Last year, we had an epic, month-long vacation to the US. I adore road trips, and was absolutely itching to go on one again. I’ve been meaning to write it up ever since – in my “spare time.” Let this be a lesson to us all: I don’t have spare time. It’s like how stuff always expands to fill the available space: in my life, activities always expand to fill the available time – overfill, really. If you ever need something from me, say so, and give me a deadline.
My memory isn’t good, so I always want to record my trips so I can remember them later. Making logs of trips I’ve taken has always caused me problems. I write slowly, and I jam pack my trips. Anytime I have tried to write a log while I’m on a trip, I always end up not writing very much and still resenting the time it takes to write it – I could be out doing stuff! So we gave this conundrum some thought before we set off on this trip, and eventually we hit upon a winning idea: since we’d be in the car alone together for long stretches, and we have these fancy smart phones that can record hours and hours of audio, we’d make audio logs as we drove along. It worked out really well, and we recorded LOTS of detail. We even managed to record some of those “Hey, look at that!” moments you get on road trips, spotting something interesting/weird/etc out the window.
Of course, we did so much recording – there were photos, too – that the sheer volume daunted me for the longest time. Recently, Chris got the urge to listen to our recordings. It being a year ago since our trip, I realized I’d need some help if I was ever going to get the write up completed that I promised everyone as we drove along. So, I’ve asked him to write up our audio logs into written logs. I’ll edit them and curate and add photos, and post them here. So, the text for this series will mostly be in Chris’ voice. I feel I should interject sometimes – I’ll do that in green text so you can more easily tell the difference.
Anyway, without further ado, let’s get started…
Towards the end of March 2013, as the UK was deep in the chilly grip of the dreaded DOOMSnow, SJ and I escaped to the US for a month. While the vacation was bookended by several days in north-west Louisiana, the majority of our time there was spent on a road trip involving over 4500 miles of driving, crossing or recrossing 15 states. We took over 1500 photographs, and recorded over 18 hours of audio log as we travelled; far, far more than we can really share in any sane fashion. But here, and across a series of entries, I am going to attempt to recount some of the events of the journey. This should not be considered an exhaustive account, if for no other reason than the fact that even those 18 hours of audio log do not cover everything that happened. In any journey of this size, long stretches of road go by, many hours of conversation are made, stops for gas and supplies must happen, and I could not include everything, even if I wanted to. Major events will be recounted, routes and places will be described, and many details will be given – sometimes even mentioning gas and supply stops! – but there will be omissions, either by choice or simply because we never recorded anything. But all that said, join me, dear reader, as we embark upon…
The Adventures of Chris and SJ and The Great Road Trip of 2013
(subtitled “The Junk Food Tour of America”)
The vacation itself came perilously close to not happening at all: in the two weeks before we were due to leave, SJ’s social calendar was packed to breaking point… literally, as it turned out. On Wednesday the 20th – just 5 days left before our flight out of the country – she developed a full-blown raging snot-tornado of a cold, a sinus infection, and (as we found out later) an ear infection. Over the next couple of days, while we prepared clothing, luggage, and supplies, this got worse and worse, to the point where on Sunday the 24th we seriously debated and looked into the possibility of delaying the trip – or even outright cancelling it – but the cost of delaying was prohibitive, and cancelling it was something neither of us wanted to do. SJ had started to feel at least a little better at this point, so we decided to go as scheduled, snot and all.
I will spare you the description of the frenzied preparations, the pondering and revising of itineraries, and the tetris-like packing and repacking process. Suffice to say, the days leading up to the 25th were far from sedate, and our plan to head to bed by 7pm on the 24th failed utterly: it was gone [past] midnight when we finally got to bed, only to have to be up and finishing off everything at 3am so we could leave for the airport at 5. Worse, SJ spent much of those scant hours in bed awake and coughing, and I got little sleep.
SJ and I are emphatically not morning people, and 5am is still “middle of the night” for us, let alone 3am with almost no sleep. This is consistently the hardest part of transatlantic travel for me. Flying and its accompanying navigation of airports is tiring, uncomfortable, stressful, and degrading, but appropriate flights from the UK to the US leave exclusively in the morning, and with the airlines and airport recommending checking in 3 hours before the flight, insanely early starts are unavoidable.
The process of checking in and going through security in Manchester was as enjoyable as ever – that is, not. The clerks on the check-in desks must mainline caffeine while downing amphetamines or something to be so bubbly and awake at godsawful-early-o’clock, but at least ours was efficient and helpful. This was made up for in security where, because SJ was still ill and half asleep, I hadn’t noticed, and the people working the security lines were falling down on the job, SJ ended up having to go through the Porn Machine That Gives You Cancer and then be groped quite thoroughly because she had forgotten to take her belt off. This wasn’t a good start, but thankfully it was the only time that this happened in our outward journey.
As it turned out, getting through check-in and security still only took less than an hour, so we ended up having an hour and a half of people-watching before our flight was even assigned a gate! I wanted a sandwich or something before boarding, so we wandered through the food court, where I spied this sign…
Once we had a gate to go to, we headed over there to wait for boarding, and were amused to find a group of cowboys and girls talking animatedly and messing with smartphones. Even more amusing was the fact that they were all English.
The first flight was from Manchester to Chicago, scheduled to be 8 hours crammed like overheated sardines in a small metal tube hurtling through the air. It was scheduled to depart at 9am UK time (3am US Central time) and arrive in Chicago at 12:40pm Central time. Because of the airline charging ridiculous amounts for seats next to each other on this first flight, SJ and I didn’t even sit together: we were in the middle seats of sets of three, one row behind the other. SJ’s two seatmates were generally surly, uncommunicative, and unfriendly, in complete contrast to my seatmates who were quite friendly… and both scared of flying. The woman to my left, in the window seat, was quieter, seemed to like gripping the armrests, and was extremely shaky when it came to takeoff, landing, any manoeuvring, the small amount of turbulence we had, or gnats farting…. The man to my right, however, had come prepared: over the course of the flight he downed a sizeable bottle of whiskey, and partook of the alcoholic beverages every time the drinks cart came by. When we got to Chicago – almost an hour ahead of schedule! – he was quite happily inebriated, but remarkably coherent for it!
Chris and his cheerful new friend were behind me; he was a Scot. I at least got to eavesdrop on their conversation, not having any of my own. I didn’t even know the Scotsman had been drinking until we deplaned and Chris told me. The guy on my left wasn’t so bad; he was mostly asleep. The guy on my right, however, was rather surly. Hey ho, we travel for all sorts of reasons, and not everyone’s happy to be doing it.
In Chicago we passed through passport control quickly, after first confounding the person herding us by going through the US line together. I’d read enough online to know that we should go through the line together – separating our party would only confuse the immigration officers. I didn’t much care which line we went through, but started with the US line, what with my US passport and all. The woman directing traffic at the head of the line didn’t like to let us stay together, saying we’d hold up her line (processing Chris’ passport would apparently “take too long”), but let us through anyway. As it happened, it didn’t take long at all. We even encountered that incredibly rare and unusual beast, the laid-back, talkative, and friendly immigration officer! He spent some of the time while dealing with our passports telling us about the weather (so we felt right at home there…), and how we’d been lucky: snow had just missed Chicago passing to the north and south. Despite that, as we rode the Driverless Robotic Railway of the Future (which really freaked out SJ; “There’s no driver?!”) to the terminal our connecting flight was going to leave from, we saw some snow flurries, and later while waiting at the gate for the onward flight we watched planes getting de-iced as they prepared to leave. Customs and security passed without incident, groping, or Pornoscanners (hooray!), and while waiting for the next flight onto Dallas we descended upon Romano’s Macaroni Grill for food. By this point, I was quite, quite ravenous. SJ had eaten on the plane, but I have an unwritten rule to never eat airline food: I bring snacks, but the provided “food” never actually smells any good to me, and the one time I did partake of airline food I spent the next day and a half dealing with Emphatic Gastric Dissatisfaction. So, I snack and either plan to eat at the airports, or not at all.
While we waited for our food, I switched the SIM card in my smartphone for a RedPocket SIM we had bought in advance of the journey. The phone and text stuff worked flawlessly, but the data refused to work – it wasn’t until the next day I managed to fix that, but I’ll come to that later. Can’t recommend that RedPocket highly enough; it worked as it was supposed to, and was incredibly useful on many, many occasions. Food was tasty enough, but I sure looked forward to restaurants with better atmosphere – less tightly packed, and not having to manage our suitcases would be a good start.
Once fed, we wandered to the gate for the flight to Dallas and engaged in more people-watching, and watched in vaguely disgusted fascination as planes outside were sprayed with orange goop followed by green goop, producing quite foul-looking mixtures that apparently make the planes so embarrassing to go near that the ice will not form on them as they fly.
The flight to Dallas was fairly uneventful and straightforward. (It was scheduled to depart at 4pm and arrive at 6:40pm, so we’d had about a 4-hour layover. It’s important to build cushions in like this when you fly, particularly internationally.) We actually got to sit next to each other this time, and SJ dozed pretty well during the flight. I have only been able to sleep on a plane once – when I got bumped to business class between Philadelphia and Vegas back in 2006 – so instead I buried my head in a book and tried to stave off the boredom.
On arriving in Dallas we took another Driverless Robotic Railway of the Future to the terminal we needed, although we got a little misdirected on the way there (Warning: Driverless Robotic Railways of the Future may not be going where you expect them to). When we eventually got to the right place we decided we wanted a snack… only to discover that the place we should have got snacks from was the terminal we had just come from! Thankfully there was a small “corner shop” of a store in the terminal (just around the corner from our gate, in fact!) from which we got snacks: I got some US Kettle Chips (UK ones are different), while SJ got Crackerjacks, and a frozen burrito she microwaved in the shop. We also picked up some York Peppermint Patties, and thus began The Junk Food Tour of America!
Dallas to Shreveport is 180 miles; the flight is a half-hour hop. The plane barely has time to reach cruising altitude before it has to start descending into Shreveport. (This one was 8pm to 8:50pm, still Central; we spent about 20 minutes of it taxiing.) Once again, we got to sit together and watch as the lights of Dallas fell behind. The flight was so short that there was no drink service, but even if we’d wanted anything it wouldn’t have mattered, because the flight attendant ended up spending a chunk of the flight dealing with someone further down the plane who had become airsick. I decided against suggesting that they be made to get out and walk, tempting as the idea was.
Arriving at Shreveport was an eerie experience. We were on what must have been the last flight into Shreveport that day; the terminal was pretty much deserted, and everything was closed, quiet, and looking strangely abandoned. Just as we got off the plane, SJ went into the bathroom by the gates, and I made use of Shreveport Airport‘s (incredibly progressive) free wifi to track down why the data connection on my phone wasn’t connecting and dataing. While I found what the problem was, I didn’t have the time or brainpower to fix it, so I decided to leave it for the next day.
When SJ emerged we headed towards the baggage claim and the outside world, where SJ’s dad would be waiting to whisk us away from the world of planes and gates. Now, Shreveport isn’t quite the smallest airport I’ve ever flown into – that honour goes to the hilariously grandiosely-named Rogue Valley International Medford Airport, Oregon, where the terminal is not quite a tin shack – but it is pretty small. Despite that we were half way through the terminal when SJ’s dad phoned us to ask where we were. When we got to him, we could see why: most of the corridor had been blocked off by a metal shutter! Thankfully it didn’t extend all the way across, so we got around that and down to the baggage claim just in time, as they were about to start putting our luggage into the Lost Luggage office! “But I didn’t take that long in the bathroom!!” SJ protested. As I pointed out at the time, she hadn’t, and I was pretty certain that the other passengers had only just left. I guessed the baggage attendants just wanted to get everything away so they could finish for the night.
SJ’s dad drove us through Shreveport and over to Bossier City where SJ’s grandmother, Nannie, lives. We were going to be staying with her for a couple of days before starting on the roadtrip, and SJ’s dad had even moved Iolana (SJ’s car) to Nannie’s house. This was even more useful than he might have guessed: we hadn’t brought toiletries with us as we knew we had left some from the last time we were in the US, and those were in one of the suitcases SJ’s dad had put into the trunk of the car! After manhandling all our luggage into Nannie’s guest room, and finally digging the toiletries out of the very last suitcase, we found that Nannie had actually put some in the shower for us already! But, we finally showered, took sleeping pills to help make sure we could sleep properly and avoid jet lag, and collapsed into bed at just gone midnight.
We had been awake for 27 hours, and travelled over 4,800 miles, but we were safe and in the US; we had made it.