Day One. Pascagoula, Mississippi.


Since I won’t be crossing any oceans for the first real vacation I’ve taken in three years, with anywhere from a ten to fourteen hour flight to recount a week’s worth of travel experiences, I figure a daily road trip journal is the next best thing.

I’m still salty about Japan being canceled in 2020, as that would have been the final piece to the book I want to attempt to have published. Whether or not it would actually happen and get picked up by a publisher, who knows. Still, with over 50,000 words detailing experiences in five of the largest cities on the planet, it’d be worth a shot. The next time I leave the country, it will be to that island.

This one is longer than 2016 by a thousand miles, including a handful of states I’ve never set foot in. It won’t be a sightseeing or exploration tour, with a cornerstone hike like The Wave or some exotic and dangerous location.

Rather than processing emotional turmoil as it was then, instead it’ll be anticipated reunions.

So many friends who I’ve met over the years have scattered to the winds. Some I haven’t seen in over a decade. Some will be family who I’m lucky to see once a year at the holidays or other large family gatherings. Some are new friends I’ve just made in the past year and either only met once or not at all.

One in particular who I last saw 25 years ago, with our last words spoken in anger, all the bad blood now washed well away by the tides of time. It’ll be the final reunion before the last drive home.

I miss all of them dearly.

With no need to rent a car, my pets looked after and all of my credit card debt finally paid off, it was time. My teammates joked that it was a Sabbatical. I’ve gotten accustomed to being a remote worker and prefer it to driving into an office, but one of my coworkers framed it as “We don’t work from home, we live at work.” Even now having an entire room dedicated to being an office, I needed to get away for a few weeks.

Since today was just the first day, nothing terribly eventful happened. One of the lengthier days in terms of travel time. I forgot how long it takes leaving Florida on I-10. The Panhandle just goes on forever. Once I finally crossed the line into Alabama and Mississippi shortly after, a patented Florida thunderstorm blew in. It’s so bad there’s been a tornado warning since I got to the Comfort Inn.

I had Mississippi Delta Blues playing the entire drive through the state.

There’ve been a few decent movies on the hotel TV, mainly Shawshank Redemption. Dirty Dancing was also on. I hadn’t seen it in years. The storm is so bad it’s knocking out the signal. If nothing else, the pouring rain will feel good to drift off to.

Tomorrow is the longest stretch, almost ten hours, halfway across Texas to San Antonio – not including stops for gas. I stocked up on snacks and travel food beforehand so I wouldn’t have to stop and eat.

It’ll be an early night and an early morning.

Day Two. San Antonio, Texas.

I’d planned to wake up and get on the road as early as possible, setting my last alarm for 6:50. Thanks to the medication I take, I slept right through it and woke up around eight. Tempting as it was, I passed up the Waffle House within shouting distance of the hotel and had breakfast in the lobby. Because I was super groggy and still waking up, I managed to break the waffle batter dispenser, resulting in it spilling out like concrete from a mixer truck.


So fucking embarrassing. I felt awful for the lady who had to clean it up, but slightly better when she smiled and said I wasn’t the first person to do it. No doubt everyone else in the breakfast room were shaking their head at the dumb white boy who couldn’t make himself waffles, when one of their kids had no problem.

Within thirty minutes of getting back on I-10, for some reason there was a slowdown going over a bridge completely out of nowhere. Figure it had to be someone in the midst of breaking down or an accident which had literally just happened.

Turns out it was a dude driving a genuine hundred year old Ford Model-T.

He cruising along at a cool 50 mph and not giving a shit less how much he was backing up traffic behind him. One of those, “Actually I’m not even mad, that’s amazing,” moments once I could see what was going on. How this thing was still running, I’ll never know.

It wasn’t the first time I’d taken 10 through Louisiana and again bypassed driving through New Orleans. I keep telling myself that one of these days I’m going to, it would have added an hour onto what was already going to be one of the longest travel days on the trip. Despite that, it still takes you through Baton Rouge, and it never ceases to amaze me just how big the Mississippi River is when you take the bridge over it.

The only other memorable thing about driving through Louisiana was the oversized, obnoxious double-stacked billboard with “SAVE AMERICA” and other idiotic, hyperbolic nonsense. So fucking cringeworthy and the first of many to come over the next seven thousand miles.

Just like in 2016, the second I crossed the border into Texas, I cranked Pantera. It was just the jolt of energy I needed after a few hours on the road and two large coffees.

The drive wasn’t bad until I hit Houston.

I thought going through downtown Orlando was a challenge.

Four lanes, twisting and turning, people going anywhere from 60 to 90 with exit-only lanes and on ramps with seconds of reaction time. Sheer insanity.

Took about an hour for traffic to thin out, so I could set cruise control and just coast. I found the sweet spot for my car to get around 45 to 50 miles to the gallon on a level road. It was about ten below the posted limit, and people were passing me left and right. Normally getting tailgated infuriates me.

Didn’t care. Ride me all you want. I’m not budging.

After a few delays and a weird Google reroute through some sketchy San Antonio backroads, I finally made it to Faraaz and Shazia’s house.

We used to work together at the Company That Shall Not Be Named – one of the few former coworkers I’m making a point to visit and catch up with on this cross country tour. I forgot how long it’d been since I’d seen him. As luck would have it, the Bills were playing on Sunday Night Football and I could not have asked for a better evening than to hang out in his garage, watch the game on the big screen, eat philly cheesesteak pizza and catch up on the years which had passed. Shazia’s nachos are no joke, either.

Thankfully they didn’t cough it up like they did in Jacksonville on my birthday last year.

I’d planned to pull out the laptop and write up the events of the day before crashing, but I laid down to relax for a few minutes, and everything in me stopped dead in its tracks.

I hadn’t even turned off the light before I realized it was after midnight. No shower, no meds, didn’t even brush my teeth.

Turned off the light and didn’t get out of bed until the sun was up.

Day Three. El Paso, Texas.

As soon as I was up and moving, I got ready to head out early so to make good time, but realized when Faraaz and Shazia offered to make breakfast what a dumb idea this was and that my morning would be much better spent eating and chatting with them as long as I could. Shazia brought Starbucks back from dropping her kiddo off at school, and later looked on in horror as I corroborated the stories he’d told her about what went on at That Company. We talked politics, as they’re on the same side of the fence that I am.

When I did get on the road, the drive was a stark contrast from the insanity of Houston. At times, I couldn’t see anyone ahead of or behind me as 10 stretched on in a dead straight line.

You think it’d be boring, but watching the landscape slowly change from green to dusty beige, and seeing the outline of mountains off in the distance never quite gets old when all I usually see on the interstate is a never-ending corridor of palm trees.

Then the road starts winding, climbing up and down hills like a kiddie roller coaster and between man-made canyons where they had to clear the path. Valleys open up and stretch off into the distance.

It’s simultaneously desolate and breathtaking.

So many abandoned buildings along the way, as well. Gas stations covered in graffiti and pumps long removed. Quonset huts in the middle of a field with nothing in any direction for hundreds of yards – the kind of thing you think is the hiding-in-plain-sight entrance to some secret underground Stranger Things lab five miles deep. Dilapidated barns and ranches, derelict oil derricks which have likely been dry for decades.

But the Windmills! The bird-killers lining the mesas as far as you can see, slowly spinning like giant pinwheels of avian harbingers of death. Clean energy? What a joke. You can almost see the blood and feathers flying off them in every direction.

Or so Dear Leader would have you think.

In addition to how ludicrous it was to even think that’s a real concern, once I-10 lines up with the Mexican border and you see how long it stretches on for, how uneven the terrain is, how close some of the mountains and rock formations come to the road… you realize just how much of a fucking joke the idea of building a wall really is. Like, it’s not even close.

I dare anyone who attempts to defend it to make the drive from San Anotonio to El Paso, which is only a fraction of just how long the wall would have to be, and tell me it’s even remotely possible. It was a total farce; a fantasy to fleece the rubes fueled by xenophobic mindsets. I would feel bad for anyone who donated actual Earth Dollars to a sentient malignant tumor like Steve Bannon to help fund its construction, but my empathy has limits and grifter’s gonna grift.

That aside, traffic picked up in El Paso, thought not quite as insane as Houston. As I’d waited for the entire drive here, I put on the song from the Breaking Bad finale as I drove into the city and had a shit-eating grin on my face the whole way.

The only goal I had getting here was to find an authentic Mexican restaurant. No way in hell I’m going to be this close to the border and settle for Taco Bell or any other bullshit chain.

A wonderful moment happened when I was leaving to go eat and held the door for a teenager pushing in a rack of luggage. The man he was with, following behind him, said with a slight accent, “I don’t care what anyone else says, you are a gentleman!” Made me smile.

I found a place where most of the menu wasn’t even in English. Perfect. My tacos carnitas came out at fucking light speed and were delicious. The flan came out equally as fast. I tipped my server 100%, for a whopping total of $30. He was friendly, super cool, and totally earned it.

Day Four. Tucson, Arizona.

After I completed the previous entry and was getting ready for bed, something happened which I’d hoped would never happen on vacation either out of state or the country entirely.

Most anyone who knows me knows that I have a partial denture, after my front teeth were destroyed from a near lifetime of neglect. In 2011 I had the front six removed in lieu of getting it, as it was the 1/10th of the cost to have them repaired with traditional dental work. If you didn’t know, you do now.

It had only happened once where one of the teeth came dislodged. I had to go back to the original dentist to have it reaffixed.

Last night, at the absolute worst time imaginable, it happened again.

Right in the front. I looked like a hockey player who’d taken a puck to the face. There weren’t any emergency dentists in El Paso or Tuscon who’d I’d be able to see quickly, not to mention it would have fucked travel plans and hotel reservations beyond measure.

So I turned to Amazon and found a makeshift repair kit, and as luck would have it, a Walgreens about ten minutes away had it in stock. First thing in the morning, I rushed over in the freezing cold, bought it, came back to the hotel, cooked up the adhesive and got it fixed. Thankfully it’s still holding.

Just when I thought the problems were solved, a momentary lapse of judgment from being so discombobulated and performing DIY dentistry with no coffee caused something that lasted the entire drive. I had my camera bag hung over my shoulder at a weird angle, without the extra support strap fastened. When I realized I’d forgotten to stow my bathroom bag, I leaned down to unzip my main bag. I cat-backed like someone at the gym with the worst deadlift form imaginable. It felt like a horse bucked my lumbar into next month.

I literally hobbled out of the hotel room like a creaky old codger, cursing myself for being so dumb. Years of squats, deadlifts and using the leg press, I’d never screwed up my back with bad form.

All it took was one moment of forgetting to kneel instead of bend, and it was done.

The drive to Tuscon was absolutely fucking miserable as a result. No matter how I tried to adjust my seat or cross my legs with cruise-control doing all the work, quad-dosing Tylenol and Advil, it was just unyielding. Only time I smiled was while playing the Breaking Bad theme song crossing the New Mexico border.

Thankfully it was a short drive, and I still took the time to stop in Tombstone.

It’s about as touristy as you’d think, with the main strip roped off. They recreate the gunfight at the OK Corral every couple of hours. Didn’t really have the interest or time for that, and the main reason I was there other than just to say I’d seen it and take some pictures, I’d made a point to bring Clint’s ashes with me. He loved the movie, and I scattered some right in front of the building, mixing them in with the historic dusty road.

Easily the most emotional moment of the trip thus far.

It was only about an hour to my friend Jaye’s house in Tucson from there.

We met on a Discord server from the r/cf4cf subreddit, a sort of personal ads forum for childfree singles. The main channel is a clusterfuck, but after it got whittled down to just a handful of cool people, we’d all become friends. The couple I stayed with in Cleveland for the NIN show, Lisa and Justin, were also friends I made on the server. I’m making a point to visit with them on one of the last legs of the trip after Chicago.

Just before I pulled into her driveway, a C-130 from the nearby airbase flew directly over my car. It was awesome. She later told me that sometimes F-35s flyover, breaking the sound barrier and shaking the entire house.

Since it’d been a relatively short drive compared to the previous few, after taking an hour to lay down and let my screaming back rest, we had a good bit of daylight left. She drove me up around halfway to the top of Mount Lemmon so we could watch the sunset. The elevation change was so intense that it caused a literal 40 degree drop in temperature. There was also a bit of rock climbing involved.

To say it was worth it was putting it gently.

The view over the mountains and city of Tucson was absolutely breathtaking. After not even taking it out of the bag to that point, I finally pulled out the DSLR and got some amazing shots of the sunset. They might end up better than the ones I took in Bergen.

Tucson is a city that every foodie owes it to themselves to check out. Jaye took me to a Mexican restaurant literally 100 years old and apparently the literal birthplace of chimichangas. Since I hadn’t gotten a decent burrito to that point in the trip, I had one to end them all.

It might not have ruined me like London did for fish & chips, but it’s close. I doubt anything will ever compare to just how good it was.

Even better was finally getting to talk to Jaye in person and get to know her. There’s only so much you can know about a person from chatting online and even a facetime or two. None of the details of her personal life will be shared here, of course, but suffice to say she believes that the tremors and shaking in my hands is very likely a result of PTSD. She’s a veteran of the Air Force, works for the VA, and interacts with a lot of vets who almost all have some form of tremors.

After six months of medical tests with literally no answers, I think I’m willing to accept it as the root cause.

I might never know what specific event caused it or how to mitigate it (though I have some memories which might have contributed) but it’s almost enough just to know. It was also great to finally meet all of her adorable kitties and older Boxer pup, who unfortunately suffers from doggie dementia. She’s as sweet as can be, but continually walks in circles, doesn’t respond to many commands, and it’s a lot for Jaye to manage.

She was worried she might have woken me in the middle of the night having to deal with her, but the medication I take at night is strong enough that I’d probably sleep through an air raid or an F-35 breaking the sound barrier.

Day Five. Boulder City, Nevada.

As a proper send off, she took me to a restaurant that specializes in different types of pancakes.

I’m likely to never fully be at peace with how I look no matter how many hours I spend in the gym or stay away from sugar, thanks to unyielding body dysmorphia. Yet, sometimes it can’t be helped when there is a literal Oreo Cookie pancake dish on the menu. Two huge cakes, held together by Oreo icing in the middle and the cookie crumble on top.

We’re talking God-Tier pancakes. I couldn’t pass it up.

When they put it down in front of me, I wasn’t ready.

Jaye was amazed that I finished it. Apparently no one else she’d ever taken before had. I don’t know how much sugar or how many calories were in this dish, and I don’t want to. More than I’ve had in one sitting in perhaps years. I didn’t take a bite of literally anything else for the rest of the drive until landing in Nevada.

We said our goodbyes and she gave not only a Tucson goodie bag of unique cactus treats for me, but for Lisa and Justin, as well.

The drive to Boulder City, about 30 minutes from Vegas, wasn’t a straight shot down an interstate like much of the trip had been to that point. These were regular highways. It was during this point that one of the best moments of the entire drive happened. I drove past a large Boeing building, and saw a pair of fighter jets off in the distance.

One of them later circled back and flew almost right over the car. I lost it.

My reaction was thankfully captured by the dashcam, as I almost veered into the other lane watching the sky rather than the road. You can hear the person in the other lane honk at me.

The longest stretch was the Joshua Tree Scenic Route, up Route 93. Scenic as it was, the road itself was a fucking nightmare.

Seams in the concrete made the car shake a vibrate the entire way there. Multiple times per second. ThumpThumpTHUMPThumpThumpTHUMPThumpThump. It was extremely rough – literally and figuratively – borderline stressful. It’s impossible to enjoy the beautiful vista of the desert when it feels like you’re driving a fucking Mars rover.

Yet, this later balanced out when the road smoothed and the sun began to set behind the mountain. Passing under a slight shower, the absolute brightest rainbow I’d ever seen was mere miles off in the distance. For the first time in my life, I could actually see the space where it landed.

This is the kind of thing you just don’t see in Florida. Only the desert can provide such spectacles of nature.

I was racing the sunset to try to make the Hoover Dam before sundown and realized I was losing. Thankfully a “Scenic View” exit appeared, just as the sky was being lit up a burnt, fiery orange. It wasn’t even a choice as to whether or not to stop.

The timing could not have been more perfect, and the Prophecy Theme from Dune never sounded better. The sky was on fire. Might be the best sunset shots I’ll ever take.

Finally getting to the Boulder City Hotel & Casino, it was one of the biggest hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in for a one-bed, short of sleeping in the lap of luxury atop a Beijing skyscraper. The hotel had a brown and beige color scheme, and felt eerily reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel. Even had an odd smell to it, like stale cigarettes which would never quite come out as many times as the walls had been cleaned.

The front desk clerk told me it was about a 30 minute drive to the Vegas Strip, which I decided would be better to drive down at night than the next morning. He also gave me wonderful advice that I should wait a few hours for the drivetime traffic to calm down. I spent that time eating the first thing I’d had all day since the Oreo Pancake Boss Fight breakfast.

I had no desire to walk around, gamble, shop or do anything besides drive down the strip listening to Elvis and Dean Martin.

It was absurdly fun. I had a shit-eating grin on my face the whole time.

The only disappointment is that I had no idea the Pinball Hall of Fame is right at the outset of the strip. If and when I get back to Vegas, it’s the first place I’m going.

Made it back to the hotel with enough time to crash early, as tomorrow would be the first of two back to back nine hour drives.

Day Six. Sacramento, California.

Managed to wake up as early as I’d hoped, checked out, and got in the car by eight.

Google Maps said the Hoover Dam didn’t open until nine, which dashed any hopes I’d be able to take a few minutes to drive though and snap a few shots. The lady at the gas station across the street told me it was just the tours that didn’t open until nine, and you can drive through as early as seven. Awesome.

Not so awesome was realizing if I really wanted to get the good pictures overlooking the lake, it would have taken at least an hour to get up the catwalk to the bridge and back – a setback I just didn’t have time for. Oh well. Another reason alongside the Pinball HoF to come back someday. I got at least a few pictures from a few parking lookouts.

The rest of the drive was a story of three parts: The Good, The Exciting, and the Really Fucking Ugly.

First was a short stop in Primm, one of the towns featured in Fallout: New Vegas. I completely missed Goodsprings, which I really wanted to see. It was an hour and a half behind me before I realized it. It was freezing and windy, though, so being out of the car too long wasn’t something I was keen on. Not to mention I had eight hours ahead of me and didn’t want to roll into Sacramento at midnight.

After that, it was the high-speed burn through Baker and Barstow, just like in ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.’ I had to get gas in Barstow, but couldn’t linger. It was Bat Country.

You can see the Tehachapi Mountains from the Mojave desert, snow-covered peaks slowly growing closer on the horizon. It was hard to tell where the peaks stopped and the clouds began.

Once you reach them and start heading up through the valley, the clear sky of the desert gives way to dense fog. A thirty degree temperature drop accompanies you up the winding roads. It’s exhilarating navigating winding mountain roads. I’m looking forward to more of it as I come down through the Virginias next week.

Yet, once you come down into the valley and hit the Golden State Highway, Route 99, the drive becomes an absolute fucking slog.

It’s one thing that the western sun remained in the upper left corner of my driver’s side window, far out of reach of the visor and just in front of the door frame. It’s another that the road itself is 250 miles of trash pavement, driver insanity, endless vineyards, farms full of rotten cars and skeletonized RV’s. It’s painful.

Remember shitty I-4 before its decade-long makeover? Two lanes of uneven garbage with mere seconds to make an exit? That’s Route 99. No curves. Flat nothing. On and off ramps every other minute, with merge lane lengths akin to landing on a fucking aircraft carrier.

I-10, for all of its barren nothingness, at least lets you cruise-control in the right-hand lane for miles on end and just relax. No chance here. You can’t stay in the right-hand lane for two minutes without having to move to let someone merge and avoid getting flattened by someone doing eighty in the process. The entire drive was packed, and the road surface only became even remotely tolerable in the last 30 minutes before my exit. Split-lane construction was the mayonnaise icing on a three day old meatloaf cake.

The only redeeming part of it was the fact that I drove for almost four and a half hours straight without stopping after Barstow and only used half a tank of gas. Corollas may be boring Everyman cars, but holy shit do they get good gas mileage. When you finally pull up to a pump that says $5.99 a gallon, making it last is the utmost priority.

The hotel I finally landed in is a dated cardboard box compared to last night. The entire thing is less than the size of the living space of the casino hotel, with the shitty harsh-white lights instead of the warmth of the Boulder hotel.

Bleh. I’m not even eating dinner. I have no desire to get back in the car. My back still feels tweaked. I’m really hoping Oregon and whatever’s left of Northern California aren’t as miserable as today’s drive was.

More than anything, I’m looking forward to spending time with some of the best friends I’ve ever made, whom I haven’t seen in years.

Day Seven. Portland, Oregon.

For the complete nightmare that was getting to Sacramento, leaving was a dream.

Got up early enough to check out of the hotel, found gas a dollar cheaper 20 minutes outside of town rather than the one across the street. Faraaz is a life-saver for informing me about the GasBuddy app. I did stop to get coffee and had a fun conversation with a lady waiting for the decaf to get refilled. She remarked something about how people like decaf compared to regular but don’t like to admit it.

“I ain’t drinkin’ no decaf, I got nine hours ahead of me!” which got a laugh out of her.

With the Hellish Brick Road that is Route 99 behind you, I-5 takes you the rest of the way out of the state, and you get to experience the real northern California environment. Much more relaxing and winding roads, with sparse traffic and Evergreen trees lining steep cliffs along the way.

Most of the mountains the path winds along are filled with lush green, yet seemingly out of nowhere, a white, snow-covered peak emerges. Mount Shasta. Unlike the previous night, I stupidly passed up the ‘Scenic View’ exit, as this was to be another nine hour driving day, which is more like 10 and change when you account for pit stops to fill up one tank and empty another.

I stopped at a Rest Area to try go get a shot of the mountain before it disappeared in the distance behind me, but a big dumb fence was in my way. I could only get the top half of it. Pro Life-Tip: If you’re on a cross country road trip, and you see a ‘Scenic View’ sign, stop and take a picture – no matter what.

A steady incline in the road eventually leads to the highest elevation point of the Siskiyou Mountain range, right at the border between Oregon and California.

The descent down that mountain and its 6% grade that goes on for seven miles was easily the most fun I’ve had driving since I pulled out of my driveway almost a week ago. Swooping around mountain curves at 75, listening to one of my all-time favorite EDM tracks, and my foot never touched the gas pedal. It was like something out of a racing video game.

Oregon literally left California in the dust.

In spite of that, it still managed to take some back with a 20 minute delay further coming down the mountain some time later, as it was the final hour of the final day of tree cutting in the area. Short as it was, it was still taking precious time away from my friends.

As I expected, the overcast clouds eventually started dripping once I got closer to Portland. Driving in rain isn’t my favorite thing in the world, yet I finally didn’t have the sun bearing down on me from a cloudless sky, giving me trucker tan and driving me crazy. It had been that way since West Texas.

The problem was the rain didn’t stop for over 150 miles. It only got more intense.

People were still flying by me at 80, as I also expected, since they’re used to it. It wasn’t a patented Florida thunderstorm where you can’t see 50 feet in front of you. Still, it never relented. When I finally got off the interstate, I checked the radar to find a green splotch of precipitation blanketing almost the entirety of Oregon AND Washington. It was what you’d see during a hurricane but without the blood-red crescent bands rotating inwards.

I finally pulled up to the house, the only AirBnB booked on the entire trip, to give all five of us meeting there the chance to crash if needed.

Brooke was the first to arrive, followed by Rachel. I’d seen Rachel a few years back when she visited, but I hadn’t seen Brooke in over a decade since she left and moved away. It was a hug ten years in the making, one of the best I’ve had in a very long time and so, so long overdue. The rest of the hugs that night were just as heartwarming.

We’d all met and become friends at the same company I’d met Faraaz at. It was wonderful to finally catch up with them in person after so many years. For as much as social media and Zoom meetings keep people connected, it will never touch being present in the same space.

Later, Christina arrived from Seattle. She’d never met Brooke or Rachel, but we’d finally met for the first time a year or so back when she came to Florida after knowing each other for over fifteen years.

Ben was the last to arrive, another friend of almost 20 years. He’d already been friends with Brooke before we met, but was meeting Rachel for the first time and meeting Christina for the first time in person after knowing her remotely for more than a decade – as well as being the person who introduced us.

When I’d planned this meeting out, it was asked what I wanted to do when getting there. All I wanted was to spend time with them and talk, which is exactly what we did.

It was just so perfect, and everything I’d hoped for out of such a reunion.

Love and Shenanigans.

At some points I just sat back and watched everyone interact and talk. It’s hard to express in words how fucking happy it made me. The things we talked about, stories we told, memories we recalled, and laughs we had will remain between us at the table we sat around.

Even when the Storm of the Century knocked out the power, we turned to digital candlelight with our phones. It created a challenge trying to take a group picture, having to leave the shutter open for five seconds, but we still made it happen. More frustrating was that I had just thrown the few clothes I’d washed in the dryer.

Brooke and Ben had to leave for the night, but Rachel, Christina and I crashed in a house with no heat and 50 degree weather outside. The power eventually came back on around 2am. The barking dogs woke them up.

I never heard a sound.

Day Eight. Spokane, Washington.

I awoke to the comforting sound of a coffee maker percolating. The first time it’d happened since the trip began. Rachel was on point, up before Christina and I. She’d fired up the dryer and I folded and packed clean clothes with time to spare.

Not since San Antonio with Faraaz and Shazia had I had time to wake up, breathe, and relax. After throwing my back out in El Paso and trying not to fall down a flight of stairs as a result in Sacramento, I sorely needed it – pun intended.

As an encore to the Oreo Pancake, Brooke kindly donated one of the specialty donuts she was taking home to share with her family before departing – covered in Oreo bits. Normally I’d have resisted, with ingesting more sugar in the past week than I had in probably the past six months, but I truly did not care.

We sat around, talked politics, laughed and drank coffee until it was time to leave. It felt so good to see Christina and Rachel getting along like gangbusters having never met before, as I knew they would.

While Rachel headed back to Bend to be with her boyfriend after a three-week absence, Christina and I met Ben at a local coffee shop, Latte Da, where he brought his impossibly adorable three year old, Vivi.

Watching Ben play hide and seek with her like a big teddy bear dad, seeing her laugh and smile, was precious beyond belief. It was one of those moments where I know for a fact I missed out on the joyful experiences of parenthood by committing to a childfree lifestyle. Still, watching a dear friend and seeing them truly happy as a parent is almost as fulfilling.

I could have sat all day and talked with them, but by Noon it was time for heartfelt farewells and to hit the road.

The rain was barely a drizzle when I left the city, but almost as soon as I got on I-84, it came right back, with hazy clouds obscuring the mountains on all sides. The highway runs parallel to the Columbia River, which separates the two states.
It reminded me of the three-hour drive up and down the mountains of Norway, only missing the snow-covered peaks.

An hour and a half later, the clouds finally broke and gave way to sunshine. Strong winds at my back helped further keep my gas mileage at an insane rate. Train tracks run along almost the entire route. No matter how many they are, it’s still hard not to watch them go by.

Eventually the mountains of Washington give way to more rolling hills, mostly brown from autumn giving way to winter, but with some patches of green still there amidst the endless farmland. It was reminiscent of the famous Windows XP default wallpaper.

I passed the time listening to The Exploring Series, a YouTube channel with a man who reads summaries of SCP articles – a collection of science fiction/horror stories about fictional “anomalies” in ours and other parallel worlds, with a secret organization called “The Foundation” working to Secure, Contain and Protect them from the public. It’s not important to go into the specifics here, but I find them fascinating and thought-provoking. With some of them being hours long to listen to, they’re perfect for a drive where there isn’t much to look at otherwise.

For anyone who’s seen and wondered what the hell it is, the weird circle sticker on the back of my car with the three arrows pointing at the center is The Foundation’s logo.

One of the more memorable sights on the drive was a long abandoned farm, with maybe twenty rusting and rotting cars surrounding it. A road leading to it had been re-paved as a dead end – the kind of place where you can’t help but wonder what its history was.

Another was a solitary red barn in the middle of an otherwise empty field, also completely abandoned. What struck me about it was that there was no house, silos, or dead vehicles anywhere in sight. Haunted house, serial killer hideout, or interdimensional gateway – take your pick.

When you finally reach Spokane after such a long stretch of empty landscape, it’s like coming down an interstate waterslide that descends into the city. My hotel wasn’t far from the interstate, as I’d planned with the others.

Instead of going with a sit-down dinner, I took Rachel’s advice (as a previous resident of Spokane) and checked out a famous local fast-food burger stand.


I brought a bag of Dick’s back to the hotel room and watched LSU upset Alabama in overtime, who can also eat a bag of dicks. The burger and the outcome of the game were delicious.

Up to now, the weather in every state has been tolerable enough to wear shorts, but shit gets real tomorrow in Billings with a high of 38. Then on Monday, it’ll be snowing in Bismarck.

It’ll be a nice birthday gift. I just hope I don’t need snow chains.

Day Nine. Billings, Montana.

I didn’t need snow chains, but I definitely needed the ice scraper I bought before I left. 

The rear window was completely iced over. Temperature was in the high 30’s. This hotel, unlike the last few, had a respectable breakfast spread. There wasn’t a waffle batter dispenser to break, but instead an automated pancake maker. Thankfully it was completely idiot proof, but the pancakes themselves were wholly inferior compared to what I had experienced a few days prior. Really, nothing will likely ever measure up.

I thought I’d left the mountains behind me back in the Southwest, with the last being Portland to Spokane. Montana saved the best for last.

Snow-capped evergreens lining steep cliffs up and down winding paths. It was like a Bob Ross painting come to life. The only experience that even remotely compares to it was Norway, which unfortunately I didn’t have a dashcam with me to capture the drive.

The Skyrim soundtrack had never sounded better. 

It was one of those moments where something mundane as driving becomes a fucking majestic experience. It sounds hyperbolic, but with how much music means to me in the right setting, it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes a road trip so special. 

No one telling me to turn it down, or change the song, or talk over it, or make fun of me for getting emotional, or any other distraction – selfish as that may be. I was taking it slow around the curves which were slick and icy at points, and just to absorb the experience. This was truly a vacation.

Then Immigrant Song was next on the playlist. Caution was slightly thrown to the wind.

Before it was over, I stopped at a Parking Area without thinking twice about getting some snaps with the DSLR. I left the car running with the music from the end of Blade Runner 2049 playing. I won’t spoil the ending, but the scene is set amidst the backdrop of snow falling. It wasn’t snowing at the parking area, but the wind was strong enough to blow flakes off the trees. 
Another one of those moments I’ll never forget as long as I live.

Eventually the snow covered peaks fade as you come down the mountain pass and you’re left with the mostly barren plains. The next few hours were uneventful other than finally listening to a three hour SCP tale I’d had on my list for months, and saved specifically for one of the longer stretches of this trip. Ended up being one of my favorites thus far.

The most frustrating part of today is that my killer gas mileage took an absolute nosedive.

I was driving right into the teeth of extremely high east winds most of the day, and the speed limit in Montana is 80. Google Maps factors that in when calculating the time to destination, and if I’d kept it around 70 like I had before, it would have added at least an hour onto the drivetime – not even accounting for pit stops. At least the prices finally came back down under four bucks a gallon. tHaNkS BiDeN!

A near full moon illuminated the path into Billings. At one point feeling myself start to fade, I rolled the windows down when I saw the outside temperature gauge hit 32. An intense track from The Division gave it an extra layer of madness, turning droopy eyelids into white knuckles.

Billings seemed like a pretty empty town. Everything looked closed. I still refused to eat at some bullshit chain restaurant, so the front desk attendant at the hotel gave me a recommendation for a local place. My steak, cheese, and tomato flatbread hit the spot with a bullseye.

The server was cute, really friendly, and attentive. I tipped 100% of the $15 bill.

Maybe it made her night.

Day Ten. Bismarck, North Dakota.

The breakfast at the hotel was the best it had been since Pascagoula. 

Yet, it also contained my nemesis – the waffle machine. My eyes widened with both happiness and remembered embarrassment at the same time. 

“You aren’t making an ass of me again,” I thought to myself.

Sure enough, this one had a plastic piece on the back of the dispenser, making it easier to grip and carefully dispense the batter. My favorite birthday breakfast in years past was a Nutella Peanut Butter waffle sandwich. I didn’t have any Nutella, but it was good enough. The biscuits were also no slouch, so I had two.

I know the mantra of “You’re on vacation” is routinely used to justify eating copious amounts of carbs that I’ve gone out of my way to avoid for months (years?) on end. No doubt I’m going to hate myself when I get home and look in my mirror again, but with today being the actual day I turn 44… whatever. Why come all this way and still be strict when I’ve done that almost every day the entire year to date? Planet Fitness isn’t going anywhere.

The drive was a short one, just over six hours, with a few planned out Scenic View stops along the way. Yet somehow it turned into one of the most frustrating, almost as bad as Sacramento, but in a totally different way.

I-94 was almost completely devoid of life. Hardly any cars or semis either ahead of or behind me for miles on end. No potentially dangerous mountains to climb, either, just rolling hill after rolling hill. 

What made it annoying was driving again into the teeth of the wind, but this time, it wasn’t just wind. They were sustained 35 mile an hour gusts that lasted the entire drive. My previously amazing gas mileage was now consistently hovering around the mid 20’s, ironically the same as the outside temperature.

It was exacerbated by the fact that I’d gotten a tire balance and rotation the day before leaving, being told by the shop that I shouldn’t also need an alignment. This was an incorrect assessment.

From the moment I pulled out, immediately I could tell it was pulling to the left if the steering wheel was centered. Didn’t think much of it, but today with the wind coming in at the exact angle I had to turn into, it was pulled hard right the entire time just to keep from being blown into the left hand lane.

Even on left hand corners, I still had to keep it turned to the right and was irrationally annoyed. Should have just taken it back when I had the chance. Hopefully it doesn’t fuck my relatively new tires into oblivion.

In spite of that, it was neat to see the tall brown grass rippling like waves as the wind raked over it. Better still was watching the snow form what looked like auroras as it whipped across the road. Tumbleweed even got in on the action.

One of the Scenic View spots was only accessible via dirt road with a 15 minute turnaround from the main highway. I took one look at it and Noped Out. The reason why was evident when I got into downtown Bismarck.

I’ve driven in snow before – up a winding mountain path, even, back in Norway.

That car had fuzzy snow tires. My Corolla does not.

The second I hit the brakes normally, I heard the scratching skid of the pads and sliding towards the car in front of me; the Traction alert going off for the first time since buying it almost four years ago made my heart skip a few beats. Shit had officially gotten real.

My only hope is that the people behind me at the light saw my Florida plate and understood why my tires were spinning trying to get through a green light and didn’t sigh too hard. I would have if I were a local.

The hotel here is far and away the nicest I’ve stayed in yet, better than the one outside Vegas, and probably the nicest since the 79th floor overlooking Beijing. L-couch, full kitchen with sink and a legit fridge, glassware, and even a real coffee maker rather than the half-assed ones at the previous hotels. I’m guessing breakfast will probably leave the rest in the dust, as well. 

Just like the previous nights, the front desk clerk gave me recommendations for the best local places. Once I heard Mexican, I was sold.

It didn’t beat the one Jaye took me to in Tucson, but it was damn close.

I can’t remember the last time I went to a Mexican restaurant and the salsa was *actually* salsa and not just hot liquid with red food coloring. It was chunky, with the chips also made on-site according to my server. They even had tableside guac service where they make it on the spot. The burrito itself wasn’t easy to pick up and eat, as the tortilla was fried, but goddamn was the steak amazing.

By a stroke of unbelievable luck, a Culver’s was literally the next building over in the same plaza. Again in the “Whatever” mindset, my dessert was three scoops of custard topped with Reese’s cups. I ate it in my car in the parking lot like a degenerate. Happy Birthday.

Before going back to the room, I walked out in the snow covered grass lot next to the hotel and listened to the end scene from ‘The Thing’ with the freezing wind scraping over my face. I will never apologize for being an unabashed movie nerd.
It’s going to be a long drive to Wisconsin tomorrow, but it’ll be a Bed and Breakfast on a rural farm in the middle of nowhere. I anticipate some of the best cheese I’ve ever eaten.

Every night so far, the sky has been filled with hazy cloud cover, preventing a crisp picture of a starry night sky.
I’m hoping it finally clears up on the farm. There won’t be a lumen of light pollution.

Day Eleven. La Crosse, Wisconsin.

It seems like every vacation, no matter how much fun you have, there’s at least one day that just sucks. Or at best, the vast majority of it.

Today was that day. 

I wanted to be on the road and moving by eight, and set my alarms to all go off by seven. Unfortunately a banging sound kept me up longer than I’d hoped. I couldn’t pin down what it was, wondering what my room neighbors must have been doing. I then realized it was the flags outside, clanging against the pole from the strong winds.
Thus, I wasn’t out of bed until 7:30, despite my alarms actually working.

Breakfast didn’t quite measure up to some of the previous, but wasn’t bad. The best part was getting to have my Death Wish coffee working in the room. Still, I wasn’t on the highway and moving until 8:30. Only thirty minutes behind, not too bad.

Not twenty minutes outside of Bismarck, we came to a dead stop. Not just a slowdown, but may as well put it in park and just wait. I eventually just turned it off to save gas, pondering how bad the accident up ahead must be.

Twenty minutes later, we started moving, and the cause of the slowdown was not a fender-bender or flat tire.

Some poor soul’s car had been completely immolated.

It was burnt to a cinder and still smoldering. I can only hope whoever was driving escaped in time, otherwise they were no longer amongst the living. 

The high winds picked up right where they’d left off from the previous day, and didn’t let up one knot the entire way through the entirety of North Dakota. With the tire pressure alert having not turned off since Oregon, I stopped twice to check them, since I’d only checked the front driver’s side at first. The air was free at one of them, surprisingly. Place looks after their trucker visitors.

Later stopping again, it seemed the previous gauge had been way off so I inflated them all, but this did nothing to increase the painfully bad gas mileage. It was all the 30 mph gusts trying to run me off the road, sweeping across empty plains. This led to more refill stops and further delays.

Shortly before hitting the Minnesota border, the rain started. It never stopped. 

Only during the briefest of moments when I found myself stuck in St. Paul drivetime traffic did it cease and gave me a slight reprieve. Once through, it picked right back up and lasted literally until moments before crossing the Mississippi River over to Wisconsin. It was like Oregon all over again, except this time for five hours instead of two, and followed me across the entire state.

Hangry, frustrated, and overdue for my meds, to say I was starting to get a little testy was an understatement. At some point I just gave up on music and SCP stories. I finally crossed over 50,000 miles for my car, which was a neat moment, but otherwise overshadowed by the mini-Tropical Storm, as opposed to the real one going on back home. 

Brooke told me back in Portland, “You brought it with you.” She wasn’t wrong.

The accommodations tonight were unique amongst all of the others – a Bed & Breakfast on a farm a few miles outside the city. It was my first time staying at one. I had no idea what to expect.

I rolled up to the farm, one of the few I’d seen over the past thousand or so miles which wasn’t abandoned and caving in on itself.

A friendly kitty trotted up to meet me for some scratchies, immediately improving my mood.

Walking up the house, there were two women sitting watching TV, who saw me from the window and welcomed me in. They introduced themselves as Cindy and Donna, offering a guestbook to sign. Took me a second to remember my home address with my brain crispy fried.

Rather than being a sterile AirBnB, clean but with no discernable personality, their home felt comforting and welcoming – lived in, like Jaye’s house. While hers had a retro tiki theme, this home had farm decor everywhere, but not in a tacky way.
It didn’t feel weird like I thought walking into a total stranger’s house would be. Felt natural.

Breakfast was included, but not dinner, so they made a recommendation for a local restaurant. Thankfully I made it with 30 minutes until close and could not help but order legitimate Wisconsin cheese curds.

You know the mozzarella sticks that almost every other place serves? Take those but make them a square with infinitely better cheese. My server was again cute, friendly, and attentive, so I tipped her 100%. I don’t know what this says about me, maybe it makes me a simp, but I didn’t make an ass out of myself trying to flirt to leave my number. Just like the last one, maybe it made her night. 

It’s the kind of thing you do for people because it’s a good thing to do, not because you expect something in return. At least that’s how I see it.

I came back to the house, and talked with the ladies for a few hours instead of retreating to my room. They told me about the animals they have, experiences with past guests, all kinds of fun details about living on a farm. We talked about experiences traveling, sharing things about our respective states. Donna was a bit more gruff than Cindy, but not in an off putting way. More of a playful gruff.

In the morning, I’ll get to hang out with all the farm animals. One of them is a Llama. My friend Kayla who works at the lanes back home is going to lose her shit, as she has quite the obsession with them – to the point where she wears llama bling.
An incredibly relaxing end to an insanely stressful and long day on the road. Google Maps said eight and half hours, but it ended up being closer to 11 with delays and stops. 

I have a feeling breakfast tomorrow won’t be topped.

Day Twelve. Chicago, Illinois.

I really didn’t want to sleep in.

I wanted to get up as early as I could to spend time out on the farm interacting with the animals and meet the famed llama. My body disagreed, snoozed my obnoxious alarms numerous times, and I ended up sleeping in until close to nine. Breakfast wasn’t quite the spread I’d envisioned, but was still good. I will never say no to bagels, and the yogurt parfait was quite a treat.

The best part was talking politics with the two of them, as it didn’t take long to see that we were very much on the same end of the spectrum. I told them about a barn I’d seen somewhere along a desolate highway of North Dakota. It was rotted, roof caving in, and looked like it was barely held together with scotch tape and willpower. There was a giant red sign leaning against it that just sad “TRUMP”

As metaphors go, it was borderline poetic.

Once I’d drained the pot of coffee, I got dressed and asked where to find the Llama. She was at the top of the hill, grazing with some of the goats. I was told by Donna that “Mama Llama” is very selective and will swiftly judge you, not letting you pet her if she doesn’t deem you a worthy human.

I was escorted up the hill by a caravan of the goats, unable to resist listening to the music of Goat Simulator. Again, the grin which couldn’t have been pried off.

Mama Llama did not appear receptive at first, as she was busy grazing and did not even acknowledge my existence. Ultimately disappointed, I snapped some pics and headed back down the hill, but not before one of the donkeys came right up and put his head on my shoulder without being prompted. He was ready for his close-up.

Donna gave me some animal crackers so I could have another shot with Mama Llama, as they are her favorite thing in the world. If I wasn’t worthy, perhaps an offering would help earn her adoration. I was determined for another shot at a selfie and getting to pet this animal.

Slowly and deliberately I approached her. Donna told me that if the ears get pinned back and she starts to chew, a spitting is imminent and to immediately abort. If the ears are up, all is well.

When I finally got her attention and held out my hand, she trotted over with ears perked up and ate the crackers out of my hand, letting me pet and scratch her on the head.

I got my selfie with Mama Llama. She then let me give her some more scratchies. 

It was perfect. The slog of a drive yesterday had been totally worth it.

What started as just a fun idea to spend a night on a bed and breakfast farm, with the main draw being in the middle of nowhere so I could get some decent night shots, turned out to be one of the most memorable nights of the trip. I even got a chance to make their three turkeys gobble, and laughed just as hard as the Turkish man in the famous video.

I stayed right until check out time, getting a few last moments with the goats. Cindy got some pictures of me in front of the barn. As a former photographer, I didn’t have to show her how to use the DSLR. She also recommended going to a location called “Granddad’s Bluff” overlooking the city and states beyond. Totally worth the detour.

The only other thing I had to do before leaving Wisconsin was get more cheese curds, which I did at a gas station filling up for the day’s journey. They weren’t deep-fried, but cold. It would be legitimately dangerous for me to live in Wisconsin with these things so readily available.

Next stop was to visit a long-time friend from childhood, Ryan, who lives in one of the many suburbs of Chicago.

Though not as bad as the plains of Montana and North Dakota, I still fought the wind most of the way there. Having to constantly tilt the steering wheel right is really wearing on me. I was making decent time though, and for a while considered stopping in Schaumburg to visit a former customer — someone I worked with as an RPS customer for almost five years.
It would have been nice to finally meet face to face and shake his hand, but without knowing if he was even there, not wanting to think about work, and really not sure how the interaction would go, I decided better of it. I did make a point to stop at the World’s Largest Culvers for a single scoop. Moment of panic when my card was declined, but two separate calls to my bank confirmed nothing was wrong. Probably just a screw up with their register.

The more important stop on the way to Ryan’s was Wrigley Field to spread some of Clint’s ashes. Even that, though, didn’t feel quite right.

Not that I didn’t want to, as it was the main reason I brought them. Something just seemed… off… about driving up at night, trying to find somewhere to put them, and driving off without looking suspicious. He’d probably be rolling his eyes at me from the afterlife. Ryan later gave me an idea a hundred times better.

It had been a while since we’d caught up after he’d moved out there. To finally get to meet his girlfriend Dawn and their two adorable cats was a treat. We got pizza for dinner, and he drove me around explaining how the Chicago ‘burbs work. He confirmed my suspicion that anyone who brings up that city as some sort of Murderopolis – like it’s Old Detroit from fucking RoboCop – does not have a clue what they’re talking about. 

Yes, there are parts you want to avoid. You know, just like every single major urban area on Planet Earth. Lay off the Fox News.

The basement in his house is an unfinished canvas with limitless potential, and he’s excited to shape it into something. Having grown up in Florida, where basements are something you only see in movies, I was crazy jealous.

Aside from that, we spent most of the night remembering experiences and people back at Casselberry Elementary, looking through old 90’s comics, watching YouTube, talking about and showing things he and Dawn have found at Estate Sales. I seriously need to get in on this. I introduced him to RedLetterMedia, as well. 

We stayed up way too late, but it was worth it.

Day Thirteen. Northfield, Ohio.

A late night naturally led to a late start.

As a special treat and something I also need to get in on, Ryan made coffee via pour-over. It’s his preferred way to make it, whereas I didn’t even know it was a thing. I’m going to have to get one to use on weekends and give the Cuisinart a break.
Another thing he mentioned before I left was a better idea with how to get Clint’s ashes to Wrigley, contacting the Cubs’ social media team, sending the news story about what happened, and maybe a chance to get them actually scattered on the field itself.

It’s a longshot, but can’t be the first time someone’s asked for it. According to him, sports are taken much, much more seriously there than down south.

Getting back on the road, the next stop was Monroe, Michigan, to visit another friend and former co-worker of That Company, like the others I’d see along the way. Before getting there, I had to contend with I-80/90. It wasn’t my first time driving on it, as I had back in 2016, and it was just as bad as I remember. Ridiculous tolls for pavement they clearly had not been put towards fixing, and I was still fighting the winds.

For the decade-long construction nightmare that resulted in the finished I-4 Ultimate project, I have quite an appreciation for it. Get your shit together, Ohio.

This drive almost marked the final time zone change back to EST, which further delayed the travel time. Still, I made it to his place with a few hours to spare and caught up.

All of us who worked under He Who Shall Not Be Named, Dustin was arguably the most traumatized. He was our manager and was in the direct line of fire on a daily basis. The rest of us only got caught in the crosshairs if we screwed up. The day he quit was the last time I’d seen him. Came out of nowhere and he left for California that day back in 2010, if memory serves.

He’s off social media and won’t even answer his phone. I don’t blame him, and none of us who were there couldn’t, either. Made it that much more satisfying to tell him the story of how karma came back with Old Testament vengeance for the man who caused it, hitting every branch on the way down.

It’s one of those things that for how hard it was for those of us who were there, it made the bonds we forged that much stronger.

As luck would have it, I arrived on the day that the Geek Squad was putting the finishing touches on Dustin’s home theater. This wasn’t just a fancy couch with 7.1 and a 70” 4K. This was a literal darkroom in his basement (which has near the square footage of my entire home) and a projector showing on a dimension larger than any TV I’ve seen in someone’s home. Built in speakers in the ceiling. Raised up in the back for the King & Queen thrones.

It’s the kind of thing where his family will never have to pay to go see a movie ever again, far and away the most impressive home setup I’ve ever seen. He asked me what was the first movie they should watch.

Top Gun: Maverick.

We had enough time to go to a local sports bar for a table full of appetizers before I had to head to Northfield. I’d heard tales of how good his son Gabe is at football, having seen clips on Facebook and Faraaz corroborating it. It made me so happy to see him practically gleam about it and how proud he is of him talking about his exploits.. From what he described, the kid’s got legit talent and instinct. Even at age 11, he’s heads above the other kids, both in stature and ability, drawing the attention of some people fairly high up the chain in the biz. If he keeps his grades up, no doubt he’s got a real chance to start at a Division 1 school when the recruiters start lining up, and they will.

I had to head to Northfield before it got too late, but was so glad to be able to visit and catch up.

By the time I got to Lisa & Justin’s, they were both sacked out and ready to crash from long days, as I was. We weren’t up for very long, but I did get to deliver the Tucson care package sent from Jaye. It included the kitty yarmulke for their fluffy ragdoll, Merfins, for her Meow-Mitzvah. Lisa also did me a solid by going to Malley’s, a chocolate shop in Northfield, to get me more genuine Ohio buckeyes. I’d run out of the ones from the last visit. 

If I hadn’t gotten to spend the weekend with them for the NIN concert, it would have been a very awkward first meeting, but felt natural since we’d already met. The good part was they both had to get up super early, which was a bonus for me since the final long leg of the trip awaited.

There’s a part of me that misses home. My pooch, my porch, and mostly getting to sleep in my own bed. I’ve never slept well in hotels or different places, and with a new one almost every night the lack of rest is starting to gain on me.

Still, there’s that part that doesn’t want it to be over; the part that wishes I had more time to spend with my friends and loved ones than just a few hours.

It’s been a hell of a trip, and the emotional crescendo is yet to come.

Day Fourteen. Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lisa had already left for work by the time I got up, and while I should have gotten up earlier, Justin hung out until I did. We were still out the door before eight, which I hadn’t been able to do so far over the past two weeks. It gave me enough time for the first trip to Waffle House, a requisite for any road trip.

It wasn’t raining the previous night, but it was that morning. Having already had one fully soaked day in Minnesota, I checked the radar to see what I was in for.

Turns out it was Tropical Storm Nicole. 

She’d stretched out all the way across the entire Eastern Time Zone. 

Brooke told me I’d brought the storm with me to Portland. That was a semi-joke. This wasn’t. I was going to be driving in highway rain for the entire seven hours to Charlotte. 

I know this makes me sound like a whiny bitch, but I was just about over it. Mississippi didn’t hit until the last 30 minutes or so. Portland I expected, because it’s the Pacific Northwest. Minnesota was unexpected, but at least stopped when I crossed the Wisconsin border at the very end.

This didn’t stop all day. The best it did was slowed, yet the heavy fog in the mountains of West Virginia didn’t do anything to help visibility.

For the first time during the entire trip, I was so exhausted that I almost ran someone off the road changing lanes. Woke me up quick-fast-in a hurry. Thankfully they didn’t take it personally, but it was more proof that the lack of a good night’s rest was taking its toll – kind of like the stupid interstates in WV that didn’t take credit cards. I didn’t have any cash on me, which was a dumb lack of planning, so I’ll have double to pay when I get back. Whatever.

Getting up early helped. The original ETA was 4:30, so I’d have more time to spend catching up with my cousin Corrie and her husband David.

Then the time remaining went from yellow to red and stopped counting down. The ETA started steadily going up. At a pit stop I checked the map and found there was a jagged red line not far off, showing a delay of 40 minutes. It turned into a full hour by the time it was all said and done.

Frustrating as it was, it gave me time to make some Instagram posts and catch up on email. No one behind me was honking to get a move on, as none of us were going anywhere fast.

I figured what must have been waiting for us at the end would be bad, but I wasn’t ready.

A two-trailer FedEx truck had fallen or been pushed off the road headlong into a mini-ravine. The cab was destroyed, and with the way it had been pouring for hours on end, the two trailers were hanging on by a thread from completely collapsing to the bottom. There were two cranes trying to pull it out. If the driver survived, it would be a miracle. No telling what caused it.

At that moment, all of my frustration turned to sympathy for those poor bastards heading northbound. I-77 North was completely blocked off a few miles ahead and the line of cars and trucks waiting to be diverted off the highway was easily three times the length as our backup was. Just insanity.

I did end up making decent time to Charlotte in spite of that and got to Corrie’s loft apartment with about two hours to spend.

David was unfortunately out of town doing a wedding gig, playing in a band and making a good living doing it. I’m lucky if I get to see them once a year at large family gatherings. Having watched her grow up in the shadow of what I felt might have been a fairly sheltered life, she turned out to be pretty fucking rad. It feels rare these days to meet Christians who are genuinely progressive, don’t use religion as a hateful cudgel to belittle non-believers, and pretend they’re the moral arbiters of society. She’s one of the few who truly gets it.

We went to a local pizza place with the closest I’ve had to NYC pizza since visiting in 2018, talking about family and politics, filling her in on what happened with Dad and his miracle heart attack recovery. The “I’m on vacation” diet mindset is almost expired, so better make use of it while I can.

She had a comedy show to attend and I had a lot of trip logging to catch up on.

It’s 12:19 AM and time for bed. Tomorrow’s the last day before the final leg home.

It should be a grand finale; staying in a hotel I’ve wanted a room in for years, a friend who makes me laugh like few others I’ve ever met in my life, and someone I haven’t seen in 25 years.

Day Fifteen. Atlanta, Georgia.

The lack of sleep finally caught up with me.

Granted, I was awake until after one, showering and laying in bed thinking about today, I threw in some anxiety meds with my usual ones and it was like my alarms may as well had not even gone off.

When I came to, the clock showed 10:46. Fuck.

Totally missed breakfast, and didn’t even have time to stop anywhere along the way except for my 20th-something cup of Love’s and a fill up. One last protein bar of the ten I left with was my salvation. It wasn’t that I was on a schedule, and wasn’t able to check into the hotel until after 4, but still. 

This trip has been about time with friends, and I wanted as much as I could get.

Thankfully, it was the shortest day of the entire trip, just under four hours to Atlanta. Crossing the border, the familiar selfish, aggressive drivers reappeared almost immediately. After such relaxing drives down West Texas and Montana, I forgot how common it is for people to pass on the right without a blinker, because you aren’t abiding by the N+15 speed limit equation.
The one cuisine I hadn’t treated myself to on the entire trip was asian, so Rick suggested meeting him and Amanda at a dim-sum place, the Oriental Pearl. We missed the cart service, but the chicken fried rice, dumplings, and steamed buns were on point.

It’s always a joy spending time with them. They’re one of the few married couples I know who have not only stood the test of time, but never believe for a second it would end. They’re perfect for each other. I never even think of passing through Atlanta without visiting, as long as they’re in town.

Rick kept me laughing, as it was exactly what I needed to keep loose before the next and final friend visit. If It hadn’t been planned, I would have joined them in a heartbeat to the Buford Highway Farmers Market – the most unique grocery store I’ve ever set foot in. Part of me wants to hit it before heading home tomorrow.

From there I headed to the last stop. Someone I had not seen since September of 1998.

Despite rekindling our friendship remotely, the last time Chris and I saw each other in person was in anger, standing on opposite shores of a river flowing with bad blood, perceived betrayal, and a girl who’d shattered my heart into a thousand teenage pieces.

Now… the river flowed crystal clear and he invited me into his home with a warm embrace.

He and his wife Lori are foster parents to eight and four year old girls. The younger one, Millie, sat next to me and drew a picture of us, adorably interrupting our conversation. Mostly we caught up about where the winding paths of the last few decades had taken us. He talked about the struggles he and Lori faced with the foster program, and how taking care of the kids is the easiest part when contrasted with the red tape and parents who only care when it’s convenient for them.

As for what happened to us after the events of August 1998, that will remain between us; like a legacy movie sequel, where the two main characters reunite, and don’t have to explain the history of their story. They both lived it and can have a conversation without any of the existing context needing to be fleshed out.

It was a conversation we’d both needed for so long, with so much weight lifted. 

While we were first talking, his younger daughter Millie cut out a heart and scotched-taped it to my chest. Even though she had no idea the depth of the talk we were having, nor any of the history, there could not have been a more perfect metaphor.
The shattered teenage heart finally mended. 

Just like back in high school, we could have spent all night talking, but we aren’t teenagers who can stay up until all hours of the night anymore. I had one final hotel to check into as well. Next time I come to Atlanta, I’m making it a point to try to introduce them to Rick and Amanda. It was an honor to introduce Christina to Rachel up in Portland, and it’s my hope I can help forge more new friendships here as well.

Downtown Atlanta traffic wasn’t as backed up or insane as I’d expected, mainly due to the time of day, but the Valet service at the Marriott Marquis was full and I had to park in a not-cheap lot down the street. It was also more than a bit chilly, as the temperature had dropped into the 40’s. Meanwhile, it was in the mid-70’s when I left Chicago 48 hours ago.

In keeping with my other trips, I save the nicest hotel stays for last, and I’m sitting on the 45th floor overlooking downtown as I write this. I plan on getting some night shots of the skyline with the DSLR.

Tomorrow I head for home. It’s been one hell of an amazing trip. 

For all of the long stretches of poorly maintained roads, fighting the winds of the plains, paying six bucks for a gallon of gas, freezing fingers at the pumps, sweeping rains that lasted for hours across state borders… 

Every second of time I was fortunate enough to spend with the friends, family, and loved ones I  got to visit was worth all of it.

One more drive to go.

Day Sixteen. Home.

Of all the hotel rooms I stayed in over the past two weeks, at no point did I literally forget what room I was in until the Marquis. 

After getting some killer long-exposure night shots of the Atlanta skyline, I stepped out to get some interior shots of the hotel. It looks like you’re in the skeleton of a whale. My room number was 4525, but after such an emotional day with a rough start, within 15 minutes I mistook it for 4626. Then 4524. I had to go down to the front desk and embarrassingly ask for another card. Thankfully they were able to without my ID. 

“4525, got it.”

“I’m going to write it down for you right here,” the front desk clerk said. 

Much like the lady back in Pascagoula who had to clean up my waffle batter mess, she confirmed it wasn’t the first time it happened. I still felt like a dipshit.

It was the best night’s sleep I’d gotten in all of the nights on the road. Despite waking up at eight when my alarms went off, I stayed in bed right up until the point where I had to check out. Probably the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve ever slept in. I also realized why I’d slept through them the previous day – they’d never gone off in the first place, as I’d had Saturday disabled. Go figure.

Got out with 15 minutes until check out, taking a few moments before leaving to listen to the Loki trailer where the building is featured. I remain a hopeless MCU fanboy.

Getting out of the city was easy, likely because it was a Sunday. The only remaining road trip requirement to meet was breakfast at a Waffle House. I’d had it the day I left Ohio, but it was not a proper experience. One server, one cook, and like two people in the entire place. The server was a dead-eyed teenager who had literally anything better to be doing than be there. She also shared a name with a recent ex. Nice touch.

This morning, though, was the proper experience.

Bustling packed house, full of line cooks all laughing and joking with each other and the servers, all while busting their ass to get food out. They were happy. The servers were even joking around with the folks sitting next to me at the bar.

At some point, the jukebox fired up and the lead cook was into it. I still had TouchTunes credits leftover, so I played “Trouble Man”. I’d hoped it wasn’t an “He’s out of line, but he’s right” moment, it’s just a classic and the first thing that came to mind.
I was done with my usual breakfast, but then someone put on Barry White and it clicked.

No way I was leaving without hearing “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up”, from the diner scene in ‘Baby Driver’ as I was sitting at the bar So I got an extra pancake and told the server exactly why since I’d already gotten my check. She got a laugh and a $20 tip on top of it.

Another serendipitous moment for a movie nerd.

The rest of the drive out of Georgia was largely uneventful, passing the time listening to more SCP stories. More and more Florida plates started showing up the closer I got to the border, and it was almost depressing seeing the welcome sign.
From there it was back to the usual insanity and lack of regard for human life by many of the drivers. Over 85, passing on the right, no signal, tailgating at less than 10 feet. Jacksonville was a total mess. Instantly I missed how mostly sane and considerate the drivers had been in other states.

Downtown Houston was crazy and Route 99 in California gets an Honorable Mention, but we really do have the worst of the worst here. After another lap around the country, I’m further convinced.

Not only that, but the endless boring trench of pine trees was an unwelcome sight after seeing misty mountains and desolate deserts. For a second off in the distance, I saw what looked like one of the many mesas which lined the horizon out in the west.

It was just a stupid flat cloud.

As much as I wanted to stop in Jax to visit family, it meant I wouldn’t have gotten home until at least 10, the time it is as I finish this up. Many of them are out of town, as it were, and I hadn’t nailed down plans with anyone else. If nothing else, they’re only two hours away instead of two thousand miles.

The final mile tally was 7671.7, crossing over the 50K mark in the process. Happened somewhere towards the end of the Minnesota day. First thing tomorrow after getting my pooch back will be going to the shop to have my tires un-rotated or getting it aligned.

It’s always weird going back to mundane life after such a trip. Even something like going to the grocery store for fizzy water almost feels like a letdown. You’re just there again like it’s another day, meanwhile you’ve just made it across the country and back and one of the best vacations you’ve ever had. 

My eternal, heartfelt thanks to Faraaz, Shazia, Jaye, Brooklyn, Rachel, Christina, Ben, Cindy, Donna, Ryan, Dawn, Dustin, Kim, Lisa, Justin, Corrie, Amanda, Rick, Lori, and Chris for their hospitality, time, love, and friendship. 

They turned what would have been a touristy sightseeing trip into once in a lifetime reunions.

I also made friends with Mama Llama.