Random Musings from a Recent Road Trip
After more than a year of lockdown nothing can be more therapeutic than going on a long road trip just to see for yourself that the world has really not changed much. Our prolonged lockdown has given nature an uplift. The limited traffic in cities and interstates made driving a breeze. Moving from the south to the north over a few days, we got glimpses of different stages of spring across America. The freshness in the air made rolling down the windows a pleasure despite the associated noise whilst driving on the interstate. When focusing on the road, you can’t prevent your mind from wandering contemplating what’s transpired in the past year. Life has its way of making amends and perhaps the year of lockdown in the confines of our home while mentally tormenting has perhaps given our cells time to regenerate to keep us ticking healthily for longer. Instead of increasing the probability of our demise by ten percent every year, perhaps the lock down has decelerated our cell decay (“senescence”).
Living in Texas makes all our drives extra long as just driving out of Texas takes more than a few hours. Our first stop out of Houston was at a Buc-ee’s in Baytown that sparkling clean rest-stop that makes you never hesitate to drive when you are in Texas. Since it was close to dinner time we left without getting our customary roasted pecans to munch. Dinner was at a Schlotsky’s in Beaumont, the first time in a year I was actually eating at a restaurant. Small pleasures of life that Covid-19 caused us to forego over the past year. Darkness had set in and it was my turn behind the wheel. We soon said goodbye to TX and began our drive through Louisiana towards Baton Rouge. Driving through Louisiana in the night we missed the lovely view of the swampy surroundings. Louisiana’s greenery reminded me of Kerala with its plush greenery. Driving through Louisiana brought back memories of the two arduous weeks spent in Houma during the Macondo oil spill in 2010 working from dawn to dusk with a thousand other people supporting the efforts to cap the out of control well and the clean up efforts ( a story I will share another day). The drive was surprisingly uneventful until we reached our hotel just before midnight. There were two people in line before us who were having trouble getting a room and I was trying to use my iOS app to do an online check in, so I could skip the line. The hotel was over booked and we were parceled off to a fancier hotel in downtown where we go to stay for free with a room overlooking the Mississippi River. The whole process added an hour to our trip. The hotel only had valet parking so we had to clear out everything from our car and lug it up to our room. As a bonus for our inconvenience our room with a view was lagniappe.
Waking up to that view of the Mississippi after a year of lockdown was quite gratifying. After our customary overpriced bagel and coffee and lugging our stuff back to the car we got back on the road again. A quick stop at a Louisiana Costco that surprisingly was just two exits away helped us save a few bucks that day. We drove east to Slidell and then turned northwards towards Mississippi. After about three hours or so we pulled into a Chick-Fil-A as our stomach was grumbling. Laurel, MS was a small town with a deserted mall and it seemed like everyone in town was at the same restaurant that afternoon to grab a bite. The restaurant was drive up only and surprisingly very efficient. We had few choices but we picked Chick-Fil-A which like the Bucees is known for its clean rest rooms. But to our consternation the rest rooms were not accessible due to Covid. So after eating our chow inside the car in the mid-afternoon Sun we got back on the road. It was my turn to drive and I was getting anxious to get back on the Highway as we had miles to go before we slept that night. Instead of retracing our steps to the highway, we decided to follow Google Maps. It led us through a downhill road and I was tempted to let go of the brakes so we could speed down the slope. It was a narrow residential street and seemed deserted. But my foot was luckily on the brake when I saw a speed limit sign saying twenty mph. That street was set up to be a speed trap. Just two hundred yards down hill was a tall trooper who had already pulled over a few cars. My lucky day that my foot was on the brake as we passed him by. I thanked my lucky stars for having saved me getting a ticket in Laurel, MS that day.
Drive through Mississippi was uneventful after that and after a short ride we entered into Alabama. Our drive through Bama took us through Tuscaloosa the home of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide the winningest team in College Football. Having read his biography, clearly he is not a likeable personality, but he sure knew how to get a talented team into winning ways. Since we started late we did a lot of driving on this day and somewhere after we crossed Birmingham I handed over the driving responsibilities and sat on the passenger seat for the rest of the way. After a short drive through Georgia we entered Tennessee and were headed towards Chattanooga and then Knoxville. Yes, Chattanooga where the rail roads meet and which was featured in the 1941 hit tune Chattanooga Choo Choo. I was looking forward to seeing the scenery shift from plains to the Smoky mountains. We had debated driving through Atlanta and taking the scenic route right through the Smoky’s. But due to the length of our drive we decided to take the shortest route. Since we started late and we had traveled north and east darkness descended on us much sooner than I expected. Dusk set in right around Chattanooga just as the scenery was changing and dashed my hopes of viewing the change of landscape. It was around 8.30 we pulled into a Cantina on the outskirts of Knoxville. We were the only ones there other than a Hispanic family. I ordered some fajitas and gulped down a margarita whilst waiting for the chou to arrive, helping myself to a healthy serving of some unhealthy chips and salsa. After our meal we retired to our hotel a brand new one which barely had anyone staying that night. The last hour was our very own time with our devices, how dependent we have become on them and how therapeutic they have become for us.
We woke up on Eastern time on day 3 and after our ablutions got back into our car to continue our trek across the continent. We followed Yelp’s directions to a Panera only to find that it had closed its business after Covid began its onslaught. So we found another close by and got a bagel and hazelnut coffee. I was reminded of the Einstein Bagel with jalapeño cream cheese I used to have on 16th street in Denver in 2005. We saw the exits for Gatlinburg and Dollys hometown as we got out of Tennessee and entered Virginia. Virginia is not that broad but it is long and most of our drive on day 3 was through Virginia. After three hours of driving we found a Vietnamese restaurant in a small town along the highway where we decided to pull over for lunch. Basil fried rice with vegetables was spicy and flavorful. We were the only ones in the family owned restaurant. The parents were trying to get their son who had polio, to handle the waiter and cashier duties. I spent a few minutes chatting with the kid telling him about how not to give up and reach for the sky. I told him about my experience with Dan Kinder whilst I was at Purdue.
Dan and I were co-workers at the Registrars office in Purdue where I helped built the graphic interface using C code and then a web server to allow students access to their academic info. My first experience with the web was using Gopher an open source browser from U Minnesotta which was a precursor to Mosaic. More about that another day. Dan was a programmer fifty something guy who had polio in his arms and legs but had tremendous dexterity on his wrist and feet. He couldn’t lift his arm and so used a band attached to his wrist to lift it up with his teeth. He could use his fingers and typed fluently but couldn’t lift his arm. Similarly he had no strength in his legs but had tremendous flexibility in his feet. In fact he drove with his feet. The first time I went out for lunch with him, he offered to drive. He used one foot to steer and the other to brake and accelerate and he was hands free in the car. You can imagine how scared I was the first time. But Dan was a good driver and once I rode with him I got more comfortable. He was independent and never once complained about his disability. He was a true inspiration for me and whenever I am down I always think of Dan.
We finished our lunch and got back on the road past Roanoke and Charlottesville and entered Pennsylvania. Along the way we passed a sign for Luray Caverns which spurred memories of the beautiful stalactite organ in the caverns. We had covered quite a distance by the time we got to our hotel that night in Mechanicsburg, PA. The next day was going to be our home stretch and we didn’t have much distance left to cover.
We wanted to reach Boston early evening. So we left around 9 am the following day. We drove through Pennsylvania and then NJ before entering New York. Our only stop that morning was to fill Full Serve gas in New Jersey. One of the few places in USA where you have the luxury of sitting in your car and having someone else fill your gas. We had already picked a town in NY with a Cosi’s for our lunch stop. As usual crossing the George Washington took longer than expected. We crossed into Manhattan and drove north and pulled into our Cosi’s around 1 pm. My craving for the flatbread sandwich started right after I planned a stop at Cosi’s. It had been atleast two years since I had been to one. The place was packed with a lunch time crowd. We ordered our hummus and veggie sandwiches and were soon biting into it. It melted in our mouth and before we knew it we were done. Simple delights that we were accustomed to had become our cravings during the lockdown. We were ready to get back on our journey again but my son wanted to go to the drug store nearby and so I decided to pull out my phone and browse social media. Little did I know that my weakness was going to cause me consternation in the days to come. After he got back we jumped back into our car and started driving again.
We decided to avoid I-95 and take Route 15 instead, and it turned out to be a mistake for there was a lot of traffic. To make matters worse an accident in the Heroes tunnel near New Haven backed us up for miles and delayed us by more than an hour. I used the time we were stuck to write some poetry about a good friend who was looking for a maid ( I am sure he would be too embarrassed if I shared it here). After the accident was cleared we got moving again and after passing through Hartford finally stopped at a rest area in Massachusetts.
As I stepped out of the car I was looking for my magnetic wallet. To my dismay it was no longer stuck to my phone so I frantically looking around the seat. It was no where to be found. It was clear that I had lost it somewhere. My son paid for our lunch at Cosi’s so I wasn’t sure where I had lost it . Was it in the gas station in New Jersey? I was in no mood to drive so my son took over the reigns from there. I thought maybe I had lost it at Cosi’s s and so I decided to call there. A young gal picks up the phone and after listening to my story hands it to her colleague who had been working the afternoon shift. She tells me that a cop had found something outside the restaurant and had stopped by to see if it belonged to any of the patrons in the restaurant. So I called the police station full of hope and they told me that I would have to speak to the guy in lost and found who had left for the day and would be back the next morning. I was clearly upset at my own carelessness and was struggling to deal with the situation. My poor s on was trying to calm me down. When life puts you through one of these situations it’s hard to think clearly. I decided to call my hotel and make sure they would let me stay without my ID. Luckily they didn’t have any issue with that. I was flying out the next day and didn’t have any ID. So I called my wife and had her ship my passport by next day air to my cousins place in Boston. My mind was racing imagining all the situations that I could encounter. Should I drive without a license? How do I get to my hotel in Andover without being able to drive? I was hardly paying attention to the road and where we were. The evening traffic was lighter than expected and we drove in to Cambridge just as the Sun was about to set. After unloading the car at my sons apartment I decided to take the risk and drive to my hotel. I stopped at my cousins for dinner and checked into my hotell after that. They asked me no questions. After watching an NBA game for a bit, I called it a night. Probably the long drive helped a bit for under the circumstances it would have been difficult to sleep. But I do remember having some weird dreams that night which I can’t remember now.
Having been through eleven states in the short span of four days, I had the itch to do one more before I returned. So instead of waiting on the police station to open, and letting my idle mind I decided to make a trip to New Hampshire to the closest car wash after a stop at Dunkin’ to get a bagel and coffee. Strangely when you are driving without a license in your pocket you tend to notice all the cops on the street. That day in New Hampshire the street with the car wash was infested with cops. My heart was beating fast as I tried to drive at the speed limit. It was only a short trip and I had to make a left turn across traffic to get to a car wash. Not wanting to take any chances I drove past it to the next stop light and made a U turn to get to the car wash. It was a relief to park the car and wash it well that day. I was more relaxed on the way back. I had called the police station promptly at 9 am and left a voice mail. Still no news on my wallet. I drove to my cousins house to pick up my passport which had arrived early. Amazing how in 12 hours the document has traversed from TX to Massachusetts. It was a relief when I got the document in my hands for I knew I could fly that evening back to TX. As I walked to my car with some relief my phone rang. It was the lost & found police man responding to my message. To my relief he confirmed that they had indeed found my wallet. I asked him if they could FedEx it to my home. To my disbelief he said no. He informed me that it was their policy not to mail things. I would have to go in person and show my ID to collect it. But I had researched the previous night and found that I could apply for a duplicate to replace my lost document. He suggested I do the same if I was not able to come and to inform him after I got a replacement so he could shred my documents. I opted to do that. Strangely things have a way of working out and if your karma is good despite your carelessness things end well.
I was reminded of an incident from a few years ago. I was driving to East TX with a colleague, Rob. We stopped at a couple of places along the way an Exxon gas station for snack, at Starbucks fir a coffee and a Ford dealership where we pulled over as Rob had to take a call. He was driving and pulled over to take the call. We pulled over to an Applebee’s in Marshall, TX for lunch before we went to our office. Rob who was still driving carried his wallet in his back pocket. He got out of the car and realized his wallet was missing. He too searched frantically for a while before realizing he had lost it. He called the Ford dealership and they said they would look and he called the other places too. They said I would call him back. I asked him if we should drive back a 100 miles. He seemed cool about it; he was confident that someone would find it and mail it to him. We were in ETX for 3 days and I ended up being his chaperone paying for his hotel. I even got to take him to his favorite jaunt Golden Corral for dinner. After three days in the field we returned to Houston drove the pool car to the office and picked up our car and return home. We both lived in opposite end of town. I got home and was sipping some hot tea and my phone rang. It was Rob, he was elated. He was calling to say there was a package in the mail waiting for him. It had his wallet his license and his Veterans is, and his wad of cash. A truck driver had spotted his wallet lying on the side of the road on 59 outside the Ford dealership had picked it up and mailed it to his home address. Good samaritans abound in this world we just don’t hear as much about them. For me it was the unknown police officer who found my wallet that day. I will never know who he was. But he clearly helped make sure that my road trip had a happy ending. I got back home and got a replacement ID and card and got to on with my life. Not sure when my next long road trip will be but that trip in April has a lot of memories that will stay with me for long