Sunday, November 27, 2011

North Dakota on a Napkin

Snacks on a Plane

While most people who remember meals on airplanes recall them to be the adult, airborne versions of school lunches, their meager snack replacements also serve as the only form of discount airline in-flight entertainment.  The few dozen peanuts or handful of pretzels that keep passengers’ appetites contented until landing easily fit onto the cocktail napkins – the ones that accompany the cups of ice with a few dribbles of complementary soft drinks.  But pouring the little bags of snacks onto the small white squares and corralling them from rolling onto the passenger’s lap in 12E (or sliding into the chair-back pocket) converts simple tidiness into a playful game keeping passengers busy for a full ten minutes.

When the sips of liquid are gone, the cold cubes tumbling forward against my nose, and only the salty remnants of the snacks stick to the napkin, I usually stuff the square into the cup and wait for the trash collectors to make their way back through the cabin.  But this time I take a moment and examine the airline’s flight map printed on the napkin, looking at the final destination in the center of the country where I would land.  When I step off the plane in Nebraska, I will be checking another state off the “Been There, Done That” list, and looking at this mini map, I consider the odd fact that I have traveled to every state around it, but never made it to the Corn Husker state.  Nearly twenty years earlier I traversed its northern neighbor checking off the lower Dakota, but someday would need to head back to this destination in order to add the upper Dakota to my traveling accomplishments.


Stopping for a roadside distraction, a scenic vista or an extended meal routinely fill my solo travels, but a dramatic change of itinerary bothers my budgetary sensibilities and disrupts the mental travel clock that pushes me forward to my daily destinations.  But on a four-by-four white square, North Dakota appeared close and conquerable.  With wheels down, the frequent-flyer-point planets align and the opportunity to spend Independence Day driving along the Missouri River into the Big Sioux valley and across the other continental divide transforms an overnight flight into an unexpected summer road trip.

From the confines of the narrow plane seat, the straight shot journey up and down the northern American plains amounts to the length of a single peanut.  But on Interstate 29, the spacious, untouched fields, the swooping swallows, the sleepy little towns, the glowing mid-summer sunset late into the evening, and rockets red-glaring from distant farms into the darkening sky reward my unusual impulsiveness.  Yes, I check two states off the must-see list instead of just one by doubling the length of this weekend excursion to forty-two hours, but the long-term value of seeing North Dakota on a napkin and choosing to see it in person stacks my mind and my memory with visual moments and quiet scenes unmeasured in my forty-two years.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Outside the Box

Small Town Dining

Taking the passenger seat on a road trip happens so infrequently that I count the chauffeuring on one hand and wonder how I ever managed to sit patiently for that length of time.  On one of these outings, I traveled with a number of aunts and uncles as part of a volunteer moving crew on our way to central Arkansas.  Despite my thousands of frequent-driver miles (and, yes, the less-frequent passenger miles), this trip marks the only time during which I eat at a Waffle House, primarily because I place them in my self-designated restaurant category of “I Can Always Find Something Else I Like More.”  But on this one outing, I enjoyed the scrambled eggs.

All of my travels through Arkansas involved visits with my uncle and his wife, whether packing and transporting his household goods to a new home or passing through on a family vacation.  I remember as a ‘tween seeing the sites of Hot Springs and stopping at the A&W drive-in and getting an earful from my Dad for ordering a Coca-Cola instead of a root beer.  Of the memories I have from my time in Hot Springs, I recall driving up to an overlook, but I retain no mental image of the view besides the parking lot (perhaps since I am spoiled by countless memorable vistas in my lifetime), but I distinctly recall the A&W exchange.

The Next State

On the return to Missouri where the caravan began its travels southward, we stop well into the evening at the familiar golden arches in Blytheville to grab a bite to eat before resuming the final leg of our trip.  My mom’s sister, a bubbly woman who engaged each and every person she encountered on the planet in a brief conversation that established her gregariousness and her impulsiveness, initiates a discussion with a Blythevillian teenager trapped both sweeping the floors and in my aunt’s general vicinity.  At the northeast corner of this southern state, the young lady’s drawl reminds me that its geographic location stands at the entrance to the South – just a short distance from Missouri and just across the Mississippi River from Tennessee.

The Great River brought the both the French settlers and the early Spaniards deep into the North American continent.  The Army of the Republic pushed through the solid defenses of Vicksburg and Nachez and other Southern strongholds along this same waterway on its way to the Gulf of Mexico separating the Confederacy from the lands to which it hoped to expand westward.  Blytheville lies at the junction of the travels that have shaped the United States for centuries, but in this simple conversation, my aunt discovers that this young woman had never left the state of Arkansas, not once ever.  For everything I remember about Arkansas, even above the A&W debate, the prospect of a self-imposed limitation floors me.  I cringe at the idea of never stepping outside the box.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Next Chapter

Long-Stemmed Gesture
Stellar moments happen in the most unexpected places, like one of those police stories where a woman gives birth on the Long Island Expressway or a marriage proposal gets squeezed in during the middle of the fifth inning.  You’ve seen the plethora of YouTube videos changing these moments of excitement into blasĂ© banality, because the scenes become frequent and fleeting Internet sensations rather than memorable, life-changing moments.  I once played a part in these moments following a future fiancĂ© around a theme park with an engagement ring in my purse until moments before the evening’s fireworks finale.  But rather than publicize the proposal, we relied on the disinterest of the surrounding sweaty spectators, and since I did not post it online, I wonder if anyone besides me and the couple witnessed and remembered the moment.

I recently recalled that isolated engagement when an equally apathetic group of passengers on the city bus, worn from a full workday and just starting their lengthy commute home, failed to notice the gentlemen quietly seated with the bouquet of red roses.  Often people avoid direct eye contact among their fellow riders in hopes of keeping the double-wide bus seat to themselves, so their focus, either down, out the window, or possibly asleep, kept this genuine gentleman from being noticed.  I watched him, though, because this ride represented the preface to the next passage of his story.  And as the climax built and the bus moved along its route, I watched to see if the approaching stop, whenever it might occur, would be his exit into possibly the best chapter of his romantic tale.  He patiently traveled, not giving away any sense of impetus, not reaching in his pocket to fumble nervously with a boxed gem.  When he finally disembarked, I watched him walk off just as mysteriously as he sat, but with a gait that made me wish I could follow him.  I didn’t have to though, since I knew how his story would unfold.


While at an Interstate 10 rest stop on a pass from one end of the Florida Panhandle to the other, I worry about my sons in the adjacent facility.  Nearing sunset, a higher number of tractor trailers started filling the lot, many preparing to park for the night, and the general transient nature of their presence makes me apprehensive about a nine- and three-year-old unaccompanied even for a few minutes in a roadside restroom. Amid my self-centeredness and overly mothering qualms I suddenly realize I am not the only occupant of the room – a woman with a fussy baby busies herself at the sink.  The steam from the faucet lifts towards the mirror as the water tumbles over a bottle of milk she heats for the infant using the hottest temperature possible.  In the narrow space between the mirror’s edge and the fogged center, I see the young woman’s face and the dark circle near her eye.  I finish washing my hands and leave to corral my sons.

Preparing for the next leg beyond Tallahassee requires an assembly line of reloading, repacking, and re-buckling the boys into their booster seats on their respective sides of the car.  Finally finished, I walk around the front of the car to take the driver’s seat in my little vehicle dwarfed by the big rigs, and ahead of me, I see the woman climbing into a cab, the bundle in her arms and the bruise on her face.  I catch her gaze and in that moment, wonder about the next chapter of her story.  I gesture to her to inquire if she is okay.  She nods in response, but I wonder if she considers this a casual inquiry.  My concern changes from parental nervousness about my boys to a gnawing angst about what will happen when she closes the truck door and rides away.  I ask again with all the sincerity the distance between us affords.  She repeats her response and turns her gaze away, not wanting to look me in the eye, as if I might do more than occupy the seat next to her.  I question my ability to change what may happen next for her and her child if her answer had been something different; I couldn’t change it when I witnessed and remembered the moment in my own life.  I drive away with my boys wishing for the courage to follow her.  I knew how her story would unfold.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ad Placement

Car Commercials

Closed Road.  Professional Driver.  Do Not Attempt.  Or so the fine print indicates.  But those advertisements show fancy new vehicles skirting the ocean cliffs, swirling through a road of falling leaves, or exploding across the desert as the waves of heat rise and wrap the glimmering speedster.  We want more than that car, we want that driving experience.  These commercials tempt us, pretending our alternate career as professional drivers lay in the ownership of this four-wheel fantasy, but one commute to or from my office reminds me that our collective night job eludes an overwhelming majority of America’s driving population.

Locating a completely abandoned road, however, becomes the greater challenge.  My travels have taken me through several deserts, most of which are purloined by the Defense Department, but the military frowns on my driving on the runways of its test-pilot facilities.  The seagrape-covered dunes along the nearby Florida surfside roads obscure the few paltry waves that reach the cliffless shore.  Do these places really exist, or are these closed roads computer generated?

Ongoing Construction

Also known as “summer” in many northern parts of the United States, the peak periods of construction frustrate drivers in our efforts to get from here to there, slowing us down, blocking our way, and detouring us from our destinations.  While Bob obviously has a thriving business, we despise his barricades and their flashing yellow lights.  Yes, we want new, smooth roadways, but please do not impede us to get it paved.  And those painted lines constrict us, telling us we cannot pass the one vehicle leading a long line that refuses to meet, much less exceed, the speed limit.

But I found it.  I found the elusive county road in early October in northeastern Connecticut.  On a midday Monday I passed the only opposing traffic – a mail truck – on the lazy afternoon sweep headed towards Rhode Island.  Despite the warnings of road work, painting the yellow and white parallel pavement restrictions remained the only unfinished business by the men-not-at-work.  With so few travelers, the autumnal droppings formed small piles and with a gentle swerving, I allowed my new-to-me rental car to have its way with the road.  Glancing into the rear view mirror at the spiraling leaves stirred behind me, I imagine the madmen crew captures the moment on film for a future envious image for future sales campaigns.  Open road, outstanding driver.  Attempted.  Succeeded.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rapid City, Rapid Change


When I left Colorado in 1991, I was shaking up my life completely.  Son #1 and I embarked on a circuitous journey that would end with our first residence at our first military instillation, but when we left our southern home, logging so many miles through so many states had not been part of the plan.  The drive from Florida started in May and continued through August; we crossed thirteen states, many of which didn’t even lie on the route the crow flies.  A seven-, eight-, nine-, ten-month-old and I spent the summer marking the beginning of my adult road trips, christening my passion for setting a course and paving a road to a new experience, a new view, and in this instance, a new life.

Measuring the magnitude of this outing in miles, or the vastness of its incredible isolation from my known routine, or the singular companionship of an infant all compounded the route that the military meanderingly identified for us and challenged me to go where the wind would carry me.  The first assignment landed him in Texas, then on to Colorado for training, so I followed him to Colorado upon his arrival in the Mile High state.  The military issued orders for Arizona and I prepared to keep a temporary home in Colorado until our departure to our permanent duty station.  But new marching shipped him back to Texas for more training and new driving directions diverted my plans to see the Grand Canyon state.  The military radically changed the direction of our lives, and now it changed my planned travel from the sun and dry warmth of Arizona to frozen forests of Michigan.  Admittedly, this trip exemplified uncertainty, but instead of creating a lifetime of travel-related anxiety, the trek initiated my driving impetus and my sense of “itchy feet.”


When you’re sick (think scratchy throat and achy fever), down a dose of cold medicine, steep a cup of hot tea with honey, and tuck your toes into the blankets on your bed.  That’s where you want to be, not driving away from Colorado, across the desolation of eastern Wyoming, and into the Dakota plains.  The Sudafed helped, and even putting aside the oncoming bacterial storm long enough to enjoy George, Abe, Jeff, and Teddy carved into the mountainside couldn’t stave off the sleepless night ahead.  My baby boy snoozed soundly through the night, but my system refused to follow suit, and I begged to be lulled away from the ill effects pummeling my physiology, aided by leaving the television chattering with the best early-nineties, round-the-clock, adult-sitting, aching, stuffy-head, fever, unable-to-rest network: CNN.

Inevitably when life kicks my butt, I witness and am reminded of people tackling a greater illness, overcoming a tougher obstacle, or conquering a taller hurdle.  Or climbing a tank, or being held hostage by old-world Soviets.  As I lie in the hotel bed in Rapid City, South Dakota dozing and swallowing hard against the sore throat, I witness the struggle of others as the Cold War dramatically ends.  A hemisphere away from my new military future, the entire course of another military, a super-power nation, and the planet’s future is transforming.  I hate being sick, but I endure a night of uncomfortable sleeplessness.  I bemoan the military’s indecisiveness, but I witness the entire world change forever.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Vet

Just One Day

On more than one occasion I have dropped into a major city by sheer circumstance, usually because I happened to be close by on business.  I firmly believe that if given the opportunity, fitting an excursion into my non-vacation travels personalizes the trip, and since the cost to get to Point A is covered, I opt not to sleep in, but to voyage out.  On a sidebar to Washington, DC: a pop in at the National Archives to visit the Declaration of Independence.  Twenty years had passed since I first pilgrimaged to the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, and for anyone who has walked through the Archives, seeing it is challenging due to the fading writing, while the intentionally dim lighting preserves what few words are still legible.  Reading the words penned by our Founding Fathers should be our nation’s journey to Mecca.  If you have never seen it, go.
In these beautiful cities I see the highlights that existed before me and will remain for generations after me, yet these moments fill only a handful of my total days on the planet.  Sometimes longer stays afford me extended opportunities, like the five hours in the Smithsonian American Art Museum browsing among the Catlins and getting lost Among the Sierra Nevada, California.  Yet, when time is not on my side, I visit what I can, ideally something new to me, and appreciate the fifteen minutes in splendor as an alternative to a lifetime of never seeing the beauty of the United States, both natural and man-made.
Brotherly Adoration
Philadelphia smacks of patriotism and tourism, and I am guilty of briefly taking absolute advantage of its highlights.  Again invoking the one-day plan, I park the rental downtown, and step towards a group of stately buildings in close proximity unknowingly finding myself face-to-face with the Italian Stallion.  As a fan of pop culture (and the Eighties), I recall when the City of Brotherly Love presented Rocky Balboa with a life-size sculpture of himself, shortly before he took a beating at the hands of Clubber Lang.  I capture the standard self-portrait with the heavy-weight champion in bronze before heading to the next noteworthy metal structure – the one with the giant crack.  Again, if you have never seen the Liberty Bell, go.
But the baseball freak inside me forces a visit to the Phillies’ home field.   In time I have come to despise the Phillies, not because of their outstanding work ethic or superior on-field performance, but on behalf of my beloved Rays and that 2008 World Series.  A handful of years before that matchup, Philadelphians granted the Phillies’ wish and built a shiny, new baseball stadium, but as the Atlanta Braves step onto the field in front of me, their footsteps count among the final few at Veterans Stadium, in fact the next to the last game at The Vet.
I certainly value aesthetic treasures that generations before and yet-to-come will enjoy, but to take one day and see one structure that has stood witness to decades of history by a team that Philadelphia adores holds just as much value.  I watch the final win at a stadium three years my junior, a concrete circle shortly to be imploded, an architectural humdrum delighted for the final time by a favorite son hitting a game-winning, tenth-inning double after his bottom-of-the-eight home run.  Making this stop, even for one afternoon of one day, develops into an excursion never to be repeated and never to be forgotten.  If you desire to see a remarkable structure, a significant piece of art, or a fleeting landmark, go.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Traveling with Boys

My Love Affair with the Atlas

As a tween traveler, my favorite part of a road trip involved monopolizing the atlas.  I watched highway signs near, knowing what town or junction we approached.  I searched for the origins of creeks and rivers long after we had traversed their bridges.  I estimated how far and how long each leg of our drive would take and knew without asking that we weren’t there yet.  Better still, for my sisters the bound book of maps mattered little, so unless someone in the car’s cockpit needed it, I occupied myself in combining my sense of direction to my geographic curiosity.  I easily could have earned the title of Backseat Navigator had my family realized how intimately I studied and adored its pages.

Of course, the road trips with my own children possess three features that the family station wagon of the seventies lacked: seat restraints, a solo driver and ADD-diagnosed boys and their bladders.  I possess an atlas of my own, but I doubt my cartographic fascinations genetically transferred to my two passengers.  Still, my boys rarely ask the classic road trip query, “Are we there yet?”  My secret: when we stop for a meal, I fill the tank – mine and the car’s – and the boys unload theirs. They detour for a pit stop on arrival and before departure, but in between they burn off energy on the playground, whether at a rest stop or a restaurant.  We grab their food to go, I’d buckle back in the driver’s seat, and they feed their faces without driving me crazy.

No Services for the Next Fifty Miles

But despite the skills of a master navigator, boys will be idiomatic, and on the fifty-mile stretch between Las Cruces and Alamogordo through the White Sands Missile Range, Son #2 announces his need to leave his mark in the sandy shoulder of the road.  The occasional portable men’s rooms strategically placed to aid motorists with like-minded boys appear just slightly less frequently enough than needed, and distinctly less frequently than the “No Stopping” signs.  During his sixty seconds of unauthorized precipitation, the only passing vehicle, a Wal-Mart diesel rig, honks in salute of his raining on the military proving ground’s parade.

Back in the car and back on the road, we resume the journey and commence the familial razzing that the situation warrants.  Laughter about his “moment of glory” in the New Mexico desert, another feature missing from the old days in the family station wagon, continues long after we catch up to the discount store semi, which again honks at our family’s follies.  We certainly aren’t there yet, but traveling with my boys distracts us from how far we have traveled, and makes how long each leg of our adventure will still take blissfully unimportant.