Travel is always a balancing act. The desire to see things and the desire to get where I’m going. Most often there are time constraints – appointments to attend, chores to be done, cats to be fed, responsibilities to meet. But sometimes it is the stress of knowing all that stuff awaits, rather than actually having a deadline. I feel the weight of a deadline, but there really isn’t one. I wonder if I can take more time to smell the roses, so to speak; make more stops along the road to see the unique and interesting places off the beaten path.
There are other things to balance when traveling. Gary and I took a tour of Spain a while ago, and again on this most recent Mediterranean cruise, where we spent a day in each city (not even a full day). There were quick hits. On the cruise we saw: Barcelona, Valencia (actually I missed Valencia because I was sick, but Gary saw it), Benidorm, Gibraltar, Malaga, Marseille, Villafranche, Nice, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Naples and the Amalfi Coast!! In less than two weeks!!! There are pluses and minuses to that type of trip. We saw so much. We got a taste of so many places. But there wasn’t much time in any spot – there is so much more to see in Florence, Rome, Malaga and Barcelona, in particular. We went to one museum – to see David by Michelangelo. In theory, in getting the quick hit, we can decide to go back to explore more, but given limited time and resources, is that realistic? Is it better to go one place and spend a week? Given how little vacation time most people have, what is the best way to go – see a breadth of places or have a more in-depth experience? Of course, there is no right answer, just a matter of personal preference, I suppose. And, I am well aware that it is a luxury to even be able to ask the question.
When we were walking along the seaside in Benidorm (which is on the Costa del Sol of Spain), my brother-in-law mentioned that he didn’t find resort towns very interesting. I could see his point. There is a beach, hotels, condos, shops and restaurants – not all that much different one from another. And resort towns aren’t really examples of how people in a particular country live, it is how they vacation. On the other hand, the flavor of each place is different. The landscape varies and is often beautiful (which is why people vacation there!). Some scenes of the Costa del Sol, the French Riviera and the Amalfi Coast:
The beach front in Benidorm
Positano, the Amalfi Cost in Italy
The Amalfi Cost
How do you feel about that? Is it interesting to you, or would you rather skip those places (unless you are going to a resort for a beach vacation)?
There were other differences in approach to travel between myself and my brother-in-law. He would often make conversation with others in our tour group or with waitstaff. It isn’t my impulse to do that. I see lots of positives in chatting with other people, but I am not that comfortable doing it. I don’t think I’m unfriendly, but it isn’t my instinct to initiate a chat. This characteristic isn’t about travel per se, but it is more on display in that context. In my day-to-day existence, if I am waiting on line or when I was in that cafe in Seneca Falls, I don’t try to make conversation with people I come across. I guess I’m wondering if I would enjoy it if I made more of an effort, or if I am comfortable this way. I don’t believe there is a right a right or wrong, just pondering (as I often do).
I can’t wait for my next trip – wherever it takes me!
I am still on a break from writing. But, I am taking in the sights, sounds, smells and experiences of traveling – so I will have more to write about in the future! In the meantime, here are some images from the trip so far.
When Leah called me back in January and asked if I wanted to do the 5 Boro Bike Tour, my answer was a definitive and excited yes. For those of you not familiar with it, this is a 40 mile bike ride through all five boroughs of New York City. I thought it was a great idea. I love biking – it is an awesome way to sightsee and get exercise. I would plan it and get to experience it with my daughter, we would build memories together. It was a full four months off so I could train for it and get in shape. All of which turned out to be true, except for that last one about the training.
Spring came very late to Albany, in fact we had a number of Spring snows, which made biking outside very difficult, if not impossible. I admit that I am a fair-weather bicyclist. I did up my walking/jogging routine. And when the weather finally permitted, I cleaned up my pretty red bike, Gary put air in the tires, and I took to the road. The longest ride I managed, though, was 14 miles. A paltry amount compared to the 40 the tour would require. But, I was determined and that would count for something.
As the date of the tour approached (it is not a race! all the promotional materials make a point of this, I think mostly for safety reasons), I found myself increasingly nervous. I had butterflies. Aside from the inadequate preparation, I was worried about a few things, in no particular order:
potholes – New York City streets and highways, especially in the Spring, are a disaster. I worried, with so many bikers, would I be able to avoid them?
the weather – Rain was forecast. While I don’t mind the rain generally, the idea of slick roads and obscured potholes (see above), was frightening.
bike malfunction – The tour materials suggest bringing a spare tube because flats are common (again, see the first bullet), and I didn’t get one. Also, I didn’t get my bike tuned up, which was also recommended. So, I was concerned that something would go wrong and I didn’t know how that would work out.
my 58 year-old body – I do exercise regularly, but I still manage to be quite overweight. In addition to the lack of preparation, I worried about how my various parts would handle such a long ride.
logistics – I read and re-read the online information about the tour, but I still worried about all the logistics, like getting to the start on time, getting back to the apartment, getting separated from Leah, etc.
disappointing Leah – I wanted this to be a fun experience for both of us, I didn’t want to fail or be a drag on her.
I think that about covers the sources of my anxiety. I was surprised by how nervous I was. Looking at the list of my concerns written out, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Anyway, I plowed ahead and did it anyway, and I am so glad I did. Here are my thoughts and observations on taking a 40 mile bike ride through potholed streets and highways with my daughter:
Leah is the best teammate ever! She is fun, encouraging, fierce and strong (in every sense). I could rely on her. She remained in good humor (with one brief exception I will get to later – which wasn’t directed at me, but at circumstances beyond our control). She took pleasure in the sights. She believed in me. Yay, Leah!
The weather was perfect. Cloudy and a little cool, it was awesome for biking. Maybe some sunshine would have made some of the dingier parts of the city look better, but cloud cover was wonderful. We learned later from Gary that there was rain in every direction, but the city was spared. We were in our own dry bubble.
The ride up Sixth Avenue from the the financial district to Central Park, and then into the park (in full bloom), was exhilarating. With no automobile or truck traffic, we had the wide avenue to ourselves (and thousands of fellow bicyclists). We passed through different neighborhoods and could appreciate the architecture, sculpture and people as we passed. Central Park was in all its glory with flowering trees and clumps of tulips and green grass.
Seeing Gary waving us on as we exited Central Park at 110th Street was a great surprise. Seeing Dan and Beth, in her ninth month (!), at the side of the FDR at 120th Street was encouraging and so very cool. It’s funny because Leah and I were passing 106th Street a few minutes later when I said, “You know we passed Beth’s school (where she teaches), but I didn’t note it or mention it. Oh well.” I was making a point of mentioning landmarks or places related to our family history. Beth told us later they were standing in front of her school! Obviously I so excited to see them, I didn’t notice anything else.
We heard only one lewd comment. We were riding up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard when a man on the sidewalk yelled out, “Oh, I wish my face was a bicycle seat!” Leah and I laughed about that for a couple of blocks, and periodically throughout the rest of the race.
Water is essential! Somehow we had neglected to bring a water bottle. Since this event was ‘eco-friendly’ the water stations offered no cups or containers. We used our hands the first time. When we got to Queens, I suggested we pull over and I ran into a bodega and bought a large bottle of water. The guy in the store took one look at me, and pointed down an aisle, “The water is over there.” What a relief! We refilled it as necessary.
The experience of riding with so many people was almost entirely positive. Some riders had blue tooth speakers set up with music blaring. That created camaraderie and gave us a boost. Plus there were real musicians along the way – we heard every type of music. Gospel, bluegrass, rock, jazz. There were also cheerleaders – we had no idea what team they represented, if any. It isn’t like the NYC Marathon where spectators line the route, but that was fine. At times there were bottlenecks, a particularly bad one exiting the FDR and approaching the Queensboro Bridge, where we had to dismount and walk for a while. Most people were courteous. We did see some accidents, but thankfully nothing too serious. The organizers of the tour did a good job – there was lots of support and people giving directions.
Riding on the FDR and BQE was an eerie experience. The BQE, in particular, was strange because there isn’t much in the way of scenery to appreciate, it is hard to gauge progress and the road is textured so it created a lot of vibration. My body, from head to toe, did not enjoy that. It also seemed to feature a lot of gradual uphills. Nothing dramatic, just enough to feel really shitty when you’ve already gone 28 miles. This was the most challenging part of the day for me. My legs were not happy and my spirit was sagging and I knew we had a demanding uphill to come (the Verrazano Bridge). We pulled over, I drank some water, took some bites of a power bar, and Leah gave me a pep talk. We resumed the trek.
I told Leah that I might have to walk some of the way on the Verrazano, my legs just may not carry me. I knew I would finish, but I didn’t know if I could ride all of that. Leah wanted to ride it – she was fresh as a daisy (she may not say that exactly, but she was in good shape). We made a plan to meet at the finish and agreed that she should do her thing. Later when we compared notes, I was so impressed with her. The climb up the bridge was tough. I was pleased with myself because I stayed on my bike. I thought I had reached the point where the downhill would begin, but alas, it wasn’t! There another stretch of uphill (at a slightly lesser grade, so it appeared from a distance that you had already crested the hill). What a disappointment! I got off my bike and walked the last part of the uphill. Leah had the same experience of expecting the end of the climb, but fierce woman that she is, she just pedaled harder.
We started at 8:45 a.m. and ended around 1:30 p.m.- a bit slower than we hoped, but we had no complaints.
We met after we got our medals at the finish line and walked our bikes through the festival area where there was music and concessions. For probably the first time in my life, a cold beer sounded very appealing. We wanted to get back so we didn’t partake, just followed the hordes of people to the exit. We re-mounted our bikes and rode to the Staten Island Ferry. The ride started out pleasant enough. But then it kept going and going. I got angrier and angrier. Where was that fucking ferry!?! I was muttering and cursing. I was not mentally prepared for the four mile ride to the ferry! This was truly the worst part, for me. For Leah, the next part was the worst. Waiting on line to get on the ferry. She was facing a four hour drive back to Boston and was eager to get back to the apartment, get changed, eat and get on the road. She handled her frustration well. It was probably close to an hour of waiting on line before we got on the ferry. I was never so happy to sit down!
Gary was waiting a short distance from the ferry landing with the car. We walked less than two blocks with our bikes. He was parked right next to a hot dog vendor, so clutch! I bought a soft pretzel and a Diet Coke and climbed into the back seat. Delicious! Leah and Gary secured the bikes to the car and, other than hitting some traffic in lower Manhattan, we got back to the apartment in reasonable time.
What a day! I was pleasantly surprised that I could still walk. My 58 year old body didn’t fail me. I took a hot shower. Leah and I debriefed a bit with Dan, Beth and Gary. I shared a long hug with Leah before she got on the road.
As I sit here writing this, I am not in agony – everything is a bit a sore, but certainly tolerable. I will carry great memories, and, as always, great appreciation for my family. Their encouragement and pride are a constant source of strength and joy.
I thought I would have a blog post ready for today, but I don’t. I was writing a more political post – though those don’t seem to be my most popular essays. But once I arrived on the ‘happy island’ (Aruba), I lost my motivation. I will just have to keep enjoying my time here (see below). I will be back next week. Have a great week!
We had just arrived from Albany – went directly to the beach!
Note: It took a little persuading, but Leah agreed to write a blog post! Here’s her take on our recent road trip. Thank you, Leah!
My mom’s is decisively the best memory for (auto)biographical details. I think I have a reasonable memory, but generally for numbers. For instance, on our recent road trip, my mom and I stayed in room 211 in Rapid City, SD, and 218 in Rochester, MN. 222 in South Bend, IN. I share that mostly to illustrate that if you want qualitative details, she’s your gal, not me. But, she’s asked me to provide some thoughts on our recent trip, and after enough reverse psychology (“I know you won’t write anything,” she said multiple times), I finally assented.
Though my mom and I technically had the same experiences during the road trip – we stopped at the same locations, ate at the same restaurants – it represented very different things. She was on a road trip, while I was closing one chapter of my life and heading into the great unknown of a new one. And in that sense, for me, the road trip began in September 2016. That was when I started looking seriously for jobs. It really got serious when I thought I was going to leave Seattle at the end of January, though I actually stayed, in limbo, until the end of March. At that point, I tetris-ed* my belongings into the car, and said my goodbyes. (*I’m using tetris as a verb here because I think using a word like “pack” would not do justice to the monumental effort it took to get everything into the car, with room for two passengers and my mom’s bags, too.)
The morning we left, it was rainy and grey. I said a last, highly emotional goodbye, and drove to pick up my mom from her hotel, trying to hold it together. Honestly, the most contentious moment of the trip probably happened within the first two minutes when my mom chirped “Bye Seattle!!” I quickly replied, “If you want me not to be sobbing while driving, then how about we not say any more goodbyes?” She agreed, and I actually pleasantly surprised myself – there was no sobbing for the rest of the trip. That alone could constitute a victory!
Our first day we made great time, stopping for a light lunch in Spokane, crossing into Montana, grabbing an iced tea at a recommended café in Missoula, and finally coming to rest in Butte. Rest was about all Butte was good for, best I could tell, and I was pleased to hightail it out of town early the next morning. That next day, Montana’s big sky greeted us as Springsteen sang us eastward. We crisscrossed mountains and valleys, relishing the meandering streams and rocky crags we passed. The burgers we had for lunch in Billings got top marks, and they literally fueled us as we headed slightly south. In Wyoming, I had never seen so much nothingness. Well, not nothingness, but no sign of humans, that’s for sure. Rolling hills with snow-capped mountains in the distance made for a pretty landscape, but it was so isolated. We were also highly amused by a weather front while in Wyoming, which is not something I ever thought I’d say. It was clearly raining a bit in front of us, but the scale of the land made us completely unable to identify where the rain was. We kept saying, “I think we’ll be in it when we crest this next hill” or “I think the rain is coming down on that ridge.” We were wrong so many times! Though we did ultimately hit the rain, it was amusingly disorienting to be so thrown off by the scale of the landscape and sky.
Ultimately, we ended that second day by winding our way through the Black Hills of South Dakota to visit Mount Rushmore. The Black Hills were unexpectedly stunning. While I was anticipating being wowed by Mount Rushmore (and I was), I did not realize that it was located in the midst of a Yosemite-eqsue landscape. Dark, granite spires with scattered evergreen trees shone in the glorious setting sunlight. It was a special time to be in the park as it was off-season and the end of the day, so we got to experience the monument with only a handful of other visitors. We spent the night in Rapid City, SD just outside the park, managing to avoid hitting the many, many deer we saw nibbling the grass on the side of the road. I attribute this successful avoidance of deer to my ongoing conversation with them: I just calmly and repeatedly told the deer, who definitely could not hear me, that I did not want to hit them and if they just stayed where they were we’d all be fine.
The next day – day 3 – we hit our first stretch of truly lousy weather. As we drove through the emptiest stretch of country I’ve ever seen, the rain, sky, land, and road spray all joined together in various shades of drab. It was like purgatory: everything was empty and sad, and you drove forever and never seemed to get anywhere. I swear when we hit the end of the rain around the time we crossed the Missouri River I couldn’t help but cheer. That day we saw the Corn Palace and the Jolly Green Giant, which were strange and welcome breaks from the driving, and ended the night with a delicious dinner and a restful night in Rochester, MN.
Day 4 I’d happily erase from my memory, aside from a delectable lunch in Madison, WI. Let’s just say that after hemming and hawing about how to best avoid traffic in the greater Chicago area, we went 70 miles out of our way to avoid said traffic, and ended up in a big ol’ traffic jam anyway. Plus rain. Plus truly boring scenery. Blerg. Getting to our hotel that night didn’t go exactly as planned, either. Instead of plugging in the address of our hotel, I managed to just plug in “South Bend.” When my GPS cheerily displayed “You have reached your destination!” we realized we were just at a random intersection at the exact center of South Bend. We had a good laugh about that. And ultimately, we were rewarded when we did get to the hotel because our room was incredibly swanky! It was entirely unexpected, but it had a gas fireplace, two bathrooms, and two king-sized beds. Needless to say, that was a highly welcome surprise after a rough day on the road.
Day 5 was a long but rewarding day. We initially planned to stay overnight in Buffalo, but we hit slightly better weather than expected, found a much better rest stop than expected, and with the Weather Master’s approval we decided to keep driving ‘til we finally made it home after a full 12 hours on the road. (To claify: I refer to my dad as the Weather Master.)
If you haven’t driven on I-90 through western New York to Albany, you might not know that the landscape changes around Utica. In truth, western New York is pretty boring to drive through, but about an hour outside of Albany you start to hit these beautiful hills and mountains. That stretch of the Thruway always reminds me of driving home from college. I never appreciated the Hudson Valley’s beauty when I lived in Albany, but that landscape always told me I was almost home.
In many ways, my road trip is still not over. I’m home, but I’m not home. In about a week, I will be headed to Boston, and two weeks after that I will start a new job. There are so many questions and possibilities for the future, and whatever comes next, I imagine that I will always be comforted and a little thrown off by coming home.
Not everyone gets to drive cross-country with their daughter. I’ve gotten to do it twice! Leah went to graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle. She began the program in September 2011. She drove the first part of that trip from Albany by herself, visiting friends along the way. I joined her in Minneapolis. The remaining journey went fine, but it was a tense time for Leah and the stress took its toll on us. While I have some fond memories, I’m not sure that either one of us would describe it as an enjoyable venture.
Now that she was done with her program and earned her PhD (I proudly think of her as Dr. Leah), we had a chance to do it again. After considering a number of options, from renting a U-Haul to hiring movers and flying, Leah decided to ship much of her stuff, sell or give away other things and pack up her Honda Civic with the rest and drive. Casting caution to the wind, I offered to share the driving and she welcomed the company. I flew out to Seattle.
I like road trips. Always have. Some people get antsy in the car. I don’t. Between music and scenery, I’m usually good. The only issue for me, as I get older, is that getting out of the car brings an unpleasant reality: after a couple of hours of sitting in a car my hips and lower back scream in protest when I climb out. But even with that, I still enjoy the trip.
I arrived in Seattle late on Saturday evening. We started out at 8:15 a.m. on Sunday in a light rain. Our arsenal for the trip included our smart phones, podcasts, audiobooks, music, a map of America, a triptik from AAA, a charger that could accommodate two USB connections (keeping phones charged was key!), patience and a sense of humor. Oh, some cash and credit cards helped, too.
Success in planning a cross-country trip depends on managing expectations and making sure your travel companion is on the same page. Leah and I agreed to take a middle ground where we would try to be efficient (cover a long distance each day) while taking a bit of time to enjoy ourselves. Not surprisingly, enjoying ourselves usually meant finding good food for lunch and dinner. We used Yelp and/or Google to find a good lunch spot in a town off the road. No McDonalds or Burger King at a rest area.
With the wonders of the World Wide Web available to us (cell service was pretty consistent), we found quirky cafes and burger joints. We had some excellent lunches. Only once did the apps fail us. The #2 rated place in Butte, Montana, for dinner, which was walking distance from our hotel, was a disappointment. The fact that it was a Mexican restaurant in a small casino should’ve been a clue, but we ignored that. Afterwards we agreed that Taco Bell probably would’ve been better.
That first night on the road in Butte, before turning in, we stopped at a Walgreens so I could pick up breathe-right strips. I don’t want to believe I snore, but Leah tells me otherwise and we were sharing a hotel room. Leah has trouble falling asleep under the best of circumstances, all we needed was for her to be kept awake by my snoring. I decided discretion was the better part of valor, swallowed my pride, and bought the strips. Why do we view snoring as a personal failing? Just wondering.
Other than the Three Amigos (yes, that was the name of the Mexican restaurant in Butte), we did quite well with our meals. If you’re ever in Billings, Montana, check out Burger Dive. It was a truly excellent, award winning burger (see picture below) and the restaurant itself was comfortable and decked out with funky, odd pieces, like a reclaimed Blockbuster video store sign. The service was friendly, too. Look at me becoming a restaurant critic! Leah and I returned to the road fortified and happy.
Proof that it was an award winning burger
Lest you think the only places we saw were the inside of restaurants, we did make a couple of other kinds of stops. Based on a recommendation from the woman at AAA we stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. This is one of those ‘only in America’ kinds of places (see pictures below). We also had a fine lunch at Teresa’s Café (I would never forget a meal!).
The Corn Palace features ‘mosaics’ made of corn kernels. Each year is a new theme – 2016-17 is rock-n-roll.
We stopped at another oddity (again based on a suggestion from AAA) in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Just off I-90 there is a 55-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant. Blue Earth is the home of the brand and the humongous green statue is an homage to the partnership between the town and the company. It was good to get out and stretch our legs, take some fun photos, and hop back in the car. There is a museum, but it was closed; we were not heartbroken.
The only ‘real’ tourist destination we visited was Mount Rushmore. I had been there 44 years ago on a trip with my parents. While the huge sculpture of our presidents carved into the mountainside has not changed, the area surrounding it has. Now there is a four level parking garage, a huge plaza, a walkway lined with each state’s flag, an amphitheater, and café. We arrived just before sunset on Monday, March 27th – hardly a peak time for tourists. Almost everything was closed. The gift shop was still open – fortunately for me since I collect magnets from places I visit. Other than a few hearty souls, we had the place to ourselves. It turned out to be a beautiful time to be there. The setting sun, the tall pines and Black Hills against the baby blue sky were lovely. The faces of the presidents are illuminated at night and we saw the lights come on and then we got back in the car and headed to our hotel a few miles away in Rapid City. Exiting Mount Rushmore we drove through a faux old western town. It was a tourist attraction made of up shops and motels. Off-season, empty and shuttered, it looked like a movie set.
The western part of the United States is such a contrast to the east. The landscape in the west ranges from long stretches of amber fields of grain where the only signs of life are cattle, to other stretches that feature granite, snow-capped mountains that look like painted backdrops. Eastern Washington state and central Minnesota had vast areas of plains dotted with wind farms. Leah and I agreed that the sculptural white windmills were whimsical and graceful – they weren’t a blight on the scenery. I wondered why South Dakota and Wyoming didn’t have them, too. The common denominator in those western states was the wide-open space.
photo by Leah
Borrowing from a Jackson Browne lyric, the road and the sky collide on long segments of I-90. At one point it all became indistinguishable. In South Dakota the slate gray skies, pouring rain and copious amounts of road spray made for a bleak scene. Passing an 18-wheeler under those conditions was a white-knuckle experience. We were quite lucky that didn’t happen much during our five days on the road.
As we moved east the landscape became increasingly congested. While there was farmland in every state we drove through, we simply didn’t see the awe-inspiring views in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. As we drove through Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming we couldn’t help but break out in song – The Sound Of Music, America the Beautiful, Home on the Range and Country Roads spontaneously burst forth. The bad weather, increased truck traffic and flat, uninteresting landscape cut down on our spontaneous singing once we arrived in the Midwest. We were left with On the Road Again each time we returned to the car.
With all those hours to pass we listened to a 7-part podcast called S-Town (or Shit Town). This was a fascinating deep dive into a Southern town with a focus on a particularly eccentric individual. The series wasn’t entirely satisfying in that it was advertised as a murder mystery, but didn’t exactly fulfill its promise. However, it was still well worth listening to as a character study.
Aside from the many hours of distraction, the podcasts provided lots of fuel for discussion for Leah and I.
Our fourth night on the road found us in South Bend, Indiana. That day had been the most stressful, with almost constant rain and Chicago-area traffic. We were so relieved to get off the road, we just ordered pizza to the room and called it a night.
We studied the maps and the weather forecasts. Our plan had been to ease up and complete the last part of the trip in two days by stopping in Buffalo the following night. We considered taking the northern route from South Bend and crossing Michigan and part of Ontario, instead of continuing on I-90. The weather forecast was bleak so we decided to stick with what we knew. Leah went to college in Ohio so the trip from Cleveland was well known to us.
The uninspiring portion of our trip.
The Ohio Turnpike gets the award for the best service areas. At this point in the trip, with the weather so miserable, we weren’t feeling adventurous. We opted for convenience and in Ohio the food choices on the turnpike were much better than what one typically finds. We had lunch at Panera’s at the Vermillion stop. We warmed up with some chicken noodle soup and then got back on the road.
We crossed the New York State line at about 3:00 in the afternoon. I was behind the wheel. “Maybe we should just go the distance and get home. We have a lot of daylight left and the weather may be worse tomorrow,” I suggested. We knew that the next day’s forecast called for a wintry mix. Leah’s eyes lit up, she liked that idea. We got a second wind. I drove through some more rain and we didn’t stop until we got to a service area outside Syracuse (our first Burger King of the trip). Leah took over the driving. I played DJ and we powered through the rest of the way listening to Springsteen and Billy Joel.
At 8:30 pm, tired but happy, we greeted Gary and our two cats, Roger and Raffa. This had been a far better trip than the one we took almost six years before. Leah and I chatted easily, sang, enjoyed listening to S-Town and took in a lot of America. I will treasure my memories.
Gary had a break for the Christmas holiday during his second year of medical school and I had off from work at the City of Pittsburgh Finance Department, so we planned a trip to Buffalo. Where else would one go during Christmas week?
Why Buffalo? In a remarkable turn of events, my two brothers married two sisters who were from Hamburg, a suburb of Buffalo. Consequently, though my brothers and their wives lived in New Jersey and Albany respectively, they frequently spent the holidays with their mutual in-laws. In addition, my closest friend, Merle, was getting her PhD in psychology at the University of Buffalo. So we decided to make the trip for the long weekend. It promised to be fun, especially since I would also get to see my totally adorable almost two year old nephew.
We had a car – barely. I had purchased my uncle’s 1972 Toyota Celica for $100. It had a manual transmission. It rarely started when I turned the key in the ignition. Fortunately Pittsburgh is quite hilly so we would most often push the car to the nearest hill, get it rolling and pop it into gear. Renting a car seemed much more sensible than risking the trip with the Celica, so we did.
December 24 was a cold, partly sunny day in Pittsburgh in 1983. We picked up the rental and started north on route 79. We were enjoying the ride, listening to music and munching on some snacks. About 90 miles out of Pittsburgh some snow started to fall – we were approaching Meadville. We weren’t too concerned and continued on our way.
The snow grew heavier and heavier as we proceeded north. This was the definition of lake effect snow. By the time we got to the turnoff for route 90 East, just outside of Erie, we were in whiteout conditions. I opened my window and leaned my head out and tried to help Gary to stay on the road. We literally could barely see a foot in front of us.
We saw a sign for an upcoming exit and decided we had to get off the road. At the end of the ramp was a Holiday Inn, we pulled into its parking lot and debated what to do. It was still barely past noon. We listened to the weather forecast on the radio. They were reporting blizzard conditions in Erie. No kidding!!! It didn’t sound promising.
Other cars were following us off the road and into the parking lot and we realized that if we didn’t register soon, we might not get a room. Gary parked, we took our suitcases and, as it turned out, got the last room available.
We settled in, turned on the tv, read the newspaper that we brought from Pittsburgh and relaxed. We called Merle and then we called my brothers’ in-laws. While conditions weren’t quite as bad in Buffalo, the New York State Thruway was closed. We agreed that we would wait and see if we could continue the trip the next morning. Meanwhile conditions worsened outside. The wind picked up and the temperature plummeted.
We thought we would venture out for dinner, since there was a restaurant just down the road. We bundled up and left our room to find cots in the hallway and in the conference room near by. We were quite lucky that we got that room. I felt bad for the families that were celebrating their Christmas on cots in the hallway.
We made our way to the car with difficulty, the wind had caused impressive snow drifts. Looking at the accumulated snow, it was still snowing hard, the wind was howling, we realized we weren’t going anywhere. In the short time that we had been outside, my feet were nearly frozen. We hurried back into the Holiday Inn.
The staff set up tomato soup and cheese sandwiches for everyone. That was dinner and we were grateful for it.
We went back to our room and went to sleep.
The next day, Christmas day, was brilliantly sunny. We had gotten over two feet of snow, the wind was still blowing and the temperature, without windchill, was barely above zero. We went out to clear the car off and see if we could go get some breakfast. The car wouldn’t start! I called AAA. It was going to be a while until they could get to the car. We went back to the room.
The day before we had exhausted most of the resources we had with us to entertain ourselves. We got pretty creative (perhaps not the way some people would get creative). Using the chart in the newspaper, we quizzed each other on the high and low temperatures in cities across the United States and world. It was amazing how long we amused ourselves with that! Our room had sliding glass doors that had thick frost on them and we played hangman in the ice. The window would refrost fast so we were able to play multiple rounds!
Now it was Christmas day and since the car wouldn’t start, we flipped through the channels on the television. The options were quite limited. In that day and age, I don’t think the motel had cable, there were only three stations available in a place like Erie. The Yule log was on one channel. Another was off the air for the holiday. The last one featured the local middle school choir singing Christmas carols. While that was on, we saw a commercial advertising an NCAA basketball game coming up at noon. We couldn’t believe our luck, we love college basketball! At least we’d have something to watch for a couple hours.
The appointed time came and the local station announced that they were going to replay the middle school Christmas concert! Gary and I were beside ourselves. I pulled out the telephone book and found the number for the tv station. Gary called and surprisingly someone answered. Gary asked why they were replaying the concert when the network was broadcasting a basketball game. The person on the phone was none too pleased to be bothered and explained, as if Gary was an idiot, that it was Christmas and this is what people would want to watch. Gary responded, “It’s Christmas in Pittsburgh, too, but they’re getting to watch basketball! Why can’t we?!!” Not surprisingly, the guy from the station wasn’t moved by Gary’s argument. Gary slammed the phone down in frustration.
By the time the car got jumped, it was dinner time, too late to leave. We realized that it didn’t make sense to continue on to Buffalo. We decided we would stay another night in the Holiday Inn and go back to Pittsburgh the next morning. Fortunately, we were able to drive to the Ground Round for dinner! We enjoyed a cocktail and took our time eating. At least we were out of the hotel!
To our great relief, the next morning the car started. It was still brutally cold. We got back on route 79 and headed south. We were disappointed in how the weekend turned out, to say the least. Not to mention the money we spent for our trouble. Just to put a cherry on top, a bird dive bombed into the middle of the front windshield as we were driving. I don’t know why the suicidal bird picked our car, but now it was splattered across the windshield. Gary tried using the wipers, but the fluid was frozen and the wipers just smeared the bird’s remains. I had a brilliant idea. I had a cup of diet soda that I thought I could rinse the feathers and blood off. I leaned out the window and poured it on the mess. It froze instantly! Now the bird remains were coated with diet coke – at least if I had been drinking 7up it wouldn’t have looked so awful. We pulled over to clean it enough to see, and then continued on our way, shaking our heads in disbelief.
We made it back to Pittsburgh without further incident. We returned the car and said nothing to the agent about the mess on the window. As we walked away we started laughing. The whole weekend had been so preposterous. We laughed so hard there were tears rolling down our cheeks. At least we survived and had a story to tell.