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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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.

 

Cause of death: Stupidity

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Last week, on my way home from dropping Ryan off at work, and Fiona and Bridget off at school, a car seemingly appeared out of nowhere and loomed in my rear window. I nervously increased my speed to make some space between us. This was unnecessary, as the car proceeded to shoot sideways into the right lane and roar past me. I like a good gander at a lunatic as much as the next person, so I glanced to my right. The driver was – of course – blabbering away on his cell. Not cupped close to his head surreptitiously, either, but shamelessly brandished about a foot away from his mouth like a bloody microphone. I watched in helpless horror as he ran a red light (nearly taking out a pedestrian) and faded from sight. If he dies driving that way – or, worse, kills someone else – the cause of death will have to be listed as “stupidity”. No matter what measures are introduced, and there have been many, some people still insist on chatting on their hand-held device while driving. Here in Ontario, the minimum fine is $400, and three demerit points are applied to your driving record. But that guy – and others I see daily – still want to yack and drive. For an extra dollop of stupid, there are people who text and drive. At least during a phone call your eyes are still on the road …. You can always tell who’s texting while driving because they are slow to react to everything and their eyes are fixed firmly on their lap.

This irritates me, and reminds me of the darkly entertaining Darwin Awards. Basically, these are tongue-in-cheek awards posthumously presented to people who’ve managed to remove themselves from the gene pool in breathtakingly stupid ways. And there are alot of stupid ways to die. Walking and texting …. right into oncoming traffic and open manholes, right off bridges and cliffs. There is now a Wikipedia page dedicated to people who are injured or die while taking selfies. Apparently, last year, more people were killed by selfie attempts than shark attacks. Selfies with guns, selfies on train tracks, selfies perched perilously on cliffs during storms …. People are trampled to death in pursuit of cheap electronics on Black Friday. Every year during the Stoning of the Devil in Mina, people are stoned, too – and crushed. According to the Washington Post, tens of thousands of people are killed by guns in America every year, whether accidentally or intentionally. Yet many Americans loudly and proudly defend their right to own and use any number of any type of guns. Not just the loopy ones no one listens to, either …. This is the Christmas greeting sent out by Michele Fiore, Republican and elected member of the Nevada Assembly:

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Merry ducking Christmas, everyone! (See what I did there? Fine. I made myself laugh, anyway.)

In 2015, two people were shot by toddlers. Yes, toddlers. Thirteen toddlers killed themselves, and more injured themselves or others. I guess gun-lovers love their guns so much they don’t ever want to put them away (or even employ the safety catch). In fact, the story that inspired today’s BethBlog rant is about a woman shot by her four-year-old son. In a karmic twist, Jamie Gilt is a high-profile pro-gun activist who has already introduced her son to target shooting with a .22. Two days ago, she was driving with two things in the back seat: her son and a loaded .45 semi-automatic. The boy picked up the gun, aimed at his mother and shot her in the back through the driver’s seat. It looks like she’ll live, and her son (thankfully) was unharmed. Less than a month ago, Gilt posted the following on her Facebook page:

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I guess now she needs to consider whether she needs an extra gun to protect herself from the child she is protecting with her gun.

A peek at the top causes of death in Canada in recent years reveals that we’re really good at killing ourselves slowly, too. Heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, accidents and diabetes are numbers 2 through 6 (respectively). Yet people still keep eating like a fat man in a circus. People still smoke like chimneys and drink like fish. We know that we should wear seatbelts and helmets, that we should look before we cross, that we should leave space between ourselves and the car in front of us …. but how many of us do that every time? We have vaccines, but not all of us use them. Some people operate daycares that are only for the unvaccinated. Or, as I call them, petri dishes with no lids. Years of people using antibiotics incorrectly has resulted in a number of resistant strains of bacteria – superbugs. A surprising number of travellers ignore advisories and happily jaunt off to hotspots, then come home in enclosed spaces with recycled air to ignore quarantine recommendations. Some of us put our faith in quack medicine rather than science, sometimes with tragic results. For example, Alberta couple David and Collet Stephan are currently on trial for allowing their toddler son to die of meningitis rather than seek medical care for him (of course, they didn’t have him vaccinated, because vaccines do not grow on trees or fall from the sky in rain drops. Amazingly enough, water with maple syrup, juice with frozen berries and finally a mixture of apple cider vinegar, horse radish root, hot peppers, mashed onion, garlic and ginger root did nothing to improve his condition. They called an ambulance only after little Ezekiel stopped breathing. These idiots have three other children. Let’s hope they never suffer from more than a common cold, lest they become victims of stupidity-by-proxy, too. Most of us continue to buy huge quantities of mass-produced junk that is bleeding the planet dry of everything we need to live. We’ve been talking about the depletion of earth’s clean, drinkable water for decades; yet, selfish assholes still keep pouring it down the drain for the love of clean decks and cars, and green grass.

There really isn’t anything special about those shirts that say “I’m with stupid”. Because, these days, we’re all with stupid. It’s really just a matter of what kind of stupid is going to be listed on our death certificate ….

Disclaimer: No, I am not perfect. Sometimes I am very stupid, myself. I just hope it doesn’t kill me because then people will throw this blog post all over the internet and the headlines will say “blogger blogged about stupidity then died of it”. Then again, who can resist a shot at being famous? Hmmm ….

 

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!

When in Cuba ….

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To anyone who put their entire existence on hold waiting for my next post …. I’m back! (Oh, and that should be everyone! Right? Right? Hey, are those crickets ….?) I was in Cuba for a week. Warm, sunny, salty Cayo Coco. After living in God’s freezer for months, it was heavenly. It was an adventure for our whole family. For one thing, since our car isn’t waterproof, we couldn’t take one of our epic road trips to get there – so we took our first flight together since 2009. Fiona was three and Bridget was one when we flew to Newfoundland for my brother’s wedding, and we were so traumatized by the horror of flying with two toddlers that it has taken us six years to gather the courage to do it again. For another thing, Fiona and Bridget had never been south of Miami – never mind a tropical island. There was a little reef on the left side of the beach where we saw schools of beautiful fish, and a huge red starfish. Pelicans skimmed the water just a few feet away, scooping up the unlucky critters swimming too close to the surface. They had also never experienced the lavishness of an all-inclusive resort.  We all sharpened our limited Spanish a little with the servers and staff.

Needless to say, we had all looked forward to this trip. The day we told the girls we were going, 54 days before take-off, they squealed, squacked, squeaked and squeeed. (Not a word, you say? Well, it is now.) Then they made a countdown chart. Sadly, they started at the wrong end, so every time they crossed out a number they had to subtract the number of crossed-out numbers from 54. Taking a sunny vacation and practicing arithmetic – how’s that for multi-tasking?

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I was just as excited as they were, and Ryan was almost there, too (he’s not big on heat or swimming – but he loves a chance to take off on an adventure as much as any of us). At times, though, it seemed that our excitement was rivaled only by the zeal with which people set out to dampen it.

Oh, Cuba – don’t expect good service, they’re all on island time. Cuba? Bring snacks; the food is awful. You’re going to Cuba – you’ll enjoy yourselves, but it’ll be a step down from any other island you may have visited. Bring toilet paper, and just close your eyes whenever you use the washroom. Well, at least Cuba is cheap …. Just remember, you get what you pay for.

Many people were excited on our behalf, of course, and celebrated the news of our impending escape from the latest ice-pocalypse with us. Thank you, all you rays of sunshine! You know who you are. However, as everybody knows, negative voices last longer in our minds than positive ones, and I was really getting annoyed by all the Eeyores around me.

Well, now that I’ve returned, I’m here to offer my opinion (the only one that matters in the world of BethBlog): Cuba was wonderful. We swam in the ocean every day, between bouts of lounging on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. The pools were large and just the right temperature to be refreshing without being chilly – and they were very clean, considering that they were used by droves of sweaty, sunscreen-coated people every day. There was a show every night, presented by a crowd of very talented (and beautiful) young people. Latin dancing, a Michael Jackson tribute, a couple of pool parties. The sexy man / woman competitions were just plain cheesy, and probably would have been deeply embarrassing had the participants been sober. The last show, though, was spectacular. It was performed in the pool. The women danced on the shoulders of the men, who were standing chest-deep in the pool. They danced on the back of a woman who was being held by a row of men. They formed pyramids and dove from the top. Then, they sashayed out of the water and danced some more, poolside. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy. Those smiling girls can dance on their smiling wet colleagues, but I can’t get through a week without breaking a glass ….

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The lobby, bars and restaurants were all nicely decorated and breezy. The piano bar piano, though badly out-of-tune, was tickled by a very fine player. In fact, we bought Masai’s CD. The CD was recorded using an in-tune piano, which showcases his skills nicely. The resort staff were friendly and affectionate, and many went out of their way to make sure we were having a good time. If I ordered wine at any of the restaurants, my glass was never empty for more than five minutes. Some of them remembered my drink preference from day to day, and would greet me with a playful “hola, vino blanco”. They treated Fiona and Bridget especially well, telling them how beautiful they are, pinching their cheeks and patting their heads, crafting flowers out of paper or palms for their hair.

And – are you ready? Ok. There really wasn’t anything wrong with the food. In fact, I ate something different every day, and found a few favourites I returned for over and over. The omelette bar, pasta bar and pizza bar were great. The buffet offered a dizzying array of desserts at lunch and dinner. There was a restaurant on the beach, with a view of the ocean, that served tasty pizzas. There was an Italian place, and a Japanese place, with fixed menus. We liked the Italian place so much we went there for two of our six dinners. The Japanese place offered show-cooking. Chopping and tossing meat, and giving us a chance to catch it on skewers, drawing a picture on the grill with eggs, shaping a mound of rice into a heart, sending flames three feet into the air. The end result was enjoyed by our whole group.

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There was a beer garden, open 24/7, serving burgers and hotdogs, and hand-cut fries.The hotdogs were as good as any you’d order in a ballpark. The last two days of our stay, the beer garden served beer-battered fish so tender and flavourful that everyone ordered seconds. There were beach-and-pool-side grills serving ribs and chicken. There was an ice cream shop painted in bright colours, from which the girls ordered many cool, smooth treats.

Were some things not-so-great at Hotel Playa Coco? Sure. The public washrooms were, at times, atrocious. To be fair, though, they were being used all day every day by a whole lot of entitled (and often drunk) tourists who didn’t feel any sense of ownership or courtesy. Most of us clean up after ourselves wherever we are, but it’s tough to keep up with the ones who don’t. Depending on where you ordered a coffee or drink, it might take the servers a while to come back around to you – but they always did. I never went without anything I asked for, and they were always aware of time, and apologetic if I had to wait longer than a few minutes. The jerk who ran the wine bar tried to overcharge us, arguing about the number of glasses consumed by our group. This was settled, and we moved on. On the last day, we ordered a shuttle to take us and our luggage to the lobby. It took forever (and multiple pestering phone calls and desk visits) to arrive. We set out with our luggage ourselves, and were quickly helped by two resort employees voluntarily. However, this isn’t unique to Cuba – I’ve been bilked in many parts of the world, including right here in Ottawa, and I’ve been helped many times by kind people who really didn’t have to. There was very little orange juice. You might get a glass of it at breakfast, but you probably wouldn’t. Milk was served warm. The cheese – all the cheese, even the cheese slices placed on my burgers – had an odd smell, taste and texture. Not necessarily bad, but odd. The seafood was more adventurous than what you might see at a seafood buffet here – there was a tray of some creatures that looked like tiny octopuses, complete with heads.

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The shrimp still had legs and eyeballs (much to Fiona’s delight). Ryan ate a piece of black pudding, and described it as “taking a shot of blood”. In Cuba’s defence, it was labelled black pudding – he was warned. The ketchup tasted a bit like very mild salsa. The fruit selection was not conventional – slices of guava featured heavily, as did prunes, dates and dried apricots. The bananas were tiny, and very sweet. They looked awful on the outside, but we learned not to judge a banana by its cover. The watermelon seemed to consist mainly of seeds. No apples, no berries. A few times, Fiona and Bridget turned up their noses at the food, or said they wanted “real” insert-item-that-disappointed-them here. I had to gently remind them that we were in a different country, and we should take it like they make it – and that, even though it wasn’t what we were used to, it was still real. Once or twice, I threw in the fact that it must be annoying for the servers to see us tossing out things they could never afford (yeah, I went all Mom on them). They ate a wide variety of foods, and thought most things were just fine.

Here’s the thing: travelling is supposed to expose you to new things, broaden your mind. It’s supposed to be memorable, throw you out of your comfort zone – and make you appreciate home, too. You’re not doing that if you’re insisting that everything be just the way you like it everywhere you go. Why would you want someone else’s closest attempt at what you like, if you could have what they’ve honoured as their culture, and perfected, instead? When in Rome (or, in this case, Cuba), eat the guava and weird cheese, and wash it down with pineapple juice or (if you prefer) Cuba Libres and Cristal cerveza. No, you won’t like it all – but now you’ll know that, rather than just assuming it, and you’ll never forget how you learned it. You have the rest of your life to drink orange juice.

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.