A funny thing is happening as our vacation has stretched into its seventh day: Tara and I have switched roles. Early on she was the one looking for detours and saying we had all the time in the world to explore, while I was most interested in getting to the next hotel. Now, as we confront the reality that our trip is drawing to a close, I find myself wanting to prolong it while she is most intent on chewing up the miles between Here and There.
Don’t get me wrong: I do miss home. Sydney, our bed, our backyard, our basement. Simple pleasures like kicking back on my recliner watching Curb Your Enthusiasm. We have not turned on a TV once this entire trip. Hell, just firing up a stove feels like a novelty at this point. Hope I remember which way to turn the knobs.
But as we crossed into Indiana, Ohio receding in the distance like the fragmented tatters of a pleasant dream upon awakening, I became keenly aware that reality was beginning to intrude on this getaway. In just a few days we’ll be back at work, toiling away, and all of this will feel like a distant memory. I like routine; it’s what defines us. Life is all about the minutiae, the thousand little things that make up your daily existince…but the routine, while comforting, is exactly that: routine. The freedom of the open road is intoxicating, especially when you don’t have to worry about work deadlines and scooping the litter box and planning meals.
So, yes: I will be glad to get back home. In the meantime, I still want to enjoy all this as much as possible. It’s been four years since I’ve had a proper vacation. I’d like to draw it out a little bit longer.
Or at least, that’s how I felt until we hit the first of many tollbooths.
Not far west of Cleveland, I-90 turned into the Ohio Turnpike. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of running into toll roads on our trip, because I’ve only ever encountered them a few times in my life. But starting in Ohio, and continuing through Indiana and Illinois, we encountered at least eight tollbooths, all requiring us to slow down and fish out the credit card. Ohio cost us $12.00, Indiana was $9.20, and then Illinois really nickle-and-dimed us to death: $2.80 to cross a bridge, $5.80 to get into Chicago, and then a bunch more where you slow down, a camera takes a picture of your license plate, and you’re mailed a bill. Who knows how much that’s all going to end up costing us. I was over it!
And then we got to Chicago. I was excited that we were going to get a glimpse of the third largest city in the U.S. I did not realize we were going to be driving through the third largest city in the U.S. Traffic was horrendous. It would take an entire year for us to see this many cars back home.
I will admit, the skyline was pretty cool, though. But I was twitchy the whole time we were driving through. And I wasn’t even the one behind the wheel! I swear I didn’t plan it that way. Tara and I have been taking turns driving, and it’s been a pretty equitable distribution. She just happened to draw the Chicago short straw.
Between the tollbooths and the slow slog through Chicago, our drive to Madison took an hour longer than anticipated. But we also ended up gaining an hour when we crossed into Central time, so I suppose it was a wash.
The moment we crossed the Wisconsin border—our fourth state of the day, btw—I felt instant relief. The tollbooths were gone and the pace was much slower. I was finally able to breathe again.
My Could’ve-Been College Town
When I was a junior in high school thinking about potential colleges, I had my choices whittled down to two: Trenton State University and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Primarily because both had excellent Mass Communications programs. Ultimately I ended up attending San Jose State University because of a girl. I have many regrets about that. I didn’t have the true college experience because I lived at home with my parents and never felt any particular sense of pride being a Spartan. I got a piece of paper when I graduated, but there are no lingering warm-and-fuzzies from SJSU.
I’ve always been intrigued by Madison, though. Thinking about the could-have-beens. I’d never actually been there before today, but after wandering around downtown for a couple of hours, I’m pretty sure I would have loved it. Because Madison is a pretty cool town: a great mix of historic and modern architecture. Clean, safe, and picturesque. Liberal-minded. Lots of cool restaurants and bars downtown. College students wandering all over the place. One guy was even headed to a toga party. I thought that was a played-out movie trope…but not in Madison, apparently.
After checking into our room around 4:00, we made a beeline for downtown. Our first stop was the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, a 16-acre oasis of color. A welcome change of scenery from the hectic pace of Chicago and, even worse, the grime and stench of Gary, Indiana. Tara, master gardener that she is, quickly fell in love with the place. Even I couldn’t help but admire all the colorful foliage. There were surprises around every turn, including a traditional Sala Thai golden pavilion, a gift to the University of Wisconsin–Madison from the Thai Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association and the government of Thailand through its king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2001. It’s the only authentic Thai pavilion in the continental U.S.
After spending a couple of hours there, we drove into the heart of downtown to find a dinner spot. Happened upon a Mexican restaurant with really good food and margaritas. Then we just walked around, checking out the sights. We were both very impressed with the capital of Wisconsin.
When we got back to the car, we noticed the sun was just beginning to set over Lake Mendota, one of the five lakes that surround Madison. We lucked into the perfect spot to see it.
We are now back in our room, settled in for the night. The bed is super plush and since our final(!) destination—Austin, Minnesota—is less than four hours away, we are in no rush to hit the road tomorrow.