Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Day Seven - Ohio to the Berkshires

Day Seven – Toledo, OH to Canaan, NY
August 30, 2005

Another day of outrunning Katrina – or what’s left of her. Drove about 630 miles today and I’m feeling pretty well whupped. But I’ve made it to within a mile of the Massachusetts border, so I know the trip is nearly over. Well, at least this leg of it.

We’ve been in fog and low overcast all day, with a few showers around Cleveland and a torrential tropical downpour between Syracuse and Utica. The area we drove through today is getting drenched tonight, though, with heavy rain and wind from the storm. Luckily, most of the heavy rain seems to be west of our present location, so we may miss the brunt of it.

Even though it’s not raining, it’s incredibly humid. I grew up with humidity, but I’ve acclimated to the dry climate of Spokane so I’m really noticing it.

We’re at the edge of the Berkshire Hills, one of my favorite areas in New England. This is a cultural resort destination, with Tanglewood (summer home of the Boston Symphony), the Jacob’s Pillow dance theater, Williamstown Summer Theater, and lots of museums and other attractions. I love the scenery here; the soft, enveloping hills stay lush and green all summer, and the fall colors are glorious. When I first visited this area, I thought the mountains were huge and imposing. Now they look small compared to the mountains of the west, but I still love the intimate nature of this landscape. These close, rounded hills hold many memories for me.

The one downside to being in a tourist-y area is the cost of lodging, especially in the summer. For a basic room with few amenities (and a bathroom so small you have to enter it sideways), we’re paying $75 plus tax – and that’s with a senior discount. (Mom does come in handy.) On the other hand, the room does meet minimum requirements: a bed, a bath, and a lock on the door. And it’s clean. There some renovation going on at the other end of the motel building; it looks like this part has been renovated already, but the doors are all out of plumb and need lots of effort to open or close.

Tomorrow, I plan to poke around Berkshire County for a time, maybe find someplace to have breakfast and then visit museums – a good rainy day thing to do. Once I’m done poking, it’s three hours or less to the Boston area, depending on the weather and the traffic. I’ll stop and say hello to cousins Chris and Dawn in North Andover, then drive up to cousin Bev’s in Derry, New Hampshire, where we’ll stay for the first couple of nights at least.

I’m out of Internet contact again tonight, but that’s okay – I’d really rather sleep. ☺ Today, I noticed that the rest stops along the Ohio Turnpike and the New York Thruway are wireless hot spots. Since I was trying to stay ahead of the storm, I didn’t stop – but I’ll file that information away for the return trip.

Highway rest stops reveal a lot about the culture and expectations of a place, I think. In the east, especially along the toll roads (yet another cultural indicator), the rest stops are like small shopping malls – a fully enclosed food court with multiple fast food restaurants, plus a gift shop, an arcade, a bank of restrooms, and rows of gas pumps outside. Now, they’re even wireless hot spots, as noted above – everything for the comfort and convenience of the traveler. West of Chicago, the rest stops gradually become more utilitarian – although South Dakota has great rest stops, filled with tourist information and staffed with friendly local ladies who are happy to help. In Montana, the rest stops are bare-bones basic – a rustic toilet with cold running water, if you’re lucky (a porta-potty, if you’re not). There are no frills. No molly coddling on these highways. After all, that’s not why you’re in Montana, is it? You need the rest stop to take care of basic needs so you can move on to other more important things. These are just observations, mind you, but I’m working on a whole theory of the cultural implications of highway rest stops …

Oh, yeah, one more thing about Katrina … I heard a report on NPR today that oil market analysts expect the price of gasoline to rise quickly in the wake of the storm and the damage to oil pumping and refining facilities along the Gulf coast. With the price of a barrel of oil topping $70 this morning, they’re talking increases of 10 to 30 cents per gallon. As if $2.70 or so per gallon were not enough of a budget breaker for this trip. On my last road trip six years ago, gasoline ran about $1.25.

Ah, well. Perhaps we’re in the sunset age of the Great American Road Trip. James Howard Kunstler seems to think so (new book, The Long Emergency), and last week the New York Times had a big piece echoing his dire predictions. I don’t know, though. I think Americans will find a way to be mobile, even without easy access to cheap oil. It’s too much a part of who we are. More on this later when I’m less tired.

Day Six - The Chicago Gauntlet

Day … Six? Is that right? Lacrosse, WI to Toledo, OH
August 29, 2005

A long day of driving today has brought us into the Eastern Time Zone. The day began with fog in Lacrosse and ended in semi-darkness with thundershowers on the horizon near Toledo. And in between lay sunshine, warm temperatures, more humidity than I’ve felt in six years – and Chicago.

Driving the I-90 corridor between Spokane and the Boston area, the only place with the potential for bad traffic is Chicago. And potential became reality today – as it has nearly every time I’ve driven through the Chicago area.

Let me back up for a minute. I stopped in Madison at the AAA office (another little navigational adventure) to get the latest information on road construction and recommended routing through (or around) Chicago. The road construction zones are the same as they were six years ago – so at least the expected obstacles were familiar. ☺

The early part of the route was smooth – except for the usual array of urban idiots behind the wheel and the annoying niggling tolls every 10 or 15 miles. I safely navigated from I-90 to I-290 near O’Hare Airport, beginning my loop around the city. I saw an early sign for I-294, the next link in the loop, and then suddenly traffic came to a virtual standstill. We inched forward in the right-hand lane while traffic flowed past slowly on the left. We traveled about a half-mile in a half-hour. When I came to the I-294 onramp at last, I found a police cruiser blocking the entrance and evidence of a major accident on the ramp. I kept going on I-290, my only choice.

So, suddenly I’m on an unexpected detour in an unfamiliar city, surrounded by four lanes of traffic, and headed straight for downtown Chicago. A brief slowdown allowed me a quick look at the map. The good news: I-290 would take me back to I-90 eastbound. The bad news: I would reach I-90 right in the heart of downtown Chicago.

But you know what? The route through downtown worked out just fine. There were slow spots, sure, but nothing approaching the frustration of sitting nearly still for a half-hour. It turned out to be the smoothest run through Chicagoland since the time I did it at 7:30 on Sunday morning. I crossed the border into Indiana, caught a quick glimpse of Lake Michigan over the factories and power plants of Hammond and Gary, and drove for 50 more miles before finally stopping at a rest area to take a deep breath.

So tonight I’m settled in at the Econo Lodge in Maumee, Ohio, just outside of Toledo. Good basic accommodations, but no Internet. (Well, there’s a data port on the phone, but I still don’t have the local access number puzzle worked out. And besides, it’s a good excuse to take a break.) I’ll post this at my next connection site, wherever that is.

Tomorrow, we should make it almost to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts – someplace in eastern upstate New York, I’d guess. We’re now trying to outrun Katrina to New England, but she’ll probably catch up with us on Wednesday. She was a nasty girl today along the Gulf coast, but she should be much calmer by the time she gets north. I’m determined to enjoy some time in the Berkshires despite whatever rain and wind we get.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Chamberlain, SD - Missouri River overlook

Sunday began on the banks of the Missouri River in Chamberlain SD and concluded along the Mississippi at LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

Day Five - from the Missouri to the Mississippi

Day Five – Chamberlain, SD to La Crosse, Wisconsin
August 28, 2005

Tonight, I write from the Hampton Inn in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where I have wireless in-room Internet yet again. I’ve found a great community radio station playing jazz and I’m sitting here in bed typing and listening. I feel quite hip, doncha know.

The themes today were: corn, cows, and lots of sky. That’s the story of eastern South Dakota and most of southern Minnesota. And we bracketed our day with major rivers, from the Missouri in the morning to the Mississippi tonight. Almost as soon as we began this morning, I stopped at the rest area just east of Chamberlain that sits high on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, where I fixed a breakfast of apple and peanut butter to eat on the road. Had a brief moment of panic, though: Mom tootled off to the restroom while I fixed my food, and when I followed a few minutes later, I didn’t find her in the rather vast ladies’ room. I came back out and walked back across the even more vast parking lot to the car, but she wasn’t there. So, I turned around and went back inside where I found her calmly washing her hands. She says she was there all along …

In Worthington, Minnesota, I bought gasoline then drove a few blocks to the downtown area, away from the interstate. I searched in vain for a little café where we could grab a bite and maybe catch a taste of small town flavor, but on Sunday the whole downtown was tightly shuttered. So I turned around and stopped at Subway instead. Alas.

We had another near catastrophe of the bathroom variety further down the road, but it was happily averted thanks to the fortuitous location of a rest area.

I took a little walk around the rest area while waiting and noticed a touch of humidity in the air. As we approached the bluffs of the Mississippi late this afternoon, I noted a distinct change in the vegetation – the world is looking much more green and lush.

After five stops, the motel rooms look more and more alike. We’re getting into something of a routine, although I have to keep an eye on Mom’s stuff – she tucks things into pockets and odd spots and then can’t find them later. I’m learning to do a quick visual scan of her corner because it can save trouble later on.

Tomorrow, we’ll pass the Chicago area and likely enter the Eastern Time Zone. Chicago is the one place along the entire route where we’ll encounter traffic, so I’m debating whether to find some kind of bypass. Unfortunately, every one I’ve tried before still landed me in traffic. So that’s tonight’s cliffhanger – which route will Ann take to get around Chicago? Tune in tomorrow and find out …

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Day Four - Gillette to Chamberlain, SD

Day Four – Gillette to Chamberlain via the Black Hills and the Badlands
August 27, 2005

I’m too tired to think straight right now. But I’ve got free wireless Internet in the motel room again tonight – yippee! I’ve spent the last two hours figuring out how to post photos to the blog and then uploading more photos to Flickr. There were just enough details involved that my wee tired brain struggled to get everything lined up. However, after several tries, we have photos! Now that I’ve got the process down, I should be better at keeping the photos and the text somewhat together in time – assuming I have an Internet connection, of course.

Today, we played tourist for a chunk of time … After stopping for coffee at Common Grounds in Spearfish, we took the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway loop from Spearfish to Cheyenne Corner, through the old mining towns of Lead and Deadwood and back to I-90 at Sturgis. I didn’t stop in Deadwood today – too many other people. The town is a real tourist draw now, with casinos throughout the downtown district, within buildings that maintain their historic facades. But they’re just facades – except for the few that actually used to be gambling halls, back in the day. The town is thriving, and there’s certainly plenty of money changing hands, but I have to wonder what’s happened to the town’s soul? Are there any vestiges of the old Deadwood still left? Of course, it gained fame as a wild place where miners and other gamblers held court, so who knows – maybe this is just what it needs to be.

Enough pontificating – back on the road!

Next stop, Badlands National Park. Bighorn sheep greeted us at the entrance – we had to stay in the car but we got to photograph them. The loop road through the Badlands is only about 32 miles long and it’s well worth the extra time to see the amazing colors and structures of the rocks there. And to listen to the quiet. Most people drive into the turnouts, leave the motor running, jump out of the car to take a few quick snapshots, then get back in the car and drive away. Even a marginally patient person can outwait them and be rewarded with a deep enveloping silence. Until the next car pulls in, like the two young women in a conversion van who pulled into the Yellow Mounds turnout while I was basking in the peace. The passenger opened her door and jumped out, looked around, said, “Huh, it’s just a hill. I liked the last one better,” then climbed back in the van. And they drove away. And I was still there enjoying the view and the sun and the silence.

We Americans are an interesting bunch. We love to experience nature up close and personal – through the windshields of our climate-controlled vehicles while listening to music of our own choosing. At one point, I rolled the windows down and turned the radio off, just to have an experience that was less mediated. But I was still in my own little metal capsule, and my experience had been carefully designed and maintained by – somebody, at some time in the park’s history.

Oops, I seem to be pontificating again. Time for bed – got a lot of driving to do tomorrow

Judith Gap, between Great Falls and Billings

Friday, 8/26/05 ... and after you get your sandwich and shake at the Judith Gap Mercantile, you can sit 'round back at the picnic table and enjoy the quiet ...

Clouds on the Garden Wall


Clouds on the Garden Wall
Originally uploaded by Ann Colford.
Thursday, 8/25/05 ... The Going-to-the-Sun road should be renamed Going-to-the-Clouds ...

Ann & Helen hit the road


Ann & Helen hit the road
Originally uploaded by Ann Colford.
Wednesday, 8/24/05 ... A journey of 3,000 miles begins with a single hand wave ...

Day Three - Great Falls to Gillette

Day Three – evening
August 26, 2005

The route from Great Falls: US 87 east to highway 191, then south to Harlowton, then east on highway 3 to Billings; then I-90 east all the way to Gillette, Wyoming.

Gillette is booming, thanks to the current, um, enthusiasm for oil and gas exploration and drilling. Lots of traffic, lots of trucks, lots of motels and restaurants for all those following the modern western boom.

Between Great Falls and Billings, we stumbled upon one of those great road trip finds – the Judith Gap Mercantile, in Judith Gap, Montana. (On highway 191 about 17 miles north of Harlowton, for those keeping score.) It’s a small-town grocery with a little snack bar that serves ice cream and milk shakes (the old-fashioned kind, done up in a big metal cup) and sandwiches. The sandwich came in a little fold-top plastic bag and it was cut in half diagonally, like a homemade picnic lunch. Mom had a small vanilla milk shake to go with it.

Judith Gap is in the middle of Montana’s wheat-growing region. We passed many combines cutting grain and plenty of grain trucks at local elevators.

South of Billings, we stopped at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, on the Crow Indian Reservation. The name was changed back in 1993, I think – it used to be the Custer Battlefield – and it now reflects the complicated history a bit better. A park ranger described how Indians from two tribes, including the Crow, fought with the US Cavalry against their historic enemies who they saw as invaders in their land. There’s a new memorial to the Indians who died there, a cooperative effort among the five tribes who took part in the battle on both sides.

I’ve been on the road long enough now that I’m starting to lose track of what day it is. Late today, I realized that for most folks it’s the start of the weekend. Tomorrow, I plan to get off the interstate and do some touring through the Black Hills region in South Dakota. I want to drive the Spearfish Canyon Scenic – Highway? Byway? – whatever it’s called and I may stop at both Mount Rushmore and the nearby memorial to Crazy Horse, depending on how many other people have the same idea. ☺

Friday, August 26, 2005

Day Three - Morning in Great Falls

Day Three – morning
August 26, 2005

It’s about 9:45 a.m. as I write this, and I’m sitting in a lovely coffee shop in Great Falls. Morning Light Coffee Roasters smells divine (coffee roasting right here) and it’s an Internet hot spot besides. A free Internet hot spot. Wahoo! I can finally post to my blog and check my email! Marty recommended that I check this place out – thanks, Marty!

Stayed at the Ponderosa Inn in beautiful downtown Great Falls overnight. They advertise free high speed Internet in some rooms, but due to an ownership change and recent remodeling, all that’s available are dial-up lines. And we know how well that worked out the first night. So, we got ready early today and have been sitting here in the café for an hour. Mom’s peacefully working one of her word puzzles as I sit here making strange noises at my computer.

Today, I’ll be driving south and east from Great Falls to connect with I-90 at either Big Timber or Billings (gotta check the map before I leave). I hope to get to Buffalo, Wyoming, at least – or closer to the South Dakota border if I can. We’ll see how the day unfolds. Looks like we’ve got good traveling weather, sunny and in the 80s.

Day Two - Glacier Park to Great Falls

Day Two
August 25, 2005

Quick notes … Kalispell: nice historic downtown, more strip mall sprawl outside of town; Montana Coffee Traders in Columbia Falls, Internet hot spot, good coffee and baked goodies, full of fit young people wearing fleece and Gore-Tex. Glacier Park: a few cars at the gate, but not bad, got in for free with Mom’s Golden Age Passport; road construction in two places but the wait was short at the first and nonexistent at the second; weather was lovely, scenery sublime. The visual of the day was watching the clouds wafting up from below us and drifting across the road. The smell of the day was the scent of cedar on the west side of the park – heavenly. A few annoying people on the road, but not bad. The parking lot at Logan Pass was chock full so we didn’t stop.

Met Marty and Chad at the Curly Bear Café in St. Mary (part of the Resort at Glacier) at the east end of Glacier Park then had lunch at Johnson’s Café just up the road. From there, drove south on 89 about 14 miles to Star School Road, across the backcountry of the Blackfeet Reservation to Browning, then east on Route 2 to the Camp Disappointment monument; backtracked to 89 south and stayed on that all the way to I-15 just north of Great Falls; stopped for the night in Great Falls.

Interesting bits in Browning and the small village of Star School: lots of prefab houses, clearly part of a government housing plan. Marty says people tore out lots of stuff from the homes at Star School and would build open fires inside, using the houses like traditional shelters (according to his grandmother, who’s a member of the Blackfeet nation). In Browning, the prefab houses are set on cul-de-sacs, like any suburban development, but the lawns don’t look like suburban lawns and the paint is not what one would see in a suburban neighborhood. It’s like the physical structures of one culture have been overlaid with the values of another. Might be more accurate to say that the physical structures of one culture have been imposed upon another, but then the receiving culture adapted those structures according to their own needs and desires.

Too tired to think now. More tomorrow.

Departure and Day One

Day One
August 24, 2005

The route:
I-90 east from Spokane to St. Regis, Montana
Highway 135 north to Highway 200 west to Perma
Highway 382 north to Highway 28 east to Elmo, on Flathead Lake
US 93 north to Kalispell

Well, we’re underway. This morning I wondered if it would happen, but here we are in a cozy Motel 6 room in Kalispell. So far, the trip has been flawless – all 230 miles of it. Except that I haven’t been able to get the in-room dial-up connection to the Internet to work; that’s a bummer. I’m too tired to mess with it tonight, and I’ll aim for a better connection point tomorrow.

I was up until nearly one in the morning last night, completing my packing and helping Mom finish hers. I knew then that we wouldn’t hit my target departure time of 9 a.m., but I held out hope for 10. We actually drove away around 11:15, but considering everything, that’s not bad.

At about 9:15, as I was packing the cooler in the kitchen and visiting with Catherine, who had come to take our official departure photo, Mom called out to me from the bathroom. I rounded the corner to find a half-inch of water covering the bathroom floor and threatening the hall carpet. I won’t go into detail, but quick work with a plunger stemmed the rising tide. I grabbed all the towels I could find to sop up the mess, and then calmly returned to the kitchen – after washing my hands thoroughly. Kind Catherine volunteered to launder the towels later. I slowly hauled stuff out to the car and strategized where to put everything as Mom made another trip to the bathroom, and then another. I allowed myself a tiny congratulatory moment for the wisdom of traveling on our own schedule and then resumed packing.

(Let me just note for the record that I don’t enjoy writing about Mom’s bathroom habits, but sadly they are central to the narrative arc of my life right now. Welcome to my reality.)

But the delay was fortuitous; around 10:30, well after my hoped-for departure time, I got a phone call from my dear friend Marty Demarest, who I’d been trying to connect with. I’ll be driving not far from his Montana home, so we made plans to meet tomorrow for lunch.

After giving the sleeping kitties a quick scratch behind the ears – God, I’m going to miss them – we were off. And besides that, we left. ☺ What a mundane thing, to pull away from the curb in front of the house and drive away. How absolutely ordinary – except, of course, for the designated photographer to capture our wave good-bye.


I stopped in Wallace, Idaho, for a quick lunch at the 1313 Club in the heart of the downtown historic district. Mike and L.V. Montgomery run the place, and I met them back in February when I visited Wallace for a story in my Crossroads series. The place buzzed with activity, but I managed to have a quick conversation with Mike as he dashed from table to table.

Originally, I planned to take I-90 all the way to US 93 in Missoula and head north from there, because my friend Paul told me I had to travel on US 93 north to catch the great scenery. But the kind women staffing the visitor center in St. Regis told me about lots of road construction on US 93 and advised taking an alternate route. I don’t know what I missed on US 93 between Missoula and Elmo, but I can tell you that we saw plenty of lovely vistas along our route.

The visual highlight of the day came as we rode north on US 93 along the western shore of Flathead Lake, toward Kalispell. A few of the predicted “scattered showers” scattered themselves right over us, but the rain was light. Sunlight filtered through, creating rainbow after rainbow that arced high over the roadway, from the golden rolling hills on the left to the steel-blue lake on our right. And we drove under these prism arches, first one and then another, and another. Each rainbow felt like a grand entry – to beauty, to wonder, and to the great unfolding journey.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Last Minute

Tuesday 8/23
It’s 9:30 pm as I write this … My plan is to leave in about 12 hours. Still have to finish packing and organizing, but all of the external errands are done, and whatever isn’t done doesn’t matter.

I just got back home from a gathering of my soup group friends. We drank wine and ate cheesecake and then we all gathered outside around Shonna’s car while Catherine and Kathy read a special blessing for vehicles – and those who ride in them. We laughed ourselves silly – and by this time in the preparations, I really needed a good laugh. This is what I love about this group of friends: we’re there for each other, we find the fun in everything, and yet the affection and the good wishes are all real and sincere.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Countdown

Monday 8/15
Already, we’ve had some pre-trip drama. Last Monday, as I scrambled to write three Day-in-the-Life vignettes and a play review, Mom passed out in the bathroom and fell. Fortunately, she suffered no serious injuries from her fall, just bumps and bruises and a nasty egg on the back of her head. But the doctors are still trying to figure out why she passed out in the first place. So in the midst of wrapping up last minute deadlines and travel planning, we’re squeezing in several visits to Rockwood Clinic and the Heart Institute. Mom seems unconcerned about the tests and what they may turn up; her biggest complaint is back pain from the fall. But she’s still looking forward to the trip.

Tuesday 8/16
One of my biggest headaches is planning for cat care while we’re gone. I can’t afford to hire a professional pet sitter for the duration of the trip, and there’s no one who can take on the entire responsibility of pet care for four weeks. So, I’m cobbling together a network of neighbors and friends who can check in on the kitties. I’ll buy a self-feeder and water dispenser, just in case they have to be left for a day or two without a visit. But I still feel guilty about leaving them, and I worry … I worry that something will happen to them, I worry that my friends will think it’s a burden to have to check in on them for such a long period of time, I worry there will be a mix-up and no one will come see them for a week, and I worry about how the cats will cope while I’m gone. I know they’ll be pissed when I get back – that’s a given.

Wednesday 8/17
One week away from departure and finally last night I had a chance to sit down with the maps to plan out a couple of options for an eastbound route. I’m thinking that I’ll generally follow the I-90 corridor the whole way, but with a few diversions in Montana and South Dakota – plus a visit to some favorite places in upstate New York and western Massachusetts when we get that far.

I called Qwest today to inquire about coverage on my existing cell phone plan, and it looks like everything will work out just fine, especially once I’m on the east coast. But, just in case, I’m going to buy a prepaid phone card for those times when I’m between cell phone coverage areas. I also called my cousin Bev in New Hampshire – haven’t talked to her for six years, but we had a great conversation. We’ll probably end up staying with her for part of our visit.

Sunday 8/21
The countdown presses on. Mom had her final medical tests and I wrapped up the last of my writing assignments on Friday. The cat care matrix is coming together. Thanks to the kindness of friends I now have multiple self-feeders and one automatic water dispenser, so the cats will have food and water during those times when no one can get here. I still have some last-minute logistics to work out, along with banking and errands tomorrow. I have one more load of laundry to do – in fact, I may just go do that now.

I gave Mom an assignment today to figure out which clothes she wants to take and to get her dirty laundry together to wash tomorrow. I need to put together a schedule of when she has to take all of her medications each day so I can oversee that process on the road, and I need to think through all the little things that will make life away from home easier for her – and for me.

My friend Marguerite called this afternoon from Orono, Maine, and we made plans for a visit. It was really nice to be able to say “See you soon!” at the end of that phone call.

Today was my last Sunday morning with the St. Ann’s community before hitting the road; I’m going to miss four Sundays. It was good prayer and a good celebration and yet bittersweet. Fr. Ignas will be returning to Tanzania before we get back, so we had to say our goodbyes today. This community is at the center of my life here in Spokane, and I will miss the love and spirit of nearly everyone there while I’m away.

Monday 8/22
Tick, tick, tick. Preparations kicked into high gear today: ordered the last of Mom’s prescriptions, wrote up her medication schedule, picked up cat food, set up my Flickr account so I can upload photos from the road, got the signup information for T-Mobile, washed five loads of laundry (between me and Mom), had my last Inlander meeting before departure, and connected with cousins Chris and Dawn in Massachusetts. My friend Catherine did several errands for me today, too, saving me more driving around town. I was able to check several items off my master list. Of course, I added a few, too, but no matter. By tomorrow, I will be compromising and knocking things off the list.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Beginning

It all started with a phone call from Auntie Joanie in New Hampshire back in January. A party, she said, in September, to celebrate 50 years of wedded bliss. The party of the century. This one or the last one, I asked. Wiseass, she said. I’m giving you eight months notice. You better be here.

Joan is my mom’s youngest and only living sister. Neither Mom nor I have been back east to visit for six years, so it’s about time we caught up with the family. In the time since we’ve been there, my dad went through the depths of Alzheimer’s and died; Mom’s taken several falls and has had some mini-strokes that affected her memory and judgment; and I’ve moved into writing full time. My extended family knows me as someone who does accounting and computer work to earn a living, so a few things have changed. On the other hand, I last knew their teenage children when they were toddlers.

The first question I addressed was the mode of transportation. For most people, the first – and perhaps only – choice would be to fly. Ah, but not for me. Part of my personal pathology is a dread of air travel. I’ve flown many times in my life, but I finally admitted about a decade ago that the whole idea of leaving the ground made me miserable. If I have to fly, I suffer panic attacks and such anxiety that it ruins the trip for me. I understand all the rational explanations about the safety of air travel, blah blah blah, but phobias ain’t rational, folks. This bird is grounded.

So … that left either the train or the car. I’ve done both; each has its charms. In the end, I opted for car travel because (1) we can travel at our own speed and not have to move according to someone else’s schedule, something that’s increasingly important given some of Mom’s health issues; (2) I want to have a car to travel around New England and visit friends and family, which would mean renting a car if we traveled by train, adding to the expense; (3) I couldn’t imagine Mom using the little potties on the train while in motion, and potties are an increasingly important aspect of her life; and, (4) road trips are fun!

Lest you think I’m imposing my own preference on my poor, elderly mother, let me assure you that she loves road trips, too – especially when I do all the planning, packing, arranging and driving. She gets to ride along like a queen in the passenger seat, watching the scenery, taking pictures and writing in her journal. And, although I haven’t mentioned it to her, I’m thinking this may well be her last chance for a big road trip, so I want to make it a good one.

So here’s the plan: We’ll leave on August 24, a full ten days before the party. We can meander some along the way and still get back there in seven or eight days. We’ll have two weeks on the ground in New England – staying with friends and relatives in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine – and then we’ll turn around and drive back west via a somewhat different route.

Originally, I planned to take our 1990 Dodge Spirit on this trip, despite its age. The car’s in good shape, considering, and it only has 106,000 miles on it. In the last six years, I’ve replaced virtually every moving part in the thing, anyway, so it should be practically new. And there’s history: this little car has made five complete cross-country romps plus a trip from here to Texas and back again, not to mention countless shorter jaunts. We’ve been through a lot together, that little car and I; my butt print is firmly implanted on the driver’s seat.

But then a month ago, my friend Shonna offered to swap cars with me for the duration of the trip. She’s got this great Olds 98 that belonged to her dad; she calls it her Wyoming cowboy car. It really is a good road trip car: spacious, smooth-riding, with a CD player and an air conditioner that actually works when you’re driving uphill. “I’d feel a lot better if you were driving my car,” she said. Who can argue with that kind of logic? I like my friends to be at ease.

The Basics

The plan: Drive across the country from Spokane to New England with my 79-year-old mother to visit extended family and friends who we haven’t seen for six years.

The car: My friend Shonna’s Olds 98, the Wyoming cowboy car.

The philosophy: Do enough planning so my friends don’t think I’m crazy, but leave enough open space in the itinerary for whimsy.

The timeframe: Wednesday, August 24, 2005 until … oh, about September 21 or so.

Personal goals: Maintain my patience with my mother during the trip. Try not to gape at how much my cousins’ children have grown. Renew ties with extended family. Look into the eyes of America at cafes, gas stations and grocery stores along the way. Revisit some old favorite places. Remember all the good stuff about my life in Spokane as I wade into a landscape filled with memories ...