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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Wheedle in My Headlights, October 2015 (Part 1)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

The Past is Prologue

Remember back in the heady days of 2007, when we had this exciting plan to move from Seattle, Washington to Springfield, Massachusetts? I wrote blog posts about it and everything. No? Okay, brief recap: Robin got her PhD and was looking for a job. Westfield State College (now University) offered her a good one, housing prices in Western MA were pretty reasonable (and by “reasonable” I mean “chronically depressed”), and I wanted to get out of Seattle for various reasons (don’t get me started), so we moved. Struck out for the Mysterious East (Coast of the United States), hired a trucking company to transport our belongings, bought a beautiful home, got new driver’s licenses, pretended to care about the New England Patriots, the whole bit.

And guess what? I LOVED IT!

I made friends, volunteered at a film festival, got a job in the Berkshires, helped out with a local pride celebration (and even made a film about it), went to a million concerts with Concert Boyfriend Todd, went into NYC to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and the Guggenheim and the Met, explored a lot of unsafe abandoned buildings with my UE friends and mentors (Hey Chris and Mat! Hey Jim and Rob!), and generally applied myself to the business of creating a new life.

But guess what? ROBIN HATED IT! So she moved back to Seattle.

A year later, I realized that I had lost the argument. After much fussing, I followed Robin west, muttering under my breath the whole way. I had some vacation time saved up, so I used RoadTrippers.com to map out cool things to see along the way, charged up the batteries for my camera, and set off in the Prius… looking for America.

(Spoiler Alert: I found it in Sumpter, Wisconsin.)

Oh, I almost forgot! A few days before I left, the moving company came to pick up all of our belongings, which had been sequestered for the last year in a storage unit down in Connecticut. I don’t want to waste too many column inches on this debacle, but holy hell was that a shit show. Nobody from the moving company ever came out to actually look at our stuff, so they based their cost estimate solely on the information we gave them via email. They asked for a full inventory, which we tried to provide. But we also told them repeatedly: “Ya know, this stuff has been in storage for a year. We may have forgotten something. It’s probably smarter if you base the estimate on the cubic footage. Look, here’s an actual photograph of the storage unit. These are the actual dimensions. Notice that the storage unit is completely full.” These explanations were brushed aside with irritation. “How many individual pieces are there?” they demanded. “Uh… 350? 400?” we responded uncertainly. “As we said previously, you should really base the estimate on the cubic footage…” On the day they came to pick up our stuff, we found that all of those conversations were pointless, because we had been talking to a broker, not the actual company that would be moving our stuff. No wonder they didn’t care about getting an accurate estimate; they gave us a good quote (“Absolutely Guaranteed Final Price”), then handed the job off to a moving company and washed their hands of it. When the moving company showed up and looked at our packed-to-the-rafters storage unit, they flipped. “You misrepresented the amount of your belongings! There is no way we can move this for the quoted price!” I spent eight hours arguing with the movers, their supervisors, and anyone else in the corporate hierarchy who would answer the phone. “You said 350 pieces, and there are actually 450!” they expostulated angrily as if they had been personally insulted. “Because you misled us, we’re going to have to increase the price by $2000!” they added. “Also, we are charging you $850 for the 75 rolls of packing tape that we are unnecessarily affixing to every single item, even items that you have already securely packed!” This went on all day until, demoralized, I bent over and handed them the lube.

I’m only telling you this because it will figure in the story later.

Back to the trip itself: I originally had this elaborate plan for recording interviews with people along the way, but that started to feel like too much work, so I bailed because I’m lazy. In the end, I decided that I would just try to connect with people and have conversations along the way, and maybe write about it. That part worked out pretty okay.

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Day 1: Thur, Oct 22, 2015

Lenox, MA to Buffalo, NY
~ 324 miles

By the end of my short last day in Massachusetts, everyone was growing tired of my mania for documenting it. Here’s a picture of my last breakfast with Todd! Here’s a picture of my last Americano with Nannina! Here’s a picture of my last non-long-distance tech support call with Gregg! Jesus, enough already. I thought you were leaving…?

I escaped the gravitational pull of Lenox, MA shortly after lunch, and aimed the Prius for Buffalo, NY.

ROAD TRIP MUSIC THOUGHTS, #1: On my drive between SPRINGFIELD and BUFFALO, I was kinda disappointed that For What It’s Worth didn’t rotate to the top of my iPod playlist. I would also have accepted Mr. Soul. Opportunity wasted.

Our Buffalo friends Mark and Jodi had offered an air mattress and the use of their shower, but soccer league commitments meant that I arrived at their home before they did. With time to kill, I went looking for a gas station, and instead found a crime in progress. Waiting at a light, I heard a commotion down the street – in my memory, I heard gunfire, but it’s possible I’m confusing reality with one of the Fast and Furious movies. I definitely heard police sirens. Then a car came screaming down the cross street from my left, ignoring every red light, weaving around slower cars. At what seemed like the last possible moment for making such a decision, the driver hit the brakes, sent the car drifting toward me like Paul Walker, and somehow managed to whoosh past me into the dark residential side street where I was waiting at the light. Smoke erupted from locked wheels as the car slid by in slow motion, mere inches from my emasculated hybrid. During that strange suspended moment, the getaway driver and I exchanged a glance – his expression determined and grim, mine astonished and idiotic.

Mark and Jodi create displays for big museums around the world, and their beautiful home is filled with pictures of those exhibits and their own artwork. At the time I visited, a close friend of Mark’s had just died. He was in the process of cataloguing all of his friend’s artwork for a retrospective at his alma mater. After the sun had gone down, Mark and I sat at a computer in his living room and clicked through the images being considered for the exhibit. Each one sparked a sad recollection or funny anecdote, and I found that I had become invested in the process, hoping that the exhibit would be a meaningful tribute to a guy I had never met.

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Day 2: Fri, Oct 23, 2015

Buffalo, NY to Chicago, IL
~ 568 miles

My original plan had been to drive from Buffalo to Detroit along the north shore of Lake Erie. But sometime on the first day of my trip, I realized that route would take me into Canada. Hey, I don’t know much about Geography. I hadn’t brought my passport, and let’s just say that I didn’t like the idea of border security searching my luggage, so instead I took I-90 like a goddamn American. I left Buffalo before the sun came up, hoping to reach Chicago by nightfall.

GENERAL TRAVEL TIPS, #1: Drive time may be significantly increased if (for example) you have to pee once every hour.

Just west of Ashtabula, I left the safety of Interstate 90 and headed into the terrifying wheat fields of rural Ohio. After a longer-than-expected trip down a single lane road, past abandoned houses and dilapidated farms and outbuildings, I arrived at my first RoadTrippers.com-approved stop: The Servants of Mary Center for Peace, in Windsor, Ohio. It was early enough that I was the first visitor. In fact, there was only one other car in the parking lot – a Center for Peace employee, I assumed. Maybe even a nun! I stopped in the Visitor-Center-slash-Gift-Shop to cop a commemorative brochure and maybe drop a couple of dollars in the donation jar, but all the lights were off.

A small and very old dog of indeterminate breeding ran up to greet me, wagging his entire midsection.

“Don’t mind Chester!” said a woman from the back room. “He just wants attention. Hi, welcome to The Center for Peace!” A conservatively-dressed woman, about my age, came out to greet me. “Sorry the lights aren’t on yet. My name’s Pam.”

I had intended to take some pictures of the 55-foot-tall statue of Mary and be quickly on my way, but Pam was warm and friendly and – most surprising to me – she wasn’t prim or preachy or Christian-y in the way I expected an employee of the Servants of Mary Center for Peace to be, so I stayed in the gift shop and talked to her. She brought out a stool and asked me to sit while she turned on the lights and got the gift shop ready for business. She asked where I was from, and where I was going, and what prompted me to drive across the country, and I ended up telling her more than I intended. Because I am not a jerk and I know how to sustain a conversation, I asked her some questions about the statue and the center and herself, and she sat and drank her tea and talked to me, while Chester snuffled around the corners of the gift shop.

I went out and looked at Mary and Baby Jesus and a scary statue of brutalized Jesus on a brutalist Cross, both surrounded by partially-melted votive candles and broken bottles of cheap liquor. The statue of Mary is impressive, decorated with 450,000 colored mosaic tiles and stainless steel Rays of Holiness, all reflecting the morning sunlight. I’m not a believer, but it did feel peaceful and kind of “spiritual” or “holy” even though those words give me hives. It helped that it was a beautiful day, the air was crisp and clean, and I was alone out there, looking up at the benevolently smiling Mother of God. I wasn’t converted – God forbid – but I was glad I visited.

On my way out, I stopped to say goodbye to Pam. We shook hands, and she thanked me for stopping by, etc. I was almost at the door when she called out. “Hey… We only just met, and now you’re leaving and I’ll probably never see you again! That feels wrong, somehow. I really enjoyed talking to you.”

Next up: Cleveland. There were two things I wanted to see in Cleveland: Lemko Hall and St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral, both of which make appearances in The Deer Hunter. St. Theodosius is where Steven and Angela get married, and Lemko Hall is where they hold the reception. Today – almost 40 years later – Lemko Hall is home to a yoga studio and a real estate office, but St. Theodosius is still very much a Russian Orthodox Cathedral, topped with 13 copper-clad onion domes (you know, like Christ and the 12 Apostles?), much too magnificent and/or ridiculous for the shoddy one-lane street on which it stands. Seriously, check it out on Google Earth.

And onward to Chicago.

ROAD TRIP MUSIC THOUGHTS, #2: On the other hand, it was pretty great that When The Levee Breaks played while I was approaching CHICAGO. Just like it did when Max and I visited Chicago eight years ago, traveling in the opposite direction. “I’m goin’ to Chi-caaa-go! I’m goin’ to Chi-caaa-go!”

I reached Chicago just in time to endure a soul-killing traffic jam along Lake Shore Drive, and of course I badly needed to urinate. As Max can attest, watching me writhe in the driver’s seat while I nervously scan freeway signs for upcoming rest stops is a regular feature of Road Trips with Dad. After some tricky navigation through residential neighborhoods, I found the warm Crafstman bungalow of Robin’s friend Christine. I was irritable about the traffic jam, and moving back to Seattle, and having to pee so often, and getting scammed by the movers, but Christine made everything okay by serving me bourbon and bitters on ice while Massive Attack’s Mezzanine played on the stereo. I forgot how nice it is to sit and get buzzed with a friend while listening to an entire album instead of a curated playlist.

While I slumped into a Bulleit-enhanced stupor, Christine’s partner Matthew introduced me to their bird-dog-in-training Flannery, and told me about his job with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. In a surprising twist, it was revealed that the CAF operates the architecture tour that Max and I took 8 years ago, when we visited Chicago. Coincidence? YOU BE THE JUDGE.

At long last I slept, surrounded by Christine’s collection of Patricia Highsmith novels.

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Day 3: Sat, Oct 24, 2015

Chicago, IL to Rochester, MN
~ 359 miles

After brekky at The Coffee Studio (highly recommended) in the rapidly-gentrifying Andersonville neighborhood, I pointed the GPS at Sumpter, WI, home of Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron Park. And no, according to the official website, there is no “e” at the end of Evermor, so quit asking.

According to the GPS, Forevertron Park was located in a tiny neighborhood of ranch-style homes just off US Hwy 12. I drove around that neighborhood for an hour before giving up and asking the dude at the lone convenience store, who sighed theatrically before jerking his thumb down the street. “It’s over by the surplus store. Are you going to purchase something?”

Delaney’s Surplus Sales is a cavernous warehouse full of everything you never knew you wanted – stainless steel veterinary cages, insulated pizza bags, nestable shipping pallets, Denver Broncos golfing caps, explosion-proof light fixtures for hazardous locations, dish towels embroidered with celebrity faces, irregular Christmas ornaments, American flags, and wedding dresses. All of this and more can be yours, in bulk, at deep discounts year-round. I stood in line behind a woman haggling over the price of a complete set of Nancy Drew books (the heretical abridged paperback versions, natch). This time, when I asked, the guy behind the counter nodded toward the furthest recesses of the warehouse. “Back there. Through the fire exit? And then way at the back of the yard. You buyin’ anything? We got a special on slightly damaged industrial containers of Lysol.”

I followed his instructions, and found nothing behind Delaney’s except a neatly-stacked pile of rebar and a jumbled hill of broken porcelain. Beyond Toilet Mountain, however, a weed-choked path wound further back, past bins of rusting hardware and racks of warped plywood, into a wooded area. I turned a corner and my reality was shattered by THE FOREVERTRON – a machine designed to launch its reclusive inventor “into the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam.” Or something. I could spend paragraphs full of inadequate words describing this place, but really – why not just look at my photos, in the gallery down there at the bottom of the page? WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE? Take a look at Dr. Evermor’s website for the complete scoop.

Next on the list was the FAST Corporation fiberglass mold graveyard, in Sparta, WI. FAST stands for Fiberglass Animals, Shapes, and Trademarks. You know when a town has some kind of misguided fundraising scheme that involves a bunch of local-artist-customized fiberglass statues? Seattle, WA had Pigs on Parade. Easthampton, MA had Bear Fest. When those towns needed 100 fiberglass pigs or 25 fiberglass bears, they probably called FAST (or one of their inferior and unscrupulous competitors). Here’s my favorite bit from their corporate bio:

Marketing in those days was heavily concentrated on two annual trade show exhibits. At one of the larger exhibits Jerry simply parked a trailer with an 11 foot tall Viking affixed in the parking lot – money was tight.

FAST also makes Chuck E. Cheese mascot statues, water slides, and three-quarter-scale dinosaurs for shitty tourist traps in Montana where they won’t let you climb on the dinosaurs even though they are clearly strong enough to hold a moderately-sized adult (long story). Before they can make the fiberglass thingamabob or whatsit, though, they have to create a mold. And after they’ve shipped several thousand fiberglass elephants, thereby creating a glut and leading to devaluation in the fiberglass elephant market, those giant indestructible fiberglass elephant molds just sit there, in an un-fenced field behind the FAST factory.

Why are they in an un-fenced field, open to the public? First off, they never rot, so it’s pointless to store them inside, and anyway, who’s going to pull up and steal a mold for the anthropomorphic alligator mascot of a long-forgotten Florida pancake restaurant? Plus, FAST is out in the middle of sweet F.A. and you have to drive past a military base coming and going, and that base is surrounded by armed guards and clearly visible surveillance cameras.

Plus: kids love it!

Just like at Dr. Evermor’s, I was the only one visiting FAST that day. Which was perfect, because when I inevitably had to pee, I just ducked behind a 12-foot-tall mold for a Slurpee cup and let fly. There’s nothing like urinating in the open. Sweet sweet freedom. Anyhoo, look at the pictures.

My cell reception had been spotty for a while, and a mile or so after I left FAST, it dropped completely. Which was a problem, because I had been using it to navigate. I made it most of the way back to I-90 but took a wrong turn somewhere and found myself on a two-lane road winding through a hilly and sparsely-inhabited wilderness, with the sun about to set and no signs pointing the way to the Interstate. I was supposed to cross the state line into Minnesota and sleep in Rochester, but I had no idea which way that might be, and fuck fuck fuck now it’s dark and goddamn it I’m lost. Yes, I just switched verb tenses. Every so often I’d get a flicker of a signal and I’d pull over, try to orient myself, but then I’d lose it again and pound the steering wheel in impotent rage. I assumed that if I just kept driving, eventually I would reach a town of some kind, and then I might be able to find a gas station and ask someone for directions, but that was taking longer than it should have, and I genuinely started to feel worried.

Somewhere around Onalaska (I only know this because I’m retracing my assumed route on Google Maps), the ground dropped away on either side of the road. There were no street lights, but I could tell that the road was suspended above something, and that made me queasy. Then I saw points of light in the distance to my left and right, and finally sussed that those were boats, and I was driving above a body of water. The enveloping darkness, those lonely lights out on the water, the apparent lack of guardrails to protect me from death by drowning, and the “No Service” alert on my phone all combined to bring on a low-level panic attack. I found myself grinding my teeth and tried to control my breathing. There was no place to pull over, and anyway, the thought of accidentally pulling over too far and slowly tipping into the swamp (or river or whatever it was below me) made my throat tighten. My headlights swept over a sign helpfully identifying the surrounding water as the headwaters of the Mississippi. Good to know, I thought, suppressing hysteria. THAT INFORMATION IS VERY HELPFUL TO ME RIGHT NOW.

Shortly after that, my headlights revealed a 24-hour Subway sandwich shop, and I was saved. Just in time, because I desperately needed to pee.

Proceed to Part 2

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