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!

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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!

Nobody goes to Kansas! (Except us ….)

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I know it’s been a while since I last posted anything. We went on our annual big-ass road trip, and I don’t do much interwebzing when I’m travelling. The day after our return was the first day of school – fourth grade for Fiona and second grade for Bridget. (And how did that happen anyway? I feel so …. old. Or, at least, middle-aged.) For days, I told myself that it was ok that I hadn’t posted in a while because we had just gotten back from our trip and it was the first week of school and we had weekend guests coming …. but we’ve been back home for a week now, the guests have been and gone, and it’s now the second week of school. I can’t seem to find any more excuses – so I’m writing.

We went to Kansas. Take a moment to think about whether anyone’s ever said that to you. You probably came up with the same line that we heard from the border guard when we told him we were going to Kansas …. “Nobody goes to Kansas! Why are you going there?” Great, I thought, we’re going to get cavity-searched because we decided to go to Kansas for this year’s family vacation. Thankfully, he didn’t do that; he simply shook his head in bemusement and wished us a nice trip. And it was! It was raining the day we left, as often seems to happen on the first day. Bridget mentioned that she didn’t have her umbrella, and then asked, panic-stricken, what she would do if she needed to go to the bathroom. She couldn’t get out of the car in the rain, could she? I pointed out that she’s not made of sugar, and Ryan and Fiona razzed her. She didn’t take it well. Not wanting to ruin the first day of the trip, Ryan offered to let Bridget call him the baddest thing she could think of. She thought for several seconds, then her face spread into a devilish grin and she gleefully declared him a “butt-faced pooper”. We cracked up, and the term stuck around for the entire trip. It was later upgraded to “lovable butt-faced pooper”. I admit that some of my laughter was due to relief that what she came up with was so tame, since I am aware that both girls know nearly every swear word English has to offer.

That first day was also Fiona’s ninth birthday. She had asked if she could have another birthday on the road – so we left a day earlier than we had planned, with a cake that I had decorated inside a plastic container and thought about every two minutes or so until it was safely pulled from the trunk and presented. She wanted a “little green alien”: 001

She chose Cracker Barrel for her birthday dinner, which made all of us happy. She wanted a swim in the pool, but it was dark by the time we finished dinner and the pool had closed. So we swam the next morning in the rain. Extremities were numb by the time we left the pool, but we had done right by our birthday girl. Our little Bright Eyes is nine. Already. I’m happy and sad all at the same time – but that’s another post entirely. The rest of the day involved rolling through scenic New York and Pennsylvania, simultaneously admiring the mountains for their wild beauty and cursing them for interfering with the radio reception. And a speeding ticket around Allegany. New York has a bizarre system where you take a piece of paper from the cop and mail it to the nearest courthouse, declaring whether you wish to pay up or contest. If you want to pay up (and we did, since our car was going too fast and we really didn’t feel like showing up at a courthouse in rural New York a week later), the judge will decide what your fine should be based on your driving record in the state of New York and how many miles you were over the limit and mail you the judgement. Then, you mail back the money. Which I imagine goes to the First Stagecoach Bank of The New Worlde, in keeping with the antiquated system …. It ended in a lovely little town called Ridgeway, at a motel attached to a delightful Italian restaurant. We enjoyed beers in front of our room door, listening to a crowd of rednecks outside their room, arguing about whether a Canadian-style healthcare system should be adopted by America. Wonder if it was inspired by our license plate ….

The next day, we attended mass at a local church called St. Leo Magnus, then left Pennsylvania for a few minutes in West Virginia and the rest of the day in Ohio. We stopped to roll down a steep, grassy hill, just to shake off that been-in-the-car-too-long feeling. Dinner was at a Mexican place called Tumbleweeds, in Zanesville. Because margaritas were only $1.99 each, Ryan enjoyed one for the first time. I enjoyed two because, you know, $1.99! Fiona ate her first jalapeño pepper, and we all howled as she gulped water like her belly was on fire. Our six-pack that night was a yummy honey brown, which we had purchased at a drive-thru beer store. Yes, a drive-thru beer store. God bless America. We watched the MTV Video Music Awards together. Aside from Iggy Azalea’s and Rita Ora’s performance of “Black Widow”, I wasn’t overly impressed – but Fiona and Bridget enjoyed seeing all the glitter and glamour.

Monday brought us fully into the searing, screaming-cicada heat of the Midwest. Iced coffee was how I got my caffeine fix, in a gas station’s 16-ounce “medium” cup. I love how the US has ginormous everything, particularly the Midwest …. After panting our way through Indiana into Illinois, we stopped in Effingham (joke potential: endless) at an Econolodge. We spent over an hour splashing around gratefully in a pool, then sauntered across the parking lot to a restaurant called Niemerg’s Steakhouse, which gave me fried chicken done right.

We reached our destination on Tuesday, but did not encounter one of those lovely welcome centres that guide us through our visit to any given state. This was a bit dispiriting, but it’s happened before and we weren’t overly concerned. We joked that perhaps Kansas didn’t have any promotional material because, as many people had implied, there’s nothing to promote. We stopped in Lawrence, where the lobby of the Old Virginia Inn was fully stocked with what-to-do-in-Kansas pamphlets and books! After a delicious steak dinner at Longhorn, we spent the evening watching an Elvis biopic and excitedly flipping through pages and pages of Kansasia (not a real word – until now).

The next morning, we left the beaten track and headed down the back roads into the heart of the Sunflower State. I decided the occasion called for a little Hank Williams, and he wailed his way through golden cornfields, rolling hills dotted with hay bales and crumbling towns that seemed like they really were something once – all of it pressed down by an endless swath of bright blue. We stopped at a playground in one of the towns (Overbrook, I think), and burned off some energy. The playground was old, with scorching metal slides and a merry-go-round and a real jungle gym you could actually hurt yourself falling off (as opposed to the tiny plastic facsimiles that a toddler could conquer), and we loved it. We had lunch at a diner called Cindy’s Family Café, which featured beaded pennants made by the mother of one of the waitresses, and other assorted tat. I tried chicken-fried steak for the first time, and fell in love. Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but it was really tasty …. The waitress yammered away with everyone in the restaurant, including us. She asked us why we were in Kansas, because “nobody goes to Kansas”. When she asked us where we were from, we told her Ottawa, and added that it’s the capital of Canada. She said “oh, really – I thought the capital of Canada was Cue-beck”. We also talked briefly with a one-legged man named Bob, who rasped that he had spent most of his life trucking grapes to Winnipeg and then wheat to Lodi. In Hutchinson, we discovered “one of the eight wonders of Kansas” (yes, the sign actually said that): Strataca Underground Salt Museum. Going down in a rickety mine-shaft elevator to 650 feet below the surface is something I never thought I’d be bold enough for – but I did it, and so did my three travelling companions. The salt mine was dark and frightening, yet strangely beautiful. The walls sparkled, and the air was purified by the salt. Apparently, this underground salt stash was created when the water covering North America dried up, and it runs all the way to New Mexico. We rode a train through the mine, hearing little snippets about miners’ lives in particular and salt in general, and peering into parts of the mine that have shrunk over time (or even collapsed). At times, panic would well up inside my chest, and I’d fight it down. It was irrational, I knew, and I wanted to make the most of this odd experience. I have yet to hear about the other seven wonders of Kansas, but maybe we’ll have a second go at Kansas someday and make them our goal. We had a late-night dinner at a Denny’s in Wichita, and the girls practically fell into bed. Ryan and I sat under the low-flying planes from Wichita’s airport (classy location, I know) and planned our Thursday.

We spent the next day seeing more of the Kansas countryside on our way to Kansas City (yes, technically, Kansas City is in Missouri – but it’s pretty close anyway). We checked into an uncharacteristically nice hotel (for us, anyway) – a Four Points by Sheridan directly across from the K. We had a little swim while our nasty old-suitcase-in-a-hot-trunk laundry traumatized the washers and dryers of that elegant establishment, then headed to a Royals game. While I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about baseball, I love ballparks. I love the hot dogs and cotton candy, the buzz of the crowd, the cheesy-but-infectious chants and clapping. I love watching people love their team. Ryan and I were excited to see that the K is catered by a local brewery called Boulevard, which meant a decent selection of beers was on offer. We each had a truly refreshing “lemon ginger radler”, and went back for more. Unfortunately, the Royals lost in the tenth inning to the Twins, who – annoyingly enough – had lost in their home town when we saw them last summer. Being in the ballpark of the winning team is a very cool feeling, but it seems that teams lose more than they win when we’re in attendance ….

We enjoyed a badly-needed sleep-in on Friday morning, and had brunch at an IHOP – the crepes I ordered were amazing. We had one of those conversations that happens rarely in day-to-day life, but all the time on a road trip – a conversation that was allowed to meander down all sorts of side trails because there was time. Bullying, and whether Ryan and I were popular when we were kids (answer: no-yes-maybe). A sad story about an unpopular kid in their school whose brave attempt at a talent show number was a bust, which added to her social woes. My advice to Fiona and Bridget was just to be nice. Be generous, be kind, be themselves, and one day they’ll find their crowd – and understand that popularity is not as important as being true to yourself and the people you love. Down Syndrome, and what chromosomes are, and how two Xs make a girl and an X and a Y make a boy. The connection between chromosomes and aging. I wish we could have more of those conversations …. Not long after that, we ran into crazy, blinding, road-flooding rain. A gully washer. Despite Ryan’s assertion that all the gullies had been washed, the rain followed us into Iowa, accompanied by the occasional sky-splitting bolt in the distance. In Mount Pleasant, we had the bad luck to encounter the Old Threshers’ Reunion. We were turned down by a Best Western, and scored the second-last remaining room in a Rodeway. Yet another amazing thing about road trips: you discover things you never knew were things. Mount Pleasant lived up to its name anyway. We had a mouth-watering dinner at a Pizza Ranch, then a swim in the pool and a soak in the hot tub. Amazingly enough, neither facility was crammed with squealing little FFAs – and it was a relaxing way to wind down after the stormy drive.

Saturday took us into Wisconsin. The mountains reappeared, and the trees became thicker and darker. We ended up at the Best Night’s Inn in Sparta, a pretty little roadside motel with wooden cupboards smelling of summer camp, and (bizarrely) scarlet carpet and mattresses. The air was crisp and clean. Sparta calls itself the “cycling capital of America” – you can file that under stuff-you-never-knew-because-you’ve-never-been-to-Sparta. We attended mass at St. Patrick’s Church, where prayer requests were announced for Annemarie Cooter and Benjamin Semen. Ryan and I managed to keep straight faces, against all odds. You just can’t make this stuff up …. We walked to a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint called Slice of Chicago for what might have been the best pizza we’ve ever had, accompanied by wonderful local beers. For the first time since Pennsylvania, the night air was cool. We dragged a radio outside with us to listen to a broadcast of retro Casey Kasem from the very station we listen to online every Saturday night. It was a perfect evening; how often do we get to say that?

The next day was long …. We stopped to climb some hoodoos, but mainly we were pushing our way home. We saw the promise of fall in a patch of undersized-but-already-bright-orange pumpkins, and in the splashes of red, orange and gold in the leaves. There was the gentle glow of a late summer dusk beside Lake Michigan, signs advertising pasties every twenty-five feet, and something called “The Honest Indian’s Tourist Trap” (hailed by a hand-lettered sign). That evening’s dinner was at a seafood joint on the Michigan side of Sault Ste Marie, with quite possibly the best crab legs I’ve ever had.

We crossed the border the next morning, the first day of September, and knew we were in Canada when we passed two Tim Horton’s in less than ten minutes. It was nice to be home, and fall is great in its own way, but there was that bittersweet feeling that always comes at the end of a road trip: we wanted just one more night.