US Road Trip 2013: Day 8: Ask not for whom the road tolls

Day 8: Friday, 5 April 2013: Flint, Michigan to Morgantown, West Virginia

The road by Morgantown, West Virginia.

The road by Morgantown, West Virginia.

Happy birthday to me … (mostly by Chris)

Day miles: About 430.

April 5th is SJ’s birthday! Despite this, we got up at 6:30am anyway, because we had a long, long day of driving planned for the day: 630 miles, about 10 hours of driving, probably 12 hours on the road including rest stops. We wanted to get to the beginning of the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway by the time our heads hit the pillows that night. SJ thought we could manage it, but it wouldn’t be pleasant, and she planned to ignore the fact that it was her birthday and pretend that was the next day instead.

Though it’d be a long day of driving, it was driving in the US, so honestly, I wasn’t dreading it or anything, the way Chris makes it sound: I quite like driving, and it’d make a nice change to be behind the wheel for a birthday, instead of having to rely on others driving me and public transport, after so many years. I’ve certainly had worse birthdays than this one spent driving across the country!

Uncle Bill, Aunt Doris, SJ, and Chris, in the *early* light of morning.

Uncle Bill, Aunt Doris, SJ, and Chris –
in the *early* light of morning.

So, we got breakfast, got packed, and loaded the car as quickly as we could. We managed to grab a few photos of ourselves with Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill before we set off and said our goodbyes, only for us to head back inside to double-check that we’d got everything before we left and said our goodbyes once again. Finally sorted, we set off for the next destination on our epic journey: Kroger.

We headed into town, to the Kroger we had been to on the 3rd, so that we could pick up bread, milk, yoghurt, and supplies to last us a few days. We managed to find all we needed… and Aunt Doris’ spare house key in SJ’s purse. So, back to Aunt Doris’ we went to bring it back to them, as we decided it’d be faster, cheaper, and safer than mailing it. When we got back, she told us we could have just kept it – but that would have left us with another random key that we’d probably have forgotten the providence of before too long, so we handed it over and said our goodbyes again!

Finally on the road proper at around 9:45am, we headed back onto I-69 West through Flint, and then turned south onto US-23. US-23 confused me because both the Rand McNally map and Google maps mark it as an interstate, but it has no interstate number. SJ thinks it is likely to be marked that way as part of a planned interstate upgrade (it even has interstate-style Gas/Food/Lodging signs), and denies the suggestion that an inanimate road network may wish harm upon my sanity. Regardless of its status, US-23 (The Imposter Interstate) carried us south around the side of Ann Arbor and down through Milan and Dundee to Toledo, Ohio.

They like their straight roads. Another random road shot. (SJ: I liked that bridge - it reminded me of the famous one in West Virginia, the one on the state quarter. A bit smaller, obviously.)
They like their straight roads. Another random road shot. I liked that bridge – it reminded me of the famous one in West Virginia, the one on the state quarter. A bit smaller, obviously.
The slopes near the road were sometimes quite impressive.
The slopes near the road were sometimes quite impressive.

At Toledo we had a choice to make: in theory, the fastest road to take was the Ohio Turnpike, a toll road that would take us clear through from Toledo, Ohio to the border with Pennsylvania where we would magically transfer to the Pennsylvania Turnpike to head towards Pittsburg. Alternatively, we could make our way along a series of US and state highways which, while not toll roads, would involve more work and be slower. Part of our dilemma was simply not having a clue how much the toll would be – they’d do well to publish that information clearly, really. Part of it was the visceral hatred Brits, Chris included, have for toll roads – I can’t entirely blame them, since on top of the taxes that are rolled in with the price at the pump, road tax is an annual bill in the UK, so they feel like they’ve already paid for using the roads once they’ve paid that. North Ohio is not the most scenic place in the world – although we didn’t take those highways, so there may well be a wide and varied selection of scenic objects such as churches, flea markets, and antique shops for all we know! – so we decided that, in the interests of getting as much road behind us as possible, we would get on the turnpike.

And here we encountered the itinerant I-80 and I-90 again, last seen over by Gary, Indiana as we headed up into Michigan. For a toll road, the poor I-80 hasn’t aged well: the first 20 or 30 miles of the road had a bad case of coneitis, persistent roadworks, and an embarrassing rash of 50mph zones – 20 less than the speed limit for the turnpike – and all without a single worker in sight. It distinctly reminded me of British motorways in that regard, and I wondered if the US counterparts of the Great British Road Crew had also discovered that great saving on warehouse costs: storing cones on the road… By the time we’d cleared the roadworks it was past midday, and we were thinking about stopping for lunch. Rather than the rest areas you find on a normal interstate, the Ohio Turnpike has “Service Plazas” – similar to service areas in the UK in that they provide on-site fuel, restrooms, food facilities, and parking – so that you don’t need to leave the toll road for any of these facilities. We pulled off into the “Commodore Perry Service Plaza” at milepost 100 eastbound, and found parking before we headed into the plaza building to find bathrooms.

It is a very strange world in which I end up spending longer in a public bathroom than SJ: there’s almost inevitably a queue in the ladies’, so despite the fact that there was also one in the men’s (and they were trying to close the bathrooms for cleaning, at 1pm… I suppose I should be grateful that they do clean them), after finishing I waited around for SJ outside the bathrooms. And waited. And waited. I couldn’t call her: we had SJ’s phone on flight mode to prevent Roaming Charge Related Buttfuckery, so I just waited. (We had Chris’ phone loaded with a Red Pocket SIM and credit, which mostly worked well. The data over the cell phone network in the US is vastly slower than we’re used to, so that was frustrating, but otherwise, it worked as it was supposed to. Sharing a phone for a month was a tad annoying – I don’t like his case or his settings – but we managed.) Eventually, SJ found me, as she’d already finished and gone back out to the car expecting me to be there, and then she got distracted by the Cinnabon in the Echoing Soulless Food Court, eventually managing to find me back by the bathrooms.

Together again, we returned to the car and pulled out picnic stuff to eat at one of the tables outside the plaza. It was cold, and the road noise was considerable and constant with no vegetation or high walls to keep the din of high-speed traffic away, but we were hungry, it was sunny, and it was better than feeling the very life being sucked out of you by the Echoing Soulless Food Court.

After lunch we packed up again and got back on the turnpike, mile upon flat mile of north Ohio going past in a kind of copy-paste haze of fields until, just west of Youngstown, I-80 mysteriously vanished only to be replaced by the near identical, cracked and badly patched blacktop of I-76. Along the way we’d seen some strange conical buildings by the roadside (like this one) and I can only assume that they are actually secret installations hiding the flying saucers that are responsible for the abduction I-80. Or something.

I-76 rolled merrily along towards the border with Pennsylvania, and just before we got to the state line we had to pass through a toll booth to pay for our use of the turnpike. We were slightly concerned, as the ticket we’d received when we’d gotten on gives the maximum toll for different classes of vehicle, but doesn’t actually define those classes, so we weren’t quite sure which we were in. As it turned out, we were in Class 1 – the lowest cost class – so we forked over the $12, and continued on our way. I’d told SJ that there was a little way to go before we’d come across another toll booth (this time for Pennsylvania), but we didn’t expect it to be literally just 3 miles! At this next toll booth we had to pay in advance – $5.25 this time – and we thought that might be the last one we had to pay.

One thing that was weird was that, as soon as we crossed the state line from Ohio into Pennsylvania, we suddenly had hills again! It was as if the terrain actually read the map – the state line there is simply a straight north-south line. Freaky.

Hills! 0106_DSC01463
Hills! Gently rolling countryside – no more flat flat farmland.

Now, I-76 heads more or less straight for the north side of Pittsburgh, and we really didn’t want to have to deal with Pittsburgh traffic. Instead we decided to cut down to the west side of Pittsburgh some way out, down the I-376 (the “Beaver Valley Expressway”, apparently…) and then try to avoid the traffic somewhat more – and get better scenery – by going down state highway 18 just on the far side of Beaver.

I was entirely too amused by a town being called Beaver, I should note. We both were. Why yes, we are 12. 😉

Anyway, we switched onto I-376 and headed south, only to reach exit 31 where we had to pay another toll! This time to leave the toll road, leaving me to exclaim that “IF I wanted to pay to get off, I’d have gone to a strip joint!” This time the toll was $1, and I joked about having to put it in the toll booth attendant’s g-string…. when we actually got to the toll booth, we were both very glad this wasn’t actually necessary, as they don’t seem to choose the good looking ones for toll booth duty….

Image by Frozen Coffee. CC BY-SA 2.0 Image by Adriel Hampton and Graded Ape. CC BY 2.0
Image by Frozen Coffee.
CC BY-SA 2.0
Image by Adriel Hampton and Graded Ape.
CC BY 2.0

SJ was really needing to find a bathroom, so rather than pull off I-376 at junction 39 as I’d told her we needed, we actually pulled off at 38 – on the Beaver side of the Ohio River – as she had seen a signs for Wendy’s and gas there. There was a “84” in a circle visible off the highway, and we headed for that first, but when we got there it was actually 84 Lumber. It turned out that SJ had mixed it up with 76 Gas, a chain of gas stations that has “76” in a circle on their signs – having looked at both signs since then, I can completely understand why she was confusing them. I was, after all, only remembering them from the vestiges of my memory. I probably remember these from when we lived in that part of the country … when I was aged 12 to 14, and here it was my 32nd birthday. We eventually managed to turn around to head towards Beaver proper, after waiting forever because of the near-constant traffic on the road. We pulled in at a 7-Eleven, just as we got into Beaver, but they had no bathroom! They did, however, direct SJ to the McDonald’s half a mile down the road, so we headed there as quickly as we could.

Around this point I was beginning to get increasingly stressed and irritated, between the time, the traffic, and problems with the phone signal. SJ tried to calm me after she’d been into McDonald’s, and we decided that we weren’t going to make it to Waynesboro; it was just going to prove to be too much for us to have to race there. Instead we decided that we would be better to aim for somewhere more reachable in a sane time, so we decided to head for Morgantown, WV, and we set off again.

Crossing the Ohio river at Beaver Looking south-west along the river.
Crossing the Ohio river at Beaver Looking south-west along the river
"World Famous" Midway Bar & Grill. I'm convinced. Somewhere between Beaver and Washington.
“World Famous” Midway Bar & Grill. I’m convinced. Somewhere between Beaver and Washington

Looking at those shots of the road, I’m struck by how much I never really appreciated those little strips of pavement – they’re not even very wide – and how much more at ease I feel with them there – until I suddenly came to The Land Of No Shoulders. Seriously, in both England and Germany, there is only about 1 inch of shoulder on roads like that – and it increases my stress so much. Not too far from my home, there’s roads like that with no shoulder and with walls on both sides, to boot! Just a foot or two of extra pavement, and everyone’s so much more relaxed, and road blocks (when cars break down) are avoided, and and and…

We got back onto I-376 so that we could cross the river and then left to get onto state highway 18 at junction 39. It’s rather hard to tell from the Rand McNally map, and Google Maps on a phone, but 18 is a really twisty road, and while it was scenic I wasn’t able to enjoy it: as we went along I was trying to look up hotel reviews and book a room for the night, the phones were low on battery power, signal kept coming and going, places I called wanted entirely too much for the night, the car was getting low on petrol and the only places we were passing were BP gas stations (I’m very choosy about gas stations: Exxon and BP are both off the list.) – they appear to have completely stitched up the retail gasoline outlets along that highway – and I was just getting more and more frustrated and angry about the situation. Eventually SJ pulled into an insanely wide driveway (it turns out it was the entrance to the First Niagara Pavilion amphitheatre), stopped, and we talked over the problem.

SJ started by calling 1-800-Holiday, the freephone number for Holiday Inn, to get them to look for hotels in the area of Morgantown, and they were all charging far more than we’d expect for the night. So we set about checking other hotels and reviews, and while we could find some that were less expensive, their reviews were all consistently poor or terrible! I can often rule out some reviews easily, for example ones complaining about ‘older properties’ tend to be people with hilarious expectations. I’ll never forget the one time I had a party of 4 checking into my 7 year old property, which had earned – not bought – the highest rating every single year from the chain it belonged to. For its tier, it was actually a really ace property. It seemed to be two couples: one man had made the reservation. His partner asked me how old the property was, and when I told her 7 years, she got a bit upset, turned to him, and said, “Five years.” Five years was her maximum on how old she wanted a property to be. Wow. She’s obviously NEVER going to travel to Europe! When they start complaining about bedbugs, dirty linens, and broken fixtures, though, I tend to pay more attention. So SJ called back the Holiday Inn freephone number, and talked to the operator about a room at one of the hotels mentioned in her previous call to the line; a jacuzzi suite at the Holiday Inn Express Morgantown. While it was more than we’d like, we decided that it wasn’t much more expensive than any of the other rooms there (it was about $10 more, so that was a no-brainer), it was SJ’s birthday, and we could do with a relaxing soak, so we went ahead and booked it there and then. As it turned out, our timing was incredibly lucky, but we didn’t realise it at the time.

This made me feel much better, as we now had somewhere to stay the night I could stop stressing about that; all we needed to be concerned about was the gas situation, and we knew we’d make it to Washington, Pennsylvania where we’d be shocked if we couldn’t find a non-BP gas station. So, I finally started to relax and enjoy the drive at this point, and SJ’s arms got a bit of a workout twisting the steeering-wheel around; good practice for the coming few days…

At Washington we drove through the middle of the town and came upon a Valero on Jefferson Avenue where we stopped and fed the car its much-needed go-juice. While SJ went into the shop to get a receipt (the pumps were out of paper), I cleaned the windows and tallied up mileage. We decided that the best thing we could do now was to get on I-79 south just to the east of Washington, and that would take us down to Morgantown. US-19 runs close to I-79, and we could have taken that instead, but between the twistiness of the road we’d just been on, and the time, the interstate won simply on the basis of getting us to our hotel jacuzzi faster.

Lowry's Western Shop on the way into Washington. Somewhere in Washington, Pennsylvania.
Lowry’s Western Shop on the way into Washington, Pennsylvania. It amused us to see this way out there in the East. Somewhere in Washington, Pennsylvania

So, we left Washington and got onto I-79 south without any fuss, and headed for the border with West Virginia. Just after the state line we pulled into the welcome centre, hoping to pick up hotel coupons and the state map (most of the state maps we collected along the trip were not actually very useful or detailed, but we were collecting them!) but most of the welcome centre was closed, no staff seemed to be around, and the state maps were buried in amongst the random information pamphlets and leaflets shoved in a single, small display – certainly nothing on the huge amount of neatly organised and displayed information we found in the welcome centre in Michigan. We weren’t impressed at all, but we picked up a few pamphlets and carried on down the interstate.

About half way between Washington and Morgantown... ... is Ruff Creek.
About half way between Washington and Morgantown… … is Ruff Creek.
The sun slowly setting. The road by Morgantown, West Virginia.
The sun slowly setting The road by Morgantown

I-79 passes down the west side of Morgantown, and several hills separate the interstate from the city, so we actually saw very little of the city itself. Instead, we passed a number of substantial interstate-side strip malls and collections of hotels and eateries, including a Red Lobster and an Olive Garden, both of which sounded good to SJ for her birthday dinner, but as it turned out they were a good 15 miles from the hotel we’d booked. The hotel is on the south-east edge of Morgantown, so we had to switch to I-68 east to head up to it, eventually pulling off the interstate into another one of the oversized collections of hotels and restaurants. This one had an Outback, which sounded promising, and several other eateries – SJ vetoed the idea of having her birthday dinner at Wendy’s or Arby’s for some reason – but first we wanted to get checked into the hotel.

We pulled up at the hotel and went to the desk to deal with the check-in paperwork, and while we were going through that with the clerk someone came up beside us to talk to the other clerk, asking whether they had any rooms available. “Sorry, we’re all booked up,” came the response. “Aw man, nothing at all?” “Nope, nothing, sorry!” We were really glad we’d booked in advance at this point!

The room was on the ground floor, near a convenient exterior door we could bring the car around to in order to make unloading much faster. We checked over the room, making sure everything worked and was clean, and then SJ moved the car and we started to bring everything in and unpack toiletries and other essentials. A spectacular sunset distracted us as we unloaded the car, the sun sinking behind thin streaks of cloud and the distant mountains, yellows, oranges, and reds mixed together and slowly faded; we obviously had to stop to take some pictures and watched as the sun disappeared.

Sunset from outside the hotel. Us with the sunset!
Sunset from outside the hotel Us with the sunset!
The sun, nearly set.
The sun, nearly set.

Despite the tempting call of the jacuzzi, we wanted to get something to eat first, so SJ decided that we’d go to Outback for dinner: we brought her cards (unopened ones as well as the ones she’d opened back at the family dinner in Bossier), and walked over to the restaurant! Yes, walked! It was a strange and bizarre thing to do, using those peculiar, meaty appendages rather then a civilised gasoline-powered motorised conveyance, but we needed to stretch our legs after so long in the car anyway.

Happy Birthday, SJ!

Happy Birthday, SJ!

On entering Outback, we were told that there would be a 25 minute wait for a table as they were so busy. From the level of noise, it was easy to believe that, too! While we waited, we went over the menus to work out what we’d order, rather than have that delay our much-needed food when we finally got seated, and eventually settled on a salad and a half-rack of ribs for SJ, and a bacon cheeseburger for me. When we were seated our waitress was efficient and helpful, if rushed off her feet, and took our order right away. As we sat waiting, SJ opened her cards and arranged them on the table: she had quite a stack of them at this point, and I took some photos for Posterity.

When our food arrived SJ showed me how ribs should be when they’re cooked properly: the meat practically fell off the bones and was tender and moist. We’ve never been able to get it to do that – it probably doesn’t help that we don’t have a proper grill to cook them on – and I was amazed by it. Those ribs were so good. Melt in your mouth … mmm, fabulous. My burger was decent, but cooked less than I’d have liked. I was really hungry, so I ate it anyway, and the flavour was good – must’ve been okay, because I’m still here. While we were eating, a group of college-age females piled into a nearby booth, and from fragments of conversation I overheard ((what can I say, I have an enquiring mind!)) it sounded like there was some kind of cheerleading competition or something going on the next day. Later SJ consulted the great Internet Oracle and found that it was actually a big gymnastics competition. That certainly explained why everywhere was booked up and charging crazy rates for rooms…

Theodore helping SJ with her dessert.

Theodore helping SJ with her dessert.

Dessert presented a few problems for me, given that nuts seem to feature prominently in Outback’s dessert menu, so I had a choice between cheesecake or waffle with strawberries and cream. The cheesecake won out in no small part because I’d had a waffle a couple of days ago, and SJ decided that she wanted a sundae, and both were delicious; we were very pleased with the meal, despite the noise and the crowding.

After we were done eating, we wandered back to the hotel – it was actually pretty chilly outside at this point, although perhaps it felt colder than it was after being in the warm restaurant – and while the jacuzzi tub filled we checked email and SJ did a quick search to see what sort of competition was going on, and when it started. Apparently the gymnastics competition didn’t start until 6pm the next day, so we’d completely miss it; we hadn’t made it to the Blue Ridge Parkway yet, and we didn’t have any slack in the schedule to hang around Morgantown for that. If it’d started in the morning, we quite likely would have stayed and caught a few hours of it, if we were allowed. Gymnasts can do fascinating things, as can real cheerleaders, so either one would have been brilliant. Spending a whole day on it was less than ideal, though, so we decided to skip it this time.

When the tub was full, we had a good, long soak. Some comedian decided to put the jets on a timer with a 15 minute maximum, so we only ran it a couple of times, and then just left it off and relaxed in the tub. Somehow we ended up spending nearly two hours in the tub, but it was wonderfully relaxing and around midnight we finally showered and collapsed into bed, with alarms set for 8:30 so we could get a decent night’s sleep.

All in all, a good birthday. It was, indeed, lovely to spend it behind the wheel, at least after we got Chris calmed down about stuff. Lunch was rather meh – we’ll remember this about service stations along toll roads in the future – dinner was fabulous. The jacuzzi was awesome, and an ace way to end the day. One day, we’ll have our own.

One thought on “US Road Trip 2013: Day 8: Ask not for whom the road tolls

  1. Chris I never thought about it but I think you’re right about the highway dept saving money by storing cones on the road when no apparent work is being done! What strange conical buildings you found, I’ve never seen anything like that. SJ after driving in England I completely agree with you comments about The Land Of No Shoulders and how that increases the stress when trying to drive there, sad to here it is the same in Germany. Those were some beautiful sunset pictures in Morgantown, especially the ones with you & Chris and then the one with the US flag. All in all, quite an adventure for your birthday, but the evening in a jacuzzi after a nice dinner (I love their ribs too) made up for a lot of your trials and tribulations. Looking forward to your next installment!

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