Wednesday, May 5, 2010

(Mrs) Adventure #11: Road Trips: Not for the Faint of Heart

The past four years of my life have been marked by a very heavy amount of travel: both via air and automobile. To be perfectly honest, I’m often more comfortable traveling across this lovely country suspended 30,000 feet in the air as opposed to traversing the highways and byways that form dark rivers across the landscape, but nevertheless, my nomadic heart has openly embraced any and all modes of transportation that offer opportunities to ‘get away.’ Travel appeals to me in the same way that in any given week my hair color will change from blonde to brunette to red: I have a distinct and near clinical aversion to monotony. Well, that or I’m never satisfied with finding myself in one ‘place’ for too long. One would think that after these chaotic few years of packing, unpacking, running through airports and filling up gas tanks, I would take advantage of my relative downtime. And I have been. For the past two months. In fact, the suitcase I brought to Chicago from our apartment in San Diego is still sitting in the same place I left it when I arrived home. Not required to pack for yet another cross country trip, I’ve let the black Samsonite gradually cave and depress in the corner so that it is slowly starting to resemble a personified pitiful sigh.

But that static repose all changed one night after a rather unsettling call to my local market.

“Hi! I’d like to place an order for delivery.”

“Sure, sure. Where you at?”

“I’m at three…”

I am interrupted quickly.

“Kate! Is this Kate!? How are you? How’s your husband? He’s still away? You want the regular?”

“Ahh, yeah! Hi! Yep, this is Kate… (Who the heck is this?? Is it the charmingly wonderful but oddly fashioned woman with the lady mullet? Or the rather shy but beautiful girlfriend of the owner? Or someone entirely new that I haven’t spoken to before but that apparently knows what I like to order?)

“The regular?”

“One bottle of Cabernet, some brie cheese and Triscuits? You want Red Bull, too?”

Oh. My. God.

I need to get the heck out of my house. That’s not even a healthy meal. It’s not like I’m calling Salad Express and they instantly recognize my voice and send over some sliced fruits and a responsible Spinach Salad. Wine. Cheese. Crackers. So they either assume that I’m a fabulous Bohemian who entertains my friends with artwork and philosophical conversation or that I am a lonely alcoholic who subsists only on fermented grapes and processed wheat chips. I have a feeling I know which one they’re hinting: their overly chirpy voice is clearly disguising some form of pity.

Of course, this doesn’t stop me from agreeing to the order. If I’m going to book travel, I’m going to need some cheese and a glass of red wine in order to finalize the arrangements. Also, in the past two months I’ve exchanged travel for changing my hair color no less than fifty times. Once more and I’ll be that crazy white girl sitting alongside the droves of African American women giving me the shifty side eye while I argue with some exhausted hairdresser and insist she fit a weave in the remaining inch of hair that hasn’t cracked off.

I need to hit the road.

And so I email my good friend and announce that I’m going to visit her in St. Louis. I hadn’t yet met her three beautiful children, hadn’t spent barely any time with her and her husband since…well… since what seems like forever. Besides, Chicago to St. Louis should be an easy drive. Right?



I should know that road trips and I mix together like oil and vinegar. The past two road trips that I have taken involved the very strong potential for fatality. The first found me navigating the peak of Aspen through a blizzard. Not able to see more than three feet in front of me, I managed not to drive directly off the side of the mountain by following the flashing red lights of a truck in the distance. That and calling my parents and telling them repeatedly that I was going to die and could they please, from their living room in the suburbs of Chicago, direct me down the mountain?

It was on this same trip that a glaring warning light interrupted my relatively peaceful travel. I was forced to pull off the highway in Beaver, Utah in fear that if I didn’t, I’d most certainly break down on the side of the road and end up the starring victim in an episode of Cold Case Files. I’m not sure the alternative, rolling up to a Sinclair auto in this town of two hundred, (all related), was much better. My newly purchased car was clad not only in California plates with a Los Angeles city sticker, but it also boasted a Notre Dame license plate cover and a ND football stickers. My traveling partner, my roommate Kim, and I gave each other nervous glances as we were forced to talk car shop with three hunkering men over 6’5” dressed in matching Brigham Young sweatshirts.

“I’m not sure they speak English. That guy in the corner looks like he just walked off the set of Sling Blade,” Kim observed

“I’m pretty sure they speak English, that guy grunted something about a lug nut, but I’m not sure they’ve ever seen someone with platinum blonde hair,” I whispered to Kim as the youngest gave us a rather lascivious glance.

“I’m not sure they’ve ever seen an Asian girl,” Kim (who is Korean) responded.

“They’re going to kill us and use our skin to make lampshades,” I comfortingly offer back.

“Kate, I don’t want to be forced to marry one of these guys if we can’t get the car to work. I think I’ll take lampshade if given an option.”

I fingered my Triple A card and wondered how long it would take for the nearest tow truck to take us back to Los Angeles. Eventually the light went off without explanation and we continued on our way only to stare death in the eye somewhere in the Rockies.

The second major road trip I’ve undertaken in the past four years was with a bunch of work friends as we traveled across Oklahoma and Texas to follow the trail of female serial killer. I wasn’t driving this time, so I think the road trip luck needle leaned slightly toward favorable. However, as soon as we pulled over on the side of the freeway to shoot some BROLL we were met with flying glass as a rowdy group of drunk red necks thought it would be hilarious to welcome us to their great state of Oklahoma by hurling bottles at our heads from the back of their pick up truck.

I put these thoughts out of my mind as I start the car and head toward stunning Lake Shore Drive, a scenic roadway that separates Lake Michigan from the shimmering skyscrapers that line Chicago’s eastern shore. The windows are down, the sunroof is open and the sky is a perfect shade of Robin’s Egg Blue. I pop in Journey’s greatest hits CD and reflect on how it is the perfect day for a road trip.

Three hours into my four and a half hour drive I am approximately twenty miles away from my apartment, stuck in dead gridlock on the 55 Expressway and entertaining homicidal thoughts in the direction of Rick Perry as my Journey CD makes its third rotation.

Just then my phone rings and my friend ‘J’s’ name pops up on my caller ID.

“Hey! Yo, you’re about to enter some nasty weather.”

“What? No! It’s perfect outside,” I angrily respond.

“I don’t know, I’m following the Doppler and it looks like there’s some massive red and green weather patterns heading your direction. Just, I mean, just pull over in Springfield if the weather gets to bad. And for goodness sakes, let one of us know if you stop. That’s how Cold Cases always start, you know.”

And people wonder why I’m so paranoid? You re-create enough murder scenes in your day and it’s enough to end every statement with, “that’s how Cold Case starts, you know.” We’re truly a sick group of individuals.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” I answer as the traffic starts to ease and I see a sign that reads: Plainfield 20 miles.”

For anyone outside of the Chicago area, Plainfield, Illinois is affectionately referred to as ‘tornado alley.’ To this day I have no idea why anyone would move to Plainfield, just as much as I question those people who build mansions on hill ridges in Orange County or multimillion dollar homes on Cape Fear. Weather accepts no prisoners.

It’s that sort of failed logic that I never seem to apply to myself as I enter Plainfield and the sky turns a rather ominous shade of green and my SUV feels as though it is being pushed across the freeway by a herd of elephants.

But the wind dies down once I leave Plainfield and though the sky is no longer green, I can tell that the day is getting ready for bed as a dark blanket begins to spread across the landscape.

Throughout the trip I start to monitor the weather. It rains on and off, but not enough that I would need to pull off the road. As I head into southwestern Illinois, I switch over to St. Louis AM radio stations. It’s not pretty. My phone lights up with a text from my friend, “We’re heading to the basement. Tornado Sirens. Be CAREFUL!”

Hmmmm. Well, this isn’t ideal. But again, there’s no rain and at this point I’m arrogantly assuming that the weather is going to pass above or below me.

And then, it doesn’t. I find myself heading directly into the path of a massive storm.

I call my parents.

“Am I heading into the storm? Is it coming my way? Tell me! Tell me!” I ask frantically. I can hear my parents debating and I’m starting to get very nervous.

“I think you should get off, Kate,” my parents affirm. “It looks like the tornados are heading directly for you.”


I scan the roadways. I am in the middle of nowhere. Literally. There is nothing outside my window, just a massive expanse of cornfields and midnight.

“Kate, if it gets too bad, pull over and get in a ditch.”

Oh cheese and rice.

When my parents offer the ‘ditch’ advice, I know it is panic time. Because I tend to exaggerate, my parents are typically the ones who try to soothe me with the “Kate, it’s not so bad,” or “Kate, you’re safe.” When I hear the ‘ditch’ suggestion I take this as the equivalent of a parent telling their child, “Yes, it is possible that there is a blood thirsty monster hiding in your closet, so perhaps it would be advisable to sleep with this giant machete next to your bed” Or, “Kate, a shark isn’t going to come out of the drain and eat you, so it’s OK to take a bath.”

No? Not you? Ok, maybe that was just a bizarre fear of mine.

Just as I hear my parents reading the roadways and trying to determine the next exit, the sky lights up in a flash of lighting and I see out of my left eye a rather large funnel cloud barreling my direction.

I emit something that sounded like, “OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD,” and deciding that now is not the time to use the Lord’s name in vain, I launch into a running Hail Mary and Our Father, so that the two prayers are so combined an outsider would think I was thanking God for the “blessed fruit of his/her womb.” Over the AM radio, the announcer blares in, “Take cover! If you are on the roads, take immediate cover!” So apparently that is NOT just a fun line from the movies.

Just as I hit the “pray for us sinners,” part I see an oasis. Hampton Inn. Saved! I pull off the road and debate that the timing of my prayer and the location of the exit is a not so subtle confirmation that I am, indeed, a sinner.

Running into the hotel, I hear the sirens blaring and I wonder where they are located and if a creative farmer has managed to rig one on a corn stalk?

“Any vacancies?” I breathlessly ask the hotel manager, who gives me a confused look and gestures outside. Presumably to say, “the only thing for fifty miles is a Jack ‘N the Box, so yes, we have vacancies.”

Once in my hotel room, I flip on the television and watch as weather reports announce different locations in my direct area where tornados have been spotted. One man calls in to say that half his house is gone; another caller reports a massive house fire after lightning struck an electrical cord near a roof. Yet, as the wind starts to slow it’s pounding and the sirens start to wane, I know I am safe.

The following morning sheds light on the damage in the area. Power lines have been knocked over, tree limbs scatter the street, and newly budded spring leaves have been ripped off of branches making trees look like they are dressed in their winter wardrobe. But now there is calm, and the final leg of my journey is relatively uneventful.

By the time I arrive at my friend’s house and her husband greets me with a big and friendly hug booming, “It took you nineteen hours!” I am grateful and exhausted. The sight of her three gorgeous children and her beaming face, however, is more than enough to cancel any unrest from the previous evening. I hand the two older girls gift bags filled with light up tiaras and fake Disney Princess jewelry. We sit on the couch and laugh while I retell the harrowing journey and watch as the girls shriek and gleefully dance around the living room.

It only takes about three minutes, however, before they decide that the jewelry is better suited to eat and that I am informed that my light up tiaras have been known to prompt seizures in small children. Oopsie. If they missed the tornado from the night before, clearly I have blown into their peaceful and perfect life and offered them anything and everything they missed while sheltered in their basement. But any fear that I had in regards to my child faux pas quickly passes with the most wonderful and memorable day spent catching up among markets and mosaics and a fantastically comfortable and beautifully decorated home. On Sunday when I have to leave, I am quite sad. There’s nothing like time spent with an old friend to help you remember and smile knowing that at one point life was carefree and innocent and it certainly should always be.

Thankfully, my trip back to Chicago was quick and easy. The weather was perfect, the roadways clear, and I pulled up to city limits in only three and a half hours. I divert to my friend’s house and as we take in the tranquil early summer air that characterizes an ideal May day, my friend ‘J’ (he of Doppler weather fame) joins us.

“You know,” he says looking at me, “the funniest thing happened when I stopped at the market the other day.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”

“Well, I was picking up some wine and decided to get some cheese for this party I was going to, and the woman at the front desk looked at me and said, ‘oh! You must be heading to Kate’s house!’”

Laughter seizes hold of my whole body.

“Hey,” J continues, “Did you change the color of your hair again?”

“I need to borrow your computer,” I turn my head from J and direct my question to my friend, ‘M’.
“What for?” he quizzes.

“Well,” I pause, “I think it’s time I book those tickets to Japan.”

As I hit send on a transmission that confirms hotel reservations in the two different cities we plan on staying, each roughly four hundred miles from the other, I have a paralyzing thought: How are we going to travel between the two cities? I feel a swell of terror overtake my body as the confirmation message appears on screen:

“Thank you for booking with our hotel! Can we be of assistance with additional travel plans? Would you like us to help you rent a car?”

I look up at the sky, smile and wink while running my finger over my mouse.

Without hesitation I click on the link:

“No, thank you. I’m all set!”

And in my head I add, “We’ll be taking the train.”