Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Baby Across America Tour: We're HOW far away?

Fourth and final in a multi-part series of taking a 7-month-old baby and two dogs halfway across America in a minivan. Read earlier parts here.

Daddy’s Log: Day 10, Sioux Falls, S.D.
Miles: 1,896, Engine hours: 33.2. Clear, 93 degrees (that’s more like it)

How we managed to see all the different relatives and friends, fit in some golf and a cookout in five days is still a blur, but it was time to turn back. Parts of the boy’s first teeth had finally pushed through, the grandparents, aunts and various cousins had essentially absconded with our tour’s rock star for the length of the stay, and it was wonderful.
Though my wife and I were both tired, we were both also finally healthy except for some minor congestion.
Having been through the nightmare heading northwest, and knowing we were going to stop to visit a friend in Columbia for a couple of hours, we hoped to leave again around 11 a.m.
So, of course, it was high noon by the time we returned to the life of long-haul dog and baby trucking, only this time in a scorching, extremely humid day -- a bit jarring after five or six days of weather more like early fall in the Upper Midwest.

As I drove south with the cloudless sky helping send the sun directly onto me, we had a short discussion of whether or how much I could get sunburned on the drive heading straight south.
Meanwhile, the boy seemed to be trying to sing the Alphabet Song using only the letter “A” at increasingly loud volume.

Who's up for an oil and filter change on a picnic table on a 96-degree day?

This time, the smaller dog made it all the way south of Sioux City, almost 75 minutes, before sounding the poop alarm. We stopped at the Iowa Welcome Center, which was quite nice, though not nearly as extravagant as Kentucky’s. Yes, this is what passes for excitement and interesting topics on tour drives like this.
As the temperature soared into the upper 90s and we rolled south, it became apparent the boy needed changing soon. The next exit in west-central Iowa had what appeared to be some sort of an RV park, which led to my wife changing a 7-month-old on top of a picnic table at a largely empty RV park.
Oh, the scenery!
And the miles go on and on and on….

Long road trips can lead to some strange things.
Like listening all the way through 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This,” which should never be done.
Or a 42-year-old man gyrating wildly through the entirety of that overplayed Jock Jams anthem, which should also never be done.
Or taking an unscheduled “scenic” loop through Council Bluffs because the straight, boring drive claimed another mental victim and lulled a certain bad-90s-music-loving man into taking the wrong exit.
Or trying to find something – anything – to grab attention after seemingly every song on the satellite radio had been played three or four times during this massive trip (ooh, Andy Grammer again? Help!) and there’s barely a cell signal.
Fortunately, the boy was able to entertain himself with just three toys, along with occasional insanity from one of his parents or dogs.
Even though my wife was alert and driving, the weather was good and the van running smoothly, I have to admit, I could feel a pit in my stomach as we headed back off I-29 toward Nightmare Road. Those two bad experiences had to be just simple coincidences, right? Could we reverse the curse?
Then we got a few miles east of Kansas City and found ourselves in nearly stopped traffic at about 5:30 p.m. on a weekday.
Turns out we were about a mile behind an accident that had been removed from the main lanes. You’d think that wouldn’t take long to get through. You’d be wrong. With both of us realizing we’d soon need to stop for nature’s call, we creeped along at roughly 3 mph the entire mile.
In the grand scheme of things, an extra 20 minutes or so is no big deal. But when you’re not moving and you know you can’t get to a bathroom, things take a turn for the worse.
Once through that mess, our stop in Columbia was fun, and lasted much longer than expected, of course. And took much longer to find our way back to Nightmare Road thanks to the lack of lighting and the ever-increasing force of fatigue.
Which, of course, meant our boy was about to hit his daily limit of 10 hours or so. (I mean, seriously, how lucky could we have been? That’s ridiculously good.)
Sure enough, almost as soon as getting on I-70 and facing intermittent construction, the wailing began. That first tooth might technically have been through, but it wasn’t fully out, and the second one was right behind.
At long last, we got into my wife’s parents’ place at 1 a.m., but at least we were cleared for more days of fun, family and (hopefully) sleep.

Our tour done, a much less enthusiastic crew sets off for home.
Daddy’s Log: Day … uh, who knows, man? 15? St. Louis metro. 
Miles: 2,625, Engine hours: Lost the will to even check this. Mostly clear, 88 degrees, with afternoon rain expected.

Another stint of several days, and another set of goodbyes that came way, way too soon. Our little headliner did his job, wowing fans seeing him for the first time and leaving everyone wanting more.
But it was time to head back to the studio to work on another project.
So, on the morning of the final departure, and after two weeks and 2,600 miles of this, you’d think I’d have mastered Minivan Jenga by this point.
Not so much.
This time, I stood back and think I’m finally done, except for the humans and dogs. My wife thought differently. Item after item kept getting added at the last minute, which annoyed me -- even more so when I realized almost all of it was simply me forgetting those things had to go with us.
I was quickly losing the will to stay awake, let alone the mental acuity needed to successfully play Minivan Jenga.
That said, we did seem to have mastered the motions of getting everything packed and ready to go, and knowing even more rain was looming within a couple of hours, we took a last sweep and began rolling once again at 11:15 a.m.
The master plan was to again find a dog-friendly hotel somewhere south of Atlanta, the farther south, the better. We felt a lot more confident this time, not only because we had been through this before, but also because my wife and I were fully healthy, somewhat rested, and our boy’s first tooth was pretty much all the way through.
Wearily, we made our way through the St. Louis area and onto the traffic/construction scrum that was I-64 in Illinois. And, sure enough, like clockwork, 45 minutes into our trip, the smaller dog sounded his poop alarm.
When not sounding a poop alarm, this was often the dogs' default position.
After a 10-minute stop, we were back, and with traffic free and clear, and the radio playing songs we hadn’t heard multiple times during the trip, it was about as close to enjoyable as a long-haul trip can get.
Then about two hours in came another poop alarm, this time from the boy, who had turned 8 months old a day earlier.
The stop turned into a prolonged break to grab food and water for us and the dogs, a chance to rearrange things in the back seat and switch drivers. Amazingly, we did all that in less than 20 minutes. Hey, maybe we WERE getting the hang of this!
We didn’t realize it then, of course, but it turns out I apparently donated the changing pad that came with our diaper bag to a bathroom in southeastern Illinois.
After hearing the strains of “Honey I’m Good” by Andy Grammer and “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift for at least the fourth time that leg before switching over, I was considering the likely fruitless game of trying to pull in a standard FM station that wasn’t playing a commercial block or something awful.
But we really were on a roll, only stopping every couple of hours or so, for gas or a diaper change.
What’s more, we were able to tune in to a Cardinals game (my wife’s favorite team) and listen to the entire extra-inning game while driving through some interesting scenery through Tennessee that we missed on the westward leg.
Such as the fact that an inordinate number of places seemed to have some variation of “Big Daddy’s” in the name, especially fireworks stands, gun shops and other outdoors stores.
And the sign for a “Weekend Flea Market” in eastern Tennessee that proudly proclaimed on its giant sign: ANTIQUES JUNK
I wish I had pictures, but I was in no position to do so while driving, my wife couldn’t get a good angle, and after all we’d dealt with, there was no way in hell we were going stop on the side of the road.
At about 7:45 p.m. EDT, we stopped at a Wendy’s for just short of a half-hour in Chattanooga, and as best we can tell, I somehow lost the dog-food scoop there. I truly was on top of my game. Surprisingly, I didn’t lose any crucial van parts that day. Or my shoes.
With the sun now down, we made another stop at 9:35 in Marietta, Ga., for gas, a nature call and driver switch. We were approaching what we knew was our boy’s daily limit of patience, and still needed to get through Atlanta and find a place to sleep.
Optimistically, we aimed for Macon, which seemed to offer quite a few options. Couldn’t be much past Atlanta, right?
Oh, how fatigue clouds one’s geography.
Despite it being past 10 p.m. on a Sunday, once again, traffic was heavier than expected through downtown Atlanta. And, once again, the trip was accompanied by the yelling of a had-it-up-to-here baby boy. If you haven’t tried it, you really should.
Once through downtown Atlanta, my wife somehow got the boy to settle down, and the drive to Macon went smoothly, getting to the hotel at about 11:15 p.m. EDT. The hotel was affordable and pretty solid – the beds were actually comfortable and didn’t smell faintly of mold. And once we went through the nearly two hours of unpacking the van, feeding the boy, dogs and all the other nighttime routines, the smaller dog hopped up to sleep next to me.
The dogs stayed quiet – until hearing something outside and barking fairly softly, but just enough to wake the boy briefly. Dammit.

Daddy’s Log: Day 16. Macon, Ga. 
Miles: 3,270, Engine hours: A lot, man. A lot. Clear, 90 degrees.

Good grief, does 8:30 a.m. come early.
While taking the dogs out and figuring out how to begin Minivan Jenga yet again at about 9:30, holy crap, was it hot. I mean the kind of hot that requires a heat advisory – in central Georgia. 
I was more concerned about what the weather would hold as we went through Florida mid-afternoon. But first, begin the packing again! Only three-quarters of a minivan to go for this trip.
We got rolling close to on time at 11 a.m., and outside of a stop that turned into 35 minutes north of Valdosta thanks to a weird traffic pattern on the exit and a full bathroom, gas, dog and food refill.
At 2 p.m., we crossed back into Florida.
Many people traveling to Florida finally reach the state line and think they can’t be more than an hour or two from their destination. We knew better, figuring we’d get home by 7 at worst.
Our state had other ideas.
Throughout our marathon trip, the unquestioned leader in bad road-trip experience was Florida. From weather (brutal heat and humidity or torrential rain) to rude and inconsiderate drivers, and just the simple fact that so many exits require so much driving to get to a side road and a stop, like a gas station, it wasn’t even close.
This is always a fun welcome-home gift.
As we approached the traffic nightmare that is Gainesville during the mid-afternoon, the poop alarm sounded again. And during the stop, so did Mother Nature’s alarm. Bring on the mid-afternoon heavy thunderstorms.
That said, Florida also offers a wonderful taste of the weird, such as the “I Heart Boobies” message painted on a trailer pulled by a car that paced us for a few miles, leaving my wife and I channeling our inner 12-year-olds, laughing and even chanting.
By the time we got through the first 10 miles or so of the Turnpike, we were both completely loopy, letting loose all manner of noises, making up songs mocking the traffic, weather, each other, food we wanted to be eating, anything.
Once in the Orlando area, we figured we were largely past any major traffic issues and could be home in a little over two hours, maybe even by 7.
But that would be too easy. An accident south of Kissimmee had shut down the Turnpike both ways, although at least we learned about it from an overhead electronic sign before running into it.
Home at last! Can't you just see
the unbridled joy on my face?
So it was onto the Beeline (oh, sorry, I guess they want us to call it the “Beachline” now), crawling for miles before getting past the Orlando airport, and then once again, running through small storms as we went.
Though we did get to see a double-rainbow a few different times in Brevard County.
Finally, at 8:10 p.m., home sweet home!
All was well – except for the fact that someone had somehow dented my car on the left side and left a long scrape up most of the length of the driver-side door. The way the car was parked and traffic flow means that required a particularly idiotic brand of driving to pull something like that.
Oh, and we apparently had picked up some new pets. Tiny cockroaches had invaded parts of our kitchen!
That’s quite a welcome home.
All in all, after driving 3,799 miles with 74-plus hours of total engine running time over 16 days, all we lost was one baby onesie, anything left of my decency during Poopapalooza, the changing pad, the dog-food scoop, and the bigger dog’s appetite for a few days at a time.
And most of our sanity. Were we completely crazy? Probably.
We did save a good bit of money, got to bring everything we wanted without extra charge and managed some fun and even a couple of pretty good pictures along the way.
That said, if we ever pull that again, my wife and I both agree it needs to be done either without the dogs or during a cooler time of year where they could be left in the van for a half-hour or so without a problem. That’s still a big if.
One if is an absolute, though. If I never hear Bad Blood or Andy Grammer’s hit on the radio again, honey, I’m good.

Baby Across America Tour: Behind the scenes
Part 4: We're HOW far away?

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