Our 2007 Road Trip, Part 9: All Drive and No Play


You know your vacation has hit a snag when a stop at McDonald’s is the most interesting part of your day.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions 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. For 2007 we changed up our strategy a bit and designed an itinerary for what would prove our most kid-friendly outing ever. Granted, my son was now twelve years old and less kid-like than he used to be, but the idea was sound in principle.

Thus in this year of our Lord did we declare: the Goldens are going to Florida!

On the penultimate day of our 2007 vacation, we learned another lesson that hadn’t occurred to us in our previous experiences. We were swift to institute a new rule in response for the future: never schedule an eight- to ten-hour drive without planning a single interesting stop along the way. Immobility and boredom proved to be a dreadful tag team on our return through Georgia.

* * * * *

DAY SIX: Thursday, June 14th.

Our final Orlando breakfast for the decade was a few minutes away at the World’s Largest McDonald’s and PlayPlace. More than just a big playground, it hosts a two-story full-service Chuck-E-Cheese-style video arcade, display cases full of McDonald’s merchandise past and present, and the fabled Bistro Gourmet, which combines ingredients fancy and plebeian to create high-falutin’ Extra Value Meals for poseurs like me who only wish we were upscale. I had the Eggs Benedict Panini (think super-sized Egg McMuffin with extra sauce), while my son had a Belgian waffle bigger than his face. Anne, mistress of portion control, stayed on the safe side with the McD’s menu of yesteryear.

From there we bade a regretful farewell to Orlando and began the 550-mile backtrack to our next night’s hotel in Chattanooga.

The next several hours of that day are now a blur to me. Possibly the result of a defense mechanism.

I remember stopping in Adel, GA, for lunch at a Western Sizzlin, a home-cookin’ franchise we don’t have in Indiana. Imagine if one of your not-so-favorite aunts who’s a so-so cook opened her own buffet.

I remember the near-comical wishy-washy turmoil over which roadside pecan stand to visit for bona fide souvenir Georgia pecans. Once we settled on one, I made sure to pick up an authentic Georgia Pecan Log.

I remember forgetting to indulge in more wishy-washy turmoil over which roadside peach stand to visit for bona fide souvenir Georgia peaches for my wife’s benefit.

Anne remembers another roadside souvenir stop that included souvenir alligator heads.

I remember the subject of roadside bona fide Georgia peanut stands never came up.

I remember Valdosta wasn’t nearly as annoying to travelers exiting Florida, not a single sign begging us PLEASE COME BACK FOR WILD ADVENTURE! Perhaps they realized if they couldn’t waylay us on the way down, they had no chance of filing for an appeal on the return trip.

And I remember driving and driving and driving and driving. Squirming a lot. Changes from one uncomfortable position to another while the odometer ticked off the miles in super-slo-mo and time all but froze in amber around me. Wishing I’d rented a vastly roomier SUV instead of corner-cutting and settling on a less generous sedan. Wishing Georgia was the size of Vermont rather than Ohio turned sideways. Wishing I’d brought more CDs. Wishing Anne could take a turn at the wheel without fearing the insurance complications if she were to veer off the road and explode with comical Simpsons panache. Wishing the persistent storm clouds would bug off. Wishing I’d scheduled more stops for the return trip to break up the monotony instead of using them all up on the way down. Wishing Georgia had Oklahoma’s generous speed limits. Wishing our car could fly. Wishing southern Georgia’s radio stations weren’t as archaic as southern Indiana’s. Wishing I could stand while driving. Wishing my son were old enough to be conscripted into chauffeur duty so I could just zone out in the back seat. Wishing teleportation technology developments were further along, or along at all. Wishing we were wealthy enough and confident enough for air travel. Wishing there was a cool subway system from Indianapolis to Orlando. Wishing I could practice Zen meditation without closing my eyes or mocking my own self-awareness. Wishing I could read while I drove. Wishing my stomach would let me read while anyone drove. Wishing Indiana were next to Florida, but without the supernatural GPS locators that allow hurricanes to nail Florida like a bullseye every time. Wishing our car had cable TV. Wishing for warp nacelles that worked. Wishing the other drivers had all disappeared and left the road looking like 28 Days Later or Night of the Comet. Wishing I’d taken more notes and photos for this write-up at each and every occasion. Wishing I’d had more exciting, outlandish anecdotes to save up and unroll. Wishing that every attempt at sightseeing had been a stunning success. Wishing we’d had more time to relax and spend with the Nightly folk. Wishing we could afford a laptop for simple wi-fi live reporting. Wishing I were home. Wishing home were with me. Wishing home and I could negotiate a compromise and meet somewhere in the middle. Hoping our new neighbors hadn’t taken advantage, overcome our simple defenses, and carted off all my stuff. I mean all our stuff. No, I mean my. Our. My. Our. My. Our. My. Our. My.

Lookout Mountain’s panoramic vista helped me shake off that hours-long agonizing feeling that I just wanted to crawl out of my own skin through one of my nostrils. Our hotel was at the base of it. It was a looming natural signpost that dwarfed me with the hope that I’d made it and everything would now be okay.

Appalachian Forest!

I’m not sure if this horizon is anywhere near Lookout Mountain, but it looks better than our one certified Lookout Mountain pic.

Aaaand cue thunderstorm.

The cautious throng around us slowed down with laser precision so that we could arrive in Chattanooga just in time for evening rush hour. Chattanooga’s population may be one-fifth the size of Indy’s own, but the bumper-to-bumper traffic was no less ineffectual. We just sat and lurched and sat and lurched our way to our interstate exit, where a generous five-story hotel awaited us, the only hotel at that exit.

Then I noticed that the name and address of the hotel didn’t match our reservations. A leisurely double-take confirmed that the name and address on our reservations did match the dinky motel next door. I made a mental note to have a word with AAA when we got home. We checked in, dragged our luggage up the winding stairs to the second floor and down to our room at the end of the walkway.

Our room was, I believe, the largest, cleanest, most impressively furnished room we’d ever been given since our honeymoon — expansive shower, softer-than-soft beds, convenient additional chairs, and plenty of space between the walls and the furniture for walking or exercising or just not having that prison residency feeling that the Clarion Hotel Universal had fostered. I quickly erased the mental note about AAA.

We perused the pamphlets and guidebooks on hand to find a suitable dinner locale. We then spent a good half-hour in the car failing to find a necessary turnoff leading to all the interesting places that every map claimed existed but which the empirical evidence out the window totally refuted, wrong turn after wrong turn after wrong turn.

Last straw. I’d had it with driving for the day. Dinner was at a Chinese buffet next to the nearest Walmart. The clientele looked ready to lip-synch along to “Dueling Banjos” if you played it slowly enough for them, but the Asian waitresses moved with the deftness of an accurately portrayed Catwoman. Seeing our first few empty plates disappear within a wink, I began timing them. No drink went more than one-third empty, and the longest any finished plate stayed in sight was forty-three seconds.

My son discovered the joy of having the guy at the grill cook him up a mess of teriyaki chicken and mushrooms, while I tried any number of foods that Anne, in her own words, “could neither pronounce, spell, or stomach.” We tipped benevolently for this much-needed end-of-the-day pampering.

For additional medicinal purposes, we spent part of the evening in the motel’s pool, which was huge and mostly empty. It was a nice way to unwind after an exhausting day. The last couple days of any given vacation are usually somewhat tense due to the excessive amount of driving and fewer stops, but 500+ miles of hampered monotony hadn’t been kind to any of our moods.

But the important thing is, we were that much closer to home. And we had a couple of fun stops to look forward to in the morning.

Welcome to Tennessee!

“Not far now!” says a lone voice in my head trying to cheer me up.

To be continued!

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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