Wednesday, July 27, 2005

"The Simple Life" Revisited?

I think I deserve my own TV show.

Paris and Nicole did it, why can't I? Take Jess and I. Two chicks out on the road driving alone across the country from town to town. Wreaking havoc on the locals, terrorizing wildlife. Seriously, the similarities are endless. We both have long, blonde hair. Only one of us drives. Split the difference between our ages and we would fit right in with Hilton & Co.

Of course, there is the fact that neither of us are heiresses. I also don't suppose Carl's Jr. will be beating down my door to do an ad for them anytime soon. Crap, we don't own pint-sized puppy dogs either.

Oh well. There goes the dream.

Seriously though, that was quite a trip. I covered seven States plus my Province for a total of 3865km / 2400 miles as the sole driver. I am feeling a strong sense of accomplishment about that, (perhaps a little too much, really) but it was something I always wanted to do.

We left on Wednesday at 1pm, and fought the Toronto traffic for over an hour. It was a relief to finally do some highway driving after dealing with red lights and traffic jams for so long. We stopped for a quick quarter pounder w/cheese in Kitchener, Ontario, vowing that would be the first and last McDonalds we had on the trip.

I had never crossed the border at Sarnia/Port Huron before so the Bridge to America was something to see, even though they charge you $2.50 just to cross it. After waiting for 40 minutes behind at least twenty cars, we pulled up to the booth and our designated customs official asked if we were bringing across any fruit or vegetables. I answered no, just two bags of chips and a cooler full of iced tea. He still had me pop open the trunk to check, and debated with his partner for a few minutes if he should seize my bag of spits. It was finally decided that since I was unlikely to plant the seeds anywhere on their soil, they wouldn't seize them and I was on my way.

We pulled into Port Huron to get gas and stretch our legs before tackling the Michigan portion of the drive. The girl working behind the counter was looking at our car with a confused expression. She asked what state we were from since she didn't recognize the license plate. When I told her we were from Alberta she stopped to think for a moment then asked if that was near Alaska. I just smiled and said yes, figuring it was easier than trying to deliver a geography lesson.

The speed limit was 65 in the States, which is confusing since my car displays kilometers in big bold text with the miles in tiny little numbers. I am always hesitant to speed too much when I first enter a new area, but everyone was flying down the highway so I set cruise at about 72. The scenery was much the same as Ontario - lots of trees and hills, and we made our way quickly past Flint and Lansing.

Along the way I saw the sign for Saginaw and I had to laugh. Growing up, we did a lot of driving on the highway to BC, and my Dad endlessly played a certain 8-track (yeah, yeah, I know) which included a song called "Saginaw, Michigan" on it. Before I left for this trip, I had actually burned a CD which had as many songs as I could remember from it, including that one, so I put it on and reminisced about my childhood a bit as I drove past the city I had only heard of in song.

The weather took a turn for the worse, and I could barely see the highway through the torrential rain as I approached Grand Rapids. I hadn't decided where we were going to stop for the night exactly, but the rain dictated that we find some shelter quick. We ended up in a place called Grandville, and after an unsuccessful attempt at reaching a certain Michigan blogger, we decided to grab some quick dinner at Arby's and crash for the night at the Days Inn. They were actually more expensive than what we budgeted for, but after dealing with the rain I was in no mood trying to locate other motels. The room was nice though, and we had a great continental breakfast the next morning so I think it was worth it.

After finishing breakfast, we rolled out of town at 9:30 (no, I am not that person who leaves at 6am), and drove straight, reaching Gary, Indiana after two hours. We were planning to have lunch there since our breakfast was fairly light, but there was no way we were getting off that freeway once we started. There was so much construction that traffic was at a crawl the entire way from Gary through Chicago. The closest I had been before was a quick stop at O'Hare for a layover, so it was pretty cool finally seeing the Windy City up close. After two long hours, we finally made it through Chicago and found ourselves on the Northwest Tollway. That was a pain in the ass, having to stop five times to pay five separate tolls, but we finally emerged at the border of Illinois/Wisconsin where we hit absolute pay dirt.

We stopped at the Flying J for gas and lunch, and were happy to see a huge buffet spread out in the restaurant. This place was insane. I have to say it was one of the best buffets I've ever been to. Our iced tea came in glasses taller than Jess's head. The food selection was enormous, and we filled a large plate of salad each before digging into the main course. I had mashed potatoes and fried chicken among other things, and Jess had bbq pork, potatoes and corn. She helped herself to the make-your-own ice cream bar as I received the bill, and was shocked to see it was only $15.00 for the two of us.

Well fed, we continued on our way. We had covered three states already, but still had two to go. I really think that the biggest surprise of the trip was Wisconsin. I am not one for farmland and boring prairies, but the scenery here really was beautiful. There were lush green, rolling hills, deep rich valleys, and apparently even ski resorts - though they were well hidden. Three-quarters of the way through the state my cow count was only at three. So much for nothing but cheese country.

Minnesota was much the same, truly beautiful country. It was approaching dusk when we entered St. Paul, and tired though I was, driving the I-94 through the Twin Cities certainly woke me up. I had to call upon every skill I ever learned playing Ridge Racer, Gran Turismo, and Grand Theft Auto. I was half expecting the cars ahead of me to start dropping oil slicks or fog bombs on my car it was so insane. Looking for a motel proved to be impossible from the freeway, so we passed through Minneapolis and ended up in a little place called Maple Grove. Ironically, this was the home of yet another poker blogger (or two, from what I have heard.)

It was already 8:30pm, and since I didn't have a laptop with me, I went into the local electronics store and asked them if I could use their computer for a moment. These guys were terrific, not hesitating to fire up a browser for me, then leaving me alone to check my email and use instant messenger. I was trying to get a hold of the Minnesota contingent of poker bloggers, but to no avail. I had arrived into town too late and didn't give proper notice. Resigned to the fact that I wouldn't be able to meet any bloggers this trip, Jess and I set out to find some lodging for the night.

The first place we went to was rather scary. I entered the front desk area and one of fifteen men emerged from a back room where they were gathered watching tv. We knew instantly that we didn't want to stay here, but figured we may as well ask what the rate was for the night. When he told me $79 plus tax I just about spit out my iced tea. I told him (outright lied) that we had already been quoted a rate of $50 for the night somewhere else, so he kept dropping the price trying to get us to change our minds. I did get him down to $45 at one point utilizing my negotiation skills, but I told him we would have to think about it as we ate dinner and quickly made our exit. Thinking maybe I was being a bit too fastidious, I called Bill and he gave me some words of wisdom when I explained how the front desk clerk made me feel kind of icky - "Just remember, this is the guy who has a key to your room". Enough said - we were looking for an alternate motel.

This proved to be a bit more difficult than it sounds. Most of the rooms in town were sold out, and the only one available was selling for $119, though they graciously offered to drop it down to $99 which was still out of our budget. Jess remembered seeing some motels at the town prior to this called Brooklyn Park, so we drove back a few miles and inquired at the first one we came across - the Sleep Inn. Again we struck gold. The rate was $69, which included a continental breakfast, and the best part was they had a pool. After driving through waterpark central (a.k.a. Wisconsin) Jess had been bugging me to go swimming. After telling the front desk clerk about my trials trying to find lodging, she ended up dropping the price another $10 for me.

It was too late to go swimming, so we decided to order pizza and watch a movie. We ordered Miss Congeniality 2 (Jess loves Sandra Bullock) and ate our pizza and wings courtesy of Papa John's. In the morning we hit the pool, relaxed for a while, and left town around noon.

We made the unfortunate decision of having lunch in St. Cloud which was an hour away, but since the road was under construction it took us almost two hours for the entire stop. We ate at IHOP though, which I love and we don't have in Canada. Our next stop was Fargo. Since the movie is among my favorites I have always wanted to go, and it certainly didn't dissapoint. Talk about desolate scenery. If there had been snow on the ground, I would have felt as though I stepped right into the movie set. There was a real sense of isolation in the town, people kept to themselves and you had to really draw them out when asking a question. We stopped at a gas station and convenience store which could have been an exact replica of the store in "Clerks". I was almost surprised when Jay and Silent Bob were nowhere to be seen. The counter girl inside wore a look of confusion when I asked if there was an internet cafe anywhere around. She said they had a Starbucks, and asked if that was what I was looking for. I was truly not meant to get online this trip.

I was originally planning to go North to Winnipeg to stay the night with a friend, but I found out that she was actually out of town so we decided to stay in the US and head west through North Dakota into Montana for the night. North Dakota is very much like Saskatchewan. Long. Flat. Boring. The only saving grace was the speed limit all of a sudden changed to 75, so I was able to maintain 80 as my minimum. I put in a CD that a friend of mine made for me, and lost myself in thought.

There is something about the open road that brings out the best and worst in people, and you can see it on their faces as they drive. I am sure I was no exception, either. I felt moments of extreme jubilation, as well as inexplicable moments of complete and utter sadness. When you drive for days you are left with nothing but your thoughts. Memories that you have blocked out or pushed aside come rushing back in with a vengeance, flooding your mind. For hours I lost myself in existential thoughts, questioning life, trying to make some sense out of what I wanted, what I was ready to let go of, and what I hoped to achieve. Moving across the country makes you face certain realities, and I covered it all that day.

I was becoming quite exhausted at that point, having seen nothing but flat prairie for hours on end. As though on cue, the scenery made a drastic change. To my right I saw a sign indicating a place called Painted Canyon ahead. Within seconds I was no longer in the middle of farmland. The ground recessed and indented to display thousands of small little valleys, hills and canyons. If I didn't know better, I would have sworn I was in Arizona looking at the beginning of the Grand Canyon. This was much more green, beige and orange than the red rock of that area, but it was simply amazing nonetheless. The canyons rose to become rolling hills, and the hills soon became small mountains. I was back into territory I had previously visited. I had entered Montana.

It was already dark, and Montana greeted us with an amazing lightening storm. The whole land lit up when the strikes shot across the sky, almost blinding me when they sparked directly ahead. I was hoping to make it to Billings, but there was no way I was going to continue on for two more hours in the storm. We pulled into a place called Miles City, and checked into the Motel 6 for $40 a night. It was almost midnight when we went to the 24-hour restaurant beside the motel, but we had an amazing dinner which was much needed after that drive. Jess ordered the teriyaki steak, and I had salad with my fish and chips. We sat for over an hour, then made our way back to the room to pass out. I couldn't fall asleep, so I watched the weather network for a while to see what I would be facing the next day. Turns out we missed the worst part of the storm, and the next day was supposed to be bright and sunny once again.

Heading home.

I have been to Montana many times since I have family that lives there and it is on the way to Vegas from Calgary. The trip through the mountains is beautiful, but we avoided it as time was now the driving factor. At this point I just wanted to get home. We had a quick lunch in Billings, then passed through Great Falls and up to Shelby, which is my favorite place to stop when entering the states from Alberta. They have the best diner, amazing food at ridiculously low prices, as well as Lucky Lil's casino. I have never passed through without dropping some money into the video poker, but I just didn't feel up to it that night. We scarfed down a quick dinner, avoided the Australian hitchhikers outside asking for a ride into Alberta, and made our way to the border. The road was empty, so we passed through customs in seconds, and three hours later found ourselves back in Calgary for the first time in over three weeks.

Now, days later, I am packing up my house to move. I am going through serious withdrawls, wishing I was back on the highway with nothing but the open road and my thoughts as company. The next month is going to be extremely stressful with the move, but there are many lights at the end of the tunnel. I really feel as though I am closing one chapter of my life and beginning another. Though I am uncertain of what the future out east will bring, I am glad I will always have memories of that trip that my daughter and I took alone across two countries.