I know it’s been a while since I last posted anything. We went on our annual big-ass road trip, and I don’t do much interwebzing when I’m travelling. The day after our return was the first day of school – fourth grade for Fiona and second grade for Bridget. (And how did that happen anyway? I feel so …. old. Or, at least, middle-aged.) For days, I told myself that it was ok that I hadn’t posted in a while because we had just gotten back from our trip and it was the first week of school and we had weekend guests coming …. but we’ve been back home for a week now, the guests have been and gone, and it’s now the second week of school. I can’t seem to find any more excuses – so I’m writing.
We went to Kansas. Take a moment to think about whether anyone’s ever said that to you. You probably came up with the same line that we heard from the border guard when we told him we were going to Kansas …. “Nobody goes to Kansas! Why are you going there?” Great, I thought, we’re going to get cavity-searched because we decided to go to Kansas for this year’s family vacation. Thankfully, he didn’t do that; he simply shook his head in bemusement and wished us a nice trip. And it was! It was raining the day we left, as often seems to happen on the first day. Bridget mentioned that she didn’t have her umbrella, and then asked, panic-stricken, what she would do if she needed to go to the bathroom. She couldn’t get out of the car in the rain, could she? I pointed out that she’s not made of sugar, and Ryan and Fiona razzed her. She didn’t take it well. Not wanting to ruin the first day of the trip, Ryan offered to let Bridget call him the baddest thing she could think of. She thought for several seconds, then her face spread into a devilish grin and she gleefully declared him a “butt-faced pooper”. We cracked up, and the term stuck around for the entire trip. It was later upgraded to “lovable butt-faced pooper”. I admit that some of my laughter was due to relief that what she came up with was so tame, since I am aware that both girls know nearly every swear word English has to offer.
That first day was also Fiona’s ninth birthday. She had asked if she could have another birthday on the road – so we left a day earlier than we had planned, with a cake that I had decorated inside a plastic container and thought about every two minutes or so until it was safely pulled from the trunk and presented. She wanted a “little green alien”:
She chose Cracker Barrel for her birthday dinner, which made all of us happy. She wanted a swim in the pool, but it was dark by the time we finished dinner and the pool had closed. So we swam the next morning in the rain. Extremities were numb by the time we left the pool, but we had done right by our birthday girl. Our little Bright Eyes is nine. Already. I’m happy and sad all at the same time – but that’s another post entirely.
The rest of the day involved rolling through scenic New York and Pennsylvania, simultaneously admiring the mountains for their wild beauty and cursing them for interfering with the radio reception. And a speeding ticket around Allegany. New York has a bizarre system where you take a piece of paper from the cop and mail it to the nearest courthouse, declaring whether you wish to pay up or contest. If you want to pay up (and we did, since our car was going too fast and we really didn’t feel like showing up at a courthouse in rural New York a week later), the judge will decide what your fine should be based on your driving record in the state of New York and how many miles you were over the limit and mail you the judgement. Then, you mail back the money. Which I imagine goes to the First Stagecoach Bank of The New Worlde, in keeping with the antiquated system …. It ended in a lovely little town called Ridgeway, at a motel attached to a delightful Italian restaurant. We enjoyed beers in front of our room door, listening to a crowd of rednecks outside their room, arguing about whether a Canadian-style healthcare system should be adopted by America. Wonder if it was inspired by our license plate ….
The next day, we attended mass at a local church called St. Leo Magnus, then left Pennsylvania for a few minutes in West Virginia and the rest of the day in Ohio. We stopped to roll down a steep, grassy hill, just to shake off that been-in-the-car-too-long feeling. Dinner was at a Mexican place called Tumbleweeds, in Zanesville, Because margaritas were only $1.99 each, Ryan enjoyed one for the first time. I enjoyed two because, you know, $1.99! Fiona ate her first jalapeño pepper, and we all howled as she gulped water like her belly was on fire. Our six-pack that night was a yummy honey brown, which we had purchased at a drive-thru beer store. Yes, a drive-thru beer store. God bless America. We watched the MTV Video Music Awards together. Aside from Iggy Azalea’s and Rita Ora’s performance of “Black Widow”, I wasn’t overly impressed – but Fiona and Bridget enjoyed seeing all the glitter and glamour.
Monday brought us fully into the searing, screaming-cicada heat of the Midwest. Iced coffee was how I got my caffeine fix, in a gas station’s 16-ounce “medium” cup. I love how the US has ginormous everything, particularly the Midwest …. After panting our way through Indiana into Illinois, we stopped in Effingham (joke potential: endless) at an Econolodge. We spent over an hour splashing around gratefully in a pool, then sauntered across the parking lot to a restaurant called Niemerg’s Steakhouse, which gave me fried chicken done right.
We reached our destination on Tuesday, but did not encounter one of those lovely welcome centres that guide us through our visit to any given state. This was a bit dispiriting, but it’s happened before and we weren’t overly concerned. We joked that perhaps Kansas didn’t have any promotional material because, as many people had implied, there’s nothing to promote. We stopped in Lawrence, where the lobby of the Old Virginia Inn was fully stocked with what-to-do-in-Kansas pamphlets and books! After a delicious steak dinner at Longhorn, we spent the evening watching an Elvis biopic and excitedly flipping through pages and pages of Kansasia (not a real word – until now).
The next morning, we left the beaten track and headed down the back roads into the heart of the Sunflower State. I decided the occasion called for a little Hank Williams, and he wailed his way through golden cornfields, rolling hills dotted with hay bales and crumbling towns that seemed like they really were something once – all of it pressed down by an endless swath of bright blue. We stopped at a playground in one of the towns (Overbrook, I think), and burned off some energy. The playground was old, with scorching metal slides and a merry-go-round and a real jungle gym you could actually hurt yourself falling off (as opposed to the tiny plastic facsimiles that a toddler could conquer), and we loved it. We had lunch at a diner called Cindy’s Family Café, which featured beaded pennants made by the mother of one of the waitresses, and other assorted tat. I tried chicken-fried steak for the first time, and fell in love. Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but it was really tasty …. The waitress yammered away with everyone in the restaurant, including us. She asked us why we were in Kansas, because “nobody goes to Kansas”. When she asked us where we were from, we told her Ottawa, and added that it’s the capital of Canada. She said “oh, really – I thought the capital of Canada was Cue-beck”. We also talked briefly with a one-legged man named Bob, who rasped that he he spent most of his life trucking grapes to Winnipeg and then wheat to Lodi. In Hutchinson, we discovered “one of the eight wonders of Kansas” (yes, the sign actually said that): Strataca Underground Salt Museum. Going down in a rickety mine-shaft elevator to 650 feet below the surface is something I never thought I’d be bold enough for – but I did it, and so did my three travelling companions. The salt mine was dark and frightening, yet strangely beautiful. The walls sparkled, and the air was purified by the salt. Apparently, this underground salt stash was created when the water covering North America dried up, and it runs all the way to New Mexico. We rode a train through the mine, hearing little snippets about miners’ lives in particular and salt in general, and peering into parts of the mine that have shrunk over time (or even collapsed). At times, panic would well up inside my chest, and I’d fight it down. It was irrational, I knew, and I wanted to make the most of this odd experience. I have yet to hear about the other seven wonders of Kansas, but maybe we’ll have a second go at Kansas someday and make them our goal. We had a late-night dinner at a Denny’s in Wichita, and the girls practically fell into bed. Ryan and I sat under the low-flying planes from Wichita’s airport (classy location, I know) and planned our Thursday.
We spent the next day seeing more of the Kansas countryside on our way to Kansas City (yes, technically, Kansas City is in Missouri – but it’s pretty close anyway). We checked into an uncharacteristically nice hotel (for us, anyway) – a Four Points by Sheridan directly across from the K. We had a little swim while our nasty old-suitcase-in-a-hot-trunk laundry traumatized the washers and dryers of that elegant establishment, then headed to a Royals game. While I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about baseball, I love ballparks. I love the hot dogs and cotton candy, the buzz of the crowd, the cheesy-but-infectious chants and clapping. I love watching people love their team. Ryan and I were excited to see that the K is catered by a local brewery called Boulevard, which means a decent selection of beers was on offer. We each had a truly refreshing “lemon ginger radlers”, and went back for more. Unfortunately, the Royals lost in the tenth inning to the Twins, who – annoyingly enough – had lost in their home town when we saw them last summer. Being in the ballpark of the winning team is a very cool feeling, but it seems that teams lose more than they win when we’re in attendance ….
We enjoyed a badly-needed sleep-in on Friday morning, and had brunch at an IHOP – the crepes I ordered were amazing. We had one of those conversations that happens rarely in day-to-day life, but all the time on a road trip – a conversation that was allowed to meander down all sorts of side trails because there was time. Bullying, and whether Ryan and I were popular when we were kids (answer: no-yes-maybe). A sad story about an unpopular kid in their school whose brave attempt at a talent show number was a bust, which added to her social woes. My advice to Fiona and Bridget was just to be nice. Be generous, be kind, be themselves, and one day they’ll find their crowd – and understand that popularity is not as important as being true to yourself and the people you love. Down Syndrome, and what chromosomes are, and how two Xs make a girl and an X and a Y make a boy. The connection between chromosomes and aging. I wish we could have more of those conversations …. Not long after that, we ran into crazy, blinding, road-flooding rain. A gully washer. Despite Ryan’s assertion that all the gullies had been washed, the rain followed us into Iowa, accompanied by the occasional sky-splitting bolt in the distance. In Mount Pleasant, we had the bad luck to encounter the Old Threshers’ Reunion. We were turned down by a Best Western, and scored the second-last remaining room in a Rodeway. Yet another amazing thing about road trips: you discover things you never knew were things. Mount Pleasant lived up to its name anyway. We had a mouth-watering dinner at a Pizza Ranch, then a swim in the pool and a soak in the hot tub. Amazingly enough, neither facility was crammed with squealing little FFAs – and it was a relaxing way to wind down after the stormy drive.
Saturday took us into Wisconsin. The mountains reappeared, and the trees became thicker and darker. We ended up at the Best Night’s Inn in Sparta, a pretty little roadside motel with wooden cupboards smelling of summer camp and (bizarrely) scarlet carpet and mattresses. The air was crisp and clean. Sparta calls itself the “cycling capital of America” – you can file that under stuff-you-never-knew-because-you’ve-never-been-to-Sparta. We attended mass at St. Patrick’s Church, where prayer requests were announced for Annemarie Cooter and Benjamin Semen. Ryan and I managed to keep straight faces, against all odds. You just can’t make this stuff up …. We walked to a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint called Slice of Chicago for what might have been the best pizza we’ve ever had, accompanied by wonderful local beers. For the first time since Pennsylvania, the night air was cool. We dragged a radio outside with us to listen to a broadcast of retro Casey Kasem from the very station we listen to online every Saturday night. It was a perfect evening; how often do we get to say that?
The next day was long …. We stopped to climb some hoodoos, but mainly we were pushing our way home. We saw the promise of fall in a patch of undersized-but-already-bright-orange pumpkins, and in the splashes of red, orange and gold in the leaves. There was the gentle glow of a late summer dusk beside Lake Michigan, signs advertising pasties every twenty-five feet, and something called “The Honest Indian’s Tourist Trap” (hailed by a hand-lettered sign). That evening’s dinner was at a seafood joint on the Michigan side of Sault Ste Marie, with quite possibly the best crab legs I’ve ever had. We crossed the border the next morning, the first day of September, and knew we were in Canada when we passed two Tim Horton’s in less than ten minutes. It was nice to be home, and fall is great in its own way, but there was that bittersweet feeling that always comes at the end of a road trip: we wanted just one more night.