Tropical Storm Elsa decided to take the same route we had planned for our final leg of the journey. If you thought US 95 through Connecticut couldn’t possibly get worse, put a massive rotating low-pressure system on the road with a flood of weekend traffic fleeing Manhattan. We closely watched the NOAA radar and drove north to US 84. As the eye of the storm passed over our destination, we made our way east on its heels.
The highway was eerily quiet. We passed through remnant cells of thunderstorms crossing the Hudson River and climbing the final highlands before descending into Connecticut, but it would be the only raindrops to fall from the sky. The pavement never dried between New York and Rhode Island.
Leaving The Inn at Jim Thorpe, a small envelope was placed on the nightstand between our room’s two queen beds. If we appreciated the absence of bed bugs, thought the floor was shiny, and found the bathroom to be free of other people’s hair, we could safely part with some cash for the chambermaid. Upon closer inspection of the envelope, the name of our hotel worker shared something in common with our day’s travel companion…and we decided it would be good karma to leave Elsa a tip.
Mauch Chunck was founded in 1818 as a coal mining exploration and transport hub. The Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company built the nation’s first “gravity railroad” in 1827 to deliver anthracite coal to waiting boats steaming the Lehigh River Canal. Aside from helping to fuel the industrial revolution, The Mauch was also home to a faction of the Molly Maguires – a 19th century Irish secret society acting more or less as a mafia-style union to fight low wages paid to Irish immigrants working the hard coal fields. Four of the Mollies were tried and publicly hung here in 1876. Interestingly enough, I noticed a local wearing a t-shirt that read “0% IRISH” across the front. It was odd enough that it burrowed into a small corner of my memory, and made sense after some research into the history of what is now Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Better safe than sorry…
The town changed names in 1954 to honor Oklahoma native James Francis Thorpe, who never lived in Mauch Chunk. A variety of lawsuits surround the transfer of Jim Thorpe’s remains to Mauch Chunk from Tulsa. Thorpe, who once attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School 100 miles to the south in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, still rests on a hill above the Lehigh River. The name Jim Thorpe, distinctly English, is now a permanent fixture on the map – and perhaps a warning to the Irish.
Our run from West Virginia included a steep snaking decent through Pocahontas County into Virginia, Maryland, back into West Virginia, and a brief overnight recess in Pennsylvania. We timed the drive perfectly, skirting a band of thunderstorms and closely watching the path of tropical system Elsa. As we pulled into our parking spot behind the Inn at Jim Thorpe, thunder echoed across the rolling Poconos and we quickly unloaded two small bags from the back of the Jeep. Minutes later, the sky opened its flood-gates.
Some call Jim Thorpe “The Switzerland of America.” This might be the absence of Irishmen…or because to get here, you have to drive through rural Pennsylvania coal country. Rural Pennsylvania coal country is not the “Switzerland of America,” and makes it point clear with multitudes of Trump flags, Stop The Steal banners, Don’t Tread On Me rattlesnakes, mobile homes, double-wide’s, lack of paint, and extremely bad roads.
After checking in, we caught a break in the weather and took an ephemeral walk-about. The town is cute. Old brick homes share the narrow streets with buildings representing Federalist, Second Empire, and Queen Anne architecture. The Five-O-Clock sky went dark and lightning crossed above us. Time to find some shelter. To our good fortune, we found a place called the Hose Bar and took the last sheltered outdoor seats on the patio. I enjoyed a craft beer while Kéa sipped hot chocolate. Thunderstorms provided our evening entertainment. Eventually, we settled up, walked through a soaking warm downpour, dried off, and had some dinner inside the Inn’s underground pub. Kéa destroyed me in another game of cribbage and we enjoyed what we hoped was our final night on the road. What a trip it’s been.
Every great story needs a day off. Today was ours. We may need it. Tropical Storm Elsa is putting a slight hitch in our get-a-long. I can’t complain. While a touch on the hot side, our weather has been uneventful and conducive to chewing up large numbers of miles across the southeastern U.S. Other than weather-hold interruptions of an evening swim in the indoor-outdoor pool and our downhill mountain biking chairlift – yes, I know that’s cheating – for lightning, we’ve aced every meteorologic exam NOAA has thrown at us.
Tomorrow we’ll dodge a band of thunderstorms converging with Elsa’s trajectory over the Atlantic coast. Google maps says Snowshoe, WV to Jim Thorpe, PA should take a proper vehicle exactly six hours and twenty-five minutes. In Jeep time, we add 15 minutes to each hour and factor in an hour of stoppage time…so we’re planning on a nine-hour roll. If downpours force us to pull off the road it will be even longer. 35-inch tires become hydroplaning sleds in gears three through six. Hoping for dry pavement and calm winds.
Room 311 at the Isaak Jackson Hotel might as well have had The Who staying in it. We pulled back beds, ripped carpet from the seams of the walls, pulled headboards off the wall, and inspected every square inch of the transient rental space with flashlights using I-phones to snap and magnify photos of offending lint disguised as carpet fiber…remotely resembling a bug. The room was rock-star trashed but parasite-free…to the best of our knowledge. Sleep wasn’t easy to come by. When you’re the main dish of a secret insect feast leaving quarter-sized itchy welts up and down your body, paranoia conquers capability. Eventually, we had the guts to shut off the light and risk unconsciousness.
A hazy light penetrated our window in the morning. At some point in the night, I can’t pinpoint exactly when, we managed to find some sleep. Feeling better than the day before we hit the lobby to grab a standard hotel breakfast. We briefly returned to our rental space and removed our luggage from the bathtub, checked for pests, and loaded our small bags back into the Jeep. Next stop Snowshoe, WV. The 50-mile drive would have us climb 2922 feet though narrow switchbacks. I pulled to the right frequently to let short lines of cars pass our Jeep as I babied the RPM’s and took in the scenery. We passed through rich farm-land valleys before ascending into dark green mountain inclines affording the occasional vista.
Our one-hour drive took two, and we found our AirBnB easy enough. It only took one load to relocate our provisions for two days from the Jeep to our 7th story condo. Once again, the place we’re in is abandoned, which explains the price. It was smart to bring our own food. A cursory look around revealed some cross-country mountain bike trails, a pool, a horse stable, and just a few miles up the road…Snowshoe Resort.
The sun was out and we pulled the top panels off the roof of the Jeep. At 5000 feet we enjoyed our first joy ride with temps in the 70’s and 200-mile views of the surrounding West Virginia mountains. A more detailed investigation of our neighboring area unveiled some pretty epic downhill mountain biking, a couple of nice outdoor patios, and a laid-back vibe that suited us perfectly. We could easily see ourselves settling in here for a lengthy stay. For once, we’re content to not keep driving.
With Paducah in the rear-view, Kéa and I made for the eastern time zone. The ride into Lexington was easy and the Holiday Inn Express University-Lexington parking lot was empty. We checked in, threw our bags and a bike into the room, and set out on foot to explore the city. Lexington is a college town. The University of Kentucky takes up well over a quarter of the city center and we wandered our way into the heart of downtown.
I expected the 4th of July to be a bit more festive in this bourbon-soaked southern stronghold. I was wrong. Most restaurants were closed, the streets were empty, no fireworks extravaganza advertised, and we had the city to ourselves. If we hadn’t come directly from Paducah, I would have thought the scenario to be rather eerie. We strolled down South Limestone, University of Kentucky’s main drag harboring college pubs and hooka bars. We found life at a place called the “Tin Roof” and took a seat inside.
A brief respite from oppressive heat and humidity provided the kick we needed. After downing a lemonade and an IPA, we were ready to push deeper into the heart of Lexington. We made it about four blocks. It was hot. My knee was doubling in size. I looked at my Alaskan daughter giving it her best effort, but wilting in the wet sun. Directly across the street was a row of four orange electric scooters. I had seen people using these things in a former life, and wondered what the deal was.
The deal was that you can take a photo of the QR code, download the SPIN app, and rent an electric scooter. No brainer. We made the necessary transactions and minutes later were electric scooter terrorists throughout greater abandoned Lexington. The SPIN legal counsel suggest that you wear a helmet, only ride on the street, and obey all traffic laws. With a top speed of 15.2 mph we didn’t violate any speed limits, but broke every other possible rule in the book. We spent over an hour exploring the historic neighborhoods surrounding downtown…at 15.2 miles per hour. Turns out you don’t have to slow down to corner if you pull the apex and keep your weight over the stand platform.
Dinner was at the Columbia Steak House. These guys first started serving filet in 1907, and have been in continuous food service since 1948. If I wanted to make a discrete under the table illegal agreement, this dining room would be just the place. I could barely see who was sitting across the table. The standing special is a carefully selected tenderloin of beef broiled to your order in garlic butter. What? I had to try. The steak literally came in a bowl of melted butter. I’ve yet to eat anything since, but it wasn’t bad. Kéa had the house salad and some chicken. We lingered for a while, but decided to find two more scooters for the trip back down South Limestone and call it a night.
We both wanted to get a good night’s sleep. The Holiday Inn Express has a gym. My fantastic plan was to get up a bit early and burn off the bowl of butter in the morning. We would leave Lexington at 11 and pull into Charleston, WV around 2 pm. Plenty of time to walk the riverfront, have a late lunch, and see what the capitol of West Virginia had to offer. I stayed up a little later for your reading pleasure, but Kéa shut the light off about 10:30 and fell fast asleep.
I heard the panicked call for help about 6:30 am. Something was crawling in her bed. I was still groggy from being yanked out of a bizarre dream and this wasn’t fitting with my speech to Barney Fife. Yes…I was dreaming about Don Knotts. Like I said. It was bizarre. I collected myself and climbed out of bed. Sure enough, there were several small pin-head sized bugs slowly crawling across a pillow. A few more were under the sheets.
I’ve been the victim of bed-bugs before and these didn’t look like what I had succumbed to back in the massacre of 2017. We collected a few and put them into a cup. Just when we thought they were Kentucky Clover Mites, I saw the monster trying to climb back though a crease in the headboard over my bed. I grabbed her with a key-card and scraped her into the cup. Easily five times larger than the tiny baby bed bugs, this piece of evidence left no doubt. We had a problem.
Kéa was very calm. We bagged up all of our items in the room and both took vigorous showers. I delivered the cup of bugs from both of our beds to the front desk, the desk clerk reversed the charges for the room, and I googled a “laundromat near me.” Time to wash and dry absolutely everything that touched a surface in the hotel room. From 8 to 10 am we disinfected and wiped down anything that couldn’t be laundered. When the clothes were washed and put through the dryer, we folded them back into our bags that had also spent an hour in the dryer on high. If we had any hitchhikers, they were dead.
On the way to Charleston, neither one of us wanted to spend another night in a hotel. We scrapped our plan to visit the capitol of West Virginia and instead agreed to find a proper Bed & Breakfast. A hot lap through Charleston confirmed that we had made the right choice. Not only did the place look closed, it looked bad. We passed the hotel we had booked without slowing down, found a place to eat lunch, and came up with draft B and draft C.
Over dinner in Lexington, we decided to head to Snowshoe, West Virginia for two nights. This is before we woke up in Lexington having been dinner. Snowshoe is an Appalachian ski resort, but boasts downhill mountain biking and horseback riding all summer long. We found an AirBnB and made arrangements. It’s three hours from Charleston, but the towns of Buckhannon and Elkins would get us even closer. I had read about each place and they sounded great. We would make the push for Buckhannon and see what was up.
Nothing was up in Buckhannon. The place was empty. No Bed & Breakfasts to speak of and the only open restaurants were Burger King, Taco Bell, and a Wendy’s. We kept driving. Twenty-four miles farther up the road was Elkins. We had read about a quaint inn called the Warfield just off the main square. It sounded perfect and looked great from the website. We weren’t able to book on-line, and decided to just drive by when we pulled into town.
The historic Warfield Inn looked like Mickey Mouse’s haunted mansion. It was clear from its appearance that it hadn’t seen any guests since before the Pandemic. Maybe long before. A hot lap of Elkins revealed a mirror image of Buckhannon, only grittier. Homeless shelters, a medium sized hospital, and various big box drug stores surrounded a small “historic” downtown. Two choices presented themselves for lodging. A Holiday Inn Express…no fucking way…or a privately owned Wyndam hotel calling itself the Isaak Jackson Hotel.
We pulled into the Wyndam and didn’t have any trouble securing a room. Only two cars occupied the main parking lot. It’s sad. The inn itself, perched on a hill overlooking the town surrounded by mountains is stunning. You could imagine this view in any other part of the country drawing tourists from every corner of the world. Tonight, as Kéa and I played cards on the veranda, our only interaction was with a young couple that had stepped outside to chain smoke while their baby cried several feet away. Second hand smoke is real.
Transiting this cross-section of America has been enlightening. While not a destination I would have sought for a break from my own reality, it’s certainly been a window into others. As I sit here and itch my bug bites, I can’t help but think that a large number of people don’t have the option to seek out a plan B, let alone a plan C. With any luck we’ll be bug free tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll keep driving.
Bentonville, Arkansas to Paducah, Kentucky is 413 miles. We would travel through the nation’s worst Covid hotspots of Joplin, Springfield, and Poplar Bluff – all in southern Missouri. We departed Northwest Arkansas at 9:30 am with a bloated fuel tank and made our run through the Hot Zone with one pit stop. The first three hours were exactly as I expected. Flat, followed by mostly flat, with partly flat moving in by hour three. Forecasts in this neck of the woods are generally accurate.
The Jeep ran easy. I was careful not to push the RPM’s too high while stepping off the clutch to engage its tall throw-shifter while accelerating. Maybe we’ve come to an understanding. Kéa picked the tunes and we settled in for a long day behind the short boxy windscreen. The Jeep is very content to cruise at 60 mph, which makes calculating ETA quick and efficient. If things went well, we would pull into Paducah a touch before 5 pm.
To my surprise, southcentral Missouri began to resemble Vermont. Steep foliage laden hills cascading to rocky cliffs surrounded miles of curvy road. The Ozarks resemble northern New England and we snaked our way over moderate climbs and corners I never thought could exist in this part of the country. Behind the wheel, I feel every small wrinkle of buckled pavement and the slightest breath of wind. To say the Jeep’s tall profile and rigid suspension adds to the fatigue of its operation would be quite the understatement.
The road fell from the Ozarks and passed through Poplar Bluff where predictably our path straightened right out. Another hour of monotonous linear travel was broken up by crossing a series of long narrow bridges over giant muddy rivers. The Kentucky border sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Empty barges line the barren shorelines of these iconic aquatic thoroughfares, and Kéa leaned out the window to take photos of the mighty brown arteries from the rusty spans above the water.
The two-lane road off the eastern shore of the Ohio River to Paducah narrowed considerably. What I thought would be a major highway was little more than an alleyway. I wouldn’t want to navigate this route at night. Eventually we hit some odd sprawl. Not your typical suburban pockets…more like a balding cat. A patch of hair here, some whiskers there, and a lot of bare spots. McMansions lined one side of a random road while tenements lined the other. The only people I saw outside their homes were of different race and shouting at one another. We kept driving.
Passing the consummate fast food chain restaurants and drab local strip malls, we entered a residential zone that appeared to be trapped in time. Dilapidated homes from the 1950’s guarded the main drag into downtown, along with pit bulls and their shirtless owners. Cars on blocks, many with key parts missing, outnumbered working ones with tires…many with key parts missing. We kept driving.
A few blocks farther we found the Paducah Holliday Inn Riverfront Hotel. It looked nice enough. A giant wall along the river-side of the building ran the length of the city’s waterfront – a high-water barrier used to keep floodwater away from the main town. I felt that perhaps another barrier should have been built on the opposite side as well, to keep the town of Paducah out. Both Kéa and I were exhausted from the drive. I owned a 1957 PA 22-20 Taildragger for 10 years. I’m not sure what I find more stressful; flying that old airplane, or driving this damn Jeep. Either way, we were ready to be stationary for an evening.
We checked in, grabbed the valuables out of the Jeep including my bike, and pressed the up button for the elevator. As the doors opened a shirtless man smoking a blunt and holding the hand of a plump six-year-old girl wearing a “Jesus Loves Baby” T-shirt came strutting out. They looked us up and down as we traded places. The doors couldn’t close soon enough. “Nice Place” was all Kéa could say.
Paducah is depressed. The small downtown is mostly boarded up or vacant. Surprisingly, the hotel was full. It might be that the only thing in these parts to do is get a room at the Holliday Inn. Every room on the river-side had a balcony and was packed with shirtless party-goers, coolers, and twangy music. Kéa and I had the city view. We scoped out a few dinner options and set out in search of anything.
Not more than one block from our hotel, we passed the first tweaked out young adult talking to himself and staggering across the shabby weed filled sidewalk. At least we would know what to expect as we made our way further into the heart of town. Dodging dementia, we managed to find Paducah Beer Werks. It’s housed in an old bus terminal, but they failed to capitalize on the charm. The beer was not good. At least it didn’t werk for me. Thankfully, the food was excellent. It’s hard to screw up pizza and salad, and we very much enjoyed an early meal.
With a little time to kill, we explored every inch of downtown Paducah. A few minutes later we decided to take the river walk back to the hotel. The Ohio River runs 981 miles from Lake Erie to its mouth on the Mississippi. The air had cooled considerably and we watched the sun sink beyond the western banks of the water, turning both liquid and horizon into multiples of magenta. Cribbage board in hand, we sat down to listen to some live music on the back patio of the hotel.
Three guys in their 60’s, or maybe their 50’s, played hits from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and Today. I think it was bluegrass with some Johnny Cash mixed in…that was the Today part. After every song, the guy with mike would shout “Whir so ess-eye-tud ta bee heear eet thuh Hally-dye-Ian!!” I translated for Kéa, who then couldn’t stop giggling and found some redemption in our planned stop on the Ohio. I sipped a warm flat Yuengling lager while my daughter annihilated me at Cribbage. River towns…tomorrow we keep driving.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Bentonville, Arkansas just fine. I just don’t need to spend more time here. Kéa and I walked into town to find some food, because…you know…we didn’t have our own transportation. It was only a little more than a mile. The sky was overcast and the temperature nice, but sweat broke quickly from the humidity…saturated ground from recent thunderstorms. We had some daylight left and I knew a place that served great pizza. I spent the better part of dinner explaining that we needed to keep an open mind about our trip. I kept watching my phone, waiting for Bryce to deliver some kind of an update. The salad came before I finished my fingernails as an appetizer.
The sun set, my phone didn’t ring, and Kéa and I walked home through a dark thick air. This part of the world is fairly new to me, and completely foreign to Kéa. We saw deer on our way into town, and strange phosphorous flashes lit a field and the surrounding treetops on our return. Fireflies. Hundreds of them. It was amazing to see them dancing above the grass and flicker above the trees. I had never seen so many lights buzz on and off in a black field. We stopped to watch them for long while. “No matter what, this is ok,” I said to myself.
Back at the AirBnB, we got ourselves organized. We had a plan with Michelle who was dropping a bike off for Kéa in the morning and then joining us for a late afternoon lap in a local bike park. At 10 pm the phone rang. “I got it figured out. I’m swinging the Jeep back up to you.” Bryce and his chief mechanic spent a few hours swapping the old new drive shaft with another new one from a different manufacturer that he had ordered and didn’t return. I asked why the problem occurred in the first place with a brand-new part. The answer had to do with the build and a weld being out of balance and throwing the rotation of the shaft out of whack. It seemed good after the installation but clearly wasn’t right. The new one, currently installed in the Jeep, was better quality and rotated in balance.
I was highly skeptical and asked a lot of questions. It was late and I didn’t fully understand the what’s and why’s, but a test drive seemed to corroborate his story. The Jeep felt good, I just hoped it would last. I still have 1400 miles of sweating this thing out, and my safety nets are shredded to pieces. Bryce said to give it another test run tomorrow and to call him if anything seemed out of sorts. I had the extra day and needed to take it in for an oil change anyway. I returned to the in-law apartment, told Kéa we were “game-on,” and finally put myself to bed. It had been an extremely long day.
The next morning, Kéa and I awoke without alarms. We had provisioned the night before and had a breakfast of yogurt, granola, and fresh fruit. It was early and we decided to take the Jeep for a spin, put it through the paces and get the oil changed. The Jeep ran well, the guys changing the oil were only a little high on meth, and I felt confident planning a departure the next morning. Time to head back to the apartment and drink some coffee.
Michelle swung by at 9:45 am with a bike for Kea, and we set out for a father-daughter tour of the Slaughter Pen single track. It was good to be back on the bikes and we finished the morning lap with a bagel in town. The early afternoon was spent repacking the Jeep and making plans to soldier east into Kentucky. Michelle finished up work by four and met us for an afternoon lap in the Color trail system across town. All in all – a banner day. Tomorrow, we’ll attempt to make the 7 hour run to Paducah.
Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) moves on average 8.1 million people boarding and deplaning over 81,000 aircraft…in the month of July. On average. Excluding cargo aircraft. This is why Chicago O’Hare’s taxiways stretch into the Milwaukee suburbs. Flying into Chicago* yesterday morning, I’m pretty sure we landed somewhere north of the Wisconsin-Illinois state line. Overnight flight-time from Anchorage to ORD was a torturous six hours and 22 minutes. The taxi-time from Kenosha to Terminal 3 was a quick and painful 54 minutes. Our gate was occupied when we arrived for our first attempt connecting to a jetway. Tack on another 23 minutes while the offending American Airlines A-321 Airbus took their sweet time to push, and we spent close to nine hours in cramped airline seats at a time my body is generally used to being horizontal.
Red-eyes are just one of my many worst nightmares. The only upside is my inability to sleep on airplanes, making bad dreams impossible. Feeling like a Rohypnol victim, I made sure Kéa and I gathered everything we came with and staggered left from the aluminum tube into the jetway. I’ve never been roofied, but I’m convinced the flight attendants slip something into the beverage service on overnight flights. Luckily, there was time to recover. Our layover between arriving O’Hare and the flight to XNA Northwest Arkansas was a convenient eight hours.
Serendipitously, my childhood friend and partner in crime – TC – happened to be in Chicago. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area but spends a lot of time traveling around visiting girlfiends, one of whom lives about 10 minutes from ORD. I texted TC halfway into my jetway death march, and 15 minutes later he pulled up to the Terminal 3 departures curb in Gina’s blue BMW X3. Exactly 30 minutes after opening the forward cabin door, Kéa and I were comfortably relaxing in a beautiful suburban townhome sipping coffee and catching up on crazy. A quick nap on Gina’s couch, lunch al fresco at “The Countryside Saloon,” and perfectly pleasant weather was an ideal antidote for my jetlag. TC left us at the airport better than he found us, and was even kind enough to grant us enough time to walk, not run, to catch our Brazilian regional jet into Northwest Arkansas at 3pm.
Kéa was excited to see this Jeep. So much mystery and folklore surrounding a thoroughly troublesome conundrum of a machine. Our flight into Fayetteville was bumpy but uneventful and we landed on time at 5:30 pm. We found an Uber four minutes after exiting the small terminal and endured an uncomfortable digressive soliloquy on stimulus payments, right-to-work, God, and the myth of “The Covid.” Welcome to Arkansas. I assured Kéa that most people I’ve met while exploring this region were exemplary creatures and that unfortunately – lunacy knows no borders. I also reminded her to stay away from the words Pride, New England, Liberal, Faith, Yankee, God, Vaccine, and Democrat. Lastly, under any circumstance, never reveal the fact that we have ANY ties to California. Ever.
Pulling into Boss Hawg Offroad at 6 pm, our jeep with Alaska plates sat proudly awaiting our return. Sarah Palin aside, Alaska is a good place to be “from.” Everyone thinks you are just like them, only more “Alaskan,” whatever that means. I’ve spent a lifetime blending in and out of foreign (to me) customs and cultures. I’ve learned to duck contentious topics and pivot from politics to baseball, although baseball has the potential to become more volatile. It remains a very legitimate religion to many.
Bryce met us at the door and seemed genuinely happy to see us. That, or he just wanted the damn Jeep removed from the lot. Either way, I introduced Kéa to both Bryce and the Jeep. It took a few minutes to retrieve my bagged-up trophy Specialized Enduro mountain bike from Bryce’s back closet and wedge random items into the Jeep from an open tailgate. A light rain began to soak anything left unsheltered.
After writing a large check, Bryce tossed me the keys and we climbed into our ride. I maneuvered out of the driveway, excited to feel what driving a “brand new Jeep” was actually like. Turns out that driving a brand new Jeep is a lot like driving my fucked up piece of shit giant money pit drain of time and life-force garbage can of misery. Five hundred feet from Boss Hawg, Kéa and I watched the Jeep’s hood nearly rattle off its hinges as the front end shook worse than San Francisco in 1906. I flipped a U-ie and drove straight back to Bryce’s.
“I’m pretty sure this thing isn’t right,” I said as tempered as I could. “And I think you need to take this thing for another test drive.” With the engine running, Bryce jumped into the cockpit and rolled into the abyss. He disappears for an uncomfortably long duration. Inside the Jeep is my bike, my phone, my wallet…three passports and a couple of visas – no one knows my real name. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. We’ve just entered “Life During Wartime.”
At this point Bryce fell from Jeep God Lord of the Driveshaft to Sean Penn’s Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “My old man’s a television repairman. He’s got this ultimate set of tools. I can fix it.” Kéa and I wait in the rain and Bryce reappears. “That’s awful, dude.” Yeah. No shit Bryce. If I had a can of gas in my possession, I would have poured it over the hood, smoked a cigarette, and flicked the embers in a most accurate trajectory as I slowly walked away from my dumpster fire of a vehicle.
Once again, life is in limbo. Bryce, moonlighting as a taxi service, is nice enough to give us a lift to our AirBnB. It’s now 7:30 pm and he’s embarrassed. Promising to get this right, he told us he was headed straight back to the shop to solve this problem immediately. The Jeep drove like new after the repairs. There was no reason for it to be any different today than it was just weeks ago. Ramping up the intrigue, this Jeep is a 2009 with only 68,000 miles. It’s not even Fifteen.
Unless it hails from Scotland and comes in a bottle, all 15-year-olds suck. They are evil psychotic drama kings and queens somehow possessed for about a calendar year to torment the world around them. Throughout my 30-year coaching career observing the sophomore population, I avoid all things Fifteen…including whiskey. You just never know.
I was hoping to sneak in this father-daughter road trip before Kéa entered The Wonder (what the hell happened to you) Years. This isn’t the first time I’ve been on edge about certain parenting stages. A month before Kéa’s 13th birthday I warned her that this was it. After June 15th she would only be seeing me though a hateful scowl and break dishes in the sink when asked to clean up after herself. It was nice knowing her and we would likely pick up again in about 13 months. All 13-year-old girls are the origin of tyranny.
It didn’t happen. My daughter carried on like a proper 8th grader, weathered the early months of a Pandemic, finished middle school on-line, and didn’t complain or spew hate-dad speech. I was wrong. Certainly not the first time, and in regard to this subject, hopefully not the last.
I had carefully planned the Jeep trip east so that I would pick up my daughter in late May, explore some foreign states we’ve only flown over, arrive in New England, and safely return to Alaska before Kéa’s 15th birthday. I dodged a bullet at 13, but this transmogrification, like Cinderella at midnight starring in The Exorcist, was sure to come. We’re now 10 days into 15. I check Kéa’s neck each morning for stretch marks to ensure that her head has not made a full rotation above the shoulders. So far so good. I was a horrible 15-year-old evil psychotic drama king, and I’m praying the infliction skips a generation.
The Jeep is now repaired. A new front end, alignment, and drive shaft prompted Bryce to phone me up and tell me that it drives like a new Jeep. I want the Jeep to be happy. It’s had a lot of time to visit with other Jeeps and enjoy the Boss Hawg Off Road Spa. It should be well rested and ready to hit the road. Kéa and I fly to Chicago on Wednesday night, spend Thursday inside O’Hare, and catch a Brazilian regional jet operated by third party Envoy Air for second party American Eagle for first party American Airlines. The paint matches the big jets, though. One week from today, we’ll be in Arkansas.
Other than two nights in Bentonville to connect with Andy and Michelle, we don’t have a plan. Having been burned by missing reservations and refunds, I decided that we would book on the fly and ditch the itinerary. We’re targeting Paducah Kentucky on July 4th because we think maybe there will be room vacancies. I mean, why the hell would anyone go to Paducah, KY for the Fourth of July? Other than that, we’ll wander our way toward the Atlantic with the intent of being in Rhode Island no later than July 12th. I hope the Jeep likes 15-year-olds.
The rain moved in as advertised. Diana and Kéa left Alaska at 45F and sideways rain for Rhode Island at 45F and sideways rain. To say that I feel like I’m being followed by a dark cloud would be both accurate and an understatement. The Weather Channel is tracking my coordinates to better predict where the heavy stuff will come down. The girls pulled an all-nighter for a change of scenery. Little did they know that a change in climate would cost extra.
With 24 hours at 91 High Street, we were able to take stock of various needs and put together a summer to-do list. It would be long. First on the docket is the removal of an ancient fuel tank and the conversion of the house from oil heat to natural gas. National Grid, our local utility company, promised a gas line by late May, and now promise to “tentatively” have it started in the week ending July 31st. With this fantastic news I called Amerigas to have propane delivered for hot water and cooking. We had the oil burning furnace disconnected, because…you know, who needs heat in Southern Rhode Island over Memorial Day weekend? Oh wait.
Kéa’s plan was to power through the day, not nap, and cold turkey the jet lag. Diana was asleep by 10 am. Both methods proved effective, but Kéa struggled to get to 7 pm. Friday night’s dinner was a bowl of chowder from Phil’s just across the Saugatucket River, followed by ice cream at Brickley’s on Main Street. We didn’t have to worry about the ice cream melting. That could take days. The house was a raw 52 degrees on Saturday morning and our summer wardrobe was still wet from the walk back from dinner. Our train back to Boston wasn’t until 4 pm and we needed to find a dry place with food and heat.
The Mews Tavern provided the perfect venue and we held down a table with our cribbage board for a few hours while rain lashed at the windows. The day flowed forward with an Uber to Kingston, an Amtrak to Boston South Station, and a bus to Portsmouth. It would have been nice to have our own transportation, but…you know.
The plan was to meet Diana’s extended family in Rye Beach, NH and celebrate being together for the first time in two years over Memorial Day weekend at the beach. We ultimately made it to NH, but relentless weather kept us trapped inside all three days. I should have just asked everyone to meet me in Arkansas. There would be no beach. Strams being Strams, the family made the best of it with cards and decibels. Lots of decibels.
It’s now Wednesday. The sun came back just in time for our early departure and Joe, at 96 years young, gave us a ride to the bus station. We masked up, boarded the coach, and fought morning traffic into Logan. We’re currently at 36,000 feet over Minnesota and eager to return to 45 degrees and rain. I have no idea if or when I’ll see this Jeep again, but at some point I’ll need to return to Arkansas to retrieve my trophy bike. I’m sure Bryce misses me.