The Journey

OK, so here’s a rundown of my impressions on the road. It’s 4:30 am in Colorado, people, and I’ve been up for two hours. So tired! So wired. More about that in the next post.

For now, here’s a little reflection on “the journey is the destination.”

Not so sure about that old quotation. I think getting here was pretty damn important, and we just wanted the damn trip to be over.

Day 1: Wilmington to Asheville, NC
Monday morning, we loaded the car, snapped at each other, ate breakfast brought by the lovely Jen Dotsey, and snapped at each other some more. At one point, in Jen’s presence, I said to Brian, “You could be more appreciative.” He said, “So could you.” I said, “Bite me.” We were a little stressed.

Then it was time to drug Alex, the cat. I held his head just like our friend Erica showed me. I put the pill in his mouth just like Erica showed me. I held his mouth shut just like Erica showed me. And we sat there for a full minute, me clamping his mouth shut, him staring at me and not swallowing. Finally, I assumed he must have swallowed. I let up just to check, and there it was, a neon pink vision still on his tongue. He tried to eject it. I shut his mouth again. He clawed the shit out of me. Legs, arms, hands: all hamburger. I let him go and conceded defeat. He ran into the kitchen. I was covered in blood and long black cat hairs. I went to show Brian that it hadn’t gone very well. And then I burst into tears and sobbed for a good five minutes. I needed the release of tension. I needed to cry and stop sniping at Brian. But damn.

We mopped up the blood and scrubbed the cuts with alcohol rubs. I put band-aids on the bad ones. Then I noticed Alex was stumbling. This made me feel somewhat better, because it meant that my mission had been at least partially successful. I scooped him up and put him in the carrier. I cleaned up the half-dissolved pink mess from the carpet. And we left.

The drive itself was uneventful. We’ve been to Asheville before, so it was easy to pretend that we were just going for a visit and afterward, we’d be back home. The first view of the Blue Ridge is restorative. It feels like a deep breath. We stayed at a Days Inn, where Alex emerged and peed and ate and acted completely at home. We may have a good traveler here, after all. Jack was manic, turning switches on and off and squealing. He decided kicking me during his diaper change was hilarious. Not a good development. But he was overtired, overstimulated, and in a new environment. I wondered if we could make it through the week.

After we got Jack to “bed,” I went to the hotel pool and soaked my scratches in the chlorine. I wrote some in my journal, and a CD that was in the journal pocket slipped out and drifted to the bottom of the pool. I let it stay there.

Day 2: Asheville, NC to Clarksville, TN
I was hoping our second stop would be magical. But Jack woke us up at 4 am crying, after only a few hours’ sleep. He couldn’t settle down, so we decided to just get up and pack and go. We were bleary eyed and staggering at first, but we were also anxious, so it wasn’t too hard to wake up. Still, it was after 7 by the time we got on the road. Our packing and unpacking was not very organized yet.

I sang the Monkees’ song “Last Train to Clarksville” in my head all day. Brian took Jack in his car, and I had the cat. This time, I used my friend Kerry’s trick of smashing up the pink pill and mixing it in with tuna. He ate about half of it, which made putting him in the carrier much easier. Thank you, Kerry!

It was more relaxing to have the cat, rather than Jack in the car. Not that Jack is a hard kid to deal with in the car, actually. He’s a great traveler and entertains himself in the backseat just fine. We put him back there with a bag of ginger snaps, and he’s good to go. But I’m always more anxious with him in the car, always checking on him and hoping he’s doing OK. This was the first day where we really felt out of our element. This was all new territory for us, and it was beautiful, if a little nerve-racking in the mountains, with 18-wheelers careening through the Smokies alongside me.

If you’ve ever heard a country song, you know at least a little about Tennessee. It was cool to see signs for towns or places I’ve heard of in songs or movies. Knoxville and Nashville, of course. Rocky Top and Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood. Clarksville was underwhelming, and the carpet at the Days Inn was so dirty that Jack’s feet were black by bedtime. It also rained the whole time, so no time to go to the pool. The good news was that we got there at 12:30pm, so we had time to take naps and settle down.

By this point, however, we had completely given up on getting Jack to eat anything but ginger snaps and crackers. Nutrition out the window, we just hoped he wouldn’t starve to death, and we bought some gummy multivitamins to try and compensate for the gaping holes in his diet. (He refused the vitamins, too.)

Day 3: Clarksville, TN to Kingdom City, MO
This was the most interesting day, geographically. We started in Tennessee, drove through western Kentucky (beautiful! rolling and green), southern Illinois, and into Missouri through St. Louis. We crossed the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers. Getting west of the Mississippi was a big deal. The arch in St. Louis is called the Gateway to the West, and it felt that way to us. But our romantic idea of crossing the river together and photographing the great arch from the car didn’t go as planned.

In truth, it’s just a tangle of roads going into St. Louis. And East St. Louis, across the river in Illinois, is a notoriously neglected city. There’s also a lot of construction, and the signs were conflicting. And I had forgotten our plan to drive across the bridge together, so when Brian pulled up alongside me, I was like, “What the hell are you doing?” Then when the road split, he went right when I went left, and I was yelling. What? What? Where are you going? I was relieved when I saw him dodge back into traffic behind me, but I was still shaken. I can’t even articulate the combination of rage and fear that I’d almost lost him.

Then, in the midst of traffic and the snarl of roads, the phone rings. It’s Brian. “I’m sorry. I thought we were supposed to go right.” I was still mad. “Look I’m following the GPS,” I said. “You’re following me.” He said OK, he was sorry. We hung up, and I almost burst into tears. I found out later that Brian actually did. When we got out of the cars in Kingdom City, I told him, “Never leave your wing man.” And he smiled.

By Wednesday, the cat was wise to our tuna plan, and I wasn’t about to wrestle with him again. So I dissolved his pill in water from the tuna can to see if he would drink it. He lapped up about a third of it, but he wouldn’t touch it after that. He still went (sort of) willingly into the carrier, so we went with that. I had Jack again on Wednesday, and I woke him up with our emotional phone call at St. Louis. But he was pretty mellow.

I apologize if you love Missouri, but it didn’t do a lot for me. Once we got across the river and into and west of St. Louis, there was just a lot of traffic and construction and general yuckiness.

When I was in undergrad, I had an OA named Bill Something who was from St. Louis. My mother had once told me that Missouri was pronounced “Mizz-oo-rah,” rather than “Mizz-oo-ree.” She was from Pennsylvania, so I assumed she knew what she was talking about. But I asked Bill, because I figured he would know maybe a little better. What’s the proper pronunciation of the name of your state? I’ll always remember his answer, which was epic. He told me, “Well. There is this big city on the east side of the state called St. Louis. That city is always followed by Mizzooree, as in Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, Missouri.” He paused to let that sink in. “Then, on the western side of the state, there’s another city called Kansas City. And that, too, is always followed by Mizzooree.” Another pause. “But in between the two, is the Land of Mizzoorah, where men in denim overalls drive pickup trucks down gravel driveways.”

And that’s where we stayed on Wednesday night. Kingdom City lies quite squarely in Land of Mizzoorah territory. Brian had to drive to the Wal-Mart in nearby Fulton that evening for Jack’s yogurt, and he said it was probably the most depressing place he’d ever been. I also lost my camera at this point, assuming someone at the stinky, smoky Super 8 had stolen it from my car, enjoying the photos of the St. Louis arch and Jack’s blurry form running around a hotel room.

Day 4: Missouri to Kansas
In college, I took a conversational French class my freshman year. The teacher of the class was a small Moroccan Frenchman with the most impressive wardrobe of anyone I’d known to date. He always wore a suit, usually in a funky color like olive green or terra cotta, always silk. He talked about the house his family had in France, and the one in Morocco. He took us to Georgetown one weekend to eat at a restaurant called Les Pieds du Cochon (the feet of the pig). He was very dapper, a little flamboyant, and most definitely wealthy, with an educated though thick French accent. I can’t remember his name, but I remember that he loved the Midwest. He loved the South. He loved Middle America. He once told us about visiting a bar in rural Louisiana with an American friend who told him not to open his mouth or talk to anyone.

One of the guys in my class was from Kansas, and the teacher fawned over him, wanted to know all about his home state. The kid was a bit taken aback, didn’t think there was much to say. But let me tell you now, he was wrong. I love Kansas. I love it with my soul. I don’t think I’d want to live there, but the open green rolling prairie is so beautiful and serene, I can only say it has a healing presence, without being able to say exactly what that means. The steeper hills and darker greens of Missouri gradually smooth out and fade to a lighter yellow-ish green, and the sky opens up. It felt magical, like a benediction, or just a great relief.

We passed several wind farms in Kansas, along I-70, some of which were pretty close to the highway. Approaching them from a distance, and then getting closer, they look eerie, like something out of an old sci-fi movie, these enormous white metal monsters on the green rolling landscape. Jack noticed them and said, “Big white fans.” Yep. That’s what they are. It was in this part of Kansas that I was listening to my friend Jen’s mix, and there was a song that I thought would be a perfect accompaniment to movie version of a road trip, right about here, with the prairies and the giant wind turbines and the open highway with the 75 mph speed limit.

We stayed in Hays Thursday night, our last night on the road. It apparently is a popular stop, because as soon as I mentioned where we were, stories poured in from friends and family, memories of staying in Hays for one reason or another. My cousin had spent a night in a thunderstorm in a tent! Thunderstorms on the prairie are no joke. I someday want to hear her whole story, but I’m just glad she survived it. While Brian watched Jack that afternoon, I walked over to the convenience store to buy bottled water. The radio at the counter was tuned to a local station, and as I paid for my water, I heard an announcement for a bicycle rodeo at the public library that weekend. I thought my old French teacher would have loved that.

Day 5: Hays, KS to Fort Collins, CO
We were excited and nervous as we set out Friday morning. By now we’d become pretty efficient with the packing routine, and we’d completely given up on trying to sedate the cat. He went into the carrier fine, and aside from some meowing before we left, he was pretty calm. Jack was with me again, and for the most part, he was quiet. The sky was bright blue with airplane contrails. At one point, Jack looked out the window and said, “Chain! Wire!” I looked left and saw one thin disconnected contrail that looked vertical from our angle. It looked like a chain or string that one might pull to, say, turn a fan on. “You’re right! That’s a white wire in the sky,” I said to him. “White wire in the sky,” he repeated.

Again, our romantic ideas of crossing the state line together were thwarted, this time by road construction and a closed lane. (The only simultaneous crossing, side by side, that we had successfully achieved was the one out of North Carolina, which was appropriate enough.) But it was still real enough. We were finally in Colorado. Our new home state. The landscape didn’t change much at all, though, for a long, long time. Finally, about an hour out of Denver, we saw a mountain off to our left, apart from the rest of the Front Range. Road signs indicated it was Pikes Peak. But then the highway turned north, and the rolling prairie blocked our westward view. Still, I saw hopeful signs of change: cottonwood and olive trees in clumps, where before there hadn’t been trees at all, except for the evergreen trees planted as “living snow fences.”

Finally, the road turned west again, and within about 30 miles of Denver, we could see the Rockies. It felt almost familiar to me. But then I realized Jack was in the car with me, and he’d never been here. “Jack! Jack! Look!” I said. “Mountains!” Something about my tone of voice, or maybe just his punchy mood, made him laugh hysterically. “Jack! Jack” he repeated back to me, laughing. “Jack! Mountains!” he said. I laughed, too. “Yes! That’s right! We’re going to live near the mountains! The Rocky Mountains!” As we neared Denver and got into traffic, I kept hearing him laugh in the backseat, repeating, “Jack! Jack! Mountains!”

We decided to skip our lunch stop and drive through to Fort Collins. We got to town at 1pm, and Jack promptly and dramatically melted down. As soon as we got into town, he started screaming, wanting to see the fan. We stopped at KFC to grab lunch on our way to meet the landlady at the house. He screamed. Brian held him outside while I went in to get our food. We drove to the house and started a picnic, with Jack still fussing, still refusing any food. Every attempt to feed him was met with screams, as though we were poking him with hot sticks. His mood improved somewhat when we came inside and he could turn the fans on and off. But the landlady wanted to go through things with us, and he was not cooperating. Once she left, he melted down for good, and we couldn’t do anything to settle him down. I finally let him stay in his new room with control of the light and fan on the ceiling, and I closed the door. It was like he was expressing all of the angst and fear and grief we all felt but couldn’t release. After about an hour, he calmed down and came out of his room, asked to be picked up.

Later that afternoon, after a heavy thunderstorm with big fat raindrops, I found my camera. It was wedged in the well for the windshield wipers, dripping and open.

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