DAY SIX: Thursday, July 12th.
Hundreds of miles stood between us and our next hotel, as well as Presidential Gravesite #7 and one major historical site. None of the breakfast options within walking distance from our hotel sounded appealing. Instead, the night before, I scoped out a restaurant in a suburb called King of Prussia, some 35 minutes northwest according to that evening’s search results. That didn’t sound like such a long wait for breakfast and required only a slight detour off our original printed directions.
In the morning, we would encounter our biggest, most stressful challenge of the entire week: escape from Philadelphia.
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. Normally we’ll choose one major locale as our primary objective, drive that-a-way, and concentrate on exploring the vicinity for a few days before retreating.
We crafted this year’s itinerary with a different approach. Instead of choosing one city as a hub, we focused on one of the motifs that’s recurred through several of our trips: grave sites of Presidents of the United States of America. Our 2018 road trip would effectively have the format and feel of a video game side quest — collecting nine American Presidents across ten presidencies, four states, seven days, and 2000 miles…
Among the regrets and disappointments from our original 2010 foray into Philly, my least favorite part was the rush hour traffic. Everyplace everywhere is awful. Most of their interstates have only two lanes per side and no room for expansion. Millions of residents hitting those inadequate roads at the same time guarantees endless inching, bottlenecks at every intersection, and gridlock as the rule of the land. That’s not my tempo. But finding our destination was more important than reaching it in the fastest possible time. I was willing to be patient and endure all that inching.
That morning we left the hotel at a reasonable hour and dutifully joined the rat-race march, bearing northwest. We drove, and drove, and drove and drove and drove. Drove drove drove, drove drove drove.
If we’d left the hotel at 3 a.m. or if all other drivers in town had called in sick, we could’ve reached King of Prussia in less than a half-hour by heading straight up I-76. When the Google Maps genie is summoned to calculate a route, it takes existing traffic conditions into account — because today’ss satellite technology is smart enough to be that knowledgeable and creepy — and diligently calculates your best possible directions accordingly. That’s the optimal goal, anyway. At the time our directions were printed, there was a particular point at which Google Maps thought it was a smart idea to exit I-76 and switch to city streets for a few miles. That’s an odd quirk, possibly created by a traffic accident or other similar logjam — again, having occurred at the very moment those directions were created — but one I’ve had to deal with in the past. We trusted we’d get there nonetheless and charged onward, especially since I-76 was indeed backed up and near impassable. The city streets were only slightly more in motion.
Roughly 25 minutes into our planned 35-minute drive, we were braking at one red light after another, surrounded on all sides by cars going 5-10 miles below the speed limit because too many cars were in their way, or they were too busy Instagramming new bemused “THIS TRAFFIC, AMIRITE” selfies on their tablets, or they were all afraid of cars, or whatever. At a red light I reread our printed instructions to ensure all was well…and noticed a step was missing.
We’d ramped onto I-76 as instructed, exited as instructed, put up with the city streets as instructed…and there was a step coming up to exit I-76 a second time. There had been no step to get back on I-76 beforehand. Somehow a key step had failed to display or print. At another red light I pulled out my phone to recheck our location and our ETA.
We were still pointed northwest, and miles away from our Philly hotel, but Google Maps now said we were 35 minutes from King of Prussia. Still. Somehow.
I scrolled up and down the results to see if perhaps I’d missed a turn, or if the next one were coming soon.
Our current street, as stated in our printed directions, appeared nowhere in the new Google Maps results. The app had recalculated the rest of the trip using an altogether different assortment of roads.
I hit the “Back” button a couple of times, dropped my phone in the cup holder, and drove a few more miles in hopes that we’d recognize a street name from the new directions. We never did.
I pulled into the next available strip mall parking lot. I grabbed my phone again, reopened Maps, and called do-over.
We were still pointed northwest, and more miles away from our Philly hotel, but Google Maps now said we were 35 minutes from King of Prussia. Still. Somehow. Again. A third, largely different set of streets were now named Best Path Ever.
In most movies or TV shows, this would be the moment when Our Hero throws a very expensive phone out the window or at a brick wall, disregards the hundreds of dollars that their anger management issues just cost them, asks the nearest gas station attendant for better directions, and gets sent unwittingly to the spooky murder neighborhood where visitors never leave alive unless they self-defend their way to freedom with the aid of found weaponry, unlimited adrenalin, and a rebellious local who sacrifices himself so that Our Hero might live to return home, probably destroy their next phone for even stupider reasons, and get more people killed in the sequel.
We can’t afford for me to throw that kind of pointless tantrum or lead special guest stars to their doom for our benefit. Instead I glared at the all-new all-different directions for a few minutes, scorched them into my brain, set down the phone this time without hitting the stupid “Back” button, and gently edged the rental car toward a small access road running northeast between this strip mall and the one next door. From there, Maps took us down a series of one-lane back roads, curvy neighborhoods, aging woods, and increasingly more elderly speed limits. I paid attention to every detail in every step, counting off every one-tenth of a mile as we passed.
35 minutes later we emerged in King of Prussia. Success at last, some 90-120 minutes after we’d left the hotel. Thankfully breakfast wasn’t over yet, but it didn’t have long to go.
In King of Prussia, shopping is their lifeblood and their mall is one of the largest in America. Not far from that was a very charming restaurant called Founding Farmers, a farmer-owned business with five locations on the eastern seaboard (the rest are in the MD/VA/DC area). We were frazzled by the time we walked in. Our waiter understood and was quite gentle and patient with us. As a local he understood our pains with their everyday terrible, horrible driving conditions. I wondered aloud how anyone can live that way. He smiled and shrugged. “They leave an hour early every day.”
He kept the refills coming. The food was perfectly fine, too. Whether it was worth the hassle was debatable, but it was better than we deserved.
The waiter cordially invited us to check out other parts of the restaurant as well. Each of the five Founding Farmerses has its own interior design, with art displays created by a variety of local artists. The most intriguing part of the King of Prussia location was their private dining room, the General’s Parlor, whose walls sport paintings of native trees as well as recreations of the area’s most well-known Great Moment in History: that time General George Washington and 12,000 men took a time-out from the American Revolution and spent the grueling winter of 1777-1778 at nearby Valley Forge.
But the paintings offer a twist: what if the Continental Army were all rabbits?
Clever art abounded elsewhere. We were prematurely stressed out, but appreciated their sincere hospitality and admired what we could between bites before we left.
To be continued!
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