Traveling, Tributes, Truckers, and the Trots

July 10, 2021

A few weeks ago, I set out on a trip to meet up with family to pay tribute to my cousin, Ron, who passed away in April. His life celebration had been postponed a few months because of timing and weather. He lived in the Adirondacks on Rainbow Lake. It was still cold and snowy up there and having it further south enabled more of us to attend and pay tribute to a truly remarkable human being. It also served as a long overdue family reunion of sorts with some of my crazy cousins whom I adore. We’re all getting older and some of us are beginning to show signs of aging and all of its accompanying afflictions. Not I, of course. Wink, wink. So, this blog will serve two purposes. First, I will talk about Ron and why we honor him and the life he led. I will also mention the family members who would be insulted if I did not. And then, I will sink into the depths of degradation I endured, bare it all, and describe the trip from hell that brought me to Frederick, Maryland, the location of the family gathering. It wasn’t pretty and I am giving you fair warning.

Ron was a big bear of a man. It was somehow fitting that he and his bride, Corinne, achieved their dream of moving to the Adirondacks over twenty years ago because of his love of the land, an area replete with bears and other wildlife and where he brought many Boy Scouts on adventure trips. He loved life and he loved people and it was never more evident than in his huge bellowing laugh and giant hugs. Those hugs. They literally enveloped you. If you weren’t prepared, you needed to be warned, because you might break a rib. And given his Slavic roots, his hugs were not complete without the kiss. That kiss. He was not afraid to plant one right. on. your. mouth. The first time I introduced my then fiancé to Ron, I may have “accidentally” forgotten to mention to him that Ron was a “kisser.” The look of utter shock, fear, and consternation was one for the books. One of my fondest, laugh-inducing memories involving Ron and my husband (other than “the kiss”) was when we were visiting in the Adirondacks staying around the corner from Ron and Corinne with my cousin, Bill, who also had a home there. It was getting dark. We got a call that Ron and my brother were out on the lake and the boat had run out of gas (something my brother had warned Ron about prior to setting out) So, I guess the plan was that Bill and Frank were going to “rescue” them somehow. Bill reaches into the kitchen drawer and pulls out two medium-sized, serrated knives and hands one to Frank who inquires “what’s this for?” Bill’s response: “It’s bear season.” Frank uttered a couple well-placed expletives and said something to the effect of “No way in hell. If there are bears, my ass is going in the other direction.” Too funny and luckily, the bears stayed away.

Ron was a lifelong educator, teaching high school science, developing award winning STEM programs, heading departments, working with NIH and NIST and later as an adjunct professor. Teaching was in his blood and his legacy has been passed to his only daughter, Michelle, who herself is an accomplished teacher with the same joy and light as her father.  She delivered a beautiful and uplifting tribute to her dad at the Life Celebration. No one could have done it better. Ron is someone we will always hold dear and our memories of him will always make us smile, because he always had a smile. This will sustain us when we are sad at the loss. I suppose for me, the one thing that I can’t forgive however is something I discovered the day of the life celebration. It was Ron’s allegiance to Sheetz. Seriously, Ron? What the ever loving hell? Did I not know you at all? Sheetz? Was everything I knew and respected about you a lie? How can you possibly call yourself a human being and espouse the sludge they call coffee and the pitiful MTOs they call sandwiches? I am going to need a moment because my whole belief system has come into question. It’s as if I don’t know who I am anymore and for sure I don’t know you or what you stood for. Anyone with an iota of common sense knows that the only establishment worth discussion is Wawa. Good coffee, clean restrooms, outstanding sandwiches, excellent service, end of discussion. Ron, I love you, but I’m a little upset right now. I forgive you, but you have hurt me. Please take some time up there in heaven to reflect on what you have done.

A few quick words about my other cousins. Some of them I haven’t seen since almost six years ago at my husband’s funeral. I suppose this is what our lives have become. We gather for funerals now. We all voiced our concerns that we cannot let this be our norm. We need to make every moment count. But life seems to get in the way. One cousin is dealing with some troublesome health issues that require frequent doctor visits. He uses a walker which is not pleasant to see. But as is typical for my family, his sense of humor is intact. When I said to him “what’s up with the walker?” his response was “it’s either the walker or I keep falling on my ass.” This cousin is one of four brothers, all of whom are now in various stages of “disrepair,” using canes, walkers, or stooped over with stenosis, etc. These are the same guys who at every family wedding would do a rousing if clumsy version of the YMCA. Always a hilarious highlight. I told them they should resurrect it at the next wedding with an updated version this time using their canes and walkers in a rhythmic version clicking and twirling and using carefully enunciated grunts and groans along with spotters should they fall. All in all, seeing everyone as we celebrated the life of one of the good ones was good for my soul. RIP Ron. And Sheetz sucks.

So, let’s turn back the clock 24 hours. The plan was to meet my sister and brother and families the day before the Life Celebration. We’d check into a hotel, have a nice leisurely dinner and enjoy the evening. I had a physical therapy appointment early that morning and planned to hit the road immediately after and arrive in Frederick in the early afternoon. It would be an easy trip – just 254 miles, at the most four and a half hours driving the speed limit, okay exceeding it a smidge, EXCEPT in Brunswick County, Virginia. Side note: never ever ever speed in Brunswick County, Virginia. You will be caught. You will be pulled over. You will pay a hefty fine. You will receive NO MERCY. A month after my Frank died, I shamefully used his death as an excuse for being distracted and therefore having a lead foot. Apparently, the officer had no soul. He looked me straight in the eye, with I swear the slightest sneer, said “sorry for your loss” and issued me a three-figure ticket. No remorse, no guilt. I think my ticket got him the microwave for that month’s quota. My predilection for speed is something that I don’t realize half the time, because I have been stopped twice in Brunswick County, but not lately. Now I am very aware when I cross into that zone of capitalistic opportunism and put my Camry into legal cruise control, about three miles over the speed limit, sweating bullets until I can escape. Now the other counties I confess that my cruise control is set just “a bit” higher.

So, back to the trip. I finished PT, stopped for some coffee and hit the road. As I blithely started listening to satellite radio and enjoying the fact that there was hardly any traffic (pay attention, the no traffic mention is SO IRONIC) I noticed a small SUV about six car lengths ahead in the right lane. I was in the left. This idiot apparently thought transporting two, very long canoes on top with no type of rack or any other mechanism to stabilize said canoes was a good idea. He seemed to have attached them with what appeared to be a couple of bungee cords. I’m not an engineer, but even with my limited reasoning abilities, I knew this did not bode well. It didn’t take long before bad things started to happen, seemingly in slow motion. Canoe #1 on the driver’s side suddenly began to slide forward and down impeding idiot driver’s vision. I instinctively began avoidance measures, and as I had stated, there was little traffic.  I braked, slowed and prepared to stop. I was more worried about the car directly behind idiot with the small SUV (makes for a catchy movie title, eh?) Somehow as the long canoe began to fall onto the road, idiot driver exhibited some remarkable reflexive action, pulled onto shoulder and jump out of car. Driver number two managed to veer around canoe pulling over to the shoulder and ran onto road to assist idiot with the small SUV in retrieving the canoe from the road. Did I mention that canoe #2 was beginning to slide off the roof at this point? I was, by then safely past the craziness and thankful nothing truly bad happened but wondered how the idiot solved his initial problem of getting the canoes from point A to point B, because clearly, his first plan sucked. All this occurred the first 15 minutes into my trip. Surely, the rest of my travels would be uneventful, right? Ah, such a sweet, naïve, unsuspecting lamb was I. Let the games begin. I should have carbo loaded because I was going into beast mode and didn’t know it. So, I cranked up the Motown channel, enjoyed the beautiful Carolina sky and continued on my way to Frederick. About 15 minutes later, I saw the first sign for the rest area in two miles. No worries. I didn’t need the rest area at this time but given my gastrointestinal “issues” I always like, (read NEED to know where the next one is — always) But, after two miles as I approached the rest area that I didn’t need, I did experience a pang of anxiety as I saw barricades and signage announcing that this particular rest area was CLOSED. Was this a harbinger of things to come? Were all subsequent rest areas on Route 85 going to be closed? All 124 miles on this stretch of Route 85? What if I had an immediate need, which, without being too graphic or detailed is my typical scenario. As I stated, I have “issues,” and these “issues” do not bargain. They are in charge. I am at their mercy. There is no negotiation. There is no postponing. There is no ignoring. There is simply acceptance, surrender, acquiescence, because I am never in charge. Never. I repeat: Never. Ever.

A shit show of bad luck was about to begin and there was nothing I could do but accept it. When you are at the mercy of construction, crashes, congestion, and your colon, you simply surrender. I am a mere mortal. I have no other worldly powers to rescue me from things over which I have no control. The things and events that were about to happen were a curious amalgam of the curious, ridiculous, the funny, and the “are you freaking kidding me???” Let us begin.

As I could have predicted, within ten miles of passing the “Rest Area is Closed” Rest Area, you guessed it: my innards began doing an Irish Jig while simultaneously humming a John Philip Sousa March, all the while my colon was taunting me with its evil gibes, daring me to outrun it. I have never assigned a gender to my colon, thinking it would somehow make it a living, feeling “being,” which it is not. It is evil incarnate. As the tiny beads of sweat began collecting over my brow as I saw the sign saying there was another eight miles until reaching my porcelain land of release, I began my deep breathing exercises. These, coupled with a type of light meditation, were not unlike what I learned in my childbirth classes. I focused as much as I could, slow deep breaths, watch the road, stay in the right lane, attempt, though futilely to ignore the growing anger in my abdomen and suddenly get very religious despite my years of not attending Mass. Please dear God, let me make it to the rest room at the rest area. Please dear God, do not let what we know my colon is capable of doing happen in my pants. Please dear God, have mercy on me, my car, my clothes, my underwear, my sanity. Please dear God. Please. And most of all, please dear God, PLEASE make sure this rest area is open unlike the first one. Please dear God. Just please. God heard me or just had a good laugh at my discomfort and suffering. The rest area was open, I bolted out of my car and waddled as quickly as I could in my weakened state into the building and without a moment to spare took care of business. You don’t need any additional description. Use your imagination if you are so inclined. Having a chronic gastrointestinal illness is no fun but writing about it is. Cheers. Refreshed and renewed I left the building to return to my vehicle only to be accosted by what could only be described as the spawn of Charles Manson asking me for money. I occasionally will give some of the downtrodden a few bucks, because even if I am getting scammed, I figure at least I have good intentions. Not this time. This guy was nothing but a creep. I said, “sorry, I don’t carry cash” and kept walking. Got into my car, checked my phone, took a few minutes to regroup and began to pull out. As I am pulling away, another panhandler, this time a female, who was better dressed than I, trots up to my window and motions for me to open it. I went against my better judgment and let it down about half-way. She gave me sob story #26 about how her husband lost his job and they need to get enough money to get to some town for the night. I gave her the same “sorry, I don’t carry cash” excuse and she informed me rather firmly that I could go back into the welcome center and use the ATM. Uh, no. See ya. I must have vulnerable old lady written all over me. I drove off, grateful that I wasn’t stabbed that day. I suppose I should have mentioned earlier that while I was planning to wear a lovely dress to the life celebration, my footwear was going to be well, not so fashionable. The reason I was going to PT and continue to go is that I have Lymphedema and am undergoing treatment – not painful, just uncomfortable, especially during the hot temperatures. The PT tightly wraps my feet and legs in layers upon layers of gauze and bandages and I wear lovely medical “boots.” I think some men with shall we say certain weird predilections, find them kind of kinky. Just sayin’. Walking is difficult and fraught with hazards. Good times. I am a catch.

So off I go again. Fifty miles later, another attack of explosive diarrhea, exhortations to the Lord, and a dead cell phone. This time, I leave the turnpike and find a truck stop which is always an iffy proposition. Again, the Lord heard my prayers, both in the “please don’t let me shit my pants” department as well as please don’t let me get murdered and let me find a phone charger. All prayers answered, praise Jesus. I think living in the south has changed me. And note to self. Truck stops, at least this one, have nice rest rooms. Plus there was actual hot water.

From here on in, once I left the truck stop the rest of the story is simple. What should have been a four, at the most five-hour drive, turned into a ten-hour drive. A combination of weekend traffic, multiple construction projects, and as Google Maps kept telling me, several crashes. Even the Express Lane was slow, that’s how pathetic things were. Even the Google Maps lady sounded stressed. There was a sense of alarm in her voice as she alerted me to trouble ahead. “Traffic is getting worse (Oh my!) Crash ahead (Oh my!) Practice caution (Oh my!)” I swear her voice quavered.  My legs were cramping, my back was screaming, and I was petrified that my southern regions were going to rise in revolt again as I sat in bumper-to-bumper standstill traffic. For those keeping score, I did stop again – three more times, but I was always able to reach my digestive salvation in the nick of time. I think I am going to start going to church again. Couldn’t hurt.

What I encountered on the road: a young father taking his adorable baby, likely eight months old out of her car seat and walking along the shoulder with her. Yes, folks, that’s how bad it was. We were stopped. At one point, I was looking at my cell phone and didn’t realize that traffic had moved – twelve feet – and the jack wagon behind me beeped his horn at me. I don’t know what that extra twelve feet meant to him, but I hope beeping his horn made him feel manly and somehow increased his testosterone level that day. Bite me asshole. And then there was the other asshole, among the thousands I am sure were on the road that day, who when traffic was moving, was doing the “I’m a classic tool” dance with his Ford sedan. Speeding up, changing lanes at breakneck speed, darting back and forth between lanes, tailgating, you know the type. First of all honey you’re driving a Ford. It’s not a Maserati. Nobody cares. This is not to cast aspersions on Fords or the people who drive them. It’s just in this particular case, the jerk of the moment happened to be driving one.  We all witnessed several crashes as reported by Google Maps; fortunately, from my vantage point none appeared to be serious or life threatening. The last eighty miles I began talking to Siri as if she were human. Hey, when you’ve been stuck in a car for close to ten hours your mind starts to play tricks. I was so over I-95, I was ready to leave my car by the side of the road and hire a hot-air balloon, an irrational plan, but I.was.done. So I asked Siri to get me to Frederick the quickest route possible other than I-95. She instructed me to get off at an exit three miles down the road and I had a relatively easy drive the rest of the way to the hotel.

My intention the next day was to leave after the luncheon following the life celebration to head back to North Carolina. When I hit more traffic, nothing as bad as the previous day, but enough to tire me out and my eyes became heavy and I realized how dangerous that could be I stopped for the night and after three attempts, found a hotel and slept like a baby. And by digestive system the next day on the way home was remarkably quiet. Praise the Lord. I should mention when I arrived home and exited the car, I reached into the backseat to retrieve my bag. At that very moment, a large bird flew overhead and deposited his lovely, difficult to remove white excrement on my Camry leaving my roof, window and door well represented in the assault. I was fortunately spared. The metaphor was not lost on me. What a weekend. Shit happens, I guess.

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