Heading home

The ninth and final installment of Summer 2015: Roadtrip to the Heartland.

We emerged from our suburban hotel at a surprisingly efficient 8:30am. Surely a new trip record for the Johnsons, undoubtedly attributed to the hour gained since leaving Michigan. We ate cereal out of cardboard bowls (which I just happened to find under my seat yesterday, three weeks later), supported yet another mediocre Starbucks, and hit the road.

It was to be a difficult day of driving as we were due for another close encounter with North Dakota. We made it as far as Fargo before I felt the need to get out of the car. Although, now that I think of it, we may have pulled off at a rest stop near the Minnesota border for one of the boys to go to the bathroom. Or maybe that was before Jamestown. Or all of the above. Who can recall?

The professor googled ‘best coffee in Fargo’ and the Red Raven Espresso Parlor popped up in the search results. So we drove through unknown streets in search of an algorithm’s idea of suitable caffeine.

We stopped, briefly, in the parking lot of an auto repair shop, to verify we were on the right street, when the Gort looked up, saw the words ‘auto repair’ and despaired, ‘oh, no, what do we have to replace now?!’ [For in addition to the Missouri alternator emergency, we’d also kitted out our Sienna with a brand-new Indiana muffler.] It was to be the funniest moment in all seven days of driving.

Which is sad, really.

We stopped for coffee. Which led to a stop for burgers. And then we hit the road to Jamestown where we stopped for an emergency bag of m&m’s at the world’s scariest looking grocery store. And there was another stop after that for gas and a Subway sandwich for somebody’s dinner.

When the professor said, at the beginning of our return trip, that he was saying goodbye to happy Nicola, he really meant he was saying goodbye to happy everyone. For the atmosphere in the car on the tail end of every one of these trips is always charged. High levels of irritability mix with exhaustion and abnormal blood sugar levels in decidedly unpleasant ways, and we have no choice but to endure it; the journey and one another.

As we headed towards the border, which had me feeling slightly anxious on account of our previous encounter with America’s finest, I suddenly panicked that it might be closed by the time we got there. I envisioned us having to drive to another point of entry, or possibly spend the night in the car. Luckily, that particular crossing point turned out to be open 24 hours a day. I suppose we should add it to the list of things to investigate: border crossing hours of operation. If we ever intend to make this roadtrip again.

My memory is somewhat hazy, nearly a month later, but this is an approximate account of our exchange with customs:

Where are you coming from: Indiana

How long were you there: One month

What were you doing: Visiting Family

Value of any purchases: Maybe two hundred bucks

Have a good day.

Oh, Canada.

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I couldn’t help but think of the Gort’s panicked conclusion from several days earlier, upon nearly being run over by a motorcycle in the South Beach parking lot: ‘we need to go back to Canada! It’s safer there.’

I don’t know about safer, but pedestrians do have the right of way. And border agents don’t seem overly suspicious of kids having passports.

We rolled into Regina at a surprisingly decent time, meaning: notmidnight. And fell asleep in a relatively undramatic fashion, meaning: noonescreamedforthirtyminutesplus. It was, what I like to call, a roadtrip miracle.

The next morning we awoke, ready for the last stretch to Calgary through some of the flattest, most unexciting land in the history of flat and unexciting land. I consulted Google to lead me to my morning coffee and as we drove through downtown Regina, I found myself thinking: Regina is not half bad.

It may be a side effect of driving 8153 kilometers, my thinking that relocating to any university town with the potential to reduce our overall driving time, would be awesome.

Or maybe, as Bill Bryson suggests in his book The Lost Continent, I’m on a perpetual search to find ‘the perfect town’ that seems only to exist in mid-century film and literature. After leaving Regina, we drove through the hamlet of Moose Jaw and stopped in Swift Current, which surprised me with signs for a Saturday farmer’s market and a newly opened independent coffee shop.

But despite its slightly closer proximity to Indiana, I did not contemplate – even for a second – moving there.

The last couple of hours of the trip always hold a bit of excitement as the boys start calculating what time we might get to Calgary; anticipating the fun of being home, with their toys and in their own beds. And the professor’s spirits lift a bit, too, as he anticipates a day in the very near future where he will not have to spend more than fifteen minutes in the car. And I imagine my own bed. Getting my clothes out of a closet or a dresser. Making my own coffee and eating real food.

Just after 4:30pm, we ran from the car, through a rainstorm, into our little white house. After being gone for 33 days and sleeping in 13 different beds. My basil plant had shriveled to a brittle outline of its former self (good thing I stayed up to make pesto the night before we left), and the colorful orange planters I’d bequeathed to Mother Nature, had died a severe and painful-looking death.

But we were home, and that was more than sufficient. We ate french toast and bacon and crawled into bed at a relatively decent hour. The next morning the professor emerged from the shower looking especially handsome, and as I tried to pinpoint the reason, I realized it was because he was wearing a t-shirt and pair of jeans I hadn’t seen every day for the last 5 weeks.

The boys were back to the business of being a trio, playing Lego in the basement and at the coffee table, as though the trip had never happened. While I got back in the car to address the empty fridge and pantry and the chipped windshield North Dakota had given us as a parting gift.

I think about it often when we do any trip, but especially these marathons – the difference in being a parent versus being a kid. The cleaning, the packing, the laundry, the arrangements, the driving, figuring out food and paying for it all…just how much work it is to make memories.

For the adults, it’s brutal with a side of awesome. And for the boys, it’s awesome with a side of brutal.

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