Monday, September 6, 2010

Diary of a Road Trip: Part One - "Go West, Old Man!"

Family vacation destination - the Colorado Rockies. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

(The following is part one of a three-part series, detailing the unique perspective of a typical family vacation through the eyes of a somewhat demented, middle-aged father of three.)

The past few years I’ve felt the painful pangs of failed summers slowly slipping away as my family did nothing in the way of taking that “awe-inspiring” vacation we always talk about.

But not this year, damn it! This year it was time to put my foot down and demand our family do something ... anything! And not just some stupid, little, weekend getaway. This year we needed to take a grand excursion (or, as it turned out, a couple of grand). We needed to go someplace far away, and hopefully, relatively exotic. To make it even more exotic (another word for cheaper) I talked everyone into making our awe-inspiring journey a camping trip!

My kids were excited at the thought. My wife? Not so much. So I dug down deep and used my awesome powers of persuasion to try and convince her the time was now if we were ever going to do this thing.

“We gotta stop talking about this and just do it,” I pleaded, “while the kids are still young enough to like us, and we’re still young enough to sleep on the ground!”

To my surprise, it worked, so the very next day I went out and bought a tent big enough for six, very svelte human beings (and little else) a couple of flashlights, a lantern, a grill, some graham crackers, chocolate bars, marshmallows, four rolls of toilet paper (a camping must) and a queen-sized air mattress (I may still be young enough to sleep on the ground, but a cushion of air couldn’t hurt).

Much like Lewis and Clark before us, I thought we should head west toward Colorado; home to the Rocky Mountains, one of the most beautiful places in the country, but more importantly, home to my sister Dina who surely would feed us a home-cooked meal, let us do a load of laundry, or at the very least, take a crap on something with a clean seat and the ability to flush.

My goal was to give the kids a trip they would never forget, much like their old man did when he was a kid. I still vividly remember taking a camping trip to Florida with my family when I was in the seventh grade just like it was yesterday.

Of course, just because it was memorable doesn’t mean it was all good times. In fact, most of it was pretty awful. I had the flu when we left, and I was quarantined to the back of our 1976 Ford Gran Torino station wagon where I would spend the vast majority of Ohio, Kentucky, and most of Tennessee, writhing in severe pain between bouts of vomiting.

By the end of the trip everyone in my family would blow chunks at least once, except my little brother Duke, who somehow escaped the virus, but more than made up for it by crawling into my mother’s sleeping bag one night looking for a dry place to sleep after he had pissed in his.

Memories like that can’t be made in just one weekend, or even four or five days, so to make sure my kids got more time to soak in the potential misery, I carved out eight full days for our trip. And eight full days is exactly what we got!


For whatever reason, I tend to cram a lot of stupid things into the last few hours before I hit the road for any trip, let alone a weeklong vacation. Stuff like mowing the lawn, or doing several sets of push-ups (as if I can’t do a push-up anywhere else but home). This trip was no different, except caulking the tub somehow made it on to my list.

It was while doing my last-minute caulking job on the tub when I realized I hadn’t really given much thought to our cat Levi, as in, how would he survive eight days on his own?

Even though Levi weighs in at a hefty 21-pounds and could use a good diet, I still didn’t think eight days of starvation was the best idea for his long-term health.

We’d left him for long weekends before and he’d done just fine because we always made sure to leave him extra food and water, and apart from the occasional cat turd on the floor upon our return, it really hadn’t been much of a problem. But this was different. This was no three-day weekend and a little extra food and water wouldn’t cut it. We needed someone to help.

Luckily, my mother-in-law lives in town and was more than happy to keep Levi fed and watered while we were gone. Unluckily, my mother-in-law is 84 and has two bum knees, so a trip to the basement to clean out his litter box was out of the question.

Luckily, Levi’s litter box is actually made up of a pair of litter boxes stacked inside each other meaning I could separate them and have two litter boxes ready and waiting. Unluckily, only one of them has a hood meaning I was sure to have a mixture of cat crap and loose cat litter strewn all over the basement floor once we got back.

I knew it was a gamble. After all, we’d be out of cell phone range for much of the trip stuck in the middle of the Rockies, and I must admit the thought had crossed my mind that I might be coming home to find either my 84-year-old mother-in-law, or the cat, dead in the middle of the kitchen floor (or possibly both). Still, it was a gamble I was willing to take.

I finished caulking the tub and then dropped to the floor to pound out a quick 20.

I’m not sure exactly how, but somehow we managed to fit our tent, five sleeping bags, five bags of clothing, three bags of food, a cooler, camera equipment, and five human beings into our Ford minivan. Even more amazing was the fact I could still somewhat see out of the rear window.

Our van had never ventured so far from home before, so we made sure to get the oil changed, rotate the tires, check the coolant, and slap down about a half a roll of duct tape on the loose weather stripping peeling off our front windshield before we hit the road. Lucky for us our van just so happens to be silver, so the duct tape matched the color of our van quite nicely, making us look only just a little like a bunch of redneck idiots as we pulled out of town.

We left late in the afternoon on a Monday after my wife got home from work. Our plan was to bang out three hours of the drive before stopping on the west side of the state at the Warren Sand Dunes State Park. About halfway across the state of Michigan, it occurred to me I should keep a diary of our trip, which was no easy feat since I expected to do most of the driving. But I figured if teenagers have enough dexterity to text and drive, then surely a 45-year-old with several more years of driving experience should easily be able to write in a diary while plowing down the highway at 85 mph. And that’s exactly what I did.

The following is an account of our trip:


8-19-10  5:15 p.m.  It’s nice and sunny today, I checked the weather forecast before we left and it looks like it should stay that way the rest of the week … oh shit …I think that was the Michigan weather I checked, I probably should have checked the weather for Colorado … ah, what’s the difference? I’m sure it’s basically the same. I mean, how different could the weather be 1,500 miles away in the middle of the mountains?

8-19-10  5:21 p.m.  My sister just called to make sure we packed warm clothing. It snowed in the mountains today… Crap!

8-19-10  6:45 p.m.  My wife wouldn’t let the kids bring any technology on this trip. So far so good, but I’m expecting bloodshed in the backseat any minute. Just to try and keep them occupied I told them to start a list of all the different states we see on license plates during our trip to see if we can get all 50. They thought it was stupid. Then I told them whomever guesses the last state we find gets $20. They told me to make it $50 and they’d think about it. Greedy bastards! (For the record, I picked Delaware, my wife chose Vermont, my son took Rhode Island, my smart-ass daughter chose Colorado, and my extremely smart-ass daughter picked Hawaii).

8-19-10  7:12 p.m.  We’re here at the Warren Sand Dunes State Park setting up our tent at the campground. It’s pretty hot and crowded – not exactly off to a good start. My son looks a little shriveled – I think the swarm of quarter-sized mosquitoes hovering above his head drained most of his blood. At least they’re still airborne; the ones leaving my daughter’s neck and forearms are so overloaded they’re crashing into blood puddles at her feet! Oddly, they’re leaving me alone. My wife is giving me the evil eye from inside the tent as I pound in the last tent stake.

8-19-20 8:23 p.m.  The mosquitoes proved to be too much, so we headed to New Buffalo for some dinner and fresh blood transfusions – so much for cooking over the fire. I feel guilty – like I’m not really camping, but I’m pretty sure this linguine with sun-dried tomatoes and fresh mushrooms would beat the crap out of a burnt hot dog on a stick!


8-20-10  6:14 a.m.  Hmmm, that wasn’t as bad as I thought. I actually feel pretty good after a night in the tent. I want to hit the road, but everyone is still sleeping. I think they all want to go to the lake before we split anyway. What the hell, we got all day, as long as we get to Dyersville before 4 p.m. why not?

8-20-10 10:15 a.m.  Damn kids won’t get out of that damn lake no matter how much I tell them we’ve got to get a move on.

8-20-10  10:18 a.m. It must be my lucky day; my daughter just walked down the shore a bit and found a sign that read: “Contaminated With E Coli – Please Stay Out of Water”. She asked me what E Coli was. I told her it was bacteria from fecal matter. She asked me what fecal matter was. I told her it was excrement. She asked me what excrement was. I told her “SHIT!”

8-20-10  10:19 a.m. My kids are out of the water.

Nothing like a little E Coli to get your kids out of the lake! (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

8-20-10  12:48 p.m. Just got through Chicago - talk about E Coli!. I like the town, but what a shitty drive. Things are looking up though – only a few more hours of Illinois and then it’s on to Iowa. We’re already up to 25 states on the license plate game. So far no one has been eliminated. It’s getting cloudy – that wasn’t supposed to happen.

8-20-10  1:30 p.m. We’re in Rockford now getting gas. It’s starting to rain. My legs are a little cramped. For the life of me I don’t know why I didn’t get cruise control on our van - or a CD player for that matter. Amazingly the kids are still getting along, and we haven’t even turned on the radio yet. Imagine that, five plus hours of driving and no radio. Maybe they’re in the early stages of West Nile?

8-20-10  3:30 p.m. Just crossed the Mississippi River into Dubuque. Not as impressive as I would have thought, but it’s raining like hell now so maybe it will flood the banks by the time we return and we’ll really have something to see.

8-20-10  6:00 p.m. Spent the better part of two hours at the Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville. My kids walked into the cornrows in left field, but only two of them came out. My son thought it would be funny if he disappeared in there for a while. I thought it would be funny if we took off and left him behind for about a half an hour. My wife smacked me upside the back of my head when I told her of my plan. Amazingly it quit raining the entire time we were there. We had a great time playing ball with people from all over the country, now we’re on the road again and the skies just opened up. The last time I was here, my broken car radio which hadn’t worked for over a year, started working again as soon I pulled out of the parking lot – strange!

My kids coming out of the corn with Shoeless Joe ... wait a minute, where the hell is Eamon? (photo by Lon Horwedel)

8-20-10 8:38 p.m. It’s official, I’m either getting old, or I’m just a big wussy. We’re staying at a Comfort Inn just outside of Iowa City because of the rain. Oh well, at least we got one night out of the tent and I’m pretty sure my kids could use a break from the skeeters anyhow. The back of my son’s neck looks like Dick Cheney peppered him while quail hunting!

(Stay tuned: Up next, rolling through Iowa, camping in beautiful Nebraska, then on to the thin air of the Rocky Mountains.)


  1. Lon, this is WONderful! I'm enjoying your trip more than you did. You thought it out so well (the presentation, not the trip necessarily): the italics for the entry, the boldface for the time, the black line around the photos. Not to mention your inimitable humor. Well done! What time does the next segment roll?

  2. Sandy,

    Next segment will be up in the next day or two.