It’s been about a week since I’ve returned back to New York from the semi-wild mid-west of the American continent.
The event began with a few small but important steps that led me behind the wheel of a 10-foot U-Haul truck traveling along I-65S.
There was a text from my longest and strongest friend, Laura, stating: I’m moving to Tampa.
Within a week there was a phone call where she further divulged: My company is paying for my move, and I’m going to be there by June.
On the same phone call, I submitted my suggestion that a. she flies me out to Chicago b. I drive us on a road trip to the South, and c. she sends me back home. Without missing a beat her reply was: I’ve already thought about it, and I accept.
So there I went, on a Wednesday morning aircraft shuttle to Chicago. I got to have my first and only night in Chicago, ate an outstanding bowl of ramen, saw a tear-jerking Robin Williams mural, and in the morning we set off.
Between the pair of us, only I have learned to drive a car (let alone my dad’s Ford F-150 when I was 17) and earned a license, so when we set up the plans the agreement was already in place. All the driving was mine.
Embarking on our drive, it seemed straight forward.
Pack the truck. Help her work through the emotions of leaving Chicago. Go as far as we can before pulling into a hotel and starting again the next day. Easy.
What really unfolded were hundreds of miles of midwestern road (though, I was shocked when I was told at our first rest station that we’d only made it 86 miles outside of Chicago), surprising comraderies, and lodging that was beyond anyone’s imagination.
When we picked up the truck at U-Haul, we were pleasantly surprised that the fun fact and illustration on our moving mobile was a prehistoric rhino. Our delight turned to fear when I got behind the wheel and struggled to find the exit to the lot let alone maneuver the truck out of the maze of tightly packed parking spaces.
Freaking Laura out for just a moment, I composed myself and was blessed to find a rear-facing camera on the windshield mirror. Thanks for that, U-Haul. I got my driving legs steady, we had a laugh, and let the wind in our sails push us smoothly onward.
The highway experience revealed lush green forests inching up mountainsides and the fluffiest clouds hung in inconceivable miles of blue skies. I could see why, even this far east still, it was called America’s Small Heartland.
We had the experience of passing by Indianapolis and the strange, grim apocalyptic Gary, before barrelling South of the Mason Dixon. After Louisville, we crossed off a call-in request bucket list item of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky.
It was delicious. It was cheap. It was almost doomed to be our final meal of the day at 4PM.
Just an hour from making our pitstop at KFC, we decided to spend the night in the nearby Cave City, KY. Kentucky has oodles of cave attractions advertised in highway-side billboards amongst other common themes like adult stores, truck accident law offices, and creationist propaganda.
The biggest draw for us to Cave City was the Dinosaur Park, so we found an isolated resort and decided to book a night.
A quick Google search unveiled to us that it had beautiful views, balcony rooms, and a promising restaurant with food like steak with garlic au-jus and bacon-wrapped shrimp. Laura called the place to ask if there was a safe space for us to park the U-haul. The receptionist put her on hold to ask, and returned, laughing, with an affirmation that we would surely be protected.
Protection is a word we learned took on a whole new meaning in a place like Kentucky.
We turned onto a road–Slave Cave Road, to be precise–and immediately understood why she might have found our question amusing. We drove through narrowly paved pathways enclosed on both sides with nothing but woods. The parking lot was quite empty of cars, but not of onlookers, and we did a couple of show-pony loops around the lot to show the guests on the front porch our moving van prowess.
Maybe (slightly) still a little concerned about leaving our truck in the backwoods, we marched forward through the stone pillars of the front doors and checked in.
The receptionist was a soft-spoken woman (not the one who laughed at us on the phone) who found our reservation online (actually, I believe, from an e-mail) but still made Laura fill out her information on a piece of paper. As Laura was writing out her payment and contact information with a pen, I let my eyes unpack the place in which we’d be unpacking. I noticed I, Robot playing on the TV in the lobby which was otherwise decked out in plenty of wildlife paintings and antlers.
Looking down a ramp within a few paces of the front desk, there was the dining area with bay-view windows of rolling Kentucky hills.
Maybe this place is quite nice after all, I thought.
As the thought came into my mind, so did the image of a character I would soon find to be integral to this tale. A woman with a purposeful walk and authoritarian voice drenched in a Southern-drawl strode up the ramp declaring “dinner is prepared, ready, and waiting in the dining room.” Like a tornado, it seemed as soon as she blew in, she blew out.
Before exploring the matter more, we went up to our room to unload. We walked up one flight of stairs (no elevator here) and unlocked the first room on our right with one of the two old-fashioned, mismatched keys meant for this very room.
The room, to me, bared an uncanny resemblance to that of the Great Northern in Twin Peaks (an observation that I tried to share with other guests we encountered but never seemed to truly land). The bathroom was plain and had a sign declaring that any damage to linens would result in penalization. I couldn’t quite imagine what type of calamity could possibly be carried out on the linens to warrant a sign like this.
Then I saw the shower; there was a bulky, industrial dispenser with instructions on the front for washing both hair and body with the same radioactive-blue soap. To that, I thought to myself, you’ll have to shoot me first.
The opposite door to the balcony, we also realized, was on the side of the building which faced back from whence we came. We could keep an eye on our U-Haul in a sea of blacktop, but not much else.
We came back downstairs from our room, which we locked from the outside, and were politely informed by the front desk that the dinner buffet was, contrary to what she had said earlier, strictly for the guests who are here for the weekend’s Glock Competition.
Having so recently eaten KFC, we initially shrugged it off. We brought our traveling box of wine outside to the back gazebo to take in the fresh air and to ensure that there really were no options for a room with a different view.
It was proven. The only thing in the building rear-facing was the dining room which we had just been informed was off-limits to those who weren’t strapped.
When the mosquitos started swarming, we returned inside to check out the balcony we were offered. We found that our neighbor, Don, was outside on the shared patio, cleaning his guns, preparing for this much-anticipated “Glock Competition” that seemed to be taking this resort by storm. We spoke (or rather, he shared) a bit about his ultra-conservative views and all the states which best support them (Georgia Rules! California Sucks!), but I was more interested in the hunger rising in me.
Pulling out our phones that were shamefully struggling to snag service, we faced a hard truth. There was nothing. The closest restaurant was miles away. No one to deliver. Not even Pizza Hut would make the trek to up Slave Cave Road. And, having had a few glasses of wine, there was nowhere to drive.
I went downstairs in hopes that there might be something to eat. The same receptionist at the front desk politely said no, but the same authoritarian woman with the long ponytail and a camo trucker hat that read “One girl. One gun.” was also present. I asked if I could speak to the chef and was informed that this woman held that role. Among others, clearly, as she was hard at work at the paper system this place seemed to trust in and, by asking for food, I was distracting her from her duties.
Half-heartedly and in a strong Kentucky-drawl, she apologized for having “just cleaned up the nightly buffet” and that there was just no way that she could scoop out any of the food, that was apparently for everyone in the hotel, because we missed it.
Swallowing frustration with the clear lack of communication amongst staff, but accepting my fate with integrity–because, let’s be real, I knew this wasn’t Hilton–I spit out the most diplomatic response I could fathom, “NO WORRIES,” and headed upstairs to seethe.
We sat back on the balcony, planning the Waffle House we might visit in the morning when the gun-wielder woman stomped out a cigarette she was smoking on a golf cart in the front parking lot and called up to us saying, “ladies, come see me downstairs.”
Nervous, but still intent on facing a firing squad with reserve and honor, we went downstairs, where the lovely front desk woman apologized for having shared misinformation. The buffet was for everyone, regardless of how many guns we did or did not have. The Gun-wielding Warden, cook, apparent owner, and undeniable resort leader changed her tune from “you missed it, it’s over” to “we have pork loin, meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, and corn.“
“I wasn’t gonna let ya’ll go hungry,” she said when we flashed faces of relief that we get to not only to see the light of day again, but would start our morning with full tummies. And though not quite completely sure how true the former statement was, we got our food.
With two styrofoam boxes each in hand, she had one condition for us: Don’t throw out my silverware.
We chatted, first, a bit about her position here (she lived on the premises), the overall safety of the environment (“I’m packin’,” she told us, “I always do.“), and the beauty of the place (at least from the rear view) that inspired her daughter to get married here and for her to get a dog (we’re still not sure what one fact had in relation to the other but we dared not ask too much.)
Before we retreated upstairs she called to us again to say that if we come back down, she’ll take us to see the bats.
“I’m sorry??” I said, looking like a dog myself, head-cocked in confusion of this foreign gesture of presumed hospitality.
“Go eat.” She said with finality.
We ate. And we laughed. And we questioned the possibility of the incredibly decadent homemade food possibly being organic or not. And we smiled that she also added a dinner roll and peach cobbler. And I could almost swear to hear a chorus of banjos playing in the recesses of my mind.
It was great. It was friendly in a Kentucky kind of way that I’m not sure I would have ever experienced or could have possibly conceived. So we went back downstairs, thankfully and dutifully to return the rather utilitarian silverware and with hopes of getting to see some bats.
We didn’t get to go caving, but the receptionist was there, apologizing again that she had made us miss dinner. She was new there and swore to have received different instructions. We assured her it was no matter now, everything turned out fine. We stayed and sat on worn leather couches in a girl talk triangle for about an hour, as a movie starring Sylvester Stallone and 50 Cent was exploding on screen in the background.
In regards to a surprise rough patch of shocking life changes from her daughter, we offered simple advice. Send a bouquet of flowers and offer your support. There’s nothing else you can do.
It was with that nugget of urbanized advice that we left her with, and we retired to our room intent on getting up and out without delay. We had had enough of fraternizing with the locals for one day.
Morning came with only a few mild bumps in the night. We swiftly packed, making damn sure all the linens were accounted for. From our “balcony” we could see the U-Haul made it safely through the night, and we were eager to get back to her. We endured only a few more stares from people who must have sensed our fear, chucked our keys at the morning receptionist (this was the girl who laughed at us over the phone) and had a joyous reunion with our truck.
The U-Haul was nice to return to, but I craved a good night sleep for our next stop. A morning walk through the Dinosaur Park (that whole damn point of this excursion) and six hours on the road later, we arrived at a newly-renovated La Quinta in McDonough, Georgia.
The beds were heavenly billowing clouds. I washed my hair with Pantene products under a shower-head with 6-jet variations. We ordered Hooters and toasted our accomplishment with another glass of our trusty Black Box of Cab Sauv that was with us right there in the trenches.
Amazing how good these little luxuries feel when forced to endure something so much more, let’s say, minimalist??????????
If there’s one thing I learned on this road trip, it’s that this is a big country and Americans sure are a diverse people.