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.

US Road Trip 2013: Day 7: Eine kleine Touristenfalle

Day 7: Thursday, 4 April 2013: Flint, Lansing, and Frankenmuth, Michigan



Family, Birthday, Frankenmuth …


Miles: About 150

We got up about 7am, planning to leave the house between 8am and 8:15am to go back to visit Robb and his family some more. Breakfast somehow took longer than we anticipated – must have been Hofstadter’s law in action – so we ended up leaving at closer to 8:30. Not ruinously late, but enough that we were concerned about getting to Robb’s on time, especially if we ran into any traffic.

We retraced our route, and amazingly we actually arrived at 10am; spot on the time we’d told them to expected us. Getting there on time was aided somewhat by the fact that we had a better idea of where we were going, but it was still pretty remarkable.

We were warmly greeted again, and Robb was somehow able to be vertical and conscious despite the fact that he’d apparently been up most of the night and had only gone to bed at 4:15am. I remember the days when staying up until 4am wouldn’t have bothered me, but these days I need all the beauty sleep I can get! After we’d gone into the living room and chatted for a while, they brought out cards and a gift for SJ: the 5th of April is SJ’s birthday, so they had taken the opportunity to surprise her with early birthday things. After the family (with the exception of the new baby niece, of course) sang Happy Birthday for her, the nephews came over to explain the cards they had drawn for her. Some bits were a little hard to interpret, so this was very helpful of them. Robb and Alyssa gave SJ a gift that turned out to be a box of Goldfish that would be added to the car snacks.

After the cards and gift were opened, the boys returned to the basement where they had been watching a film. We sat and chatted with Rob and Alyssa for a while, eventually moving to the kitchen as lunch approached and food was prepared. While there, Robb showed us the kitchen scissors they had recently picked up, demonstrating how sharp they were by cutting part-way through a penny, and then cutting through some paper without a single blemish. He encouraged us to try it, and I got a little overenthusiastic and cut straight through the coin. Thankfully no one got beaned by the flying bit! He was about to go on to larger denomination coins, until he was dissuaded from this by his wife.

With lunch ready, the boys were summoned from the basement, along with the daughter of a friend that Robb and Alyssa were looking after for the day. Lunch itself was good: a chicken pot pie as the main dish, with a crumb crust rather than the pie shell SJ and I usually make, and Red Lobster biscuits. Both were very tasty, especially the biscuits, although I had to eat around the corn Alyssa had put into it (whole corn kernels and I tend not to agree well with each other). Dessert was ‘Blondie’, although I was unfortunately unable to partake of it as it contained Almond oil, and SJ and I ended up having to explain in some detail about intolerance to some substances. Of course, we’d forgotten to do anything helpful like mention anything about this to Alyssa ahead of time. We’re generally the ones having others over for meals – not the other way around! Allergy tends to be well known and recognised, but intolerance seems to be generally unknown or very misunderstood except by those who genuinely have one – not aided by the fact that many things people call ‘allergy’ are actually intolerance, and many people confuse intolerance with lifestyle choice.

From wikipedia:

Food intolerance is a detrimental reaction, often delayed, to a food, beverage, food additive, or compound found in foods that produces symptoms in one or more body organs and systems, but it is not a true food allergy. A true food allergy requires the presence of immune mechanisms against the food, and a food intolerance does not.

I’ll go ahead and take this opportunity in case any of our readers should try to feed us – if you’re not likely to, or if you’re currently eating, just skip this paragraph. This is what our off-limits food does to us; other people’s food intolerances, etc, will manifest in other ways. I can’t have mango – it brings me out in a rash. Corn, nuts of any sort in any form (including oil, extract, essence, ground nuts, chopped nuts, whole nuts, tree nuts, groundnuts, etc), and coconut (all forms, including dessicated, coconut oil, and coconut milk) are all out for Chris, though he’d love dearly to have them. They smell lovely, and he misses them. He’s intolerant, not allergic, so you can have them in the kitchen and put them in other people’s food – but if he eats any of this, he’ll be in the bathroom for a few solid days while his digestive system protests most vehemently. Yes, we’re awkward guests.

After lunch was cleared away, we decided that we should get some family photographs. Robb is an avid amateur photographer, so he pulled out his camera, tripod, and diffusers and we all went out into the yard. Out on the back deck it was gloriously sunny, and despite a chilly breeze that made wrangling the diffuser quite a challenge, it was a fairly comfortable temperature – not warm, but not cold enough to need coats. We posed for a number of shots, trying not to squint in the sun. After photos we returned to the house to chat for a while, but SJ and I needed to leave around 2pm as Aunt Doris was expecting us to get back around 3:30pm.

After saying our goodbyes, we got back on the road, practically familiar with the route at this point. We still had trouble remembering just where to stop for Aunt Doris’ house, however: she may live out in the countryside, but there are houses dotted along the road, and trying to remember just where hers is was surprisingly tricky. Despite this, we arrived on time, and shortly after we all piled into Uncle Bill’s car to head to Frankenmuth.

While writing up this entry, I began to wonder where the Most Northerly Point in the US I have been is. Thankfully that title goes to Seattle, where in 2007 I spent several days visiting friends I know online. It would have been somewhat disheartening to find that Frankenmuth holds any title other than “Most Persistently Tacky Tourist Trap” in the annals of my US escapades. The trip to Frankenmuth was enjoyable, along small roads through farmlands and small communities that lay quiet and well-tended, dare I say it even picturesque, in the afternoon sun. We drove into Frankenmuth, and into the back of the parking lot for the Bavarian Inn Restaurant, the fabled location of the world-famous Chicken Dinners.

We debated briefly between looking around the town, or heading into the restaurant despite the fact that it was only 4:30pm at this point. Aunt Doris was concerned that there might be a queue, so we headed for the restaurant, eventually finding our way there after following several corridors and ramps. There was indeed a queue of people waiting to be seated, and an insanely packed dining area beyond them with servers dressed in stereotypical Bavarian costume (dirndl for the females, lederhosen for the males) circulating through the packed and noisy booths and tables.

The Bavarian Inn Restaurant

The Bavarian Inn Restaurant

A pair of Easter trees, apparently

A pair of Easter trees, apparently

The line slowly cleared, and we were finally seated in booth-style seating. The “Frankenmuth chicken” was chosen as the dish we’d have – I don’t think either SJ or I got to look at the menu, or at least for any length at this point – and it was explained that this was an ‘all you can eat’ style meal, except that they bring out refills for platters at your table rather than having a buffet. The food was less than impressive, and overpriced. There was quite a lot of food – many different dishes came and went, including that fried chicken – and service was decent, but overall we wouldn’t recommend it. Hey ho, you win some, you lose some.

After eating, we split up: Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill said that they would go back to the car and just let us wander around, so we headed down into the basement of the restaurant where they have a fine selection of tourist emporia selling a variety of standard tourist fare. We picked up some rock candy, and some saltwater taffy – there’s no point being in a tourist trap if you don’t get taffy while you’re there.

Returning to street level, we walked up the main street of Frankenmuth, looking around and taking photos as tourists are required to do, and occasionally going into shops that looked like they would be interesting. I will give Frankenmuth some credit: it makes no attempt to hide its tourist-trappiness, and it wears its colours proudly on its metaphorical sleeve, chest, back, and jauntily-angled baseball cap. The attempts at making “German Style” buildings came across to me more like the efforts of someone who had read descriptions of German and Austrian buildings, and had maybe seen photographs of small pieces of them, but they had only managed fleeting glimpses of full buildings, or streets of buildings. Wikipedia generously describes it as having a “strong influence of Franconian-style architecture”, to me it looked like someone had tried to bolt vaguely-Germanic-looking styles onto US conventional architecture.

0079_DSC01449 0082_DSCF2227
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Totally a German castle. Yep, I’m convinced.  


One shop we went into was the “Frankenmuth Cheese Haus”, an establishment that lived up to its name by actually having some cheeses (plus the required selection of typical tourist tat). We picked up a couple of cheeses, but many of them we left well alone: some had nuts, so I couldn’t have them, while some had odd combinations of spices that sounded distinctly unappetising. They also had some mature cheeses of various grades, from reasonable age ones up to vintages that probably require everyone nearby to be in hazmat suits before opening the package. There were other shops we went into, only to find that they all sell pretty much the same tourist stuff presented in different ways. Amusing to look through to begin with certainly, but tiresome after the second shop or so.

Frankenmuth does have some interesting, and sometimes odd, street art though: near the Bavarian Inn Restaurant there is a fountain with maypole-dancing figures around its rim, lots of topiary sculpture along the street, a rather random but impressively-make sculpture outside the Marv Herzog Hotel (apparently no longer there), a cute cheese statue outside the cheese haus, and a bench with a tube that runs down from one end, loops over the bench, and then back up to the other end of the bench. Whisper into one end of the tube, and a person sat on the other end hears you through it.

Maypole statue near the visitor centre.

Maypole statue near the visitor centre.

Well, that's a rather cheesy sign.

Well, that’s a rather cheesy sign.

The strange horse sculpture, with SJ for scale.

The strange horse sculpture, with SJ for scale.

Bench sculpture, with some goofy-looking bloke for scale.

Bench sculpture, with some goofy-looking bloke for scale.

We did a loop up one side of the main street and back down the other side, and were about to cross the road again in front of the Bavarian Inn when we saw Uncle Bill looking for us. Apparently it had just gone 7pm, and Aunt Doris wanted to head back home, so we curtailed our wandering – really, we didn’t think there was much else to see anyway, and there’s only so much tourist tat a sane person can stand – and climbed back into the car. On the way out of Frankenmuth we passed through the one piece of architecture in the town that actually impressed me: a traditional Black Forest style covered wooden bridge that carries two lanes of vehicle traffic, and has pedestrian walkways on both sides.

If we had it to do over again, we’d have skipped Frankenmuth and spent the rest of the day with Robb and family. Live and learn; now we know for next time. It was an experience, anyway, and now we’ll get to compare it to the real Bavaria when we go soon! At least we got to spend time with Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill, which was also important.

Sunset, with nothing for scale. Pretty, though.

Sunset, with nothing for scale. Pretty, though.

The trip back gave us some good views of the spectacular sunset, the sun slowly sinking behind a distant bank of clouds, rays of light shining through the breaks. By the time we got back to Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill’s house it was pretty much dark, and the temperature had started to drop rapidly. This was due to be our last night in Davison, so we sat chatting into the evening. Aunt Doris had gone to bed somewhere around 9pm, as she needed to be up and about especially early on Friday morning to help clean the office over at the farm, and around 10pm SJ and I decided it was time to sleep, as we wanted to get on the road as soon as we could the next day to get down to Waynesboro, Virginia at the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway. So we showered, did some packing ready for the morning, and got to bed.

US Road Trip 2013: Day 6: A Corny Experience

Day 6: Wednesday, 3 April 2014: Near Flint, MI

Art, Music, Kin, Food, and Farming… (by Chris)

After we had eaten breakfast, part of which involved entertaining Aunt Doris with my tea-making, we sat down to try to sort out what we were going to do. The farm next door is run by Glenda, one of the daughters of Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill, and Glenda’s husband Bill (she runs the admin side, while he runs the hands-on stuff. And yes, Bill is a popular name in parts of SJ’s family, apparently: Aunt Doris is married to a Bill, Aunt Faye is married to a Bill, and Glenda is too!). When we were talking the previous evening, Aunt Doris had talked about taking us around the farm, and possibly taking us up to Frankenmuth at some point, and she had arranged a dinner for us and their other daughter and her husband that coming evening. On top of those, SJ also wanted to go back to visit Robb and his family. But most of all, we needed to work out how many days we would be spending in Michigan now, after the delays caused by headlight problems and generally not getting as far each day as we originally planned – leaving late the first day, not getting as far as planned the second day because of headlights, not getting anywhere the next day, and so on.

After looking over maps and the spreadsheet SJ had worked out for the route, we decided that we’d be able to get back on schedule if we stayed in Michigan for three nights – two full days (the 3rd and 4th of April) – and then tried to cover the 620 or so miles from Flint, Michigan to the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Waynesboro, Virginia in one day instead of two, on the 5th.

So, now that we knew how long we were going to be in Michigan, we needed to decide how to spend the time. We decided that we’d go to Robb’s the next day, and Frankenmuth that evening, and that we’d stay closer to Aunt Doris’ for the rest of the current day, look around the farm, and of course enjoy the dinner that evening. We were going to go over to the farm, but first Uncle Bill wanted to show us his workshop…

Workshop is practically a misnomer: I’ve seen houses smaller than the space Uncle Bill has as a workshop. Uncle Bill does vinyl design and printing, and often gets called upon to make decals for vehicles (he’ll paint designs directly onto them too; he’s an accomplished artist). The ground floor of his workshop is a large open area where vehicles can be parked as he works on them (doubling as a garage), and the walls are adorned with a vast array of interesting things: painted sawblades (something I’d never run into before, although SJ tells me it’s quite common in rural parts of the US); models; cowboy figures Uncle Bill has carved from wood (he’s a big fan of cowboys); posters; paintings; drawings; decals; and even some musical instruments! Upstairs (I told you it was large…) is his office, where his computer, vinyl printer and cutter, and all the supplies for it are housed.

Uncle Bill's woodcarving

Uncle Bill’s woodcarving

Part of the Man Cave

Part of the Man Cave

Uncle bill showed us how he worked, going from basic images and photos, setting up everything in the PC, to how the vinyl printer and cutter works. After that, he started asking various Windows and general software-related questions, and I tried to help him out with a few things. SJ wandered back down to look at the artwork downstairs; she was still tired from having woken up so early so many days in a row, and it was quite hot in Uncle Bill’s office, so she needed to walk around somewhere cooler.

After answering Uncle Bill’s questions, we both went back down to join SJ, who had noticed the piano over in the corner. It turns out that Uncle Bill can actually play a range of instruments – including piano, guitar, violin, and several more – and he played the piano for us a bit. SJ was surprised to learn that Uncle Bill can’t read music, though: he has sheet music there, but that’s just for the lyrics to songs rather than for the music.

Aunt Doris came in towards the end of the musical interlude, probably to see whether we were lost in the man cave, and we all piled into their car to go to a place called Apollo Family Restaurant for lunch; not quite a local greasy spoon of a place, but it’s not far off. It was decent, with a variety of choices, and a comfortable enough place.

While we were at Apollo we ran into some of Uncle Bill’s relatives, including a recently widowed relative. I was Exhibit A once again, and was commanded to Talk To Them as they’d never met that most curious and peculiar of creatures known as the Englishman before. This is always a problem for me, as my reserves of smalltalk are essentially non-existent, and saying things like “Good morrow, completely unknown to me female of an older persuasion! I hear tell that your once-and-former hubby is now imitating the Norwegian Blue?” (video) is probably not the most tactful option in the world. I believe that the conversation involved some discussion of my occupation, not that this generally helps matters. “I perform dark and arcane acts involving computers; invoking unknown horrors, and meddling with terrible secrets beyond mortal ken” may not be what I say, but I’m pretty sure that’s what people hear.

After lunch, we stopped by a Kroger supermarket on the way back to Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill’s house. Mostly SJ and I wanted to see what was available there (particularly in the way of bread, given Chris’ pickiness), as we knew we’d need to replenish supplies when leaving Davison to head south to the Blue Ridge Parkway, but we also needed to pick up a couple of things for breakfast the next day.

On the way back to the house, Uncle Bill said that he’d show us some of the farm. The farm apparently covers some 10,000 acres, so we thought we’d be covering a fair amount of ground looking at some of the fields and the extent of the farm, especially as we’d be “doing a drive-by” (and there was poor old me without any semi-automatic. Not even a remotely gangstah drive-by!). But no: the main farm buildings, the silos, and the storage areas are all together in one compact area, and that’s where they drove us through. They pointed out several buildings, and explained some things, but we couldn’t really see a great deal from within the car and we didn’t stop, basically going through a loop and heading back to the house.

Once we got back to the house Uncle Bill went out to his workshop to work on some commissions, and Aunt Doris started putting away groceries. A few days before we had left England I had damaged my thicker coat, and it had started leaking feathers (it has goose down stuffing). This hadn’t mattered in Louisiana, but ever since Lafayette, Indiana, I’d been wearing the coat and getting irritated at the feathers escaping. As we had some downtime, I decided that I would break out our little travel sewing kit and repair the seam that had been damaged, so I brought the sewing kit and my coat out to the dining table, as there is a large window and good lighting there, and got to work with a needle and thread. Aunt Doris was shocked and impressed that I could – and quite willingly would – do this, and we spent quite some time talking about the fact that I know how to sew, and will do it, and have no problems with hand-fixing things if needed. Once I’d fixed my coat we left Aunt Doris, who was working on dinner, and SJ suggested that we go for a walk out around the farm.

Uncle Bill had told us that we could just walk around the farm and nobody would bother us. This rather surprised me, as wandering around unaccompanied on an English farm is not something I’d recommend as a hobby. English farmers would certainly enquire about your presence and intentions (probably involving rather cruder language, potentially questioning the interloper’s parentage and species), and may even call the police. As it turned out it didn’t matter anyway: just as we were leaving, Uncle Bill came back to the house and offered to take us over and show us around a bit.

The first place we went to was one of the main maintenance buildings – Uncle Bill wanted to talk to some people there – and while we waited for him we looked around a bit, feeling rather out of place. In the middle of the building was a huge tractor, easily twice as big as any English tractor I had ever seen, that several workers were polishing – yes, polishing – to the point that it gleamed. If it wasn’t for the tyres, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that it was brand new off the production line, not a working tractor! We later found out that the farm owner is strict about making sure that the workers keep the equipment in pristine condition: washed, polished, any damage has to be fixed up, dents and scratches buffed out and repainted. Unusual, but quite sensible – there’s a lot of money in those machines, and treating them right helps make them last.

 Not brand new... although you'd be hard-pressed to tell

Not brand new… although you’d be hard-pressed to tell

Next we went over to the main admin building where the farmer’s wife – Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill’s daughter Glenda – was working. When we got there, she was on the phone, so while we were waiting I looked around a bit. The office had a dividing counter with desks, computers, and other accoutrements of bureaucracy on one side; and a mostly clear area on the other side for truckers and farm workers. “Mostly” because they’d built a ramp up to a windowsill, and placed a load of cushions and blankets at the top; a place for one of the dogs to sit and watch the world go by.

After a while Glenda came over and chatted with us, and offered to give us a guided tour of the farm buildings. We gratefully accepted, and she took us through most of them, explaining what they were for, and pointing out a variety of interesting and occasionally amazing things.

Or is it a cross between a centipede and a tractor?

Or is it a cross between a centipede and a tractor?

One of the first stops was their relatively newly-built pesticide and fertiliser loading building, set a good way away from any of the others because of the danger of explosion inherent in keeping any large amount of nitrates and phosphates around. The building is lined with pipework and valves that let the workers drive tractors in through one door, load them up with the substance du jour, and then drive out of another door. The next building was a workshop where several pieces of farm machinery were being worked on, including a huge hulking mass that looked like the offspring of a giant green crab and a wire factory (it was a seed planter actually. So a giant green crab/wire factory hybrid that thrusts its seeds into the very Earth.)

SJ gets ready to make off with a tractor.

SJ gets ready to make off with a tractor.

After eyeing the seed monster, Glenda took us to the largest building on the site: an huge, cavernous place that housed three combine harvesters, three huge tractors, grain hopper trailers, a truck, and more! We were amused to find that the combines where each named after cartoon or film characters – Shrek and Popeye characters – and Uncle Bill had done labels and pictures on each of them. SJ climbed up into the cab of one of the big tractors, each of which had wheels as tall as me, with four tires per axle to help spread their weight, and posed for a photograph. I refrained from attempting the same because I was, frankly, concerned about being clumsy and damaging something. I was happy to just look! But big as the machinery was, there was a lot of space left in the building, which made us even more amazed when Glenda told us that during harvest time they move everything out of the building and use it to supplement the grain silos, filling it almost to the ceiling from end to end with corn kernels!

The big building is big.

The big building is big.

The next stop was another storage building, albeit much smaller, that contained more farm machinery, this time including the “Terra-Gator”, a three-wheeled vehicle with tires as big as SJ, with a big hopper on the back that they fill with organic pellet fertiliser: chicken poop! Uncle Bill had made a “What the kluck?” sticker for the back of it that made us chuckle a lot.

What the kluck indeed...

What the kluck indeed…

These machines are pretty damned big.

These machines are pretty damned big.

Weird looking contraption, though.

Weird looking contraption, though.

That's a lot of storage space...

That’s a lot of storage space…

The farm operates a range of services for other farmers, including storage and corn drying in a new drier tower, and Glenda showed us the huge silos (one 70ft, one 60ft, a 40ft, and a 30ft, each a good 40ft across) they have for storing various forms of grains and she was going to show us the trucker’s lounge and laboratory, but they’d just had them repainted and the fumes from the paint were…. well, I could hardly stick my head around the door before my eyes started watering!

Why does a farm need a laboratory? Apparently the price the farm can get for the corn varies drastically based on the moisture content, level of foreign matter, impurities or mould present: getting it even slightly wrong can be the difference between a healthy, profitable harvest and a disaster. The farm has to send samples off for an evaluation that determines the price, but they test it on-site to try to make sure that they get it as good as possible before doing so.

We were just about to head off when Bill (the farmer, Glenda’s husband, not Uncle Bill…) came by and said hello. He was pretty busy, and couldn’t stay long, so after a few brief words he headed off, and we decided we’d head back to Aunt Doris’ to get out of the cold. Glenda told us that she’d probably drop in for a little while later, and headed back to the office as we wandered through the massed silos.


Back at Aunt Doris’ we hung out while she made dinner, eventually joined by Uncle Bill and Aunt Doris’ other daughter Rhonda, and her husband David. It was a good dinner; Aunt Doris is an excellent cook and had made a very tasty spread. David is an avid swimmer, and he talked about wanting to swim the English Channel one day. Unfortunately we had to enlighten him about the fact that it is wider than he thought it was (21 miles at the closest, rather than the 13 he thought it was), and that the Strait of Dover (said 21 mile span) is the busiest shipping channel in the world. He was rather less enthused at the idea after that… Part-way through the meal Glenda dropped by briefly, and for a while I was again under strict orders to talk as now three of SJ’s female relatives wanted to listen to my accent, even though they noticed that it was fairly Americanised now, but “when you keep talking I hear [your accent],” as Rhonda said. Immigration came up, as it inevitably does, but thankfully much sillier things like crazy British traditions (Welly Wanging, Black Pudding Throwing competitions, Cheese Rolling, and so on…) came up as well. We filled the evening with all sorts of talk, and had a great time as the sun set and darkness fell outside.

After dinner had finished, Rhonda and David had left, and dishes were cleared, we sat talking for a while and SJ got some laundry done, but around 10pm SJ decided that she wanted to head to bed, as did Aunt Doris, so we said our goodnights, showered, and got into bed at a vaguely reasonable time.

While lying in bed awaiting sleep, one of the things that struck me the most was the silence. While arranging the visit, Aunt Doris had mentioned that there was a ‘lot of traffic’ on the road, and when then farm is busy there may be, but as I lay there I reflected on the fact that back at home we get more cars going past the house at night in five minutes than I’d noticed or heard go past in hours. The silence was nearly unbroken; I miss it.

US Road Trip 2013: Day 5: From Windmills to Lighthouses

Day 5: Lafayette, Indiana to Flint, Michigan

From Windmills to Lighthouses … (by Chris)


We woke entirely too early on Tuesday morning, managed to drag ourselves out of bed, and apply breakfast. By about 8ish we’d finished breakfast, prepared tea and stuff for lunch, and got everything together and ready to go in record time. We loaded everything onto a luggage cart and the family donkey (ie: me) to get everything out to the car in one go.

On the way out we stopped by the front desk. The checkout bill had been slipped under our door overnight – I didn’t remember that happening on any of our previous trips, so I was slightly confused about that at the time (It is a thing that’s supposed to happen at Holiday Inns and Expresses, the idea being that if everything’s right, the guest needn’t stop by the desk but can just leave when they’re ready, leaving the key in the room. Various properties are better or worse about doing it.) – and the requested discount for the problem with the shower was conspicuous by its absence. SJ asked the desk clerk, the same one who had been on the desk the previous day, about this and he said that it was “Just one of those things that happens,” with an attitude that exuded “I don’t give a shit, go away you’re bothering me” (much like he had the previous day, really, only more pronounced this time). SJ’s reaction to that slightly surprised me: she didn’t press the point, or demand to Speak With Management or anything, the clerk confirmed charging the bill to the card and SJ basically walked out. He’s right, that really was uncharacteristic of me – I generally get irate very quickly at poor service anywhere, since there’s never any excuse for it. I didn’t know at the time but she had A Plan… *bwuahahaha!*

We loaded the car in the cold morning sun. Much like the previous day, it was well below freezing, but unlike that day we couldn’t just pile into the car and go: we had to load it with our suitcases, cooler, food bag, electronics bag, various other bits and pieces, the AirPot with its precious cargo (of tea – Chris needs his tea. We’d decided to buy some sort of thermos in the US and leave it in the car, rather than take up space in the luggage with one that wouldn’t be large enough anyway. We didn’t expect to end up with this sort of thing, but we found it that day at Sam’s – the price was decent, the ease of access good, and it holds plenty, so we went for it.), and finally find seats for Teddy and the few other guys we had brought with us for the trip. We were getting a bit better at slotting everything in already, but it still took time, and we were both greatly relieved to finally get to shut the doors and let the heater do its job.

We got on the road a little after 8:20, heading straight east to get onto I-65 North. Along the way we were almost rear-ended by some idiot in a pickup truck who came up behind the car insanely fast, barely missing us. The horn and SJ’s sign language got something of a workout at this point, but he pulled off before long and I slightly released my deathgrip on the dash…

Just before we got to the interstate we spied a Target, and decided that it was worth trying it to see if they had any bread (I am very picky about bread, especially when in the Land of Sweetened Bread Everywhere) and various other supplies. We didn’t know whether it would be open at this point, as it was only just gone 8:30am, but we pulled up to find that it opened at 8! We found good looking bakery bread, water, more of my much-missed Bolthouse Farms Vanilla Chai, some cheese, and some replacements for depleted snacks and fruit.

It was obviously still really cold outside, so SJ wore her thick coat while we went into Target, but she forgot to take it off before we set off again, and she doesn’t like driving in a coat. We stopped at the first rest area we could – Wolcott Rest Area, about 25 miles up the interstate – so she could take off her coat. I guess I’m being more influenced by the UK than I would like to admit in some cases. The SJ of years past would have just pulled over on the shoulder, especially on that empty stretch of highway, taken her coat off, and then gone on, rather than put up with it for 25 miles. In the UK, it’s illegal to stop on the side of a motorway (which is more or less the equivalent of an interstate, except it seems like motorways are always very, very busy, so instead of these mostly empty interstates in the midwest, think of the ones on the eastern seaboard between, say, Washington and Boston) unless your car breaks. In the US, as far as I know, it’s not – it’s not terribly advisable, and state troopers generally move motorists along if they come along and find them parked on the side of an interstate, but it’s not forbidden. Also, when your car does break, there’s another set of differences: in the US, you’ll see people fixing it themselves to get on their way, if they can (changing tires, etc); in the UK, you won’t – but I don’t know if this is because of the setting or because of a general difference in attitude I’ve noticed of Brits being less keen to work on their cars than Americans. If they’re waiting for a tow, in the UK, the rule is always to vacate the car and get as far away from the traffic as possible – climbing over whatever’s in the way – in case a moving vehicle should come along and hit the stationary vehicle. In the US, we generally sit in the car to wait, assuming that the moving vehicles will continue staying in their lanes instead of being pulled towards the parked car as if there’s suddenly some sort of magnetic force. Funny, this is the one case in UK driving where the official assumption is that the moving vehicles won’t stay in their lane – everything else officially espoused about driving here is based entirely on the assumption that everyone is always exactly where they should be, exactly when they should be there.

On the way there, SJ got me to call Six Continents Guest Relations and hand her the phone, “because managers always go nuts when they get a Guest Relations case,” she said with a rather scary smile. I don’t know all the particulars, but I know: (1) they get charged financially for these, and (2) if they get enough of them, they face losing their flag – they’ll have to rebrand, away from the Six Continents collection (Holiday, Crowne Plaza, Intercontinental, etc). Losing a flag is a HUGE deal in Hotel World, though obviously one complaint will only have minimal effect towards that. The financial charge, though – that’s what I had in my mind when I just paid the bill that morning and left. If I can’t get money out of you one way, I’ll get it another. And doing it this way, I’ll cost you more.

SJ has a Priority Club membership with the Intercontinental Group (it’s just the free membership card they always offer you), something that came in very useful at a few points during the journey. When we were checking into the hotel in Lafayette, the forms showed the address and phone number associated with her membership number, and spaces to correct them if they need updating. They were wrong, so SJ had filled in the correct information as we checked in… except that, when she started talking to the guess relations agent, and he was going through checking her membership information, it turned out that despite having two (very quiet and slow) days to fix the problems, the clerks at the Holiday Inn had done nothing, and her old, incorrect information was still showing on her account! The agent fixed that, and went over the problem we’d had with the hotel and the way they’d handled it, although SJ initially didn’t mention the attitude the clerks had shown. The problem she stressed was the fact that housekeeping should have easily spotted the problem with the shower drain, and either got maintenance to fix it at that point, or the room should not have been rented until it was fixed, especially on a slow night like the Easter night we got there (when the vast majority of the hotel looked empty). Even if housekeeping hadn’t noticed the problem, once it was reported it should have been fixed, or we should have been told there and then that it couldn’t have been: we shouldn’t have been basically lied to about maintenance being involved.

All SJ was after with the complaint was making the hotel go all flaily over being hit with a guest relations case, but the agent said he could give her 4,000 priority club points ((club points can be redeemed for free nights, with 10,000 to 50,000 needed depending on the property. 4,000 is 2/5ths of a free night at a Holiday Inn Express)) as compensation for the aggravation and poor service. He was working away typing, when SJ off-handedly noted that it was the attitude they’d had that annoyed her the most, especially given that she’s worked as a Holiday Inn desk clerk. “You know what, we’ll make it five thousand,” he said. Worked for me! I would’ve been happy if the hotel had given me 10% off the rate – they’d charged me rack rate (full price), after all, so they had plenty of wiggle room. Fifty percent off? That’ll work even better.

Shortly before SJ finished talking to guest relations we pulled into the rest area. We stretched our legs a bit, SJ took off her coat, and we got sorted to head on northwards again. The whole stretch of road around the rest area, and quite some distance away from it, was dotted with wind turbines – Indiana seems to have several areas of substantial wind farming, in addition to normal arable farming!

Wind spinny things!

Wind spinny things!

More spinny things, and apparently they want your pets to play on the highway...

More spinny things, and apparently they want your pets to play on the highway…

North we drove, and ran into all sorts of confusion with Time, or more specifically the fact that, while most of Indiana is now in Eastern Time (although it apparently used to be all in Central Time, years ago…), as you get towards north Indiana and the suburbs of Chicago you find yourself back in Central Time because they want to keep Gary, Indiana and the other suburbs of Chicago in the same timezone as Chicago itself. Which makes sense, I suppose, but does hilarious things when your phone is syncing its time off the local network and you suddenly find it’s an hour earlier than you thought it was, or perhaps not!


Near Gary, Indiana we switched from I-65 North to I-94 East. Except that for a stretch there it’s also I-80 East. Oh, and US-6, too. Have I mentioned that the US road system hates me and wants to drive me mad? What looked on the map like a horrible mess of an interchange actually proved to be relatively simple (it looking a horrible mess wasn’t helped by the scale he was dealing with – looking at either the Rand McNally or the phone didn’t really let him see it as well as you can above), and soon after that I-80 somehow buggered off to pretend that it was the I-90 (because roads of madness) and left us alone on I-94 (and possibly US-6, I’m not entirely sure). It was not the last we would hear of the itinerant I-80, but we will come to that later…. down the road, as you might say.

That slippery slope!

That slippery slope!

I-94 took us through Portage and Chesterton, past the confusingly named Michigan City, Indiana (maybe it used to be in Michigan, but slid down the side of the lake? Or perhaps it is some kind of subtle insult by Indiana to its more northerly neighbour?), and then soon after we passed the state line into Michigan. The welcome centre on I-94 East is the New Buffalo Welcome Center ((New Buffalo Welcome Center was apparently the first ever interstate welcome centre in the USA. They don’t actually make much of that – I can’t remember seeing anything about it there.)), and the first thing we noticed upon pulling into the parking lot there (via a very strange road setup) was the lighthouse right there by the picnic area. Not, apparently, a real lighthouse – the beacon is a relatively low brightness, simple, constant light, rather than a bright rotating beam or flashing light – but it looks really neat and was a suitable introduction to the state that prides itself on having the most operational lighthouses of any US state.

A rather chilly SJ for scale.

A rather chilly SJ for scale.

We went into the welcome centre itself, and while I visited the little programmer’s room, SJ was looking around the various brochures and guides available. When I found her she had accumulated quite a stack, and I asked her how many weeks we were going to be spending in Michigan… for which I got a completely unwarranted tickling!

A small library of touristy literature accumulated, we adjourned to the car and decided that it was time for lunch. We pulled out the cooler and lunch supplies and went to sit at one of the picnic tables. The sun was shining and was actually not too cold now… except that the wind was blowing steadily, and was icy cold and penetrating. While SJ sensibly wore her gloves, I had no truck with such rational behaviour, and we watched my fingers turn an interesting shade of blue as we ate. But at least we didn’t need to worry about refrigerating the cheese!

Around 12:15 we finished our rather hurried lunch, packed everything away, and headed off again along I-94, passing north of another Decatur (with another similarly insanely straight-looking road leading to it…), and past Kalamazoo and Battle Creek before turning onto I-69 North near Marshall to head for Lansing.

At Lansing, we headed towards one of the outlying towns to visit SJ’s brother Robb, his wife, and their children (still carrying the colouring books we’d been asked to deliver by SJ’s parents, too!) We’d originally hoped to get there by 1pm, but it was actually closer to 2:45pm. We’re still not quite sure how it ended up being so much later; some of the difference could be chalked up to rest areas, but I actually suspect that we went through some kind of time warp in north Indiana as a result of the crazy shenanigans with the timezones there.

Us with the kiddos

Us with the kiddos; photo thanks to my sister-in-law Alyssa.

We were greeted by Robb, Alyssa, and their children. Logan, Isaiah, and our only neice, Addy – they were 8, 5, and 3 months old. I hadn’t seen Logan since he was a babe in arms, and I’d never met the other two; Chris had never met any of them. The boys even recognised us, and knew that we were their aunt and uncle – Isaiah asked how long we’d traveled to come see him, and was incredibly touched when we told him that we’d spent one day flying, and four days driving. We visited for several hours, were impressed with how mature, intelligent, and friendly the children were, and caught up on what had been going on in each others’ lives. Robb showed us the office and the furniture he had built for it (I think he built everything but the chairs!), and some of his tools and toys (including his gigantic and rather vicious-looking snow blower, which apparently got a good workout this past winter!) while Alyssa made dinner for us. Dinner was fabulous, naturally; Alyssa’s a stellar cook.

Robb Office 1 Robb Office 2
Photo thanks to my brother Robb.

I had no idea Robb was talented with building things that way – the furniture was brilliant, with lots of well-thought-out touches added that really enhanced usability. He made the trolley above, for example: drawers on both sides, an array of sizes, for holding bits to repair computers. A slide out shelf at the bottom to put a tower, and the whole thing slides under the desk to keep the top clear (well, it was when we visited, anyway), so that if a friend came over with a computer to fix, Robb didn’t suddenly have to clear some desk space to work on it. Another one he made, which I can’t remember so well how it exactly worked, was a drawer that would take another piece of wood that slotted perfectly on top to create more (temporary) desk space when you needed it. The drawer would actually take the pressure of being used as a desk, unlike so many drawers I’ve used in my life that barely take the pressure of being used as a drawer! I blame him for my over-engineered banner I came up with a few months later. 😉

We delivered the colouring books to the nephews, and spent some more time after dinner chatting before we had to set off again at 7pm to head to Aunt Doris’. The visit went really well, and we were sorry to have to go after arriving so much later than we wanted, but we talked about hopefully visiting again later in our time in Michigan, and bade them farewell for the evening.

SJ’s Aunt Doris lives out in the countryside on the far side of Flint, and we were getting quite low on gas, so we stopped to refuel on the way before heading off to look for Aunt Doris’ house. By this point it was after 8:20pm, the sun had set, but thankfully the headlights were working and we got onto the correct road without any problems (they have very helpfully illuminated intersection signs in this part of Michigan. We decided they are a wonderful idea and should be used more widely.) and headed off down it trying to work out where her house was. We eventually got to where we thought it was, but between the fact that neither of us had ever been there, it was dark, the mailboxes were all on one side of the road, and house numbers were hard to see, we found that we were actually on the wrong side of the street. I’d pulled into the long, skinny (my car’s width plus about 2 inches either side) driveway, and stopped a bit of a distance from the house. I saw someone outside sweeping, so I hopped out to ask if I was in the right place. He pointed me across the street, so I got back in and had to reverse out that long, skinny drive – probably about 4 car lengths. Fun! At least we nearly got it right first time, anyway!

Reversing and pulling into the correct drive, we saw Aunt Doris coming out of the house to greet us. Unfortunately, just as SJ got out of the car, she put her foot on the edge of the driveway wrong and slipped and fell! Thankfully, SJ is an expert faller, and she was unhurt (the trick for me is to just let the fall happen – I always sprain my ankle, etc, when I try to catch myself. The damage done from falling is usually negligible – the damage done from trying to catch myself can last months, though. At least this works while I’m young!), but Aunt Doris was very concerned and exclaimed, “Oh, don’t fall, don’t fall! Come over into the porch light and you’ll see why.” It turned out that a few days before, Aunt Doris had slipped and fallen in the house at night, and had cut a big gash on the end of her chin. Her husband Bill later told us that he thought it should have had stitches, but she hadn’t had any. It’d managed to scab over on its own, though.

We left everything in the car, and went in to visit with Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill for a while. They asked us lots of questions – how we met (we told them the long version), what we do, how the trip had gone so far – and much of it was directed at a certain Englishman because Aunt Doris wanted to listen to my accent (this was something of a constant during the Michigan leg of the trip, with various female kin of SJ’s wanting to hear me talk…) Somewhere between 9:30pm and 10pm, Aunt Doris and Uncle Bill went to bed, and we started to unload the car into the guest room we’d be in for the next three nights.

We unpacked just what we needed, showered, and got ready for bed. Aunt Doris had told us that she usually gets up at 4:30am or 5am, to which both SJ and I made less than enthusiastic faces. Even though she assured us that we didn’t have to get up then, we did set the alarm for 7am so we’d be up earlier rather than later, and SJ prefers to try to sync our schedule closer to our host’s if possible (SJ originally asked for 6:30am, but we were entirely too tired for that). And we collapsed into exhaustion again – amazing how tiring it is just sitting — in a smooth-riding car!

US Road Trip 2013: Day 4: Swim time!

Day 4 (Monday, 1 April 2013): Lafayette, IN

Day mileage: 12ish

They have a pool, and we’re not afraid to use it …


We woke on Monday morning with near-darkness outside the hotel, the barest suggestion of light on the horizon. As we ate breakfast, dressed ourselves, and prepared for the day ahead, the light grew outside. Looking out of the hotel window, I saw some bits of snow I hadn’t remembered seeing the day before – it looked like it might have snowed a bit overnight, which was vaguely concerning for our continued northerly journey, but it was only small patches. When we left at just about 7:30, for the 3 mile trip to Firestone over by the Tippecanoe Mall, it was more or less fully daylight; enough that we didn’t need headlights at least.

Arriving at Firestone we were greeted by an entirely too cheerful and awake worker called Bill, who tried to look up SJ in the Firestone system as she’d been to a Firestone before. They apparently key their records off phone number (which, I suppose, is better than the social security number used in so many other places), but SJ’s old mobile phone number had no information associated with it, and while they had three different records for her on her parents’ phone number – with a variety of different spellings – none of them had her Infiniti attached to them! SJ sent me out to the car to retrieve paperwork, as she remembered having a Firestone receipt in there, and on producing it we found out the correct number to use for her account was actually the phone number she had back in 2008 while staying in her apartment by LSUS. After that, Bill spent several minutes fixing the mess so that SJ’s name was correctly spelt and associated with the correct phone number, and there was only one of her in the system.

Then we came to explaining the problem with the car, giving its symptoms, the things we’d checked and that we’d ruled out the bulbs and the fuses and all we had left to check were the relays, and we weren’t equipped to do it – unless he could think of anything else. “Well, squirrels could have chewed the wires,” he said cheerfully. We were still deeply hoping that it wouldn’t be a wiring though, as that’d be a hilarious problem to fix…. but there are a lot of squirrels near where the car was being kept.

We handed over the keys, and went to sit in the waiting area, warm sun streaming through the large windows onto us. Bill went around setting things up for the day, turning on the TV in the waiting area, starting some coffee brewing. He offered some to us, but we both declined, and then he suggested a cup of tea, with milk and sugar, “like the English like.” We ended up having a fairly lengthy conversation with him about tea: it turns out he had a sort of surrogate grandmother when he was a kid. She was Swedish, and he’d spent a fair amount of time with her, and she used to make hot tea with milk and sugar and he fell in love with tea made that way. Bill also told SJ that he was shocked to learn that she came from Louisiana – we hadn’t told him the long story of the various places SJ grew up in – and that he thought she didn’t sound entirely American.

After a while Bill came over and told us that they’d brought the car in, reproduced the problem, and they were trying to find the relays for the headlights. “I can show them where the relays are,” SJ told him. “Oh, you can? Really?” he replied with some surprise, “okay, well, just go over there and tell those guys working on your car!” At this point we both went out into the garage to find three (yes, three) mechanics poking at the car, hood open, one looking at the fuse panel by the steering column, and the others looking at the easily-accessible fuses and relays box in the engine compartment, all with puzzled looks on their faces.

Striding towards them SJ threw back her shoulders, puffed out her chest, and loudly announced, “My headlight relays are,” pointing out the itinerant black box buried in its inconvenient location, “over here, in this box.” Despite their surprised looks, the mechanics gratefully accepted the information and said they’d get to work taking it out and testing it, so SJ and I returned to the waiting area. Damn, that felt good. It’s one of my favorite memories of the whole trip!

It didn’t take long to get the news that they’d pulled the relay, tested it, and concluded that it was indeed broken. Bill started calling people to try and track down a replacement part for it, and eventually called us over to tell us the news: he’d found a replacement, at an Infiniti dealer in Indianapolis who was willing to drive it up to Lafayette that day. Given that we’d explicitly avoided going to Indianapolis, we felt a little silly at this point, but even with the benefit of hindsight I think we’d still do the same thing again: the paddling pool shower and unhelpful clerks aside, our time in Lafayette was relaxed, filled with friendly people, and generally a good time. But, anyway, we told Bill to tell them to go ahead and bring it up – and we would try not to think too hard about how much our choice of city would end up costing. They said it’d be at the Firestone by 4pm, and in the car shortly after, so we gave Bill our current phone number in case they needed to get hold of us, and then phoned for a cab to take us back to the hotel. He told us that, as we were right next to a mall, there was a Barnes&Noble and a bunch of other places we could go, but as we told him: the hotel had a pool, and we intended to use it!

The cab company we phoned said that someone would be there for us in about 20 minutes. They lied, like lying things made entirely of lies and misinformation. SJ and I sat in the waiting area for a while, and an old lady who had brought her car in for an oil change was sat there doing some knitting. At one point she asked if there was anything she could do to help us, as her car would be done soon. Both SJ and I found very touching and generous, but we thanked her and said that no, we were just waiting on a taxi.


And we waited, and waited.

Two more phone calls, and an hour after the first call, the taxi finally arrived. Given that the hotel was only 2.9 miles from the Firestone we could probably have already walked back by that point, save for the lack of sidewalks along a chunk of the route, and the fact that it was still really cold outside; not the emphatically below-freezing cold it was when we brushed ice off the car before we left the hotel, but damned cold. The cabbie himself was actually a decent guy, and ended up earning a tip even though we were pissed when he first turned up. Among other things, he told us of a time he was stopped by a policeman for having a headlight out, during the day (the car had daylight running lights). The cop was actually going to ticket him until the cabbie pointed out that he was grateful the cop had told him the light was out, and he’d get it fixed, but all these other people were driving past without any lights on at all, what with it being daylight… “Yeah, I hadn’t really thought about that,” the cop apparently said. We concluded he must have needed more doughnuts.

We paid the cab driver, and got the details from him for arranging a timed pickup later to get us back to Firestone. At this point we checked at the desk about the shower, and were told – with some attitude – that it hadn’t been fixed, and all they could do was give us another room. At this point we decided we’d put up with that for a working shower, as we’d be there another night and didn’t want to have to go paddling again! It was only now that the clerk told us the alternative room was the adjoining one! If they’d told us that the night before, I think we probably would have moved then, but nothing so helpful. So we asked for a discount for the first night for the problem with the shower (this being standard practice in US hotels when the room isn’t up to snuff, particularly Six Continents hotels, which is a thing you know when you’ve been on that side of the desk for nearly a decade) – the clerk said he’d have to clear that with his boss – and got the second room key, went back to the room and opened the doors between the two adjoining rooms so that we could transfer our stuff between them more easily.

It was a really strange experience, as the rooms were almost identical, mirrored across the adjoining wall, made even more freaky by the fact that there were mirrors set into closet doors on opposite sides of the adjoining door, so we could see a mirrored, mirror copy of the room without our stuff in it at the same time as the room with our stuff in!

After moving everything through we set up the taxi pickup, and had some lunch as we were both hungry by this point. We also decided that, as Bill had been so very helpful and friendly, we’d bring him some of our tea as we had a bit more than we strictly needed for the whole trip. So we packed some of the precious bags into ziplock bags to bring with us as we prepared lunch. After we’d eaten and sorted laundry we got changed to go swimming, and SJ got more laundry going while we swam. The pool itself was on the second floor, not very large – perhaps only 15×20 feet, going from 3 feet to 4.6 feet deep – but it was big enough to swim circuits and mess around in (neither SJ or I are Serious Swimming is Serious Business swimmers, and prefer to enjoy relaxing and having fun rather than swimming precision ruler-straight lengths). The room the pool was in had wide windows along two sides and a skylight; it was a strange experience to float in the pool, watching clouds go over, with so much sunlight coming in; a stark contrast to the environment of Glossop Swimming Pool! That place is Victorian, so it has high ceilings. It’s two very tall stories, with a viewing balcony – instead of using that only when they have races for the swim club, they leave it accessible all the time, so there are always perverts watching you swim. It has large windows, but somehow stays mostly dark even on the sunniest days. Even better, we had to pool to ourselves, and we spent over an hour in there, broken occasionally when SJ went to tend to laundry.

Eventually SJ began to feel a bit sinus-headachy, so we went back to the room and SJ had some food, painkillers, and sudafed, and then a nap. I went to shower, had a snack, and generally just poked at email and relaxed for a while. We’d set the taxi pickup for 5pm, so eventually I woke SJ and we got ready to head down to the lobby for 5. Although we were actually a little early, I had a vague feeling that we should hurry a bit, although I couldn’t put my finger on why. When we got down to the lobby the taxi was waiting outside, the driver said he’d gotten there a little early and didn’t expect us to be down yet, but he was ready and we piled in to head back up to Firestone.

The cab driver this time was called Hutch, and he had a big, bright pink monkey called Starsky hanging from the rearview mirror. He said that, when people found out his name, they kept on asking him where Starsky was, so he got the monkey. He told us that it’s a good conversation starter, and it makes it easier for drunk people, or those without good memories, so they can ask the cab company to “send the guy with the monkey.” He tells children that the monkey has no name, and they should try to think of one, to keep them quieter too!

And then SJ and the driver started making fun of me about music.

SJ likes to listen to music as background in the car: it doesn’t have to be loud, but not having any music playing makes her feel extremely uncomfortable. Indeed, I prefer background music to be rather quiet – I’ve surprised no end of friends who didn’t even realize the radio was on until I said something like, “This is a good song!” and turned it up a bit. Loud music physically hurts, and yet I seem to run across only loud or no music these days, as though all the volume knobs in the world are broken. I’m convinced most of the world is dealing with some amount of hearing loss, and it makes me wonder how many misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and even wars are down to people not hearing properly what was said. The CD player and radio in the car has been broken for some time, and we haven’t had time to investigate what is wrong with it and how hard it’d be to fix, so I had put some music on my phone to play in the car. This worked, somewhat, except that I only put 40 tracks on it (in my vague defence, I don’t have any extra storage in my phone, so I was somewhat restricted by the space available) and tracks were repeating too frequently. Top 40 only – reminded me why I don’t listen to radio anymore! Thankfully I’d brought SJ’s entire 40GB music collection on the laptop, so the first night of the trip when we were in Grenada SJ put a load of it on her phone and we used that for music. But I was made fun of for it anyway.

When we got to Firestone we saw the car sat in the workshop, headlights on and steady. It looked like they were still working on it a bit, so we asked about it and asked where Bill was. Apparently he’d finished for the day already, and he wasn’t there, so we left the tea with the worker manning the desk (much to his confusion, until we explained it to him) for it to be passed to Bill later. He told us that they’d replaced the relay, were just doing a few final checks, and then the car would be ready. Shortly after, the mechanics drove the car out to the parking lot, and we forked over an arm and a leg to pay for the repair before driving the car back down to the hotel. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t take the limbs from the sacrificial goat this time. Persnickety mechanics. We had to use our own. 😉

By this point it was getting towards dinnertime, so we pulled out the map of restaurants we’d been given the night before, and decided to try one of the places that’d been closed then. It being Monday night instead of Easter Sunday night, we were hopeful. We worked out a vague loop covering some of the restaurants and set out to look for one that looked good.

This building (the courthouse, I think) in the center of downtown Lafayette is very pretty.

This building (the courthouse, I think) in the center of downtown Lafayette is very pretty.

First on our list of places to look at was a Mediterranean restaurant called Adelino’s Old World Kitchen, and after finally working out how to get in – the entryway looked like it was actually the way into a lawyer’s office, and very poorly signposted – we were asked whether we wanted to be seated in the front (in the bar area, basically), or farther back in the restaurant. Remembering how loud bars could get, we decided to sit towards the back, and we were led to a table over in a quiet corner area. The décor was nicely done, with lots of dark wood, Mediterranean-style bottles, urns, candles, and trailing vines arranged in tasteful patterns approved of by the Terrible Restaurant Gods, and a remarkable gold ceiling that we decided was probably not golf leaf, unless we were inadvertently dining in the local Mafia headquarters.

Our waiter was fabulous; he spent some time going through the menu without rushing or impatience, explaining the various dishes and the tapas-style part of the menu found between the appetisers and entrées. We ended up ordering several tapas dishes, a salad, and an entrée, and split the food between us, and it worked out to pretty much exactly the right amount for us in the end. The food was tasty, and overall we were very pleased – although looking at reviews of the restaurant since, it seems like we actually got pretty lucky, as they seem to have a mix of really good and really bad reviews.

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel and went back to the room with the plan to get everything prepared so that we could load up the car and leave as early as possible the next day. We had to get from Lafayette, Indiana to Lansing, Michigan as early as we could, as SJ’s brother Robb had arranged to take the day off work to meet up with us, and we were due to get to SJ’s Aunt Doris’ house near Flint, Michigan in the evening – we had a lot of ground to cover, and not much wiggle room.

So, we packed up as much as we could, ironed everything we needed to get ironed, and prepared everything for a speedy getaway. We had everything pretty much sorted by 8pm, and planned to head to bed around 10 to be up at 6:30am. We were about to go swimming again when the hotel’s wifi – which had been conspicuously broken so far – started working, and SJ wanted to catch up money, contact various people through Farcebook and so on. By the time she was done, it was getting late and we were tired, so no swimming – we just showered and slept. This grownup thing is overrated sometimes.

US Road Trip 2013: Day 3: Going Straight There

Day 3 (Sunday, 31 March 2013): Vienna, IL to Lafayette, IN

Day mileage: 332

Going Straight There …


We woke early on Sunday, got ourselves breakfast – SJ actually managed to get something from the continental breakfast, while I contented myself with well-travelled cereal – and then went to work trying to identify the issue with the headlights. Now, a sane and sensible person, when looking for the headlight relay would look in the nice and easily accessible fuses and relays box in the engine compartment, right next to the battery. Despite not being a sane and sensible person, that’s where I went to look first anyway.

Guess what? There’s no relay for the headlights in there!

By a forbidden and arcane invocation of the mad demon god that bubbles and blasphemes beyond the walls of time and space, I managed to coax enough signal to consult the internet oracle again. From some rather cryptical and mostly unhelpful comments on Infiniti-owners’ forums, I found that there is actually a Super Secret Special Relay Box for the headlights, buried in the engine compartment on the driver’s side, up against the firewall, next to the throttle control for the cruise control system.

While we tried to track down this mystical box of wonder in the tight confines of the engine compartment, we phoned up SJ’s dad to see if he could help. As it turned out, he has a maintenance manual for the car, so with his help over the phone we managed to locate the black box in question. Between him and more internet searching, we managed to work out what we would need to do to get to the relay box, and it involved taking out several bits and pieces to get to it, including part of the throttle control… at which point my “Yeeeah, nope” alarm goes off. Mine, as well, despite my confidence in working on cars.

We decided that we were quite emphatically not equipped for such shenanigans: we had only an emergency toolkit, a rough outline of what was needed, and several thousand miles of road left to travel that we’d actually like to not have potentially screwed up headlights and cruise control for, so we decided that we needed to take the car to a Firestone (SJ’s car shop chain of choice). Thankfully this was just headlights, the rest of the car worked fine, so we decided to carry on north and, while on the interstate (which generally had better signal…), I would track down Firestone locations that might work along our route.

We started loading the car to head off, after repacking everything in preparation for Car Tetris. In the light of day, we noticed that the window for the hotel room would actually open all the way, and it had no screen, so we were able to load the car by simply passing things through the window rather than dragging everything down and out through the lobby and back up to the car (whenever possible we try to park the car within view of the window when staying in hotels, for peace of mind and to be able to keep an eye on it). We managed to get the car loaded and ready almost as quickly and easily as we could have with external corridors thanks to those windows!

A tank breeding farm near Vienna, IL. Quite a big litter this year.

A tank breeding farm near Vienna, IL. Quite a big litter this year.

The plan for the road trip up to this point had been to go north through Illinois and Wisconsin, across the upper peninsula of Michigan, and then down to visit SJ’s relatives in Davison and Lansing. With this in mind the best match I could find for our route was a Firestone in Decatur, south-west of Champaign. So, on we went, through the flat fields of Illinois, through gloriously sunny weather – a drastic change from the previous day! – and made pretty decent time. Just after Effingham we stopped at the Green Creek Rest Area for lunch, dining at a picnic table in the sun. Despite the sun, it was rather windy, and cold with it, especially after the comfortable warmth down in Louisiana only two days earlier. The trees had only just started putting out leaves, while when we’d left the south the flowers were starting to bloom; the difference was pretty amazing really.

At Tuscola we left I-57, turning onto US-36 west. We could have gone north to Champaign, and then southwest to Decatur, but SJ was tired of looking at interstate, and I told her that US-36 “would take us straight there.” When I said that, I had no idea that it would take us straight there: that road was the flattest, straightest road I have ever been on on my life. You could have use the white line as a straightedge. We could have lashed the steering wheel and built a house of cards between us on the console. Straight. Flat.

We were a few miles down the road, making decent time – it was about 2pm around this point – and SJ was hoping to get the car to Firestone that afternoon so they could look at it, when we passed billboard after billboard for tourist attraction. Alas, this one, that one, and that one too, all closed on Sundays. Wait … it actually hit us…

It was Sunday. Firestone was probably closed on Sunday (having checked since then, yes it was).

Worse, it’s Easter Sunday. Firestone was definitely closed on Easter Sunday. It’d totally slipped our minds that it was Easter. Once I’d managed to book the plane tickets avoiding the price gouging of the Easter break as best I could, with our other constraints, Easter just vanished from my awareness – and Chris’ too, it seems. We don’t generally do much for it, but we usually are vaguely aware of it. Oops.

Well, poot. Perhaps even dang (we might, perhaps, have used slightly stronger words that those, dear reader, but I shall refrain from assaulting your delicate sensibilities.) (Anymore than he already has.)

So, we pulled over and tried to decide what to do. We now knew we’d have some layover time waiting for the headlights to be fixed, and arrangements to meet up with SJ’s brother in Michigan had reached the point where changing the day would have been difficult, so we decided to abandon the idea of going over the upper peninsula and instead we would head east through Indiana and then up into Michigan. With this change of plan, SJ turned us around and we headed back through Tuscola, stopping briefly at an IGA supermarket which was remarkably open, and then back onto I-57 north to Champaign.

Up and around Champaign we went, switching to I-74 East, stopped briefly for gas, and then headed east towards Indiana. As we drove, I searched for places with Firestones near hotels with guest laundry, as we were desperately in need of doing laundry at this point. I found what looked like 200 Firestones around Indianapolis (okay, so there’s actually only 23 in Indiana, but literally 65% of those are in Indianapolis), but we generally try to avoid big cities for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that big city traffic – and big city drivers in particular – tend to be insane. The best alternative option I found was a Holiday Inn in the city centre of Lafayette, Indiana: it had a free guest laundry, an indoor pool, a Firestone nearby (3 miles away, in the Tippecanoe Mall), and we worked out that we could get there before nightfall.

We left I-74 at Crawfordsville, racing the setting sun as we switched to US-231 north, straight to Lafayette. We got into Lafayette just after sunset, got checked in, and carted all our stuff into the hotel room – on a luggage cart, this time, and the hotel had an actual elevator! The blissful luxury! The guest laundry was one washer and dryer, but the hotel was almost deserted so both were available to use, and we got one load of laundry going while SJ went to shower. While she was showering she discovered that the drain was mostly blocked and backed up rapidly, and she was in ankle-deep water half way through her shower – even Limited Inn of Arseend Nowhere had showers that worked properly!

We’d checked the menu for the restaurant attached to the hotel, and decided it looked decent so we’d eat there, so on the way down after SJ finished her shower we stopped at the front desk to tell them the shower wasn’t draining. The clerk said he’d get the maintenance man to have a look at it, and then we asked him where the entrance to the restaurant was. “It’s closed for Easter,” he tells us. Great, just what we wanted! We asked him which places might be open nearby, after all we were right in the centre of Lafayette, so there should be something… right? He pulled out a map with restaurants marked on it, and he circled a few on it that he thought would be open on Easter, and we headed out into the distinctly chilly evening to look for somewhere to eat. We’d passed a load of eateries on the way into Lafayette, but it was dark now so we couldn’t drive back to them (it’s only much later that I realised we might have been able to order delivery…), so searching on foot was the only option.

Finding dinner was further complicated by the fact that we’d crossed from central time to eastern time, so it was actually an hour later than we initially thought. Perhaps more places might have been open earlier, but as we wandered around looking for the places marked on the map – thankfully central Lafayette is a simple grid system, so it’s not like it was hard to get around – we found closed eatery after closed eatery. Eventually we found one place open, a restaurant and bar that was incredibly noisy and packed, but by this point I had a splitting headache so we went on to try and find other places. The next two were closed, but across the street there was another open place, another restaurant-bar which we tried out of desperation, but the menu looked like grease rolled in grease and then deep fried in grease, and the noise was incredible. In the end we decided to just go back to the hotel room and eat some of our breakfast and lunch supplies – it might not be hot, but it would be food, and quiet.

When we got back to the room, I started pulling out food and SJ went to check whether the shower worked properly now. It didn’t, as near as we could tell nobody had even come in while we were out, and all the clerk would offer was a room change as the maintenance man had gone. We didn’t want to have to move everything – even though we were trying to travel as light as we could, we still had a lot of stuff and had already unpacked – so we decided to just cope with it for that night, and the clerk told us that he’d send someone up to look at it the next day. As we ate, we decided that when checking into a hotel – any hotel – from now on, we would go over a room before bringing stuff in, checking it over for both cleanliness and to make sure that all the fixtures, fittings, and other contents were clean, worked properly, and generally acceptable to avoid this problem as much as possible in future.

We wanted to get up as early as we could the next day, to get to Firestone when they opened and be first in line to be seen, but I looked up the local sunrise times – as we didn’t want to be driving to Firestone in the dark with dodgy headlights – and found that, while Firestone opened at 7am, sunrise wasn’t until 7:30. So we decided to set the alarm for 6:30am so that we could get breakfast, get ourselves together, and head over for between 7:30 and 8am, and hope to be seen as soon as possible.

After showering in the paddling pool – I mean, the shower – we got into bed about 11:30pm.

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.

US Road Trip 2013: Day 1: And So It Actually Begins

Another exciting installment — we finally hit the road this day! Eventually…

Day 1 (Friday, the 29th of March 2013) (by Chris)

Now we actually get to normally numbered days: Friday was scheduled to be the first day of the road trip! However, the first chunk of the day wasn’t actually spent on the road; it was spent doing yet more sorting. I’ll spare you the details. I never knew we could have that much to sort out and resort, but we did. All the while, Nannie was trying to clean the house around us, as SJ’s brother would be coming to stay that night, and she had to get things ready for him! Things got a little bit frantic, but we left around noon. Nannie had asked SJ which way we’d be going, and where we were aiming for while we were getting things together. SJ told her, “North!” We hadn’t actually decided on that yet, or even looked at the map yet, and we think this horrified Nannie a bit…

That’s not strictly true. I had looked extensively at the map in planning the trip before we left; I had to decide where we could get to, where we couldn’t, and which order we’d go in. I’d arranged to stay with various relatives along the way, with tentative dates for each of them. The path, of course, was circular. When it came to the nitty gritty details of each day’s path, though, you have to understand that part of my joy at roadtripping is NOT having a fixed, firm schedule. After dealing with English public transport for a solid three-year chunk, part of why I NEEDED this road trip was the freedom to be able to just stop if we found something that looked interesting – the freedom to go and stop and go again at will, rather than dictated by a timetable that isn’t followed anyway. So, while the highlights were planned already, the in between wasn’t. On this first chunk, our first planned stop was in Michigan, 1100 miles away, so we had a bit of flexibility in how we got there.


However, even after leaving Nannie’s, we still weren’t On The Road proper: we had a number of stops to make around Bossier City before we could leave, including SJ’s parent’s house. SJ’s dad was waiting for the new waste bag for their riding lawnmower when we called by, to be delivered by a guy in an 18-wheeler. I remember that sort of thing from when my lathe was delivered: it’s a very strange experience to see this big truck pull up and a guy checking that you’re waiting on a delivery.

We also headed to Target (now that it was actually open). Now that we had a better idea of the things we needed for the trip, SJ went around picking up those things while I went and hunted for jeans. I apparently earned myself Good Husband points by actually trying them on there (in the fitting rooms, I hasten note, not in the middle of the store), and when one pair didn’t fit I even went and found a different pair and tried those on too! There were several other errands, including extending the Junk Food Tour of America with Arby’s and an Icee for me. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, but I will say I still miss white cherry Icees, and Arby’s was actually surprisingly decent – less greasy than I remember.

Image by Steve Snodgrass.

Image by Steve Snodgrass.

The last stop we had to make was for doughnuts. We had been trying to get to Southern Maid, the makers of the most tasty doughnuts in the entire world, and the well-deserved recipients of the only commercial endorsement Elvis Presley ever made in his life, but we had consistently failed to get out early enough on the previous days to get to the Southern Maid near Nannie’s in time to get any. We remembered that there was one on East Texas Street, and that one had been open later the last time we had been in the US, so we decided to try it just in case.

Thankfully, they were still there, and still open. Not only were they still open, they had doughnuts too! We bought a variety to last us a couple of days – although a couple of them didn’t last very long at all for some reason. Outside Southern Maid, surrounded by the delicious smell of awesome doughnuts, we pulled out the maps and decided where we wanted to try and get to that day, eventually settling on aiming for Memphis, Tennessee following I-220 East to I-20 East, and then I-55 North.

Bossier City, LA to Grenada, MS. “And so it actually begins” (by Chris)

Day mileage: 340
Southern Maid Donuts, 4701 E Texas St, Bossier City, LA 71111 to Super 8 Grenada, 1451 Sunset Dr, Grenada, MS 38901 via Shoney’s Restaurant, 1526 Sunset Dr, Grenada, MS 38901

And then, finally, around 2:30pm we got on the road!

Ever since we’d washed the car the day before, we’d started to hear a high-pitched whine when the car was moving at speed. I’d tried to work out what was causing it, but it was over on the driver’s side and I couldn’t really root around to work out what was going on. It was pretty easy to ignore at city driving speeds, but when driving at highway speeds it grew into a loud, high-pitched whine akin to the collected, extended caterwauling of an entire girl’s school of petulant, spoilt teenagers being fed feet-first through a woodchipper. Somehow SJ managed to block it out, but it slowly began to drive me ever so slightly unhinged. I should imagine the girls would be considerably louder, dear. Also, you left out the “more” in your last clause. 😉

Our route east along I-20 took us south of El Dorado, Arkansas. SJ has an old acquaintance there, and was considering diverting north to visit her. We eventually managed to contact her son, and he told SJ that his mother was actually over in Dallas visiting a relative, and would be there the entire time we were in the US, so we wouldn’t be able to meet her in El Dorado. The northward detour no longer being needed, we continued along I-20 and tried to get hold of SJ’s brother in Memphis to try to arrange visiting him. This proved to be more than a little tricky: he had only fairly recently moved to Memphis, so we had no phone number for him, I sent him an email (that data connection was starting to be useful already…) but had no expectation of a quick response, and then SJ suggested that I try to contact his wife through Facebook. Now, I Don’t Do Facebook, but under the circumstances I agreed that it was probably necessary – unfortunately, trying to log into SJ’s account from the phone tripped security measures, and we were unable to get past them (in no small part because they didn’t work properly).

So, we decided to shoot for Memphis anyway, passing through Monroe, into Mississippi and through Vicksburg and then around Jackson on the loop (also called I-220. At this point I should have started to suspect that the US road system had it in for me) before joining I-55 north.

As we approached Canton, Mississippi we drove past the absolutely immense Nissan plant. I can honestly say that, until that point, I had never seen a single building that big, it just seemed to keep going and going as we drove past. Measuring it on the map now, it comes out at over 1.63km (1 mile) of continuous factory!

Image by Brad Montgomery.

Image by Brad Montgomery.

On we drove into the evening, north past places with names like Pickins (one of the many names I enjoyed saying in quite silly tones during the journey…), and past Holmes County State Park (we never found a corresponding Watson County; we were most disappointed!). Soon after we passed Winona we started to get really hungry, and as we approached Grenada, SJ saw a sign for Shoney’s. “Shoney’s! We have to stop at Shoney’s!” SJ exclaimed, practically bouncing in the seat. “It’ll probably be foul, but it’s a nostalgia thing, you’ll just have to go with it.” I sat there kinda going “Bwuh?! Well, you’re driving!” so we pulled off the interstate at Grenada and passed a variety of hotels before spotting the Shoney’s sandwiched between a Holiday Inn Express and a Wendy’s.

SJ warned me that Shoney’s would have a menu and a buffet. We checked out the buffet, and then the menu, and decided to go with the menu (neither of us are great fans of buffet restaurants): SJ had a salad, and Philly Cheesesteak sandwich she didn’t have to cook for a change, and I decided to try a Turkey Club. The server was helpful, cheerful, and competent, and the food was tasty. After a few minutes I looked up from my food and had to exclaim, “Wait, there was a sandwich on that plate, I saw it!” SJ must have been really hungry to have inhaled it that quickly! Our original plan was to share main dishes at restaurants (having gotten used to the smaller portions served everywhere outside the US), but in the end this only happened on a few occasions – and if we’d tried it that night there just wouldn’t have been enough food, we were that hungry.

We finished eating at around 9pm, and we were both tired and wanted to stop. We hadn’t gone as far as we wanted, but we’d covered over 320 miles, and even though we were still 100 miles south of Memphis, we decided we’d gone far enough, we should just get a room and head to bed. We didn’t want to spend too much, so we started with the Super 8 Motel just across the road from the Shoney’s (once we managed to get across to it, which was surprisingly difficult even at that time of day). The lobby was nice, the clerk was efficient, competent, and friendly, the price of the room was good, so we decided to stay there rather than traipse around the other properties in the area. She told us that our room was “three doors past the pool,” but when we asked her when the pool was open she replied with, “May.” So alas, no chance of getting any swimming in before we left in the morning.

We were in a ground floor room, and the motel had exterior corridors, so it was easy to get stuff into our room. The room was clean, decent, and surprisingly spacious, and we managed to get ourselves settled in quite quickly. Unfortunately, the wifi refused to work correctly, and at this point SJ really needed to sort out our money. Thankfully I was able to tether the laptop to the phone, and she used the data plan on the phone to get to the internet. It worked very well, and SJ managed to get everything sorted, but shortly after she was done I noticed my phone behaving oddly: sending data unexpectedly, turning on the GPS, and generally acting odd. I eventually worked out that Prey (an anti-theft app) had decided that my phone had been stolen and had gone into active reporting mode, but trying to fix that was hilarious over a rather pedestrian connection, especially as the Prey website is as slow as molasses going downhill in a Candian winter at the best of times! I eventually fixed it as SJ finished showering, and explained to her why I had been feverishly working away and stressed. Next it was my turn to shower, and we collapsed into bed around midnight.

The data connection on the phone was SO SLOW compared to what we’re used to. We determined in the end that the US simply has slower connection speeds than Europe. I feel I should clarify: we each have a smart phone, but we opted to just get the Red Pocket plan on one phone and share it for the duration of the trip. We decided to use the other phone for audio logs, playing music (my car radio doesn’t work, and being in a car without soft music on is absolutely torturous to me), etc. Since my phone had the 16GB microSD card, mine became the music & audio storage. Sharing phones was a bit trying at times, but we managed.

US Trip 2013: Day III: Car Day & Chinese Food

Continuing the series, we have our final day in Bossier before heading off. Mostly, we addressed the headlights and cleaned the car, but we managed to get fixed up on Chinese food, too. No pictures from this day, I’m afraid.

Remember, my interjections are in green text.

Day III (Thursday, the 28th of March 2013): Bossier City and Shreveport (by Chris)

Thursday was primarily Car Day. We set to work on going over Iolana to prepare her for the road trip. The first thing we concentrated on was the headlight problem we’d experienced the previous night, and at the time we thought we’d solved it! The headlight bulbs and their wiring harnesses push and twist into the headlight assembly, and they had worked loose so that the headlight bulbs were no longer firmly held in place. We came to the conclusion that the problem we had been having the night before was caused by the bulbs falling back into the engine compartment, and then back into the headlight assembly as a normal result of acceleration and getting bumped around by the road surface. This may well indeed have been part of the problem (it was not, as we later found out, the fundamental issue. But we’ll get to that later, dear reader), and it was a really easy thing to fix.

On the other hand, while checking the headlights, we found that the passenger side parking light wasn’t working at all. There were no fuses we could find to check for that, so we decided we had to get to the bulb to check whether it had blown, and that proved easier said than done. The owner’s manual contained information on getting to the headlights… but nothing about how to get to the parking light bulbs, so I had to consult the Great Internet Oracle to find out what to do. I determined that we needed to unscrew a couple of screws on top of the headlight assembly, and pull the entire assembly out to get to it. Sounds nice and easy!

What the Great Internet Oracle didn’t tell us was that the headlight assembly is held in at the bottom by a very stiff and awkward friction pin that defiantly holds on for dear life, so getting the assembly out requires a lot of cursing and pulling before it deigns to release its death-grip on the car. Thankfully, after all the effort to get to the bulb, we found that it had indeed blown: an easy thing to fix! After replacing bits so that the car didn’t look like a complete mess, we headed to the auto parts shop to get replacement bulbs, spare fuses just in case, and some of that most important of substances: WD40. I was shocked when I realized I didn’t have any in with the car supplies in the trunk; we had to fix that post-haste.

We ended up in conversation with the cashier, and he told us he was a Fugitive From The Law in the UK: he had visited England, and failed to pay the congestion charge while driving in London. What started out as an £8 charge had, by the time they found him and demanded payment, ballooned into over £500 of charges and fines. He’s been told not to bother paying it, and not to go back to the UK… I do wonder how much has been added to the fines since then!

We got the bulb replaced quickly and easily once we got back to Nannie’s – the headlight assembly was much easier to get out and put back when we knew the trick – and then we tidied and emptied the car so that we could go over to a nearby self-service carwash.

On the way to the carwash, we stopped for lunch at one of SJ’s favourite Asian places, a take-out called Mayflower that happens to have a few tables for people who want to just eat there. It’s unpretentious, definitely not fancy, but their food is tasty, and the staff is friendly and welcoming. We split a lunch of egg drop soup (which is impossible to find in the UK), spring roll, and lo mein. I wasn’t impressed by the soup, but the rest was great, and it was a welcome break from running around at this point.

I miss Mayflower, and American Chinese food in general. It’s different from British Chinese food – Chris recently learned that it’s because the Chinese who settled here in Britain mostly came from Hong Kong, whereas the Chinese who settled in America mostly came from mainland China, and those two cuisines are different. They each were adjusted to suit American vs British palates, of course, further adding to the disparity. The bog-standard soup in American Chinese is egg drop, whereas it’s chicken and sweetcorn in British Chinese. I like both, so I miss egg drop soup. Thankfully, it’s very simple to make, so we make it at home. American Chinese lo mein dishes are another thing I sorely miss – and, though we’ve found lo mein noodles, I’ve yet to manage make it taste right.

At the carwash, we began feeding a quarters (in a quantity I don’t even want to think about) (it was less than $10; I got a roll of quarters from the bank specifically for this. Rolls of coins – another thing I miss.) into the wash and vacuum systems so we could give Iolana a pretty thorough cleaning, inside and out. They’d changed the setup since we were last there, replacing the half-useless “vacuum and perfume” system with a proper “vacuum and carpet cleaner” option, and SJ and I worked in tandem passing the hose around as quickly as we could to get the most out of our quarters. It wasn’t a perfect job – when racing the timer on the car wash equipment, you can’t really do as good a job as doing it by hand at home – but it was decent enough, and a vast improvement on the grimy condition the poor car had been in.

Returning to Nannie’s, we finished the detailing: Armor All, treating the leather, hand-cleaning the inside fittings, cleaning windows and mirrors properly, and so on. (Yes, I’m very particular about my car, why do you ask?) We were going out for dinner with friends later, but we had time to get properly cleaned up, so inside we went to get sorted. At that point we discovered that we had been horribly mistaken: we hadn’t actually been washing away the three years of dirt on the car! As it turned out, we’d actually been collecting all of it under our fingernails; that’s the only way to explain how they could have become so horrendously dirty. Shortly after this discovery we determined that there doesn’t appear to be a single nail brush anywhere in Nannie’s house (she wasn’t home to ask). We managed to extricate the Muck Of Ages through Vigorous Cleansing, but my fingers were complaining for a couple of days after this…

We got to Peggy and Rodger’s exactly on time, despite managing to get somewhat misdirected on the way to their house (it’s a left, then a right, then the first left … no, wait, it was the second left … oh, phooey, where’s the map?), only to be greeted with “About time!” from Rodger. We’re pretty sure he was referring to the three year delay since our last visit, though… We visited for a while, catching up on things that had been going on in our lives since our last visit. Talking with Peggy and Rodger is always highly amusing for me: Rodger is a big, rough South Louisiana Cajun, while Peggy is… definitely not, and their interaction is always fun to watch. Eventually, Rodger declared that his belly was rumbling, so we piled into their car to go to Imperial Cathay. The meal there was wonderful, and they have been added to the list of places we know we can go to to get decent food when we’re in Shreveport. (Yes, that’s Chinese for lunch and dinner. What can I say? I was really jonesing for Chinese.) We chatted over dinner, and eventually returned to Peggy and Rodger’s house for more catching up and dessert in the form of cakes baked by the children of their neighbour as part of a charity fundraiser and educational exercise. They were pretty tasty, and were cooked into Easter bunny shapes as we were pretty close to Easter at this point. Neither SJ or myself are religious, but that Easter Sunday would take on some significance during our trip…

When we left Peggy and Rodger’s we finally looked at the time, only to find it was 10pm – time flies when you’re with good friends! On the way back, we decided to go to Target, as I needed new trousers: I’d found that the black jeans I’d brought over with us had a hole in them, so I only had one pair of wearable trousers at this point! Unfortunately, when we got to Target, they had just closed; the doors were still open, but when we walked in we were informed that they were closed by a very peeved-sounding worker over the store PA system. So we headed back to Nannie’s, did a bit of sorting for the next day, and generally prepared ourselves for bed, although we had to stay up until 12:20! SJ was still taking antibiotics at this point, and the timing of the pills, and fitting food around them, meant that we couldn’t have any more of SJ’s ice cream birthday cake until 12:20. We’re generally up til around then usually, but it would’ve been nice to get to bed earlier the night before setting off on our road trip. Hey ho.

After consuming cake, we headed to bed for the last night at Nannie’s before the Great Road Trip.

US Trip 2013: Day II: Birthday Dinner & Grand Sort

Hey, look – today you actually get a few photos!

Day II (Wednesday, the 27th of March 2013): Bossier City and Shreveport. (text mostly by Chris)

The second day in Bossier City was mostly designated to be the day of The Grand Sort. Several suitcases of personal items, documents, household items, and other bits and pieces had been stored at SJ’s parent’s while she was in the UK, and this was the day we decided that we needed to go through them to work out what needed to be kept, what could be brought back to the UK with us, what should be left in the US when we left, what could go – either to Goodwill or into the trash – and what we needed to bring with us on the road trip.

The Grand Sort took a good 4 or 5 hours, involving much juggling of things between a variety of suitcases and bags, and some hard and careful decisions. Eventually we managed to get it mostly done, so that by around 2pm we were able to head out.

Nannie had arranged a birthday dinner for SJ for the evening of the 27th (as her birthday would actually happen part-way through the road trip), and we had to go and arrange vital things like an appropriate ice cream cake from Cold Stone Creamery. So, off to the Louisiana Boardwalk we went.

Goofing off in front of Bass Pro

Goofing off in front of Bass Pro

I adore ice cream cake, and miss it very much. I’ve tried to make it, but couldn’t get it right, and rarely have the freezer space to give it a go. Maybe one day … in the mean time, I’ve decreed that Cold Stone Creamery ice cream cake is a must absolutely every time we go to the US, whether there’s an occasion or not!

I also thought our UK readers might double-take at this sign, on the front door of Bass Pro.

I also thought our UK readers might double-take at this sign, on the front door of Bass Pro.

The boardwalk is essentially an outdoor mall, a bunch of retail stores collected together in a pedestrianised area with attached parking and outdoor piped musak. We went into a few stores – notably Bass Pro, as they sell my favourite kind of socks, and I badly needed new ones, and I needed a decent travel mug to go with the Airpot. I do wonder what the response of some of our English friends would be to Bass Pro. The clothing, footwear, and camping gear probably wouldn’t faze any of them… but then the wide selection of firearms, the hunting gear, the fishing equipment you could bludgeon one shark to death with while reeling in another, and all the rest might make them double-take ever so slightly.

With other errands done, we went into the GIGANTIC WALL OF NOISE. I mean Cold Stone Creamery, I think. It was so loud in there that it was hard to tell, and only the presence of delicious, delicious iced confectioneries really gave it away. After leaving the store so that we could hear ourselves think enough to calculate how large a cake we would need, we braved the Physical Embodiment of Din Upon This Puny World once more to order a cake with a message iced onto it. And because it’s required by law or something, we got some ice cream to eat as we sat in the relative silence out by the river for a while. At least I think it was relative silence; I think my ears had shut down in self-defence at this point.

As it turned out, we could have ordered the cake online, being in the future and all, but between frantic packing, travelling, and illness that wasn’t going to happen. And we wouldn’t have had the tasty ice cream by the river, either, and that would not have been appropriate at all.

Pork butt is pork shoulder; it used to be packed in barrels, then called butts, hence its name.  The double meaning of the word does yield all manner of puns, though... :-)

This was in Bass Pro. Pork butt is pork shoulder; it used to be packed in barrels, then called butts, hence its name. The double meaning of the word does yield all manner of puns, though… 🙂

After we left the boardwalk we crossed the Texas Street Bridge and just drove around for a while, eventually ending up back over the Red River in Bossier City. We decided to go for a gawp and a giggle at the silly McMansions in Plantation Trace and other subdivisions that have sprung up around it. The buildings in those areas are so weirdly designed, all over-large sloping roofs and peculiar floor layouts and structures with odd sides and nowhere near enough yard space for their size. I got the impression of someone getting their kid to mess around in a CAD program overlaying chunks of building in strange ways…

Heading south we saw in the distance a Great Monstrosity and blemish upon the undeserving land: the new Parkway High School, a new construction that looks more like a prison than a school. Barricaded from the road, hulking in the distance like an expensive, artificial hulking thing, we looked at it with some disgust, and not a little irritation. SJ turned us around and we headed back up to the Parkway she attended, the real Parkway High School, now housing Elm Grove Middle School. To add insult to injury, we pulled up in the parking lot to find that the old Parkway Panthers logo on the boys’ gym had been covered by air conditioning ductwork! To make matters worse, someone had painted “Elm Grove Eagles” at about chest-height further down the wall in abysmal block-lettering that any decent graffiti artist would be embarrassed to stand near. But still, we got out to talk as SJ looked around at some of the band marks on the parking lot – where the marching band used to practice – and did a little marching to see how well her muscles remembered it, reminiscing about the times spent there.

Marching band … such fond memories I have from it. I was so disappointed to learn they don’t have it here. Then I heard about a military tattoo, and got all excited, and dragged Chris down to Birmingham to see one … only to see one of the most boring things I’ve ever come across. They were in an arena (you know, like what popular singers give concerts in). They took the entire floorspace, and simply marched back and forth in straight lines, arranged in simple rectangular blocks of individuals. Blegh. I’ve resigned myself to not seeing marching band performances unless we’re in the US. For any readers confused about why that’s not marching band, this is what I mean by marching band (you can skip to 0:58, when they actually start marching):

Also, here’s a brilliantly-executed vintage show, from Bossier High School, 1960.

Oh, and – my muscles pretty well nailed a standard 8-to-5 (8 steps in 5 yards). Huzzah. I think we had about 1,000 hours of marching practice over the four years, back in my day (an intensive month of 12-hour days just before school started, plus practice throughout the 4-month football season). So in case you wondered, that’s what it takes to ingrain good muscle memory.

We headed back to Cold Stone Creamery for the cake – on which they’d actually managed to spell SJ’s name correctly! – and then on to Ralph & Kacoo’s for SJ’s Birthday Dinner The First.

Remarkably, we got there before the rest of the family, and got there early. Something was obviously wrong with the world! (I’m always late; I’ll be late to my own funeral. It’s just the way of things. It felt very peculiar to be early.) Nannie had arranged for a private room off the main restaurant, and we sat there waiting for the others to arrive. Before long Nannie came in, and then other members of the family arrived in groups of two or three so that eventually most of SJ’s local family were there. Over the meal we were told how SJ’s Uncle the Cyborg and his son had debugged a problem with her Uncle’s cochlear implant. Apparently the implant inside the ear connects to a plate just under his skin, and the pickup and other gubbins sit on the outside (so there’s none of that nasty and easily infected transdermal cabling). There had been a problem in the external hardware, but they’d traced what was wrong on their own – even using the troubleshooting guide, no less – to the utter shock of the audiologist, who proclaimed them her favourite people ever for doing it.

I chose the strawberry passion, which was Very Tasty - heartily recommended!

I chose the strawberry passion, which was Very Tasty – heartily recommended!

After the entrées had been consumed, SJ opened cards. After a while her cake was brought forth, so I began to get it ready. We’d been unable to find number candles to put on it, so the correct number of individual candles had to be added and individually lit – thankfully SJ’s mother packs at least two lighters, and helped me get all the candles lit, but I still came pretty close to setting my own thumb on fire (which, admittedly, would probably have made it easier to light the remaining candles…).

After we sung the Happy Birthday song and SJ blew out her candles, it was decided that I should be the one to cut and serve the cake. This is a task I have had before, but would have been much, much easier if they had provided an appropriately useful tool for the job rather than a flimsy plastic-handled knife (I, inevitably, managed to break it).

As you can see by the inferno, I'm officially old.

As you can see by the inferno, I’m officially old.

Before too long people began drifting off, as by this point it was getting towards the bedtime for many of SJ’s family (many of whom get up at quite terrifyingly early times in the morning). We needed to go out that evening to pick up more water and Bolthouse Farms Vanilla Chai, so after we’d dropped stuff off at Nannie’s, we headed out again.

As we passed over the Shreveport-Barksdale bridge, there was a section where the streetlights on the bridge were off. While driving through that stretch we noticed that at least one of the car headlights was coming and going, and there was a short period where we may not have had any headlights at all. Just on the other side of the bridge there is a brightly-lit McDonald’s by the side of the road, so we pulled in there so that we could check fuses and see if we could work out what might be wrong. This was Wednesday, and we were due to start on the road trip on Friday: having wonky headlights could have thrown a serious spanner in the works for the journey, and we were both pretty stressed and worried at this point. We couldn’t see anything obvious, and the headlights seemed to be working fine while sat in the parking lot, so we decided to leave exhaustive checking for the morning – in daylight, warmer temperatures, and not on a random parking lot. Thursday had been set aside for working on cleaning and checking the car anyway, so we went into Walmart to buy the things we needed (Walmart’s the only place we can reliably find that Bolthouse Farms drink), and headed back to get ourselves ready for bed.