Our plans for a 5 a.m. departure begin promptly at 7:20. I’d blame it on an airline, but we’re not flying. I’d blame it on Amtrak, but we’re not taking a train. I have no one but to blame but myself and my inability to get out of bed when the alarm bleats. Our first stop is Charlotte where we are dropping off our 4-year-old daughter, Penelope, before heading to Knoxville. Charlotte wasn’t an arbitrary selection; my family lives there. Bernadette MapQuests the route before we leave.
We’re three hours on the road and two hours behind schedule. Bern apparently checked The MapQuest boxes for “select route with the most construction.” We break at a truck stop in southern Pennsylvania. It’s an all-purpose joint where truckers can shower, do a load of laundry and purchase a beautiful set of chrome hubcaps. Since the dingy joint looks like the crime scene in an episode of Criminal Minds, I hover around the women’s bathroom listening for Bern and Penelope which only makes me look like the creepy guy who hangs around truck stop bathrooms. So I wander across the tiled corridor to a barber shop with a large poster tacked up in the window titled “Diamonds in the Rough Contest.” The poster features before-and-after photographs in which the barber has taken scary looking ex-cons and junkies with long hair and converted them into scary looking ex-cons and junkies with really bad haircuts.
Bern tells Penelope that if she doesn’t nap, we aren’t eating lunch at the Cracker Barrel. I groan. I have nothing against Cracker Barrel; we started stopping there because the bathrooms were clean, and the store fascinated Penelope. But now it’s become a ritual and we stop on every trip. Frankly, I’m rather weary of the place. I contemplate turning up the radio and poking Penelope with a stick.
Cracker Barrel dining room. The waitress arrives, and I order a large cup of caffeine. Bern and Penelope are wandering the aisles of the Cracker Barrel store rifling shelves loaded with plastic toys, moon pies and Merle Haggard CDs. I look around the dining room. I am the only customer under the weight of your average Hyundai. The family arrives, and we order lunch. I bypass the “aorta clogger” in favor of the “just Crazy Glue that sawdust gravy to my ass” selection on the menu. So much for being the skinniest guy in the dining room.
We’ve just exited the Cracker Barrel. Penelope says, “I’m hungry.” It doesn’t matter that she has just devoured an egg, two pieces of bacon, a biscuit, some grits, a hunk of chicken and some orange slices. Bern says “Penelope, you just ate! Read a book or play a game.” Penelope thinks for a moment. “Can I pretend I’m visiting Grandma?” Yes, Penelope. “Hi Grandma! I’m hungry!”
Penelope’s gnawing on her second Twizzler and clamoring for a third. Bern warns her: “No more Twizzlers. There’s no nutritional value in that! At least have a peanut butter cup. There’s peanut butter in there and . . . Ummm . . . Chocolate.” She starts thinking about the words coming out of her mouth and looks at me. “Ugh, I can’t believe I just said that.”
I’m dozing in the Virginia sun. I lift up my eyelids. By the way, I’m not driving the car.There’s a tanker truck directly in front of us that reads “World’s Best Coffee.” I fantasize about telling Bern to pull alongside the truck while I — in my best Indiana Jones manner — roll down the window and leap from our car to the truck. I land on the tanker, plunge in and swim and drink coffee to my hearts content. Then the drowsy feeling lifts, and I realize I’m staring at a gasoline truck with a coffee advertisement on the back. I slam my eyes shut.
Virginia is a pretty state. I wish I were out of it.
Just passed a sign in Virginia that reads: “Work Zone Safety Week. Dial 551 for Details.” Because there’s nothing safer than driving and dialing in the midst of road construction.
We cross the border into North Carolina. We cheer. Silence. We drive some more. Silence. Penelope asks, “When do we get to Grandma’s?” Umm, we have another two hours in the car.
We arrive at my Mom’s home. The 10-hour trip takes 13 hours and 14 minutes. I used to laugh when friends with small children told me they would leave their homes at 3 a.m. when traveling long distances. Now I get it.