Family road trips.
They seem like such a good idea inside your head. Your husband is driving, you’re navigating and pointing out roadside America or quoting notable historical tidbits, the kids are in the backseat working diligently at car bingo, and collecting waves from sleepy truckers as they barrel past, and everyone has to pee at exactly the same time.
In reality, my fourteen-year old son has secretly programmed the GPS to avoid all major roads, in particular any that post a speed limit over 25 mph, both kids are plugged into their iPods, Netflix and the comedy station on Pandora, all while texting with such speed their thumbs are a blur, and I’m driving so that Sir Sackier can work on his laptop. This was how we’d spend the next three days doing a few college tours before dropping off my mini NASA scientist for her three week stint immersed in quantum physics and special relativity. I have no idea what any of that is; I only know that it’s incredibly expensive to study, and because of it, we can no longer afford airline tickets until the year 2017.
Currently, I am the only person seeing the magnificent scenery I championed as a bonus to car travel.
They’re missing out.
Anyone interested in stopping by the world’s biggest bathtub? Or would you like me to snap a photo of you in front of the nation’s oldest septic tank? How ‘bout we drive through the giant Ukrainian sausage?
Lookee there, that’s the most Styrofoam anyone has ever used to make a walleye.
Did anyone see that house made entirely out of beer cans? I didn’t think so.
They’re missing out.
Who’s going to choose where we eat for lunch? And no, I swear, if anyone suggests The Cracker Barrel one more time they’re going to be running alongside the car for the next hour. I say we find someplace local and charismatic.
No. We are not eating at a place called Buns & Guns.
Sorry, I’m drawing the line at restaurants that use toilet seats as dining chairs.
You’ve got to be kidding me. You want to eat at a place with a name like Pu Pu Hot Pot?
Ah, Sir Sackier? Are you listening to any of this? Have you heard the lunch selections?
(tappity tap tap tappity tap) Uh … anything is fine with me. Whatever you guys want. (tap tap tappity tap)
Alrighty then, Pu Pu Hot Pot it is.
Finding a hotel should be super simple, and it is. But finding a hotel that’s not indexed on BedBugRegistry.com is a near nightmare. Throw in the small wish for someplace where a wedding, bar mitzvah or middle school choir tour is not nesting is near impossible. With all the slamming doors, white kid rap and weeping, unmarried, middle-aged bridesmaids haunting the hallways, the only way one might manage sleep is if … nope, I’m coming up blank here.
One night I’d almost gotten lucky enough to be knocked unconscious by a small chunk of the bedroom’s ceiling.
“Oh my God, the sky is falling!” I shouted at my husband, who was fortunate enough to be one ceiling tile farther away.
“Can you still see?” he mumbled groggily.
“I have no idea! It’s pitch black in here.”
He grabbed the debris, flung it on the floor and reached over to sleepily pat my shoulder. “Well, at least you can still hear. We’ll check out your vision in the morning.”
Celebrating a teenage boy’s birthday on the road proved a little more challenging than I thought. Lugging the extra bag with his presents wasn’t too bad, but forgetting wrapping paper left me scratching the side of my head in search of creativity.
Hotel towels, restaurant napkins, my tie-died yoga t-shirt and public restroom toilet paper all managed to do the trick.
Tacky? No doubt.
Resourceful? You betcha.
Dinner was sushi, smack dab in the middle of land-locked Pennsylvania—fish capital of the U.S.
Entering the restaurant was somewhat surreal with the sleek and shiny, mirrored surfaces and the miles of neon light tubing filling up any space not occupied by a fish tank.
“I feel like I’m in a giant tanning bed,” my daughter whispered, her face glowing greener than Al Gore.
The food was first-rate, but it’s hard to get a good feeling about the authenticity of an Asian restaurant that’s run entirely by a couple named Abram and Sadie Hochstetler.
Much of the dinner discussion revolved around the colleges we’d spent the day touring and compiling a lists of the pros and cons of each school. How do you advise your child as to where they belong? Where they’ll find fulfillment and happiness in pursuit of learning? Where they’ll suceed in the search for a fine life?
We left the heavy dialogue behind and crossed the street to a place none of us had ever been, but each of us had poked fun at. Friendly’s. Where ice cream makes the meal. Or maybe where ice cream IS the meal.
It seemed like a fine place to cap off a birthday celebration.
The menu was extensive, the wait staff, more than true to the restaurant’s name. How could people be that happy in a dead-end job, accomplishing nothing more than adding to the nation’s ever-expanding waistline? But it was hard not to notice our waiter’s genuine enthusiasm.
Before the bill came, we spent the last few minutes lecturing our children about the importance of a good education so that they’d have options and not be limited by low hourly wages.
Our waiter presented us the bill. Sir Sackier tilted his head and then pointed to the young man’s forearm. A Hebrew biblical verse was tattooed from wrist to elbow.
“That’s interesting,” my husband said.
The waiter pivoted to flash us his other arm. “I’ve another one here in English.”
“How come?” my son said.
The waiter smiled. “It’s a conversation starter. I like to talk about my faith.”
“Then why not go into the ministry?” I asked.
“I have. I’m a pastor, just like my father. I went to college to study religion and found I needed something more.”
My daughter looked at him and smiled. “And you found it at a Friendly’s?”
The guy beamed. “I sure did. Best job I’ve ever had. I really found where I fit in, but mostly, where I’m needed.”
I think we all left that evening humbled, but more importantly, we carried home a few valuable lessons:
#1. Hard work is not hard work at all if you love where you are and what you do.
#2. The Amish really know their sushi.
#3. You’ve truly not experienced life until you’ve driven through a giant Ukrainian sausage.