Our 2003 Road Trip, Part 1 of 7: About the Boy

Black bear!

A black bear welcomes travelers to a rest stop in Pennsylvania, where apparently black bears are all the rage.

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover, we’ve fired up the WABAC Machine and retold the stories from our first four outings together:

* 1999: our first Wizard World Chicago
* 2000: the second and final Gateway Science Fiction Convention in St. Louis
* 2001: our first Superman Celebration in Metropolis, IL
* 2002: hangout with internet friends in Grand Rapids for the opening of Attack of the Clones

2003 was a milestone for a number of reasons, at least one of which you can discern from our lead photo. No, not the bear.

Plan A was yet another convention. Had we gone through with it, we would’ve driven out to the scenic Baltimore area, home of The Wire, years before I watched The Wire and therefore wouldn’t have appreciated it on the proper level. We’d read about an annual Star Trek con in the vicinity called Shore Leave that sounded right up our alley, with a guest-list combination of famous actors and at least one writer I liked at the time. We have no idea how it would’ve compared to our own annual Trek con here in Indy every November. And since it wouldn’t be far from the Washington DC, maybe we could drop by there if time permitted, catch a sight or two and learn some history and see famous old buildings and whatnot. Y’know, if we could fit the treasured works of our Founding Fathers into our busy autograph line schedule.

Then life threw us a curve ball: that March, through a chain of unpleasant crises, the life-saving intervention of a loving relative, invaluable assistance from a key organization, a knack for writing legal documentation I’d acquired through my job of 2½ years, and no small amount of anxiety and tears, I found myself in the position of assuming custody of my son from my ex-wife. I’d spent the preceding six years a non-custodial dad who never dreamed such a thing could happen in the state of Indiana. It may be several more years before I’ll feel comfortable covering the events in depth, but suffice it for now to say this was a thing that needed to happen for his sake.

I welcomed him into my humble, adequate abode with open arms and rolled with the changes thanks to the help of my best friend Anne, still living two apartment buildings away but willing to assist wherever she could within our opposite day/night work schedules. After a time, life stabilized and we settled into the new norm, and they all lived happily ever after until he became a teenager. The End.

But there was still the matter of the annual road trip. We knew a geek convention wouldn’t be his thing. He wouldn’t care a whit about Trek (not till high school), let alone autographs or Q&As or dealers’ rooms filled with toys too old and expensive for him to play with. That seemed a losing game for the poor kid.

Then we thought harder for about half a second and figured, why not shift focus, dump the con, and make DC the star of the trip? Once we finally noticed, DC was an obvious choice for our first “family” vacation together — me, my son, and my best friend. Close enough.

Mind you, it wouldn’t be his first vacation. The custodial transfer process was perfectly, divinely timed to coincide with Spring Break in his previous school system and Spring Break in our school system, two back-to-back weeks in which he stayed with his aunt while I got things sorted on my end. For half of that, he was treated to a road trip to Orlando, where he and his cousins enjoyed the heck out of Universal Studios and Walt Disney World. They also dutifully experienced EPCOT as they were told. (As of this writing, Anne and I still haven’t been to Disney World. Someday it’ll be our turn.)

That experience gave him some useful road-trip practice and taught him at least one critical lesson: bring stuff to do for the long, long journey. We weren’t yet in the habit of researching roadside attractions and planning stops along the way, so the drives on the 2003 trip were largely utilitarian, a word which here means “boring and stopping only when necessary”. He made sure to pack several hundred pounds of reading matter and toys. When those failed him, he talked our ears off. As a growing eight-year-old, he’d thankfully picked up survival tips that kept him generally placated and free of boredom tantrums.

Late in the day on July 6, 2003, we began the nine-hour haul from Indianapolis to DC, which we split into two days. For Day One we got as far as Columbus, Ohio, and spent the night in a hotel attached to the far end of a Meijer parking lot. Our supper was TV dinners from said Meijer microwaved in our room, the first time we’d ever stayed anywhere so equipped. Not really the stuff of travel blogging, but our needs were simple and our cravings for sightseeing activity were low-key until we reached DC.

By and large, Day Two was mostly just as forgettable. I remember stopping for fast-food lunch in Washington, PA, at a street that was one long, crowded hill. Most of the day’s driving through the Appalachians looked much the same.

the highway!

We had higher expectations of mountains than the Appalachians could possibly meet. No pointed peaks, no snow or ice, not one lousy mountain goat or mountain lion. Meh.

We lucked into one nifty sight along the way. Nestled among the endless rolling greenery was Sideling Hill, a ridge in the Alleghenies with an interstate carved through one section of it. We stopped at their welcome center, viewed their exhibits, and walked up and down the ridge for a while to stretch our legs and see geology formations up close. This was closer to the true mountainousness we’d envisioned.

Sideling Hill!

Mountains’ majesty at last!

Apparently the entire stop was shut down in 2009 to cut costs, and only recently reopened as a mere featureless welcome center without exhibits. At least they didn’t cancel the mountain and turn it into a landfill, I guess.

Eventually we arrived at our destination hotel, the Four Points by Sheraton at 12th and K Street. The lobby was bright and modern and unkempt, but one of my older maps revealed the location was once a Days Inn. Shady past aside, theirs was the first establishment we’d ever stayed overnight to feature an explicitly international staff and disastrously priced valet parking. If it had a restaurant, we couldn’t afford it. Thankfully I’d paid off my car the month before and had some extra disposable income to offset the valet, but dinner every night the rest of the week was at a Subway down the block, the only inexpensive fare we could find within walking distance. It was during this week, and for that repetitiveness, that my longtime enmity toward Subway would take root.

The boy couldn’t care less about any of the drawbacks. All he knew is he was in a strange new world far from home and danger, armed with action figures and ready to have some kind of fun. He made a bed for himself out of our extra blankets and pillows in the wide space between our two double beds, becoming the ruler and sole population of his own benevolent fiefdom. It was from there that our exploratory mission would launch the next day into the wondrous world of our nation’s capital.


A deluxe super-sized pretend sleeping bag: the only real way to adventure.

To be continued!

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