Why I Don't (Yet) Mind the Heat
February 2003: In front of our old Dorchester apartment (third floor of a Victorian off the right-hand side of the picture; our former landfolks' station wagon is in the foreground).
A week's journey from snowdrifts to cacti, shucking winter coats for T-shirts, eating way too much Taco Bell, and driving through the night in a rolling rental van with two elderly cats fascinated by all the "bright-eyed whales"....
2003: The Move
March 4. T Minus One Day. Rain is forecast for tomorrow. I have made a last PO Box check; gotten rope and locks at Dickson (which also sold me more paper bags for recycle papers); stopped at the ATM for travel cash; and now pay what is likely my last visit to Starbucks before heading South.
A screw embedded in the rear passenger wheel of Mary's Ranger was giving us the beginnings of a flat. Mary wondered if the screw had been placed there deliberately. She’d cleared glass earlier from beneath someone else's car, said it looked like it had been placed there to inflict maximum damage when that car pulled out.
Vandalism was not foreign to our old neighborhood, and the Ranger's window and others (including that of the station wagon, above) had already been smashed. Neither was it the first incidence of damage visited on Mary's parked truck in our 4-1/2 years on that block.
Her tire seemed fine with new air, enough to let us visit friends on Sunday. It was worse when we left to return home. We called AAA, whose mechanic was over in a minute - he couldn’t get the spare off due to rust under the carriage and directed us to the Mobil station, picking a “shortcut” filled with bad potholes.
Yesterday Mary drove toward DirectTire in Watertown - a long drive but a reputable place - and flatted decisively on the way there. Another call to AAA - and, this time, a tow, after hours of waiting because the bitter cold and wind had prompted a flurry of service calls. I continued to pack up the apartment.
By the time we picked up our Penske rental van on March 5, we figured we had approximately one brain cell left between the two of us. Fortunately, we had the opportunity to meet with good friends over coffee, tea, takeout, and conversation before we left town.
I took packing/unpacking and loading/unloading detail; Mary would handle the driving. I'd grown up on the subway, owned no motor vehicle until I was 44, and rented a car once or twice a year after finally getting my driver's license at age 31. Mary, who grew up in southern California, built her first car from scratch, completing it at age 16.
To fill the van took hauling boxes and furniture down two flights of stairs, out the back door, and down several more stairs before traversing a 50-foot alleyway, continuing down several more feet of sidewalk, and finally bringing everything up the loading ramp.
Our van featured a sliding door between cab and cargo area. I made a cat cave by putting a desk directly behind the door, surrounding the desk with furniture, and placing a blanket on the floor of the knee hole. Daisy and Red, our 11-year-old cats, had access to the litter box placed between our seats in front and could move freely between their cave and the window seat.
March 5 featured rain through most of the day, which was just as well. Had we left when we intended to on March 6, we would likely have been part of a 100+ vehicle pile-up on I-95 in Attleboro, Mass. A blizzard that day forced me to stop loading early. A brisk west wind blew snow constantly into the van parked on our one-way street. The ramp iced up repeatedly and the cargo door became increasingly harder to close.
I had tried chipping the ice and snow from our four-wheelie only to have it freeze up again, before I discovered that its petrified wheels made it into an excellent sledge. From then on I pulled our belongings through deepening snow.
March 7, 11:36 PM. We are still in Boston. I loaded the van for almost 12 hrs, and at 10:45 suffered a sprained ankle, which is still swollen. On Wednesday I worked through the rain. Yesterday I worked through the blizzard, shoveling snow out of the van and off boxes and shoveling pathways. I took out garbage cans and returned them to the side of the house. I shoveled the porch and entrance to the house. It is too late for me to continue loading or I would, just to get something done. As it is, I am lying on the south room rug, now that there is floor space.
March 9, approx 7:30 AM. On the road at last, though only a mile or so from home, at the Ramada of Dorchester. But this is a good practice run for the cats, who have taken confinement in a single carry case in good stride (now that they know it’s not a vet visit) and have adapted to our room after initial timidity. Very little has shifted in the cargo area, and Mary has gotten a taste of driving the filled van. If we’ve forgotten anything, it’s a short walk home to retrieve it. Most important, we are getting a decent sleep and have the psychological boost of finally getting out of the house.
We picked up extra batteries for walkie-talkies and flashlights, picked up extra cat food and litter, returned the “smart cart” we’re not using to Penske, parked Mary's Ranger back in the neighborhood for her to drive down later. We did a final check around the apartment and drove off. We seem to have forgotten the cheese and maybe the road map for New York State - though we do have a road atlas and the TripTiks.
9:39 AM, doing laundry. Bills are paid, the cats are fed, we are fed, and I’ve retrieved Mary’s toiletries from the cargo area. Among the more orgasmic experiences last night was that of taking a shower, which I hadn’t done since I started loading the van. The only thing lacking in the laundry room is a chair. Since time is of the essence, I’m here and not in the lobby, so that I can transfer our wash to the dryer. Mary will be plotting out our next city/pet-friendly motel to stay at.
The lobby, where I now sit at 9:55, having put the clothes in the dryer, has a real, working fireplace lined in green marble. Mary has gotten around 10 hours of sleep, thank goodness; we've both suffered sleepless nights. Our neighbor, who was just stepping out of the house as we drove off, laughed at the fact that we were staying at the Ramada just down the road.
March 11, 4:08 PM, Woodbridge, VA (south of Arlington). The cats have learned to make themselves at home, both in the van and in our hotel rooms. We get to a room, Mary makes up the “cat caves” (bed comforters, jackets with our smells, etc., draped over upturned furniture), and we have a short initial sleep, followed by phone calls, followed by a longer nap. Today we tuned into the Weather Channel to see what the weather’s supposed to be like along our route the rest of the week (wet on Thursday. This morning we had flurries, which have since melted).
After procuring a 10-pack of tacos and burritos from Taco Bell, we scouted around for air and found it at a not-too-distant service station. Mary had taken her car tire gauge,which goes up to 40 psi, and left her bike gauge (up to 120 psi) behind, not remembering that the truck tires require 65 psi. She bought a new gauge at the Mobil station and proceeded to measure the tires: 51-52 psi. She had to fill the reachable tires (2 front plus passenger-side rear pair including the inner tire), then carefully maneuver the van around and back it toward the pump to reach the two rear driver-side tires. I kept watch on the cats. By the time she was done, the bitter chill had her ready for high heat and another meal. Total rest stop time was 2.5 hours, but for a very good cause.
We have an identity crisis with our van: is it considered a truck or not? Mike at Penske assured us that since we are a household and not commercial, we do not have to use the weigh stations as the Penske book advises. I knew that no trucks were allowed on the Garden State Parkway, but did that include us? We decided to try our luck with the Palisades Parkway - and it had been enough decades since my last trip on that road that I had forgotten it, too, was for “passenger cars only.”
Our TripTik marked out the Garden State, but Mary had ordered it when we envisioned a trip in the Ranger, not a rental van with 10'6" clearance and a GVW of 10 tons. Finding the Palisades Parkway had us maneuvering along roads off the beaten path and missing the small brown sign with a big leaf logo and small print, which I thought indicated a museum and not the parkway. Once we were on it, we became intimidated enough to get off it - the lovely stone overpasses (with no marked clearances) were high enough now, but what about later? - and take the slower, signal light-dotted, parallel 9W, to the Jersey Pike.
We’d called and made reservations at the Conwell Inn, at Philly’s Temple U, and got one set of directions. Mary estimated arrival time at around 9 PM, which we revised to midnight, re-revised to around 3AM, and re-re-revised to “when we get there.” Our delays included checking the map near Exit 17 on the Jersey Pike to make sure we wouldn’t end up in the Lincoln Tunnel.
Following the second set of directions given to us by the folks at Conwell, we took exit 3 off the Pike to Camden and switched to Rt 168, then to 130, then to 30 over the Ben Franklin Bridge, then to 676. We were unaware that the sign for 168 had been turned, directing us onto Rt 155. Backtrack. Then we were uninformed that the sign to Broad Street in Philly really meant turning onto Vine Street, and ended up circling Penn Square at roughly 5:30 AM.
"On-site" parking proved nonexistent when we finally arrived at Conwell. Rather, it meant 2 spaces for an inn with significantly more units and whose other spaces now belong to surrounding businesses. The campus guard on duty told us to “park against the wall.” In the predawn I didn't want to make noise opening the cargo doors to get the pet case; Mary and I each grabbed a traumatized cat before rushing through the cold night and up to our room.
Forty-five minutes after we turned in we were roused from an exhausted sleep and told to move the van; parking against the wall is verboten. The officer, pissed at the guard who misinformed us, was very apologetic - said we could find a spot on the street now, but in a half hour the students would arrive and all bets would be off. At 6:30 AM we hustled as best we could under the effects of sleep deprivation, stress exhaustion, and half a brain cell.
Once back in our room, Mary smelled a faint whiff of mouse as we extricated Daisy, whose paw had become glued to a trap set out at the head of the bed. We didn't use the bathroom light, which was mated to a fan that sounded too much like a vacuum cleaner to give the cats much comfort. We got ourselves a second night to avoid having to check out at noon, and got a 10% discount for our parking troubles.
We were all much better after our second nap. Lisa, the manager, has 7 cats, and was impressed and grateful that we covered the upholstered chairs to protect them from stropping. She came up to visit the cats and graciously accepted Mary’s notes and my verbal suggestions about mice, the fan, driving directions, etc. By this time the cats had made themselves at home.
I’d gone in search of greenery and was directed to a Pathmark supermarket “4 blocks away,” which turned out to be 15 blocks away and reached through a depressed neighborhood filled with boarded up storefronts, check cashing outlets, and cars that doubled as boom boxes on wheels. I picked up much-needed vegetables, cheese, canned chicken, and tuna.
Denise, the receptionist on duty at Conwell, told me her story of driving cross-country with her son: wrong turns, weather and road conditions, sitting and sharing a good cry. “I know what you’re going through,” she said. Actually, we’ve held up quite well - snapping at each other occasionally but mostly getting punchy.
We left the Conwell Inn at 9 last night and arrived at the Potomac Mills Quality Inn in Woodbridge at 5 this morning. Mary wanted to drive the DC Beltway in the middle of the night - and we met with very little traffic, principally freight trucks that Mary flicked her high beams at, welcoming them to pass us. Most flashed their taillights back at us in thanks.
We stocked up on 3 Taco Bell 10-packs and waited in the parking lot after midnight, patiently and then with silent hilarity as Red attempted to dig a passage to China from the (cleaned) litterbox before he went potty. Daisy perched on the dashboard and did her impersonation of fuzzy dice, wide-eyed at the headlamped trucks - which Mary translated into Cat as “bright-eyed whales.”
This time our route was fairly straightforward. We’d initially set our sights on Richmond but took extra stops to get whole wheat bread and to give Daisy some water after she’d sampled some spicy taco beef.
We pulled off exit 166A and stopped in the Hunter Motel parking lot to get our bearings; Mary was ready to stop and sleep. The Hunter was not in the AAA book, so we checked around and found the Quality Inn off exit 161. We called around 4:30 AM; a room was available, and we could pay for only 1 night rather than 2 and sleep in. Soon we performed our ritual of unloading the cat carrier, litter box, food, overnight bags, jackets and blanket and other “cat cave” items, cat food and dishes, etc.
Mary procured a luggage cart, which she wheeled out to the van for the first of 2 trips. This time I put the cats into the carrier - they don’t like it, but it’s much better than the indignity of being hand-carried in, and the fact that this is not a vet visit adds to their sense of adventure.
During our overnight drive we speculated on the cause of a 3-trailer-truck accident in the opposite lanes - the first truck blocking all lanes and jacknifed; the second over the barrier; the third similarly askew, but not as severely, half-cab over the barrier.
March 13, 9:42 AM. Mary continues to sleep as rain pours outside in Turbeville, SC. A short drive last night; we checked in around 2 AM at the Knight’s Inn.Yesterday we arrived around 5 AM at the Super 8 Motel in Smithfield, NC, due east of Raleigh. Its sign proclaims that for 4 years in a row it’s been voted “the best place to stay in Johnston Co.”
In the room is a Focus on the Family publication whose cover story touts the end of Roe v Wade. I told Mary,“Welcome to the South.” The first, "nonsmoking" room smelled of smoke; Mary got us switched to a clean one while I waited in the hallway with cats, coats, and bags.
Mary had driven through pea soup fog in the Smoky Mountains, sometimes going 25 mph in a 70 mph speed zone. We weren’t the only ones going slow; some drivers tailed us for a while, our lights serving as a beacon, before they got bored and passed us. Usually we traveled around 40 mph.
At first Mary tried to follow the vehicles that passed us, speeding up to catch their light, but then decided it was too risky. They knew the roads; we didn’t, and it was the middle of the night. The fog cleared as we rose uphill into crests, then thickened again as we dipped down into the valleys.
I could still see the moon, which set during a rest stop. Jupiter was still up but descending as we checked in. Before we left the Super 8 I walked to Ruby Tuesdays and got us a sit-down dinner disguised as takeout: chicken Caesar salads and a full rack of barbecued ribs. A good departure from our steady diet of tacos and burritos. The ribs were splendid, though the chicken is peppered with a heavy hand.
Our room at the Knights Inn fortunately has a fridge. We are also getting a new rate, which comes in handy because we end up staying for 2 days. Check in during the predawn, check out the evening of the same day: a stay of less than 24 hours but straddling the typical checkout time. Were we to stay a third day here, our rate would more than double.
For the first time last night, we have not worn our coats during the overnight drive. For the first time we have passed flowering trees, and I heard spring peepers at a Burger King where we stopped for coffee after leaving the Super 8. Further on, at a McDonald’s closed for the night, Mary used the “people potty,” which we'd stashed in the back of the cargo area and wedged upright in an up-ended topless bar stool set atop a box. I held the cargo door down to hide anything above midcalf as she maneuvered herself among the hand truck, boxes, and bags surrounding what is, in effect, a plastic pail with a toilet seat and clumping kitty litter for its contents. She also changed into a T-shirt and dispensed with her thermals.
The cats both rode on my lap, sharing space with the Ruby Tuesday leftovers and either napping or checking out the view. I occasionally had to restrain them from climbing onto the dashboard.
March 14, Red Roof Inn, Jacksonville, FL, 5:55 PM. We left the Knights Inn at Turbeville at 5:40 PM yesterday, catching sight of some of the countryside before sundown. A large swamp and flowering trees gave way to palms and cacti. This time Mary drove in a T-shirt. We passed through Georgia, listening to a Savannah oldies station clear through to the border, and sent up a small cheer as we passed into Florida. We’d skirted the threatened severe thunderstorms, complete with tornado watch - had minimal fog and never lost sight of the moon or Jupiter.
We had a bit of confusion finding the Red Roof Inn, given that the AAA Florida tour book lists the exits off 295 with new numbers while the TripTik retains the old. It took several calls to the motel to figure out where we were going - and the need to switch rooms due to a broken A/C filter meant that we finally got to bed around 5AM.
For lunch, I picked up takeout from the Buffalo Cafe, which is heavy on Harley Davidson memorabilia and has an appalling game: instead of trying to capture a stuffed toy in metal claws that you operate from outside the box, you try to capture a live lobster whose claws have been taped shut. For $50 you can have your motorcycle immortalized in a poster.
This past week has been a vacation of sorts for me, a way cool road trip with the cats as co-conspirators. There is still the unloading, the unpacking, the bills, the home maintenance issues to address. Then it will become a question of community involvement and re-establishing work contacts. Part of me still does not believe we are actually doing this, while another part remembers life up north as a distant memory.
March 18, 5:10 PM. We arrived at the house at 5AM on Saturday 3/15. During that day I unloaded about 3/4 of the van, which we were able to park on our steeply-inclined driveway with chocks in place. On Sunday I unloaded the rest. On Monday we drove to the post office, whose staff was very happy to get 84 Media Mail boxes (mostly books) off their hands. (Postal worker: "You must have a ton of stuff here!" Me: "Actually, it's more like a ton and a quarter.")
At our new home I brought everything down the van ramp, into the garage, and then into the house in sunny, 70-degree weather, feeling blissfully "spoiled".
We’d left Jacksonville late. Our attempts to get a room proved futile; a national drag racing event had hotels and motels booked and no longer answering phones, particularly at 2AM. To keep sharp we sang camping songs, and songs from Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. We told elephant jokes. When we pulled into our driveway around 5 I directed Mary, as quietly as I could, up the incline, then placed the chocks under our wheels.
The cats were timid at first, more so than when we’d checked into motel rooms. They didn’t take long to adjust, and Red had a walk outside by the front hedge and its fragrant, dark pink azaleas.
Penske charged us only $50 for each extra day, rather than the $100/day we were expecting. Given our delay from the Boston blizzard, we'd called as soon as we knew we were running late.
Mary returned to Boston a month later, having loose ends to tie up and personal effects she hadn't wanted me to pack. She still had to pilot her Ranger to Florida. She set out for her second drive down at the end of May.
June 2, 9:19 AM. Mary now in Georgia, near Savannah - expects to arrive here midmorning tomorrow. Around 3 AM her Ranger was rear-ended by a tractor trailer that had jacknifed going downhill and hit her going uphill. No warning honk. When she looked in her rearview mirror she saw headlights and taillights closing in. When she tested her accelerator she found that even had she more warning, she would not have been able to outrun them.
The cops faulted the trucker. Mary had been driving slowly but above minimum speed.
She, thank heavens, is okay, and the trucker is also uninjured. The Ranger needs its right rear light assembly replaced and needs bodywork on the tailgate and passenger side - but barring further mishaps, she can get it here.
(a Sonnetella, published in Poets' Forum Magazine)
Two cats, two women drive the long road home,
Though home is anywhere, and any time.
The 18-wheelers slash the darkness, climb
Ahead, while we go tortoise-slow. No need
To jostle aged cats. They like this roam,
This week-long jungle trek at cheetah speed
(Though cheetahs run much faster). Where we live,
Though home is anywhere, and any time,
Is in a rolling rental van. We give
Some space, some time, much sensibility
To feline needs: soft blankets, momma smells.
We travel as a pride with cargo, free
Of ancient haunts, but caught up in the spells
Of keepsakes that enthrall our memory,
Our past our roots: the future's fertile loam.
Two cats, two women drive the long road home.
March 2003: Daisy (left) and Red settle in.