Monday, March 30, 2015

Curmudgeon takes a vacation -- Part IV -- Signs of the Times

Well, I've milked this recollection for three full posts so far and I haven't even taken you out of the Midwest. No wonder I have no readers. But, I promise, we'll be in Florida before this post is out....

Older Daughter kept calling and texting her mother -- on the car phone that Long Suffering Spouse couldn't charge thanks to my grabbing the wrong charger -- something that was pointed out to me repeatedly as the miles rolled by.

Older Daughter wanted to know if we'd be stopping by her house.

Older Daughter lives in Indianapolis and a car traveling from Chicago to Florida must go through or around that city. But I was sure that Younger Daughter had put this idea in her sister's head; I doubted she would come up with it on her own, and I said so.

My oldest child is, let us say, directionally challenged. She once got lost going around the block, shortly after we moved to our present home. In her defense, it is a large, irregularly-shaped block, not uncommon in my little corner of Chicago. On the other hand, she was 12 at the time.

Both Older Daughter and Younger Daughter were miffed about my accusation. Younger Daughter swore she'd never breathed a word of our possibly stopping off in Indy -- and Older Daughter insisted that she knew we'd be passing through all by herself. Given how unpopular I already was with their mother, at this point, I did not have any serious concerns about being added to two more fecal rosters.

In the event, we didn't stop in Indianapolis on the way down -- it would have been far too late to come calling, given the late start we'd gotten -- even Long Suffering Spouse agreed with that -- though she was still wary of the field marshal's gleam in my eye.

We crossed the Ohio River sometime after midnight, which was a good thing, really, because the Interstate bridge and its Kentucky environs were under construction and must have been terrible to attempt during daylight hours when normal people drive.

By the time we reached the southern outskirts of Louisville, even I was beginning to realize that our forward progress must be halted, at least temporarily. Even if I didn't fall asleep at the wheel -- something that seemed increasingly likely -- my wife might strangle me, and consequences be hanged. We pulled off at an exit that promised an extensive choice of lodgings.

And, indeed, the sign did not lie. Unfortunately, all of the hotels were booked solid. I stopped at several, just to be sure. At the last of these I was able to engage the young lady behind the desk in conversation. I learned that not all of this traffic was caused by Winter Storm Thor -- although, to be sure, some of it was. Folks who had spent a night or two in their cars seemed eager to sleep in a real bed for as long as possible. But the real culprit, insofar as room usage was concerned, was a girls' volleyball tournament. Teams from all over creation had commandeered large blocks of rooms and parents and other camp followers had filled in the rest. However (said the nice young lady) she'd been talking to the night clerk at the Best Western one stop south not too long before and she said they still had a couple of rooms left.

The fire in my wife's eyes banked slightly at the rumor of a room one exit away. I made haste lest some other weary traveler snag the last room before I got there.

Sure enough, there was a room left at the Best Western. Pausing only to plug my wife's phone into a wall socket, we hit the pillow. And, no, this is not the second hotel to which I made allusion at the outset of the last post.

We resumed our journey early the next morning -- not early enough to suit Field Marshal Curmudgeon, who wanted to go over the top in the pre-dawn grayness -- but as soon as reasonably possible. In the bright, but chilly morning, Long Suffering Spouse decided to forgive me, a little, for my failings of the preceding day. We saw for ourselves the remains of the winter storm, my wife trying to snap pictures through the car windows. Not only did Kentucky in March look a lot like Wisconsin in December, there were an inordinate number of cars still abandoned on the shoulder of the road. One vehicle had apparently been parked a little closer to the edge of the shoulder than the others. Either that, or the passing snowplow strayed just a teensy bit off the road. Either way, the metal skin of the driver's side of the vehicle had been peeled away.

In addition to the abandoned cars, we noted billboards alongside the Interstate. We come from a city where most private citizens weren't allowed legal gun ownership until the United States Supreme Court said so -- and our city fathers have been whining about it ever since. So the many signs for gun shows and various gun stores and gun manufacturers made an impact on us. Rahm Emanuel would have a stroke if he looked out the windows while driving to Florida. And, of course, there were the billboards for "adult superstores" coming up at many of the exits. These were liberally interspersed among both gun-toting and religious billboards. "Evolution is a lie!" a number of billboards proclaimed. Judging from the billboards, there was an exit somewhere in southern Georgia where there must have had a porno emporium on every corner. I wondered how the concentration of such stores might be received among the local God-fearing populace. Would the attitude be 'jobs are jobs' and we'll expect you at services Wednesday night and Sunday morning? Or would families be torn asunder, with those who took jobs selling steamy DVDs to horny truckers being ostracized by their kin?

We saw what for us was the strangest, and on some level, most frightening billboard not long after we crossed into Florida. The Sun was setting by this time, but we could plainly see the giant letters on the sign: #secede. There was a web address below. I looked it up later. You and I may think America's Civil War ended 150 years ago next month -- but, for some, apparently, there has been only a temporary cessation of hostilities. Yikes! I can't recall, now, whether this billboard was before or after we passed the gas station flying a ginormous Confederate flag (the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, for those of you keeping score at home, as opposed to the official Confederate emblem during most of the Late Unpleasantness). (And, no, we didn't stop for gas there either.)

But the day was not given over entirely to meteorological observation or cultural speculations. Somewhere in the course of our first night's drive, the spaceshipish-sort-of instrument panel in our GMC Terrain began proclaiming (to the exclusion of other useful information) "change oil soon." The change oil light came on again as soon as we headed out on Saturday morning. I thought a call to the rental car company might be prudent under the circumstances.

The nice lady with whom I spoke Saturday morning said that these kinds of things happen all the time with these new cars -- it was probably just a computer glitch, she said, and therefore I did not need to pull over and find a Jiffy Lube or similar establishment. Instead, she said, bring the car into another National location and swap it out for an equivalent vehicle, no questions asked. But the concern over the possible consequences of this computer glitch did add, a little, to the stress levels on the journey.

I drove through Kentucky and across Tennessee, and all the way through Georgia into Florida. We paused only twice for gasoline, and other things, along the way. By the time we reached the Florida Turnpike (the first of about 1,000 Florida toll roads) Long Suffering Spouse was becoming most insistent that she drive -- and I was too fatigued to protest. It was full dark when we stopped for gas at the start of the Florida Turnpike. I moved to the passenger seat and assumed the role of navigator -- reduced, of course, to GPS, since I'd left my Google Maps printouts in the living room at home. I looked at the map on the phone en route, as well. On the phone screen, everything looked like a real road. We were about to find out differently.

We thought the stretch of the Florida Turnpike over which we'd been passing looked rather dark, empty and foreboding. Then the GPS had us jump ship onto U.S. 27 and, in the twinkling of an eye, onto something called Villa City Road. We saw no villa, I can assure you, and nothing at all like a city -- although Google Earth says the road cuts through some sort of hamlet -- but, you know, sometimes these map programs -- always trying to save you time -- take you on shortcuts back to the main roads. These were looooong shortcuts, granted, but we were, according to the maps, headed for a long stretch down a state highway.

The state highway, however, turned out to be a two-lane ribbon of asphalt in the night. A couple of motorcyclists were in front of us, and we could watch their headlights swivel and in that way anticipate forthcoming curves. The speed limit was 60, which seemed awful fast for a pitch-dark road in the middle of absolute nowhere. But, sure enough, as we were wending our way down this little road at what we thought was breakneck speed a pair of headlights appeared behind us and closed almost instantaneously.

I really don't know what the custom is among native Floridians regarding personal space. I know in some cultures folks stand jaw to jaw to engage in ordinary conversation, whereas in my experience, getting jaw to jaw means fisticuffs are about to commence. And maybe Floridians do like to crowd each other in person; I wasn't there long enough to find out. I can say, however, that -- judging by what I saw on the Florida roads -- the typical Florida driver has absolutely no sense of interval between vehicles. The front of the typical Florida driver's car liked to snuggle in about an inch or two from the tailpipe of my car. Where possible, on the Interstate for example, I would get over to let the vehicle pass, but the further south we got the sooner he (or she) would be replaced by another vehicle equally as oblivious to any sort of safe interval. I coined a name for these drivers. I called them -- well, never mind exactly what I called them, this being a family blog, but it rhymes with "gas moles."

I think it was on this lonely stretch of Florida Rt. 33, where we were following the motorcycles (at a distance!) where we experienced our first real encounter with this phenomenon away from the Interstate. I don't much care for this sort of driving on the Interstate either, mind you, but it is much more disconcerting in the dark on a narrow road far from civilization. And it's even worse when you don't realize that this is normal native behavior.

Our first follower soon passed us, cutting in close behind the motorcycles. I begin to understand why not all cars have license plates in the front: The extra couple of millimeters would cause no end of collisions. I thought for sure the motorcyclists were done for, but the car passed them soon thereafter and no one seems to have died.

Meanwhile, we were looking for turns and I was watching my phone charge dwindle dangerously low. I tried plugging the phone into the car where we'd had the i-Pod hooked up and this worked, sort of. The battery drained a little slower.

Apparently GPS uses up a ton of battery charge. Each road we came to, though, was darker and more isolated than the next until, suddenly, and without warning, we passed over Interstate 4. "Why the hell didn't you put us on this, you supposedly 'smart' phone?" I snarled at the device in my hand. But the device was smug as well as smart, and would not answer. (Later map study would show that it was -- in terms of miles -- a detour to take I-75 all the way to I-4, which runs southwest to northeast between Tampa and Orlando. But it surely would have been less stressful.)

After nearly a week driving around that area, I came to recognize the Interstate crossing as a positive sign that we were nearly to Winter Haven. But I didn't know that on that first Saturday night. And neither did Long Suffering Spouse. And it was getting later and later and it seemed like hours since (with the exception of that single Interstate crossing) we'd seen any of the trappings of western civilization.

Somehow, though, we found our way to U.S. 17, the main drag in and out of Winter Haven. But just because a road is designated as a U.S. highway does not mean that it too won't meander through the darkness. There was one place in particular where 17 was supposed to jog left and a sign pointed left and the phone was saying turn left and I was saying turn left and -- fortunately -- Long Suffering Spouse did not turn left until she actually found pavement on which to turn a city block or more from where the sign pointed. By this time, Long Suffering Spouse was screaming at me, and I was screaming back, and the phone was down to about 11% -- and falling -- while plugged in.

Winter Haven is a dowager. It may once have been in the upper tier of resort towns -- it was once the spring training base of the Cleveland Indians -- but the Interstate was not all that had passed it by. The passage of time has been unkind to the town, it's life-essence probably drained away in the growth of Orlando and the Mouse House therein. We passed a Macy's in a shopping mall, an unexpected glimmer of prosperity in a sea of permanent depression, decline and decay. And, yes, we shouldn't make snap judgments about a place after passing fearfully through pitch-black country roads, after being on the road for 15 hours or so. We found the hotel where we'd reserved a room for the next three days. There was a police car parked by the entrance. There was loud, pounding music coming from the entrance. There were a bunch of people just there -- sitting out, walking around, no apparent connection to anyone or anything -- just there. "Are you sure it's safe to stay?" my wife asked as I maneuvered around the squad car looking for a place to park.

"Of course," I lied. The objective nearly achieved, the Field Marshal Curmudgeon persona was nearly back in its cage -- but I had one last gasp of willful obliviousness left in me. And, besides, I was tired. It was at least 10:30. Or maybe it was 11:30. We got everything into the room as quickly as possible and texted the kids of our arrival.

The room wasn't much to look at -- nothing at all like the picture I'd seen on line. The chair legs looked like they'd been gnawed by large dogs. One chair was broken, but my wife pieced it together so we could both sit. There was a refrigerator (not plugged in) but there was no microwave.

Long Suffering Spouse was not taken in by my reassurances. Still, I tried. I even looked up the nearest Catholic Church, expecting we'd go to Sunday Mass as usual. "Everything will look better in the morning," I promised. "You'll see."

As usual, I was wrong.

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