My move to New Hampshire started with sparks – literally. I was pulling into a gas station in northern Ohio, driving a Ryder box truck with a trailer carrying my Corolla. The gas station attendant waved me in, smiling – then his face turned to horror as the trailer hitch snapped off the back of the truck and the trailer began cutting into the pavement, with a full array of sparks. Next to gas pumps. What a way to start life over.
It is ten years to the day that I left Illinois to come to New Hampshire. The story of those ten years I intend to tell in a memoir, New Hampshire’s Decade of Decadence, that I will probably end up writing while serving time for stealing chickens (I make a lot of omelets, and sometimes the store isn’t open, and… anyway). Today I want to tell the story of the three day trip that brought me to my home state, amidst misdirection, missed turns, barfing cats, strange encounters, much swearing, more than a few tears and occasional near-incineration.
The real story, of course, began much earlier. Sonya and I married in 2000, which was good. We got jobs, which were pretty good. We got an apartment, which was good save for the neighbors, who, respectively, would a) regularly sit in the parking lot and look dead, b) nearly set the building on fire, c) bring SWAT teams to the building because of drug dealing.
They weren’t all bad – one guy gave us a wine bottle opener, but his generosity was somewhat lost in that neither of us drink wine.
Essentially, we settled into a routine that quickly became too comfortable – Sonya had been traveling around the country doing camp jobs; I had been playing in a loud rock band. Now our chief hobby was checking the online TV listings to see if A&E was showing an episode of Law and Order we hadn’t taped yet.
Sometime in summer 2001 we went to dinner at the Stir Crazy Cafe – which, as I think about it now, was fitting – to hammer out a new approach. Each of us had gone to school for something we loved – science in her case, broadcasting in mine – and moved into teaching, which we thought would suit us but just wasn’t a good fit. So, we figured, maybe we could go back to school in the fields we left and do the work that we probably should have done all along. We also decided, in the interest of personal growth, to do this in a new place. New England was the only place we could agree on; I still think I could have talked Sonya into New Mexico had we not had to rush home to tape Law and Order.
We spent the next year preparing, and by the time summer rolled around again, Sonya was a new master’s student at the University of New Hampshire. Eventually I would apply to the grad program at Emerson College in Boston; had I gotten in before Sonya, we might have moved to Massachusetts. She drove our trusty minivan (see? we were too comfortable) to New Hampshire in June to take part in the summer grad program, while I stayed in Illinois with the cats to run out our lease.
Let’s just say the bachelor life was not for me. I was young and messy and a lot of things that should have been washed were not, and perhaps that’s why the landlord did not refund us any of the security deposit. I packed most of our stuff, sold much of the rest at a yard sale and dumped the remainder off at a resale shop. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to do that. Hopefully they were able to sell those action figures in the end.
Moving day was August 25th, 2002. Sonya cleaned the apartment one last time while I stopped by my folks’ house for some ice cream cake, a birthday present two days early. We took a picture together where I look bewildered and my parents look like they’re trying not to show how sad they are about my leaving. Some friends came by to help us load the truck. Sonya had to be back at school the next day, so she flew back to New Hampshire with our grey cat, Rocky. My job was to drive all our stuff in a box truck with our gold Toyota Corolla on a trailer behind me.1100 miles, stopping at hotels over the next two nights and arriving at our new apartment in New Hampshire on my birthday.
Anyone who has seen me drive knows I am not at my best behind the wheel, and I managed to prove this about ten minutes into the trip. For some reason I thought my car was not secure enough on the trailer, so I pulled into a parking lot to check. The car was fine, but my parking was not; I could not get the truck back out of the lot and onto the road. No matter which way I backed up, the trailer was facing the wrong way. It took me a half hour to right the ship, so to speak, and hit the highway.
The highway driving was fine, though I did run into a slight issue in that my rental truck had no CD player, just a radio. I shuffled between public radio stations as I moved east, and, inexplicably, each station played “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” at a different time. I think I heard that same episode four times in a row as I moved from northeast Illinois through northern Indiana and into northwest Ohio. The special guest that week was Bob Mould, one of my all-time favorite musicians. I took it as a good sign.
And then, the trailer hitch broke as I pulled into that gas station. I think my truck was blocking half of their pumps, but the attendant was willing to risk losing some business in exchange for not blowing up. “Please,” he said, “whatever you do, don’t move that thing.” I called the rental truck company and they were willing to send a new trailer out, but they said because it was Sunday it would take some time to find somebody to drive the trailer out to me. It did. I think he showed up at 1 in the morning. I spent most of that waiting time at one of the rest stop picnic tables, eating Corn Nuts and holding a death grip on Schmooshy the cat, who was too furry to leave in the hot truck cab and too stupid to be trusted to not run off.
The truck guy got my replacement trailer in place with no trouble, but by this point I had nothing left in my tank. I drove to the nearest hotel, which was in Fremont, home of President Rutherford B. Hayes. I was supposed to stay in Ashtabula, though, and since I didn’t cancel within 24 hours, I wound up paying for two hotel rooms that night. There is no “busy avoiding fiery death” discount at America’s major hotel chains, folks.
The night in Fremont was uneventful, as was the following morning, except for a strange encounter with a hotel staffer just after checking out. I was walking to the truck with Schmooshy in her cat carrier and the woman stopped me to say what a cute cat I had. I said thank you. She asked the cat’s name. I said her name was Schmooshy. “Oh,” the woman said. “That’s like the kind of names the colored people give their children.” So I’d avoided an evening of fireball-based oblivion to get a morning of confused racism? I can at least say with some pride that I did not ignore the comment, though I didn’t really confront her either – I think I said something like “I’m pretty sure that’s not really true.” But it was really time to get back on the road.
By the way, I am due to head back to Fremont, to see Mr. Hayes as part of my presidential gravesite project. This time I will not be joined by Schmooshy, who left us in 2008. I’m hoping not to meet up with any racism while I’m there, either.
Day two of the trip was long and hard, because the truck had a sign on it that said “do not drive above 45 MPH while trailer is attached” and I took that literally. Yes, I drove 1100 miles on interstate highways at 45 miles per hour. I set world records in being passed by angry midwesterners. Because I was driving slow, I had made a point of always staying in the rightmost lane. This proved a problem as I approached Cleveland, because the rightmost lane was the “exit only” lane. And with that I took my truck and trailer for a brief tour of downtown Cleveland, including baseball’s Jacobs Field and the Gund Arena, home to the Cavaliers. The rest of the day was uneventful; thank heaven; we stopped for the night in Syracuse, New York, eating pizza of questionable origin at a motel of questionable cleanliness just off the highway. That said, none of the staff made any remarks that marred race relations so we’ll call it progress. Sonya broke into tears when I called her to check in. I think she was convinced I wouldn’t make it to New Hampshire.
But make it I did, albeit during a very complicated third and final travel day which also happened to be my 26th birthday. Schmooshy had been an ideal travel companion up to this point, but only because she was heavily sedated; without kitty drugs to keep her calm, she was a wreck in a moving car. And on day three, she managed to spit out her morning pill without my knowing it. So she was wide awake and cranky from Syracuse on, howling, barfing and peeing all over her cat crate. I had extra pills but I wasn’t sure if she’s spit the pill out or if she’d just built up a tolerance too them, and the trip was already complicated enough without adding kitty OD to the mix. So I arrived in New Hampshire with my radio up as loud as it could go, singing along to classic rock while trying to block out the sounds and smells of a very unhappy retching cat covered in its own pee.
I got to the apartment just before dinner; we started unloading boxes and a random guy who lived in one of the other apartments very kindly walked over and helped us. We never saw him again after that. The cats settled into their usual routine of trying to attack each other under opposite sides of the bedroom door while Sonya and I ate my birthday dinner, a rising crust frozen pizza with black olives on top. Sonya does not like black olives, but put them on there in my honor. We all got a lot of sleep.
In the ten years that have followed Sonya and I each finished our master’s degrees and got jobs doing what we always wanted to do, which was the original goal of moving out east, but I’m happy to say we didn’t stop there. We’ve made lots of good friends, we found a home we love, we visit neat places and try new things and life is interesting. We have had three children together – we hung in together in the awful days after we lost the first two, and we laugh together every day with our third.Â We don’t watch much TV, save for the Summer Olympics and the Saturday night reruns of the original Star Trek. The one kicker about the trip is that some of the boxes we packed and shuttled here remain unopened. Bringing that stuff – and who even knows what stuff it is now? – all the way from Illinois to New Hampshire was probably not a good move, but coming here sure was.