"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I'm empty and aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all gone to look for America
Simon & Garfunkel; 1968
Earlier this week, my Acura was one of those cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. I was on the final leg of my second annual month-long cross-country road trip with my beagle. The purpose of this journey? To look for America.
The purpose of this trip -- or at least the genesis of it -- was to bring Ricky the Beagle out to L.A. Last year, when our youngest son, Robby (now in his sophomore year at USC) was leaving home and heading west, he told us his only concern about being 3,000 miles away was that he'd miss his dog, so I told Robby I'd drive Ricky out for a visit. That's how the whole thing started. As my trip got closer, and I began plotting out my route, I started penciling in places I'd always wanted to see: the Grand Canyon, the Badlands, Big Sur. And what started out as a simple, promised visit to my son turned into a great adventure for me.
So much so that I decided I'd do an encore this year. And this time around I slated in visits to friends scattered across the country. Robby's pals Dylan and Maddy at Penn State, and Luke in Ohio. Our friends Rich and Irene in Chicago. My friend Lang's daughter Kristen in Denver. My niece Patty in Palo Alto. Rich and Terrin in Atlanta. Kristi in Laguna Beach.
So I was transporting my dog. I was sight-seeing. I was dropping in on old friends. I wasn't really looking for America. But I found it.
Let me explain.
You've probably heard me say from time to time in this space that my wife thinks I'm "not really American." She can't comprehend that I don't enjoy watching TV -- never did -- and references to "Gilligan's Island," "Gunsmoke," "The Brady Bunch" and "The Fugitive" sail right over my head. She thinks it's odd that I don't enjoy Sunday brunch, diners, napping on the couch, shopping at sales, or eating doughnuts. She laughs when I can't find my way around a supermarket, and she makes fun of the anxiety attacks I get at the mention of a Walmart. She knows I'm going to screw up any time I try to use an ATM. She claims I'm the only person left in the country who still uses a flip phone. She wonders what planet I was on when the rest of the country learned to drink coffee.
So in light of my, I don't know, odd way of doing things and seeing things, driving back and forth across the country -- twice -- has been a real eye-opener for me. The thing is, when you travel with a dog, and when you're basically living out of your car for a month, you can't help doing things "American." Truck stops. Laundromats. Rest areas on the interstates. Fast food.
But the biggest eye-opener of all for me has been chain motels.
La Quinta. Days Inns. Residence Inns. Courtyard by Marriott. Red Roof Inns. After two cross-country road trips, I love 'em all. Fridge in the room -- perfect for Ricky's meds, not to mention a late night beer and snack. Ice machine for the cooler. Coin-operated laundry for when the clothing supply of T-shirts, socks and boxers runs low. Coffee-maker. Free hot breakfast, for a quick get-away. (Stuff a couple of apples in your cargo shorts, and you don't even have to stop for lunch.) Free hi-speed wi-fi. Lots of outlets to charge your cell phone, your iPod, your laptop, your GPS. Maybe a small pet fee.
Last year, when I started out, these places were foreign to me. I called Carol back home. "Which is better, Days Inn or Rodeway?" I asked. Not any more. Now I'm an expert. Now I have a pecking order. If a town has a Best Western, I'm there; at one point Ricky and I stayed at Best Westerns five nights in a row. La Quinta Inns is right up there, too; loved the one on 11th Street in Austin. Comfort Inns & Suites is generally a winner, too. And I like America's Best Value Inn & Suites, though the name is a mouthful.
About the only one I haven't tried is Motel 6. I hear Tom Bodett talking about it all the time, and I need to see for myself: Will they really leave the light on for me?
"The Home Team" appears every other Friday. You can also keep up with Hank's adventures with his dog, Ricky, on his blog, "Beagle Man," on the Westport News website, at: http://blog.ctnews.com/beagleman/ To reach Hank, e-mail him at DoubleH50@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @BeagleManHank.