We’re not far from Christmas, so here’s how our summer vacation went … Curse you, writer’s block!
We’re back from our road trip, so now we know where we went. (Telling people we don’t know our road trip destination as late as the day before our road trip never fails to amuse me. Their reaction is an excellent way to gauge just how deep their need for control really runs.) In the end, Idaho won. It’s been a long time since we last headed so firmly west. Ten years, in fact. It was time to do it again, this time without Fiona tantrumming on my last nerve from her carseat and Bridget dancing on my bladder from inside me.
Our trip started with the sweet-n-sour combination of a sad farewell to Ron and Pat and the near-electric sizzle of excitement over hitting the road. Bridget, who loves potatoes more than any other potato-lover I’ve ever met, cheered when we announced that Idaho was our destination. Retro Casey Kasem added to the fun feeling in our car with “Mr. Big Stuff”. (Speaking of big stuff – Jean Knight’s hair!) Our high spirits fell a touch when I discovered that I had left my purse at Ron’s and Pat’s place. I needed it, so we returned to their house. They were waiting at the door with my bag, and some extra hugs. For their insatiably, shamelessly nosy neighbours, it was the Best. Day Ever! Those people just about broke their necks staring at us pulling back into the driveway after having left less than an hour before. None of my fellow trippers razzed me even a little about this jackassery, proving – yet again – that they are the best.
Lunch was at a Denny’s, with what seemed like everyone else on the road – try their bacon avocado burger sometime (but do it on a day when you won’t have to wait an hour for one). We crossed the border into America shortly after that, and encountered a border guard from Idaho. Yes, in Michigan. He warned us that we were going to get there and say “holy cow, there’s nothing here”. Undaunted, we drove on. That night, we stayed at a Super 8-turning-Rodeway in South Lansing, in a room with a busted security chain. South Lansing is suffused by an air of general decay. Closed-down, crumbling restaurants, motels and car lots everywhere. More than half of the cars we saw were falling apart. Our motel was near a dead Holiday Inn, and we spent a few minutes staring at the faded sign while listening to the Swallows’ bouncy, impudent “It Ain’t the Meat” – they didn’t go together well. Dinner, though, was delicious. We went to Los Tres Amigos, where my pollo loco was dreamy. Ryan ordered a variety of things, all thrown together in a cast-iron pot shaped like a pig. Chicken, beef, chorizo, cheese and vegetables – including steamed cactus.
The waitress shared her favourite way of eating cactus – sprinkled with salt and lime juice. We each tried a strip of it that way, and she was right – it was quite good. That night, we enjoyed a little Goose 312, and our first “Golden Girls” fix – and the feeling of embarking on another adventure.
Our continental breakfast the following morning can most kindly be described as underwhelming. I’m not sure if the motel owner had ever actually made coffee, and I sincerely hope not – that way, I can tell myself he simply didn’t know that coffee shouldn’t look like apple juice. Somehow, even the ubiquitous Froot Loops were gone, leaving behind a sad pile of multi-coloured dust. I ate my cinnamon roll cold because I twice blew a fuse trying to microwave it. Dubious start notwithstanding, we were in high spirits as we rolled through the Midwest. Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, endless blue skies over slightly dry fields, punctuated by water towers and Cracker Barrels, blurred together. The girls spent the better part of the afternoon flashing naked Ken dolls at fellow travellers. Ryan felt that this was disrespectful, and I – because sometimes I am twelve on the inside – felt that this was hilarious. All the same, we discouraged them from distracting other drivers, and they moved on to safer, less obnoxious activities.
We spent that night in Williamsberg, Iowa, in the lovely Cozy House Inn & Suites. Fireflies flared and faded in the darkening fields around us, and we could hear a few July 4th revelers getting an early start. Ryan pointed out that we had been through three states beginning with I that day – and we were on our way to the only other one.
That morning, Independence Day, we saw one of the truly great things America has to offer: beer, on tap, in a gas station. Yes, that’s right: in the country that introduced us to the wonders of a drive-thru liquor store, we saw a fellow pulling pints in the middle of a Kum & Go. God bless America! Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” sounded just right under the baby blue sky and fluffy clouds as we rolled into Adair to visit our favourite water tower. It was still there, smiling away at the world. So many things disappear, but not Old Smiley – not yet, and (I hope) never.
Lunch was at a the Corn Crib, boasting that it was voted the best mom-n-pop joint in Iowa. I don’t know how that sort of thing is determined, but I loved my pulled pork, pulled chicken and brisket sliders, drenched in house-made sauces. We later stopped for cold drinks in some tiny Nebraska town. Arm Pit, or Ass Crack, perhaps. There was a dead restaurant with fake plants in the windows, and clouds of dust blowing by – and not much else. That night, we stayed at the Western Inn, a lovely little motel with lavender walls and an old-fashioned neon sign like something a traveller would have encountered in the glory days of Route 66.
After a refreshing swim, we had dinner at Whiskey Creek – delectable ribs. Our beer that night was an odd one – Beatnik Sour, by Exile. In my opinion, i tasted like juice that has been sitting out too long – but Ryan liked it. People were setting off fireworks across the street – about a hundred feet away from us, in fact – and all over town. It was an exciting way to end our day.
The next morning, the dry, earthy pastels of Nebraska rolled along for miles under a chalky grey-blue sky – until Wyoming brought us sharper, brighter, wilder scenery. We stopped at the Pine Bluffs welcome centre, and went on a hot hike along a trail to an archeological dig site. Rattlesnakes tapped out a warning on both sides of the trail as we walked. At the dig site, there was a display of the many finds – including coins of a currency exclusive to Pine Bluff, and so many arrowheads that they were allowing visitors to take them as free souvenirs.
I’ve had a soft spot for Wyoming since Ryan and I made it the destination of our first road trip together, fifteen years ago. It gave us a hunger for the road that just won’t quit, an itch we’re still scratching. We stayed in Laramie that night, at a Ramada. The Ramada in Laramie has a terrible rating on Trip Adviser, and I really don’t know why. The staff was friendly, our room was clean and comfortable, the pool and hot tub were lovely and the continental breakfast the next morning had everything a person could possibly want to eat for breakfast. I couldn’t see anything wrong with this place. What on earth did the skids on Trip Adviser want? Did someone have to ask for extra towels? Did someone have to report a broken hair dryer? Was there a rotting elk carcass in the bathtub?
We traveled through Wyoming to rugged, lonely, lovely Utah, stopping for Chester’s Chicken at lunchtime in the oddly-named Wamsutter – I love fried chicken. Love it. So fragrant and greasy and satisfying. However, in a nod to the fact that I am no longer 21 and need to draw some lines somewhere, I ordered okra and stripped the breading off it. In the afternoon, I experienced the excitement of purchasing 1L of Cuervo Gold and 1.5 L of Triple Sec for $20. Even with the exchange rate, I got an entire summer’s worth of margaritas for less than a third of the price I’d pay at that oh-so-classy monopoly, the LCBO. And, again, I say: God bless America! Utah’s welcome centre boasts an amazing view, wildlife (including a prairie dog that appeared to live inside a Pepsi machine, and an exhibit honouring Mormons – including a covered wagon that had traveled all the way from Illinois (and no – the seat is not padded).
(Please note that the above animal is not included in the aforementioned wildlife. I found him to be remarkably tame, given his impressive size and rack.)
Nice as the welcome centre is, our night in Utah was decidedly not. The Motel 6 in Ogden – which we had booked that morning knowing that much of Utah is, though attractive, a wasteland – was a fugly construction site. The parking lot was a dusty obstacle course. Even the entrance to the lobby was pitted, cracked and surrounded by caution tape. The pool, which we had been looking forward to using, was a concrete hole in the ground. Worse still, there was no hot water. The advertised “magnificent mountain view” was not visible from our side of the motel. All we could see was machinery and debris. None of this was disclosed at any point during the booking process. Fiona and I had cold baths, then we crossed the parking lot to a Denny’s, where my white-people problems kept coming. I ordered a steak skillet and was told that mushrooms (my favourite part of such a dish, apart – naturally – from the steak) were not available. To be fair, though, the waitress made me a salad to make up for it. Motel 6 has yet to attempt amends of any sort, the crooks. We drowned our sorrows in 90 Schilling Ale, and reminded ourselves that even a night in a shitty motel somewhere in Utah is an adventure worth having.
The next morning, we were outta there. I found myself nursing a strong hope that the place would burn to the ground … However, we hit Idaho that day, and – in my excitement – I forgot to be annoyed. The welcome centre was small, but meticulous, and we spent a happy half-hour browsing stacks of what-to-do-in-Idaho brochures, and snapping pictures of the flag and welcome sign. We ate lunch at a little restaurant called The Pines, where there was a map containing pins representing the homes of various diners. Now, there’s a pin on Ottawa! We drove through some amazing mountains just because we could, and stumbled across the Soda Springs geyser. It erupts every hour, like Old Faithful. It’s surrounded by beautiful red and orange mineral deposits, and a boardwalk with benches – and, of course, we waited. I wasn’t sure of the temperature of the water, so I repeatedly warned Fiona and Bridget to stay away from the geyser. When we saw a couple of boys treating it like it was their local splash pad, though, there was no holding our Bright Eyes back. She got soaked to the skin dancing in the spray.
We stayed at a Travelodge in Pocatello that night. Across the parking lot was Chapala Mexican Grill, complete with Mexican karaoke and complimentary sopapilla. I was urged to sing that night, and I didn’t because I wasn’t feeling particularly confident. Now, I wish I had … Next time someone asks me to sing – anywhere, anytime – I will. Hold me to it. Our hotel featured an empty-yet-appealing bar. The Stones’ “Miss You” was playing, and we wanted to stroll in there and order us a whatever. But we didn’t want to be the only customers; that’s alot of pressure. We returned to our room, and drank a six-pack of Drop Top. Idaho, wild, mysterious, beautiful and potato-ridden, lay before us – ours for the next few days.
Before leaving Pocatello, we decided to check out Don Aslett’s Museum of Clean. Don Aslet himself (if slightly sexist, and rife with blonde jokes) did an excellent job of guiding us through his impressive collection of vacuum cleaners, washing machines and cleaning tools (including hundreds of years’ worth of toilets). He is well-versed in the history of cleaning. It was an excellent attraction for families. We could – and were encouraged to – touch just about everything. There were no picture or video bans. There was a solid angle on the concept of trash reduction and environmental preservation. The slogan for the place is “Education – Inspiration – Adventure”, and I was so inspired. I wanted to clean all the stuff. Before leaving, we simply had to buy a toilet-shaped shot glass.
After lunch at a Black Bear Diner, we headed for Boise. We stopped at a Philips 66 for cold drinks, and I told Fiona – who was busily shredding a straw wrapper into tiny pieces – to put her trash where it belonged. She was goofing around, not wanting to comply. A fellow one table over, wearing a shirt that said “life is short – pray hard”, admonished her to honour Ryan and I so that it might be well with her soul. She lost her goof, and shamefacedly put her garbage in the garbage can. Thanks, weirdo – can I hire you? It takes a village to spook a child into behaving.
As we rolled into Boise, we listened to 107.1 K-Hits – the music we listen to on Saturday nights, because that station carries retro Casey Kasem countdowns. In fact, after checking into a Howard Johnson and enjoying a refreshing swim, we drove to a Sonic so we could listen to the show while eating dinner. Those peanut butter shakes …
The next day being Sunday, we attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where the music included an upright bass – you don’t see that every Sunday! After mass, we combined the dreaded chore of cleaning our clothes with a lunch at the Idaho Pizza House. Though the pizza was average (at best), there was a fine variety of it – and it was good to be able to avoid sitting in a hot, icky laundromat with all the crazies. After filling our funky suitcases with clean (if slightly scorched) garments, we hit the road again. This time, we were heading north to see the beautiful sky-scraping evergreens Ryan and I remember from our first time in Idaho. We were not disappointed.
Cradled between gently rolling mountains, the road was punctuated by yellow diamond curve signs and runaway truck ramps. And, oh, those sparkling deep-blue lakes! We drove through Boise National Forest, and then Payette National Forest (bizarrely titled “Land of Many Uses”), to the Rustic Motel in McCall. We bought foot-long subs and brought them back to our room to watch “The Nineties” on CNN. Fiona and Bridget were fascinated by the little taste of what it was like to be us, once upon a time.
Later, we listened to the night sounds of the forest while sipping Citrus Mistress. Those night sounds were occasionally interrupted by a giggly staffer dashing back and forth between the office and a room occupied by someone she was either befriending, romancing or fighting. Ryan and I, though very talented eavesdroppers, really couldn’t tell.
The next morning brought the kind of sunshine you only get in the mountains – bright and clean, smelling of pine needles and rich earth. We drove through Hell’s Canyon, hemmed in by rock faces and steadily being carved deeper by a green-blue-grey river. Lunch featured a chicken-fried steak because vacation, at a cute little place called Seasons Restaurant in Grangeville. The highway climbed ever higher, leading us to a breath-taking scenic stop in Lewiston – we could see all the way to Washington. It was a long way down … I demonstrated my motherly tenderness by telling Fiona and Bridget that if I saw either of them goofing around at the edge I would have a heart attack, and promptly kill both of them upon recovery.
There was a tacky gift shop nearby selling made-in-China moccasins and dream catchers and wood carvings of bears – my kind of place! The sign even advertised cowboy boots, and I was all set to buy a pair to suit all my stomping needs. Alas, it was closed. We did, however, find one just like it down the road. We browsed, and bought nothing – it was fun just looking around. We hit Coeur d’Alene at rush hour. We stayed there years ago at a ridiculously expensive wasp-infested smoke-infused cabin in a row of cabins occupied by toothless people drinking out of paper bags. The bed was terrible. (We have a special talent for finding places like that. What’s your superpower?) Having no desire to end up doing anything remotely similar, we moved on to Spokane. Our stay in the Apple Tree Inn completed our sleeping tour of the lower 48, which we celebrated at Rancho Chico down the street. They brought us three complimentary baskets of tortilla chips, and – at the end – free sopapilla. They also made me a solid margarita. That night featured Mirror Pond Pale Ale by Deschutes Brewery, and “Forensic Files”. That show became popular with all four of us during our Idaho adventure. Let me tell y’all, I am never committing a crime. Well, not one for which I could do hard time, anyway. Those investigators always get their man. Or woman. Or, more-rarely-yet-not-unprecedented, their child. I hope it scared the pants off Fiona and Bridget, too.
The next morning, more amazing mountains and lakes blah blah blah. Seriously – being surrounded by the natural beauty of Idaho gave me a sad glimpse into just how undeserving our homo sapiens asses are of natural beauty. Just a couple of days in, and I was already ho-humming my way through some of the most gorgeous postcard-esque “Sound of Music” backdrops. My “hey, look at this” could no longer get the girls to pull their noses out of their books. As we drove, I read a complimentary copy of The Innlander I had received from the motel. I knew none of the names or places, but I was in total newspaper withdrawal and welcomed the grainy print, flimsy pages and smudged fingers eagerly. In Bonner’s Ferry, we had lunch at the adorably twee Under the Sun Bistro, where even the hand soap in the washroom is organic and locally made. I had the perfect cream of tomato soup, a turkey and apple sandwich and huckleberry lemonade (huckleberries being somewhat of a thing in Idaho). We visited the Kootenai Wildlife Reserve, where we saw alot of bees, butterflies, dragonflies and birds. It was beautiful there, but there were no bears. I had seen bears in pamphlets, bears on signs, bears advertising things, bears in art – but I am sad to say that my Idaho experience was completely devoid of actual bears. As we drove into Montana and Mountain Time, we had that melancholy sense of turning around. We did, however, stir ourselves to stop at Kootenai Falls. There was a hiking trail and a swing bridge, and we couldn’t resist. None of us had ever experienced a swing bridge. Like everything else we do on road trips, we crossed it together. I love that feeling – together. My posse, my pack – where I belong. Bridget marched ahead grimly. I swear, if the bridge had suddenly fallen away in front of her, she’d have kept going. Fiona floundered in the middle. Ryan, with a death grip on the side ropes, called to her to keep moving. After a moment’s hesitation, she did. On the other side of the bridge, we had a feeling of accomplishment – of satisfaction.
The sky was impossibly blue, with perfectly formed cartoon clouds – the kind you’d see in a painting of Jesus coming back to earth. The Sandman Motel in Libby, Montana, is owned by a genial Aussie who eagerly shared that the cast and crew of “The Revenant” had stayed there during filming. The motel boasted a view of the mountains – but this claim was unnecessary, given that a view of the mountains is guaranteed everywhere in Libby. We had dinner at The Antlers – Ryan and I enjoyed giant bowls of pasta there. We were nearly the only customers, aside from an elderly couple. The old lady insisted that I must be Fiona’s and Bridget’s grandmother because we were so affectionate with each other. I don’t know if her impairment was visual or cognitive, but I sincerely hope she had one or the other going on. Otherwise, I need new face junk to ward off the aggressively encroaching years … That night, Ryan and I sipped Big Sky Brewing’s Summer Honey (another damn bear). It was so dark that we couldn’t see past the motel parking lot. Somewhere out there were the mountains – a comforting thought.
The next day was spent marvelling at the sheer isolation of Montana … Winding highways punctuated by sightings of big-eared knobby-kneed deer and tiny towns like Kalispell, the only place indicated on any sign for over 80 miles. Isolation be damned, though, every little town came equipped with multiple casinos advertising keno and poker and slots. You might not have cell service or timely medical care, but – by God – you can gamble on your way to gamble! Between towns, the highway ran alongside terrifying drops with little more than a rusted guard rail – if that – to protect us. I found myself mentally pulling the road toward us, loop by loop, willing our car to stay on it. We had a deep-fried lunch at a lodge festooned with dead animals and playing Hank Williams and the Oak Ridge Boys. Our stop that night was the Town House Inn, a place we’ve stayed before, in Havre, Montana. There were free cookies, and a pretty indoor pool with sour-smelling carpet surrounding it (yes, carpet in a pool enclosure). Dinner was at a Pizza Hut, surrounded by fugly people who smelled of unwashed armpits. However, the quality and taste of the Pizza Hut fare was as expected, so it’s all good. We won’t hold the clientele against the franchise. Dump Truck IPA by Bayern Brewing, out of Missoula, crowned our night against the backdrop of “Forensic Files”, and then a horrible show called “Botched” about bad plastic surgeries. Because I am an asshole, this show helped me sleep. Nothing will make you more grateful for your own boobs than photos of someone else’s botched ones.
The next morning came early – we were still such a long way from home. All the same, home was clearly needed. When one kid’s drinking flavoured creamers and the other kid’s dipping her bacon in melted butter, you know you need a return to real life and rules. With our windows open to the forgiving early morning air, we headed for North Dakota, stopping in Glendive for lunch. We saw only two restaurants – a Chinese one, and a Pizza Hut. Hence, our second Pizza Hut experience in less than 24 hours. The Pizza Hut was in a strip mall surrounded by empty store fronts and a dying K-Mart. It was as if we were already in North Dakota. North Dakota, when it arrived, welcomed us not to a National Forest but to a National Grassland. Sigh. The only excitement driving through North Dakota came just past Bismarck – the sickening thump of a plastic caution sign wedged under our car and dragging. We pulled over, and let Boo – our tiniest member – slide up to her waist under the car to investigate while I stood behind the car like a human traffic cone. Ryan shoved the offending plastic loose with a snow scraper. With a clunk and a prayer of thanks, we left it behind. In Jamestown, we found the lovely Two Rivers Inn with newly decorated rooms, beautifully fresh air and a Dairy Queen a few feet away. It doesn’t get any better than that in North Dakota. No, really: it doesn’t.
We spent the next day rolling through the mild freshness of Minnesota and Wisconsin, stopping at a Red Robin in St. Cloud for the best turkey burger I’ve ever had. Ryan’s energy was flagging, and I entertained him by flipping from station to station and seeing how fast he could guess the name and artist of whatever song was playing. He is amazing at this game, and enjoyed it immensely. Also, he stayed awake and therefore didn’t kill us all. A win for everyone! At a place boringly called The Plaza in Wassau, we had dinner at Brewski’s. A very good fish-n-chips and chicken marsala, accompanied by the awesome punch of a double-shot rum-n-coke. When I complimented the bartender, he said he made it like his mother does. There was a beautiful pool there, with a kiddie pool and hot tub – though we only used the standard pool. The Spotted Cow IPA by New Glarus was – as the clerk had promised us – perfect. Though we looked forward to going home, a part of each of us wondered if we couldn’t just go on forever – like the road.
Not all ACs are created equal. The Plaza’s was great. That mechanical hum and frosty air gave me a wonderful sleep. There was a very good continental breakfast – not just sausages and scrambled eggs and home fries, but French toast. On the way out of the parking lot, I slopped coffee on my one clean dress. It was road-trip clean, meaning stains blended with the pattern convincingly, and it had passed that morning’s smell test – so the coffee wasn’t a big deal. Possibly, the scent of the coffee made it better. Soon we were back in Michigan, framed close by trees, listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 from 1976. It was overwhelmingly disco-packed, though Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run” inspired a passionate sing-along. We enjoyed one last crack at an American Subway, and an impromptu dance for Ryan, Fiona and I chased Boo clear out of the restaurant. She is, at times, our last remaining shred of decency. We stopped at an old-school grocery store in Engadine, where we bought big, fluffy ice cream cones for Fiona and Bridget, and 1.5 L of Bacardi for just over twenty bucks for me. At Hometown Inn & Suites, we enjoyed the pool, hot tub, sauna and parenting the children of stupid parents who were using the facilities as a babysitter while scrolling their phones. Dinner was at a Buffalo Wild Wings, where we tried jerk, chipotle, parmesan-and-garlic, and hot buffalo wings. So good.
Ryan kicked all our asses in trivia (impressive, considering he had driven about eight thousand kilometres in two weeks). Wisconsin Brewery’s Amber (with a badger on the bottle) was our last night’s fun.
After an easy border crossing and a whole lot of Ontario in wind and rain (though not enough rain to dispense with the baked-on bugs of nearly nine thousand kilometres, we saw Ottawa on a sign. 370 km to Ottawa. Damn, Ontario’s big … Another amazing road trip – and more enduring memories – logged. As for that border guard at the beginning of our adventure, Idaho was some of the most exciting nothing we’ve ever experienced. If you’re still reading (and, if you are, wow – thanks), I’ll bet you want to go there now.