To Indiana and back again. By road.
I wasn’t initially looking forward to Christmas this year. There had been no snow, and it looked like I would be stuck in Connecticut, with the only likely option being to have another Jewish Christmas (that means going to the cinema and eating Chinese food – which is actually quite a great day out, but I had done it back in 2013).
I was hoping instead to have some sort of American version of the Christmas tradition, and with a few weeks to go I was offered the chance to have Christmas in the Midwest by my friend Allison. She had a habit of, in her words “bringing home strays”, usually cats, but this time an Australian would suffice. It would mean an epic roadtrip from Connecticut to Indianapolis via Philadelphia, and passing through 7 states. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see more of the US, so I took it up.
The day before Christmas Eve (as an aside, does it have a name? Christmas Eve Eve?), I left work early to drive across to Allison's place in the outskirts of Philadelphia. I picked the worst day and time possible to travel. The whole region was being hammered by a heavy rainstorm, and the only freeway between my office and New York was at a standstill due to multiple accidents. The only consolation was that with the traffic moving so slowly, it was possible to see through the rain to the cars in front (except for the suicidal idiots driving at night, in the rain, without their headlights on… yes, multiple people were doing this).
What was meant to be a two-and-a-half hour drive turned into four hours. Dinner at my friend’s was replaced by a quick stop at a McDonald’s in New Jersey. I arrived late and ready to fall into bed.
Allison was in the process of moving back to the Midwest to take up a job as head of marketing for an arts center, and so our car for the roadtrip (a plucky little Prius) was packed full of boxes and random gear. And three cats, which we were taking back to her parents’ for safekeeping while she found an apartment. Two of the cats had never traveled before, and so the first hour was spent listening to their heartbreaking mewls of confusion. They eventually settled down, and spent most of the journey napping peacefully.
The drive from Philadelphia to Indianapolis is one very long and straight shot west across the country. Pennsylvania itself is deceptively long for a state (about 500km across), and you spend all of it on a freeway that cuts through the (admittedly quite picturesque) hills. The occasional tunnel breaks up the monotony, but it’s a long drive, and leaving the state is only the halfway point.
We briefly cut across the northern tip of West Virginia, and stopped for lunch at one of the uniquely American commercial clusters that straddle the freeways, an agglomeration of big box stores, service stations, and restaurants, miles from the nearest major city. The service staff were nice enough to provide a pot of coffee to myself, so I was fueled up for the remainder of the journey.
After that, the drive across Ohio was one of transition; the hills began to dissipate and flatten out, and the road began to straighten as we hit the plateau of the Midwest. Despite being a few hours of driving the time passed quickly and we hit the border of Indiana in the early afternoon, and reached Indianapolis just on sunset. We had traveled over 1,000 kilometres in the space of a day and managed to not kill each other, or be killed by three disgruntled cats, who were very happy to be finally let out. One decided to have their revenge by immediately going after the contents of a nearby mug...
The evening was spent at my friend’s parents’ engaging in a family tradition of watching the classic film “White Christmas”, the most traditional part being making pointed commentary about the film, like criticising that nosy receptionist, or pointing out how impossibly easy and quick it is for them to travel from Vermont to New York. And this year it seemed especially apt, given the complete lack of snow so far this winter.
Alas, there was no Christmas miracle, and we woke to an overcast Christmas morning in the suburbs of Indianapolis. Unlike the Australian Christmases I am used to, which commence in the morning with the opening of presents, the preparation of the roasts for lunch, and the drinking of beer/champagne well before noon, the American Christmas was more subdued. We lounged around for the morning, before heading to Allison’s relatives' for a relaxed lunch of roast ham with macaroni and cheese. Afterwards we returned to have the ceremony of opening presents, which was dominated by Allison’s toddler niece, who (like all children of her age) refused to submit to the archaic adult concept of ceremony, ownership, and order, taking great joy in attempting to open all the presents that were on display.
After that it was a quiet evening, a glass of champagne, and then bed. Compared to the average Christmas in my family it was probably the most quiet family Christmas I had had.
Given that in America, Boxing Day is not celebrated as a public holiday (and frankly this oversight seriously needs to be addressed), it meant that I had to be at work on Monday morning, meaning that Sunday would be spent driving, and in turn meaning that Saturday was the only day to have any sort of activities in Indianapolis. So we packed it full. That morning Allison’s father gave me a quick tour of the city, and then took me out to what is probably the most famous part of Indianapolis, the speedway complex. There’s a museum and bus tour, which takes you around the famous track, stopping on the bricks that mark the start/finish line for a chance to kiss the hallowed ground.
There’s a tradition with the Indy 500 race that Allison told me, that before the race they sing the song “Back Home Again in Indiana”, the unofficial state song (there’s even a controversy about that). Allison had insisted that I both learn it, and then sing it on the tour, so here it is:
The tour guide, in 25 years of giving tours there had never had that happen…
After the tour and the museum (and getting to sit behind the wheel of a real Indy Car) we headed back for lunch to belatedly celebrate Allison’s birthday, which was followed by a “wholesome” family game of Cards Against Humanity. If you haven’t played it, it is neither wholesome, nor family. However it is hilarious.
Since Allison and I hadn’t had enough driving for the weekend, we then drove south to Bloomington, to visit the town where she went to university. She had a craving for freshly made custom made cookies from Baked, a staple of the Indiana University student diet. Whilst Allison went for chocolate chocolate-chip topped with marshmallows, I chose peanut butter and chocolate covered espresso beans coated in caramel sauce. Both were decadent.
Whether it was the singing in the cold, or the delayed effect of being hit in the throat at a touch rugby game the week prior, I had started to lose my voice, and by the time we got back to Indianapolis, it had disappeared entirely.
The next day was a quiet drive back. With no voice, conversation was impossible, making for a long journey across the plains. The journey got even longer when we were caught behind an accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Unlike most freeways, the Turnpike is a long toll road with exits every 30km or so, and so an accident can shut down the entire road for hours, without any way for people to detour around it. Traffic was at a standstill for over an hour before we could finally continue on our journey.
As sunset crept in, we made a detour off the Turnpike to satisfy my scientific curiosity. Our route passed within a few kilometres of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, site of the disaster of the same name. Having studied the disaster during my undergraduate training as a physicist, I had to drive past and see it, just for the nerd points.
Getting back to the Turnpike proved difficult. We hit torrential rain just after sunset, passing through the middle of Amish country being barely able to see the road in front of us. However we made it back to Philadelphia safely, over 12 hours after leaving Indianapolis. Being late on Sunday night, the original plan had been to then drive back to Connecticut ahead of work tomorrow, but between the weather and the illness this idea was deemed idiotic, and I stayed over.
Very early the next day, I got up and on the road for a three hour commute to the office, trying to avoid the build up of traffic in the New York suburbs for the first day back after Christmas. Even though I made it to work on time, the illness was hitting me hard, and by late morning I had to go home and rest up.
It wasn’t the way I had expected to finish my Christmas, but all in all it was a fun adventure. Between us we had put in close to 3,000km of driving in a little over 4 days, crossed through seven states, and managed to survive having three disgruntled cats in the back seat for half of it.
Not a bad result.
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
Copyright © Gerard Atkinson 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the owner is strictly prohibited.