The Nothings

The fourth installment of Summer 2015’s Return to the Heartland series.

The day before we left the land of maple leaves and sorry’s, I found myself at the community centre nearby, volunteering for a Canada Day event. On a whim, I peeked inside the ‘little library’ which hosts a perpetually rotating selection of books, free for the taking.

There were old issues of Reader’s Digest and National Geographic and really nothing that warranted my investing energy into removing a book and carrying it home. Then the title of one paperback caught my eye: ‘The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America.’ Upon reading the summary on the back cover – Bill Bryson returns to America to revisit the land of his youth, only to discover he’d become a foreigner in his own country – I was sold.

I figured the professor and I could read the book simultaneously and have something to talk about during our seven days of entrapment. Somehow this turned into me reading four chapters aloud during our drive. Despite our lack of progress, Bill Bryson gave us some laughs in those chapters with his observations of small town life and mindset; ones we’d reference periodically throughout our trip.

What we didn’t know when we took our leave of Jake and the Fatman, is that their inquisition would not be the only hiccup in our journey to the heartland.

We plowed through the nothing of Montana (taking great pains to avoid the ‘two-foot drop-offs’) directly into the more-nothing of North Dakota. No offense to North Dakota, but driving west to east through the entire state in one day is not a feat one needs to take on more than once in a lifetime. I believe the risk of expiring from boredom is very real.

This is my conundrum with these long, dull drives. They are so long and dull that you have to get out of the car, just to survive, and the more you get out of the car, just to breathe, set foot on terra firma, buy more chips with which to drown your sorrows, or see something that has the potential to be possibly interesting….well the longer that long, dull drive takes.

This might be why we were traipsing around Bismarck at 8pm on a Friday night looking for a pizza place I’d read about on a food blog. Despite the fact that we were still six hours away from our evening’s goal destination: Sioux Falls, South Dakota. (Even writing that makes me want to weep with despair. And I’ve already lived through it.)

It was like stepping into a pizza oven, entering Fireflour that night. The door was propped open which did virtually nothing to alleviate the block of heat squatting in the small space like an oversized piece of restaurant equipment.

We ordered pizzas and walked around the block a few times while we waited. When we returned the pizzas weren’t quite ready so we ordered coffee at the adjacent coffee bar. ‘You’re drinking espresso this time of night?’ The server slash barista inquired. ‘Are you crazy?’ ‘We’re driving,’ I clarified. Even though it’s the same thing.

I have a vague recollection of passing post-pizza time in the car singing ‘Oh Canada’ and trying to teach the boys ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. And, when that one failed, ‘God Bless America.’ For we had a 4th of July date in Kansas City, Missouri at the Royals-Twins baseball game, complete with post-game fireworks, and the professor felt the boys needed to know some of the words of the national anthem.

In order to make it to our next day’s destination, we needed to get to South Dakota on this, our second day of driving. Sioux Falls – a mere 13.5 hours from Grasslands National Park – was the initial goal. And Sioux City, Iowa, an hour further south, had been the ‘dream’.

But then we couldn’t cross the border until 9am, and got detained by our own people for the roadtrip equivalent of 52 miles and all my tentatively laid plans had subsequently gone off the rails.

I begged the professor to let us stay overnight in three-hours-away Fargo, as my eyelids were already letting me know that they did not have a late night of driving in them. He was resolute, looking for a hotel and doing the driving math on his phone, telling me how early we’d have to get up the next morning just to make it to the game on time, while I struggled to keep the car on the road.

It was Adam and Eve all over again. Except, of course, Adam didn’t have a smartphone or access to Expedia and Google Maps.

This might be the perfect time to pause and ask the obvious question: ‘why don’t you book a hotel ahead of time?’ The short and unwitty answer is a mixture of ‘lack of adequate internet access’ and ‘the inevitability of things not going according to plan on long, cross-country drives.’

Mostly we don’t want to book a hotel somewhere, experience some roadside disaster and then be forced to drive until the wee hours of dawn just to get there. Even though that is precisely what we did, arriving at the marital compromise, slightly scary Ramkota Inn in Watertown, South Dakota around 2:30am.

After a few hours of terrible slumber at the Ramkota, we forced ourselves to get up, repack and clean the car and get out of Dodge at the earliest hour we seem to leave a place: 9:30am. We stopped at a Caribou Coffee for our morning’s caffeine and purchased a couple of the greasy Hardee’s breakfast sandwiches we remembered from our youth.

The professor had muttered the words ‘Krispy Kreme’ under his breath, in a desperate sort of voice and I’d suggested he acquire the app identifying Krispy Kreme locations. He downloaded it onto his phone and informed me that, in Iowa, we were going to drive within minutes of a doughnut heaven location.

We began salivating at the prospect of a hot circle of grease, counting down the minutes until we’d be there. Only to discover, as we searched in vain for the necessary exit, that the promised road was not accessible from the highway we were driving on. It was but a minor blow as these things go, but when you’re essentially living in your car, even the little disappointments seem big.

We made it to Kansas City a few hours before the game was to start. I gathered my list of must-try restaurants and coffee shops and we drove to the famous Joe’s Barbeque. We pulled up to what looked like a gas station trimmed in hunter green paint, but GPS insisted we were at the right spot. Sure enough ‘Joe’s Kansas City BBQ‘ the sign proclaimed. I imagined the world famous barbeque that would soon be mine….and then I noticed there were no cars in the parking lot.

Closed.

A Jeep with Florida plates pulled in shortly after us. ‘They might have driven farther than us to get here,’ the professor muttered. But I knew in my heart it wasn’t possible. [Calgary to Kansas City, via Val Marie: 25 hours….Miami to Kansas City: 21 hours.]

No matter, I had ten more restaurants on my list. So we drove to the next best barbeque restaurant in Kansas City.

Closed.

We looked at the website of the fancy coffee shop I’d been dreaming about.

Closed.

Apparently Kansas City takes its Fourth of July celebrations seriously. Except for the Mexican restaurants where people were sitting on patios drinking margaritas and having a great time. We should have just eaten at one of them. After all, the Johnsons love Mexican food. But I had my list. And nothing was working out the way I’d hoped. And I was still trying to redeem Summer 2013’s trip through Kansas City when we’d also failed to procure world famous barbeque.

We drove to the game. Parked the car. And found the concession area. There were, of course, many different stands so we split up – the professor to get barbeque and french fries with two of the boys and I to get pizza and a pretzel with another. The lines were long and we were all starving, having skipped lunch on account of the world famous barbeque.

I finally got to the front of the line. ‘Our credit card system is down, we can only take cash.’ It was the sort of information, in this automated day and age, that needed to be communicated…publicly…in advance.

The professor ran in search of an ATM while I stood back with the boys. He returned eventually with American dollars and we resumed standing in our respective lines. I got to the front of the line. ‘One pizza please.’ The cashier eyed me skeptically, ‘we don’t sell pizza here.’ I looked up confused, having seen several people carrying small cardboard boxes containing pizza.

I’d inadvertently stood in the beer and nacho line.

I got back in the right line and waited my turn. ‘I’d like a cheese pizza and a pretzel please,’ I requested when it was finally my turn.’We’re out of pizza at the moment.’

I stared back at the cashier in disbelief, seconds away from falling apart under the weight of repeated disappointment and low blood sugar. ‘This is the worst day of my life,’ I heard myself saying to the dumbfounded employee in the polo shirt. And walked away with a pretzel and frozen lemonade.

Too late to hear the Star Spangled Banner, but just in time for a celebratory flyover of unidentified aircraft that rattled the building. And my heart.

The game proceeded in the manner of all baseball games, hours spent sitting in tiny chairs, unable to turn or cross legs without fear of kicking the person in front of you. But the stadium had wifi. We’d eaten food of dubious quality. And my men-folk were happy. Though they took cheering for the Twins amid a sea of Royals’ fans a little too seriously for my people pleasing self.

Several hours later, the Twins managed to win and the fireworks show began along with a musical montage of patriotic songs with a strong country music bent. ‘That’s what it’s all about,’ one dad stage-whispered to his two children in a strong Missouri twang, ‘freedom and liberty.’

I couldn’t help but think of Jake and the Fatman.

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