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Our 2017 Road Trip, Part 44: Food, Folks and Flood

cod nuggets!

Cod nuggets straight ouf of Ohio. Not until Day Seven would Anne order her final seafood platter on our trip to and from Baltimore.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited 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. For 2017 our ultimate destination of choice was the city of Baltimore, Maryland. You might remember it from such TV shows as Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, not exactly the most enticing showcases to lure in prospective tourists. Though folks who know me best know I’m one of those guys who won’t shut up about The Wire, a Baltimore walkabout was Anne’s idea. Setting aside my fandom, as a major history buff she was first to remind skeptics who made worried faces at us for this plan that Maryland was one of the original thirteen American colonies and, urban decay notwithstanding, remains packed with notable history and architecture from ye olde Founding Father times. In the course of our research we were surprised to discover Baltimore also has an entire designated tourist-trap section covered with things to do. And if we just so happened to run across former filming locations without getting shot, happy bonus…

Every road trip has a last leg, a last meal, and a last chance for things to go wrong. As long as it’s not the meal that’s gone wrong on us, we can persevere through whatever’s thrown at us. Nine times out of ten, it’s the weather coming after us, my old foe. I couldn’t tell you the number of times we’ve arrived home from a vacation several hours later than hoped because of thunderstorms or related calamities. It’s almost never dawdling at awesome roadside surprises that puts us behind in the final hours. Man, I wish.

The first few hours were no problem. The path from Pittsburgh to the dueling toy museums in Wheeling and Bellaire was long but mercifully uneventful.

WV Bridge!

Bridges with toppings always thrill the kid in me. I’m honestly not sure why. Maybe they remind me of some Hot Wheels set I once owned.

Welcome to Ohio!

Ohio has its good points, but some of our biggest tests of patience have happened to us on its roads.

Bellaire, OH, was the last place we explored on this trip. The drive to the Toy and Plastic Brick Museum was straightforward, but their lengthwise maze of mostly one-way streets seemed designed to deny us interstate access and to trap us there in perpetuity.

Bellaire homes!

The background scenery was a bit nicer to look at than their repetitive interstate sound barriers, but I’m certain we passed some of these homes more than once when we tried to leave.

Bellaire monument!

A surprise postscript to our visits to Antietam and Gettysburg — an 1892 Civil War monument honoring Bellaire residents who fought for the Union and sacrificed in at least four different battles. A rightfully proud Bellaire was also the location of a key Union army training camp.

From the museum we headed south to what’s left of their downtown, mostly sleepy on a late Friday afternoon. My attempt to use Google Maps to pinpoint their culture yielded mixed results, mostly because of poor phone signals. We decided to stop overthinking it, parked wherever, and headed for the largest diner in sight: Rigas Family Restaurant, a Bellaire institution since 1953.

Rigas!

To their credit, they weren’t the kind to look down on strangers and drawl, “You folks aren’t from around here, are you?” while fondling their tools in a menacing manner.

Bellaire Window!

The view from our window seat while waiting for our meals. Our Muzak accompaniment included a piano instrumental cover of “I Write the Songs”.

country sausage platter!

While Anne enjoyed her cod nuggets, I relished my country sausage platter. Two giant sausage patties, indulgent gravy, mandatory potatoes. Of all our small-town diner fare this year, this was my favorite, meatiest arrangement.

As we paid for our food at the counter, Anne had the pleasure of speaking with owner and co-founder Clara Rigas herself. They chatted about faith, and of course about food, which we couldn’t stop complimenting. Mrs. Rigas smiled because of course she knows the food’s good. “After 53 years I guess we know what we’re doing, huh?”

Several dead ends and unintentional roundabouts later, I ended up driving a few miles further south — the opposite direction from the interstate — until I could find an escape route to the nearest highway that would take us back to I-70, which in turn runs all the way back to Indianapolis.

Halfway through Ohio, traffic came to a dead stop. We moved approximately three or four blocks over the next forty minutes.

semis!

The easiest way to make my head explode? Trap me behind a bunch of semis on the road, then have them all brake hard. Works every time.

Slowly we crept. Inch by inch. Several forevers passed by. A quick search online — which we could do again now that we were out of the deep Ohio woods and back into near-metropolitan spaces — turned up nothing useful except Google’s invasive traffic monitoring software confirmed that yes, I-70 was running extremely slowly in our vicinity. Good to know we weren’t hallucinating.

Another few forevers later, we located the culprit. Between our toy museum rap-battle and our diversion in Bellaire, we’d missed a powerful storm system that left large sections of Ohio flooded that Friday, including parts of I-70. Further ahead we saw how bad it was and completely understood. This wasn’t our first washed-out interstate — we had the same problem trying to drive through Iowa on our 2009 road trip.

I-70 flood!

I begrudgingly admit we might have experienced negative side effects if I’d tried driving 70 mph through this mess.

flood crew!

Crews working to restore road surfaces, order, speed.

POlice!

Police on standby in case of foolhardy daredevils or gutsy klutzes.

traffic backup!

It could’ve been worse for us. Traffic on the eastbound side was backed up for miles and at one point diverted off I-70 for safety’s sake.

Once we bypassed the thick of things, we made one last pit stop at a travel plaza for gas and drinks. We were a long way from suppertime, but had plenty of snacks to tide us over — the leftover confections from Vaccaro’s, the fudge from Mister Ed’s Elephant Emporium, and what was left of a Moon Pie I’d picked up on a whim at Gettysburg. Our traveling sugar collection kept us company as we crossed the Ohio/Indiana border and sped smoothly home from there.

gas station!

The older I get, the more I look forward to random gas station snacks and drinks. Weird but true.

We reached our neighborhood around 8 p.m., exhausted but insistent on honoring the long-standing family tradition that ends every road trip: supper from the nearest McDonald’s drive-thru. Once we’re far away from the nice restaurants, creative cuisine, and disappointing dives in other states, McDonald’s our comfy way of transitioning back to everyday reality.

Thus endeth our 2017 road trip.

After a deep night’s sleep, Saturday morning we returned the SUV to our original Avis rental point — not the clunker they originally gave us, but the much more functional replacement that their competent colleagues at Indianapolis International Airport had provided to us. If the clerk was aware that we were returning a different car, he made no sign of recognition. He didn’t acknowledge the problem we’d had with the vehicle he himself had passed on to us. Nada. He took the car back. We were on our way. And we’re never touching the doorstep of that Avis location again for the rest of our lives.

Six weeks later, in a move reportedly unexpected to friends, family, and employees alike, Clara Rigas decided the time had come to close the restaurant, 53 years after she and her late husband first opened its doors for business. We’d gotten in there just under the wire to join the crowd of those blessed with their talents and service.

Worst vacation postscript in years.

To be continued. Coming soon: cheering up with outtakes!

[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!]

Rental SUV 2017!

For those curious, here’s the rental car that saved our vacation — a Toyota RAV4, parked in front of a Bellaire meter with a jammed coin slot. No one seemed to mind.

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