By Lesley James
A friend of mine has a fantastic tale – ALL TRUE – about her trip to the Bahamas in 1999. Hurricane Floyd hit during that trip. The category 4 hurricane was at peak strength when it almost leveled the Bahamas. Needless to say, it’s a pretty riveting story.
It’s an interesting fact that good vacations generate rather boring stories. The more boring the tale, the better time you had. I’ll let you be the judge. This is the story of Pete and my 10 day road trip in his brand new Smart Car. I hope it bores you silly – then maybe I can convince myself that it wasn’t really the nightmare I thought it was.
Are you familiar with the Smart Car? It is a tiny little thing – less than half the length of a standard 4 door coupe and about a foot narrower. Apparently, shock absorbers were considered unnecessary – or maybe it just has really teensy Smart Car sized ones – because the darn thing bounces around like a dune buggy. These cars are made for zipping around crowded city streets and running errands. They were never intended for travelling. Two average size people are shoulder to shoulder. Two large people are crammed in like sardines. You can’t buckle your seatbelt without elbowing the other person in the ribs. There is NO freakin’ place to put any luggage, beyond what you’d pack for, say, two or three days.
The other thing that you need to know is that my beloved husband, Pete, is not in very good health. He’s had bypass surgery. He’s had multiple TIAs (mini strokes). He has emphysema and congestive heart failure and a host of other complaints. He is also, not a person to suffer in silence and since he’s been sick, tends to whine about almost everything. The charming, urbane, witty guy I married has become a temperamental baby who’s perpetually negative and unhappy.
Day 1 – Sacramento to Timber Cove
Packing the car I realized that the Smart Car has no spare tire. The manufacturer, no doubt thought to save space by leaving that out. Instead, there is a little tire patch kit under the carpet on the passenger side of the car. My big mistake was in letting Pete know that the car had no spare. (“Your stupid little car hasn’t even got room for a spare tire”) For the rest of the trip, any time I hit a pothole in the road, Pete started screaming at me to “be careful – there’s no spare tire!”
Days 2 – 4 – Mendocino and Fort Bragg
We have a division of labor: I take care of planning, packing, driving, booking the motels, tour arrangements, laundering our 2 extra sets of clothing, etc.; Pete handles the after-the-fact commentary, the complaints, the “you should haves” and the “you shouldn’t haves”. He didn’t sleep well. He didn’t like the accommodations. He’s mad that he has to sleep on the left side of the bed because there’s no plug in for his sleep apnea machine on the right side. He couldn’t take a shower because the motel soap makes him itch (how does he know this? He didn’t try it!). He’s bored. The Skunk Train is fun but the ride is too long. He didn’t know there’d be so much walking around in the botanical gardens.
Days 5 and 6 – Eureka and Crescent City, Rogue River and Avenue of the Giants, Cave National Monument
Pete: “It’s too cold.” “You made me shower and now I’m all itchy.” “The winding road is making me sick.” He starts micro-managing my driving: “What gear are you in? You don’t need to let everybody pass us. Downshift! Downshift! You’re going too fast! Pull over, I’M GOING TO DRIVE! I SAID, PULL OVER! WHY AREN’T YOU PULLING OVER? WHAT DO YOU MEAN, NO? BE CAREFUL, THERE’S NO SPARE TIRE!!!”
There are these really cool caves in Oregon. I really wanted to tour the caves, but the tour would be too strenuous for Pete. I decided (and Pete encouraged me) to go on the tour by myself – I really like caves.
After parking Pete at a picnic table, I went on the tour even though it involved a lot of stair climbing, steep narrow pathways and doing the “cave walk” (hunch and crouch like Quasimodo) because of the low ceilings. I may have over-estimated my level of fitness. I definitely underestimated how bad my knees are. By the end of the first 40 minutes of the 1.5 hour tour, at the place where the wimps can exit, before the tour gets REALLY strenuous, I climbed out a narrow opening back into the sunlight and onto a very steep path down the mountainside. If you have bad knees, you know that going down stairs or downhill is much worse than going up. Now, I am in pain, I’m tired, and my knees are killing me. I’m not at my patient best, and neither is Pete. At some point he had run out of nicotine lozenges and he’s at a whole new level of cranky.
I don’t remember anything about the drive down the mountain but the battle that raged in the Smart Car.
Day 6 – Medford, OR – Worst Motel EVER
The motel was disgusting. Dank smelling, dirty carpet, hard bed… for some inexplicable reason, Pete didn’t notice that the accommodations were so bad. None of our lodging’s shortcomings were even mentioned.
Pete: “What took you so long to come back with dinner? The sub shop is just across the street! You stopped for soap? Do I smell alcohol? Have you been in the bar? Are you listening to me? Why are you crying?”
Day 7 – Crater Lake, OR
It is beautiful there. It’s a beautiful drive. Pete really wanted to see it. I really wanted to see it. Problem is, the elevation there is 8000 feet. I had difficulty breathing at that altitude. Pete went insane. He yelled at me in public. He yelled at other people who walked in front of his camera shots. He CURSED at people. We both made it back alive only because of a few minutes of indecision. I couldn’t make up my mind whether I should jump over the edge myself or to push him.
Days 8 and 9 – Trinity Alps – Scenic byway, Weaverville, Whiskeytown Lake, Redding
Warning: When you spot something on the map labeled “scenic by-way”, beware. This is likely to be a torturously long, winding, partially paved and poorly maintained logging road, clinging to the side of a mountain. It may be scenic, but you won’t know it because your eyes are glued to the nasty little road, your heart in your throat as you negotiate the twists and turns. No one is on the road but you – and the occasional log truck. This was the only time on the trip I was thankful for our narrow little car. There really isn’t an experience to match scootching your teensy little car as far as you can get it over to the side of the road, steep drop off on the right, and watching through the moon roof (that Pete paid an extra thousand dollars for) as a semi goes by on the left, hauling enormous logs that tower over you, secured by surprisingly delicate looking chains.
Touring the Joss House, a Taoist Temple that dates back to the Gold Rush, was something both of us wanted to do. We were in Weaverville on a Tuesday and it turns out that the Joss House is closed Monday through Wednesday.
NOW Pete has a complaint he can really sink his teeth into. THIS development is CLEARLY my fault. I mistimed the trip to get us into Weaverville when the Joss House was closed. (Big dramatic sigh) This is probably the last time he’ll have the opportunity to see this. He’s always wanted to see it and was looking forward to it. I don’t pay enough attention to detail. It says clearly in the AAA Tour Book that the Joss House is open Thursday through Sunday…..
So I suggest we take a stroll through this historic little town. Maybe visit the little museum on Main Street. It was really a good museum with lots of historical stuff from the gold rush era. Pete made a big deal out of finding a place to sit down and rest – two minutes ago, he was up for touring the Joss House and now he’s too exhausted to look through the museum. I pasted a smile on my face and tried not to grind my teeth as I limped around the museum, carefully examining each and every object. Pete sat on a chair, periodically calling for me to find out where I was.
When most people travel, they are just anonymous tourists in the midst of other anonymous tourists. Not us. People probably remember us. He’s the one that yelled at you or your wife or kid. Or, more likely, he’s the one that you recall was screaming at his wife. I’m the one you gave a sympathetic smile to or just pretended that you hadn’t noticed so I wouldn’t feel embarrassed. And everywhere, people know my name. If Pete can’t see me, he bellows for me. “LESLEY, WHERE ARE YOU?…. LESLEY!… LEHHHHHSLEEEEY!”
On the plus side, the motel in Weaverville was one of the best (and cheapest) we stayed in. On the minus side, Pete was too exhausted to bathe. On the plus side, the room had two beds so the odor didn’t keep me awake. Also, I really needed the extra space since, by this time, I’d taken to curling up in the fetal position. On the minus side, he didn’t shower in the morning, either, and we’re travelling in a SMART CAR.
Day 10 – Home
I believe I set a Smart Car speed record getting us home. Believe it or not, the car will do 80 pretty well and you can get it up to 85 – 90 MPH if your nerves can stand the shimmying. I had the pedal to the metal from Redding to Sacramento. I passed a Corvette like it was standing still.
When we got home I ran a hot bath, took a bottle of Irish whiskey into the bathroom, locked the door, and didn’t come out for an hour and a half. If I hadn’t run out of booze, I’d still be in there.
The following morning, Pete told me how much he enjoyed the trip and pointed out that Weaverville is only a 5 or 6 hour drive. He said we should think about driving up some weekend soon to see the Joss House.
Please tell me you were bored.