From Beverly to Bridgetown: Cross Country with Caroline and Stanley Part 1
In January 2015 I drove across the United States with Caroline, a lovely neo-punk alternative vegan chick, and her gentlemanly cat Stanley. The following is a brief account of what ensued, told from my heavily biased perspective.
“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” - Jack Kerouac, On the Road
It was the second day of the New Year and my fever hit 102 degrees. The ceiling fan seemed to be whirling backwards and forwards all at once and the pile of blankets on top of me moved like the undulating tide. I was delirious, craving popsicles, and longing for death.
I was also set to leave for Portland, Oregon on a cross country trip from New England in two days.
Chimæric, after days of bringing me endless supplies of Tylenol and ginger ale, suggested that I stay home – acknowledging the reality that being sick is even more miserable when you're trapped in a vehicle. I nibbled on my plastic straw and downed more tylenol.
"We'll see." My eyebrows explained. I had no voice.
When January 4th came around, the day Caroline had decided was "go day" because for some reason or another she considered it lucky. She called me to say that her car was still in the shop and wasn't going to be ready until the next day. I was feeling at about 62.3% so this was excellent news. I rolled over and turned on an episode of No Reservations and genuinely thanked my lucky stars.
Beverly, MA to Chambersburg, PA
The morning of January 5th I was packed and ready to go by 9:30 AM. Caroline promised to come get me at 11 so I curled up on the couch with a cup of tea and the book and tried not to stare at the clock.
Call Caroline. No answer.
Text message. "Had to go to Salisbury to do a thing I'll be a bit late"
By this point I was genuinely unnerved. Our destination for the evening was Chambersburg, PA - a mild 7 hours away, but with traffic and such every moment counted. We also still had to pack Caroline's car, go grocery shopping, get gas, and get Stanley the Cat squared away (to read his side of the story, go Here).
At roughly 3 PM Caroline pulled into my driveway. I had 17 cough drops in my mouth and I was trying not to sound frustrated.
"So what happened?" My general lack of voice made me sound, at the most, perplexed.
She quickly recounted the actions of the previous 5 hours, and from where I sat, it sounded like one thing:
Movers Procrastination (n.) State of mind where the anxiety caused by making huge life transitions manifests in catastrophic feet dragging when go-time is beating down your door.
I didn't blame her. It was a big thing she was doing. I took yet another cough drop and feigned nonchalance, texting our hosts for the night saying we were "going to be quite a bit late."
She had picked me up in her brother's car, and then we proceeded to go to A&J King Artisan Bakers for a last spot of Salem coffee and where she could say one last farewell to her roommate Pat, and then drove to Beverly Farms (a solid half hour away) to fetch her car. Together, with me driving her car behind her in her brother's car back to her house, we made our way to Dane Street in Beverly. Her friend Alex was there waiting with Stanley. Alex looked bored.
I entered the oceanside house to the shocking realization that she hadn't really packed anything. It might have been the fever or the exhaustion or my desperate need to get somewhere that wasn't 5 degrees outside, but my heart sank.
It took us another two hours to load up the car and for her to make her peace with leaving Beverly, which meant it was pushing 7:15 PM when we finally pulled out of the drive. In lieu of proper groceries we stopped at a gas station for fuel and snackage and energy drinks. My body was screaming for sleep but with her being on the brink of a full scale panic attack I knew that wasn't going to be possible. It was up to me to help her get away from this toxic world that was hers for her entire life, and no matter what it took I was going to make that happen.
Between the two of us and all the stuff she could fit and the cat carrier taking up part of the back seat, we were packed in tightly. Stanley was crying and crying and crying for the first three hours but eventually he realized that wouldn't get him anywhere so he went to sleep.
Fortunately, she didn't make me drive at all that night, giving me some reprieve in the midst of the nonsense. I navigated and played 80s music while she chain smoked through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and half of Pennsylvania.
We pulled in at 2:30 AM.
My sister's fiancé's parents were gracious enough to give us a place to stay for the night. They live in a cozy little house in the PA woodlands and, understanding our plight, left the front door unlocked so we wouldn't have to wake them up when we arrived. All of them had to be at work before 8 AM, and being forced to greet us in the small hours of morning would instantly deem us terrible houseguests, or at lease I felt this to be the case.
They had, mercifully, prepared an air mattress on the floor for us with warm linens and fresh towels. I was asleep before I took off my right shoe.
Chambersburg, PA to Springfield, IL
I woke up at 6:30 with Stanley asleep on my face. I have a pretty severe allergy to cats so this was disconcerting. I also had no recollection of where I was or what I was doing there. When voices from the kitchen floated up to the second floor, however, reality reset itself and everything came back to smack me in the face. Although, that may have just been Stanley pawing at my cheeks.
Standing up gently so that the air mattress wouldn't capsize, and so kitty wouldn't freak out, I stole a peek out the window to see the world completely covered in white. Snow was drifting down in peaceful buckets, but I didn't have the mental bandwidth to process this information just yet. Instead, I sneaked downstairs to hug my hosts and thank them profusely for providing us with warmth for the evening.
This small act of gratitude accomplished, I returned to bed for another three hours.
This time Caroline woke me with her attempts to entice Stanley into his makeshift litter box, which he wasn't having. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that there wasn't actually any litter in the box. At this point he hadn't gone in some 14 hours and she was becoming concerned. Yet, as there was nothing to be done, and we had no proper litter, we decided to press on. Our destination that evening was some 11 hours away.
When she stepped outside for her first of many cigarettes of the day, I took a moment to check the weather and get my head on straight. The forecast everywhere was snow, more snow, and the occasional patch of ice. This issue was even further exacerbated by the fact that we had neglected to bring a snow brush. Her car at the moment was a solid stroke of white, which needed to be seen to, but I wasn't about to use my only pair of gloves to fix the problem. I have priorities.
Running back inside to search for any sort of snow removal objects, and coming up empty, I grabbed the next best thing. Our hosts had a sturdy pink sponge mop and push broom – which would do the trick in a pinch. We worked haphazardly for twenty minutes, clawing and pushing and scraping the snow off the car – fortunately there wasn't any ice – until we deemed it passable.
I started out the morning driving so that she could wake up a bit. But before we hit the road officially we stopped off at Food Lion – a Midatlantic grocery market that has little to do with African cats – to acquire some proper food and drinks and cat litter, and, of course, a snow brush. Feeling more secure about our supplies we set the GPS and drove on.
Now, Pennsylvania country roads aren't the easiest pieces of pavement to drive on in the middle of Summer. In mid-winter, however, they turn into mushy reservoirs and general death traps. So, it came as little surprise, although the experience was generally terrifying, when I turned left out of the parking lot and the wheels took on a mind of their own. Before I knew it, the little car was pivoting around at alarming speeds until I was facing the wrong way into oncoming traffic.
Cars coming our direction hit their breaks with Pennsylvania-native adeptness and waved at us as they drove around. In a few moments, I was able to regain my composure and stop screaming obscenities at the steering wheel.
The snow kept coming, ignoring me completely.
Once we crossed the border into Ohio, we stopped at a truck stop/gas station/supercomplex for some french fries and coffee and to again try to get Stanley to do his business. By some miracle he did, thanks to a sizable spritz of kitty calming spray, and we were able to press on through the great midwest without much incident.
"I've always wanted to visit Ohio." Caroline said between cigarette drags. "One time I was on a car trip and woke up from a nap and we were in Ohio, but I was in that mid-nap groggy state and don't remember much of it."
"It's really just a lot of cows with some unremarkable cities in between." I stated, hoping to sound informed but really not knowing what I was talking about.
"Cows are cool." She replied, standard vegan response. It was also a sentiment I could get behind.
We drove onward, deeper into the Midwest. Periodically stopping for gas and for noodles – because what is a road trip without noodles? The temperature had steadied out at 3 degrees, but at least there wasn't any snow. Everything seemed calm and peaceful, until at around 7:30 PM when the car started acting really strange. It began to buck horribly whenever we accelerated past 55 miles per hour.
I called my Dad who insisted that it was probably water in the gas tank, and suggested that we should keep the gas tank as full as possible from then on. We pulled over, filled up the tank, and finding nothing to be obviously wrong, we attempted to get back onto the interstate. The problem persisted. However, there was nothing to be done at this time of night so we proceeded onward ten miles per hour under the speed limit and pretended nothing was the matter.
We pulled into my Aunt's house in Springfield, IL at 2:30 AM.
My Aunt, who was vacationing in Florida, had been compassionate enough to give us use of her house for the night. Most of my mother's family lives in Illinois' capital city, and stopping there just made the most sense. Fortunately for us, staying in a hotel when there was a perfectly available house didn't make sense to my relatives. Good people, all.
After a fantastic night's sleep, Caroline in the upstairs bedroom with Stanley, and me downstairs on the couch (I don't like sleeping in weird bedrooms alone if I can help it, the result of a long struggle with night terrors), we made a breakfast of toast, hummus, and black olives and then spent the morning relaxing. I had some work to do, articles to write for some of the companies I freelance for, so the reprieve was welcome.
At about 11:00 we loaded up the car and headed across town to have coffee with my Grandmother. A 83 year old spitfire, she lives alone in a small house decorated with neo-Victorian style furnishings and birds. There are bird clocks, bird figurines, bird art – but it's not gaudy, she has a knack for presentation that 50's trained women all seem to have. There's always stuff everywhere, but it's so clean you could eat off the floors.
She greeted us at the door with warm welcomes, reaching over her walker to pull us into her arms. Caroline, noticeably more calm after a night of proper rest and realization of how far her past now lay behind her, kicked off her shoes and curled up into an armchair. I stepped into the kitchen to slice an orange and make the three of us coffee. I heard my grandmother start asking Caroline all sorts of questions.
"Where are you from? What's your family like? Why are you going to Portland? Are you in school? Do you have a job?" And so on. Caroline, giggling nervously, tried her best to answer everything. Despite the interrogation she seemed unperturbed. In fact, she just seemed content. Later on she'd tell me, "It was so nice to sit with an actual grandma." Which is a statement with a great deal of merit, because my grandmother is about as grandmotherly as they come, and I'm quite grateful for that.
Seemingly satisfied with Caroline's answer to her questions, my grandma then turned to me. "Weren't you sick last week? On death's door or something? Your mother told me, there's no use hiding it."
"Yes, I was." I sipped my coffee and stared at my shoes.
Fortunately this unfriendly turn of conversation was averted with the arrival of my Uncle, who was going to take us to lunch at the new Market on Koke Mill – one of only 2 or 3 vegan friendly restaurants in the area. Before we left he sat down opposite Caroline and myself, lingering a bit longer in my grandmother's living room, "shooting the breeze" as the midwesterners call it and talking about the beautiful things of life: the weather, books we'd read recently, why Bach was inferior to Beethoven, and so on.
We took two cars over to the store/deli hybrid. I rode with my uncle, who presented me with a pin-sized plastic cardinal. Birds are important in my family. "For good luck and safe travels." He said. I tucked it gingerly into my wallet.
When we stepped inside the warm and open interior of the Market, we were greeted with the smells of freshly baked bread and a wide array of colors. The walls were lined with produce, the shelves stocked with sundry organic items, the cheese counter stuffed to the brim with interesting varieties. From the deli I ordered couscous and pita and coffee, Caroline ordered a veggie sandwich, and my uncle chose something with chicken. Then the three of us sat around a small round table and we told him what we had seen so far, about my run in with the Pennsylvania snow the day before, and gave a brief outline of what the next few days had in store.
Sadly, I've found out recently that this wonderful little store went out of business in May of this year. Goes to show how much of a place there is for vegan/organic food in corn country. I grew up on meat and potatoes when I lived in that part of the world, and it hasn't changed a whole lot since I left. So it goes.
Springfield, IL to Lincoln, NE
By this time in the trip, the car was completely covered in slush. Stuff was so heavily caked on the windshield that most of it was practically impossible to see through. We could've stopped at a grocery store to buy windex, but we decided to get coffee instead. Today was going to be a much simpler and more optimistic day, we told ourselves. The sun was shining, our drive was just over 6 hours, everything was going to be beautiful. The car even seemed to be back to normal, which Caroline had accredited to letting it run for 15 minutes before we got underway.
Western Illinois was nothing but cows and corn, and the same persisted all the way through Iowa. We played the music loud and told stories about ourselves and were generally enjoying the ride.
Getting peckish sometime around 6:30 we pulled into a Taco Bell somewhere outside of Omaha, NE– which surprisingly has vegan options, although I was dubious and had told Caroline this –and ordered burritos (road trip staples) and sodas and chips. Taking the food back to the car so that Stanley wouldn't have to be alone for too long, Caroline called her family to check in, simultaneously digging into her dinner.
I was checking messages on my phone when the seat erupted next to me in a cacophony of noise and movement. Caroline was screeching in disgust, screaming expletives at her burrito.
Apparently when she had told them "no meat" they hadn't listened. The artificial tortilla was overflowing with tiny meat-like particles and she looked like she was going to hurl. Acting fast, I pinched the offending article and hopped out of the car to deposit it into the trash. When I came back she was gripping the steering wheel in horror.
"That was the worst thing I've ever put in my mouth." she sneered.
"And that's saying something."
"Should I go back inside and get another one?"
"They'll probably just do it again, they don't really care too much around here."
"Good point. I need water and candy."
We sped off in the direction of the nearest convenience store, just down the street. I sat in the car while she ran inside, mostly because it was warm. When she came back, she was carrying a pack of cigarettes, two bottles of water, and a package of some confectionary or another. She also had an even deeper look of horror on her face then I had seen moments before.
I raised an eyebrow.
"So while I was waiting in line..." she began. Her hands shaking as she fumbled for her keys. "I overhead the cashier talking to one of the customers. The customer just wanted cigarettes, but the cashier was intent on telling his story. This what he said,
"'My dog went missing last week, and I know that my fucking next door neighbors took him. They're Chinese and they have this Chinese food place and I know exactly what happened to my dog!'"
Caroline managed to turn the key in the ignition. "I threw some money on the counter, probably more than I needed to, and ran out of there. I've had enough of this place."
We rode into Lincoln at the reasonable hour of 9PM, where my friend Devin met us at the door of her cozy college apartment. I had met Devin two years previous on a trip to Gabrovo, Bulgaria for the International Chamber Music Festival. I was photographing the event and she was the featured Soprano. She's currently getting her Master's Degree in music from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and her voice is still as perfect as ever.
Also there to greet us was her tiny cat Flash, who took one look at Stanley and sprinted away. Stanley, the ever curious kitty went off to follow him, looking to make friends.
After taking a few minutes to catch up, Devin compassionately returned to her room so that we could get some rest, the adventures of the last few days had caught up with us. I suggested that Caroline take the lumpy fold out mattress and electric blanket and I curled up on the slightly too short but super comfy love seat next to it. The wind was howling outside, evidence of the impending storm, but within minutes we were both dead to the world.
I woke up what seemed like minutes later to someone banging on the door and Stanley once again sitting on my face. Shooing him away I sat up momentarily to see Devin's roommate run downstairs to open the door. Someone had come to fix the sink in the upstairs bathroom. I checked the time on my phone. 7:30 AM. Apparently work days start early in Nebraska. The roommate turned to me. "Sleep well?" I nodded groggily and mumbled something like "thank you" and smiled. She smiled back and disappeared back upstairs.
A short while later Devin emerged from the bedroom and Caroline stirred from under her electric blanket. The wind hadn't slowed down outside, it was almost like it had a vendetta, but at least the sun was shining. Devin, somehow able to read my thoughts, piped in.
"It's because it's so flat here, the wind. It's colder and windier here than anywhere else I've ever been."
"I hope the music program's worth it." I responded, knowing full well it was.
"For the price, it certainly is. And after a while you get used to it."
Knowing that the day was going to be another relatively easy one driving wise, we all went out out to this breakfast place cutely called "The Egg and I." I had never heard of it before, but in classic American style they've popped up all over the country, including Maine. It's about what you'd expect from the name, a million varieties of classical egg dishes and pancakes and 1.5 vegan options (oatmeal and potatoes). Although, despite it's standardness the coffee was pretty delicious, which in all honesty was the important part.
Afterwards she gave us the quick tour of downtown Lincoln's Haymarket district by the rail yard. Apparently, probably due to the college student population, the downtown area is a bustling center of dining and shopping. There's even a fully operative speakeasy with secret entrance. Maybe someday I'll go back and check it out properly.
But not this time. We had somewhere to be.
This story will continue!