Not that I have the gall (despite what I was taught in school) to dignify my scribblings by calling them ‘writing’ but it’s still hard. One thing that doesn’t seem to add to the difficulty, though, is location. (I thought about quoting Hamlet but decided that would be pompous and the quote doesn’t really apply anyway.) I don’t need my Lucky Hat of Infinite (hah!) Ideas or Special Desk of Intense Thinkitude or Favorite Keyboard of Inspiration and Shooting Really Big Guns or even my Green Chair of I’m-not-napping-I’m-just-resting-my eyes — any place seems to do. I’ve written stuff while sitting on the living room floor watching the villain of the week dismember the DNPC of the week. I’ve written stuff while foul-mouthed teenagers desecrated my corpse. And I’ve written stuff while speeding down Autoroute 20 as the dead hand of Steve Jobs flung incendiary infants at me.
But by this one might infer that we were going somewhere. Which means… a road trip.
I generally like road trips even though I don’t much like travel. (I recognize that’s a contradiction of sorts but I am large and therefore have ample room for multitudes.) ‘Travel’ to me usually means something more… intense than a road trip. ‘Travel’ means stress, significant expense and close encounters with inflexible, brain-dead customer ‘service’. ‘Road trip’, though, usually means less of all three (which is good) plus healthy doses of things to see (also good), people to watch (ditto) and things that make me go ‘huh?’ (even better). And no airport food, lineups or whole-body X-ray machines (best).
I’ve occasionally talked about things I like to see on the road; in ‘Localizing‘ I talked about bodies of water and holes in the ground. In ‘Driving‘ I talked about finding car parts by the side of the highway. Besides the great outdoors, though, I also like impressive objects because I appreciate clever science, ambitious engineering, visual spectacle and kitsch. (If the things are big enough I often make Ms. Rose pose in front of them. I have a photo of her in a green hat next to an Easy Eight, for example.)
To us, road trips often have an implied soundtrack. This trip it was never actually played (Stevie J was too busy hurling spores, after all) but it was there nonetheless, like the ghost at the banquet. So we got rocks. We got trees. We got rocks and trees. We got water. And if that’s not enough, we got bovines. And gargantuan mutant bugs with the obligatory Daryl Hannah flashback. We got giant, politically contentious constitutionally mandated engineering projects. And we got people: there was an extraordinarily busy young lady in green tights with a smile bigger than her head. There was a young gentleman posing with a flotation aid held in an extremely inappropriate position (number seven, I guess). There was a woman from Cambridge braving whatever peculiar Atlantic Canada conditions promote horror movie growth in arthropods (see ‘mutant bugs’ above). Clearly it was a successful trip.
In addition to the things to see, there were several of the oddities and coincidences that make me happy. One night, for example, we checked into a hotel and were issued room 386. 386 is an interesting number because 386 was the model number of a pivotal CPU in computer history — the first 32-bit processor made by the company that’s dominated the PC marketplace for more than three decades.
It wasn’t quite a nerdgasm, but close.
When we got to Room 386 (ooooo!) we noticed two things. The first thing was that the bathroom — hotel bathrooms are always the first thing you see — was impressive. Not quite a religious experience or anything but huge, well-appointed and without the obligatory hotel curved shower rod. The second thing we noticed is that there were five chairs. For a room that slept a maximum of two.
They were very nice chairs — I could imagine myself napping in them quite handily — but I wasn’t entirely sure that we needed five. Maybe they wanted to make sure there were enough seats if we decided to have a spontaneous conference on the history of microprocessors. Or maybe every room got two and a half times as many chairs as could possibly be used. (I didn’t get a look at any other rooms so I can’t be sure.) Because I have a little mind I obsessed about chairs all evening long.
The next day we skipped the conference (my paper would never have made it past the referee and we didn’t have enough people to fill the chairs anyway) and drove off toward another one. Aaaand…..
One thing that happens when you’re on the road is that you have to stop from time to time to, um, ‘deal’ with ‘liquids’ — meaning you have to put gas in the car and get rid of the beverages you’ve been drinking for the last four hours. In short, you need to stop and pee. This can be a scary experience but isn’t always. In particular, just down from the radioactive (well, it must be — if 1950s horror movies taught me anything, it’s that giant bugs always mean radioactivity) giant mutant bug is a very nice public bathroom. It’s clean, modern and not scary it all. It’s also the only public washroom I’ve ever seen with a dedicated (there’s nothing else in that building) street address. I have no idea why it has one, of course, but it does.
I contemplated sending it a postcard just because I could. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one.
From there it was off to the conference. Not the ‘history of microprocessors’ one, the other one. The one that Ms. Rose was attending. It was, after all, the main reason for the whole trip.
While she was learning stuff and giving talks and convening panels and having thoughtful discussions with colleagues and stuff I had two and a half completely unscripted and unscheduled days. I wandered around the birthplace of Confederation, sat in flower gardens, looked at tanks, worked on a blog posting, wrote a restaurant review….
And then… back on the road and since home was to the west, we went east.
(Don’t ask me to navigate for you. Really don’t.) We did some touristy
things and annoyed Ms. Rose’s nephew but eventually realized (“An ocean? What the hell is that doing there?”) that we needed to turn around. After speeding down back roads (“I’m not exactly sure where we are, but we’re making excellent time.”) we found more rocks and trees, an equine named after an alkali metal and
a lovely, talented but demanding hostess named after a cheese. And then… back on the road.
For many years, one of the questions facing anyone in eastern Canada who wanted to go to central Canada (it’s not, but let’s call it that) has always been “what route should I take?” which really means “should I go via the USA?” Because if you look at a map, there’s no direct route — there’s something in the way. A big something covered in red-white-and-blue bunting. Do you go around it or go through it?
It’s a little shorter to go through it. Gasoline is a little cheaper too. Time was, the roads were a little better as well (they’re not any more). The scenery is a little different — not better or worse or anything, just different. On the other hand, borders are always a bit of a crapshoot: they can go quickly but they can be slow. You need a passport. The currency exchange means that lunch is probably more expensive. And you don’t get to go through St. Louis du Ha! Ha! – the only town in Canada (Wikipedia says the world) with two exclamation points in its name. It’s not clear what the ‘right’ decision is, but we had passports so we decided to take the short cut. (Cheap gas — Maine is significantly cheaper than Quebec — may or may not have been a contributing factor.)
It was a fun drive. There was no skiing but there were muffins and, yes, rocks and trees. And cheap gas. Around dinnertime we hit the Canadian border. When we opened the car door to visit the bored-looking border guard, the car filled with black flies.
Welcome to Canada.