There were times in Laura’s and my life when getting up for an insanely early morning flight meant never going to bed. We would have just kept on Truckin’ as the Grateful Dead once sang. Those days are long gone, so much so, that even a few hours of sleep becomes critical. That reality was what we faced when the alarm went off at 2:30 in the morning for our 5:50 flight out of Kansas City for Manchester, New Hampshire. We were starting what can only be described as “a mission from God.”
We were moving daughter Kelly and her belongings back from South Royalton, Vermont. The 23-year-old just completed her master’s program in environmental law and policy at Vermont Law School with a new job waiting back in Kansas upon her return. That meant a rental truck, the need for speed, and in my case, some bad memories.
Granted, it was 30 years ago, with all the family belongings in the biggest rental truck I could find and a car towed behind, but the journey still brings on awful flashbacks. This was a solo haul from Mesa, Arizona, back to Topeka in late August, 1983, during one of the hottest summers on record. Sitting in the empty house with only a lawn chair, cooler and small television, I watched Nebraska destroy Penn State in the Kickoff Classic before throwing everything in the back and taking off for a torturous drive up from the desert to the high mountains around Flagstaff.
The thought was to avoid the worst of the day’s torching heat in a truck with no air conditioning and a three-speed stick on the column. Good plan despite the grind of climbing skyward in a truck with little punch and a governor that prevented any real speed. It also remained ungodly hot no matter where I was on the journey. Sleeping in the truck left a pool of sweat on the vinyl bench seat. With the little side window vent flipped around fully to provide some hope of ventilation and the windows rolled down, I never heard the bird that crashed into that driver’s-side vent window in eastern New Mexico, leaving me covered in a cascade of broken glass and blood as the bird expired on the seat beside me.
Happily, I can say no birds flew at me this trip, not even any flipped my way by irate motorists. Let me thank Roger Penske for that. The legendary auto racer turned car owner owns 15 Indianapolis 500 victories. With some of those winnings, Penske founded his truck rental agency in 1969. While our 12-foot truck could not match the speed of one of Penske’s Indy racers, our yellow beast, fully loaded, held its own on what turned out to be 1,648 mile trip.
To get to that mileage total, have some fun along with way and still get Kelly home quickly, we knew we were in for a long first day. After flying to Manchester and lunching on tasty burritos at El Rincon Zactecano Tequeria, we drove a little over an hour to Lebanon, picked up the truck and finally arrived in South Royalton. Laura and I were now 13 hours into our day with loading and apartment cleaning still to come.
Fortunately, Kelly completed most boxing before our arrival. Packing went so well that nothing moved throughout the trip. After a final delicious, locally grown organic cheese burger and fries at the outstanding Worthy Burger, we bid goodbye to the little village and law school that treated Kelly so well.
Before we could rest though, we raced to a roadside sweet shop near Bethel where Kelly and Laura enjoyed a Vermont treat, a Maple Creemee, maple flavored soft serve in a cone. The fitting end was our heads hitting pillows at the same hotel in White River Junction we used for Kelly’s initial visit to Vermont in 2011. For Laura and I, that capped an 18-hour day.
Ten hours of solid sleep later, our breakfast became a brunch. Either way, the Four Aces Diner was ready for any need. Our waiter was a dead ringer for Hugh Jackman. Sporting giant Wolverine sideburns, which he claimed to have sported years before the movies, and minus the HGH-loaded Jackman body, he instead loaded us up with delicious breakfast delights before we took another cue from The Dead’s famed song.
Get out of the door and light out and look all around.
Looking around as we drove through Vermont and into New York was easy. With our truck keeping up with Kelly’s little Honda, Laura guided us up two-lane mountain passes to the Killington ski area. As with most mountain roads, streams and rivers flowed beside the road snaking through the lush, deep forests we will truly miss. Everywhere cars stacked kayaks on their roof racks. We passed cyclists grinding out the miles making me already plan for a personal trip back to do the same.
Once we passed into New York state, the scenery continued to impress, as did the driving habits of up-state New Yorkers. Speed limits were only slightly fudged and any vehicle passing immediately returned to the right lane. Our Penske was cruising along so well, I did my share of passing before we arrived in Oneonta for the evening.
It amazes me how the foods of the world stretch throughout the United States. Good Mexican food in New Hampshire and rich Cajun food in upstate New York. Boudreaux ‘n’ Thibodeaux’s provided us with full stomachs leading to a long walk for Laura and me through a scenic park before sitting outdoors on a glorious evening to further catch up on Kelly’s life.
The next day, Kelly had to “take one for the team” as we rolled into the picturesque village of Cooperstown to tour the Baseball Hall of Fame, but that deserves its own story. We still had more driving to do that day.
Truckin’, up to Buffalo. been thinkin’, you got to mellow slow
Takes time, you pick a place to go, and just keep truckin’ on.
The place to go was indeed Buffalo, one of my more visited cities because of Kansas Chiefs football in the days of O.J., then quarterback Jim Kelly and finally a long distance romance. My plan was to take Laura and Kelly first to the home of Buffalo wings, the Anchor Bar, and then off to Niagara Falls before we called it a night.
The line inside the Anchor Bar was monstrous, with people spilling outside for the projected hour-plus wait. Fortunately, on my second tour of the bar, where open seating reigned, three people climbed off their stools as I dove, arms outstretched, to wrangle in the three stools and text Laura to hurry inside. With the hungry horde salivating in line, we found seats in less than 10 minutes and gorged on the original chicken wings with a Miller High Life to wash it all down. Life sure can be good.
With wing sauce still inflaming our taste buds, we soon were on to Canada and the strangest question of the entire journey. At the Canadian border we handed over our passports and answered the usual questions of where we were from, what were our intentions in Canada and where we were staying? Finally, the woman bluntly asked, “and the most important question, where is your gun?”
“Boy, howdy” as my Oklahoma wife would say. Funny how that question, as stunning as it seemed, did not shock us. As we cruised over the Peace Bridge towards Canada, Laura recounted to Kelly a conversation she had with one of the Canadians that rows for KU. Laura asked the rower from nearby St. Catherine’s what Canadians consider the typical American stereotype? “They’re rich and have guns,” was the immediate answer. Once we convinced our border agent we were neither rich nor had guns, we were off to view the amazing spectacle that is the American and Canadian Falls.
Apparently the entire nation of India considers the Falls an amazing spectacle as well. Indians engulfed sidewalks and sat along the rails that do little to keep anyone crazy enough from taking a deadly plunge into the river. Even with a strong south wind from the United States causing spray from the Canadian Falls to drench us all, the Indians seemed content to simply enjoy each other’s company no matter how soaked. While their numbers were in the thousands, the realization they only amounted to fractions of India’s massive populace left us hungry for further discussion over coffee, milk and the best doughnut ever from Tim Hortons.
Horton, a long-time Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player, supplemented his salary by opening the original Tim Hortons – and no there is no apostrophe – in 1964. The coffee and doughnut shop quickly grew into the largest fast food chain in Canada and throughout upstate New York. A fellow student and friend at Vermont Law School raved to Kelly of the doughnut’s amazing lightness. Baked instead of fried, my doughnut indeed was the lightest and tastiest in memory. It was so light, I almost fooled myself into believing that delightful delicacy was not heading immediately to my waist. Feeling so light and airy, we seemed to float back to our Buffalo hotel for the night.
Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home. whoa whoa baby, back where I belong,
Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin’ on.
Hey now get back truckin’ home.
Getting back to where Kelly belongs began to take on new meaning. The sight-seeing was nice, but Kelly really wanted to patch her bones at home before starting her new job. With help from Laura, they sprang their plan on me, a drive from Buffalo to Topeka in one day. Interstate or four-lane highway all along the way tempted me. There was no reason to stop anywhere else along the route. Since Laura and I came back from a busy week in Colorado and immediately flew east, there was an insane appeal for all of us to get back truckin’ on.
Then we crossed into Ohio. Suddenly, any projected arrival times disappeared with an almost immediate funneling to one-lane “road under construction” traffic. These were not the usual five or six-mile stretches. No, these construction zones were almost endless. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that 75% of the state’s I-90 route was one-lane. Along with the tolls and high gas prices, we soon were bleeding money. Despite heavy traffic south of Chicago, even on a Sunday, our determination never wavered. Not even the lure of the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield could stop us from our committment.
Sometimes the lights all shinin’ on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.
With Laura and I alternating drives in the truck and spelling Kelly logging long distances in her Honda, the 1,043 miles finally began to drain away. As we flew through Missouri along highway 36, alone in the night, we needed an incentive. Finally, the glow of Kansas City’s lights, far in the distance, lifted our spirits. Our Penske truck ran flawlessly, and the weather was so good we never needed air conditioning for the entire trip. What are the odds of that in July?
Standing to pick up our car at the Kansas City airport, I felt my legs buckle from weariness, but we all knew the 19 1/2 hour, one-day journey was nearly complete. Kelly would be safely brought home. Collapsing into bed in thanks and prayer, I felt so grateful to feel so dead.