Sunday, July 30, 2017

What's Up Now?!?

I finally completed my travelogue about my Big Road Trip from last summer just in time to share THIS summer's big road trip, and while I don't want travel to totally define my relationship with my wonderful daughter, Melody, it is certainly an important aspect of our lives.

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In the past month and a half, since school let out for the summer, we had a quick musically themed adventure to Ohio, which included an incredible twenty one pilots concert we attended in Columbus; a stopover in Chicagoland for G-Fest XXIV, the largest annual gathering of fans of Giant Monster movies in North America; a weeklong road trip in the Pacific Northwest, which included Olympic National Park, the Oregon Coast, the Columbia River Gorge, Portland, Seattle, and Mount Rainier National Park; and, inserted in between, I took one of my numerous business trips to Oklahoma City.  In addition, Melody attended a week at music camp, and a couple of weeks at Grace Adventures Day Camp.  And, of course, we rode a bunch of roller coasters at Six Flags Great America just outside of Chicago.

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As if all that wasn't enough, while I've been working around the house doing some renovations, Melody was invited to take an epic trip to New York City with our good friends from Grace Community Church.

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Along with all of that, last night was my first opportunity to attend Grace after what seems like a month on the road, and it was incredibly stirring to witness seven individuals publicly proclaim their faith in our Lord by getting baptized!  The stories they each shared were very emotional, and left me teary-eyed.  It was a memorable evening.

My daughter is putting the finishing touches on the Ohio trip report, which I'll share here on the blog.  In the meantime, I'm working on a series of entries about the big Northwest adventure.  I don't think it will take all year to share, like the last one, because I'm anxious to write more often than I have over the past few years.  Life moves pretty fast, and I love writing about it.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, everyone!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 16: The Last Leg of the Journey

The last few days of our trip are a bit of a blur.  After the accident the previous day, we were anxious to get home, even though we had a lot of things still to see, and a fairly long way to go.  We hit the road early, heading north out of the Shreveport area.  Almost immediately, we were surrounded by a driving rain that stayed with us for most of the morning.  This wasn't a surprise to us:  we had experienced at least a little bit of rain every day of our trip.

We took brand new Interstate 49 north and very quickly crossed into Arkansas, another first-time state for us.  Soon we found the little town of Fouke, brought into the national limelight due to a cult-70s horror-documentary about a hairy, bipedal, Bigfoot-like creature that roamed the swamp around the area, called THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK.  The B-movie was shown at drive-ins all over the country, and I remember going to see it with my parents and sister when I was a kid.  It scared me then, though I don't know why.  It's a terrible movie.

Anyway, the town gained notoriety whether it wanted it or not, and while it was a long time ago, and excitement has certainly died down, at least one little store continues to capitalize on its fame.  So, of course, we had to stop.  The Monster Mart has a great deal of merchandise and tacky souvenirs, as well as photo-ops with stuffed sasquatch statues.  We got a couple of t-shirts and stuff for Mom & Dad, then we were back on the road.

We were quickly back on the road and heading north.  It continued to rain for miles.  We finally drove out of it somewhere in the outskirts of Little Rock.  We lunched at a Cracker Barrel, of course, and continued on towards Memphis.  Our next stop was Graceland, Elvis Presley's famous home.

We entered Tennessee, then headed over to Graceland.  It was funny to see about 90% of the businesses named in some way to connect with Elvis and Graceland, which appears to be the major industry in the area.  We arrived at Graceland to a full parking lot, even though it was almost 4pm.  What we didn't know is that reservations for tours are mandatory.  There was nothing left for the day, and on top of that, the whole place shut down at 5pm.  Also, the house itself required a tram ride to a different location, so there was no way to check things out on your own.  There was, however, a very well-stocked gift shop, which allowed us to get a bunch of souvenirs, a restaurant/diner, and an ice cream shop.  We took a few pics, got some ice cream, and, though disappointed we wouldn't be seeing Elvis's home, decided to head into Memphis for dinner.

First, though, we took a detour and headed south to enter Mississippi for the first time.  While we weren't there more than ten minutes, it was kind of cool to know that we had now been to all of the Southern states.

We were hungry, so we headed to Beale Street, in Memphis.  It was a very colorful, touristy place, and had a great Blues vibe.  We couldn't decide on where to eat, so we compromised and ended up at the Hard Rock Cafe.  This was our ... Hard Rock, having eaten at the ones in Baltimore, DC, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Gatlinburg, and Las Vegas.

After a very good meal, we walked around Beale Street and soaked in the atmosphere.  It was a really cool area of the city.  We left just as it was getting dark, and we headed north as far as we could before I was just too tired to continue.  We stopped at a hotel in the far southern suburbs of Nashville.

While we really wanted to do a few touristy things in Nashville, we continued to feel the tug of home, so, with rain coming down heavily, we skipped it completely (which is actually the second time we've done that, having traveled through the area several years ago and deciding to come back another time).  So we continued into Kentucky.  The weather quickly cleared out, and we soon stopped for lunch.  We decided on a place we had seen several times, but had never tried:  Rooster's.  It was much better than expected.

Following lunch, we traveled up to Mammoth Cave National Park.  It's a beautiful area, but, really, compared to some of the sites we had seen in Colorado and Arizona, it was hard to get too excited.  We stopped at the Visitor Center, and that's when we realized any tours of the caves required tickets and reservations, and we just didn't have that kind of time.  We were able to walk down to the opening of the cave, and we did, but that was it.

Since Kentucky is the Land of Lincoln, just like several other states, we visited one of the newer National Parks, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park.  There are several units of this park, representing different stages of Lincoln's life, but we first went to the site of his log cabin birthplace.  It's guarded continuously inside a very ornate memorial.  Unfortunately, we arrived with only minutes to spare before they closed for the day.  About 20 minutes away is another unit of the park, Lincoln's boyhood home.  It, likewise, was closed, but I took a few pictures from the parking lot.  

Our GPS took us from there into some fairly remote areas of Kentucky, and we needed gas for our Jeep, so I started to get nervous.  As a cartographer and avid map-reader, I'm reluctant to give up total control of the navigation, even though I know how convenient a smartphone can be.  And I sometimes get lazy and don't look at the whole route, and trust the GPS to get me to my destination, which then makes me uncomfortable when I don't know exactly where I am.  I trust my instincts more than a computer.  In this moment, though, I let the computer do the heavy lifting, and I didn't exactly like the direction we were going.  We were on nothing but backroads.

Anyway, we were soon on the outskirts of Lexington, KY, and we found fuel and an old favorite for dinner:  Frisch's Big Boy.  We basically had breakfast for dinner, and the very young man who served us tried his darnedest to make sure we had a good experience when it was clear none of his co-workers were in the best of moods.  I got some coffee to go, and we were soon on the interstate again.

I had already made a reservation for the night, near Charleston, WV, but we had a long drive ahead of us that would take us into some late hours.  This was fine as long as the roads were relatively flat, but soon we hit more mountainous areas, and it was just us and the trucks sharing the highway.  With the memory of the accident from a few days before still very fresh in my mind, I started to get nervous again, and that made for some stressful driving.  The trucks were driving out-of-their-minds fast through the mountains, and I was having trouble maintaining the speed limit.  Then it started to rain again, and I found myself praying that He would keep us safe and my reflexes remained sharp.  I was so relieved when we reached our exit, which was literally on the side of a mountain.  It was late, and I was exhausted.  We found our hotel, checked in, and turned in immediately.

Knowing that this would be our last day on the road, we were anxious to get going, but we took our time, eating a decent breakfast.  Then we were ready to go.  We would be going through the mountains of West Virginia and western Maryland for much of the day, and it made the journey slower than we wanted, but I was still stressed with all of the trucks.  But we made decent time and soon found ourselves in our home state of Maryland.  This was very familiar territory the rest of the way, since I have been traveling on this stretch of highway since before I was born.  Dad grew up in nearby Uniontown, PA, about 30 minutes west of the PA-MD border along US 40, the National Road.  Interstate 68 is a very scenic highway through the mountains.

We made one more stop, at the same restaurant which was our first stop of this massive trip, at the Park N Dine, in Hancock, MD.  We each had the same meal we ate when we were here 17 days ago.  The rest of the trip went by very quickly, and we soon pulled up in front of our house.  We were HOME, and it felt good.  Final mileage was almost exactly as I planned.  I said 6000, and we ended up at 5912.8.

We said a little prayer thanking God for keeping us safe, healthy, and happy.  It was a fantastic trip.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 15: An Accident in Texas

We left the congested Arlington, TX, area and headed east towards downtown Dallas.  We wanted to see the touristy stuff surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, but the highways in the Central Dallas area were under a major construction project and our GPS just couldn't handle the mixing bowl of road work.  So we just headed on out of town on Interstate 30, then working our way over to I-20 East, we continued our journey.

We were near the little town of Lindale on I-20, coasting over a rise, when traffic slowed ahead of us.  I slowed down and moved from the right lane into the left, because there was a tractor-trailer in the right lane.  There was a Subaru wagon in the right lane that continued on at full speed, at least 70 mph, never slowing down as it slammed into the back of the 18-wheeler.  It was a tremendous impact, sending pieces of the car in all directions.

I drifted to a stop, halfway on the left shoulder, and stared, trying to register what had happened.  Traffic behind us stopped, as well.  I asked my daughter, Melody, if she saw what just happened, and she said no, that she was looking at some pictures on my phone.  I asked her to take a picture of the vehicles, just in case it might be important later.  I realized no one was doing anything, and there was no life from either vehicle.  I decided to move just ahead of the truck and park on the right shoulder and see if there was anything we could do.

As I drove past the accident scene, I saw the driver's head sticking awkwardly out of the shattered side window, and I knew he was dead.  I told Melody not to look.  I was concerned about the car catching fire, so I moved the Jeep to the far side of the impact area, just to be safe.  I parked, and started to suggest that Melody try calling 911, but given that I had no idea exactly where we were other than on I-20 East in Texas, I didn't know what other identifying information we could provide.  Melody instead called my parents, and I'm really glad that they could keep her occupied while I turned my attention to the accident.

I started to run towards the truck, but remembered that I had a fire extinguisher that I had just purchased before the trip, and I quickly retrieved it.  I approached the truck driver, who was still in the cab of his truck, and asked him if he was okay.  He didn't seem to understand at first, but I asked again and he nodded.  I ran to the back of the truck, and before I could do anything else, a man ran over to me and grabbed the fire extinguisher out of my hands.  Apparently, the car was on fire, and a couple of guys were attempting to put it out.  They were successful putting out the fire, and I found out that the two men were truck drivers heading west who saw the accident scene and stopped to help.  They had both used up their fire extinguishers, so my arrival with one was timely.

We began to assist one of the car's passengers, a little girl, who was in the backseat, yelling and crying for her daddy (apparently the now-deceased driver).  Paramedics showed up to take over and they helped get the young girl, who we later found out was 9-years old, out of the car.  We also later read that she suffered two broken legs in the impact.  While she was loaded into an ambulance, another paramedic asked me if I knew what happened, and it became clear that, of those who stopped to help, I was the only one who witnessed the collision.

The other truck drivers who stopped to help began to direct traffic, as a large backup had formed on the highway behind the accident.  Passersby were taking cellphone pictures of the driver of the car, given how gruesome it looked, and someone asked if we had a blanket or towel we could place over the body.  I ran back to our Jeep to get a blanket, and to check on Melody.  I gave her and my parents an update on what happened.  Melody was pretty shook up, but I am so glad that my parents stayed on the phone with her to keep her calm.  I told her to keep praying.

One of the paramedics returned from the ambulance and told us that there was another person in the vehicle, the young 8-year old brother of little girl.  He was in the front passenger seat.  We quickly looked and it was clear that he didn't survive.  He had been decapitated, and I noticed for the first time pieces of flesh strewn across the side of the car.  It really shook me up.

The driver of the truck involved in the accident kept his distance from the rest of us.  He took a lot of pictures, and was on the phone the whole time.  A fire engine arrived, and the fire personnel took over.  Since the other truck drivers who stopped to help weren't needed, they left.  But they both shook hands with me, and offered words of condolences before they left.  I had to remain since I had to give statements to the police.

I described the accident from my point of view to one of the fire personnel, then to a sheriff's deputy, and then to a state trooper.  We were there for over an hour.  I kept going back to our Jeep to check on Melody.  Finally, we were cleared to leave, but it was at least another 20 minutes before I was calm enough to begin driving.  It was a horrific experience.  All we could do was pray.

Melody and I talked quite a bit about it all.  I was careful about what I shared with her, but I wanted her to understand that these things happen.  It brought back a lot of memories of a major car accident my family had experienced back when I was 18, in which my grandparents were killed.  I'm so thankful for the personal relationship I have as a follower of Christ, and the promise of eternal life with Him.  It provides some level of comfort after a traumatic experience like this one.

We continued a few miles down the road, then exited to get gas, use a rest room, and get snacks.  While we were on this break, I started to reflect on what happened, and I got very emotional.  I thought about the night my wife, Teresa, went to be with the Lord, and the flood of memories brought tears to my eyes.  Melody was sympathetic, and gave me a big hug.

Returning to the highway, we decided that we didn't want to keep driving given how shook up we were.  Our intent was to get closer to Little Rock, Arkansas, for the night, but I found a hotel for us just outside of Shreveport, Louisiana, and made a reservation.  It was about an hour ahead.  It was also my first time in the state of Louisiana.

There was a Cracker Barrel right next to the hotel, so we got some dinner, then crashed (bad pun) for the evening.  We prayed a lot that night.  I didn't sleep well, either.

It was tough to get going the next morning, but we got on the road kind of early.  Right after hitting the road, it started to rain, and it rained hard for the next few hours.  It kind of fit our mood.

I didn't want to focus on the negative, but this incident marred much of the remainder of our trip.  We were still a few days from home, and there were many sites we would still see, but we really just wanted to get home.  There was also some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which impacted me as I drove.  I hated driving around trucks, and I had a hard time maintaining my speed on the interstates.  I was so afraid of losing control of our Jeep.

As we celebrate our country today, please take care in all you do.  Stay safe, enjoy your time with loved ones, tell them how much you love them, and have a wonderful day!