Road Trip to Wilmington - Part 1
I've been away for a while on a road trip. After two-and-a-half weeks of juggling work and looking after the kids I was in need of a road trip and a chance to get away from everything.
I happily went about booking hotels and planning my route in blissful disregard of one huge writhing serpent in my Eden, the fact that I would still be looking after the kids, so there was a 100 percent chance that they would be coming with me.
This didn't stop me having a carefree Jack Kerouac-like view of the whole thing in advance. I would drift from place to place feeling totally chilled, I would hang out reading in chic bars, far away from the demands of work and the internet, the need to update my blog and the requirment to view the wedding photographs of total strangers on Facebook.
Impediment Number One was Zara. When I suggested she'd have to "throw a sickie" to get off school for one of the two days (the school was closed the other day for the teachers to bicker at each other), she threw a strop and declared this was lying and it was beyond her remit.
Fortunately an inch of snow fell overnight Wednesday and inevitably Zara's school closed down. The next time I want this to occur, I'll probably dump a few styrofoam peanuts outside the school, make an anonymous call saying snow's expected and achieve my objective.
We set off rather late to Wilmington in North Carolina, a destination I had chosen because it was further south, so inevitably warmer but didn't involve driving all the way to Florida.
The snow was soon a distant memory on Route 58 to Emporia. It felt a bit like a roadtrip because I saw sights along the way, mainly broken down gas stations, unhinhabited roadside shacks and schools the like of which you wouldn't take your least favorite neighbors into (notwithstanding that dog mess on your front garden incident).
Route 66 it ain't but at least this is a snapshop of American life. We stopped at Emporia by the Interstate where some locals have made a valiant attempt to break the world record for how high fast food signs can be shoved up in the air. At a soulless McDonald's (OK the word soulless is unnecessary here) I presided over Zara trying to break another world record, the longest time it can take anyone to eat four chicken nuggets, while Jackson grabbed her fries and threw them at the elderly people on the next table.
McDonald's at Emporia helped me answer one of the great mysteries of life, namely, where do elderly people go on a Thursday afternoon.
We escaped from McDonald's and got onto I-95 south into North Carolina. At this point the whole notion of a road trip evaporated. I-95 is flat without interest. You gaze at trees and more trees. if you are really lucky you might see a river. Then 100 miles out you see the first sign for South of the Border. This surprised me because I had been told this huge, tacky faux Mexican experience on the border between North and South Carolina had closed down.
Even if this was true, it would take about a decade to remove all of the signs.
Falling asleep at the wheel is the biggest danger on I-95. I called friends and my wife. My sister, who I hadn't called for months wondered why I had called twice. The maintenance man from a property we lived at five years ago, wondered why I had called at all.
At least it took me only 30 minutes longer than MapQuest said it should to get to Wilmington. At this point, to use an expression that perplexes Americans, things went pear shaped.
The trouble with MapQuest directions is once you make a wrong turn you are up that unpleasant creek without a paddle. The names of the streets that were supposed to crop up didn't and a high bridge took me over the river past the battleship North Carolina. I did the gas station thing but when I asked about the Country Inn and Suites, the woman shrugged her shoulder and rattled away in Spanish.
By this time freezing rain was falling from the southern skies. Suddenly Zara started to go into meltdown mode over a floral belt for her jacket that she had mislaid. "Go back to McDonalds, go back," she screamed.
"What? 200 miles?"
Zara's meltown combined with Jackson's diaper blowout. At such desperate moments you realize you have no carrier bag and the wipes are missing in action. I yelled at Zara but her meltdown had extinguished any prospect of movement. To search for the wipes in the dumpster that was once an SUV, meant Jackson was likely to kick poo all over the back seat. To not search equated to paralysis in the freezing rain. Finally I spied a packet on the floor.
By the time I found the hotel it was almost dark and raining steadily. It occured to me I could have experienced a similar Country Suites experience in an identical hotel five minutes from my home. And I could have gone back for swim gear.
Still we had to venture out again to the strip malls near the hotel in search of food. I shied away from upscale looking places, which wasn't difficult as I couldn't see any, to somewhere more child friendly.
I have normally shied away from Golden Corral altogether. Within five minutes of arriving, I knew why. It was something to do with the greasy plastic plates and the pea encrusted high chair I was trying to squeeze Jackson into.
We had only just sat down over our slops, when Jackson wriggled out of his harness, twisted around, stared at the woman on the next table and started banging on her plate with his fists.
"He's lively," she said.
I had figured I wouldn't get too much kid-related grief at a place like Golden Corral, but it didn't take long for the familiarity of the woman on the next table to grate. I had come on holiday to get away from all the administration and the headache of finding rental house tenants and here she was telling me how it was imposssible for her to get a place to rent without a job and a job without an address, her false teeth threatening to jump out of her mouth and into Jackson's lap to become a toy he wouldn't want to give up, at any point.
"It's like catch, whatsit," she said.
Now I don't want to appear unsympathetic and I felt bad for her that she was going on about GC like she'd treated herself to a day on the QE2. It was just that I didn't feel like talking.
I wanted to escape but Zara was doing the world record thing again, this time with four pieces of macaroni cheese.
I'd dreamed of seeing undiscovered places. I'd thought of Jack Kerouac. And here I was at a particularly unappealing Golden Corral in anywhere America in the rain.
Tomorrow can only be better, I thought as I caught a yellow light that became a red light, heard a clicking noise and saw a flash illuminate the intersection and the puddles in the rain.
"Pretty," sighed Zara.