My father left my mother and me when I was a baby and I only met him once briefly when I was 16, I become more convinced of the power of genetics when I think about how my father was a long distance trucker for most of his life after divorcing my mother. When I did meet him, he told me how much he liked being out on the road for long periods of time, as was required by his job. So I wonder if other than the red hair that I absolutely adopted from him, I also possess a gene he passed down that explains why I am seldom happier than when I embark on yet another cross-country drive.
In mid-December, with classes over and grades filed, I packed up my car and headed east for what would be my car’s 4th cross country trip in 18 months. As for me, I’ve lost count of the number of times I have done this journey, but my best guess is that this was approximately my 50th. Keeping careful watch of the road conditions over the often snowy Donner Pass on I-80, I left San Francisco late in the morning, just after chain restrictions had been lifted for the Pass, and 8 hours or so later I was in another world, dining on Mexican food and staying the night in an Elko, Nevada hotel.
This put me within striking distance of Steamboat Springs, Colorado for the following day, and other than a tasty stop in Salt Lake City for an amazing brunch at Sweet Lake Biscuits, where I sampled their amazing fried chicken and biscuits, I didn’t make any major stops until I arrived in the Springs just after dark. Before checking in at my motel for the night, I decided to head straight up into the surrounding mountains about 10 miles away to visit Strawberry Hot Springs, a rustic complex of man-made flagstone decks and stone enclosed pools fed by hot springs along the side of a river. Snow flurries melted into the steam rising from the pools, and thankfully it was a “balmy” 36 degrees, making changing into my bathing trunks and walking barefoot to the steps of the pool a little less painful. I have been there when the temperatures were below zero and there was a fear that my wet bare feet would simply freeze onto the flagstones before I could get into the pools!
I soaked my road-weary bones for about an hour and a half, doing my best to find a quiet corner of a pool where I didn’t have to listen to the considerable crowd of young people who had descended on the pools and used the “F” word as often as they used the word “like.” This is such a magical place and I’ve had the chance to experience it when there were literally only a handful of quiet folks who understood the beauty of shutting up and listening to the wind in the pines and the sound of the river flowing beside the pools. Alas, on this evening the 50 or so people there acted as though they were on Spring Break at a resort: laughing, screaming, taking selfies with a flash over and over again, making vulgar remarks about one another’s body parts, etc. I tried to screen it all out and focus on the moon peeking out from behind the clouds and the snow gathering on my head, but, unfortunately, I simply didn’t have enough mental discipline to achieve that.
I woke up fairly early the next day, intending to drive the three hours to Denver and have a leisurely few hours in the city before heading on into Nebraska for the night. Because school ended rather late this year, I really had to make a pretty straight beeline east if I were to reach New England by the 23rd. Peeking out the window I saw everything coated with an inch or two of new snow and flurries were still swirling through the air. This is a scene that would put fear into the hearts of many a driver, but to me it was a Christmas wish come true and I drove through the snowy country roads playing Christmas music and enjoying the winter scenery of the Rockies. It continued to gently snow the whole way, but the roads weren’t bad at all as long as you just took it slowly, and there was little traffic to worry about. I loved it.
And then I descended into the town of Silverthorne, and my dream turned into a nightmare of horrendous traffic back-ups and flashing police car lights. It seemed that Interstate 70 eastbound had been completely closed due to numerous incidents of cars spinning out on the snowy highway. I will never understand why people feel the need to speed, even when roads are slick. I’d just spent two hours on snowy roads without so much as a tense moment, but of course, I was going about 10 miles under the speed limit. My Google Maps phone app told me that the only way to Denver now was on Route 6 over Loveland Pass, but 5 miles out of Silverthorne, huge lighted signs flashed warnings that Loveland Pass was closed. Thanks, Google! Not knowing quite what to do, I decided to get lunch back in Silverthorne and hope that I-70 would reopen. The only other alternative would be to make about a 150 mile detour back the way I’d just come. Meanwhile, it just killed me to know I was only about 45 miles from Denver where the afternoon temperatures were in the low 50s and I had no way to get there!
With great trepidation, I finished my lunch and drove toward the entrance to I-70 to find that the police cars were gone and the road had reopened. As I merged onto the interstate, I fell in behind sanders and snow plows clearing the roads in front of me. We only went about 40 MPH, but this kept everyone in line and prevented idiots from trying to pass everyone, though some fools tried riding the breakdown lane and cutting into the right lane at the last second behind the plows. I have studied psychology for 40 years and I will NEVER understand people! And so, after another hour or so, I came rolling into Denver, but my plans to spend some time and have a nice meal in the city had to be abandoned, as it was now almost 3:30 PM and rush hour would be starting soon. I’d reserved a hotel room in Lincoln, Nebraska, another 6 hours away, so reluctantly, I got some gas and some snacks, and on I went, stopping for some Mexican food in Ogallala and arriving in Lincoln at nearly midnight. The best laid plans…
I met my friend and colleague Bill and his mom at Tina’s Café in Lincoln the next morning. Bill is from Lincoln originally and had flown in from California the night before. I’d been to Tina’s before with him, and it always makes me chuckle, as from the outside it really looks like a dump, but inside it’s cheerful and friendly, and the food is good and plentiful.
We feasted on what have to be some of the best cinnamon rolls in the Midwest, and after a hearty breakfast, I was back on eastbound I-80 through Iowa and into Illinois. I didn’t have a plan as to where I was going to stop for the night. When your choices are places like Gary or Fort Wayne, Indiana or Joliet, Illinois, there’s little to be excited about, but I made a rather spontaneous decision to head into Chicago instead, even though I’d be fighting traffic and would be going a little out of my way. I found a B&B online that was located in a great neighborhood on the north side and offered free parking, so that sounded perfect and indeed, it was.
The B&B was named Sono and was housed in a beautiful, modern house owned by a young couple who were very hospitable. There was a shared kitchen area, and a rooftop deck that offered a view of the Chicago skyline, and my room was quiet and comfortable, with a small patio and a king sized bed. Upon the recommendation of friends I went to dinner at nearby Dinotto’s, a well-known Italian place on North Wells Street, and dined on perhaps the best meatballs I have ever tasted in my life, followed by a salmon, caper and pink vodka sauce pasta dish. I then walked a couple of miles around the area, checking out the Christmas lights and decorations and giving my legs a desperately needed opportunity to get some exercise. I stopped at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, despite the windy and near freezing temperatures, and happily devoured some homemade dark chocolate and coffee ice cream until a cold drizzle started and I retreated to my cozy room for the night.
Before leaving the city the next day, I visited Batter and Berries, a wonderful southern-style breakfast and lunch spot on Lincoln Avenue that features killer chicken and sweet potato waffles, and then headed out of the tangled web of Chicago traffic into Indiana. I loathe Interstates 80 and 90 through Indiana and Ohio, as they are very expensive toll roads and are populated by hundreds of 18 wheelers. Instead, I zig-zagged southeast through Fort Wayne and caught Route 30, a calm 4 lane highway which for considerable stretches had a 70 MPH speed limit and was totally free from tolls and trucks. Along the way it flurried almost constantly, which made the perfect back-drop for my drive. I made it as far as Wooster, Ohio that night… only an hour from the Pennsylvania border, and once I make it into the Keystone State, I feel almost like I am almost home already.
On Saturday morning I made a beeline for Pittsburgh; though not directly on my route, I am always willing to deviate 40 or 50 miles off course to make a stop at Pamela’s P & G Diner, a small chain of restaurants in the Pittsburgh area that have, in my never to be humble opinion, the very best pancakes in the entire USA. This time I chose one of the locations I’d not visited before, on the north side of the city. I found parking and was happy to see that since it was noon, the breakfast/brunch rush was over and there was no line and no wait to be seated. However, I was dismayed when I was told that since I was alone, I could only sit at the counter. After driving close to 3,000 miles in the past 5 days, I just wanted a real chair, not a bar stool, but was told that this was “policy.” I have to admit that this rather rude welcome had me feeling pretty grumpy after all I did to get there, and mentioned in all my visits to Pamela’s over the years I had never been forced to take a seat at the counter.
As I grudgingly took my seat and tried to let it go, a waitress/hostess came over and apologized and told me they had a table for me. As I followed her, she explained that it was their policy to seat parties of one at the counter on busy weekends, but since the place was not even full, there was no reason I couldn’t be at a table. I apologized for being so grumpy, explaining how much time I’d spent behind the wheel and describing just how fond I am of this place. All was well, and those pancakes could NOT have tasted any better. Another employee also visited my table and apologized to me, and we had a nice chat. I learned that she had been working there for 50 years. Wow! All to soon, the pancakes were only a memory and when I went up to the register to pay, the long-time employee smiled at me, looked me right in the eye, and wished me a Merry Christmas. I responded in kind and went to take out my wallet, but she clarified that my breakfast was complimentary, and she thanked me for being such a loyal customer. And she again wished me a Merry Christmas. Such an unexpected and kind act, coupled with the season and the fact that I’d made another successful cross-country trip made me choke up and I could barely speak.
For the rest of the day I drove through intermittent snow flurries and marveled at the play of clouds and sunlight on the rugged Allegheny Mountains. I rolled into Scranton, Pennsylvania that night, humming the theme song from TV’s The Office and chuckling about “getting my Scrant-on”, a silly line from the show, which was set in Scranton. It was December 22nd and the following day I had a “short” 5 hour drive to meet my friend Joyce for a late lunch in Providence, Rhode Island. Then I’d be checking in at a small cottage in the woods of Westport, Massachusetts that I often rent when I’m in the area. Christmas had officially begun, and I was home again.