Where We Went This Year! (22,000 miles of driving!)

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Big Drive

Packing up the car in the midst of a slight rain, our trips in & out of the house to load the gear in the car were punctuated with Mom’s reprisal as the WOWK-TV weather girl job back in Huntington, WV. “The rain should clear up in a few hours, they say…” Take the big black suitcase out & haul it onto the roof rack. “Clear driving through Texas…” Take the big blue suitcase & haul it onto the roof. “Should be misting in Louisiana…” Get the smaller bags for inside the car. “Looks like it’s gonna be warm in Tampa, when you get there….” Go get Butley & bring him out.

So – fully-loaded with luggage and meteorological data, we said our goodbyes and set the GPS for “Tampa, Fl.”

The first day of driving, December 23rd, took us as far as Fort Stockton, Texas. To the Motel 6 just off the I-10 Fort Stockton exit, to be precise. 580 miles of Arizona & West Texas sagebrush left us a bit weary and hungry, and the big blue & white sign loomed in the horizon like a Last Chance Saloon.

It was everything a motel needs to be, and absolutely nothing else. A parking space. Four walls. A bed. A sink. A shower. A chair. No artwork. $3 for internet access. A big industrial field next door for Butley to stretch his legs. We unloaded the car, fed & walked Butley, and headed out to THE TRUCK STOP RESTAURANT WE RECOMMEND THAT YOU, IF YOU ARE EVER TRAVELLING THROUGH FORT STOCKTON, TEXAS, AVOID AT ALL COSTS!

The Comanche Springs Restaurant. (Insert spooky Halloween organ music here.)

Where to begin?

• The salad bar with the enormously fat, smoking man sitting right beside (in between the nilla wafers & pudding and the organic remains of Peter Rabbit’s culinary orgy)?
• The menu whose items came with the waitress’ specific warnings about, “Oh, I wouldn’t get that….Yeah, and I’d stay away from that too…”?
• The “Texas Toast” which was simply two pieces of slightly over-large, under-toasted, Wonder Bread?

• The profoundly silent, and also profoundly smoking, couple who sat side by side in the middle table, with a stare that looked like they were trying to figure out where to bury the body in their trunk?
• The sadly-wrapped Christmas presents dangling on strings from the ceilings, begging the inevitable conjecturing as to their contents – a new carton of Pall-Malls? A set of shocks for the Chevy?
• The incessant refrain of the “Hook a Prize” game behind Angie’s side of the booth, relentlessly announcing to no one in particular, “There’s no LIMIT to what you can WIN!!!”

Let’s just say – to be polite – we suffered that evening. I think even Butley would have preferred to sleep in the car.


December 24th – Christmas Eve Day

The next day we slept quite late. Now, for a Motel 6 off the I-10 in Fort Stockton, whose sole purpose is the necessary nightly repose for weary travelers who would just as soon be speeding towards their destination, an on-time departure means 7am. Maybe 8, if you shower, shave, and drink a cup of coffee. A late departure is probably 9am. We probably rose at 10 and certainly didn’t get rolling until 11am, so suffice it to say that as we stepped outside the room, what had been a packed parking lot the night before was now a splendid practice course for beginning drivers.

Hitting the road and typing “Tampa” into the GPS was a sobering event. Ten hours of driving the day before had yielded little more than a quarter of the drive we’d signed onto. We resolved to make it a solid day of driving, and though we never discussed it as a strategy, I noticed that we only stopped for sandwiches, gas, and restroom breaks. Meals were a mobile affair. Angie wasn’t quite finished sleeping, so I took the first shift of driving.

Two CD’s, three episodes of “This American Life,” and one Quaker-length session of quiet contemplation later, Angie took the wheel. I napped a bit and looked at the maps. One blessing about driving across Texas (and there are precious few blessings about driving across Texas) is the fact the Texans enjoy an 80 mph speed limit. So, while nonetheless being careful, we picked up the pace and by late afternoon I began to realize that we were making very good time.

On my next shift, Angie napped a little more as I did some quick mental calculation – we stood a fair chance of making it to New Orleans by midnight or 1am. As we’d considered the option of a just post-Christmas stop there, the fact that we might be in time for a Christmas Morning in the Crescent City was encouraging. But at that hour, we’d probably bunk down in another Motel 6 before finding a place we’d actually like to stay for more than a night. And mobile as we were, we had no real chance to find one. Angie called her dad, who did some online checking for us back at home in Denver, and we found a cheap place to stay, but not one in which we’d probably want to have a Christmas vacation, so we decided – after much weighing of options, to just finish getting through Texas and to finally come to rest in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

We stopped at another Motel 6 kind of place which would have been fine, as fine goes. But it turns out, the guy at the desk, having his Christmas Eve dinner of Burger King in front of an old episode of “MacGuyver,” was completely sympathetic to our suspicions of the rooms in his charge, and freely offered another option – the hotel across the road. “It’s a little more, but they just opened two weeks ago, and I’m tellin’ you man, the rooms there are AWE-some.”

Well, with a recommendation like that, we were practically obliged to look into it. And he was right – La Quinta though it might have been, it was surely the nicest La Quinta I’ve ever seen. Faux mahogany dressers, faux marble countertops, faux uptown O’Keefe-inspired photos of orchids on the walls…. And after our last stop, it seemed like luxury.

After feeding Butley and unpacking the car, we went looking for a late dinner. The only option was L’Auberge Du Lac Casino, where – after a light dinner by a fireside with a faux wood fire – we proceeded to peruse the gaming room. And we were hardly the only ones – all of Lake Charles, it seems, had decided to take part in the apparently long-held and well-respected Lake Charles Christmas custom of gambling. Because of course, when one thinks of Father Christmas, one thinks of craps tables and Plinko.

After a drink at the bar, we sallied forth. Angie had fair success at a slot machine and I managed to make a meager amount at video poker, and so – having made back the money we spent on our drinks – we spent the rest of Silent Nacht watching the rest of the gamers, playing complex casino games we couldn't hope to understand, amidst the holiday cheer of “Come on, baby, Daddy needs a new pair o’ shoes!”.

God rest ye, merry gentlemen…

In the morning, we rose late again (by Motel 6 standards) and packed up the car, after which we proceeded to the business center where we did some internet browsing and landed on a promising B&B with an advertised “Papa Noel” rate that fell within our modest “Christmas Indulgence” budget. And armed with a reservation for the next three nights, we headed out for New Orleans. Laissez les bons temps roulez!

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