RealImaginaryWest Day 18 – Reflections, Reunions & Returns

We woke up to heavy rains that were predicted to last longer than we wanted to stay in St. Louis, so we just kept heading east toward home. The extra time allowed me to cook up a little surprise for Becky with our friends near Columbus, Ohio.

Itching to Get Going

It was a dark and stormy…morning. Rain fell torrentially as if it was trying to wash our motel off the map like a bad stain. I think I would have been OK with that, so long as it waited until after we checked out…

It’s no fiction…it was dark for being first thing in the morning, and I’m not kidding when I say that this was the only motel room on the whole trip that seemed like a joke for the price.

Becky and I got up before 6am Mountain Time the day before, and took turns driving across Colorado, Kansas, and most of Missouri yesterday. When my head hit the pillow at close to 11pm last night, I fell fast asleep. I wasn’t crazy about our motel, but I was too tired to worry about it.

Our Motel Room…

Let me say that I would not recommend the Colonial Inn off of I-70 in High Hill, Missouri. Before I went to bed last night, I saw a sign on the air conditioning controls strongly encouraging guests to turn off the A/C while they’re gone. I mentioned yesterday that there was a strange damp sort of smell that I hoped subsided with the A/C running for a while…well, it was still there. This room definitely had a mold problem, which was not readily visible by looking at it. I’m highly allergic to mold, as my itchy eyes reminded me this morning. It’s really no surprise, because the A/C was off…and probably remains off almost every entire hot, humid Missouri day in the summer…so the mold probably likes it here.

I also awoke once in the middle of the night and noticed the sheet was not really on my corner of the mattress…because apparently they don’t use anything but top sheets at this establishment. I thought I pushed it back, but when I awoke this morning, it was all out of place again…which is why one uses bottom sheets to cover the mattress!

As I got up to go to the bathroom, I noticed a sign on the door. It became clear to me why the hotelier took so much information…the sign clearly indicated that management would charge my credit card and call the police should any of my room’s appurtenances come up missing. For a $39 motel room, they certainly had decided to go out of their way to protect their small investment in inadequate bedsheets. This may be a little paranoid, but I thought this motel room could easily get a lot more expensive if the maid got sticky fingers and pointed one of them at us.

I was in no way interested in lounging around to be implicated or to fill my airways with more of the milldewyness, and neither was Becky. The downpour outside made rushing to the car quite easy. Our stuff barely got unpacked, so it was pretty easy to throw back into the trunk. The rain was still coming down hard enough to get us pretty wet though.

To St. Louis, Or Not to St. Louis?

With the heavy rain coming down, I checked the forecast and the radar. The plan for this morning was to make a quick stop to photograph the Gateway Arch in Downtown St. Louis. The radar…and my ears…told me that the rains were not going to cooperate…so when we got in the car, I decided to scrub St. Louis and get home a bit earlier. Although this did give us just enough time…

Our friends, Justin and Jennifer, at a steampunk-themed party we held at Pugh Cabin at Malabar Farm State Park

You see, we have two very good friends who live in Delaware, Ohio…about 20-30 minutes from the I-270 Jack Nicklaus Outerbelt around Columbus, which is on our way home. I wrote about Justin and Jennifer last year after Justin, a roofer at the time, fell and suffered a traumatic head injury that scared us all and landed him in the hospital for over a month. He’s mostly his old self again, but it still takes about five full years to fully recover from an injury as bad as his. Anyway, before we left the hotel, I snuck a text out to Justin and Jennifer to see if they could meet us this evening and surprise Becky—and they were game! I just needed a proper smokescreen for stopping somewhere innocuous in their area. I wasn’t totally sure of the timing, but I thought we might be able to make it to the REI store in Dublin before it closed at 6pm.

Looking Back

You know, thinking back, we actually did pretty well at sticking with our itinerary. Aside from some minor adjustments, these were the only real kinks in the plan:

  • We only missed our destination slightly once, on Day 1, when we were too tired to drive another 30 minutes past Janesville, Wisconsin to Madison.
  • We lost only one day to my dehydration in Grand Teton National Park on Day 12.
  • We only changed our destination once, on Day 13, when we extended our time to hike at Grand Teton and stay in Craig, Colorado rather than camp in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • We only gave up on the tent for more sophisticated accommodations four times, on Days 3, 4, 6, and 13. This only cost us one reservation fee in Craig.

Another thing I found was that flying by the seat of our pants for accommodations actually worked out better than I expected. While I would definitely prefer having reservations at Badlands and Yellowstone, (and probably Rocky Mountain) it wasn’t really necessary anywhere else unless we stumbled in on a busy weekend. Finding a decent motel when we needed one was nowhere near as daunting as I worried it could be. I’ve been skiddish about cheap motels since we’ve been married…but I’ve learned that most are just fine, and Becky and I aren’t that picky anyway. So I know my anxiety level will be far lower after this experience.

I mean, we could have brought home bedbugs, but nothing even approaching that ever happened. And from what we’ve heard from Joe, our exterminator friend back in Colo Spgs, that can happen anywhere. Joe said that it’s embarrassing for any hotel or motel to have bedbugs, and you can get them at the Hyatt just as easily as at the No-Tell Motel…it’s just that they won’t have hourly or weekly rates, the decor won’t be as tacky, and the bed won’t vibrate for 25¢.

Crossing St. Louis

Anyway, we drove about an hour to refuel in the St. Louis suburb of Bridgeton. Becky took over driving again after we got gas. From here we took the I-270 bypass across the north suburbs because it’s a more direct route than I-70, which dips south through the city. As the heavy rains continued, I was disappointed that we would miss getting a good look at the mighty Mississppi and Missouri Rivers. Becky and I are both bridge enthusiasts too, so getting rained out on a city with two huge rivers like St. Louis was a bummer.

As we crossed the Mississippi River, I could see off in the distance where the sun peeked through the cloud deck, giving me a glimpse of a teeny bit of the St. Louis skyline and a silhouette of the Gateway Arch. Then we saw the sign that we were in Illinois.

We were no longer in the West.

Heading toward the I-57N/I-70 junction in Effingham, Illinois

Bittersweet as this was, I had to declare this trip an unqualified if not a resounding success! We experienced so many places and so many foreign environments that really got us out of our normal element. We took some risks we don’t normally take, and we had a great time together. And all of the fears, and all of the what-ifs I had rolling around in my head, were never really that bad to begin with. I even wound up sick in the emergency room and our road trip still went on successfully!

When we took on this trip, I was experiencing some severe depression. It was difficult for me to even research where we were going or to work out much of a plan. I feel much better now. I must remember this trip in case days come where I again slide into depression…to relive how we went West for over two weeks and everything worked out—even when it didn’t! The bad times don’t usually last forever, and maybe just getting out and accomplishing something, anything, can be what you need to help bring you out of a rut.

Another aspect that I liked about this trip was that it was about the journey just as much as it was about the next destination. There were so many unexpected things—the bluffs of the Upper Mississippi, the impressive tourist gimmicks in South Dakota, the awe-striking beauty of the Black Hills and the Tetons, the intrigue of the rivers, railroads, and rock formations in the prairie and the desert, the scenic canyons in Wyoming and Colorado, and the connection with a writer’s life as a pioneer in the West.

I think it was also key to have a destination to anticipate each day. Most of our road trips in the past were within a day’s drive—but even on the ones that weren’t, we usually drove straight through with no stops except for fuel, food, and restrooms. Now that we’d scrubbed stopping in St. Louis, we now had over nine hours of driving with nothing to look forward to but our unceremonious arrival back home…or at least that’s what Becky thought! (Cue the evil laugh…)

Wrinkles in the Plan

Approaching the I-65N/I-70E split in Indianapolis, Indiana

Becky drove all the way from St. Louis to just past Indianapolis, where we stopped at a rest area. I had just received a text from our friend, Brendan. While we were gone, we had invited him to stay at our house to keep it from looking vacant. He had decided to make our return far less unceremonious than I’d expected, and said he’d have dinner ready and waiting for us tonight! I was very touched, and would have planned things differently had I known of this in the morning. I didn’t want to just text back and say, “I’m sorry dude…”, but I didn’t want to tip Becky off either…so I hurried back from the restroom so I could tell him the critical part of my plan before she got back. Everything worked out perfectly! She came back and saw me on the phone, and I told her it was Brendan…but she was none the wiser that I was up to anything, because it was 100% normal for me to call him rather than text because I’m just old-fashioned like that!

Besides the phone call to Brendan, I managed to slip in a quick text to Justin and Jennifer, letting them know our ETA was around 5:30pm and that I was now driving. They replied that they’d be ready…so I was all set to get us back on the road as the time approached 3:30pm. Becky was still none the wiser and had her phone getting us home at around 7pm. She paid no mind that I had my phone set to go somewhere around Columbus.

Next time we road trip out West, it won’t be our first rodeo!

You know, I’d really like to take this opportunity to thank my lovely, wonderful, faithful wife for how awesome she was with the driving on this trip! Since I was all about the photography, she offered to be all about the driving. She actually liked driving anyway, since it made her much more aware of the scenery. She seriously drove almost the entire time between Janesville, Wisconsin to Rocky Mountain National Park! She handled the white-knuckle driving in Ten Sleep Canyon and on Trail Ridge Road like a pro! And when I think about how poorly I slept most nights of this trip, I doubt we’d have made our mileage on a couple of days without her driving so much. I was happy to be driving now though, since it made certain that my surprise plans with Justin and Jennifer could go on with Becky none the wiser!

Entering Ohio

The Ohio welcome sign near the Indiana border on I-70

As we crossed the state line, it seemed so strange to think that everything we saw over the last two weeks was all connected and on the same piece of land as the place we called home. We had seen some places and seen some animals that were nothing like what we were used to. Sure we saw familiar things like Canada geese, cows, horses, and red-winged blackbirds, and of course the signs were all in English…so we knew we weren’t in a completely foreign place…but we were definitely far from 100-foot high broad-leafed forests with evidence of man almost everywhere we looked. We just had an awesome new experience…and now we were back in a place where we pretty much knew what to expect most of the time and where there are all these people who know us. We were back home—and it was going to take a while to get used to again!

We had sunny skies from Indiana all the way to Columbus. Waze told me our ETA was now 5:45…eek that’s close to closing time! I still hadn’t broached the idea of stopping with Becky, because I didn’t want to risk appearing suspicious if we were late and I needed to change up my smokescreen. I’d just received a text from Justin and Jennifer that they were on their way, though…so things were falling into place!

The Case for Stopping at REI

Now came another wrinkle—the ramp from I-70 East to I-270 North was closed! Curses!!! Waze gave me a better detour than ODOT did, but I for some reason followed the ODOT detour and it cost me three more minutes—a pretty narrow timeframe for selling REI as my smokescreen!

The good thing was that I had expressed my concerns about money now that we were going back to our “regular” lives. I say that’s a good thing, because it gave me a great excuse to try and return our Lifestraw water bottle—we never used it, so we could still get a good $50 or so back. After we were headed the right direction on I-270, I had Becky half-heartedly sold on the idea of stopping at REI and a realistic reason why.

Another good thing was that she had been texting Jennifer all day long…and they had been lamenting to each other that we couldn’t meet up on our way through. Jennifer seriously did awesome at not tipping her hand all the way to the end!

Unfortunately for me, however, Becky talked me out of returning the Lifestraw just a couple minutes before our exit with an airtight argument I couldn’t rationally refuse! Quick thinking—”Well, let’s just go anyway…we gotta get gas somewhere soon, so let’s just get off here and go anyway.”

It worked. But Becky was in a BAD mood!

It had been a long time since I was able to text Justin and Jennifer, and I wanted to let them know we were only a minute or two away so they’d be ready in case they were already there. Then I saw Becky texting…

“Are you texting Jen?” I asked.


“Did you tell her we’re almost to their store?” I TRIED so hard to sound natural! But I thought…wow…if I could get Becky to text her that we’re almost there, then that would not only be practical, but it will also increase the giggle level after the surprise by like 400%!!! BRILLIANT!

“I was actually texting her that right now…” YES!

The Case for Getting Out at REI

Now since Becky had no clue what was about to happen, she was super annoyed that we were stopping. She didn’t like how she was dressed, she was tired, and she really wanted to go home. I didn’t want to argue with her and twist her arm, but I really needed her to buy in or my whole surprise plan might fall apart!

Just as we finally pulled into a parking space (I had cost us a couple more minutes by missing the turn!) Becky nearly refused to even get out of the car. Uh oh! In a couple of seconds I got her mind changed by suggesting we look at the tents some more. She straightened herself out and suddenly fell into a much sunnier humor and we walked in the store.

In-tents Moments

At this point, I had texted Justin and Jennifer that we were there. Our original plan was for them to meet us outside the car when we came in, but then Jennifer remembered we had a rental car and so she didn’t know how to find us. I told her to never mind, just come in—we were by the tents in the front.

As Becky examined our upgrade options in-tent-ly (couldn’t resist!), she was so engrossed that Justin and Jennifer could easily sneak in the front door and around the very rack where she was looking! Hahahahaha! This was awesome!

I was standing a few feet away behind Becky as she was looking and pointing things out to me. I very deliberately walked around the rack next to Justin and Jennifer so that Becky would follow me…and then I walked up to Justin and asked if they were ready to go get dinner…

Becky did what I believe was a triple-take when she saw the both of them…she was completely bewildered…and then she practically jumped into Jennifer’s arms and hugged her, and then hugged Justin. It was quite a scene!

It got so noisy with the squealing and laughter that one of the employees walked up with a concerned/puzzled look on her face and asked, “Is everything OK, do you need help with anything?”

We all looked at each other for a second, realizing the commotion we’d caused…and Becky responded with a laugh, “I think we just found everything we need!” This made the lady even more puzzled, until we all busted out laughing! What a great exclamation point to put on what would have otherwise turned into another mundane drive home up familiar I-71!

Dinner & the Drive Home

All of us jumped into our respective cars and drove down the street to a Mexican place that Jen had picked out called Hass Tacos, Burritos & Mas…which I was glad to do since Mexican is Becky’s favorite. We hung out for about an hour. Becky got to give Jennifer the souvenirs she’d bought for her on the trip, including the National Parks Passport she gave to Becky to get stamped. And of course we got to tell some of our stories from the trip.

Sunset over I-71 in Brunswick, Ohio…just 20 minutes from home!

Afterward we drove I-71 back up to Cleveland. With all the hubbub at REI, we had totally forgotten to fill up on gas! We ended up having enough to get all the way to Brunswick, just over the border from Cuyahoga County. While I was pumping gas, I saw a spectacular sunset underway! After all the rain and cool weather we’d had this summer, it was pure awesome to see a wonderful red sunset (“red sky at night, sailor’s delight”) and warm weather to welcome us home!

It was strange to be back in our own bed again…and we had to get back to real life the next day. But who knows what adventure might next be had, even at home. And who knows what stories we may be able to tell when we do this again! Time to start planning for another trip West!!!

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