America 2009

Road trip to hell and back.

Our friend Seonag is getting married in Toronto. It’s July 2009, six months into my first year of retirement. For some reason I think that driving across the county by myself will be fun. I give myself a few weeks to get there. From Penticton, where I visit my mom, I drive south and then east through Washington state.

At the border I’m asked to open the trunk. FCUK! In there is a large, wrapped package from Sharon. I have no idea what is in it and of course the border agent wants to know. I’m hoping it’s neither drugs nor guns. But before I can open the package, he notices a bag of fruit. Florida grapefruit and BC apples I bought in Penticton. As long as each apple has a label they are ok to go across the border. The grapefruit, even though they originate in Florida, have to stay behind. Unbelievable. Naturally, I ague. The agent sends me to a small office to talk to the border security citrus advisor. He forgets about the mystery package and I drive away without it being opened. I’ll later discover wine and a prayer book.

I stop at Coer d’Alene the first night. Then through Idaho and Montana, all the way to Billings the second night, drinking a lot of coffee to fuel the many hours behind the wheel. From Billings I head south along the border with North Dakota. The landscape is harsh. Dry. But starkly beautiful as well.

The third night I make it to Cheyenne, Wyoming and find a heritage hotel downtown. Tired and hyper at the same time, I do some pilates to help calm me down. Drink some wine in the hotel restaurant. Can’t sleep. Ugh!!

The next morning I drive to Denver, a short 4 hour jaunt. It is high and dry and I have been drinking too much coffee and am dehydrated and tired. I have a headache. I manage to figure out how to get into Denver and park close to downtown, first walking to the Magnolia Hotel, then retrieving the car and driving there. I go out for lunch on the pedestrian mall, feeling lightheaded and a bit spaced out. A glass of wine makes me feel worse. It is hot. And dry. And high.They don’t call it “mile high city” for no reason. Again that night, I can’t sleep.

The next day is my worst day on this trip and perhaps in my life. I haven’t slept, can’t eat, have a headache and am headed out into the fog on the I-70, an old two-lane interstate full of trucks exceeding the speed limit. It is tense in the Subaru, peering through the fog, trying to keep up with the trucks.

The traffic clears a bit as we get away from the city. A red jeep pulls along on my left to pass me. As he gets even with me he hits his brakes and I instinctively do the same thing. I have no idea why until the male deer flies over my windshield. I know it’s a male, that’s how close it is. I’m rattled. I start obsessing about being in an accident and being on my own.

I have to stop for gas. An old gas station by the highway is creepy in the thick fog. There are signs everywhere admonishing drivers not to pick up hitch-hikers because of the correctional facilities in the area.

I decide to get off the highway and away from fast food for lunch. Grande Isle is a largish looking place on the map. I make for it. 10 miles out of my way, I might add. Way off the highway.

Once in Grande Isle I am afraid to get out of the car. The town is broken in every way. Broken glass, boarded up buildings, broken pavement and sidewalk. Lots of huge trucks. Driven by very large men. With no teeth. I am not exaggerating. I have to go to the washroom and end up at a Burger King. But I can’t eat. I’m way too anxious.

I’d looked at an Omaha hotel on-line the night before and have a mental picture of the map in my mind that in no way prepares me for the spagetthi freeway system greeting me west of town. I’m on and off ramping every two minutes, carried by the traffic, no idea of where to go. I get off finally in the part of the city where the hotel is supposed to be. And there it is, right in front of me: the hotel parking lot. I kiss the ground. Check in. Order room service which I cannot eat because I am still so anxious. Sure that I’ve not locked the car and that it will be stolen, I keep going down to check it. Every twenty minutes or so. Repeatedly. Four or five time over, until I can see that I have lost my mind. I think about calling 911.

Instead I call Craig and ask him to get a flight to Omaha and rescue me. But he’s in a week-long trial. I’m crushed. And afraid. “Omaha” will become our code word for being over the edge and we will eventually laugh about it, but there is nothing funny about how I am feeling on this night.

The next morning I have to deal with the dripping I’d seen coming off the bottom of the car when I arrived the day before. Sure the car is malfunctioning, I’ve tried to find AAA, but they are not close by and it is Saturday. The hotel handyman is just arriving and, sensing my fragile state, offers to check the car. For the first time I hear that air-conditioning condensation is the likely problem. Of course! DuH!

I get in the car and have a little cry. That releases enough tension that I can head out, getting just four hours down the road, to Davenport, Iowa. It is mid-afternoon and I am exhausted. I can either get a coffee or just stop. Having finally figured out that coffee is a big part of my problem – four grande Starbucks dark roasts a day for four days has likely put my blood caffeine levels into the stratosphere, how could it not? – so I stop.

A quaint family style hotel beckons from the side of the freeway. Once in the room I have half a bottle of wine and a Gravol, sitting in the dark, in the tub. I go to bed and sleep until evening.

Back at the hotel, after a sprint across an 8-lane intersection to a Duane Read drug store for Vitamin Water and Pringles, I find two back-to-back Nora Ephron movies on the TV. You’ve Got Mail and When Sally Met Harry. The best antidotes to my current mood. I sleep all night and awaken refreshed.

The next day I cross the Mississippi River, drive by Chicago and through Detroit, across the Friendship Bridge to the Hilton in Windsor. I find an outdoor festival of some kind, eat kebabs and just sit, glad to be back among my tribe. Feeling, strangely, that even if something bad happens now, I am on the right side of the border.

Niagara Falls has never been on my must-see list, but as I am this far east and have time, I figure I should go and see it, taking a room right across the street, at the Sheraton. I walk the trails by the river and along the falls, drive to some wineries, walk the strip, which is depressing, and sleep.

A few days before the wedding I drive into Toronto, landing at Seonag’s mid-day. Janice, Peter & Sean are already there. Craig flies in from Vancouver. We go to Orangeville to the McMicheal Gallery. Eat on the Danforth. Drink wine and laugh. The drive seems like a bad dream. A nightmare, in fact.

The wedding is at Khirsty and Frank’s, out in the country. We dance a lot. I am somewhat famous because of my epic drive. Geoff wonders if I’ve heard of Air Canada.

A week later I drop Craig at the airport and head back west, on my own once again. This time I take a shorter route. A ferry across Lake Michigan saves hours and I am in Minnesota by the third night.

The prairie makes me nostalgic. Jackson Browne’s “Sky Blue and Black” accompanies me out of Minneapolis early the next morning. I drive all the way to Winnipeg and then west to Brandon. A crummy Day’s Inn, right by the highway, is the best option in town. It’s the worst hotel I’ve stayed in on the trip so far.

The next day I drive north to Clear Lake. My father farmed near here, at Oakbank, in the 80s after he retired. I don’t know exactly where his farm is, but all of the land I drive by is beautiful with blue and yellow contrasting fields. A blue sky. An occasional pond. Gentle rolling hills. He loved it out here and on a day like today it is easy to see why.

I drive into Saskatchewan following the old roads. Not the Yellowhead Highway. I go through small towns I’ve never heard of. The road is patched and worn, not well maintained. For a time I am on gravel.

I drive through Esterhazy, where Craig went to high school. The place he calls his “home town.”

Then I drive past Crooked Lake and north to Melville. To Judy & Jake’s. To the place I call my “home town”.

Judy and Erin travel with me a few days later to Penticton. My mother has broken her arm and is in a cast. She won’t come with us to the city and we feel badly leaving her there.

Craig flies out and meets us. The four of us drive back to Vancouver.

I will have clocked over 10,000 kilometres on the Subaru by the time we hit the outskirts of the Vancouver. I can’t say it was a good time, but, as is the case with all journeys, the trip is part of me now. I will never forget the night in Omaha when I briefly lost my mind. Will always be grateful for the power of Meg Ryan in a Nora Ephron movie to soothe the soul. Will cherish the feeling of relief at crossing the bridge from Detroit to Windsor. Will be glad to have seen Seonag dance toward Geoff, accompanied by The Proclaimers’ “I Will Walk 500 Miles”. Ha! I will drive 5,000 more!

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