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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Big Country Little Car Tour II, Day 21: Davenport, IA to Northwood, OH

Submitted by on August 22, 2011 – 4:40 PM22 Comments

I wished I could stay at the hotel longer. So big! Such good coffee in the lobby! So tired of portaging my bags in and out and up and down, getting stuck in doors, making two trips (or three), rummaging for a hairbrush or a right sneaker or a plastic bag to take the trash out of the car. The routine was long established by then, the rhythms of the road trip had entered muscle memory, but that was the first day I longed for the specificities and placements of home. Thanks in part to yet another thoughtless motel-room layout that had me looking at myself in the mirror while sitting on the toilet, I looked at my patchwork tan and my stretched-out hip tat and my weathered tennis socks, everything flabby and dirty in the ruthless fluorescent light and the auto-fan disgorging some sort of steel-wool hairball, because I couldn't look anywhere else, and I thought, "I really don't want to watch myself do this anymore. …Wow, that scar is still there?" (Worst bike wreck of my childhood career, summer of '81.)

I rolled out early, to pass the cities before homebound Sunday traffic kicked in. My to-do list looked like this: "1. EZ Pass 2. Ohio." The EZ Pass holder is one of those suction-cup dealies, and it gets better suction (hew) if you moisten (hew) the cups (heee-yew) before whapping it onto the windshield. Well, I guess the AmericInn coffee isn't that good, because without even thinking, or looking at what dregma the cups might have been sitting in in the glovebox for the last eight states, I pulled the holder out, licked the cups, and stuck them onto the windshield. And then I did an "AAAAHH mah GAAAAHHHRGLE" imitation of Martin Sheen in the hotel room in Apocalypse Now while rinsing with Diet Coke and hand sanitizer. What an idiot. Not that surprising, though. Ask McK about one of the times plural that I microwaved a metal utensil.

The bad taste in my mouth remained literal, fortunately, but I did have concerns about the weather, which just the night before had demolished a stage at the Indiana state fair. I'd welcomed the prospect of drizzle, because my whole existence had started to smell like an oily coconut, but: drizzle. Not gale. Not "rename the car 'Cambleweed.'"

The driving itself got off to an exciting start just a few miles in when a handful of teenage deer dared each other to scamper across I-80 in front of a Ford 150. They made it unharmed; not so the driver's boxer shorts, I fear, because immediately afterwards, he veered onto the shoulder to take a minute. When I passed, he was gripping the wheel with his elbows locked straight, and seemed to be hyperventilating.

After that, very little of note, except a traffic snarl near Chicago that, once I came upon its apparent cause, I could only nod at: a suitcase's worth of clothes and shoes, stirred across five lanes. A formerly filmy unmentionable, now a grimy gummy wad; a black pump that Weebled back upright after each tire tried to mash it; a white Y t-shirt with red writing; a V of disarticulated bra parts. I could understand why everyone had slowed down, and in fact felt glad that I could peek at that chapter at a leisurely pace myself. No sign of the owners, and what could they have done, anyway? Google "old navy store locator" on the Droid and drive on.

The weather didn't get any worse than a brisk drizzle, but having had a chance to sample roadwork and lane closures all over our fine nation, and as much as I hate to talk shit at this sad time for the state, I'm going to have to go ahead and give Indiana's highway authority an F. A lower grade than that, actually…like, a K or something. Warning signs for lane closures that never happened. Abrupt, too-late warnings for lane closures that came close to happening violently. I think I went through someone's front yard at one point. And the "BUMP" signs that cried wolf can bite me, especially the one stationed next to velvety new asphalt…instead of next to the meteorite crater a quarter of a mile later that I only knew to dodge because it chewed off and spat out both the driver's-side hubcaps on the Lexus in front of me, and picked its teeth with sparks. Indiana is a fine state, responsible for such talented exports as my mom, but IN-DOT needs to get a grip with both hands like yesterday.

Toledo was muggy. The motel was in a section or suburb, Northwood, that felt like it had been left behind or given away; laid out in a series of giant ells, with dozens of rooms along each, the motel felt empty. The computer put a father and daughter in the room next to mine, but the three of us had that hallway to ourselves, and the in-house restaurant, which advertised at the elbow of each hallway, was closed that day. "Closed forever, or closed 'til seven, or…?" The girl on the desk shrugged. "Closed 'til there's people. And there ain't been." Can't argue with that timeline, so I didn't, and went to Subway.

Going back in, I started to use my door key to let myself in, but the lock mechanism didn't work anymore, and if it had, I'd have had to cut through an impressive triplex-style spider web to get at it. The resident Charlotte, a nickel-sized specimen with the translucent legs I find especially repellent in arachnids, sat right at the top, and seemed to be twiddling her thumbs while waiting for a lightning bug to stop struggling. I folded my arms: "Fine, ugly. Show me something." She did. I still hate spiders, but I have come to admire them as well, because they have a lot of imposing skills, they do not fuck around, and we have partnered productively on an indoor-mosquito-reduction project. (Note to self: get screen door for deck already.) This one chopped up and wrapped that entire firefly in about five minutes and broke for a snack.

Later, I stepped outside to find a small party in the parking lot — flat-top guys with cycle 'staches, enjoying an "if the wife doesn't know about it, she can't yell about it" Bud-Light-'n'-Parliaments-fest out of the backs of two mini-vans. It looked pretty fun, and we talked about Campbell for a few minutes. The moon had picked up a flat waning edge, and rose over the abandoned Pabst truck at the edge of the parking lot. Inside, I stared at a map and wondered if I should stop anymore.

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  • Melissa says:

    You sound homesick, and kinda done. On an epic road trip BACK from Yellowstone I once threatened to not stop from Mitchell, South Dakota all the way home to the Chicago suburbs. Just cause I was done, and wanted to sleep in my own bed already…Cooler heads prevailed.

  • rayvyn2k says:

    The driving itself got off to an exciting start just a few miles in when a handful of teenage deer dared each other to scamper across I-80 in front of a Ford 150.

    This? Made me snorfle for a full minute. And I kept chuckling every time I re-read it. I adore your writing. I hope you are, or are thinking about, collecting these essays into a book. That would rock.

  • Ryan with a capital "R" says:

    There always is that time when you're not on the trip any more but instead you are driving home, the trip being over. That's something Steinbeck said, I think. It sounds like you might've hit that point, which always makes me a little disappointed when it happens to me.

  • attica says:

    I have a friend from Illinois, whose brother Re. Fuses. to stop anywhere in Indiana when doing the drive from Chicago to Ohio. He purposefully does a pitstop right at the state line, and not again till he crosses into Ohio. Will not spend a nickel on Indiana gasoline, not a dime on Indiana snack food, nor pee in an Indiana toilet. So I laughed at your distate with Indiana DoT.

    My mom, who grew up on a farm, never failed to regale us with the motto: Spiders Are Our Friends. It worked; they don't squick me out in the least.

  • Amanda says:

    The greater Toledo area as a whole tends to feel like something that someone threw out, left behind, or gave away, and not even the people who still live there want it.

    Many – I don't know if I'd say "most," but a pretty significant portion – of the people my age are desperately trying to leave; quite a few are resigned to staying.

  • Amy says:

    If I ever win the lottery, I might just finance eternal roadtrips for you, just because I enjoy reading what you write about them so much. I'm wishing I had been around home when you passed through Iowa, so that we could've met for a drink.

  • pomme de terre says:

    Sars, I feel you on the homesickness towards the end of a long trip. I just got back from a 17 day trip, and at the airport, I was offered a hotel room and $900 to take a flight the next day. I had nothing urgent to get back to, so logistically and financially, I should have taken the money and stayed. But mentally, I had to get on that plane home.

    Of course, the trip was utterly FUBARed from that point on. I should have suspected that there was more than a little overbooking gone wrong since they were offering people so much money. In the end, my trip from Brussels to Baltimore took eight extra hours and included a leg traveled via SEPTA (the Philadelphia rail system).

  • Kris in MN says:

    I have driven in 40 of the states, and I can say without hesitation that Indiana has the worst DoT in the country. We have spent so many hours sitting in a traffic backup on the interstate that we will drive an hour out of our way not to go through it (especially Indianapolis).

    Once when we drove I-80, both Indiana and Ohio were doing road work. Ohio had built a temporary lane so that there were still two functioning lanes of traffic while the work was being done. Indiana shut an entire lane down for miles (even when they weren’t working on it), causing a backup of about two hours for us. Horrid.

  • Jane says:

    Oh, God. Indiana. I80 in Indiana was responsible for my haunting tollbooth debacle, an unmanned "credit or cash" lane that 1) spat the turnpike card back out with a vehemence that left it fluttering along the lane behind me and 2) wouldn't take any credit cards or *bills*. That's right, it wanted $8 in change, and there were a dozen cars behind me, and I didn't have $8 in change. Attempts to summon help via the button for that purpose were bootless. Finally people behind me just helped me pony up enough change to get the hell past it.

    It was about four years ago, and the nightmares are just starting to recede.

  • ducky says:

    "The driving itself got off to an exciting start just a few miles in when a handful of teenage deer dared each other to scamper across I-80 in front of a Ford 150."

    I have a theory that running across highways in front of traffic is actually how deer get their antlers.

  • Zeh says:

    Privatizing the Indiana Tollway has not been a rousing success, at least from the driver's point of view.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Amy, I am seriously considering setting up a Kickstarter fund for lobster-roll travel research.

  • Bo says:

    Wouldn't the lobster-roll travel research have a rather limited geographic scope? Perhaps something a bit more universally available.


    You eat seafood?

    I empathize with F 150 guy. I did a full 360 in a yellow Datsun 510 in a snowstorm in Valley Forge National Park once courtesy of three deer with poor timing. I couldn't stop and gather myself without getting stuck, but my breathing did not normalize until I got to my destination.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Yep. Thus the term "vegequarian"!

  • Another Elizabeth says:

    I'm a lifelong Midwesterner and I have a lot of flyover pride, but I will confess, there's something about long drives through certain parts of it that can really weigh you down. It's not the pleasant but rather uninteresting scenery, or the sad little small towns, or the patches of industrial blight, but a combination of all three, experienced along the kind of road that makes you wonder if there's something wrong with your car.

    The Ohio Turnpike is dreary as all get-out, but it tends to be in pretty good repair and the travel plazas are decent, so at least there's that to look forward to. I just wish they'd raise the damn speed limits to 70, like sensible states.

    It's too bad you can't swing through Michigan, but that's one of those states where, 90% of the time, you won't be there unless it's your destination.

  • Kris in MN says:

    Another worthy research project for, say, January through March, would be to find the best Key Lime pie in Florida. Members of my family and I have been working on that one
    for the last fifteen years or so.

  • JB says:

    See, though, each Great Lakes state is a pain to drive through in its own special ways. In Ohio, you have roads in a decent state of repair, but inept drivers of the type only found in Florida. Indiana has poorly maintained roads and numbing scenery, Illinois has the numbing farmland scenery with the added complication of accidentally hitting rush hour in Chicagoland, and Michigan counterbalances their everpresent road construction and inability to find radio stations not playing Kid Rock with a 70 mph speed limit and drivers not afraid to use it, especially in the Detroit area. (Detroit drivers, I feel, are the Midwestern spiritual cousins to Jersey drivers.)

  • Another Elizabeth says:

    JB, we from Michigan can't understand the problem the rest of you have with 70mph. It's a perfectly sensible speed limit. The problem is that we also have a large number of people who think doing 63 in the left lane is totally legit. GET OUT OF MY FUCKING WAY AMATEUR HOUR, THERE ARE SEMIS GOING FASTER THAN YOU.

  • Ian says:

    I've done the, "I am going to pull over now and breathe for awhile" thing.

    I was on I-15 between Barstow and Las Vegas (middle of effin' nowhere) on a beautiful summer afternoon, ambling back to Colorado with my Mum riding shotgun. Visibility was just about infinite. Lovely day.

    Then the wind kicked up a little. There are signs, "Beware of blowing dust". They're right. About a mile ahead of me a dark blue Cadillac (I recall this like yesterday) suddenly disappeared into a dust cloud. Oooookay.

    I get off the gas, and amble down from highway speed. I'm going about thirty when I get the dust cloud. Visibility goes from infinite to about six feet in about six feet. And six feet further into this dust cloud is the taillights of this Cadillac, they having come to a complete stop in zero visibility in traffic lanes.

    I swore.

    Meanwhile, I hauled on the wheel, and the car leapt sideways like a scalded cat into the left lane. Another guy in a conversion van was also paying attention, but he hit the dust cloud going about sixty, in the left lane. I went around the Caddy. He went around me. We had three cars abreast on a two-lane way, each going 30mph faster than the other, in just about no visibility.

    I leapt back into the right lane. Two seconds later we pop out the other side of the dust cloud, visibility goes back to infinity, and it's a lovely day again.

    I pull over and breathe for a little while. While I'm there, the blue Cad comes out of the cloud at about three and a half mph, still in the highway lanes and a couple white-haired people look at me like, "What?", and move on.

  • Courtney says:

    I just drove from southern IL up to 80 and across to Michigan yesterday. I was stunned by the number of construction sites warning of lane closures that…didn't have any. By the time I got halfway through the drive, I refused to move over anymore. Also, I thank God every time I hit the Michigan border, when I can drive a reasonable speed without fear.

  • funtime42 says:

    I moved to south Central Wisconsin in the mid-nineties. I have learned to avoid the whole Chicago thing by dropping straight down to Bloomington, IL and then heading east to all the family in Ohio by way of 74. Unfortunately, no route to anyone in Ohio will allow me to bypass the hell of Indianapolis and its event horizon known as 465. Fifteen years, and no sign of progress.

    My last trip through, I crossed into Indiana and saw "Welcome to Indiana – Road Construction next 174 miles". The state is only 140 miles wide…

  • JB says:

    Another Elizabeth: I grew up in Michigan and learned to drive in the Detroit area. I greatly miss Michigan drivers because the Colorado drivers I now have to deal with on a daily basis are freakin' hopeless (seriously, it's like being surrounded on a daily basis with student drivers… that weird combination of obliviousness to traffic laws and utter timidity that drives me nuts.) Detroit drivers may confuse 696 with the Autobahn, but they know what they are doing.

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