Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Move West, Day One: Alka-Seltzer

On the plane from Oregon to New Jersey yesterday morning, I realized that the Alka-Seltzer packet in my purse was from the same batch I carried across the country with me in late June 2009, when I moved to Portland by car. My father gave me what seemed like several handfuls as we said goodbye in the driveway. The night before I moved was a wedding in which I was a bridesmaid, so that morning I was suffering the consequences of excessive celebration. Alka-Seltzer helped transform me from a hungover mess to a cross-country traveler with a queasiness that could have been attributed merely to nerves associated with a life-changing move. This transformation took place only minutes before M arrived. M is a college friend who likes traveling as much as I do, and she agreed to help me drive to Portland, from whence she'd depart on her own road trip south, back east, and back north to New Jersey.

Instead of heading straight for the highway, the fastest way to I-80, we took a back way that winds through rural communities and past nature preserves. Once the back way brings you to the interstate, it drops you off ten miles further west than the normal way, and that is the direction we wanted to go. Twenty-five miles later, we were in a traffic jam waiting to cross the Delaware River. Soon, it was our turn to enter Pennsylvania and leave New Jersey behind indefinitely.

Eastern Pennsylvania is very scenic. The Delaware Water Gap is visible as you cross the state line. I-80 takes the Pennsylvania traveler through the Appalachian Ridge and Valley westward to the Applachian Plateau. North of I-80, there is even a Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, which is still on my list of things to someday visit. But it seems that M and I took no pictures of that state on our trip. This may have been because we both grew up close to the state line, in parts of New Jersey that are just as beautiful as Pennsylvania. This may also be because we decided that the goal of Day One of our trip was miles.

Wikipedia took this picture, not us.

I recall that we stopped for dinner at an Arby's and to use the restroom at a gas station in Hazleton. There, we got some snacks that had pictures of Pennsylvania Dutch things on the label. I don't remember if we bought gas or not, but I do remember that there was something strange about the convenience store. The specifics escape me, so I'll save this story for another time.

Shortly after arriving in Ohio, we stopped to buy gas. Ohio was otherwise uneventful. The only other time I'd been to Ohio was in June of 2008, driving on I-90 toward home in New Jersey. The view from I-80 was similar. I mused that Ohio has a bad reputation, like New Jersey, for being ugly and boring. From the interstates, both look pretty awful, even in places that are nice. For example, I-287 through Bedminster, NJ, looks like crap. There's no other way to say it. It looks like those dividers that keep highway noise from disrupting residential communities, trees that are mostly invasive Ailanthus, and road. But Bedminster, even within view of the exit ramp, is a very nice town. The rolling rural hills, the forests, and historic homes would not be out of place in any New England town. Perhaps Ohio has similar treasures. Someday, I plan to find out. But it's still, in 2010, a mystery to me.

Despite our late start, we made it to Indiana before night fell. The sun was setting over the parking lot of the travel plaza where we stopped, lured by signage for SOUVENIRS and a chain we'd never heard of before, South Bend Chocolate Company. It turned out to be a kiosk selling coffee drinks and treats. Past that was the shop with the promised souvenirs. M and I made a beeline for the shot glass display. Weeks earlier, when M and I had our first meeting in a Panera to plan the trip, we learned of our shared strange predilection. We both collect shot glasses. Neither of us had been to Indiana before, so a souvenir shop stop was imperative.

Here, I would include a photo of my Indiana shot glass, but I broke it last week! Anyway, after selecting my shot glass and goofy postcards of farms and baby animals, I got in line to pay. When it was my turn, I handed the cashier, a late twenty- or thirty-something man, a $20 bill.
"I'm sorry," he informed me, "I can't accept that bill."
My reaction time was slowed by hours on I-80, so my initial response was dumbfounded silence.
"Why not?" demanded a male voice from behind me.
"We can't accept out-of-state twenties," responded the cashier.
How does he know &mdash ? As I began to realize that, since this was a travel plaza near the state line, it was likely that any of its patrons were from out-of-state, it also dawned on me that the cashier was joking. But not so for the traveler who fancied himself to be my rescuer.
"But why not!?" he demanded, his voice growing loud.
I turned to look at him, a middle-aged man with clenched teeth, clenched fists, and bloodshot eyes. The cashier and I both had lost the power of speech.
The man continued, "It's US currency. You are required to accept all US currency! It's the law!!"
"It's okay &mdash" I started to say.
The cashier apologized, "I'm really sorry. I was just trying to be funny."
Recognizing that the cashier had attempted friendliness, perhaps flirtiness, with me, I turned back to smile at him, to reassure him that it was funny.
But the man behind me dashed my attempts with his low growl. "I've been driving since four in the morning. When you've been driving that long, things like that aren't funny!" he snapped.
"Really...it's okay," I said quietly. I tried to, without inciting further rage from behind me in the checkout line, convey without word and with facial movements alone, that I had not been traveling with the man since four in the morning. I wanted it to be clear that I had never seen that kook in my life. But the cashier looked past me as he handed my change, spooked. He focused on the wall behind me, like one trying to dissociate.

After we left the store with our Indiana shot glasses (or perhaps M wanted to get away from the kook so badly that she left the store without a shot glass), we discussed the strangeness of the situation we'd just escaped. Safely outside of the store, we believed, we stopped at the kiosk for some South Bend Chocolate pick-me-ups for the road. Our ambitious goal for the trip was to get to South Bend; our more reasonable goal was to stop at a hotel somewhere in Ohio. But Ohio was east of us, behind us, and so we set our sights on our long-distance goal. The name of the kiosk seemed auspicious.

I got some kind of caffeinated coffee drink with South Bend chocolate in it, after waiting my turn patiently in line, of course. But as M and I waited for our South Bend Chocolate treats, a tall, thin, elderly man standing next to the line called loudly to the young girl preparing them.
"Do you have any kettle corn?"
The young girl politely told him no.
"Why not!?" he demanded.
"We don't sell it at the kiosks," she told him. Or maybe she told him they were out. Or maybe she gave him some official answer that I don't remember, such as that kettle corn is only available at larger stores, or on the website, or in stores only within the city limits of South Bend. But this did not appease him.
"But. Why. Not!?" he demanded again, angrily.
M and I decided it was time to get the hell out of that travel plaza, apparently a gathering place for wrathful kooks.

The trip remained uneventful until long after we arrived in South Bend, checked into a hotel before midnight, and set out the next morning for a day of states that begin with the letter "I."

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