Friday, June 2:
After three days of driving across the Northwest states and the Great Plains, plans for our final day on the road called for a straight shot to the eastern border of South Dakota, a sharp turn to the south through Iowa and western Missouri, and then another straight shot east to our final destination: Columbia, Missouri.
Jordan and I were eager to get this Road Trip From Hell over, knowing we had to arrive on time so that we could spend the next day unloading the 20-foot U-Haul trailer we were driving.
Jordan took the Honda Fit with the two dogs and cat, and I hopped up into the cab of the U-Haul truck.
We hadn’t done any sightseeing and today would be no different. Except for breaks to get fuel, use the rest area bathrooms, and grab a caffeinated drink every so often, we were moving.
That meant no stopping at the George McGovern Legacy Museum in Mitchell. (The former U.S. senator was a decent man who was trounced by Nixon in ’72, and he was the first candidate to receive my presidential vote.)
Likewise, no stopping in Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city, as we turned off I-90 and picked up I-29 South. Originally, I’d hoped to at least go on a quick drive around town, as that’s where my lifelong best friend, Al Rodriguez, attended his first two years of college on a track scholarship before transferring back to a state college in our home state of California.
Not a chance.
We cruised right on past the sign to the University of Sioux Falls and did the same when we passed Vermilion, home of the University of South Dakota.
Before long, we were crossing the state border into Iowa. No offense, Hawkeyes, but Sioux City is one ugly city. Reminded me of what my Texas friend Mike Granberry used to say about Waco, Texas. “If you were going to give the United States an enema, you’d do it in Waco.”
Things got better as we zipped through one small town after another, the names meaning nothing and the scenery failing to hold my attention. That’s a shame because I’ve driven across Iowa a few times and I mostly remember it as pretty — even the endless fields of corn.
Click on images to view captions.
After three days of burgers and other greasy foods, we opted for something “healthy.” Best thing we could do was pop into a truck stop that had a Subway franchise. Didn’t know whether to be amused or appalled at the guy next to me who ordered a Cu-BAN-o sandwich with Chipotle dressing.
Refreshed and recharged, we did our best long-haul trucker impressions and kept on keeping on.
Soon enough, we were in Missouri. And the first thing we both noticed was the preponderance of giant fireworks stands, like those you see along I-5 just north of Vancouver. Are folks in this state unusually patriotic? Or just fascinated with fireworks?
(The Fourth of July is my least favorite holiday, owing to what I consider the ridiculousness of setting off these loud devices that serve no purpose other than to cause someone to clean ’em up afterwards.)
We passed a sign for Oregon, Missouri (population 857, according to the 2010 U.S. Census) and made a point of stopping at the last rest area before approaching Kansas City, a Portland-sized city that straddles the Kansas-Missouri border.
As I feared, we entered the city from the northern end just as Friday evening rush hour was materializing. I was in the lead as we snaked our way through the city (try it in a 20-foot moving van), zigging and zagging from one lane of the interstate, and keeping an eye on the rear view mirror to be sure Jordan was staying close behind.
We managed to exit onto Interstate 70, the route between K.C. in the west and St. Louis at the opposite end of the state. Columbia was 125 miles, just a couple of hours under normal freeway conditions.
But were these conditions “normal”?
Of course not.
There were fender-benders, work zones and reduced speed limits that together added another hour to this final stage of our trip. True confession: Traffic was at such a standstill that I pulled out my phone and made an online reservation for a motel room right there on I-70.
We pulled off the freeway one last time for fuel and a nature break. We were so ready to be done with driving.
Finally, we crossed into the city limits. Of course, our motel wasn’t located off the first or second exit, but the last one, which extended our trip just a few miles more.
We finally reached the exit and pulled off; tried to follow Google’s directions in a confusing jumble of local and state roads; and at last found the driveway into the asphalt lot where we could finally park, shut off the engines, and declare victory with a father-and-son hug.
We’d logged 625 miles — the most of any of the three days — and nearly 2,000 miles total.
It was time for a treat: a sit-down dinner at T.G.I. Friday’s and a couple of frosty mugs of beer. Jordan had yet another burger and fries, while I opted for a half-rack of ribs, mashed potatoes and cole slaw. It was so good.
Postscript: Saturday, June 3:
A full day of unpacking the truck and car lay ahead, and I wanted to start the day off right with a hearty breakfast. On the recommendation of our waiter from the night before (a chill dude from Seattle), we found ourselves at a sidewalk table at Ernie’s Cafe & Steak House, a local institution since 1934.
Nothing fancy, but it hit the spot.
We checked out of our motel room, picked up the keys to the apartment where Jordan, Jamie and Emalyn would be living a few miles northwest of the University of Missouri campus, and got to work.
It had taken three of us (thank you, Lori) to load everything on the other end. Now it was just two of us unloading it all.
Miraculously, nothing had broken despite the sudden jerking and stopping caused by the first two days’ flat tires. We kept at it, filling every room on two floors and a small patio with furniture, bicycles, endless boxes and other stuff.
I was running low on energy and we still had the heaviest pieces to unload. That’s when a fellow resident of the apartment complex showed up and offered his help. He was a thin but fit guy in his mid-to-late 20s, in a nondescript T-shirt and jeans, and his name was Michael. He pitched in and, within 30 minutes, we were done around 6 pm.
We invited him to join us for takeout pizza but Michael had a better alternative. He’d just made a pot roast, with spices and carrots, and had plenty left over. Would we be interested? And did we drink beer?
Yeah. And, hell yeah.
Michael brought over a crock pot, plastic bowls and utensils, and three bottles of Blue Moon. We stood around in the kitchen (of course, there was nowhere to sit and no utensils, either) and learned a little more about our helper. He’d grown up in a small community in south-central Kansas. He’d recently gotten his A.A. and was transferring this fall to Columbia College, an independent liberal arts college there in town, with plans to study Information Technology.
You’ve heard of Midwest hospitality, right? It’s a real thing. I’ll offer up Michael as proof of that.
Jordan and I went back inside the apartment. By midnight, he was sound asleep on the couch — the only piece of usable furniture — with Jax, the pit bull, curled up on his lap. I went upstairs, laid on the carpeted floor for an hour of sleep, and pulled an all-nighter.
My return flight to Portland would depart at 6 am Sunday and that meant we had to leave the apartment around 4:30 to get to the regional airport on time to check in. I would catch naps on the two legs of the journey and be back home at PDX by 11 am.
Lori was there to greet me in the airport, with a fresh haircut and a bear hug. She had just hosted Jamie and Emalyn during the entire time Jordan and I were gone. Lori had just driven mother and daughter to the airport so they could fly to Missouri to reunite with our son, while I was in the air going the opposite direction.
It felt so, so good to be back home again.
In the passenger seat.