Saturday, April 5, 2014

5 April 2014

A sunny day after a week of overcast and occasional rain trying to figure out if it is going to be liquid or crystalline. The sunny weather reminds me of the many trips from Michigan to the rockies for ski trips. There were infrequent snow storms along the way. Those often developed into trips on the interstate of epic proportions. I remember those too. But the sun favors remember the other trips, the ones where once past Gary, Indiana and the lake effect of Lake Michigan the weather seemed to be made from a whole 'nother world.

Leaving the house may have been in a raging snow storm, slippery roads, poor visibility, and legitimate concerns about safety and eventual arrival, but once past the Ripley Street exit on the Dan Ryan expressway, the weather was in a process of change. Like a toddler transitioning at the end of a tantrum, the fury of the sideways snow and the slop on the pavement began to lessen. Not suddenly, but each passing mile in short order showed less clouded skies, more patches of blue, then brilliant sunshine. The advantage driving lend to this is similar to flying, that is once you are through the precipitation you realize that on the other side of the clouds, the sun has been shining all along. The only difference from flying is the ground traveler has to reach the edge of the clouds whereas the air passenger only has to rise through the cloud cover to see unlimited sunlight.

After several ski trips out west, the wife decided that she would rather fly to Florida to see her parents on the next vacation. I have been to her parents home before, while they are nice people, I never had any troubles getting along with them. But there is not much to do there. Any events of interest has to be planned and driven to, trips to SeaWorld, Edison's Florida digs, the Ding Darling nature preserve to see alligators in the wild, Sanibel island. They were always interesting enough, but vacation was always in a car after traveling by car to get there. Besides the wife always participated in one of her favorite activities when we were there – taking a nap. Unlike at home however, she did not occupy a couch in the middle of the living area, she would repair to the guest bedroom we were using in that home.

The wife never did enjoy the endless hours in the car, traveling across the plains states. She always wanted to fly, which always seemed so sterile. Air travel may be fast, but it is never easy or cheap. You are limited in what you can take with you. If you don't carry what you want on board with you it is unavailable in the hold until the end of the flight. On the other hand in a car you can artfully pack a lot of material.

I owned a series of Volkswagen Rabbit vehicles several years in a row. Most people who got in my car with me who had never been in a Rabbit were amazed at how much room was in the vehicle. The inside was not full of plastic that took up a lot of space like most American vehicles. One particular trip the wife was winging her way to Florida, I was driving out west with my dog. He was a good traveller and fit in with the program very well.

In preparation, I removed the back seat and stored it in the basement. The plan was to have the passenger seat operational during the driving time, then when we stop for the day, to remove the seat by undoing one bolt then holding the seat catchment ratchet open slide the seat forward until it came off its rails. Now the freed seat is folded and stored behind the driver's seat in a very slim package. Next placing my duffle bag on the floor where the passenger seat had been I had a long oprn surface from under the glove box (where my feet went) all the way to under the hatchback glass where my head would be. The entire shift took less than five minutes. I could unroll my sleeping bag inside of the car, climb in, shut and lock the doors and sleep in my own mobile cocoon with my dog curled up right next to me.

On this particular trip I was accompanied by my first Golden retriever, Gabriel. He sat in the passenger seat looking out the window paying attention to the countryside zipping by outside the window. Like a navigator he kept an eye on where we were, he had been on this route before as we always took him with us on every trip to go skiing. We always stayed with friends wheen we went skiing. Their dog got along well with Gabriel so there was no issue there. Gabe was not one of those breeds prone to drooling like some big dogs do, so he was a clean and neat traveller. I would stop about every two hours a the next nearest rest stop for bladder breaks. First I would walk him for a tour about the grounds of the rest area, then back in the car for a moment, lock the doors, then my turn inside at the facilities. I would fill a liter water bottle inside and bring it with me to the car. I would open the passenger door, scrabble around inside for the water bowl, set it on the floor on the passenger side and pour some water into it. Gabe bounded out, stood on the ground with head in the car and lapped water to keep him hydrated a while. Then back in the car, we both found our seats, and back on the road again.

Hour after hour, mile by mile we slipped across Iowa then Nebraska. Gabe keeping a watchful eye on the rolling flatlands spread out akong the way. I had my usual snacky type eats in tupperware sealed bowls that I could fish out from the backseat area and eat while driving, occasionally sharing a bit with Gabriel. About lunchtime we would pull off the road to a world famous restaurant with well known golden arches for a couple of MacDoodle burgers, Gabriel's favorite. Beyond the pickup window and still in the parking lot we would stop and park the car. I would tear a burger into smaller bite sized chunks and hand feed Gabe. He was a careful but lusty eater, taking each bit offered very carefully then with gusto he would eat it. We always free fed our dogs, there was always kibble in their food bowl. At times there were two dogs and one bowl. There never was competition for food or that hunger prancing at feeding time. Free feeding dispensed with most food issues. However, anything that smacked of meat could elicit the standard canine behaviors and urgent responses toward meat. Meat in my dog's lives was a treat rather than a daily event. So the learned response to food never was challenged. After we were done eating, the leash came out and we went for a quick tour of Ronald's place. A few examinations of special areas that catch a dog's interest and we were done. Back in the car, to the highway and the free fall westward.

Across Iowa and into Nebraska we rolled, watching the sun change its inclination to the land as the day wore on. Somewhere in western Iowa the sun called it a day and dropped below the horizon leaving the land in gathering darkness. By the time we reach Omaha the sky is dark and the neon shouts its silent message into the night. The Sapp Brothers truck stop signs invite the trucker to stop, linger a while, spend some money. Spending money is not the highlight of this trip, we keep on traveling west. Aside from slipping by the Chicago area at the beginning, Omaha is the only big metropolitan area we pass until Denver. Signs familiar because they have been passed so many times before, Henry Doorly Zoo, Aksarben arena and Aksarben suburb (these folks want to honor something but there is not much here, they just spell Nebraska backwards and run with that). Once past the bulk of the city the road seems to ghost on for a very long way westward, gradually bearing less local traffic and less in the way highway sized streetlights, billboards increase illuminated against the dark of night. On and off ramps diminish as do the street lights, eventually leaving those long distance travelers of us on our watchful way headed for Lincoln.

Lincoln, Nebraska, we've stopped there many times before. Its not a large town but it has the University of Nebraska, it is the state capitol, and there are some light businesses there, plus a sizable airport. On the west side of town is a Motel Six that is clean, fairly new and not in a rundown part of town, which lightens the traveling fear factor. Remember when Motel Six was really $6 per night? Inflation took care of that in short order. Now various municipalities have discovered there is cash to be fleeced from people passing through who won't stick around to vote against such nefarious deeds and the local politicians who promote these “hotel taxes”. Now an average stay at Motel Six is just shy of $40, not including your friendly local hotel tax.

Back when Gabe and I were traveling the rate was 8 or 10 dollars a night. Not bad for a shower and sheets. Now Motel Six has “upgraded” there rooms with new European style furniture, wi-fi, and flatscreen TVs, all of which will make no impact on me once my eyes are closed and I am asleep. When traveling with the wife we would roll in somewhere shortly after midnight and leave about six the next morning. Once asleep the d├ęcor and other niceties of home are not necessary. For our trip both Gabe and I could forego the shower for one night, we just needed a safe place to sleep, which the car easily afforded with the minor modifications made before we started out.

The Rabbit was a 1980 model, Tarpon blue in color, with a five speed manual gear. Top gear was an overdrive ratio so the car would lope along with very low engine revolutions. This lowered engine noise and dropped the mechanical tension that mounts after a long day of driving. Once in Wyoming before the federal government “encouraged” the state to declare a speed limit commensurate with the rest of the country, there were no posted speed limits on the Interstate. No posting, no laws to break. The road was fairly new and in good shape, nearly no traffic and no clutter of roadside possible exigencies like a stray dog or tumbleweeds blowing across the road. Depending on my former skills as a test car driver and the conditions I slipped the bonds of restraint and drifted up to 100 mph. I touched 120 for a bit, for a four cylinder engine the car just kept loafing along. At 120 things can go wrong very quickly. I wasn't from around the area. I decided to let up on the throttle a bit. Even at 100 mph the ground gets eaten up pretty quick, and Wyoming is such a big state.

On this trip there was a lot more traffic correspondingly, big ol' lumbering semis and occasional tourists interspersed between them. Besides Nebraska thoroughly dislikes people busting to cross the state just to get to the ski areas out west, especially in the western part of the state, where it is more Wyoming-like and there seems to be an expanse of nothingness. The pole-eece in western Nebraska seem to make a large game out of catching speeders. There are marks painted on the pavement so spotters in airplanes can see which cars are speeding, then they radio to their cohorts on the ground with a description of the cars infracting and coming their way.

But that will be for tomorrow. No use getting into that mindset tonight. Gabe is curled up on the passenger seat, his tail draped over his nose in repose. I am guiding the car without his navigation help from now on. Something about the dark and not being able to see out the side windows. We fly through the dark night, drawn toward Lincoln. Like most towns along the way there is a rest area on either side of town, a few miles from the population center itself. We opt for the one on the west side of Lincoln. The signage announcing Lincoln retreating behind us we look for tonight's lodging area courtesy of the state of Nebraska highway department. We make the exit off the Interstate into the Rest Area. Stop the car near the far end of the parking area away from where the other travelers enter and exit the building. Leash on we do our tour of the grounds. After sufficiently noticing and marking the territory, back to the car . The passenger seat is removed, placed behind the driver's seat, the duffle rearranged and Gabe hops in. I find my toilet kit bag and head for the building with its facilities. Bodily functions relieved, contact lenses blinked out, a quick wash of the face and then back to the car.

I spread out my sleeping bag and climb in, doors are closed and locked, I settle into the sleeping bag and since it is winter I drape my down jacket over Gabriel, who is already curled up in his sleeping position. I scootch down in my sleeping bag, Gabriel snuggles closer to my head am exhales one long sigh into my ear. I gaze up through the hatchback window a the stars above. It will be cold tomorrow morning. Life is good.

This is not the first in vehicle sleeping I have ever done. When I was first married and taking the wife out west to ski, we had a 1981 Volkswagen camper. At that time they were designed for European camping, which is done in the summer along country style roads in tiny sites scattered all through the country. It may have been more suited for light summer outings in this country. Those early air cooled engines were notorious for creating virtually no heat, and at 1600 cc's they were terribly underpowered for a vehicle that was basically a big sail creating great windage. The wife and I did sleep in that vehicle one winter trip in very well designed and made down sleeping bags. A low registering thermometer indicated that the temperature of zero for the night. In the bags was comfortable and roasty – toasty. Getting out of the bags and into a very cold vehicle that had cooled off during the night was chilly. There was a hasty race to get fully clothed. This was no recreational vehicle with propane auxiliary heat that was like a house on wheels that got seven or eight miles to a gallon of gas. If we had gone that route there would be no money for skiing. If there was no skiing, why have a big ol' RV just sitting around?

I'm glad that I made the effort to do all those trips when I did. If I had waited for later when I had saved enough or made enough to do some of the things I enjoyed doing, I would be too old and not up to the task of skiing or backpacking. Doing things on the cheap made the whole adventure more challenging in a way that felt organic and natural.

Now here I am not far from when I used to ski and walk, hike through the woods, it still used to be easy as recently as 2008. The woods and the trails are still there without me, my dogs have all died, their lifetimes are so short. My skis have all been sold or thrown away. Even if I miraculously could get better tomorrow, I have no house or any clothing, no job or hiking boots. In spite of it all I have the memories of having done all the things I once did. How many of my former peers never let themselves build igloos and sleep in the snow or walk in the spring rain just because the warmer weather has been gone so long? At least I did it when I could.

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