Heading home

The ninth and final installment of Summer 2015: Roadtrip to the Heartland.

We emerged from our suburban hotel at a surprisingly efficient 8:30am. Surely a new trip record for the Johnsons, undoubtedly attributed to the hour gained since leaving Michigan. We ate cereal out of cardboard bowls (which I just happened to find under my seat yesterday, three weeks later), supported yet another mediocre Starbucks, and hit the road.

It was to be a difficult day of driving as we were due for another close encounter with North Dakota. We made it as far as Fargo before I felt the need to get out of the car. Although, now that I think of it, we may have pulled off at a rest stop near the Minnesota border for one of the boys to go to the bathroom. Or maybe that was before Jamestown. Or all of the above. Who can recall?

The professor googled ‘best coffee in Fargo’ and the Red Raven Espresso Parlor popped up in the search results. So we drove through unknown streets in search of an algorithm’s idea of suitable caffeine.

We stopped, briefly, in the parking lot of an auto repair shop, to verify we were on the right street, when the Gort looked up, saw the words ‘auto repair’ and despaired, ‘oh, no, what do we have to replace now?!’ [For in addition to the Missouri alternator emergency, we’d also kitted out our Sienna with a brand-new Indiana muffler.] It was to be the funniest moment in all seven days of driving.

Which is sad, really.

We stopped for coffee. Which led to a stop for burgers. And then we hit the road to Jamestown where we stopped for an emergency bag of m&m’s at the world’s scariest looking grocery store. And there was another stop after that for gas and a Subway sandwich for somebody’s dinner.

When the professor said, at the beginning of our return trip, that he was saying goodbye to happy Nicola, he really meant he was saying goodbye to happy everyone. For the atmosphere in the car on the tail end of every one of these trips is always charged. High levels of irritability mix with exhaustion and abnormal blood sugar levels in decidedly unpleasant ways, and we have no choice but to endure it; the journey and one another.

As we headed towards the border, which had me feeling slightly anxious on account of our previous encounter with America’s finest, I suddenly panicked that it might be closed by the time we got there. I envisioned us having to drive to another point of entry, or possibly spend the night in the car. Luckily, that particular crossing point turned out to be open 24 hours a day. I suppose we should add it to the list of things to investigate: border crossing hours of operation. If we ever intend to make this roadtrip again.

My memory is somewhat hazy, nearly a month later, but this is an approximate account of our exchange with customs:

Where are you coming from: Indiana

How long were you there: One month

What were you doing: Visiting Family

Value of any purchases: Maybe two hundred bucks

Have a good day.

Oh, Canada.

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I couldn’t help but think of the Gort’s panicked conclusion from several days earlier, upon nearly being run over by a motorcycle in the South Beach parking lot: ‘we need to go back to Canada! It’s safer there.’

I don’t know about safer, but pedestrians do have the right of way. And border agents don’t seem overly suspicious of kids having passports.

We rolled into Regina at a surprisingly decent time, meaning: notmidnight. And fell asleep in a relatively undramatic fashion, meaning: noonescreamedforthirtyminutesplus. It was, what I like to call, a roadtrip miracle.

The next morning we awoke, ready for the last stretch to Calgary through some of the flattest, most unexciting land in the history of flat and unexciting land. I consulted Google to lead me to my morning coffee and as we drove through downtown Regina, I found myself thinking: Regina is not half bad.

It may be a side effect of driving 8153 kilometers, my thinking that relocating to any university town with the potential to reduce our overall driving time, would be awesome.

Or maybe, as Bill Bryson suggests in his book The Lost Continent, I’m on a perpetual search to find ‘the perfect town’ that seems only to exist in mid-century film and literature. After leaving Regina, we drove through the hamlet of Moose Jaw and stopped in Swift Current, which surprised me with signs for a Saturday farmer’s market and a newly opened independent coffee shop.

But despite its slightly closer proximity to Indiana, I did not contemplate – even for a second – moving there.

The last couple of hours of the trip always hold a bit of excitement as the boys start calculating what time we might get to Calgary; anticipating the fun of being home, with their toys and in their own beds. And the professor’s spirits lift a bit, too, as he anticipates a day in the very near future where he will not have to spend more than fifteen minutes in the car. And I imagine my own bed. Getting my clothes out of a closet or a dresser. Making my own coffee and eating real food.

Just after 4:30pm, we ran from the car, through a rainstorm, into our little white house. After being gone for 33 days and sleeping in 13 different beds. My basil plant had shriveled to a brittle outline of its former self (good thing I stayed up to make pesto the night before we left), and the colorful orange planters I’d bequeathed to Mother Nature, had died a severe and painful-looking death.

But we were home, and that was more than sufficient. We ate french toast and bacon and crawled into bed at a relatively decent hour. The next morning the professor emerged from the shower looking especially handsome, and as I tried to pinpoint the reason, I realized it was because he was wearing a t-shirt and pair of jeans I hadn’t seen every day for the last 5 weeks.

The boys were back to the business of being a trio, playing Lego in the basement and at the coffee table, as though the trip had never happened. While I got back in the car to address the empty fridge and pantry and the chipped windshield North Dakota had given us as a parting gift.

I think about it often when we do any trip, but especially these marathons – the difference in being a parent versus being a kid. The cleaning, the packing, the laundry, the arrangements, the driving, figuring out food and paying for it all…just how much work it is to make memories.

For the adults, it’s brutal with a side of awesome. And for the boys, it’s awesome with a side of brutal.

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The Warriors

Eight installments down. One to go. 

Exactly one month from the day we first got in the car to drive southeast, we got back in the car to drive northwest.

A friend living in Wyoming had invited us to stop there on our way back. I was all set to accept her invitation, as in: I’d already typed the words, ‘yes, we’ll do it!’ when I realized driving straight west would add seven hours to our return trip. I could handle a seven hour detour….on the front end of the trip. But I could not handle seven extra hours in the car….on the way back.

If nothing else, our stop in Yellowstone, circa 2011, had taught me that much.

So I declined very apologetically and we set our sights on the shortest, most direct route: Minneapolis. Regina, Saskatchewan. Calgary.

We hugged our family members goodbye……and then the professor hugged me. Which I found odd, considering we were going to be spending the next three days in very close quarters. ‘I’m saying goodbye….to happy Nicola,’ he explained.

Fair enough.

We drove away from South Haven and, somewhat apologetically, steered our old and tired van onto Highway 31. Maybe cars don’t have feelings, like fatigue, but I find myself feeling sorry for our little Sienna. Approximately 3 minutes after hitting the highway, the tire pressure light glowed orange on the dashboard. Surely, a new trip record.

We pulled off at a gas station and the professor checked something and hit a button and then we started driving again, crossing our fingers that would be the end of it.

Already at the orange alert level of despair, I decided I needed to find better-than-swill coffee to get me through Chicago. Some people have smart phones with out-of-country data plans and coffee-finding apps. I have a sister. I texted her to inquire about good-coffee possibilities in St. Joseph or New Buffalo. And, albeit with a slight time delay, she steered me to the latter town’s David’s Delicatessen. Complete with driving directions.

We bought one final Sunday edition of the New York Times, just to clutter up our filled-to-the-brim car, and a couple of coffees and climbed back in the car to navigate the maze of highways and traffic that define Chicago, past Kid-Vegas (Wisconsin Dells) to the land of 10,000 lakes.

The professor and I used to live in Minneapolis many moons ago. We made the drive through Chicago, past Madison dozens of times. And yet, on this, the first day of our trip home, in what was to become another of the mind-boggling, brainless moments that seemed to define Roadtrip 2015, we somehow missed the Madison exit and drove straight to Milwaukee instead.

As far as navigational malfunctions go, it wasn’t the worst, but when you’ve already driven six thousand some kilometers, you don’t want to drive even one unnecessary kilometer. Unless it’s for a donut or an iced coffee. And even then, it’s 50-50.

Like our meander through Kid-Vegas. Based on my memory of previous drives, I felt confident that I-90/94 was void of any easily accessed Starbucks chains. But when we got to the last Wisconsin Dells exit, we saw the telltale green and white logo on an exit sign. Naturally we veered off. Not because we like Starbucks all that much. But because it is a beacon of comfort and security; offering a momentary respite against the cruel world of asphalt and highway signs and gross fast food chains.

Except, when we got to the stop sign, the arrow pointing to Starbucks had some crucial small print underneath it: 2mi thataway. I was fully prepared to steer the car-van back onto the highway for, believe it or not, we have a fairly strict rule about only stopping at places that can be seen from the highway (unless, of course, we’re talking about a Whole Foods or something awesome.) ‘Oh, let’s just go. What’s two miles,’ the professor sighed and so, against my better judgement, we headed east. For the longest two mile drive known to man, that featured the least accessible Starbucks in the history of coffee chains. Where we sat in the drive-thru for a tears-inducing amount of time.

Though I despised my venti iced coffee, I still drank it.

Eventually, despite detours and stupid stops, we made it to Minneapolis. Driving along the curve of I-94 near ‘the U’, I thought back to my coffee-drinking, graduate school days when we had no kids and lived in a little bungalow. And I had a monthly pass at a downtown parking garage because it was the cheapest place to park my car while I was at class.

It struck me as very grown-up and light years removed from my current life, having a monthly pass at a parking garage.

Our resting place for the night was in some far western suburb, near the highway we’d be taking on our way to Saskatchewan. But first we had to acquire some provisions for our next day’s journey. And there was the matter of dinner. And ‘naturally’ this could only be remedied by stopping at the Whole Foods near Lake Calhoun.

We cut through Uptown on Hennepin Avenue, past the long-gone Blockbuster where we used to rent movies on Friday nights. So many new restaurants and coffee shops keeping company next to places we used to frequent. Like D’Amico & Sons, where the Balsamic Chicken Salad with Strawberries is still on the menu after all these years.

After the boys had eaten something that resembled real food, we headed over to Lake Calhoun to stretch our legs and feel something besides air conditioning on our skin. It was a beautiful night and people were out; walking, running, sitting at picnic tables with friends. The sun was just beginning its descent and the lake, dotted with sailboats, glowed.

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Yes, I pretty much follow them around and take pictures of their backs. 

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Va-cation!

Minneapolis really might be the perfect place to live, with its lakes, trees, architecture, vibrancy, and natural beauty. If you’re able to set aside the brutally cold winters. And the way too humid summers. And there’s the matter of the never-ending road construction projects. Truly it feels like something from FDR’s New Deal – are they just working on roads to create jobs for people?

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Aspiring American Ninja Warriors

I could have stayed at the lake for hours. But the boys were dying to find our hotel so they could watch American Ninja Warrior. They’d discovered the show on our last night in Michigan (six years after the fact) and it had become their only topic of conversation. In the car. Running to the play structures at the lake. Jumping onto rock-hard sand from a six-foot-high ledge. The surprised look on my middle would-be warrior’s face as he hit the sand suggested he hadn’t quite thought it through.

While the boys were glued to the hotel television screen, watching insane feats of strength, I readied everything for our earliest-possible departure the next morning. I marveled at how things had changed in the seven years we’d been making the journey to the heartland, recalling some very late nights of kids screaming in hotel rooms while exhausted parents struggled to retain their sanity.

And then the professor turned off the light right in the middle of Fat Guys in the Woods. And somebody completely lost it. And I thought, ‘maybe not.’

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Calgon take me away

Va-cation.

The seventh installment of, what was it called again? Take heart, there should only be one more. 

‘Do you want to go [fishing],’ my sister surveyed my level of interest for her proposed activity.

It was day five of our vacation. Everything I owned was covered in a thin layer of sand and I’d spent more time in a bathing suit during those days than in all of the previous two, maybe three years combinedMy level of enthusiasm for making memories had been greatly diminished from four weeks of living out of a duffel bag and the vaguely nagging feeling that had begun consuming me; a growing reminder that the drive all the way back to Calgary was imminent.

‘I really don’t want to go [fishing] at all,’ I finally spoke up, ‘but I know the boys will enjoy it.’ Which is really the ultimate litmus test for any vacation activity. And why we climbed in the car and drove forty-ish minutes to the Wolf Lake Hatchery so the boys and their cousins could try their hand at catching and releasing small fish. For twenty minutes.

After all, vacation is really for the children.

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Eleven of us had been staying in South Haven, Michigan in a rented house a couple of blocks from ‘downtown’, just shy of a mile’s walk from local South Beach.

Barring the noisy main road that ran right outside one of the bedrooms, it was a pretty good set-up, more than adequate for our goals which were the same goals anyone vacationing with young children might have: keep kids alive, keep parents alive, wear kids out sufficiently so there is at least one hour between the time kids finally fall asleep and parents peel themselves off the couch to go to bed.

We had talked, briefly, about the possibility of renting paddle boards or kayaks, but Lake Michigan had assumed a slightly oceanic state, with choppy water, rolling waves and red flags hanging ominously from wooden posts on the beach, for most of our stay. We could only assume this would not pair well with our nonexistent paddling-kayaking skills.

Thus our water-based activities amounted to: going to the beach twice each day, carefully placing blankets on the sand that nobody sat on for more than two consecutive minutes, and keeping track of six children. Staying just long enough to justify the energy expended in getting everyone ready to go to the beach, finding a spot and setting up our space, and packing it all up again.

Daytrips weren’t really a priority – much as I’d secretly hoped to see three-hours-away Sleeping Bear Dunes – on account of the three days’ driving looming on the approaching horizon. But we did drive to Saugatuck one morning for coffee followed by a few hours at the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, where the beach was smaller than we remembered it and biting, black flies followed us wherever we went. Along with a slightly suspicious odor of possibly decaying animal flesh.

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But, before you cross it off your list! If you are the type of person who likes a fifteen, err twenty-five minute walk through a beautiful forest spilling out onto an uncrowded beach, this is the place for you. Me. For maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t like sitting an arm’s length away from terra-cotta-colored strangers wearing what amounts to brightly colored underwear.

Addendum: vacation is really for the children and people watching. 

It’s how I amuse myself everywhere I go, staring at people, mesmerized by their clothes and hair, trying to figure out a tiny bit of their stories. Like is the young-looking married woman setting up a tent on the beach, the mom of the teenager standing beside her? Or is it her sister?

Are the gray-haired women walking along the water, both wearing denim shorts and black shirts, one thin and wiry and the other plump, a couple? Or just old friends?

Is the prematurely grey, late-twentysomething man that we saw at sunset one night, walking hand in hand with a young blonde woman, actually on vacation with his parents? A theory I developed two days later, at sunset, when I spied him sitting next to us on the beach.

‘At sunset’ being a legitimate event in the life of any beach town, as it turns out.

Last year when we stayed on the Oregon coast, people quietly emerged from our Truman Show-esque housing development each night to gather at the top of the beach and watch the sun go down. I assumed it was an Oregon thing, until the professor and I walked down to the beach on our first night in South Haven, and found hordes of people sitting along the pier, on the beach, on the grass by the yacht club; all coming out to watch that orange ball slip into the water.

It never gets old.

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We were strolling within the two block radius that is downtown South Haven one morning, on a very brief and fruitless jaunt in search of good coffee, when we walked past a mom who’d clearly had it with the preschooler sitting in her stroller. She used ‘the monster voice’ as the professor likes to call it, battling to keep the stroller tray in place while the less-than-stellar preschooler fought to fling it into the air. ‘That’s it,‘ she fumed, ‘I’ve had it with you.’

‘Va-cation,’ I sang, referencing that Seinfeld episode where George Costanza made up a signature jingle for himself: Co-stanza.

It proved a useful, smile-inducing addition to the myriad of scenarios that present themselves when engaged in the enterprise that is vacation. Kids waking up before 7am every day? Forced family photos with unhappy children? Unable to take your son kayaking because the water’s too choppy? Taking six children fishing and everybody catches a fish except one, bitterly unhappy child?

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Va-cation!

On our last morning there, my sister and I walked to the beach for an 8am yoga class. It had been approximately ten months since my last attempt at a downward-facing dog, but I had high hopes the one hour session would give me a sufficient amount of zen to make it through ‘the drive’. The fact that I’m trying to quantify zen might indicate a fundamental lack of understanding of what it actually is.

Yoga-on-the-beach might be the perfect metaphor for vacation with children.

What could be better? Being quiet, standing on the sand and staring out at the water….while trying to contort your body in ways it resents. Lying down for a well-earned shavasana, after an hour of bending and holding; the possibility of drifting off to sleep tantalizingly within reach.

Except for the one trillion particles of sand boring tiny holes into your back.

Sitting in the car on the drive back, the zen having left me within the first fifteen minutes, I could still feel the sand in my back.

Livin’ the Dream

The public (read: one former neighbor) has demanded a sixth installment to Summer 2015: Roadtrip to the Heartland.

Roughly twelve hours after pulling into town we found ourselves having dinner with friends. At my mom’s house. With food she just happened to have at the ready. Other than a freezer full of chicken carcasses, I don’t have anything ‘at the ready’.

I think my contribution to the meal, which I’d initiated, was stirring a pot of curry and spooning rice onto people’s plates. It’s the only kind of entertaining that can be done after spending four days in the car on too little sleep.

The adults were talking around the table, having a conversation that was both easy and meaningful, while the kids ran around outside with other kids they didn’t even know, eating watermelon, being consumed by mosquitoes and catching frogs. Many, many frogs. Which I found both endearing and repulsive.

But, jumpy amphibians aside, it was exactly what I’d wanted for my boys: an idyllic fiction-worthy version of summer (less, perhaps, 30 mosquito bites). It was the reason we made this year’s stay a week longer. So they could be immersed in Americana, to have a frame of reference for this land below Canada beyond their passports and seven days in the car every other year.

I’d envisioned the boys wilting in the midwestern humidity, catching fireflies, learning how to play tennis, playing with cousins and spending time with grandparents and aunts and uncles.

And, as I sit here now, back in Calgary at the end of five long weeks, having avoided my car like the plague, I can’t help but think: mission accomplished. Cousins. Grandparents. Aunts and Uncles. Frogs and fireflies. Tennis. Building projects. Swimming. Fishing. Ice cream. Donuts. Movies. Kid-free time. Truly, we ticked all the boxes this summer.

I am flooded with memories whenever we make these trips to the Heartland, for Indiana has been a part of my vocabulary for such a long time. When I take the boys to get donuts at the local shop (I’m very partial to their apple fritter) it’s with the realization that I’ve been buying donuts there since 1990. Long before they started selling neon-colored popcorn. And added a second location.

When I walk in to the Mexican restaurant I always feel compelled to frequent, despite the inevitable regret that follows, I think of past meals with smaller versions (and fewer) of our boys; the oil-stained chips and the black saucers of watery salsa. The shredded iceberg lettuce that I never eat and the pool of pale refried beans dotted with cheese that gradually seeps into the lettuce.

And when I drove the boys to tennis camp all the way out in the boonies, I ‘naturally’ found myself making very awkward small talk with a girl I haven’t seen since prom night, 1992; whilst spying another high school classmate across the way, and a girl I used to know, who had her second child a week before the Hen was born. Despite being due after me.

I swear I’m not still bitter about that.

On our way to spending time with the professor’s side of the family, we stopped at the iconic, small town ice cream place beloved for their large portions, the 100 different milkshakes and sundaes and the strawberry shortcakes teetering with berries, vanilla soft serve and whipped creamBecause you need both, of course.

As I stood in line with the professor, waiting to place our order, I saw my former high school principal sitting at a table with his family. And later, a former cheerleader who graduated the year before me. As a person who has lived in a lot of places, I am slightly mesmerized by people whose lives have kept them in the same place.

If you asked the boys to name the highlight of the month-long visit they will say ‘cousins’, followed by ‘grandparents’ and maybe, if pressed to name something else, ‘swimming’ or ‘the beach.’ But mostly they relished running around with their network of kid-relatives.

It’s why we go. So they can have memories of making fires and watching VHS cartoon tapes in the basement of a vacation rental, of catching their first fish, of building a treehouse (ship) on their grandparents’ sprawling property and hammering nails into birdhouses and riding in the back of the pick-up truck with their grandpa at the wheel.

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Mere days after we’d made the cross-country trek, we got back in the car for a quick overnight trip to Chicago, where the boys indulged in the Legoland Discovery Centre with some of their cousins, while the professor and I enjoyed a kid-free brunch at Lula Cafe.

I’ve visited Chicago countless times over the years and every time I go, I think: we should live here. I love its beautiful brownstone buildings. And the neighborhoods, dense with enormous, sturdy trees.

Having scored free street parking, we ambled through tree-lined Logan Square to our hipster brunch joint, frequented by people who looked like they’d clothed themselves from the reject pile at Goodwill. After putting our names on the waitlist, I pulled out the Sunday edition of the New York Times that we only ever buy when in America. Lo and behold, our table was ready before I’d even read an article: a Sunday brunch miracle! We ate food that was both interesting and good and on our way back to the car, walked right through an outdoor farmer’s market. Casual, bordering-on-slapdash in its organization, every stall had something I wanted to buy.

I scanned the tree-lined boulevard for for-sale signs and wondered if the public schools were any good. And then we got in our car and spent thirty, forty minutes to drive nodistanceatall. And, just like that, as happens every single time I visit, I cancelled the moving truck I’d mentally reserved.

Sorry, Chicago.

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After three weeks of Indiana-living, leaving an undetermined number of our belongings in any of the seven places we’d lain our heads, and trying to figure out how to squeeze an entire box of books and an office chair into our already-crammed vehicle, we headed north to South Haven, Michigan.

For a vacation from our vacation.

To hopefully summon the strength for The Great Return 2015.

The Wrong Everything

The fifth installment in this interminable series.

After a decent night’s sleep at the Stony-something Inn in Kansas City, and hearing my oldest son pronounce their preservative-laden, cellophane wrapped muffins ‘the best muffins I’ve ever had’, we cleaned and repacked the car again and got on our merry way. Via a slight detour for Krispy Kreme: attempt number two.

This time we struck gold. We practically ran inside only to find a rather lengthy line of Kansas City youth – undoubtedly part of a camp – waiting for their chance at sweet, hot grease. We waited patiently, formulating our orders while two teenaged girls stepped in front of us to access their iphones plugged into the wall. It struck me as one of those ‘signs of the times’ moments, this habit people have of commandeering any available electrical outlet, no matter its location, so they can charge their lifeline phone.

‘I don’t care what you’re getting, I’m getting a dozen plain,’ the professor decided, swayed from common sense by the sight of hot donuts transported on a conveyor belt. The inner workings of a Krispy Kreme really are mesmerizing.

‘Free sample?’ a store employee asked as she handed over hot donuts to happy customers. ‘This is the best donut I’ve ever had,’ the Gort insisted. Except this time he was kind of right. A hot Krispy Kreme is hard to beat.

We climbed in the car with a box of Krispy Kreme’s finest, along with a bag of ‘other’ donuts, a car full of gas and a standardized Starbucks coffee in the cup holder; basically living the roadtrip dream. On this, our last day of driving, we were headed to Indiana with a stop in St. Louis to spend some time at the City Museum.

Or so we thought.

Roughly three hours into our uneventful trip, perhaps shortly after I’d silently marvelled at how well it was all going, I noticed the car shaking and the professor sporting a weird look on his face. ‘What’s going on,’ I asked when I realized he wasn’t just being a terrible driver. ‘This light came on and the power steering quit,’ he might have said, as he began steering the car over to the side of the road. I had visions of us sitting on a very hot highway for hours on end and counselled him, loudly, to try and get to the next exit which was just a short distance ahead.

This resulted in some ‘differences of opinion’, but I felt confident I would be better placed to handle whatever was about to happen from the comfort of an air conditioned gas station slash McDonald’s in the metropolis of Wright City, Missouri.

An alternator, that’s what happened. But let’s not dwell on the horrendous exchange rate and the labor charge for car repairs on a holiday weekend. Let’s talk instead about how handy it was to weather this mechanical storm sitting at a McDonald’s while the boys watched the latest ‘A Night at the Museum’ procured from the Red Box conveniently located on the premises.

Say what you will about America, but it excels at convenience.

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Seeing as the laptop was occupied and the wifi was dodgy, I spent my three hours eating a McChicken sandwich, studying the convenience store’s inventory (Missouri wines, who knew?!) and wondering if we’d be better off buying the Toyota Sequoia at the used car dealer next door. Luckily the car-truck was white, so I didn’t have to seriously consider parting with thousands of dollars, getting rid of my Sienna or dealing with the hassle of importing a vehicle.

For some reason I can’t explain I don’t like white cars.

Three hours later we were back on the road, a mere 50 miles from our destination of fun. We arrived just in time for the City Museum and the awesome coffee shop my sister had told me about……to close. There was a momentary debate about whether or not we should bother trying to take the boys to see ‘The Arch’. I don’t even like the Arch, or care about it in any way, but for reasons I can’t explain – and especially since we’d missed both the Arch and the world famous barbeque in 2013 – I felt like it was our parental duty to show the boys this landmark.

Is now a good time to mention that the driver’s window in the car is also highly unreliable? And when it’s rolled down, say when the driver is paying for parking at a city lot, it will refuse to roll back up. (Is ‘roll’ the correct word when referring to the press of a button? Whatever, just add it to a growing list of small humiliations and sources of arguments.)

As ‘luck’ would have it, there is some extensive construction happening around the Arch and in order to see it up close, one has to walk about a mile from Google-suggested Laclede’s Landing. This doesn’t sound particularly challenging but when attempting it in the throes of marital discord, accompanied by three boys in various states of unhappiness, surrounded by midwestern humidity, I assure you it’s the equivalent of running a marathon. Especially when you’re not that jazzed about the thing you’re walking towards.

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‘Funny’ thing, the picture I like best from the whole experience is the one I took a few blocks from my car. 

We walked to the piece of bent metal. And we walked some more. And we endured bitter complaints and heat. I couldn’t help but notice that I was seeing a disproportionate number of people with abnormally low stature along the way. ‘Does St. Louis have a significant population of ‘little people’?’ I wondered.

And then I walked into a Starbucks inside a Hyatt hotel and saw the signs: ‘Welcome to the Little People of America Conference’. The entire hotel lobby was filled with little people. More than the Arch, I suspect this will be one of the memories the boys retain from the trip.

We walked on, snapping countless photos of the bent metal while the professor muttered things like ‘oh that Saarinen, he was just so good.’

And then we walked back to the car with the mostly rolled up window, but not before the professor encountered a reasonably well-dressed panhandler smelling of marijuana, and gave him $20 because he thought he was homeless.

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I hopped in the driver’s seat and texted my mom that we were leaving St. Louis; a mere 5 hours away from where she lives, most of it along I-70. On the road, we talked about dinner and what we might eat, praying for signs of a Chipotle Grill along the way. The sun was particularly beautiful and I found myself staring at it, urging the boys to do the same. We made offhanded remarks about the lack of signs, both speed limit and road identification, and at some point the professor concluded we were not actually on I-70 but traveling north on I-55 towards Chicago.

Areyoufreakingkiddingme.

It is a well-known fact – starting with that time, 15 or 16 years ago, we were about to return to Minneapolis from my mom’s house with one or two rottweilers and I locked the keys in the trunk and the professor calmly walked back into the house to lie down on the couch while we waited for a locksmith – that he is much nicer about stupid mistakes than I. To that end, he just sighed, pulled out the map and figured out where we needed to get off 55 so as to minimize the impact of my faux pas.

Sometime after dark, when the boys were asleep, we pulled off to stop for gas and saw a sign for Jimmy John’s – the sandwich shop with the soft french bread and the late hours – next to a gas station. (We never did find a Chipotle and I refused to eat at McDonald’s twice in one day.) We missed our turn and drove through some back alleys in order to get to the right spot. The professor filled up the car while I went inside to buy sandwiches. I sensed right away that something wasn’t quite right. The usual sandwich-making accoutrements were conspicuously absent and two employees wearing black shirts were closing down what appeared to be a mini liquor store. ‘Is Jimmy John’s closed?’ I asked hesitatingly. They gave me a weird look.

‘No, I think they’re still open over there,’ one of them finally spoke up, motioning with her hands to the place across the street. With all our back alley driving we’d stopped where we thought we needed to be without bothering to check we were at the right place.

There was a definite moment where I had to consider whether I had begun the descent into insanity. Fortunately it did not diminish the taste of my #6 Vegetarian in any way.

Courtesy of yet another time change and the slightly longer route, it was after 2am when we finally arrived at my mom’s house. A chocolate cake sat on the counter, and the boys nattered excitedly, despite the hour. The house was quiet and tidy without a trace of bad-hotel-smell and there were, quite literally, chocolates on our pillows.

It was like an oasis in the asphalt-desert.

And even better, we wouldn’t have to load our bleeping bags into the bleeping van six hours later.

The Nothings

The fourth installment of Summer 2015’s Return to the Heartland series.

The day before we left the land of maple leaves and sorry’s, I found myself at the community centre nearby, volunteering for a Canada Day event. On a whim, I peeked inside the ‘little library’ which hosts a perpetually rotating selection of books, free for the taking.

There were old issues of Reader’s Digest and National Geographic and really nothing that warranted my investing energy into removing a book and carrying it home. Then the title of one paperback caught my eye: ‘The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America.’ Upon reading the summary on the back cover – Bill Bryson returns to America to revisit the land of his youth, only to discover he’d become a foreigner in his own country – I was sold.

I figured the professor and I could read the book simultaneously and have something to talk about during our seven days of entrapment. Somehow this turned into me reading four chapters aloud during our drive. Despite our lack of progress, Bill Bryson gave us some laughs in those chapters with his observations of small town life and mindset; ones we’d reference periodically throughout our trip.

What we didn’t know when we took our leave of Jake and the Fatman, is that their inquisition would not be the only hiccup in our journey to the heartland.

We plowed through the nothing of Montana (taking great pains to avoid the ‘two-foot drop-offs’) directly into the more-nothing of North Dakota. No offense to North Dakota, but driving west to east through the entire state in one day is not a feat one needs to take on more than once in a lifetime. I believe the risk of expiring from boredom is very real.

This is my conundrum with these long, dull drives. They are so long and dull that you have to get out of the car, just to survive, and the more you get out of the car, just to breathe, set foot on terra firma, buy more chips with which to drown your sorrows, or see something that has the potential to be possibly interesting….well the longer that long, dull drive takes.

This might be why we were traipsing around Bismarck at 8pm on a Friday night looking for a pizza place I’d read about on a food blog. Despite the fact that we were still six hours away from our evening’s goal destination: Sioux Falls, South Dakota. (Even writing that makes me want to weep with despair. And I’ve already lived through it.)

It was like stepping into a pizza oven, entering Fireflour that night. The door was propped open which did virtually nothing to alleviate the block of heat squatting in the small space like an oversized piece of restaurant equipment.

We ordered pizzas and walked around the block a few times while we waited. When we returned the pizzas weren’t quite ready so we ordered coffee at the adjacent coffee bar. ‘You’re drinking espresso this time of night?’ The server slash barista inquired. ‘Are you crazy?’ ‘We’re driving,’ I clarified. Even though it’s the same thing.

I have a vague recollection of passing post-pizza time in the car singing ‘Oh Canada’ and trying to teach the boys ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. And, when that one failed, ‘God Bless America.’ For we had a 4th of July date in Kansas City, Missouri at the Royals-Twins baseball game, complete with post-game fireworks, and the professor felt the boys needed to know some of the words of the national anthem.

In order to make it to our next day’s destination, we needed to get to South Dakota on this, our second day of driving. Sioux Falls – a mere 13.5 hours from Grasslands National Park – was the initial goal. And Sioux City, Iowa, an hour further south, had been the ‘dream’.

But then we couldn’t cross the border until 9am, and got detained by our own people for the roadtrip equivalent of 52 miles and all my tentatively laid plans had subsequently gone off the rails.

I begged the professor to let us stay overnight in three-hours-away Fargo, as my eyelids were already letting me know that they did not have a late night of driving in them. He was resolute, looking for a hotel and doing the driving math on his phone, telling me how early we’d have to get up the next morning just to make it to the game on time, while I struggled to keep the car on the road.

It was Adam and Eve all over again. Except, of course, Adam didn’t have a smartphone or access to Expedia and Google Maps.

This might be the perfect time to pause and ask the obvious question: ‘why don’t you book a hotel ahead of time?’ The short and unwitty answer is a mixture of ‘lack of adequate internet access’ and ‘the inevitability of things not going according to plan on long, cross-country drives.’

Mostly we don’t want to book a hotel somewhere, experience some roadside disaster and then be forced to drive until the wee hours of dawn just to get there. Even though that is precisely what we did, arriving at the marital compromise, slightly scary Ramkota Inn in Watertown, South Dakota around 2:30am.

After a few hours of terrible slumber at the Ramkota, we forced ourselves to get up, repack and clean the car and get out of Dodge at the earliest hour we seem to leave a place: 9:30am. We stopped at a Caribou Coffee for our morning’s caffeine and purchased a couple of the greasy Hardee’s breakfast sandwiches we remembered from our youth.

The professor had muttered the words ‘Krispy Kreme’ under his breath, in a desperate sort of voice and I’d suggested he acquire the app identifying Krispy Kreme locations. He downloaded it onto his phone and informed me that, in Iowa, we were going to drive within minutes of a doughnut heaven location.

We began salivating at the prospect of a hot circle of grease, counting down the minutes until we’d be there. Only to discover, as we searched in vain for the necessary exit, that the promised road was not accessible from the highway we were driving on. It was but a minor blow as these things go, but when you’re essentially living in your car, even the little disappointments seem big.

We made it to Kansas City a few hours before the game was to start. I gathered my list of must-try restaurants and coffee shops and we drove to the famous Joe’s Barbeque. We pulled up to what looked like a gas station trimmed in hunter green paint, but GPS insisted we were at the right spot. Sure enough ‘Joe’s Kansas City BBQ‘ the sign proclaimed. I imagined the world famous barbeque that would soon be mine….and then I noticed there were no cars in the parking lot.

Closed.

A Jeep with Florida plates pulled in shortly after us. ‘They might have driven farther than us to get here,’ the professor muttered. But I knew in my heart it wasn’t possible. [Calgary to Kansas City, via Val Marie: 25 hours….Miami to Kansas City: 21 hours.]

No matter, I had ten more restaurants on my list. So we drove to the next best barbeque restaurant in Kansas City.

Closed.

We looked at the website of the fancy coffee shop I’d been dreaming about.

Closed.

Apparently Kansas City takes its Fourth of July celebrations seriously. Except for the Mexican restaurants where people were sitting on patios drinking margaritas and having a great time. We should have just eaten at one of them. After all, the Johnsons love Mexican food. But I had my list. And nothing was working out the way I’d hoped. And I was still trying to redeem Summer 2013’s trip through Kansas City when we’d also failed to procure world famous barbeque.

We drove to the game. Parked the car. And found the concession area. There were, of course, many different stands so we split up – the professor to get barbeque and french fries with two of the boys and I to get pizza and a pretzel with another. The lines were long and we were all starving, having skipped lunch on account of the world famous barbeque.

I finally got to the front of the line. ‘Our credit card system is down, we can only take cash.’ It was the sort of information, in this automated day and age, that needed to be communicated…publicly…in advance.

The professor ran in search of an ATM while I stood back with the boys. He returned eventually with American dollars and we resumed standing in our respective lines. I got to the front of the line. ‘One pizza please.’ The cashier eyed me skeptically, ‘we don’t sell pizza here.’ I looked up confused, having seen several people carrying small cardboard boxes containing pizza.

I’d inadvertently stood in the beer and nacho line.

I got back in the right line and waited my turn. ‘I’d like a cheese pizza and a pretzel please,’ I requested when it was finally my turn.’We’re out of pizza at the moment.’

I stared back at the cashier in disbelief, seconds away from falling apart under the weight of repeated disappointment and low blood sugar. ‘This is the worst day of my life,’ I heard myself saying to the dumbfounded employee in the polo shirt. And walked away with a pretzel and frozen lemonade.

Too late to hear the Star Spangled Banner, but just in time for a celebratory flyover of unidentified aircraft that rattled the building. And my heart.

The game proceeded in the manner of all baseball games, hours spent sitting in tiny chairs, unable to turn or cross legs without fear of kicking the person in front of you. But the stadium had wifi. We’d eaten food of dubious quality. And my men-folk were happy. Though they took cheering for the Twins amid a sea of Royals’ fans a little too seriously for my people pleasing self.

Several hours later, the Twins managed to win and the fireworks show began along with a musical montage of patriotic songs with a strong country music bent. ‘That’s what it’s all about,’ one dad stage-whispered to his two children in a strong Missouri twang, ‘freedom and liberty.’

I couldn’t help but think of Jake and the Fatman.

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Jake and the Fatman

The third installment in the Summer 2015 Return to the Heartland series.

After a not-entirely pleasant night’s sleep, we ejected our cold, stiff bodies from the tipi and dragged our belongings back to the van. We made it to the Val Marie visitor’s centre right at 9am to drop off cots and thermarests and stopped for a coffee at the local museum slash coffee shop across the street.

Ten minutes after I’d ordered our lattes, I was still standing, empty-handed, despite the fact that we were the only customers in the place. ‘The espresso machine is taking a long time to get warmed up,’ the less-than-perky barista explained, ‘can I make you a coffee?’ ‘Sure,’ I relented. For what choice did I have, I was many miles away from the next Marzocco.

More minutes passed before she handed me two Styrofoam cups and I walked back to the car, ready to be restored to civilization. One taste of the hot liquid in my generic cup, confirmed the suspicions I’d formed while watching her technique: swill.

The professor returned from filling our car with gas and reached for his coffee. ‘You’re better off drinking yesterday’s cold coffee from the cooler,’ I sighed, before walking to the trash can to say goodbye to the hot brown liquid. We walked the half block down to the town grocery store, which also opened at 9, and I selected their smallest container of milk for the boys’ cereal.

After a delicious bowl of cardboard-esque healthy cereal and skim milk, we made our way to the border.

It’s always a slight rush of excitement, arriving at the border. Because even though we will spend 2 or 3 or more days in the car to get to our destination, it feels like an accomplishment to say ‘we’re in America!’

As in, ‘one country down, only one more to go!’ Practically halfway there.

We pulled up to the designated line and waited for our official summons to move forward. We were the only car there and I was quietly thrilled at how quickly we’d zip through: hand over some passports, answer a few questions, likely relinquish the 2 bananas remaining in our cooler and we would be in America.

Merica.

After waiting several minutes, two guards walked into the booth – clearly having been on break from a busy day’s work – and summoned us to pull forward. The duo bore a very slight resemblance to that old television show, Jake and the Fatman. Purely because one had black hair and the other was somewhat heavyset. The dark-haired man was no Joe Penny and the heavyset man with the buzz cut turned out to be the antithesis of a cantankerous genius.

I handed the professor the stack of passports and he rolled down his window. As soon as I heard Jake bark: ‘pull all the way up to the line’ I knew, simply by the tone of his voice, that we were not going to breeze into America after all.

There are law enforcement agents who are professionals, who do their job and speak with even, bordering on pleasant voices. And there are law enforcement agents who have lower than average IQs, who thrive on abusing their position of power, and often end up in youtube clips and newspaper headlines.

Jake and the Fatman obviously fell in the latter category, and our ability to cross into the land of milk and honey in a timely manner rested in the hands of this wonder-duo.

They began with the standard line of questioning.

Where are you going? Indiana

What are you doing there? Visiting  family.

How long will you be there? One month.

Do you have any fruits or vegetables? Two bananas.

Any citrus? No.

Are you traveling with any currency? Seven dollars. Actually two – we spent the $5 on the swill back in Val Marie.

How are you going to get to Indiana with $7? Silence.

‘Why do you have emergency passports for two of your kids,’ the Fatman suddenly piped up. Of all the questions I might have anticipated, this was certainly not one of them. It was the equivalent of asking ‘why do you have legal, accepted-everywhere travel documents for your children to cross an international border? What kind of stunt are you trying to pull?’

We explained that their passports hadn’t been ready on time and they were issued emergency passports instead.

‘Well you don’t need passports for any children under the age of 16 to travel between the U.S. and Canada. You only need them to cross the Atlantic.’

To say this line of reasoning took us aback would be an understatement. We were dealing with a man who spends his days looking at passports, asking us why we had passports. Perhaps his most recent buzz cut had removed more than he’d anticipated.

‘Why are you crossing [the border] here?’ He changed tactics, asking the second least expected question of the hour. Clearly our unfashionable minivan with its Griswold-esque roof topper and family of five had raised some serious red flags.

‘We spent the night at Grasslands National Park,’ we explained.

‘You’re coming from Calgary, and instead of going down through Montana, on 15, you come all the way over, driving the worst roads possible, and cross here.’

He framed the question like we were playing poker and he’d just laid a royal flush on the table: Aha! Now I have you! You are clearly up to something, what with your passports and driving on these gravel roads, hoping the fine border guards near Val Marie will be too consumed with road construction concerns to care. Bet you weren’t anticipating Jake and the Fatman, super-sleuths who keep America safe from riff-raff and would-be terrorists.

There was a brief moment of silence and I fully expected them to order us out of the car so they could search it, or at least demand we hand over the two bananas, but instead Jake said, in his perpetually unpleasant voice: park the car over there and come inside.

Again, not where I thought this was going.

As previously stated, the professor is the yin to my yang. If left to his own devices, when dealing with stupidity of the mind-blowing variety, his voice will get an unpleasant edge and he may use words that are not wise to use in the company of people who could easily say ‘no America for you!’ Being a people pleasing immigrant, my strategy has always been to answer questions politely and be my most helpful self, in an effort to keep my exchanges with such people as brief as possible.

In the 30 second drive to our parking spot, I exhorted him to keep things pleasant and we climbed out of the car to wait in our video and audio recorded waiting room.

They conferred and emerged, asking more of the same questions.

What do you do in Calgary? Why do you have passports for your kids, anyone under the age of 16 does not need a passport. Why are you coming this way?

‘I’m from San Diego,’ the Fatman told us, ‘and if I’m going back there, I’m not going to drive to [Bismarck/Jamestown/some random town used to illustrate he would be driving east to go west.]

‘But we’re heading in the direction we need to go,’ I spoke up, thoroughly irritated.

Nonplussed, he continued, ‘I mean you’re driving on the worst roads possible. There’s construction starting on this road, a few miles away, and when there’s traffic – there won’t be today because of the holiday – you will be lucky if you’re going 35 miles per hour. And there’s a two foot drop off on either side. So if you go off the edge….And it’s a good thing you’re not on a motorcycle because the road is covered in oil. You’d have to turn back.’

We stared back, dumbfounded. What was there to say?

They retreated to their glass-walled office again. Either to confer, or pass sufficient time so as to give the appearance that they were pouring themselves into our ‘case’. The Fatman emerged again at some point and disclosed a rather embarrassing change of heart about the whole passport matter. ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you lived in Canada, that’s why you need to have passports for your kids.’

Yep. People who work in a particular country tend to also live in said country.

‘Do you have any other identification?’ Jake asked, to let us know we were not yet off the hook. We handed over our drivers’ licenses.

‘Why do you have Canadian drivers’ licenses?’ Because Canada requires it.

There was more conferring behind their glass walls and I watched while they appeared to scratch the licenses, presumably to verify their authenticity.

They emerged from their fortress, having – seemingly – exhausted their repertoire of questions.

‘So,’ Jake looked at me, ‘You’re from South Africa? How did you get your U.S. Passport?’

Scratch that, this was the most unbelievable yet.

I stammered a little, completely caught off guard,’ through permanent residency.’  ‘Yeah, but who sponsored you to come to the United States,’ he insisted.

‘Nobody.  I was 12. I came with my parents.’

‘Yeah, but who sponsored them?’

‘Nobody, they went to graduate school.’

I didn’t realize I’d have to explain my emigration circa 1986.

Nearly forty five minutes after we’d first arrived, we were finally dismissed. ‘Goodbye,’ they took leave of us, which the boys reciprocated with polite goodbyes while their incensed parents remained silent.

We got in the car and I sensed the professor was about to explode. But I had to assume we were still under some kind of surveillance.

‘Not yet,’ I cautioned.

And we drove for several miles until it felt somewhat safe to dissect the experience.

‘We should have said we were doing some work for ISIS, when they asked us what we were going to do in Indiana.’

‘Or said we were doing an internship with the Institute for Specialized Information Studies.’

We approached the construction zone and looked for the ‘two foot drop offs’ on either side.

We’re still looking.

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