First, we packed. That’s not true. First, we pulled the mental trigger to do the thing we had long considered. Then we wandered through the house for weeks with imposter syndrome, like the couple in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road who insist to themselves and others that they’ll leave the New York suburbs for France when clearly they‘re not going anywhere. We stared at each other, daring the other person to laugh at what must be a joke.
Then we made it really real by buying a house in Utah and selling one in Massachusetts. Then we packed, partied, shed tears about distance from friends. Packed, partied, shed tears: Four compact words encompassing levels of physical and emotional exhaustion not felt since childbirth; oceans of logistics, rivers of paperwork, constant sleepless panic at the prospect of forgetting crucial details. We aged.
Almost everything got done.
A few things didn’t: Elizabeth left a partial 12-pack of Bud Light Lime, which she uses to cut her ‘daytime’ margaritas, in our fridge, and I stuck a jar of chicken bullion in it to dispose of both, but left town with the carton still in the fridge. So now the new people think they bought a house from people who drink Bud Light Lime mixed with chicken bullion, and are wondering what other freakishness occurred within the walls.
Pete, Porter and I left the East Coast July 25, the girls squirreled away at summer camp. This would not be the road trip of our dreams – sorry, Porter, thattrip would be dog-free for maximum impulsivity. This drive would also be less meandering than ideal, due to the movers pressuring us to get our butts to Park City so their young, apparently sleepless drivers could move on to the next paying customer.
We would be rushed, but we weren’t truckers, thankyouverymuch. In 18 years together we had never taken a road trip of more than three hours duration (San Francisco to Fresno), so we wanted to stop and (hurriedly) smell a few roses here and there.
In a testament to our mental states, we were so wiped out we didn’t even listen to music the first day. Which for us is weirder than putting chicken bullion into Bud Light Lime. We didn’t talk. Just stared out as rain misted us through New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania, feeling nerve twinges and neural firings that might have indicated nervousness or excitement if they’d had more power.
I briefly tried reading, but stopped after skimming a NYT piece that revealed 100 people die driving on U.S. roadways PER DAY each summer. Our drive would cover 2,400 miles over five days and four nights; those statistics felt grim.
You imagine a road trip as a great wide-open soaring adventure, a rolling canvas for philosophic and conversational explorations, reflections, melancholy. Epiphanies. That’s not what happened. Maybe we had already gone through that, armchair melancholy and reflections and epiphanies being what had conveyed us to this point of action at a time in our lives – and our children’s lives – when it feels like change gets more precipitous with each season.
Long stretches of silence punctuated by conversations that, to put it delicately, lacked complexity:
“Were those people in the bonnets Amish?”
“That’s so crazy.”
“I mean, it seems crazy. But what if they’re right? What if that is the best way to live?”
“But I really don’t think so.”
“Neither do I.”
Philosophizing thus complete, we focused on where to eat. The first road dinner at Lucky Louie’s set an extremely high bar for coolness, deliciousness and budget-friendliness, and I urge all to seek this place out when in Erie, PA. Veggie options available.
Pet-friendly accommodations involve varying degrees of fanciness, the fanciest of which still not exactly fancy. Our first night, we paid $85 to sleep in a Red Roof Inn located about 40 feet off I80. Our room faced the interstate. Next door, greeting us chattily as we unloaded, a couple had set out folding aluminum chairs so they could soak up the ambiance. A 12-pack of Miller Lite nested between them. They seemed content.
The road noise was so extreme I doubted we would sleep at all, but as it turned out the door and walls were made of something seriously noise-muffling. Despite the room smelling like smokers had been smoking, and staff had overused piney chemicals to combat the situation, we had no trouble crashing.
Things were less rainy and hilly on day two. Corn territory had arrived. We found soothing tunes to crank (Stevie Nicks and Peter Frampton joined us). We invented a game: Look at a license plate and pretend the letters stand for something, then take turns making up what they stand for. Examples:
License plate TMG 497
Tantalizing moist grunions
Too much gout
Tickle my goiter
Tuberculosis means gloom
Trapped more greedily
Tomatoes mashed graciously
Treble my gramophone
License plate SDB
Sassy doll baby
Sodden diaper blues
Some dirty bastard
Splendor defies barnacles
Et cetera. As you can see this can be played for any length of time, and everyone wins. Math whizzes, feel free to invent something involving the numbers too.
I played a trick on Pete, reading aloud an NYT book review by Robert Reich and extracting Pete’s favorable reaction before revealing the author (with whom he has many philosophical bones to pick) and oh, the look on his face when he found out he had complimented Reich! A trip highlight.
We photographed everything we ate. And died laughing at the suggestively named stores along the road:
Cum and Go
Pump and Pantry
Loaf n Jug
The second night we slept at Pete’s mom’s in the Chicago suburbs, which involved a spread of ribs and mac and cheese to rival any smokehouse. She had treats on hand for Porter too; this was his favorite stop.
Though we bought postcards, we lost the stamps thoughtfully carried from MA. Not sending mail to the girls at camp was the week’s “you’re not the center of the universe” parenting lesson, we decided. (Of course we still emailed them, we’re not monsters.)
Nebraska presented extreme highs and lows unrelated to weather. First occurred a downright swanky night in Omaha, cool hotel, big street-fair thing, impressive live band, amazing dinner at Monarch in a gorgeous Art Deco building, and an even more mind-blowing breakfast the next morning at Farine + Four, a bakery I must someday return to or I’ll die.
Later, in Lincoln, we almost did die.
Let the record reflect I did not pick the diner. Pete did, a fact he will live with forever. We had up to this point eaten coastal elite-type meals, and it was time for old school. Pete googled and yelped and settled on the Lincoln Highway Diner, disconcertingly far from the highway, in a sad stretch of mashed-up commercial and residential real estate. It looked scary but we pretended it was normal and went in because we are so very badass.
We perused the menu and ordered after a minor kerfuffle with the server when I sought her input on the taco salad versus the patty melt (“What do you want me to say? One’s a salad, one’s a sandwich!” she exclaimed, baffled and resentful.)
And then we found ourselves in a David Lynch movie in which we were the stars and the people across from us were evil extras, the scariest humans we’ve ever seen. Nightmares come to life. Like those mannequin monsters inside Halloween houses of horrors. But real. Their eyes were both vacant and bugging out; their mouths gaped.
They never spoke. They did, however, look at us. We looked at them – quickly, twice, to be sure – then monitored them from the very edges of our peripheral vision. They looked like they would have killed us for sport, eaten us and tossed our bones in a pile out back if they could only focus and muster the energy.
We kept looking at each other, acting normal, faking light conversation, praying like we had never prayed before for our food to arrive. We might have subconsciously inventoried other diners to figure out who could help if needed. When the taco salad and Reuben hit the table, we gobbled, paid and exited with speed one micro-particle shy of attention-getting. The zombies silently watched us depart. They seemed incapable of quick movement, but who knew? We did not speak until we left the parking lot.
The rest of the day we periodically pierced the silence by saying “I’m so glad they didn’t kill us” “I can’t believe they let us leave” and “I’m so happy we’re still alive.” Pete apologized several times for choosing the diner, as he should. The speedometer hit 90.
As we made our way to Laramie, Wyoming for our final hotel night, I kept scanning the horizon, the cars all around us, buildings and billboards on the roadsides, people at the rest stops, everything under the midwestern sun for signs of MAGA culture. I had expected to enter a realm of 45 boosterism, but it never materialized. I counted on one hand the pro-45 signs we saw…a painted side of a barn, a protracted side eye bestowed on a family of color paying their bill at the zombie diner.
Instead, everywhere, we found resisters out, proud and loud. Signs, stickers, messaging in restaurant windows, hand-made crafts for sale with signs celebrating inclusiveness, tolerance and love. FEAR IS CONTAGIOUS, announced a billboard in Cheyenne.
Driving across the country had terrified me, honestly, even though I had done it decades ago and had a blast. It had just been too long, and a fear of the unknown in our own country had crept over me even while we traveled internationally a good amount. It’s a sort of pity that our country is so spread out that Americans don’t interact with each other’s regions enough to conquer the fear. Visions of being run off the road simply because the car had MA plates (and a bunch of crunchy stickers on our car-top carrier) had hindered my sleep. But people were warm, friendly, polite, tolerant, diverse, progressive. There was a feeling of positivity and togetherness in our interactions (everywhere but Lincoln).
Sartorial proclivities certainly vary, though. For the uninitiated, as I was, you might assume Wyoming is pretty much like other states, hardly anyone wears big cowboy hats and spurs, or maybe only wear them in the wilds. Wrong! For one thing, the wilds are right there. We pulled into Cheyenne during Rodeo Days, and Pete laughed openly at my Patagonia print cotton sundress and flip-flops.
“Good thing you’ve got your rodeo gear on,” he smirked, suddenly an expert on western fashion.
“What? You think everyone wears jeans? I’m not IN the rodeo!” I cried.
Later, I conceded his point. Heads had turned.
The forced immobility and surrender of the drive after the frantic-bordering-on-psychotic runup to departure relieved our fatigue. We even regained enough energy to argue a little along the way. A recurring side thorn was my insistence that we lock the car when we left it even if we were going two feet away for 30 seconds. That’s how I was brought up in Fresno and that’s how I will live out my days. Pete, who grew up crime-free in a super-tony Chicago suburb, kept trying to play the “we’re only going to be gone a second” card, which I kept overruling with my “the criminals lie in wait for people like you who are only going to be gone a second then they swoop in and our car is FILLED WITH VALUABLES!” card. He grew deeply annoyed with my criminals-in-wait card. But we reached our destination without incident so I won.
At one point a friend called and asked how we were and I answered that we were in the middle of arguing about salad. But you know, better a salad showdown than loggerheads over how to raise the kids, or where to live.
We agreed on Utah. And we made it – we’re here. That’s another story.