US Road Trip 2013: Day 2: Blinking Headlights!

I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback from this series, so I know you’ll all be pleased it’s picking back up again. I can’t manage the rate I started at, though, so I shall aim for two to three of these a week (since there are a fair number to get through), and then that’ll allow me to intersperse other things without cluttering up your life.

Remember to click on the images to see a bigger version, and to click the link in the description (you may have to scroll down) to see an even bigger version if you want to (though probably not on this particular post, since it’s just photos of rain, but this is a refresher since I’ve taken such a hiatus from these).

Now on to the next exciting installment!

Day 2 (Saturday, 30th March 2013): Grenada, MS to Vienna, IL.

“Blinking headlights!” (mostly by Chris)

Day mileage: 316

Super 8 Grenada, 1451 Sunset Dr, Grenada, MS 38901 to Limited Inn, 709 E Vine St, Vienna, IL 62995 via New Asia, 2540 Lone Oak Rd, Paducah, KY 42003 (US51->US79->51 in Memphis)

We’ve changed how the maps are done – the zoom was messed up, so instead of a zoomable map here on this page, you get a photo of the map that links to the zoomable Google map.


We set the alarm for 7:30am, as we wanted to get on the road and headed north before 2:30pm this day. Originally SJ had budgeted half a day to explore Mackinac Island in north Michigan (it’s actually between the two peninsulas of Michigan), but we’d found out that they don’t actually open Mackinac Island to tourists until later in the year, so we could spend that half day looking around Memphis rather than racing through it on the interstate, but only if we got going pretty early rather than hanging around Grenada for a chunk of the day.

So, up early we got. I got showered and dressed to go over to the continental breakfast, but they only had boxes of cereal and no actual cartons of milk, so we ate a breakfast of our own cereal and doughnuts in our room, and then began another Grand Sort to try and make it easier to find things and keep track of everything, after which I performed the Tetris-like loading of the car. While loading the car, I went and had another hunt for the possible cause of the whine we had been experiencing on the road. The plastic flashing around the windscreen had been damaged in various places over time, and it looked like, while we were washing the car, some bits had been caught and bent into just the right way to vibrate and whine when air passed over them rapidly. A few minutes’ work to stick them down properly and I was fairly sure I’d squished the problem. This was made a little tricky by the drizzle that had descended while I loaded the car, the first precipitation of any kind we’d seen since the snow flurries up in Chicago; otherwise we’d had clear, sunny days so far.

We managed to check out exactly on 11am (despite getting up early, that sorting business takes time – we’ve learned some lessons about packing for our next trips, road and otherwise) and got on the road, back onto I-55 North to Memphis. As we gained speed, and the whine failed to reassert itself and its vehement hatred of my ability to think, we tentatively declared my fix a success (and indeed, we were untroubled by it for the rest of the journey). The joy over this was very slightly offset by the rain which was steadily getting heavier and heavier as we drove, to the point where occasionally it looked like cars were gliding over a sea of water (although it was absolutely nothing on a storm we drove through later in the trip.) We were fine though, and managed to avoid getting wet thanks to Iolana, until we had to stop for gas – and sugar as it turned out – somewhere between Grenada and Memphis.

Somehow, in all the preparations we’d made in Bossier and Shreveport before the start of the road trip, we had managed to completely forget that I needed sugar for my tea. I don’t need much – I put one teaspoon in half a litre of tea, for goodness sake – but it is amazing how noticeable the absence of sugar is when I don’t have any. During breakfast SJ had made the ever-so-helpful suggestion that, since I kept on insisting that US cereals are made entirely of sugar, I should just mix some of those into my tea.

I love my wife. I truly do. Every day I feel lucky to have found her, and that she married me. And I did manage to refrain from telling her that she was out of her godsdamned mind, but I did have to tell her that sometimes she can be really, really disgusting.

That said, eating the US-style double-sugar-level Frosties did make it easier to drink my tea. See? I was right.

The subject of sugar does deserve some mention, however: it’s all over the place in the US, even in things you’d think it had no business being in at all. The cereals are obvious and at least understandable (and there are some “Boring Grown-Up Cereals,” as SJ calls them, that don’t have half a sugar plantation included in the box), but the breads are as bad unless you specifically get bakery bread, and even some of them have noticeable amounts. But the one that really got us was when we picked up a sausage of ground meat during one of our visits to a supermarket in Shreveport only to fine that even that had sugar in it. It was insane.

But none of that was suitable for my tea – especially the meat, believe it or not – so while I filled up the car, SJ went into the gas station store and managed to get some sugar, and some desperately-needed Rain-X for us to apply the next time the windscreen was dry enough. They also apparently had the most horribly pinky-purple bathroom SJ had ever seen… It was like being inside a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, with added fuschia, ugh.

Back on the road, we headed to Memphis. We’d emailed SJ’s brother again during breakfast, telling him that we were going to be in Memphis that day and would still like to meet up, but by the time we hit the outskirts of Memphis we still hadn’t heard from him, so we decided just to carry on though. He’d only recently moved to Memphis, so I didn’t have a phone number for him – not sure if he even had one yet, it was that recent – or an address. He was probably still unpacking. However, instead of staying on the interstate, we decided to pull off onto US highway 51: Elvis Presley Boulevard (there are only two roads named after Elvis in the US: one in Memphis, and one in Shreveport, and we’ve been down both now…)

We do wonder what the King would think of his boulevard now, as some significant stretches of it were described charitably by SJ as being, “not the best neighbourhood in the world,” (and less charitably by me, as “a total shithole”). Some areas were horribly poverty-stricken, bizarrely and incongruously interspersed with sections of immaculately maintained, obviously expensive houses apparently oblivious to the precipitous drop into near-slumdom just across the next intersection. At one point SJ spied a grocery store, and pulled in, leaving me to guard the car while she went in for milk and a couple of other things, on the basis that she knew the prices would be low. If I’d thought about it at the time, I’d have been vaguely concerned about trusting milk from such a place, but I didn’t, and we’re still alive, so it must’ve been okay!

The road took us into central Memphis, doglegging west and through parts of the medical district (which is very aptly named, given the insane density of hospitals. Apparently Memphis is full of extremely ill rich people). We remained on US-51, but at this point it was also simultaneously US-79, and US-64, and state highway 3, and probably something else because the US road system hates me and wants to make me go insane.

Ahem, the US road system is an inanimate object, so it does not hate Chris or want to send him insane. It’s just that 51, 79, 64, and 3 overlap for a short section there, that’s all. Whereas in the UK, they’d rename that chunk a whole nother name/number, and then the next ten feet would get its own name, and again a new name for the ten feet of road after that, in the US, we’re expected to zoom out a bit and look at the overall road system, rather than constantly being zoomed in so far you can see a mouse take a poop on the side of the road.

US-51 turned north again, magically dropping US-79, US-64, and 3 and only managed to pick up state 1 in the process, and for a while went through a decent area of the city. But as it went farther north the decay began to return; more derelict buildings, more abandoned lots, and more signs of poverty.

Around 1:30pm we were both getting pretty hungry, so just before the north edge of Memphis we pulled up on an abandoned lot across from a Blues club to eat lunch. We knew we’d be on US highway for quite a while, and that there wouldn’t be any rest areas along the road, so we’d otherwise end up having to pull off onto the shoulder to eat. We had sandwich stuff with us, because that’s part of how we like to travel: it’s often easier, and much cheaper, for us to make or bring our own lunch when we need it, rather than trying to find somewhere to eat. I’d cut some rolls, the salami was pre-sliced, and SJ had – by dint of herculean effort – managed to slice some cheese (real cheese, I note, not US “cheese”, aka yellow plastic…) the evening before at the hotel using the plastic knives we had with us. So we pulled up off the road, sat in the car and ate our lunch as the rain came down around us, watching the world go by and looking at the artwork on the nearby wall.

Shame the light wasn't better, it was very impressive.

Shame the light wasn’t better, it was very impressive.

After lunch we headed on north up US-55. The Rand McNally map shows US-55 as a scenic route, so we’d hoped it would have some, I don’t know, scenery to look at! In the most literal interpretation of the word it does have scenery – the car was not, in fact, surrounded by an infinite, black, featureless void as soon as we left Memphis – but it certainly isn’t scenic. Unless, that is, you classify churches, flea markets, gun stores, or antiques stores as scenic, in which case it is positively picturesque. I began to wonder if Rand McNally were actually using the dotted marking on the side of the road to indicate the locations of churches or flea markets rather than actually indicating a scenic route.

Around Dyersburg the US road network conspired to continue its assault upon my sanity as US-51 was subsumed beneath the harsh rolling asphalt of I-69, and I became horribly confused about what was going on. Thankfully, we managed to end up continuing north, rather heading west towards Missouri. Just south of Troy (not the Trojan war one, the one in Tennessee) I-69 mysteriously and instantly vanishes (or at least goes into hiding, possibly inside a giant wooden horse or something. I believe it reappears – poof, as if by magic – near Calvert City. Madness, I tell you) and US-51 once again reasserted itself beneath our ever-rolling tyres as we went on around Union City and crossed into Kentucky at Fulton.

At Fulton US-55 branches off north west, whereas we needed to carry on north and north east, so we took US-45 towards Mayfield and then north towards Paducah. All the way up from Grenada the rain hadn’t really let up at all; it got lighter and heavier, but it never really stopped. As we drove into the gathering evening we passed areas that looked like submerged fields, and everywhere had that air of emphatic wetness.

As we came up on Paducah at 5:30 to 6pm, we decided that we should start looking for somewhere to eat dinner. Driving in on a US highway rather than an interstate meant that we got to see a few differences from the normal selection of roadside eateries; local independent shops, rather than national chains. After we passed two Chinese places in quick succession, we pulled in at the third Chinese place; New Asia on Lone Oak Road, on their opening night as it turned out. The place was nice, the staff were friendly, the service was excellent, and the food was good, although SJ was less than impressed by their iced tea, and from here on for much of the trip I needed to make her tea.

I have friends here who are so confused about my tea drinking habits; the sort of tea I drink is so alien to them, I gave up trying to explain it years ago. It’s just your normal sweet, iced tea, inspired by what’s found in the South of the US, except made with Twinings (a British tea brand) because it’s far superior and doesn’t give that astringent aftertaste. When Brits add sugar to their tea, they do it on the order Chris mentioned earlier – a few grains per cup. As my mom said when Chris either showed or told her this, “What’s the point?” Southern sweet tea is so sweet by their standards that Chris calls my drink “tea flavored simple syrup.” (Simple syrup is where you boil more or less equal quantities of sugar and water together until it’s dissolved.) Hah. Some of my friends have concluded that I don’t drink tea at all; I let them, because that’s easier than explaining that hot tea is gross, unsweet tea is gross (it’s still unsweet with just those few grains of sugar added), and so forth. Anyway, to me, tea is also just something nice to have – I’m okay without it, which is another alien concept for most here (including Chris). Since we had teamaking equipment (a necessity for Chris), we made me tea as we went through YankeeLand, but if we hadn’t, it’d have been fine. Don’t get between me and my Coke, though!

After dinner we drove up Lone Oak Road and joined I-24 West – which actually goes north, because US roads – with the intention of trying to get to Marion, Illinois to stay overnight. But the fates, or at least those concerned with automotive matters, had different plans for us that evening. As we drove north from Paducah through the persistent rain, darkness descended upon the land, as it is wont to do as the evening passes and the sun sets. But we were in a car, and cars have headlights, so we drove on northward through the damp gloom… until we were somewhere on the long, empty stretch of I-24 north of the hilariously grandiosely named Metropolis, Illinois (population: a whopping 6,482) when suddenly one of the headlights stopped working. And then it came back on again, only for the other to go off shortly after. And then both went out, and SJ was driving along with no headlights, and then they both came back on. All of this spontaneously, for no discernible reason, much like they had done while crossing the bridge back in Shreveport. And this continued, headlights going on and off, with nowhere we could see to stop, no exits for a couple of miles.

This was one of the most frightening driving experiences I’ve ever had – certainly not the worst, that was hydroplaning on Barksdale Air Force Base’s East Reservation (read: out in the middle of nowhere) – and unlike any other frightening driving experience, I had no clue what was causing it, or that this was ever even a possibility, which added to the fright. Thankfully, there wasn’t any traffic, the tail lights were unaffected, and I could see the road ahead clearly enough (it was a full moon, after all), and of course opposing traffic was way off on its own road, hundreds of feet away (wide American roads), so we made it through. I perhaps should have stopped and called for a tow, but between all the conditions, I really didn’t feel it necessary to wait the two hours or more it quite likely would’ve been just to go those last couple of miles.

Eventually we saw an exit for a town called Vienna, which apparently has two gas stations, and a single entry for a non-chain motel called “Limited Inn” on the ‘Lodging’ sign, and pulled off the highway there and headed to the forecourt of a BP so that I could check whether the headlights had worked loose and fallen back into the engine compartment or something. Peering into the engine compartment, I checked the headlights only to find they were firmly in place, and any hope we might have had that this was a simple issue was gone. I wanted to double-check fuses and stuff, just in case, but it was cold, wet, and late, and SJ vetoed the idea and said we should just get a room at the Limited Inn for the night. Getting to it proved interesting in the pouring rain, in the dark, with bandy headlights, up a poky road with no street lighting, but we managed it and, after checking the room out, decided that it was good enough (not that we had a huge amount of choice, mind) and checked in for the night.

We unloaded the car, dragging all our stuff in while trying to stop it getting too wet, and trying to avoid slipping on the tiled floor in the lobby. The room was adequate, although I had to do a quick repair on the curtain rail after it fell off when we tried to close the curtain, and while SJ was in the shower I had to sacrifice a small black goat (we always carry several when we travel, naturally) to coax some life out of the horribly poor data connection (the motel had no wifi, and the mobile signal in the area was faint at best) to consult the Great Internet Oracle to see if I could work out what the problem with the headlights might be. At that point the only thing I found was a consensus that, if the bulbs and fuses were okay, the only things left were relays and wires, so I decided that I’d try checking the relays in the morning. After I showered, and we got a snack, we collapsed into bed with the alarm set for something like 7am so that we could get up early and see what we could do about the headlights.

2 thoughts on “US Road Trip 2013: Day 2: Blinking Headlights!

  1. Chris, I love the way you talk/write. It is the British way. JUST LOVE IT!
    Also love the captions with the pixs.
    Great suggestion by SJ to put your cereal (sugar) into your tea. HA HA HA HA
    HA HA HA HA “Apparently Memphis is full of extremely ill rich people”
    LOVE Paducah!!!! Just got back from there.
    Love your description of tea, SJ. I like unsweetened tea.
    In Metropolis, IL there is a BIG statute of Superman.
    bandy headlights
    A goat?

    WONDERFUL recap of this day. Keep them coming. I LOVE reading your stories. 🙂

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