It probably goes without saying, but I slept very well the Thursday night I spent with my parents. Sleepless, air-conditioning-less weeks of work and packing and stress caught up with me, and I was fast asleep before it occurred to me to pull my Snuffy bear out of my overnight bag.
Dad was up early Friday morning, to get to a job in New Jersey. I woke, but stayed in bed and listened from the guest room. His morning routine has not changed in the thirty-some-odd years I’ve been aware of it; I have no doubt it predates both me and my awareness. He’s usually the first one awake; the sounds rise and fall as he remembers and forgets that he’s trying to be quiet.
Cabinets open and close. Water runs. Two Corelle mugs, white with a green-flower border, meet the marble counter. The tiny coffee maker starts its hissing and gurgling. A spoon mixes instant oatmeal in one mug, clink-link-clink-link-clink-link. The microwave door opens and closes, time is binged into the keypad. The microwave hums the oatmeal hot. A final long hiss announces the arrival of coffee. Clink-link-clink-link-clink-link incorporates milk and sugar and coffee in the second mug. The front door opens and closes, New York Newsday is unfurled and spread on the kitchen table. The microwave beeeeeeeeps, and its door opens and closes. Clink-link-clink-link stirs the steaming oatmeal. Then, stillness: the occasional rattle of a newspaper page or the ting of spoon in mug, but mostly, the morning calm of my father.
That morning, he had WCBS 880 on low, to hear the traffic reports, when I came into the kitchen. We reviewed the route I was going to take out of New York; he gave me alternatives based on what he’d already heard. We reviewed the entire route of the RoadTrip. We guesstimated when I’d get to Chicago. I promised I’d give them daily updates on my progress. We, essentially, repeated the entire conversation we’d had the night before. We listened to two traffic reports more than he really had time to stay for, and he finally, reluctantly, left to meet his client.
Mom was still asleep. I made tea and sat with my laptop on the kitchen table, right on Dad’s Newsday. I used to get quite wound up right before a big trip, double-checking details and repacking and fretting about missing connections or being late, trying to foresee all unforeseen complications. I would leave hours ahead of schedule because it felt like if I didn’t move, I would jump straight out of my skin. But I wasn’t manic that morning; I was in no hurry, even though I had a lunch date in Pennsylvania with a friend from high school.
It wasn’t that I was reluctant to leave, not at all. I was eager to see Casey, of course, and very eager to get on the road. It was more that I was ready, or as ready as I ever would be. Ready to go, ready to explore, ready to see what there was to see. And I’d get there when I got there. I had deliberately kept the RoadTrip plan as loose as I possibly could. The entire point of the RoadTrip was to enjoy the unforeseen; there was no such thing as a complication.
It’s a good way to travel, let me tell you.
So, instead of jumping up and hitting the road right after Dad left, I sat with my tea and waited for Mom to wake up. I wrote and posted this essay. It was my intention to post stories of the RoadTrip live, from the road, and I wanted the stories of Ladybug and Ocho to be complete, as background, before I left. I imagined every morning of my trip would be like this: an hour or two of quiet, recording my thoughts and sipping tea.
And, well, yeah, that didn’t happen. As it turned out, I didn’t give myself the reflective time necessary to blog from the road; I was too busy doing and seeing things to report on what I was seeing and doing. I’ve got messy notes scrawled on receipts and on the backs of maps; my journal is barely legible. I’m sorry to have lost my in-the-moment reactions, and I’m sad to realize I’ve already forgotten many of the little details of each day. In my writing about the trip now, I struggle with balancing the parts and the whole.
My mother always says that I suffer from a “forest and trees” problem, and I always get mad when she says that, but whoa boy, is she right. And nothing helps me with it like writing. I should have spent each morning of the trip with a cuppa and my notebook, and I didn’t, and my head, and the trip, suffered from new chaos each day. An important lesson, one I should have learned from Dad.
If my mother has a morning routine, it is a private one. She usually appears in the kitchen fully dressed, usually with handbag and keys in hand, ready to head out the door. Some weekend mornings, she materializes in her bathrobe, but even then, she’s ready to go, and heads right to the stove to make a weekend breakfast (which is, of course, elevenses for Dad, who has already oatmealed.)
This Friday, she emerged from her room fully dressed, bag and keys in hand, and went out to run some errands. I was still typing when she returned; she flicked on the TV to wait while I finished my essay. The last 500 words took longer to write than the first 1500, but I didn’t mind: Mom and I were still happily pretending there had been no misunderstanding. And, Dad called three times to give traffic updates and to get a progress report. Once the essay was posted, I took a quick shower and started gathering my things to go.
Mom helped me pack and repack the car. We weren’t fretting or being fussy; if you are going to travel in a Beetle for any extended time, you need to fit your belongings in like you’re assembling a jigsaw puzzle. I travel very light — I needed only a smallish overnight bag and a biggish book bag for the RoadTrip — but I also had two boxes of my writing notebooks, two laptop bags, and a backpack full of odds and ends I didn’t want to send on the moving truck (jewelry, some pictures, things like that). And then, of course, Mom would not let me leave without provisions: she filled Ocho’s backseat with a months’ worth of bottled water and snacks.
The whole time we were carrying things to the car and repacking the trunk and backseat, the condo complex was conducting a test of the fire alarms. The alarm came in startling bursts, BLANG BLANG BLANG right overhead, and then nothing. The ringing in our ears would subside just in time for the next burst; it seemed like every time we tried to talk, it would start up again. We packed fast.
Mom did not review the route with me; she simply asked, “You know where you’re going?” She did not remind me to keep them updated; she simply said, “You’ll give us a call.” She folded cash into my hand: “It’s mad money, just in case. Hide it, forget about it, unless you need it for an emergency.” We hugged, and she patted my arm, and her eyes were red when she said, “You take care.” It was, for us, a very emotional parting, and we both pretended that it was the fire alarm that kept it short.
And so: the RoadTrip commenced. Meadowbrook to the Northern State to the Grand Central to the Triborough to the Harlem River to the George Washington to Route 80: I had reviewed it with Dad so many times it was almost a mantra. Unfortunately, traffic did not cooperate with me: I got stuck in the wrong lane off the Triborough, so instead of heading toward the Harlem River Drive, I was shunted on to the Deegan. Which didn’t have to be a mistake, as long as I didn’t miss the exit for the GWB, which, of course, I did, because the traffic was impossible.
So, I took what would be the first of many unexpected detours: University Heights Bridge to 207th to Broadway, down to the ramp onto GWB. I slipped through Inwood and Washington Heights, blinking hot tears of goodbye to everything I used to call home.
I zipped across the GWB, and cut through Jersey on Route 80. I stopped for a biobreak and to snap a few Ocho pictures at the Delaware Water Gap, but otherwise made a general beeline to Wilkes-Barre, where I met Casey for lunch.
Casey and I had been very close friends; there is no one I’ve missed more from high school. She moved to Pennsylvania, near Scranton, after we graduated, and we kept in touch at first, but life got in the way, for both of us. I went to her wedding, she came to mine; she brought her little girls to visit when she was in New York. We wrote the occasional letter or email, made the odd phone call, but contact slowed and, eventually, stopped. And then she found me on Facebook a few months ago, and we’ve picked up just about where we left off.
And lunch with Casey in Wilkes-Barre was just like lunch with Casey in high school, only better, because we weren’t in high school. Flitting from topic to topic, we tried to make up ten missing years. Casey is exactly the same she was in high school, only more so, and I mean this as a compliment: she always possessed an easy humor, a nonjudgmental way of treating other people, a grace that made her seem older than she was. And now she is older, and she is a nurse and a mother, and she is solid, grounded, calm. She still has her way of shrugging with one shoulder, and saying, “What’re you gonna do?” That’s life, and life is long, this shrug says.
My plan for Day Two was Fallingwater and Pittsburgh, so after Wilkes-Barre, I headed west on 80, then south on 99. I was aiming for Ohiopyle, because I had it on good authority (read: Dan & George) that that was the best place to stay for Fallingwater. The traffic on 80 was very heavy, because all of Pennsylvania is under construction, so it was almost dark when I turned off 99 onto 22 in Altoona, still a good two hours away from Ohiopyle.
I was refueling Ocho in Ebensburg when it occurred to me to call ahead and see if there was a place for me to stay in Ohiopyle. And, of course, there was not.
I was not in Ebensburg long enough to tell you much more than this: It is not large, as towns go, but the signs there reveal it is the Crossroads of Cambria, it is home to the Dauntless Fire Company, and it hosts something called Potatofest. If you park on Main Street and walk up and down, looking for signs to tell you if you have to feed the meter, a cop will come by and tell you, “Nah, you’re good.” (This may only apply to cars painted like Herbie.) Clark Powell’s Restaurant on High Street has a limited beer selection but an excellent BLT (and the pizza smelled very good). Some locals (Ebensburgers?) will be falling-down drunk before 8 pm; said locals are all Pirates fans.
Over that excellent BLT, I gave up trying to coax the Internet out of a very reluctant iPhone. I had left 3G back on Route 80; gears were grinding as the EDGE network struggled to load maps. I had a spiral-bound Michelin road atlas, plus I’d picked up maps and brochures every time I stopped. Avoiding eye contact with blotto Pirates fans, I spread my maps, and targeted Somerset as the place to spent the night.
PA-219 comes together with 70/76 at Somerset; I had my pick of affordable motels and the perfect starting point for Fallingwater in the morning. When I pulled into the parking lot of the A-1 Economy Inn on North Center, it was almost eleven. The “inn” was standard-issue roadside motel, but it met my three requirements: not scary, very clean, and cheap enough. And this one offered free breakfast and free Internet.
Checking in took almost an hour, however, because the desk clerk was a manic Lebanese man who was rather ecstatic about Volkswagens. We stood next to Ocho, or, rather, he paced and gestured and I leaned on Ocho in exhaustion, and talked about cars, or, rather, he talked about his cars and I made noises of agreement and unsubtle hints that I needed to sleep. I don’t think he even noticed the car’s paint job. He wanted to sell me a converter kit he imported from China; this kit would allow the headlights to use LED bulbs instead of halogens. I had had trouble with Ladybug’s halogens, but I had zero interest in futzing with anything: Ocho was working just fine thankyouverymuch, and I would like to sleep now, Mr. Crazy Light Man. He was still talking (to Ocho, I guess?) when I closed and locked the door to my room.
I slept. I dreamed of driving past green green hills in a big old blue bus, I dreamed of flying over green green fields in a little white and red plane. I dreamed Ocho was nothing but a pair of big round headlamps, the rest of him scattered in hundreds of little pieces in the parking lot right outside my door, and I woke up. I scrambled to peek out the window to make sure the manic Lebanese had not “fixed” my car during the night. Ocho winked at me, all in one piece.
I made a cup of tea and opened my notebook, and prepared for Day Two.