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TODAY

Thursday, September 20

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Detour

Our vacation started with the rules.

1. Two dice needed: one die to determine direction traveled, the second die to determine number of miles driven in that direction
2. Drive 100 miles east from Chicago, and start the first dice roll
3. Must only drive on paved roads
4. New roll = new music
5. Game to be played for at least 10 consecutive hours
6. Map can only be used in emergencies: do not backtrack or cross a path already taken
7. Three roll vetoes allowed per person
8. Must introduce yourself to at least one new person a day

My husband Robert came up with the brilliant idea after many vacation discussions with no discernible outcomes. We'd just get in the car with a few dice, he said, and see where fate would take us. This idea was perfect for us — the randomness with rules would be a reassuring way to experience spontaneity. This vacation would get us out of our predictable rut of normal activities, and be the first unplanned vacation of our marriage. Five days of uncertainty, doing our favorite vacation activity — the Great American road trip.

We started the journey by leaving Chicago after rush hour one morning. We jumped in the car with some clothes thrown in a bag, iPod loaded up, and no map. At the first tollbooth, Robert attempted to introduce himself to the tollbooth operator (Rule 8) but the operator wasn't having it, and just ignored him.

A hundred miles east of our house, we got off interstate 80 and the fun began. We decided to switch off on the dice rolling, in case one of us was just luckier than the other. I rolled first. The first roll of the red square die was a number one, which equaled straight. The second die roll (a funky, bright yellow, rounded Dungeons & Dragons die with increments of 10) yielded a 90 — we'd drive 90 miles straight on Highway 421 South.

Robert was next to roll the dice (and my craps-playing addiction made me shout "YO ELEVEN!" as he did it) — his first roll was a five — left — and an 80 from the yellow die. We drove 80 miles on the highway onto which we had turned left — I-74 East.

Once off the highway, the rolls continued and fate drove us on a stair-step pattern through Indiana, mainly traveling east and south. We learned that Indiana is really a lot like Illinois — farmland, and decidedly rural.

We stopped for lunch when a fortuitous roll brought us to Lafayette, Indiana, where we ate at Puccini's. We decided on another rule (Rule 9) — must only order new menu items at restaurants, Not only were we stuck in a vacation rut, but also a same-menu-item-ordered rut. I always get the same things, and so does Robert. I ordered a veggie pizza called Humble Pie and Robert ordered a pizza with sausage instead of his usual pepperoni. Not huge departures from normalcy, but a step in the right direction. The restaurant was pretty good except for their distracting catchphrase: "Smiling Teeth" — were we at a dentist's office, or a restaurant?

After lunch, our rolls of the dice brought us closer to nowhere — away from any recognizable towns or landmarks, surrounded by farmlands, fields, and nothingness. Even the paved road went away into dirt at one point, and we had to turn around to discover a real live road (Rule 3).

Indiana is dotted with signs that say "Cuz Krazy Harry Sez So." After seeing a dozen of these signs, we're still unclear on who Harry is and what exactly he's trying to say.

We reached a T-intersection in the middle of nowhere, Indiana, and realized we didn't have a rule for that. The quick thinking couple like we are, we decided a T-intersection would yield a new dice roll, new Rule 10. Good thing, too, since the next seven consecutive rolls were done at T-intersections. They sure have a lot of T-intersections in the middle of Indiana; come prepared to make decisions.

Anxiety started to set in about 4pm (or was it 3? Which time zone we were in was a bit lost on us) — would we make it to somewhere with a hotel, or would we be forced to sleep in the car? Would we run out of gas before we saw a gas station? Would lonely wild dogs attack us if we got out of the car? Would we become urban legends? We drove so long without seeing a town or village, or even another car, that it felt like we had entered an alternate universe. Without a map, and usually being so rigid on our road trips with planned routes, it was a departure from reality to have no idea where we would end up.

Finally, around 7pm and after 23 rolls of the dice, four diet cokes, two refills of the gas tank, 1 veto used, and no cell service, we arrived near civilization. The highway entrance signs indicated that Cincinnati was just around the corner. Our stair-step pattern through Indiana hadn't landed us in another reality. Instead, we were at the Ohio / Kentucky border. The dice brought us to a Big Boy Restaurant, and his beaming smile invited us in. I introduced myself to our friendly waitress, Pam, with whom I shared a name (check — Rule 8 completed) and she took good care of our dinner. After dinner, purchase of a souvenir Big Boy bank and a friendly photo op with the oversized Big Boy statue outside, we found a hotel for the night.

The Ramada Limited was just fine for one night, but we believe the "limited" in the name stood for limited cleaning. The hotel was in Florence, Kentucky, and the nearby red and white water tower proclaimed our location with the text "Florence Y'all." We repeated that phrase for the rest of the trip.

The random path took us around eight hours of driving from Chicago to a city that should have only taken five, but those extra three hours took us places we'd never been, off the proverbial beaten path.

The next day, we took a break from randomness for a few hours and visited the local "Kings Island" Theme Park. Neither of us had ever been there, but as children had heard magical tales of Hanna-Barbera characters like Squiddly-Diddly, Fred Flintstone and Huckleberry Hound roaming the park with awesome rollercoasters. We were excited about this visit back to our childhoods, and ready to see a character in costume other than a giant mouse. Sadly, we were disappointed to learn that Kings Island had been bought by Paramount. Now the magic was gone. Instead, it was littered with lesser Nickelodeon characters.

We consoled ourselves with corn dogs and funnel cakes and visited attractions like the Eiffel Tower, a 1/3 scale replica of the real thing that brought my fear of heights to the extreme forefront. We came back to earth and rode the brightly colored Lazytown Copters (really meant for little kids), which was exactly like being in a cartoon.

After the somewhat disappointing theme park, we decided to gamble with some additional rolls of the dice. A few lucky spins brought us out of Ohio and into Kentucky, and suddenly off the highway and straight into horse country.

The roads were different and so was the landscape — a nice change from the flatlands of Indiana. The hills and valleys were mainly full of horse pastures lined with black and white fencing, the horses running or grazing in the pastures ("Out standing in their fields," I joked to Robert). The farms were immense, the houses even bigger, the barns mainly black with red roofs, and the landscape out of a great car commercial. The two-lane road was full of switchbacks, sharp turns and hills. Since the road was also missing a shoulder, our car was only narrowly able to fit on the road. It reminded us of a racing Playstation 2 video game, and with the music up loud and the windows down, we felt free.

Our afternoon passed with uneventful dice rolls, taking us across Kentucky and towards West Virginia in a pretty straight path. We drove past nuclear power plants, traffic jams in the middle of nowhere, county fairs, creeks, farms, a giant bowling pin, bridges, tunnels, a UFO-type building, castles and a river that we kept crossing, over and over.

The evening light brought us to Huntington, West Virginia, a town very proud of Marshall University and full of industrial plants lining the Ohio River. Neither of us had visited West Virginia before, and as the night descended on the city, it seemed like we were in a truly different and foreign place. We stopped at a Holiday Inn for the night. The smell of the hotel brought back childhood memories of indoor pools and chlorine-scented hair.

We slept in a bit, and woke up dreaming of bacon, so it was off to Bob Evans across the street. We both ordered different breakfasts than we normally do (biscuits and gravy for me and French toast for Robert), but I couldn't stop talking about the sign outside the restaurant reading "Bob Evans Carry Home Kitchen." Would they have pre-assembled kitchens available to carry home? And how would we get the kitchen to our house? Were they mini kitchens? The sign didn't mention food.

Reflection of the past two days brought a major turning moment in the trip. We'd had enough of the randomness and rolling of dice and not knowing where we were on the map. That was it. We were done. We went to the local gas station, bought an atlas, and decided right then and there that we were driving to the ocean. It looked so close on the map! Just a few short hours and we'd be running in the waves.

Being without a map for two days had rendered us incapable of judging distance. Something that looked only three or four hours away visually on the atlas to us turned into a nine-hour journey. This portion of the trip was very unlike the previous two days, with a different kind of anxiety setting in — would we make it to the ocean before dark?

Wondering about towns named Hurricane and Tornado in West Virginia, seeing giant oil refineries, witnessing tunnel and bridge marvels of modern engineering, stopping at scenic overlooks and flying along the highway all made the time go quickly. We also are fond of the road game that my dad invented (at least, I like to think he did) called "White Horse." It's pretty simple. If you see a white horse, you yell out "White Horse!" and you get one point. I am the undisputed "White Horse" champion, and the vacation just confirmed my title.

We drove into Virginia Beach, Virginia, just as the sun was setting opposite the ocean. We checked into a hotel right on the beach with a balcony overlooking the water, and made our way down the boardwalk for dinner. Tourists were plentiful, and so was the seafood. We introduced ourselves to the hostess at Casby's and the inept waiter, meeting rule 8 for the both of us. They both looked at us like we were nuts.

The next day, the alarm went off early. We woke up in time to see the sunrise over the ocean, while fighter jets patrolled the water along with Navy destroyers deep in the distance. In Chicago, we're not witnesses to an omnipresent military as in Virginia Beach. The jets were intimidating, but they roared over our hotel room like our own personal air show.

We swam together in the ocean — me with a newly purchased pink floaty-ring (I'm scared of the undertow) and Robert swimming like a fish. A few sandcastles and a sun-drenched nap later, we roused ourselves and decided it was time to return home to Chicago.

Rolling the dice and getting to the ocean seemed easy. But the thought of driving all the way home seemed close to impossible.

We washed the pesky sand off, changed, and started the journey by heading to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge / Tunnel combo. The 20-mile long bridge is huge, much bigger than any regular Illinois bridge. We stopped at the restaurant on the bridge for a cheeseburger. The windows overlooked the navy ships in the bay, and we bought cheesy souvenirs in the way-too-crowded gift shop. Sunday is a popular day for souvenir shopping.

We drove up the Eastern Shore towards Delaware. The terrain was different again — farmlands near the ocean growing tomatoes and sunflowers, not many trees. The road was crowded with trucks hauling millions of tomatoes away from the farms. Who doesn't love a good tomato, besides Robert?

We were surprised to learn that, much like Indiana, fireworks are completely legal in Virginia. And Virginians are proud of their ham. We saw a ton of roadside stands with enthusiastic signs, proclaiming the wonder of their hams. "I like the fireworks / ham combination" Robert remarked. You could buy fireworks alongside a juicy Virginia ham, one-stop shopping for the busy pyromaniac carnivore.

We continued our homeward-bound journey on Interstate 70 after Annapolis. We looked at each other around 4pm. "Is it crazy to drive straight through the night to Chicago?" we asked each other. Yes, it was crazy, we decided, but that's kind of how this vacation was going. Random craziness. And when was the last time we drove all night, or even stayed up all night, for that matter? Nothing seemed absurd at that point.

The sun set over Pennsylvania and we kept driving.

The heavy moon rose and we decided the night would forever be known as "Night of a Thousand Skunks," one of which may or may not have been under the hood of our car. It was that stinky.

I watched the stars turning from the car's moon roof.

Gas stations are inherently creepy at 3am, no matter where you are.

The sun rose over Indiana, and we kept driving.

We hit Chicago rush hour traffic at about 6:30am. Robert was driving, and battled his sleepiness bravely, while I fell asleep sitting up straight in the passenger seat.

It all started with the rules. The road-trip vacation was different because it was so random, unplanned and unpredictable. Who would have guessed we'd end up at the ocean? We saw many new sights, visited new states, ate new foods and met new people. When we think back, it was a dichotomy between random and rules. We started with the rules, but ended up in randomness.

Next time, we're going West.

 

About the Author(s)

Pamela Morgan works as a producer and reality facilitator in the corporate meeting world. Recently transplanted to the western suburbs after 15 years of living in Chicago, you can read about her new home adventures at yobotsnewhouse.com.

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