Sunday, November 28, 2010

Two Thousand, Six Hundred and Ninety Miles

We got home from Florida on Friday - a round trip of 2690 miles. I'm still suffering from jet lag. Takes me a couple of days to recuperate.

I always try to take a different route to go through country we haven't seen before. Mom and I talked about it and although both of us have traveled a lot in our lives, neither of us could ever remember having been in Virginia so we were in a position to tick a new state off our personal list of places we've been.

We left Indiana by way of southern Ohio, into West Virginia and then on into Virginia. When we reached Interstate 77, the entrance was closed and we were forced to go on. We called On-Star (our first On-Star experience) and were given directions to the next I 77 entrance. Turned out that one was closed as well. Another conversation with On-Star, another barricaded entry. We ended up being routed through miles and miles of twisting mountain roads through quaint Virginia villages. If it had been daylight, I would have enjoyed the view but as it was, it was pretty miserable. We finally got to Mt. Airy, North Carolina and collapsed into a motel room. On the internet, I read about the massive chain-reaction accident that had closed the highway for miles and thanked the traveling gods that we'd missed it.

The next day was a breeze through beautiful North Carolina and on into South Carolina, Georgia and then, Florida. (It takes a full day of driving in Florida to get where John and Lisa live in the Keys). The best part of this journey is always just seeing the kids again after several months.

We visited, spent a day at the Hard Rock Casino at Fort Lauderdale (I'd have come home a winner if we'd left after lunch instead of hitting the slots again), shopped and ate. I stuffed myself on fresh seafood - shrimp po-boys and grouper and yellowtail.

I always spend hours on John and Lisa's balcony which looks out over the Gulf. Farther out into the water is a long mangrove island which acts as a protective barrier so that there are always many boats anchored there in the quiet - sailboats and yachts and houseboats. I'd love to spend a couple of days on one of them some time. The moon was full during our visit and shone huge and gleaming above the water, appearing to be so close, you felt you could almost reach out and touch it. At night, the most prevalent sound was the gentle rustling of the palms. During the day, it was the cries of the gulls.

On Saturday, John and I went to the Homestead-Miami Speedway for NASCAR's last race of the season. After 35 races, it had come down to three drivers with the opportunity to be crowned champion - Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Denny was 15 points ahead of Jimmie and 46 points ahead of Kevin.

John has always teased me about my becoming a NASCAR fan so late in life. No one who knew me in my political incarnation can imagine where my passion for NASCAR came from. It simply appeared full-blown in my 60's. I really, really wanted John to enjoy the race and maybe learn to understand some of my enthusiasm.

The track instructions advised getting there early, which we did, although coming from the south, we cruised right in and got a great parking spot. As a result, we had hours to kill before the race was due to start. We wandered down the road between the souvenir haulers. (F.Y.I. - Danica had the most customers buying her gear; Jeff Gordon had the most fans wearing his; of the championship contenders, Jimmie's stuff was most evident). We roamed around the grounds, ate lunch, watched people until it was time to find our seats.

I had bought my tickets early and paid a premium for "best available" seating and in terms of seeing the action on the track, they were great seats but.....46 rows up. By the time I arrived, panting, to where we were going, I told John, "I'm here for the duration." I knew I didn't have it in me to make that trip again.

So, I went through the entire, stressful 400 mile race without a cigarette - me, who usually goes through most of a pack during the course of a race. It's surprising that I have a shred of a fingernail left. The championship points "as they ran" were showing on the leaderboard. Jimmie was ahead at the beginning based on their qualifying spots but over the course of the race, those positions kept changing. Denny was ahead at times and other times it was Kevin Harvick, then Jimmie again.My emotions were on a rollercoaster ride of happiness, then despair, then happiness again.

In the end, Jimmie had the cleanest race. Other than a couple of slow pit stops, he nailed it in typical his typical cool, calm and collected fashion. Meanwhile, Denny got impatient and got into a collision with Greg Biffle early in the race. They got his car back on track but it was never as fast as it had been in the beginning. In addition to Denny's crucial error, his crew chief dithered on a pit stop and cost him more spots. As for Kevin, he got penalized for speeding on pit road. He rallied back but with Jimmie coming home second, he was too far behind to win.

So, it was Jimmie Johnson, five time consecutive Sprint Cup champion - and I was there to see it! Chalk that up as one of the highlights of my life. And it was particularly special because John was there with me. He seemed to really enjoy the race. I don't expect him to become the kind of avid fan I am but I hope he'll be interested enough now to pay some attention as it will give us something else to share and discuss.

We headed home the day before Thanksgiving. The traffic through Florida was horrendous. The next day, no one was on the road and the driving was a breeze except that we looked right at the signs and went east instead of west, going 60 miles the wrong direction and having to backtrack. It was getting dark and starting to rain as we got to Birmingham, Alabama. Like an idiot, I assumed....assumed that the highway I was on would intersect at some point with I 65 which crosses Birmingham south to north. My assumption was wrong. (Don't even ask why I didn't check with On-Star). The rain and the lights made the highway a glare of confusion. We finally realized we were heading north and east of Birmingham. I told Mom I was too tired to go on so we got down off the highway. There were no "name" motels at our exit so we went to a small independent. "Wow," said Mom, "only $46, a bargain!" Nope, not a bargain at all.

It appeared that our room was normally rented by the week to, I don't know, people who are traveling on the tiniest of shoe strings. There was a stove top with two burners covered with an inch of brownish-yellow grease. The television didn't work; the toilet didn't flush; the carpet was filthy; the plaster was cracked and crumbled; there were black footprints in the tub. I was exhausted but not exhausted enough to sleep in this room.We decided that if they wouldn't give us our money back, we'd just eat the $46. The proprietor did return our money and didn't even seem surprised.

We got back on the highway and found a Day's Inn at the next exit. I was brain-dead by then.

We found 65 N the next morning, having gone about 30 miles too far north and east. Again, traffic was minimal. We counted off states - out of Alabama and into Tennessee, across the Kentucky line, over the bridge at Louisville and back home again in Indiana! We left Birmingham at 8:00 a.m. and pulled into our driveway in Wabash at 5:00.

Once inside with a cup of coffee, I had to tell Mom that John had called to let me know that our little Pomeranian, Caesar, had died while we were gone.

Trips like this one are a lot like life in microcosm - there will be memories of beauty and recollections of difficulty. There were moments of extreme stress and moments of pure peace. There were times of quiet happiness being with missed loved ones. There was the joy of your driver winning a championship and the grief of losing a beloved pet. There were times when the road tested my endurance and carefree times when we sailed along. We passed through mountains and swamps and past farms and forests. We went from maples to live oaks to palms, from black soil to brick red to golden sandy beaches beside the sea. Eleven days and 2690 miles of good times and some that were not so good. Eleven days and 2690 miles of life.