Idaho – ho!

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).

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(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.

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Across the continent again …. because we can!

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Happy Canada Day, everyone! It’s the 150th birthday of our great nation, and a plethora of party-people are heading for our great nation’s great capital. As usual, the Ottawa branch of Clan Chepita is swimming against the current – we left Ottawa for Hamilton yesterday, whizzing past a line of cars crawling from Ajax to the NCR. Under Murphy’s Law, road trip sub-section, at least 75% of the people trapped in that slow-slithering metal snake had to pee, and the other 25% were desperate for cold pop or a smoke or simple delivery from their fellow vehicular denizens. 

We are spending Canada Day with Ryan’s parents. Ron and Pat love it when we mess up their sheets and bathrooms, eat their food and drink their booze. They love it. At least, that’s what they say, though not in those particular words. Something more along the lines of “so glad you guys are here” – but we won’t get hung up on semantics.

Tomorrow, we hit the road for …. well, somewhere. It’s our annual big-ass road trip! We’re thinking Idaho, because Idaho – but, of course, it could be anywhere. We’ll know by the time it’s all over. Road trip preparation used to be alot tougher, tripping over toddlers while shoving our entire life into suitcases and bags. Now, though, Fiona and Bridget pack for themselves. Big kids for the win!

Wherever I go, I will apply my sharp eyes and restless pen to everything around me. I brought you Kansas, Texas and Georgia – and I’ll do the same with wherever we end up this time. Every lovely little diner, hole-in-the-wall Mexican delight, ice cream break-down, weird conversation, odd who-knew attraction, shitty motel and breath-taking view. Ciao for now!

Georgia is still on my mind.

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So, we’re back from our road trip …. I left my millions thousands hundreds possibly-double-digits of fans hanging with my farewell post about a month ago. I was feeling overwhelmed by the headlines, and really needed to get away. Well, I don’t think the world has improved since then – but my state-of-mind has. I guess I just needed to get away.

As we always do, we packed up our car with too much of everything and headed for the never-known-to-fail McDonald’s breakfast kick-off. Then, we hit the road. It was a brilliantly beautiful day – the sky was a perfect shade of blue, punctuated by puffy white clouds and a sun like the Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball”. Retro Casey Kasem from 1971 gave us “Hot Pants”, from Georgia boy James Brown. (Take a moment to enjoy the Godfather of Soul in all his sweaty, bouffant, bare-chested glory. It’s on me.) We came across a cute little park, where we stopped to eat our everything-that-won’t-last-and-can’t-be-frozen picnic lunch, consisting of items like a lone banana, an entire bag of carrots and sandwiches with way too much ham on them. After a romp on the playground equipment, we were driving again, and sharing a brief snicker about the overly earnest, children’s-bookish town name “Constableville”. This year, we’ve introduced the concept of Fiona and Bridget having control of the radio for a half-hour each. Fiona ventures into rock and alternative occasionally, but Bridget is firmly a pop fan. So, we heard Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” three times in one day. We would go on to hear it about twenty more times over the next couple of weeks. We settled in a Best Western Plus in Johnson City, New York. The pool was set up for lane-swimming, so we occupied a lane to cool down. We got a few dirty looks, but we were behaving – so who cares? We had dinner at Ground Round, with its endless popcorn, and talked about how much we loved being on the road again.

We had good intentions of attending mass the next morning, but Piggy (a stuffed pig with a ribbon around her neck that Bridget bought Fiona with a handful of change at a white elephant sale years ago) was missing. We couldn’t leave without her. She had apparently spent the night in a lost-and-found bin after being dropped in the parking lot the day before. After recovering Piggy, we hit Pennsylvania with its rolling green mountains and farmland. I enjoyed the perfect lunch – a buttery, crispy grilled cheese sandwich, creamy tomato soup and a giant dill pickle – at Country Friends Café. We entered rural Maryland to Luke Bryan’s awfully cheesy “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day”. The general consensus in the car was that country music (well, this branch of it, anyway) is no good. I disagree, and – as you may have noticed – I firmly believe I’m right. In Frederick, we stopped rolling, and checked into a Motel 6. The girls and I enjoyed a swim (Ryan often uses that time to be alone, aloneness being scarce on road trips). We sank gratefully into the cool water after a hot day of travelling. Two other families shared the pool with us. One with a sleepy baby who wanted nothing but his mother, and one with a heavily pregnant mother wrangling a toddler who insisted on “fwimming” by himself. I lounged in the sun, occasionally cracking an eyelid to make sure two sleek heads were still above water, and marvelled at how things change. I remember well when I had a three-year-old and a baby hanging off me, both of them petrified of the water and seemingly trying to drown me and each other at every turn …. Dinner was at an expensive steakhouse called Red Horse, but the crab cakes and garlic mashed potatoes were amazing – so I forgive them. Much as I try to stay away from current events while on the road, over Starr Hill’s taster pack that evening, Ryan and I couldn’t help but discuss Baton Rouge. The harsh reality of being black in America, the gut-wrenching terror of being a cop in a country where anyone could be packing heat and you have a target on your back.

The next morning, after driving into Virgina fueled on eyeball-burning, hair-sprouting motel coffee, we hit a farmer’s market and bought gorgeous peaches and blueberries

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We had a picnic lunch of gas station fare in the shade, and later a visit to a Tastee Freez (oh, the E abuse) in Gordonsville. At a gas station, a man lounging on a bench asked where we’re from. When he heard we’re from Canada, his eyes grew wide and he said “oh, I know – you guys gonna make them two in the back do some of the drivin'”. In Oxford, North Carolina, (unofficial state motto: “a Baptist church every eight paces”), we checked into the King’s Inn, and ate at George’s Family Restaurant. The star of that meal was the pasta Bridget and I shared. Spinach, mushrooms, pine nuts and chicken came together to make something beautiful.

The next morning, we discovered that Piggy was missing again. This time, she had slept in the parking lot next to a vending machine. This seemed like less of a big deal once I had downed a few slugs of the coffee in my hand. I sometimes wonder if I could quit coffee and be like those freaks who don’t need it. Then, I try to go without it for about three minutes in the morning, and I know I shouldn’t even try. While driving, we heard a commercial for a preschool that allows parents to check in online to get updates and videos throughout the day. Ryan said that’s the next step for parents who have a video moniter, and Fiona elaborated: “that’s for stalker parents who are desperate”. Sadly, I think they’re right – even more sadly, I think there’s quite a market for that sort of thing. Whatever happened to just asking your kids about their day?

Sometime that afternoon, we crossed into the wet, hot, stifling, smothering dirty south. Swimming at our Quality Inn pool, and dinner at Chili’s, were highlights. On the other hand, so was watching cockroaches scuttling in and out of pools of light outside our room later, while enjoying Thomas Creek amber ale. Either we’re easy to please or we’ve been broken down …. ? The end result’s the same, so we won’t worry about it. At the continental breakfast, over a biscuit smothered in sausage gravy, I chatted with a guy about American politics. He shook his head and said “Trump crooked, Clinton crooked. Ever’body crooked. Votin’ like tryin’ to decide which disease we wanna die of.”

We made it to Georgia that morning. The welcome centre was huge, and manned by a woman who did her best to sell her state. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and all four of us excitedly thought of what we might do during the coming days. I gathered my usual collection of maps and brochures to pour over in the car. Our first stop after the welcome centre was another welcome centre: a 200-year-old house (in fact, the oldest house) in Athens. We were looking for Weaver D’s Automatic for the People Café. Many music fans will recognise that phrase …. We toured the house because we could, and moved on. The restaurant was tiny, with no air conditioning – but those industrial fans cooled things down just fine. There were long tables covered with checkered oil cloth, and Weaver D himself was manning both the counter and the fryer. We all had fried chicken. For side items, I chose mac-n-cheese and collard greens. Weaver D’s food was amazing. It was soul food perfection, served with tall styrofoam cups of ice-cold lemonade and fresh, hot cornbread.

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We left Athens for Macon, stopping at a tiny gas station along the way where we bought malt liquor in mason jars (lemon and strawberry flavours). Our beer that night was Hopsecutioner, made by Terrapin of Athens. It was strong, and challenging – and it stood up well to the hot night. The next morning, it lingered in my head a little – but dissipated easily without ruining my visit to the Tubman African American Museum. This collection of memorabilia and art is wonderful, and the museum is arranged well. We watched two short movies, one about Harriet Tubman and one about Rosa Parks (Fiona’s personal hero). Though the stories were filled with cruelty and suffering, they were presented in such a way that they glowed with hope and pride. The music exhibit contained information about Georgia’s many black entertainers – Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Ray Charles. Little Richard’s piano was on display, with a sign that said “do not play Little Richard’s piano – he’ll know.” I joked that perhaps Little Richard himself was in the piano. Fiona gleefully backed me up, and we almost had Bridget believing it.

After a kickin’ chicken sandwich at a Zaxby’s, we were on our way to the coast, passing increasingly swampy land the further south we moved. Dinner was at a Toucan’s Ale House (our first one), where I enjoyed a mouth-watering barbeque sampler plate and some Sweetwater Georgia Brown. We later watched most of Donald Trump’s acceptance speech. It is discouraging that this angry, grating, freakishly orange man could one day be America’s president.

The next day, after picking up a Subway picnic lunch, we went in search of one of Georgia’s famous beaches. It took us quite a while to find it, as the signage isn’t great. The drive around St. Simon’s Island was pretty, though – pastel bungalows, and glimpses of a stunning blue ocean through strange, stunted, twisted trees draped with Spanish moss. The girls and I played in the waves, and beach-combed, while Ryan indulged in his favourite beach activity – sprawling to music. The salt water and sun exhausted us before we left the island, so we didn’t go far. Just to Kingsland, the highlight of which was the well of melted butter in the middle of the mashed potatoes I ordered at a Longhorn. Golden, salty, greasy heaven. Munich happened, but I shoved it to the back of my mind. Mass killings are yet another thing from which our road trip allowed me to escape – just for a few days.

The next day was laundry day …. And, as with pretty much everything, laundry is more fun on the road. Begging change in the parking lot, filling dodgy washers from thirty years ago with our nasty, worn-too-many-times clothes – knowing our suitcases will smell fresh for at least a day after the whole process is over. While the ancient dryer scorched our garments, we enjoyed of a dose of “Golden Girls” (the beloved TV trend of last year’s trip). Then, we were off to Albany, the childhood home of Ray Charles. En route, we stopped at a Sonic and drank thick, cold milkshakes while listening to 1973’s retro Casey Kasem. Mine was a peanut butter fudge shake, and I really can’t think of anything that would have improved it. That night, drinking our way through a Sweetwater taster pack, we discovered a series called “The Sixties” that kept us up late. Who knew that there were people other than JFK shot the day he died? Well, ok, possibly American history buffs knew. And people who lived through it. And many others. Maybe this is something only Ryan and I didn’t know – but we know now. Thank you, CNN and Tom Hanks!

Another Sunday – another failed attempt to attend mass.We found a church, but apparently the schedule on the website was out-dated – the place was empty. We went to a park instead. Not quite a church, but – after all – “the groves were God’s first temples”. These groves were proof that we were a long way from home. The air rang with strange insect and animal noises. There were unfamiliar bugs mating every few steps, and a bat flapping around even though it was mid-day. There was a pond that looked distinctively alligatory (yes, that is a word – I have made it so), and we steered wide of it. We visited an impressive monument to Ray Charles. A statue of Ray playing the piano slowly rotated while his music played continuously. Fountains surrounded the statue, and spreading out in several directions from the statue were walkways painted to look like piano keyboards. Appropriately, the interpretive plaque’s text was presented in both English and Braille.

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After a quick trip to Subway, we were on our way to Florida. After reaching Florida, we stopped at a gas station selling the usual assortment of decorative knives, guns, dust-covered eighties toys, garishly dyed shells – and cold pop. Given that it was 38 ̊ C even before considering the humidity, I felt no guilt about purchasing – and eagerly slugging – a 32 oz diet pop. Shortly after that, driving through Williston, we saw a sign for the unfortunately named delivery business “Big O’s Package”. What were they thinking? Then again, that night we rented a room in the Withlacoochie Motel. Maybe it’s a theme? Though I am unable to say the name of the place without snickering, I have to admit that the Withlacoochie Motel is adorable. (Real keys! On cheap plastic keyrings! Plastic chairs outside every room inviting people to just be!) We had the pool to ourselves, which is – of course – our favourite pool experience. We ate dinner in the slightly-tacky-but-sweet seafood joint next door. Ryan and I introduced Fiona and Bridget to fried alligator, which we enjoyed with a side of Cajun mayo. That night, over tangerine beer (yes, it exists – and it’s good) outside our room, we saw a hercules beetle attempting to plough through a plastic chair, heard a rattler warning us off, and encountered what we are almost certain was a baby bobcat. Nature firmly welcomed us to Florida.

You may be wondering why we went to Florida. Wasn’t Georgia the point of our trip? Well, yes – but we found ourselves with the ability and time to finally visit a place that’s been circling my mind like a plane wanting to land for years: Weeki Wachee. I was introduced to it by the video of a song among Ryan’s Top 500 songs: “Low C” by Supergrass. However, far from the crumbling bygone I was expecting, Weeki Wachee had a line-up around several blocks by 9 a.m., and there was a lot to see and do. We were there for the mermaids, though, and what a show! I’ve loved mermaids for years, and the little girl in me was enthralled.160161

Of course, this being the United States of America, the mermaids were not only graceful, talented and beautiful. They were also patriotic.

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Before leaving, we had our picture taken with the suspiciously dry Mermaid Chelsea.

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After brunch at an IHOP (red velvet pancakes …. *swoon*), we were moving north again, to Valdosta. We checked in to, bizarrely, a building that held both a Super 8 and a Days Inn. After a swim in the mercifully cool and refreshing pool, we had dinner at the Smok’n Pig.. We had ribs, brisket and pulled pork with eight different sauces, as well as seasoned fries and fried okra. The whole meal was amazeballs even before the dessert: peach cobbler topped with pecans and brown sugar, the best of Georgia à la mode.

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That night, we watched Bernie Sanders try to get his adoring fans to join Team Hilary, and then a horrible show about why planes crash. Because, you know, who needs to sleep?

The next night was spent in Carrolton, which we had visited on our honeymoon (thirteen years ago). At that time, we were camping, and there were only two of us. This time, we were in an Econolodge, and we have doubled in number. On our way there, we pulled into one of the tackiest gas stations I’ve ever seen (and that is saying something, given my considerable experience with gas stations of all stripes). There was a stick of burning incense wedged into the lotto ticket machine, and roll-on body oil in at least 25 scents. Fiona and Bridget went to the washroom, and gleefully reported to me that there was a vending machine selling Horny Goat Weed (whatever that is) and Black Jack condoms. After my trip to the washroom, I can confirm that both of these items were for sale – complete with full-colour cartoon illustrations (yes, a cartoon condom with facial features). In keeping with the tone of the joint, I bought a tall can of Natty Daddy malt liquor. 25 oz of booze for $1.89. Ryan said “it’s your head”, but I quite enjoyed it – and my head was fine down the line. The heat was still trapped in the concrete on the ground outside, but we detected the faintest whiff of cool in the air, and we soaked it in.

The next day, there was that funny feeling of things speeding up when you’re on a road trip, that sense of time flying away – a feeling I have never liked. Lunch was at Las Palmas, with good tortilla chips and salsa, and a chicken con queso dish that I adored. In the afternoon, we passed through beautiful mountains with clouds so low it felt like we could have reached up and grabbed them. We ended up in Dalton, “the carpet capital of the world”, and kind of ignored that designation. Our primary interest in Dalton was moonshine. The distillery had been in operation over a hundred years. The owner, complete with ZZ Top beard, was affable and eager.

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He explained how they make moonshine, and how they apply flavours, and offered unlimited samples. He was happy that we are Canadians, saying that Canadians really know how to have fun (“even women”). We tried several flavours – butterscotch, caramel (will someone please tell me the difference between those two things), peach, cinnamon – and some kind of 140 proof barley-based booze that blazed a burning trail down my throat and gave me goosebumps. We couldn’t buy hooch directly from the still, because of local liquor laws – but we could buy a souvenir from them for about $25, and be given a bottle of moonshine as a thank-you for visiting. It will be a real treat some Saturday night to crack the seal on our cinnamon ‘shine ….

That night, we were in Atlanta. Our hotel was just a five-minute walk from Turner Field, and when we got there we were pleasantly surprised: it turns out that if you show up less than 2.5 hours before the game and you agree you’re going straight into the stadium, you get your ticket for $1. For $4, we attended a Braves game! We had hot pizza, cold beer and frozen yogurt for dessert with at least eight kinds of candy on it. It was a relief when the blazing sun went down, since we were sitting directly in it and roasting through the first few innings.

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Next day, we made short work of S0uth Carolina, and ended up at a Days Inn with a beautiful pool and not much else. But if you’ve got kids and it’s blisteringly hot, if you’ve got a pool, you’ve got plenty! We enjoyed a Texas Roadhouse, Buckshot Amber and a show about a serial killer named Felix Vail. No wonder I don’t watch TV generally …. The next day, we ended up with the mixed blessing of a cloudy day, and I determined my outfit by smell-test (something unheard-of in the rosy beginnings of a road trip). So, here I sat in my least-smelly dress, enjoying the mellow feeling in the car and the coffee to go with. In Spring Creek, there were generously-stuffed hoagies, and a deluge of rain. We arrived late to the Sacred Heart of Jesus church, but we made it. A nice feeling …. After that, there was dinner at Los Toltecos, and Double D IPA – and “The Seventies” on CNN on which to geek out.

Our last full day on the road, there was a cool, grey mist through West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. For lunch, up a winding mountain, there was Cracker Barrel, one more time. Then there was nothing for the longest time – because the area was so isolated. On every road trip, sometimes more than once, there is that moment when you are pretty sure you’ll have to pee roadside. This was one of those moments. That evening’s dinner was at Friendly’s. A wonderful road trip indulgence, complete with ice cream for four.The next day, we were back in Canada with a border guard saying “welcome back, guys” – and reminiscing about our wanderings. It was great to see that our house was still standing, and have spaghetti on our own patio, and sleep in our own beds – but I have a feeling that, if the option had presented itself, another day on the road would have been eagerly greeted with my second-least-smelly dress and a smile.

My words seem to have dried up.

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I have a notebook that I carry with me everywhere I go. I pull it out of my purse often, to scribble – or build on – ideas for blog posts. When I use an idea, I scratch it out. There are many ideas in my notebook that have not been scatched out. Yet I have not written a post in a month …. Each time I try, something awful comes screaming to the forefront of everyone’s consciousness, and I can’t think of anything to say.

France.

Belgium.

Afghanistan.

Pakistan.

Iraq.

Bangladesh.

The Philippines.

France again.

Africa, all over the bloody continent.

Syria.

Russia.

America, America, America – and its cursed love affair with guns.

Trump.

Dallas cops dead. Black lives matter. All lives matter.

Plane crashes under mysterious circumstances.

Hostages taken, used as collateral – and murdered while cameras roll.

Children abused, children missing, children murdered.

Each time some new, awful headline leaps out at me from the newspaper or the internet, I try to make sense of it. I think about how I might frame it – what I could say about it. Then, I think about how many ways I’ve said the same damn thing over the same damn things – and I wonder what’s next. Heavy-hearted and just plain tired, I shrug and move on, because there isn’t anything else I can do. I have no comfort to offer because I’m fairly certain the next spectacularly rotten failing of humanity is just waiting to extinguish whatever tiny flicker I can coax to glow. And I’m not about to join the ranks of slacktivists hashtagging memes and feeling like they’ve made a difference when all they’ve done is add to the noise …. I can’t see that being satisfying or even meaningful.

So I guess I’m taking a break from writing …. ? I’m about to hit the road with my three favourite faces – our road trip is just minutes away. When I’m on the road, I tend to stay away from the internet. I get the odd bit of news from the free newspaper that some hotels hand out with their morning offering of coffee and muffins (or stale donuts or decisively firm pastries or, if we’re far enough south, biscuits and sausage gravy), or the radio. Ryan or Fiona or Bridget might announce something to me. But I won’t be drowning in it like I am here at home, wave after wave of sorrow and cruelty crashing over me while I start to understand why so many people tune out and watch videos of kittens.

I’ll be back. Life is still beautiful – and filled with things for me to get ornery about, too. And I will, of course, have to report on all the crazy, weird and wondrous things I come across as we wander across the map of North America. In the meantime, I pray peace and compassion and good will for us all.

 

A treat for all my fellow country fans (and another excuse to relive our big-ass road trip)!

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For a few years, country music was a guilty pleasure of mine. Then, I stopped caring what other people think, and country music became just plain pleasure. My love for country music started with my Dad – so many country songs bring back good memories of him. Though he’s been gone for thirteen years now, that love persists – and has grown stronger. Yeah, I’ve heard all the jokes. What do you get when you play country music backwards? You get your dog back, you get your woman back, you get your truck back …. How many country singers does it take to change a lightbulb? Two. One to do it, and one to sing a song about all the good times he had with the old bulb. A few times, I’ve also been treated to a yowling rendition of “there’s a tear in my beer ’cause I’m crying for you, dear”. Whatever. I like what I like, and it’s cool because I like it.

During our most recent road trip, rolling through rural Texas, we discovered 104.1 (“The Ranch”). Tall trees on either side, stretching toward a cloudless blue sky, and a cold Dr. Pepper and …. “Seven Spanish Angels”! This Ray Charles-Willie Nelson ballad gave me goosebumps and filled my eyes with tears when I was a kid. It still does. I sat transfixed in the passenger seat, soaking it in. That radio station took over our dial and held it nearly the whole afternoon (in direct contravention of our rule that we take hour-long turns with music in the car). 104.1 played so many beloved songs that I started writing them down, already knowing I would share them with you. So, break out the cowboy hat and oversized belt buckles …. Enjoy the cheesy, like “Cadillac Ranch” and “Older Women”. Enjoy the poignant, like “Back Home Again” and “Smokey Mountain Rain”. Enjoy all of it. Here’s a list of my favourites from that day, in the order the station played them, with links ….

“Cadillac Ranch” – Chris LeDoux

“Back Home Again” – John Denver

“Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” – Kathy Mattea

“If Heaven Ain’t Alot Like Dixie” – Hank Williams Jr.

“Fool-Hearted Memory” – George Strait

“It Must Be Love” – Don Williams

“Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” – Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson

“I’ve Already Loved You In My Mind” – Conway Twitty

“Drivin’ My Life Away” – Eddie Rabbit

“Smokey Mountain Rain” – Ronnie Milsap

“Older Women” – Ronnie McDowell

“All My Exes Live in Texas” – George Strait

“Long-Necked Bottle” – Garth Brooks

“The Ride” – David Allan Coe

“She’s My Rock” – George Jones

Disclaimer: I did my best to find videos that are not cringe-worthy. This is no small feat in the wild west of Youtube. Just close your eyes and focus on the music.

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Deep in the heart of Texas!

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Well, it’s been over a week since we pulled into our driveway after two weeks of airing it out, with no clean underwear and no groceries in the fridge and a to-do list as long as all four of our arms combined (because, of course, we were not at home doing stuff) …. Once upon a time, in a much smaller life that included only me, a bachelor pad and two cats, I’d have written about the road trip the evening of my return. These days, though, life gets in the way of writing, so it’s taken me a few days to do this.

We did, indeed, travel to Texas – and we had a great time. We started our trip by sleeping in. Usually, we hit the road early on the first day and have a McDonald’s breakfast somewhere down the road. However, our road trip excitement had been running so high the night before that we stayed up til two, drinking wine and talking non-stop. Now that I’m thirty-five, I can’t get up at the ass-crack of dawn after staying up til two. Just. Can’t. So the traditional sausage-n-egg mcmuffins and hash browns were eaten at the McDonald’s on Carling Avenue. As we left Ottawa, retro Casey Kasem was playing on The Jewel 98.5. The Stones’ sexy, rough-n-tumble “Brown Sugar” contrasted with the hauntingly lonely and resigned “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be” by Carly Simon. Ryan wondered aloud if anyone’s ever hung themselves to the latter as we headed north through dark forests and roadsides strewn with wild flowers. I imagine they have …. It’s a terribly sad song. Lunch was a lakeside picnic, and we spent that night at the River Mist Inn in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario. It was very pretty and clean, with perfectly spaced geraniums hanging from the awning. We walked to Loi’s Canton Kitchen and ate a mountain of the kind of Chinese food that we love. Greasy, flavourful and not authentic in the slightest. That night, after the girls were tucked in, Ryan and I enjoyed made-in-Barrie Smashbomb Atomic IPA by Flying Monkeys, and the fresh, cool night air.

The next day, we caught a mass at St. Patrick’s in Sudbury, and enjoyed a solid homily about valuing people rather than possessions. It’s something we need to hear more of these days …. We crossed the border into Michigan, and found ourselves spending the night in a run-down joint proudly advertising its possessions: “colour TV, showers, tubs, carpets, electric heat”. Sadly, it can no longer possesses an intact sign, as I broke the neon tubes that spelled “no vacancy” with a frisbee. Fiona and Bridget fearfully high-tailed it back to our room upon hearing the unmistakable tinkle of glass shattering, and I shamefacedly made my way to the front desk to confess. The guy on the desk didn’t seem to care, which was odd but fine by me. For dinner, we went to the Lone Wolf Saloon next-door. We had a delicious handmade pizza, two hotdogs, two beers and two rum-n-cokes for less than $30. Ryan and I were inspired by the tacky once-owned-by-a-nearby-casino carpet:

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Seriously, if ever we come across this pattern, we are going to lay it in some lucky room in our house …. We tried to sit outside with our beers, but (this being Michigan) the mosquitoes were vicious. We clamoured into our car to escape them, then thought how ridiculous it was to be getting back in the car at night after spending all day in it – so we returned to our room instead.

The next day took us through Wisconsin, and afforded us an unexpected peek at Lambeau Field – and a terrible five minutes when rain lashed sideways and wind rocked our car back and forth. Cars pulled off the highway one after the other to wait it out. Fiona and Bridget were nearly vibrating with anxiety. Although I spoke reassuringly to them, I nervously watched as the water rose on either side of the car and prayed for the downpour to stop. It did, and we were on our way again. Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” inspired a sing-along, and the sun came out. I basked in the lovely feeling of togetherness, the sweet pleasure of being able to reach out anytime and touch the three people I love best. We spent that night in an Americinn in Rochester, Minnesota, where we had the pool all to ourselves. The motel offered us two drink vouchers at the Ground Round next door. We used them for two frothy glasses of a local brew, Grain Belt.

After taking advantage of the continental breakfast, we headed into Iowa. Brilliant sunshine sharpened all the greens and yellows of the rolling fields, and the blue of the endless sky – and, fetchingly, the traditional red of the occasional barn. We made it to Missouri, and decided to stop for the night before hitting rush hour in Kansas City. The pool was heavenly, as was the beer we had chosen for that evening: Oculto.

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It took me a minute or two to convince Ryan to try a beer infused with tequila. The kicker: it is brewed in Houston. It would have been against the spirit of our trip to turn this beer down. In any case, it was delicious – and I later declared it to be the beer of the trip. I wish I had another one right now ….

The next morning, an indicator that we were a long way from home came in the form of biscuits-n-sausage gravy, offered at breakfast in the motel lobby. We ran into yet another storm, this one even more violent than the one in Wisconsin. Clouds the colour of charcoal lowered as we watched – it became so dark in a matter of seconds that the street lights came on. Chain lightning leaped across land so flat we could see each strike. We sat it out in a parking lot. Again, there was knife-edge tension in the back seat, four big eyes tracking our every twitch, waiting for signs that they should either panic or take a deep breath and smile. The storm cleared quickly, and we hit the road again, stopping for lunch at a place called Spangles in El Dorado. The food was amazing. We particularly enjoyed the cold, creamy milkshakes. For obvious reasons, however – the foremost being that we like our lives coronary-free – none of us ordered this:

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Just like last year, Kansas was scorching. Oklahoma was even hotter, and at the next opportunity we treated ourselves to giant fountain pops, overflowing with ice cubes. We gave up the fight against the draining sun at Ruby’s Inn in Purcell, and enjoyed dinner at Taco Mayo. It was the Subway of Mexican joints, where we ordered from an overhead menu and watched an employee assemble it for us. It was passable, and certainly filling.

And then we were in Texas …. The welcome centre was lovely. Well-kept and cool, with information organized by region. Every year, I get a kick out of rolling through our destination, flipping through a pile of literature on my lap containing all the delicious possibilities – all the things we might do. Poring over the glossy pictures of attractions, consulting the map to see what’s where and planning a route that includes everything (and always turns out to be entirely impossible). Soon after entering Texas, we had to run the gauntlet that is Dallas traffic. Bumper to bumper, weaving in and out, fending off aggression on all sides …. At one point, Ryan tried to get ahead of a car trying to squeeze into our lane. He lost the impromptu game of chicken, the car shot in front of us and – with a shower of glass and paint flakes – shattered the tail lights and crumpled the bumper of the car in front of it. With a squeal and a roar, it pulled out again and raced away, with its victim in hot pursuit. We passed more than one exit ramp where drivers grew weary of waiting their turn and drove up over the grassy bank to bully their way onto the street. We stopped at a Subway for lunch. The Subway was connected to a convenience store where they sold a strange assortment of cigarette rollers, body jewelry, bandanas sunglasses and souvenirs. There was, oddly enough, an entire revolving rack of wooden signs that said “A spoiled insert-dog-breed-here lives here.”, accompanied by a sketch of the breed in question. Ick. I’m fairly certain that whoever created those signs is the opposite of me. The strangest thing for sale was a selection of giant incense sticks with names like “Black Magic” and “Evening In”. “Money Blessing” was, natch, sold out. There was one called “Obama”. And of course we bought it ….

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We’re saving it for a special occasion.

In Waco, we were drawn to the Dr. Pepper Museum. Didn’t know there was such a place? Neither did we! It was quirky fun for the whole family. There was even a life-sized horse made entirely of bottle caps, described as their most popular photo op. Dinner was at a Texas Roadhouse, where we were served gorgeous bread and falling-apart ribs. Everything had a just-right smoky flavour. My margarita was Texas-sized – and amazing. We stayed at a Rodeway that night. We drank Lonestar beer in the smoke of some guy’s parking lot barbecue, keeping a wary eye on the swarming cockroaches.

This motel was out of everything. Pool towels, shampoo and conditioner, muffins in the morning, quarters for the washer and dryer – even toilet paper. The ice machine was out of ice when we hit it up, and we had to hang around waiting for it to make more. We made change with a fellow guest, and cleaned our clothing in the well-equipped-but-reeking-of-urine laundry room. As we were assured by our quarter fairy, “the room ain’t much to look at, but, mama, does that dyer dry”. We left for Houston with something seasoned road-trippers cherish: a fresh stash of underwear. On the way, we left the interstate and enjoyed rural Texas. It was dry and yellow – it obviously hadn’t seen rain in days – and what little breeze there was burned its way into our lungs. Lunch was great, though – we ate at Los Pepe’s in Mexia. It was a hole-in-the-wall affair, wood panelling tacked together and a humming pop machine in the corner. There were handmade tortilla chips and salsa in cut-off ketchup squeezers. I had a beef burrito smothered in queso and flanked by the classic rice and beans, and it was glorious. Where we later ended up couldn’t have been more different – the Houston Hyatt Regency. There was a glass elevator leading to an ultra-modern room – clean lines in neutral colours, the TV displaying a welcome message that included Ryan’s name, discreetly placed charge ports, a roof-top pool on the sixth floor. We took in a Houston Astros game that evening. They played the Texas Rangers, so the game was heavily attended. The seventh inning stretch included a rendition of “Deep in the Heart of Texas”. I had a delicious hotdog – seriously, ballpark dogs are the best – and Fiona and Bridget had enormous snow cones. Ryan and I tried a craft beer by a local brewery, which went down a treat in the sultry evening air. The Astros won, and the roof retracted for a dazzling fireworks show. We left the stadium on a high, only to confront an annoying Houston reality: the streets were virtually cab-less. And on a Friday night in one of America’s largest cities …. We did our best to avoid dark, scary spots and, after what seemed like a very long time, we finally flagged down a cabbie who informed us that there aren’t enough cabs in Houston. Ya don’t say!

The next day, after a belly-busting brunch at an IHOP in the boringly tasteful pinky-brown expanse of Sugarland, we turned our course toward the bottom of Texas. The sun was relentless. The trees became twisted, and prickly pears showed up. The grass was brown and crunchy, the pavement soft. Most of the radio stations played Spanish music. After a half-Spanish mass at St. Joseph the Worker church, we had a solid dinner at Big House BBQ. Ryan had nachos covered with beef brisket and sausage. Fiona and I split a taster plate of mesquite brisket, pork ribs and sausage. Bridget enjoyed the biggest corn dog I’ve ever seen. That evening, over cold Montejos garnished with a gas station lime, Ryan and I planned our next move: South Padre Island. It was a typical beach strip, festooned with fluorescent touristy tat and over-priced grills – and I loved it. We didn’t spent long there, but we had lunch at a crowded, chaotic right-on-the-sand restaurant, went for a walk along the shore – and visited Sea Turtle Inc. For a small donation, we toured a series of tanks that house rescued and recovering sea turtles, as well as plenty of educational material – and, of course, a gift shop in which to tool around. Favourite Sea Turtle Inc. resident? The enormous – and delightful – Gerry:

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Being Beth, of course, I left my water bottle in the gift shop and discovered this fact as I was getting into the car. I dashed back in for it. Having an especially Bethy day, I left our camera in the gift shop while retrieving my water bottle and discovered this fact over an hour after leaving South Padre Island. Saint Ryan patiently turned the car around and headed back to the damn turtles, while Fiona and Bridget took turns patting my shoulder and trying to make me feel better. Nobody made even the slightest remark about my stupidity adding two hours to our journey, though we were all end-of-day weary and hot. I have the sweetest travelling companions. That night was spent in Brownsville, a border town, where Ryan and I enjoyed Shiner Ruby Redbird, a tasty beer made with ginger and grapefruit. Around midnight, when we had finished our third, a gentleman in a uniform came by to tell us that we can’t drink beer in public and there is a curfew anyway, so could we please move inside our motel room? Who know? Now, we do. When in Brownsville ….

We drove a few miles along the Mexican border, passing shaggy untethered mustangs and hardscrabble farms and looking wistfully to our left the whole time. We were so tempted to slip across – I don’t know who likes to cross lines more, Ryan or me –  but current travel advisories suggest that this would not have been a smart move. Anyway, it was time to go north again …. So, after a pee break at a rest area complete with a “watch for snakes” sign, we turned our faces toward home.The desert became scrubland, which became fields. We drove through winding, picturesque La Grange (recommended enthusiastically by a Best Western receptionist who’s never heard the song). In a dusty one-streeter called Hearne, we stopped for gas and snacks. I was delighted to see that, along with the usual fare, the store featured a wide assortment of weaves, including one claiming to be a “realistic Marley braid”. While we were there, several black ladies with very fine hair came and went, so clearly someone saw a market and jumped into it with both feet. These were next to a shelf devoted to sanctuary candles. This is just one of the many things I adore about road trips.

We bade Texas adios in Texarkana, sleeping on the Arkansas side after dinner at Cattleman’s Steakhouse. This place was old-school – dark, rich furnishings, classic soup-and-tossed-salad starters and huge slabs of meat. Our waiter, a Kings fan, spent a joyful fifteen minutes talking hockey with Ryan – I imagine he doesn’t have many opportunities for conversation like that in Arkansas, so I indulged him by not yawning and digging my let’s go elbow into Ryan’s side. Next, we were in Tennessee, enjoying a night in Hurricane Mills. For those who are not country music fans, Hurricane Mills is where Loretta Lynn’s ranch is. I love Loretta Lynn. I saw her in concert years ago, in Branson. She wore a fuschia sequinned dress and gorgeous heels (which she kicked off as the concert wore on), and about a quarter-inch of make-up. Her voice was the same as it always was, though she was about sixty. So, of course, we had to have dinner at Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen, where I ate chicken-fried chicken, okra and cornbread, and happily browsed through years of memorabilia. This poster was my personal favourite:
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The cashier told us Loretta still comes by often, and I was disappointed that she didn’t drop in while we were there. There is, of course, a gift shop. I didn’t buy anything, though I was awfully tempted by the china dinner bells with Loretta’s face on the handle ….

The next night was spent in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, our first night in Kentucky since our honeymoon twelve years ago. The mountains were gorgeous, and the air was fresh and cool for the first time since we hit Kansas on our way south. That night, because there was no pool at the motel, Fiona and Bridget had their first bath in about ten days – because it’s summer, and this lazy mother has decided bathtubs and pools are interchangeable. Kentucky’s gentle rolling hills became West Virginia’s rugged mountains, and the radio stations dwindled. We’ve always been a little wary of West Virginia. If you get lost there, you can run into people who have no interest in helping you – and they might just be sizing up how much marbling there would be in your muscles while you’re asking them for directions. We pulled off at a place called Cooper’s Creek for a pee break and encountered bathroom graffiti that you just won’t find anywhere else. Apparently, two fine gentlemen named Elroy and Bobby (who live in a trailer on a hill across the street from the gas station) are “Hep C junkies” and “gay incest cousins”. Bobby is alleged to have a baby with his sister, which is nothing, as Elroy has three with his cousin. This story was a joint effort, as someone signing herself Heather agreed with all of it, and added the intelligence that they perform sexual acts together in public. The whole thing was circled by someone claiming to be from Kentucky, who scribbled “white trash at its finest”. Anonymous Kentucky, I concur.

The mountains became majestic as we entered Maryland – blue shadows in the distance, rolling green just ahead, all of it punctuated by tufts of clouds that looked close enough to touch. We reached an ear-popping, water-bottle-crushing altitude before we began to descend again. The Slumberland Motel, an old-fashioned little place with a fountain out front, is where we ended up. There was a gurgling stream behind it, and charming wooden swings under a canopy of trees. There was an enormous liquor store across the street – easily the size of a supermarket – where we bought two Baltimore-brewed six-packs: Full Tilt, a cream ale, and Dirty Little Freak. This is definitely the oddest beer I’ve ever tasted – a dark one laced with coconut, chocolate and caramel. I’m not sure whether I recommend it, but I enjoyed the experience.

We knew it was possible to make it home the next day, but we wanted that last night on the road – so we stopped in Binghamton, New York. It was just as well that we stopped, as the night featured heavy wind and rain, and lightning that lit up our whole room when it flashed. We were sad that our road trip was ending, but we all had a list of things we were looking forward to about our return to Ottawa. The next morning, swinging along the walkway between the lobby and our room with a cruddy motel coffee in my hand, I felt good. The sun was soft in the pale blue sky, it was as lovely a day as a traveller could hope for, and we were heading home after another epic adventure. This was our second shot at Texas, and I think it was a good one – but Luckenbach, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo want their chance, too. Someday ….

Note: This blog post would not be complete without a mention of “The Golden Girls”. We watched reruns of that show at least eleven evenings out of the fifteen we spent on the road, and it has become the most unlikely family favourite. Also, the J. Geils Band’s “Angel is the Centerfold”, which played an incredible five times on random radio stations between here and Texas (another family fave). I know you’ve been reading this blog post for about three days now, but do yourself a favour and click on the link to this piece of eighties awesomeness. You won’t regret it.

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It’s THAT time of the year again ….

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The Chepitas are off on another epic jaunt across the country. The hamsters have been packed off to a friend’s house, and the plants have been watered and left to their own devices. We’re less than 24 hours from leaving, and – as usual – we still havn’t decided where we’re going. Texas is being given heavy consideration. When Fiona was a baby, we travelled to Texas and …. well, it’s kinda big. We managed to make it to Lubbock (which contains the Buddy Holly Museum, in case you ever go there), and to a Rangers game in Arlington. We drove to El Paso, and walked with Fiona in a stroller across the border to Juarez (this was, of course, before one was likely to be beheaded, burned and dumped in a mass grave there). Oddly enough, we drove past George W. Bush’s childhood home. There’s still alot of Texas to see, though, so we’re thinking it’s time to return. If we can! In any case, you won’t be hearing from me for about three weeks. And, unless someone’s dead (or suddenly dizzyingly wealthy and in a sharing mood), I don’t want to hear from you, either. I tend to tune out and turn off when I’m travelling. If you find yourself missing me (please, please, please miss me), here’s a list of posts I’ve written about road-tripping that could be worth a second look:

1) What happens to a car when you practically live in it?

2) How NOT to kill your kids when you’re trapped in a moving vehicle with them ….

3) You should go Kansas. Yes, you should! It’s got chicken-fried steak and a salt mine.

Maybe you should do a little long-haul truckin’, yourself! See you when we get back!