Crossing the Do-Nut Belt

On January 27, I was driving from Dallas, Texas to St. Marys, Georgia on backroads. I collected all the funny bits for my sister, as a belated birthday present.

Junk-food Mardi Gras cape

All hail the Krewe of Junk Food

The Gulf coast visitor’s center had a display of sequined Mardi Gras finery. My favorite was the one featuring hot dogs, hamburgers, and popcorn containers.

In one small town: “Not Your Mother’s Tavern”
In another: “Mom’s Bar”
In a third: “Mother Clucker’s.”

Baton Rouge has a place called “Schlitz & Giggles: Silly Name. Serious Pizza.”

I usually get a kick out of church signs. When I did a Google search, I realized many of them are not original. The fact that they come from sayingsforchurchsigns.com, rather than from God himself, takes the fun out of it.

Donuts. Did you know the US has a Do-Nut Belt? Shipley’s Do-Nuts says it’s Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee. As I drove, I noted dozens of hole-in-the-wall places with no pretentious hyphen in “donut”: Dee Dee Donuts, the Donut Palace, Donut King, and my personal favorite, the Texas Donut Ranch.

I didn’t succumb to either donuts or Do-Nuts.

But it was touch-and-go when I saw a roadside sign saying “Original Homemade Sausage Jalapeño Cheese Bread, one mile,” with an arrow pointing left. I will always regret not stopping.

I will never regret stopping at Ozzy’s. I got love in a takeout container.

Strangers Have the Best Candy at the Russell Stover factory

Strangers Have the Best Candy at the Russell Stover factory

Dick took my picture at the Russell Stover Factory. I know you’ll roll your eyes at this. That’s why I didn’t buy you any.

There was a big green interstate sign for Baptist Pumpkin Center. Without punctuation, I have no idea what that means. Where is the Methodist Pumpkin Center? And the Buddhist Pumpkin Center?

Next Left: Dead Man Road. Followed by a smaller sign saying “Cemetery.” Dunno who else would want to live there.

On any given day, along Interstate 10, thousands of people see the memorials to Buddy, Amanda, Ben, Brian, Wesley, and the Dobbins family. Their descansoes, or roadside memorials, feature lettering large enough to read at 75 mph.

At a slightly slower speed, I drove for five minutes past acres and acres of stored FEMA trailers. In the past decade, they have been replaced by manufactured homes, and there are many businesses that thrive on such things: “House Moving, Lifting, and Leveling.” Fueled by donuts, no doubt.

Speaking of housing, did you know you can buy a whole acre of residential beachfront property in Pascagoula for only $159,000?

Wal-Mart with waterfront view

Looking north, looking south

Just down the road is the most incredible view I’ve ever seen from a Wal-Mart.

Another pretentious sign: “Mississippi Gulf Coast: A Certified Retirement Community.” Certified by whom? Evidently, I’m not the only one to ask that question. Even the Wall Street Journal has a sense of humor about such things as ticks, chiggers and snakes.

One last comment: Even if Cretin Homes is named after the company’s owner, I’d change it.

A beautiful state of mind

Michigan is a beautiful place to be today. “Oh boy!” I can hear you say, “Does that mean you’re posting some photographs?” No, I’m afraid there are no photographs to illustrate this state’s beauty today. It’s more elusive than that.

It’s the way the wind is moving the trees, the way the air smells, the way the fluffy white clouds form in the blue sky. It’s the way the birds sang after the rain shower, the way the homemade cherry pie tasted in the cafe in Clare. It’s the way the baby in that same cafe peered curiously from his Daddy’s lap.

It’s the bouncing, crazy exuberance of our nephews at 8 and 11-going-on-12. It’s the precious hugs from Grandma at 97-going-on-98. It’s the Happy Spot I made outside my in-laws’ motel room.

I don’t have photos of any of these beautiful moments. Just memories.

My mother-in-law grew up in Michigan, when the world was smaller. Michigan was her world, and though her father traveled for work and her parents moved a couple of times, it was always within Michigan.

This morning, she showed us some old family photos from the 1940’s and 50’s. Most include her parents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. They’re always smiling and laughing, whether standing on the shores of a lake, sitting at a table, or posing with their arms around each other in front of some trees. The extended family vacationed together for decades, fishing, sharing meals, playing cards, drinking beer, and just enjoying each others’ company.

Of course, all these vacation spots are in Michigan. From what I can tell, this state has always been beautiful, as long as the right people are here.

A little dinghy

What's that white thing on the dock? A shoebox, a bookshelf, or a boat?

On the big day, when we launched Flutterby, I didn’t pour all the champagne over the bow. There was some left in the bottle, so a bunch of us went down the dock to where a little wooden shoebox, about six feet long, sat waiting. Kris and Barry picked it up and dangled it down to the water by its painter, letting it down with a  splash. Way, way down there in the water below the high dock, it looked for all the world like an abandoned piece of furniture. Somebody tossed a couple of wooden oars into the shoebox-bookshelf, and then they all turned to me, expectantly.

Uh-oh.

There it floated, nine years in the making, waiting for the builder to test it. I felt like the ancient Roman bridge designer who had to stand under his bridge when the first load went across. What if I was too heavy? What if it flipped, or worse yet, slowly sank? I could hear the blub-blub-blub in my imagination. But it’s amazing what adrenaline and an audience can do. White-knuckled, I climbed down the ladder into the tiny vessel that I had given birth to from a pile of plywood.

I was still hanging onto the ladder with a death grip when Barry handed me the bottle of champagne.

It felt like a toy boat, something that should be christened with Kool-Aid. But I wanted the gods of the sea to take this thing seriously, so I poured champagne over the “bow.” (Since the boat doesn’t have a pointy end, it’s a little hard to tell which is the front and which is the back. It would probably row just fine sideways, if I mounted the oars that way.)

“I christen thee Flutterwent!” The name was Kris’ idea. It rolls off the tongue better than Flagondry or Rockcoach, two bug-based Spoonerisms that sound a lot worse than Flutterby.

Before I knew it, Barry was climbing off the dock to join me in the boat, I think because I had the bottle of champagne. Or maybe because he wanted to swamp it and go swimming. Surely this thing was not rated for two adults, was it? Thank goodness the Coast Guard wasn’t around to see the open container in an overloaded vessel with no lifejackets.

But she didn’t ship any water when he climbed in. We sat there, facing each other, grinning, and passing the champagne bottle back and forth. Meanwhile, the current was carrying us away from the dock. Whoops! Time to do something about that!

Using ridiculous 7-foot oars as giant paddles, we paddled through the marina and over to the ways, where Flutterby awaited us. The scariest part was getting back out again! I didn’t know how stable it was, but I knew how stable I was — not very. I guess the adrenaline got me out of the boat as well as into it, although by now most of our audience had lost interest and wandered off for happy hour. I was already plenty happy.

You might be wondering, why would anyone use such a strange-looking, tiny dinghy? Normal cruisers go back and forth from their boats in stock gray inflatables with stock outboard motors. Why not the Flutterbies?

For years, Barry wanted to build a 34-foot sailboat with me. This terrified me, because I was afraid of power tools. I’d had an accident in college with a bandsaw and nearly ended up eight-fingered Meps.

In 2001, our housemate, Sharonne, signed up for a beginning woodworking class. For the first four weeks, the students built toolboxes using a table saw, joiner, planer, biscuit-cutter, and sander. For the remainder of the class, they worked on their own projects. At the end of ten weeks, Sharonne proudly brought home the toolbox and a tall bookshelf that she had built with her own hands.

I signed up for the next session and built the same toolbox. Then the teacher sat down with the class and told us we were free to start on our own projects. He went around the room and asked each person to say what they wanted to build. “A CD rack,” said one. “Toys for my grandchildren,” said another.

I never checked to see if the toolbox would float. It would make a great dinghy for the dinghy.

When he reached me, I said, “A boat.”

“A toy boat?” asked the teacher.

“No, a real one.”

The rest of the class stared at me.

“This is Woodworking One. You can’t build a boat on Woodworking One,” said the teacher, with a smirk.

“Don’t you remember Sharonne, from last term? She built a bookshelf. I promise my boat will be just like a bookshelf.” He rolled his eyes and made me stay after class to convince me that I couldn’t build a boat.

The following week, I showed him the plans. Phil Bolger’s Tortoise dinghy looks a lot like a floating bookshelf, so he reluctantly permitted me to start. A couple of months later, Barry and I loaded my plywood dinghy on top of Peepcar and brought it home. I’d done the final assembly in Woodworking Two, with a more encouraging instructor.

The good news was, I still had all my fingers. (So did the instructor from Woodworking One, who’d nearly run his hand through the table saw helping me cut the framing.) The bad news was, it wasn’t a boat yet.

It was a thing of beauty, constructed of luan plywood with pine framing and copper ring nails. For the first year, it sat on our back porch. For the next five, it hung in my in-laws’ garage.

I was proud of my accomplishment, so I told people that I’d built a boat. But whenever Barry heard me say that, he’d correct me. “No, you didn’t. It’s not finished.”

In 2008, I painted it with epoxy resin to protect the wood, and we tied it on top of the Squid Wagon. We drove from Seattle to Flutterby in Beaufort, North Carolina, via San Diego, with that tiny, funny-looking boat on top of the van.

The ant and the elephant along the California coast (April 2008)

It looked like an ant on top of an elephant. All the way across the USA, we got reactions like the guy with the toothpick in his mouth who sauntered over to Barry, not noticing me nearby. “What is that?” he asked. “Some kind of storage pod?” “No,” said Barry, “It’s a boat.” The guy looked more closely and said, “Oh.”

Then Barry added, “My wife built it.” The guy cracked up laughing. He thought it was the punchline to a really funny joke.

The epoxy wasn’t UV-resistant, and by the time we crossed the country, it already needed sanding and painting. We didn’t have anywhere to store it out of the weather, so we rented a 5×7 storage unit and stuffed it inside, using it to store other items — just like a bookshelf!

For another two and a half years, when I said, “I built a boat,” Barry said, “No, you haven’t.” I’d glare at him. Couldn’t he just shut up?

That was getting really irritating, so last summer, I took the poor neglected dinghy out and put it under Flutterby. It was time to finish it, a job only I could do. If I let Barry help me, then, when I said “I built a boat,” he’d still have an excuse to correct me. “No, you didn’t. We built a boat.”

My sawhorses sat on some turf with boatbuilding history. Between 1983 and 1995, Bock Marine built and launched over 30 boats in that spot, including the 122-foot White Dove Too. Like the WDT, my dinghy was brought from another location and completed on that hallowed ground. But there are some differences. Their ships were steel, launched using a dramatic side-launching technique (this is a hilarious photo of people running from the splash) instead of our painter-dangling end-launching technique. I calculated the ratio of length-to-time-under-construction: At 6.5 feet and 9 years, Flutterwent’s ratio was 505. Knocking out a couple of 85-footers a year, Bock’s was 2.1.

I finished the dinghy in the heat of the summer, using all the woodworking, epoxy, fiberglass, and painting skills I learned on Flutterby. While I was working, I wore headphones and hearing protection. Not because of the power tools, but because I was tired of all the men in the boatyard wandering over to stare. I was tired of explaining that I was not building a hard dodger to cover the companionway.

When I was done, I said to Barry, “I built a boat.” Then he hugged me instead of correcting me.

It still wasn’t completely done, having no means of propulsion. But it’s past midnight, and I am done for tonight! Tiny boat, big story. I’ll put the photo essay below and save the rest for another time.

Barry and Kris drop the dinghy into the water, stern-first. "Yikes! Who's got the painter?"

With nerves of steel, I step into the floating box. Ted, who has launched many dinghies, was there to help, and Barry had the painter and the champagne.

You can tell from my hand that I am afraid to move, for fear it will sink or tip over.

Margaret Meps Schulte christens her Tortoise dinghy

I haven't sunk yet. And I have the champagne. So I'm smiling.

Oh no! Here comes Barry to see if he can swamp my dinghy.

As the current carries us away from safety, I say, "You want some of this?"

Giggling, we pick up the oars and paddle into the sunset. She tracks like a shoebox instead of a soapdish.

Getting out is trickier than getting in. Barry made sure the champagne bottle was safe, but I think it was empty by now.

Barry and Meps with Meps' Tortoise dinghy

Whee! Barry has fun scooting under Flutterby's bow line. At 6-1/2 feet long, the Tortoise dinghy is just long enough for a nice nap.

Getting into a jam – by choice

What has four letters, starts with a vowel, and has lots of corn and cows? Ohio. Iowa. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep them straight, even when you’ve lived in one of them.

Not sure what we're stopping for, but it looks interesting!

About fifteen miles into Iowa, a gigantic sign caught my eye. “World’s Largest Truck Stop.” There was a traffic jam associated with the world’s largest truck stop — the off-ramp was backed up with cars and semis. Traffic jams are unheard of in a place where cows outnumber people.

At 65 mph, I had only an instant to decide. I switched off the cruise control and joined the traffic jam.

The off-ramp was perched high above the truck stop, and we could see down into vast acres of trucks, cars, pedestrians, and — huh? Circus tents? What was going on at the world’s largest truck stop?

It felt surreal to follow signs for overflow parking without knowing why. The Squid Wagon was directed to a field, about a half mile from the center of the activity. Just after we’d locked up and grabbed cameras and sun hats, an ancient yellow school bus came by and picked us up. Someone handed us a program, which said, “Welcome to the 31st Annual Walcott Truckers Jamboree.” Bouncing the whole way, the school bus delivered us to the entrance of what the program said was “The Best Trucker Party in the Country! FUN! for all.”

Now, Barry and I are always looking at big trucks and asking each other, “What do you suppose that thing is for?” “Why is he doing that?” “What do you think is in there?” Since neither of us has ever been inside a semi, we spend a lot of time arguing about the possible answers, without any real facts on which to base our positions. We call it “talking out of our butts.”

Finally, we could get some answers. Just the previous day, we’d debated this one: Why pay to be weighed at a truck stop, when weigh stations do it for free? The first exhibitor at the show, a representative of CAT Scales, answered that one — truckers want to make sure the weight of their load is legal before they drive into a weigh station, where they will be fined if it’s not. Also, some loads, such as household goods, are charged by weight.

Lots of beer bellies and baseball caps in evidence at the truck display

I love the feet sticking out of the doors as these fellows peer inside the truck

The lines of this truck's grille are beautifully art deco.

We wandered the big tent, where exhibitors were touting everything from dip mixes to air filters and 12-volt mattress warmers. One driver had self-published a novel, but without an audio version, he wasn’t getting much interest from his fellow drivers. Trucking companies were handing out freebies to anyone with a CDL, hoping to recruit drivers. The American Lung Association and the Iowa Soybean Association, unrelated organizations with different interests, were both pushing biodiesel. I stopped to look at literature for Women in Trucking, and two women pounced on me as a potential member. Later, when I read their newsletter, I realized I should have asked about their Women in Trucking tattoos.

We left the exhibits and started strolling through the rows of trucks, taking pictures of shiny chrome and elaborate airbrushed graphics. What was the story on these trucks? Were they for sale, or just for show? Who had brought them?

The acres of blacktop gave off waves of heat, and the only shade came from the trucks themselves. We came upon a small group in folding chairs, chatting animatedly in the shade between two trucks.

A group of truckers hanging out in the shade of their trucks. The one on the left has a shower.

When questioned, they explained that they were owner-operators who came every year. I asked about their trucks, and one couple pointed to the one on the left, and other pointed to the one on the right. “Are you staying in your trucks?” I asked. “We’re staying in the hotel,” answered one of the women. “But they’re staying here. She has a real bathroom in hers, with a shower,” she said, enviously. The sleeper on the truck with the bathroom was about three times larger than other sleepers, and had larger windows. It looked like a very sturdy RV.

I was getting a glimpse of another world. Barry and I had learned a little bit about the RV crowd, mostly retired people who drive around the country and pay handsomely for the fuel to do so. Now we were meeting folks with smaller accommodations, but bigger rigs. They’re proud of the fact that they get paid to do their traveling.

I began to understand the event — an excuse for truckers to relax and spend time with people who understand their way of life. What we had stumbled upon was something like the Seven Seas Cruising Association Gam for offshore sailors, or the Sturgis, South Dakota, motorcycle rally. I even felt elements of our favorite annual event, Burning Man.

Like Burning Man, there was art: One man’s purple truck was airbrushed with shining white horses charging out of blue surf. The multi-talented owner-operator had painted it himself. Not only that, but he’d built the interior of the sleeper himself, the only one we saw that included a fireplace. We climbed up into the cab, with hundreds of shiny buttons and switches, to see the sculpture on the back wall of the sleeper, a continuation of the horses in surf theme.

The left side of the truck with the fireplace, original artwork by the owner/operator

The man who drives this truck is also the artist

This relief sculpture is not original, but was chosen to match the airbrushed artwork on the outside. Some of these sleepers are tres elegant on the inside!

This truck actually has a tiny fireplace in the sleeper

This is the cab of the truck with the fireplace and the horses and surf artwork. She's a beauty.

He just looks like an ordinary truck driver, but the man on the right is more than that -- he's the artist who created the truck shown above

The same man told us we absolutely had to stay for the nighttime party. He described the illuminated trucks in the Lights at Night Competition, and said people would be walking around and admiring each others’ trucks all night. There would be a fireworks show and a concert by big-name country musician Tracy Lawrence. I had to take his word that Tracy Lawrence is famous, having never heard of him, myself.

I seriously considered his recommendation to stay. I felt very welcome, and we could easily have hung out all day and through the night, partying with the big truck people (while listening to music we don’t like). But in the end, we decided to push on across Iowa and save our free time for places that were greener and cooler (and have better music).

We drove about 20 miles up the road and stopped at a rest area, where I struck up a conversation with the man who was cleaning the restrooms. He was a very overweight man, one of the largest I’ve ever seen, and admitted that he’d hardly been away from home. I sensed that working in a rest area made him restless, wishing to see more of the world. When I said that we’d just come from the big truck jamboree, his face lit up. “I’m going to that tomorrow,” he told me.

Then I started telling him what I’d heard about the nighttime party, the fireworks and the music and the illuminated trucks, and he got more and more excited. “I get off at nine,” he said, “so I’ll just go over there tonight!” I was glad that I’d given him a little excitement to look forward to. I was also glad that there would be one more person at the Jamboree to appreciate all the work that went into the decorated trucks.

Barry and I continued west on I-80, passing a few trucks and being passed by others. Each time, I thought of the person driving it, rather than just the vehicle. Were they aware of the party they were missing? Maybe they don’t like country music, either.

In the future, driving on the freeway, I’ll look up — because no matter how high the Squid Wagon is, trucks are always many feet higher — and feel a connection to the driver. And if he looks my way, I’ll give him a friendly wave. We might meet again someday, at the Walcott Truckers Jamboree. Next time, I’ll stay for the concert.

Some folks display their shiny truck engines. You can see my reflection on the right.

Barry's face is reflected in this truck's engine.

Help is on this corner

The inscription reads, 'To the pioneers who bridged the streams, subdued the soil, and started a state.'

In the small town park, there was a band shell and a statue. The latter towered formidably over our heads. It was a bronze casting of a couple holding a child and staring off into the distance. The inscription read, “To the pioneers who bridged the streams, subdued the soil, and founded a state.”

My eyes followed their gaze, and met terrible destruction.

On a whim, we’d hopped off Interstate 74, in Western Illinois, to follow a small brown highway sign that said, “Lorado Taft works of art.” The 16-mile detour would take us through nothing but cornfields. I worried that we might not even like the art.

Barry pointed out that we had postcards and a parcel to mail. Even if we hated Taft’s art, we could use Elmwood’s post office.

We drove for about 15 minutes, and just as we reached the edge of Elmwood, we came to a sign in the middle of the road: “Road Closed.” If we followed the detour, we’d miss the art altogether.

Empty street and road closed sign

The road into Elmwood, Illinois

We sat at the crossroads, puzzled. “They can’t close the whole town!” I said to Barry, indignantly. A car came along and swung around the sign, ignoring the roadblock. We followed. A block down, there was a sign on the right, pointing towards the Taft Memorial. “Let’s find the post office first,” said Barry, who was driving.

A few blocks later, it became apparent that Main Street, which intersected our road, was full of construction equipment and jersey barriers. Barry turned right and paralleled it, two blocks away, but every time we came to a cross-street, there was a jersey barrier. He was so busy trying to figure out how to make a left turn, he didn’t see the clue on the other corner.

It was the remnants of a telephone pole, tilted at 45 degrees and splintered ten feet in the air. The pieces fell into place: Tornado.

And then Barry found a place to turn, and we crossed Main Street. The tornado had ripped and splintered its way precisely through the heart of the little town. For about four blocks, Main Street was rubble, construction equipment, yellow tape, and jersey barriers.

Tornado-damaged buildings in Elmwood, Illinois

A block away from Main Street

Somewhat stunned, we got out of the van and walked over to the town park. I was incredibly curious, but embarrassed. I wanted to say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t come here to gawk at your misfortune. It was a coincidence.”

A cluster of older folks stood on the sidewalk, watching the demolition workers. I walked over to ask where the post office was, but just then, I saw it. It was in one of the damaged buildings, closed until further notice.

A woman pointed out the white and blue truck on the other side of the park. “That’s our post office, for now.” That’s when I saw the pioneer statue by Lorado Taft, honoring the fact that those who settled Elmwood had endured difficult times. I shook my head at the irony.

With our camera, Barry and I walked around the perimeter of the destruction, capturing images of the sudden power of nature. Two teenagers trotted past, carrying large crowbars. In another situation, that would be alarming. Here, it was charming. A man watching from his bicycle was enveloped by dust as a second-story wall came down. He pedaled to another spot and continued watching.

Eventually, we joined the group in front of the bank that had grown to about 20 people. One man had a home video camera on a tripod, and just about everyone had a little digital camera. “When are the kids coming for a visit?” one silver-haired woman asked another. “Next month, to celebrate the birthdays,” was the answer. “I can’t wait to show them these pictures. How’s your mother?”

We learned that the tornado had hit a month earlier, during the town’s annual Strawberry Festival. There had been ample warning, so everyone went home and no people were hurt.

I’m sure the early aftermath was traumatic — live powerlines and broken water mains and precarious walls of brick teetering above Main Street. That’s over now. The crews we watched were tearing down unstable structures and getting ready for rebuilding.

No one we talked to seemed sad or distressed; all the people chatting on the street corners were pretty cheerful. There was a buzz of excitement and lots of interaction. Hometown Hardware, located on the corner, had lost most of its second floor, but their signs were intact. There were several jokes about the large white one that said, proudly, “Help is on this corner.”

In a few months’ time, the Lorado Taft sculpture of the pioneers will look out over a new landscape. The buildings will be different, and the town will have new history. The stalwart descendants of these pioneers have figured out how to deal with the forces of nature and move on. Their ancestors, the pioneers, would be proud.

Group of people leaning against a wall, watching demolition equipment

Watching Elmwood's demolition, cameras in hand

People watching the demolition of Elmwood, Illinois' main street

Construction equipment and workers tearing down a building

What everyone in Elmwood was watching

Front door of Elmwood's city hall, with broken glass surrounding the sign

The sign reads 'City of Elmwood City Hall'

Men standing in the street beside Hometown Hardware, which was destroyed by tornado

The vertical sign on Hometown Hardware reads 'Help is on the corner'

The long and corny road

We’ve tried longer visits, shorter visits, and more frequent visits, but we can’t escape this fact: Columbus, Ohio is a midwestern black hole that sucks us in every time we cross the country.

It’s not the city or the shopping (blech!) or the restaurants. For me and Barry, Columbus, Ohio, has more beloved people per capita than any other place on the planet. The magnetic pull starts with a special brother, a fantastic sister and brother-in-law, and two precious nephews.

Add a bunch of friends who are as dear as any blood relative. We haven’t lived there since 1990 — yet we continue to meet amazing people, both in and out of Columbus, who call that place their home. We’ve known some Columbus friends for almost 30 years, and others for one year.

So each time we leave, there are a few hours or days of letdown.

This time, we headed west on US40, the National Road. There wasn’t much to see. Corn. Corn. A sign for the Krazy Glue Factory. Corn. Corn.

I tried to remind myself that each corn plant is a new and different being that came from a seed and didn’t exist the previous year. How would you like it if people said, “Human. I’ve seen those before. You’re no different. I’m not interested.”

Unfortunately, I can’t discriminate between this corn and the corn I saw in 1981, or 1993, or any other year I drove or bicycled on US40.

The heat and humidity were oppressive, and our air conditioning was broken. The last time we had it recharged was because the lack of air-conditioning in Yuma, Arizona made us terminally irritable, and $400 was cheap compared to homicide. We’re a lot more tolerant (and cheap) these days, so we decided to live without it.

In Springfield, Ohio, we discovered that MacDonald’s was running a special on ice cream cones. This was too good to pass up — air-conditioning, people-watching, and two ice cream cones for only $1.

Barry came back from the restroom and found me playing with both his napkin and mine. “Sorry. I hope you don’t need this,” I said, handing back his very-crumpled napkin.

There was a game imprinted on the table, a circle divided into pie-shaped pieces with instructions on each one. You were supposed to spin a straw in the middle and do the activity it landed on. Since ice cream cones don’t come with a straw, I just picked my favorite. “Make a hand puppet out of your napkin,” it said.

After leaving MacDonald’s, Barry took the wheel for a while. He decided to drive on the interstate instead of the two-lanes, and guided the Squid Wagon back onto I-70.

At first I regretted his decision. What would we see along the four-lane highways? Corn. MacDonald’s. Corn. Corn. Corn. Boring.

If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written before, you’re laughing at me. I am, too. You see, I spend a lot of time worrying and fretting and writing about my fear of being bored. Yet the truth is, it never happens. I am never, ever, ever bored!

Why? It’s not just each corn plant that is different and unique: It’s each moment.

Enjoy the next moment.

Let me know how that goes. Boring? I doubt it.

Holy elephant

At 8 am in Paxton, Nebraska, we stopped to mail some postcards and ask a couple of locals for directions. “Have you ever heard of a place around here with a bowling alley and a soda fountain? They’re famous for their tin roof sundaes.”

“Nope, nothing like that around here.”

It was a little early to be eating decadent ice cream treats, anyway, so we weren’t too disappointed. We later realized we were still 100 miles east of the place, which is in Potter, Nebraska.

But the two local fellows didn’t want to disappoint us. “You ever been in there?” one asked, pointing to the bar on the corner. “That’s a real tourist attraction — people come from all over the country to see it.”

We said no, politely looking up at the sign. Ole’s Big Game Bar and Grill had tinted windows, so there was no telling what was inside that he thought might be of interest to us “tourists.”

“They’re not open for business, but there’s somebody in there,” he said.

We walked over and tried one of the doors. It was locked. But there was another door, this one unlocked, and the fellows were watching to see us go inside. It was a normal-looking restaurant, and a woman was inside, vacuuming. “Some guys out there said we should come in and look…” I said, sheepishly.

She pointed to the next room. “Go ahead,” she said, resuming her vacuuming.

In the next room, my jaw dropped. “Holy cow!” I exclaimed.

“That’s the only thing you won’t find here,” said Barry.

The first thing that caught my eye was the elephant’s head. It hung to my left, just over the piano. “How the heck do you hang up an elephant’s head?” I asked.

To my right, in the corner, was a giraffe’s head. It started near the floor and went all the way to the ceiling, with the tail, but no legs. It wasn’t a huge place, but every square inch of the upper wall was covered in all manner of things with horns and fur — moose, deer, elk, and African critters I’ve never even heard of. A giant bison head, almost as big as the elephant, led the way to the bathrooms. Tusks taller than I stood on either side of the fireplace, and there was a stuffed cheetah and an iguana above them. Over the bar, an enormous snake coiled below a leopard’s paw.

The most amazing thing in Ole’s was the polar bear — not just his head, but the whole bear, in a glass display case almost as big as my boat. The seal captured under his paw seemed smaller than the giant paw itself.

I walked around the room, staring dazedly at all the stuffed animals overhead. Despite Barry’s correction, I couldn’t stop muttering, “Holy cow, holy cow.”

The funny thing was, we were just going to mail a couple of postcards, so we didn’t have the camera with us. You’ll just have to believe me. Holy cow.

23 lost years

At the Flying J truck stop near Fancy Gap, we slept in the back of the van. In the morning, Barry tumbled out the back door (it’s about 4-1/2 feet down to the ground from our bed) and headed to the bathroom.

A few minutes later, I clambered out that way, too. A white SUV with dark tinted windows and Georgia plates was parked next to us, and a slender black man got out of the driver’s seat. He s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d, and a round woman came around the car to take the wheel. She had that characteristic I’ve-been-riding-too-long limp.

They met on the driver’s side, and he surprised her with a big hug. She threw her head back and started laughing; she was still laughing merrily as she slid into the driver’s seat and closed the door.

The man stayed beside the car and got out a cigarette. I smiled at him and asked, “What did you say to make her laugh like that?”

He broke into a broad smile himself.

“I haven’t been able to drive for 23 years,” he said, “you know, problems with my license… I got it all straightened out and got my license two months ago.”

“Wow! Congratulations!”

“The last time we did this trip,” he continued, “she had to do all the driving. Now, I think, since I’m the male, that I should be able to do more than I can… but I can’t. There are children involved…” I realized that there were two child seats in the car, behind the tinted windows.

They were headed from Atlanta to Pittsburgh, and they’d driven all night. “I have to be responsible; I can’t be driving when I’m sleepy,” he said. I nodded, and we were silent for a moment, thinking about how dangerous driving can be. I wondered about his 23 lost years.

“I know what you mean about those long drives,” I replied. “Last year, I drove across the country, from Seattle to Beaufort, by myself.”

Now it was his turn to marvel. “You must have seen a lot,” he said. “What did you do?”

“Mostly, I just looked for interesting people to talk to, like yourself!”

We chuckled, shook hands, and wished each other safe travels. His cigarette forgotten, he got into the passenger seat and headed for Pittsburgh.

Squid History

What do you do after a circumnavigation? Go around again?

Our 1990 Ford van, the Squid Wagon, half-circumnavigated the USA — from Florida to Newfoundland (via Columbus, Ohio) and across to Seattle in one trip. At the time, we were traveling with our cat, who was the reason we bought a big ol’ van instead of camping with a tent and small car.

The cat passed away in 2005, and Squidley died in 2006. The cat was given a decent burial under a lovely tree. The van sat in front of our apartment for about a year, and our next-door neighbor complained every time he saw us. “I can’t see to back out of my driveway,” he whined.

Finally, I had the van towed to a garage, and they told me it was B.E.R.: Beyond Economic Repair. When I argued with them, they stopped returning my calls and dumped the three and a half ton, non-functional vehicle back on my doorstep with a bill for $250. Grrrrrr.

And then Barry stuck his head under the hood and tinkered. A miracle occurred. The van was resurrected with a loud, distinctive roar.

I was certain it would die again any moment. Not Barry. He was so confident, he began packing for the next trip. So we loaded up with with tools and books and art supplies and sailing gear and headed south through California. When we reached San Diego, we turned east, to North Carolina, where our new sailboat awaited us.

On that trip, we had a strange box-like item tied to the top of the van. At rest areas and gas stations, men chewing on toothpicks would come over and peer up at it. “What’s that?” they’d ask Barry. “It’s a boat,” he’d say. They’d look at him skeptically. “My wife built it.” He said it earnestly and seriously, but every time, it was like the punchline to a joke. “Your wife? Ha ha ha ha ha!”

Now the Squid Wagon — and we — were veterans of a circumnavigation, and we could all relax. But we didn’t.

That summer, we decided to drive to Black Rock City, Nevada. This load was more interesting than usual — outrageous costumes, inflatable space aliens, a deconstructed port-a-pottie, and one of the sails from the boat to provide much-needed shade. Burning Man was calling us; we had to participate in the amazing week-long festival in the desert a second time.

The trip out (via Columbus, Ohio) was fun, but the trip back was challenging. Squidley had “issues,” and we limped back, making repairs in Oregon, Wyoming, and Kentucky. There was another miracle, when we broke down on a backroad in Iowa — on a Sunday afternoon — and were rescued by a passing diesel mechanic named Tim. It made for good stories, but a lot of stress.

After that, I was ready to put the Squid Wagon out to pasture, since we won’t need a car once we launch our sailboat. But Barry still has confidence in our 20-year-old van, and he convinced me to drive it back to Seattle and Burning Man (via Columbus, Ohio, of course).

Like the elderly person he is, Squidley has some issues catching his breath. He runs rough at times, and his digestive system is very sensitive to bad gas. Going over the Appalachians, he coughed and wheezed. “Breathe, Squidley, breathe!” I sang out. He made it, over the hills to Columbus, Ohio.

We’re in Nebraska now, almost to the Wyoming border, and he’s chugging along well. There’s a new air filter ready to install, and a new fuel filter, and Barry changed the oil filter and oil … you guessed it, in Columbus, Ohio.

This afternoon, we’re taking Squidley to Carhenge, which is one of those mystical places that all American cars should visit in their lives. It’s a full-scale model of Stonehenge, made out of American cars welded together. We’d stopped there in 2003, on the final voyage of the Peepcar, and now we find ourselves inexorably drawn back.

Beyond Economic Repair, indeed. The Squid Wagon can’t wait to see Carhenge.

Shy Samaritan

I was replete, after dinner at the Hong Kong Buffet with my too-thin brother, Stevie. We said our farewells, and I took the wheel and headed west and north from Durham, North Carolina.
When I took the first corner, though, there was a loud THUNK from the rear of the van. “What was that?” I asked Barry, alarmed. “That’s the ladder,” he said, “or maybe the campstools. Or both.” “OK,” I said, and continued driving.

A sharpish corner brought another THUNK from the rear. I didn’t think about it until the next one, THUNK, which was the turn onto the interstate on-ramp.

The THUNKs subsided, because there were no more sharp turns. But I started worrying, worrying, worrying. What was that ladder bumping into? Could it be the van’s window? Would the next THUNK be accompanied by breaking glass?

I finally voiced my worries, along with the statement that “we” should do something about that. (By “we,” I meant Barry.)

“OK, next rest area,” he said. Now he was the one thinking. (Small smoke puffs were coming out his ears.)

Around dusk, I found a scenic overlook near Pilot Mountain, and Barry had decided what to do. We’d flatten the ladder (12 feet long), tie the sail and conduit to that (10 feet long), and strap the conglomerated sausage to the roof rack. Since Squidley is 17 feet long, it wouldn’t even stick out.

Barry lifted the folded ladder out of the back, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The window wasn’t cracked. Then he passed it to me, saying “Make it flat,” and my relief went away.

The ladder in question is a Versaladder, one with four segments and three sets of hinges that can be converted from stepladder to scaffold or tall ladder. But I always pinch my fingers in the stiff hinges. This time, I was worrying so much about my fingers that one section of the gangly thing got away from me. Fwing! It flopped onto the pavement, nearly putting a dent in the van, and Barry, in the process.

A stocky man with sandy hair and a moustache was standing nearby, and he couldn’t help but laugh at my antics. Then he looked at me, sheepishly, and I started laughing, too.

Curiosity got the best of him, and he walked over. “Is that a ladder?”

“Yes, and the sail from a 33-foot sailboat,” I said, explaining Barry’s plan to move the load on top of the 7-1/2 foot tall van. The man looked skeptical. I was skeptical, too. “How do we get the ladder on top without the ladder?” I asked Barry.

“We put one end up and then walk it up,” he said. As the sandy-haired man watched, we each went to one end of the ladder to test the weight. It was a grunt, but I could lift one end.
Barry started tying things to the ladder, and the man hung around and chatted with me. He seemed too shy to be talking freely to a stranger, but I found out that he lived nearby and worked at the battery plant in Winston-Salem. He’d just come from a car show, and his hobby was fixing up old cars. “Sound more like a passion than a hobby,” I commented. He almost blushed.

Then Barry handed me a rope and said, “marl that end around the sail and the rungs.” The sandy-haired man looked impressed with Barry’s fancy word, but I rolled my eyes. “Showoff,” I muttered.

When I joined the tying process, our curious friend walked back to his car. I thought he’d left for good.

But when it was all tied on the ladder, and we started carrying it out behind the van, he reappeared. Suddenly, the load was much lighter as a third set of hands joined in the lifting. In about 20 seconds, the tough part of the job was done.

“That was so easy!” I exclaimed to the man. “You must have had all the weight.”

“No, I thought you did,” he said.

“It wasn’t me,” said Barry. All three of us grinned at each other.

We shook his hand in thanks, and then he wished us safe travels and went away, for good this time.

Now I understood why he’d hung around and chatted, even though he was very shy. He was afraid that we wouldn’t be able to get the ladder on the roof by ourselves. He’d hung around the overlook for an extra 15 minutes, just to help us lift it.

It was dark as Barry clambered like a monkey to tie the ladder to the roof rack. Then we continued on our way, grateful for the man who stayed so he could help when he was most needed.