Clueless in America. Chapter 30

30. It wasn’t O’Hare.

Yeah that is right, it was not O’Hare, I screwed up. We flew domestic so we arrived at Chicago’s other airport. I am really pleased to have finished the previous chapter, it was a lame attempt to cover a subject that is still brewing in me, but maybe I will address it another time.

Within seemingly seconds of arriving at the terminal, the news reached us that Obama had basically waltzed into the office of President. It was greeted with some excitement among the cabin crew and one couldn’t help but think that we really were at an epoch-changing time in American history. For me, I will always remember November 14, 2008 for three reasons. Firstly, because it was the day that I was given the hugest bag of salted peanuts that I have ever seen by Southwest. Secondly, because a promising black man became President and thirdly, because it was the day I screwed up my airline tickets. It was my one big lack-of-attention-to-detail-dyslexic-mistake. I had somehow managed to change our 19:35 departure to a 07:35 departure. I realised it the day before, so it didn’t affect us too much. We spent more time in Texas and less time in Canada and our friend picking us up at the airport had to stay up later rather than collect us at lunch time.

And here we were at the airport, being picked up just after midnight. It seemed that the USA had been divided into two emotional camps; there were those running around seemingly unable to hide their gleeful smiles and then there were the melancholic others who all looked as if they were driving home from their mother’s funeral. It was actually quite funny to watch. Our driver and host definitely fitted his side of the fence. It was his third of four airport visits at our expense. His and his wife’s servant hearts really made our trip a lot easier. On the way home I couldn’t help but notice how all of the home-front political signs seemed to reflect the moods of their home owners. The McCain signs just seemed to look depressed, whilst the Obama signs seemed to be dancing on the end of their wooden stake supports. On arrival at our friends’ home, we looked at the same New Zealand pictures on the wall and tucked ourselves into the same bed as we had two weeks ago. We had an averagely early morning start with a cooked breakfast, grabbed our peanuts and most of our luggage, jandals exempted, and set off for Canada.

Now I have thought long and hard on the subject I am about to write about, and the importance of it has weighed heavily upon my wee mind, thus affecting my fleeting sleep patterns. Our Chicago friend lent us a car for the final two weeks of our visit. We drove this car from Chicago to Ontario and then back through Chicago to a place simply called ‘Up North’. The car was a very faithful white Toyota Camry. At a guess, supported by a wee bit of ‘google'(95), it was about a 1992 model. The car was in tidy condition, but not so perfect that I needed to be terrified about scratching it or parking it on the wrong street. The car was also mechanically sound enough for me not to need to worry about it breaking down or being stranded on the side of the road ‘Up North’ and not speaking the language.

I do not usually find the need to name cars, but for the sake of not having to say that I Camried north, I am giving this one a name. As I have said, I have thought long and hard on this subject and have come up with the name of ‘Betsie’. Why Betsie? Well, for me the name conjures up two images. The first is of a Kiwi cow cocky’s wife. I can see her in my mind’s eye now, so let me explain. She is, well to say the least, plump and robust and barefoot in a blue flowery apron. She is looking over a kitchen sink out a window at a line of macrocarpa(96) providing shelter for chook(97) sheds and eventually down a flowing Otago(98) hill onto cow paddocks(99). The sky is cloudy, sunny, blue and deceptively cold. In her arms is a large bowl of dough and in her hand is a lovingly-used wooden spoon. On the bench amongst general clutter are a mixer(100) and jars of preserved fruit, and behind her is a large, over-flowing, whipped cream-filled(101) ‘Fisher and Paykel'(102) fridge/freezer unit. Betsie is faithfully being the engine room of the farm, providing a place of warmth and nourishment. When Betsie is not happy, then as with the consumption of old whipped cream, the whole body starts to bloat and fold over on itself.

And then my second image is of ‘Betsie’ the dairy cow. Faithfully every morning she wanders down the hill into the milking shed to romantically dispense of her produce before meandering back up the hill for another busy day of looking picture postcard idyllic. She only interrupts this somewhat strenuous routine to return to the shed to donate yet another bucket full of potential whipped cream.

Both Betsies were faithful and functional with a Betsie kind of beauty. And thus I now officially christen the Camry Betsie.

So armed with a free, poorly-bound 2003 Road Master Atlas, we chucked Betsie into reverse and pulled out of the drive and the security of our friends’ home to conquer such exotic sounding places as London and ‘Up North’.

If Betsie was a horse, she would know her way, but she wasn’t a horse and nor were we. We never officially got lost but read on.

The roads we experienced in Northern California, Idaho and Texas were great. Free flowing, well lit, well signposted and very smooth. But for some reason, Illinois had to be different. Her roads were totally clogged, hellishly dark even in the day time, bizarrely signposted and at their very best, represented a gruelling, muddy, off-road four-wheel-drive track. To be specific, Chicago roads were absolutely shocking. And ironically, as soon as we jumped on the many toll-ways, things got notably worse. Not only did the shocking roads go metaphorically down hill, but traffic was always clogged up merging into single lanes, trying in vain attempts to skirt round Chicago’s endless supply of roadworks.

And roadworks in itself, are a bizarre concept. The road doesn’t work, that is the problem, so why put a sign up saying the road works when for the next forty miles you will be merging into that single lane followed by four closed off-ramps, each supporting an unreachable KFC sign. The relevance of that comment will come into its own soon enough. From now on let’s get it right and call it ‘road-no-works’ And as for the I294, from now on I will just refer to that as ‘The World’s Most Expensive Goat Track’. At least we knew where our toll money was being spent; on supporting those never-ending roadworks.

I mean, we totally embarrassed Betsie, I hope for her sake that none of her friends were watching. We spent ninety percent of our Goat Track time totally terrified and confused, the other ten percent we spent laughing at the road signs. So what freaked us?

American trucks are not that big, I think they call them eighteen wheelers or something like that. But when you are being forced to travel about fifty miles-per-hour in a thirty zone and you have one in front of you, one behind you, another to your left and another stinkin’ one to your right, well they start looking pretty stinkin’ big. And for us, no sooner would something like this happen, than we would spot flying past us a sign that would say something like ‘detour to Detroit, exit next right’. I would let out a frantic-bloodcurdling scream and shout ‘Did you see that sign?’ Panic-ridden, I would slam on the indicator and jerk my eyes towards the passenger side rear vision mirror, only to find it blocked by our oversized, and in this instance, particularly-useless roadmap, with the face of a desperately stressing Sharon buried deep inside, trying to work out if we should have been on the last detour four intersections back. I would look over Sharon’s shoulder under the tray of the eighteen wheeler beside us, only to see some clown in his sports car shaving or reading or something equally as stupid in such a life-defining moment as this. For a fleeting moment I would flirt with the notion of just sliding under the trailer of that eighteen wheeler beside us, there seemed to be plenty of room there. In the mean-time Betsie, with her indicators and break lights rapidly flying on and off, was starting to resemble an embarrassed Fourth of July fireworks display.

At one stage whilst being thankful for good health insurance, we were caught in a similar situation. We noticed two signs, one said something like ‘detour to Detroit straight ahead’ and the other said ‘detour to Detroit exit next right’. We indicated, switched the indicator off, stressed, braked, accelerated and just gave up and followed the track ahead. We really needed a sign on the back window that read ‘Stupid foreigners on-board, please treat with extreme caution’. Instead we had a sign that read ‘US Marine Corps’. Which for those following us was probably translated into ‘this soldier has seen one battle too many’.

I mean let’s put this into perspective. I am from Aotearoa New Zealand. I know I could stop there and all would be explained, but read on. Our number three city has the rather tranquil name of Christchurch, there is one road and one ferry which connects it to our number one city, our capital called Wellington. That road connects our southern island that happens to be rather creatively named the ‘South Island’ with our northern island that is rather embarrassingly named the ‘North Island’. That road is called ‘State Highway One’. Why State Highway One? Well because it is pretty much the only ‘one’, like the only road that you will ever need to travel on, and by default this makes it our country’s busiest road. Now you need to understand that this road is one lane each way, with the occasional passing lane. Heading north between Cheviot and Wellington, at the bottom of a hill motorists are confronted with the one-lane Awatere Bridge(103). This is like only one lane, with traffic lights at each end to stop north-bound and south-bound cars colliding. But if that is not enough, the bridge is two storied with a single train track running over the top.

So pull me out of this culture and slap me on ‘The World’s Most Expensive Goat Track’ and so far I think that I am doing pretty darn good.

The other thing we had a lot of problems with whilst nervously bouncing along the ‘Goat Track’ was, when the hang are we supposed to pay those toll fees? It was totally unclear to us. I do not remember paying a toll upon entering the ‘Goat Track’, but after a few miles of travelling comfortably along in the centre lane we found a sign that read something like ‘right hand lane for toll booth’. So after some daredevil stunt manoeuvres whilst searching wallets and purses for coins, we lined up and paid. And then seemingly after just a few more miles we saw the same sign. So we got over to the right and paid again. But this time I noticed that there were three open lanes on the left-hand side that seemed to amble past the toll booth. Then again seemingly after just a few miles there was another sign suggesting we go to the toll booth to pay yet again. This time we were caught map-searching-rear-vision-blocking-truck-encased in the middle lane and totally missed the toll booth. Oh well, what could be done? The next one we just looked at and puzzled over; were we supposed to stop or could we keep going? And before we knew it, we had sailed the choppy waters of Illinois, Indiana and had stopped or perhaps stalled in an information centre on the Michigan border. Anyone who saw us there, must have wondered what the hang had happened. Here we were sitting under some lovely trees in front of a very embarrassed and angry Betsie, sweating, shaking, thanking God for our lives and praising him that the ‘Goat Track’ was behind us. We sat there for quite some time in the fall sun, drinking water and munching on Southwest peanuts, just waiting for our heart rates to settle down. TheĀ  I294 aka ‘The World’s Most Expensive Goat Track’, east and west can only be described as one long, horrifying, torturous experience. You know those poor water-boarded fellows down Guantanamo way? If the US government had sentenced them to an afternoon on the I294 then they would have confessed everything and some more, and the only part of them that would have been wet would have been their pants. Not only this, a whole heap of future Pakistani and Afghani terrorist attacks could have been averted. Somehow the administration missed that one.

Next week read about about a KFC worker writing road signs and learn what one particular Canadian thinks about Americans.

For past chapters click here. Or look on the side panel.

You may have noticed some bracketed numbers in this chapter. These numbers correspond with explanations and definitions that are in an accompanying glossary. To read the glossary you will need to by the yet to be released book. Sorry!

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