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Previously: Shoney’s and Kevin Costner
INTERSTATE 94, VICINITY OF EAU CLAIRE, WISCONSIN—”Come on, highway!” Dad is reprimanding the road surface for jostling the Camry and causing the Gordon Lightfoot CD to skip.
Unbelievably, we are on the last leg of our odyssey—fast approaching the Badger State’s western border and the promised land of 10,000 lakes. We did end up stopping last night—at an AmeriHost Inn in northern Illinois somewhere. As the trip has gone on, Dad has abandoned the Ma-and-Pa Principle of hotel selection in favor of the new principle of Stop-at-the-First-Thing-You-See-When-You-Get-Off-the-Freeway. Jenny and I aprove of this new principle, since few Ma and Pa Places have 24-hour hot tubs (as the AmeriHost Inn did). Our dining discretion has also taken a nosedive—we’ve gone from the New England Culinary Institute to Shoney’s to McDonald’s, which has supplied both our meals today, filling our bellies and the Camry’s backseat with McRubbish.
But no more Ma and Pa Places, no more Shoney’s, no more Colonial Village Motels, no more La Gue Inns—we’re almost home. And Dad’s already talking about next year.
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Previously: The Camry gets an oil change
INTERSTATE 39, SOUTH OF ROCKFORD, ILLINOIS—”Excuse me, I just need to stretch this out.” Jenny pardons herself as a Nike sneaker appears over my right shoulder. 12 hours in the Camry, and some of us are getting a little stiff.
As “the last vestiges of the sun disappear into the west” (Dad has taken to waxing poetic), we press onward. After the last cassette, an Art Garfunkel concert (typical onstage comment from Art: “The acoustics here are so good, the dome over the stage here must be the same shape as the roof of my mouth!”), we’ve finally hit rock bottom with Dad’s tape collection. Let me tell you, there is just nothing as nice at the end of a long day of driving as the silky strings of Mantovani.
“Keep it under 65—no need to rush,” instructs Dad when I’m at the wheel. “We’ve got plenty of miles and hours ahead.” Just why this fact suggests going slower eludes me—but far be it from me to question the wisdom of my elders.
Given that we didn’t visit any Navy buddies or historic attractions today, it was a good thing that we had three interesting meals. Breakfast was of the continental variety, free at the Ramada this morning. It was served in the “breakfast room” (so labeled with a bronzish placard), where I sat munching my bagel, watching the Kevin Costner classic The Postman and listening to another group of guests converse about why an acquaintance is no longer drumming for Mary J. Blige (he was canned for getting too fancy with his licks).
Lunch, in northern Kentucky, was the brunch buffet at Shoney’s. The restaurant was filled with folks in their Sunday best, apparently stopping in for the Shoney’s special after church. (The way the place emptied out right on schedule, I was led to speculate that local liturgy schedules were coordinated with the Shoney’s buffet hours.) I have a friend who once drove across the country, stopping at every Shoney’s along the way. Despite enjoying the macaroni and cheese very much (I could just picture the kitchen staff stirring a shimmering vat of Sysco cheese sauce), I am not tempted to replicate that feat.
Dinner, finally, was at a faux Australian place somewhere in southern Illinois. Deciding to eat light after our lunchtime Shoney’s spectacular, we shared an appetizer and each had a salad and a dessert. For having eaten “light,” we felt somewhat overfull afterwards (“like a balloon,” said Dad), but Jenny, a newly minted registered nurse, assured us that the fat from the dessert would adhere to the fiber from the salad and not be absorbed. We took heart.
So on we press. Will we stop? When? Where? Ever?
NEXT DISPATCH: Home, theoretically.
MOUNT HOPE, WEST VIRGINIA—Hello from scenic southern West Virginia, home of such famous family attractions as (I kid you not) Hatfield-McCoy Recreation Area, the Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine, and the Mystery Hole. (If I knew, I’d tell you.) But no time for fun and games—we’re finally en route home.
We were up at eight today, wanting to avoid the rush at Monticello—Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Charlottesville, Virginia. We piled into the Camry and, after navigating us onto the scenic route, Dad fell asleep in the back seat, leaving Jenny and me to appreciate the Virginia vistas.
We woke him up in the Monticello parking lot and took the courtesy bus up the hill to the estate. Charged with the video camera, I caught plenty of footage—mostly of the outside of the gift shop while I waited for my travelling-companions to emerge.
Before turning west, we treated the Camry to an oil change and checked the UVa campus out. (Jenny and I meandered around the grounds and mingled with the reunioning alumni while Dad struggled to extricate the Camry from an awkward position where it had become wedged among caterers’ trucks.) As the sun sank in the sky, we headed west on Interstate 64, imagining that after awhile we’d find a friendly small town in which to dine and spend the night.
Not so fast, Yanks. Our first stop was Covington, Virginia—which turned out to be completely dead except for a stately penitentiary. As we drove through downtown, Dad observed that “You could fire a cannon her and not worry about hurting anyone!” (There were a few other cars in town, but Dad recognized prestige when he saw it: “A Camry! In Covington!”)
We moved on to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where the only two operating businesses of any note seemed to be a shop named after its specialty—”GUNS”—and a huge blue-blood resort that Dad (whose travelers checks came in twenty dollar denominations) figured had to cost upwards of a thousand dollars a night. “I’d be signing travelers checks until next week! And then I’d be doing dishes!”
Finally, though, we found a good ol’ Ramada Inn here in Mount Hope. They’re very friendly here, even though I put my foot in my mouth with the gift shop cashier. Seeing the university decals Dad proudly sports in the Camry’s back window, the cashier asked me, “So who goes to Harvard—you or your sister?”
“Um, I do.”
“What do you study?”
“Really? That’s the one class I got a B in this semester.”
“The rest were As.”
“Oh—sorry. Do you study sociology in high school?”
What can I say? She looked young! Anyway, it made me feel particularly badly that I had to pay for $1.06 worth of postcards with a twenty-dollar bill.
NEXT DISPATCH: Graceland?
Previously: Starfighters and Crab Cakes
KINGS TOWN, MARYLAND—”It’s a Camry caravan!” We were driving into Rock Hall for dinner, following Dad’s friend Peter and his wife in their Camry, and Dad was taking pride in our shared Camryhood.
Gratifyingly, Peter shares Dad’s respect for things Toyota. When we were able to park directly in front of the restaurant in tiny Rock Hall, I asked Peter if we were in valet parking. “No,” he replied. “We’re in Camry parking.”
Earlier today, the Camry was not having such an easy time of it—as I was navigating it through the Acme Foods parking lot, a silver-haired Old Line Stater backed out of her spot, bringing her rear bumper into abrupt contact with the Camry’s right rear wheel well. Never fear, though: the Camry prevailed and, save for a small scrape, was little worse for the wear. The other car’s bumper, however, had gone from comfortably convex to uncomfortably concave. The driver worried about how to explain to her husband the damage to his brand-new car. “Just tell him you came back from shopping and found it that way,” advised Dad. Minnesotans: ambassadors of honesty to the world.
We spent another pleasant day at Peter’s—yes, there was a dip in the Chesapeake for Jenny, Peter, and me. While the three of us were able to avoid slipping on the mossy rocks, Dad was not so fortunate when he ambled down to “get some footage” with the video camera. While Jenny actually witnessed Dad lose his own “footage” on the rocks, all I saw as I came up from the water was Dad’s legs flailing in the air. “Don’t worry!” he called out to us, triumphantly holding the camera aloft. “Saved the camera!” In fact, after sitting up from his fall he remained sitting to lend stability to a few more minutes of footage.
Like the Camry, Dad survived his impact with only a few scratches and a mark (in the Camry’s case, some paint from the car’s other fender; in Dad’s case, some water from the puddle in which he’d landed) on the right rear.
NEXT DISPATCH: The Camry gets an oil change.
Previously: Cheese Steaks?
ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA—”Smell that air!” chortled Dad. “Doesn’t that smell fresh?”
We were on a crowded six-lane highway and Dad had just lit a cigarette—yet somehow the air smelled fresh and clean. Such is the heady nature of lie on the open road—for some, at least.
Earlier, we had bid farewell to the friendly folk at the Colonial Village Motel, where we had spent a none-too-restful night thanks to the clamor of the swans and ye olde heating system, which turned on and off with a horrible racket several times during the night. I must concede, while we didn’t get much sleep at the Colonial Village, the temperature was very well-regulated. (And for those who wished to regulate their temperature further, the establishment even featured an outdoor pool—thankfully separate from the goose pond, which presumably was another opportunity for aquatic recreation. “They didn’t tell us there was a pool!” exclaimed Dad as we drove away. “Oh—there’s no water in it. Guess that’s why.”)
After a power breakfast at the local IHOP (the coffee shop at the Colonial Village turned out to consist of four card tables, a coffee pot, and an empty basket which, Jenny suggested, may at some point have held something edible), Dad turned the Camry’s nose southward and we headed for the District, where an old friend of Dad’s (deceased) mother lives.
Three uneventful, unscenic hours later (highlights: a pizzeria fire in downtown Philadelphia and a decent glimpse of the Orioles’ ballpark), we arrived here at a Comfort Inn (no available Ma and Pa Places). The rooms are pleasantly unexceptional—although Dad is jealous of the two phones and mini-fridge in the room Jenny and I have.
Dinner with my grandmother’s friend later—for now, we chill. Dad’s watching the Weather Channel, Jenny’s reading Three to Get Deadly…and I’d better grade that last paper.
NEXT DISPATCH: Starfighters and Crab Cakes.
Previously: Hail Fair Cornell
DANBORO, PENNSYLVANIA—Yes, there were cheese steaks. It had been a question because last time Dad and I visited his Philadelphia Navy buddy (two years ago), Dad and I had a bad experience—a night of illness attributed at the time to the cheese steaks we’d had with George (the Navy buddy) and his wife. But when Dad (in an unguarded moment) revealed our past plight to George, it turned out that George and his wife had not suffered any similar discomforts that night. So once again we dived into Philadelphia’s legendary specialty with abandon.
Breakfast this morning had been Royal Muffins (suspiciously similar to what the Sleeper Dining Hall used to refer to as B.U. Muffins) with Nikki and Peter at the Royal Court Restaurant. Thus fortified, we set off on a tour of Cornell University.
When we arrived at the campus, Dad opted to wait in the Camry while Jenny and I strolled around in search of the Quad. We were unable to locate said Quad, but fortunately we did locate a friendly undergraduate who was willing to ferry us in his black sports car back to the spot where Dad had been waiting for, by that time, over an hour. He had run into Peter and the two of them had been chatting, though, so he was not too put out. (Probably also had another nap.)
The drive to the Philadelphia area was relatively brief, despite an unscheduled detour to New Jersey when Dad moved to the back seat for a nap and left me in charge of the road atlas. (At least we got to cross the beautiful Delaware River—twice.) So we checked into the Colonial Village Motel around four o’clock in the afternoon. The principal attraction here besides the generally quaint atmosphere (Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe opens at eight) is an actual pond with actual geese that actually honk all actual night. (I may yet actually smother them with one of these pillows full of feathers from their kin.)
So now we come to the cheese steaks, which we enjoyed over more Navy stories. (“Man, didn’t those Russian cruisers look cool?”) As far as our mysterious illness goes, we’re hoping lightning won’t strike twice in the same place. (Of course, we are in a different motel this time…)
Previous dispatch: A Day at Don’s
ITHACA, NEW YORK—The phone rang at eight o’clock this morning, jolting Jenny and me awake. It was Dad, calling from his room down the hall. “Coffee’s ready!”
It was a good thing we got an early start, since we had a day-long odyssey across the Empire State ahead of us. We crossed Lake Champlain on a ferry—the gentle rocking motion helped Dad to catch a few winks behind the wheel of the Camry. From there it was a winding, rainy journey down Highway 28 through the Adirondacks—past the towns of North Pole (visit “Santa’s Workshop”!), Lake Placid (visit the rusting Olympic Training Center!), and Coreys (unfortunately we spotted neither Haim nor Feldman). We ended up following a fire truck most of the way, on its way home from a Memorial Day parade in Long Lake that had held us up for 20 minutes (another snoozing opportunity for Dad).
We finally swung into Ithaca around seven and checked into our new digs at the Meadow Court Inn—Dave Bowman never had a room so white. After meeting my friends Nikki and Peter (grad students at Cornell) to partake of the Legendary Timber Burgers at a local Ma and Pa Place, we lay down in the Meadow for our night’s rest.
NEXT DISPATCH: Cheese steaks?
MONTPELIER, VERMONT— “JEFFORDS ROCKS,” read the rear window of a car that passed us today. The car’s license plate, however, revealed it to be of Massachusetts extraction.
Despite being on the low side, the showerheads at the La Gue Inn are not bad. The flow is gentle as falling rain, albeit also as irregular and approximately the same temperature. There’s free cable, which the proprietors emphasize by supplying televisions with the peculiar habit of turning themselves on.
Lunch with Don and Lyn Piper went well—the only awkward moment was when Dad made a dismissive reference to the idea of reincarnation. Lyn, it turns out, is an ardent believer—along with, as she noted, half the world’s population.
The conversation between the two Navy vets was lively.
“Yeah—he was crazy. Remember Patterson?”
“Yeah—that guy was nuts! Oh…remember Fitzpatrick?”
“Yup. That was one crazy guy.”
At one point, Dad asked Lyn, “So, when’s Don going to bring you to Minnesota?”
Her response: “Maybe when I’m dead, if I ask to be buried there.”
NEXT DISPATCH: Hail fair Cornell.
MONTPELIER, VERMONT—”What a surprise!” exclaims Dad sarcastically. “More rain!”
My father and my sister Jenny arrived at 203 School Street today in the early afternoon, after a short drive from their stopping place last night in Casanova, New York—their drive interrupted only by a brief hiatus at the side of the road near the Massachusetts border when it was feared that Dad had left his wallet in the hotel room. A car-emptying search finally revealed the wallet to be…in Dad’s pocket.
After squashing my copious luggage into the Camry, we tossed a bunch of Christmas-tree-shaped plastic ice cubes into the cooler with the Diet Minute Maid Lemonade, Jenny filmed the apartment and its environs for posterity, and we were off. Our ultimate destination is St. Paul, Minnesota—but Dad has a few stops planned along the way. This is the first one: northern Vermont, where Dad’s old Navy buddy Don Piper lives.
It took a few brief hours to make it up here from Somerville—Jenny in the back seat reading O (the Oprah magazine), me riding shotgun, flipping through a New Yorker and munching chocolate Teddy Grahams, Dad driving and offering a running commentary on the scenery. “Lot of trees, huh? Now, these are some trees!”
Upon arriving in Montpelier, we went in search of the La Gue Inn, where Dad had a positive experience last time he visited Don. After one wrong turn up the hill on the wrong side of Montpelier (in frustration, Dad left a cigarette butt in the parking lot of a La Gue poseur establishment up that hill), we finally arrived and checked in. The La Gue Inn is remarkable both for its striking resemblance to a nursing home and for its truly extraordinary collection of unique folk art. The highlight is the bucket lamp: the bucket hangs upside down over a table and a light bulb inside the bucket illuminates your game of rummy royal.
We capped the day off with a seafood dinner at a restaurant associated with a local culinary school, where the students served us and the gentleman at the next table over entertained us and the rest of the restaurant with his thrilling stories about nothing in particular.
NEXT DISPATCH: A Day at Don’s.
So here’s what you did when you wanted to live-blog your family road trip in spring 2001. You bought yourself a Kyocera 6035 (“one of the first smartphones to appear on the American market,” per Wikipedia) and you put together an e-mail list of your favorite friends, then every night, having perfected the Palm shorthand technique, you’d use your stylus to compose a dispatch that you’d then send off.
I was 25 in spring 2001, and I’d just finished my second year of sociology grad school at Harvard. My dad was 54, victim to an increasingly severe and as-yet-undiagnosed case of sleep apnea. My sister Jenny was 22, and had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin—Madison with a degree in nursing. Dad and Jenny drove out from St. Paul to Boston in Dad’s beloved taupe Camry to pick me up, with a plan to stop and visit a few of Dad’s old Navy buddies on the east coast en route home.
These dispatches would have been lost to history if they hadn’t been printed and bound by Anna Daugherty, a family friend who was then 12. She titled the collection Dispatches from the Road and presented it to me for my birthday that summer. I came upon this collection yesterday while cleaning out my mom’s attic.
Tumblr is where these have always belonged, really. There just wasn’t a Tumblr to post them on…until now. I’ll be reprinting the dispatches here at the rate of one per day, illustrated by black-and-white photos I took on that trip with the Minolta 35mm SLR that was later stolen from me by a meth-head housemate. But that wasn’t until 2009. Right now, it’s time to go back to 2001.