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:
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.
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:
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 ….
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:
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:
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.