Road Trip 2017: Eclipse Edition

There’s a back-story to this trip.  My grandfather served on the USS Cobia during World War 2.  Through an accident of history, that very submarine is preserved as a floating museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Grandpa died over a decade ago.  I found out about the Cobia several years after he died.  Grandpa never mentioned that it still existed, though he had attended crew reunions there.  I think he considered his service to be very personal and never spoke of it much.  I’ve wanted to visit, to make a pilgrimage if you will, but I wanted to take the girls when they were old enough to remember and appreciate the history of the thing.

I took advantage of a confluence of events this year to do it: 1) Alpha is old enough, 2) an impending total eclipse would pass (relatively) close by, and 3) I wanted a vacation and a road trip.  Alpha was agreeable to going, and she too wanted a road trip, so boom it was on.

As a side note, Alpha handled this trip with aplomb.  She has a bladder of iron, remained agreeable even when things went sideways, and is generally helpful around the car.

Overall Trip Statistics: 5 days, 10 states, 2700 miles, 2900 feet at highest pass.

Day 0: Destination Erie, Pennsylvania

The first day of the trip started with overcast skies that swiftly turned to rain — but the day ended with sun

We chose to leave on a Friday.  I put in enough of a day at work to count it as a full day and avoid using another vacation day, which meant leaving around lunch time.  Alpha and I were packed and ready to go by 1 pm.  A final stop to see Meghan at work, and we hit the highway… and traffic.

I made the mistake of assuming that traffic would be moderate at mid day.  Friday afternoon rush hour tends to be nasty, especially so in summer, but it begins earlier than I know.

As we crawled our way down the turnpike we witnessed an almost-crash in front of us.  We mostly idled our way until Charleton.  I guess that house rentals in Maine must run from Saturday to Friday, since a large portion of the cars around us were from NY, NJ, and PA and they all peeled off at the I-84 exit.

Cruising through Schoharie, NY

We found lots and lots of construction, but we never slowed down in New York

The rain moved in as the traffic cleared.  We made fair time for a couple of hours as we skipped into New York state under showers.

Skies cleared by mid-state, with a few hours of sunlight left.  After dark we cruised through the Seneca reservation.  All of the road signs were translated into Seneca, which was kind of neat.  They also have a casino that, much like Foxwoods, rises out of the forest in a jumble of incongruence.

We made Erie at about 9:30 that night – a Motel 6 alongside Interstate 90.  It was a plain, but clean and serviceable hotel.  We turned in sans dinner and slept well.

Travel Report:

Central and western New York are very boring.  We didn’t get cell phone service anywhere and the highway just seems to go forever.  There are some peculiar town names in western New York, ‘Horseheads‘ was a particular favorite.

Day 2: Destination Chicago

Breakfast at Zodiac Dinor

Breakfast at the Zodiac Dinor (sic). It was delicious and huge; we never did care to eat lunch that day.

We had a fantastic breakfast at a local diner and set off on the scenic route for a little while.  We wanted to see Lake Erie.

Along the way we found some sites and some sights.  The day was warm but a little cloudy, which meant that it never got too hot.  I was looking forward to rolling with the top down on this trip and I was not disappointed.  We hit the sweet spot for a convertible: 50 mph @ 72 F, moderate humidity.

Before we left Conneaut, Ohio we stopped at a lemonade stand; the kids even served us in the car.  (I’ve made it a policy over the years to always stop for lemonade.)  The roads were beautiful, alternating between showing us the lake and just being green.

D-Day Re-enactment in Conneaut OH

We drove by a D-Day re-enactment in Conneaut, OH [click to enlarge]

D-Day Re-enactment, another view, Conneaut, OH

A better view of the D-Day Re-enactment. It appears to be a yearly event. [click to enlarge]

chicago skyline

Looking over the highway near our hotel. Chinatown is a little further left than is visible. [click to enlarge]

Lake Erie from Ashtabula, OH

The scenic byway made some very close passes to the coast and we saw some great views of the lake.

Lake Erie itself is gorgeous.  The towns that border the lake are a mix of quaint, middle-America, and gaudy: some reminded me of Cape Cod, some reminded me of the over-commercialized beach town of Misquamicut, RI, and some reminded me of any number of nondescript towns that I’ve encountered along my travels.

We switched over to the highway around Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio, as we became conscious of the time: I wanted to get into Chicago before sundown.  Being Saturday we didn’t have to worry about rush hour.  We rolled into town around 5:30, which was perfect.

Dinner at Tasty Place

Our meals at Tasty Place. As the name suggests the meals were, in fact, very tasty. [click to enlarge]

Our hotel in Chicago was right next to Chinatown, so we took a walk to find some dinner.  We found a hole-in-the-wall with some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had.

We turned in no long after dinner; we had a full day ahead.  We spent a little time unwinding and calling home.  Earlier in the day we had found out that the USS Indianapolis had been located, and shared the news with Meghan and Beta.  They proceeded to watch Jaws (with the Indianapolis scene) and brag to us about doing so.

 

Travel Report:

Route 531 along the coast of Ohio is beautiful.

Indiana Rest Stop

We stopped to rest for a bit in Indiana. The turnpike was single-lane (for construction) and bordered by jersey barriers on both sides for miles, which does weird things to your brain after a while.

The Indiana turnpike is bumpy as hell, and boring, until you approach Elkhart.

Day 3: Destination Cobia

This was the main event.  We arrived around lunchtime.

USS Cobia

USS Cobia, positioned at the stern and looking towards the bow.

There are regular tours of the submarine, from forward torpedo room to aft torpedo room.  They’ve restore the submarine to about 80% working condition.

uss cobia torpedo room

The forward torpedo room

We found at least three, possibly four, photos with Grandpa in them.  The questionable photo is from a reunion photo, not everyone was looking at the camera and, sad but true, old men all start to look alike after a certain age.  One other photo that we saw him is from a reunion, the final two are from his time on the submarine.

Alpha, with the Cobia’s stern in the background [click to enlarge]

Our tour guide was new – his first day! – and he wasn’t familiar with any of the crew besides the captain.  Grandpa, being an officer but not the captain, wasn’t a name he knew.  The tour was about twenty minutes from bow to stern.

Being a real WW2 submarine the quarters were very cramped; I’m not sure how my grandfather, being a few inches taller than I am, was able to fit through the tiny intra-compartment doorways.

The submarine part of the museum is a little small; there’s a somewhat larger section devoted to boats on Lake Michigan and the various wrecks.  Alpha and I agreed that we’d like to come back another time to view the lake history in more detail.

We ate dinner in Chicago, a pizza place of course.  After we got back to our room Alpha wanted to veg out.  I felt cooped up by the car all day, so I went out for a walk around the neighborhood.  I took some photos but they were terrible; I need a new phone with a better camera.

Travel Report

The state of Wisconsin replaced a large section of the pavement on Interstate 43, both northbound and southbound, with a concrete washboard.

The car’s computer calculated our average MPG to be north of the 30 mark sometime this day.

Day 4: The Eclipse

Alpha and I got going a bit later than I had originally planned, and had a smashing breakfast at a market that’s a block from the hotel.

Clouds over Ashkum, IL

The clouds became progressively more forbidding as we raced south to meet the eclipse. The weather report for southern Illinois was clear skies, so we pressed on. Skies grew even darker shortly after this photo was taken, but we never got more than a sprinkle in the morning. [click for a very-hi-res version.]

Getting close to or under the eclipse path was a bonus, so we didn’t have any specific destination to reach, just “as close as we are able or choose to get.”  I picked Marion, Illinois as a target and we started driving.

We hit some traffic along the way, not due specifically to the eclipse but around construction along the highway.  I don’t know if traffic would have been lighter and we would have slipped right through if it hadn’t been for the eclipse.  We probably spent an hour and a half sitting in various stand-stills, and 30 minutes more finding detours, and were about an hour outside of Marion when we decided to stop to watch the eclipse in Effingham.  It was a fair place to stop, with fuel and food, and we weren’t the only ones peering up at the sun.  While it wasn’t directly in the path of totality the sun was reduced to a tiny hair-like sliver.

eclipse peak

The clouds proved to be a mixed blessing by obscuring the view but allowing us to take unfiltered photos of the eclipse. I was too busy taking in the moment to photograph the actual peak — this was from about four minutes before the peak. The eclipse was moving from left to right in this photo, and the top was the only bit visible at the peak.

From the stopping point, our next destination was Lexington, Kentucky.

Downpours over Newton, IL

We ran into thunder and lightning as we moved east through Illinois

We got into Lexington late, due in part to rain.  A large part of our drive was on country roads which, more than the interstates, are long, straight, and surrounded by corn.

We arrived in Lexington after 7 pm.  It’s a college town and we ate dinner at a joint that caters to the college crowd.  It was delicious.  Alpha had breakfast for dinner and I had a burger.  As we walked out the door Alpha remarked how good it was.  The person walking out behind us was, unbeknownst to us, one of the cooks heading out for a break; she flashed a huge smile and said “thanks!”

Alpha stayed in our room while I took a swim in the hotel pool.  We were in bed and lights-out before 9 pm, as we were leaving very early the next morning.

Traffic Report

Midwestern seasons seem to be like New England: almost-winter, winter, still-wintery, and road construction.  The side roads are much better for driving than the interstates, and almost as fast and direct.

Indiana doesn’t seem to understand the concept of interstates.  They have traffic lights and intersections on I-64.

Day 5: Destination Home

Alpha in the carThis was the longest, hardest drive of the trip: almost a thousand miles in one day.  Under the best of conditions it would be a fourteen-hour trip.  Alpha and I discussed doing it in one day or breaking it into two, and her answer was firm: lets go home today.  So we did, come hell or high water.

We didn’t take any scenic routes or make any unnecessary stops, it was just pounding the pavement (so to speak).  We left Lexington at 7:30 am and made it home around 11:30 pm.  We texted Meghan every time we crossed a state line, and she was reposting our updates to Facebook.

Travel Report

Somewhere in eastern Kentucky we passed a field that could have been straight out of a Bob Ross painting, with a shed or small barn, happy little trees, and a small mountain in the background.

West Virginia is beautiful, even from the highway, though cell phone reception is non-existent.  We suddenly had great coverage when we entered Maryland, even though the mountains didn’t stop, so it seems to be a political issue not a geographic one.

We reached a peak mileage of 31.8 MPG, according to the car’s computer.  My back-of-the-envelope math came up slightly lower at our last fill-up, but close enough.

The climate control system lost it’s mind somewhere in Kentucky and was alternately blowing cold and warm, regardless of actual setting, for the rest of the ride.  Things got a bit warm and sweaty, but not the worst I’ve ever had.

Pennsylvania doesn’t know how to manage traffic around construction, of which the was plenty, including some standstills well before rush hour.  Neither does Connecticut, where we were hitting standstills at 9 pm.  That shouldn’t happen on a Tuesday night.

Sixteen hours of straight driving is very, very tiring.

Mission to Maryland

We have a new nephew, named Kappa in this blog, so we made a road trip to Maryland to meet him (and support his parents, Tim and Kelly, for a bit).  We dropped Butter off at doggie daycare, rented a minivan, packed ourselves and Baba into said van, and headed out.

Little did we know that the D.C. area was set to get the coldest temperatures of the winter (teens and single digits), and a winter’s worth of snow, while we were in town. It was almost like we never left home.

Day 0

Though the trip down could have gone less eventfully (we hit snow in New Jersey that followed us, off and on, through the rest of the day) we arrived in Frederick, MD safely and in pretty good time.  It was the end of the day so we headed off to a very early bedtime after having dinner at the local pizza chain, Ledo Pizza.

Day 1: The Baby

We were in town for one reason, and one reason only: the other-other white meat.  After a surprisingly-decent free breakfast at the motel we headed to the Fox residence to meet the new nibling.  He wasn’t the happiest kid when he was awake and ate a lot, so no photos as that’s the only sure-fire way to avoid accidental boob shots.

Side note: right before we left town Kappa was prescribed Zantac.  It’s given to babies that spit up a lot, which allows them to keep more food down.  Who knew.  At any rate, it’s making the niblet happier since he’s not so hungry all the time.

We had a great lunch at a local BBQ joint called CarterQue Barbeque and Grilling Company (it’s next door to a veterinarian, which just doesn’t seem right) and a great home-cooked dinner at their house.

Day 2: The Extended Family

We woke to find out that some of the hotel’s pipes had frozen overnight (due to single digit temperatures overnight).  Our rooms weren’t affected, fortunately.  Megh and I were on our third room and I think the staff would have been mortified if we’d had yet another problem.  (The first room stank of air freshener and we immediately requested another, and the second room didn’t have a working shower as the faucet had broken before we took the room, so we moved yet again on our first morning. Kudos to the staff for handling it professionally.)

We had lunch with Meghan and Tim’s uncle, aunt, a couple of cousins, and her cousin’s children – a total of 15 people, including ourselves.  It’s worth mentioning here that Meghan’s uncle Tom is a former rear admiral.

Highlights of the day include: the alpha nibling (Delta) getting his fingers caught in a stationary bicycle crank, then walking into a swing while our own Beta child was swinging; and Meghan flooding the bathroom with an overflowing toilet.

Uncle Tommy finally became talkative as we were about to head out the door, so we stayed longer than we intended, as more snow started falling, to hear his stories.  The man is fascinating and we started planning another trip just to spend some time with him.

Day 3: Washington, DC In The Snow

An accidental halo over Beta's head

An accidental halo over Beta’s head

Almost six inches of snow fell overnight, which pretty much closed the state.  We’re old hands with the snow, however, as we’ve received record snow back home (nearly 100 inches so far, with more snow in the forecast).  The federal and local governments shut down, but we bravely headed out on empty, heavily salted and therefore mostly snow-free, roads.  We had the city to ourselves!

The Smithsonian only opened three museums: the Air and Space museum, the Modern Art museum, and the National Portrait Gallery.  They were limited by the number of people reporting to work so they opened the museums most popular and/or easiest to staff.  We never quite left the Air and Space museum, though.

Alpha has had a passing interest in World War Two history, and became deeply interested in the V2 rocket display.  She also had fun in the 747 cockpit on display.  (It’s the real nose of a 747 and the cockpit is available to step inside, but not to sit.)

Meghan, Baba, and Alpha watched D-Day 3D.  I dislike the narrator’s voice (Tom Brokaw) and Beta child was feeling restless, so she and I headed outside to play in the snow and walk around a bit until the movie was done.

Side-Story: Baba and I sat on some benches while Meghan and the kids stopped into the gift shop, and continued an ongoing conversation about current political events.  I had mentioned that I felt some congressional intransigence was due to racism against President Obama more than just typical Democratic/Republican squabbling, and our conversation continued.

Several minutes after my comment, the man next to us abruptly stood up, rudely inserted himself into the conversation by saying that not all Republicans are racist and that he really thought that Colin Powell would be the first black president, and left before we could say anything.  Apparently I had hit a nerve.  :/

We ended the day at Tim and Kelly’s house and some takeout chinese food.  Unlike the previous day, nobody was worn out or particularly angry and we actually had time to talk.

The kids broke up their sleeping arrangement when we got back to the hotel, by deciding that they must sleep in separate rooms.  Beta stayed with us and went to bed immediately, while Alpha got to stay up late watching a movie with Baba.

Day 4: Touring the Capitol Building

We returned for a second day in the capitol and sightseeing.  Baba had scored a tour of the capitol building by contacting her senator, Chris Murphy, so we had a date in the early afternoon.

We rolled into town and spent some time at the museums before our tour.  Meghan and the kids went to the American Indian museum (and had a great time, and a great lunch); I went to the National Gallery of Art; Baba went to the National Museum of American History.

Waiting in Senator Murphy's office for our Capitol Building tour

Waiting in Senator Murphy’s office for our Capitol Building tour

We made our way to the Hart Senate Office Building in time for our tour.  The congressional staff was very pleasant and professional –  a pleasant counter point to the daycare center that Congress is portrayed to be.

After getting checked in we were taken though the tunnels (with a mini-subway system FTW) to the main capitol building.

Highlights of the tour include the original Supreme Court chambers, the original Senate floor, the “Whispering Room” (the original House chambers), and the atrium under the dome (currently being restored but some of the artwork is visible and is gorgeous).  Though congress was not in session, we sat in the gallery for a bit.

Interesting to note: you need a ticket to visit the gallery, but the tickets remain good for the rest of the session.  Our tickets were free to us. We may re-use our tickets any time for the next few months!

We also had the obligatory self-guided tour of the Capitol gift shop before heading out for the streets again.

We ended our day with dinner at Jaleo.  Meghan and I discovered it on a trip to D.C. before we had kids, and were delighted when we discovered that it’s still there.  They serve Spanish-style tapas in a funky-yet-hip atmosphere.

We weren’t sure what to order, as all the foods on the menu were unfamiliar to us, so we gave our server a budget and let him choose.  Baba had this funny idea that our budget would be around $35 total; I had to butt in and recommend $120 for the five of us (she was shocked and glad that we were paying). The food was fantastic and well-worth the money, though I’m still not sure what I ate (though I know I wouldn’t have ordered it on my own).

The Waze app gave us a tour of the city both coming in and going out, as it routed us around traffic snarls.  I don’t think I’ll go road-tripping without it again.

Day 5: Heading Home

Heading home was mostly uneventful, as all such trips should be.  The Delaware “tax” was limited to tolls – on nearly every other trip there’s some kind of bad highway situation in Delaware to make the expensive tolls even more painful.

Baba showed distrust in technology and thought that the estimated arrival time that Waze provided was much too optimistic.  She loudly doubted the suggested route around Baltimore (taking I-495 South to I-95, instead of taking I-495 North to I-95 which the traffic map showed to be a parking lot).  When Waze suggested the Lincoln Tunnel would be faster, Baba offered a bet that it was wrong; when Waze later changed the route again (all long before leaving the New Jersey turnpike) she welshed on the wager.

The wager came and went as we made our way through the city – Waze found an interesting way to get us from the turnpike to the Merritt Parkway, but we arrived at Baba’s house a couple of minutes sooner than the original estimate – just over six hours from door to door, while bypassing some bad traffic snarls.

After dropping off the rental car and retrieving Butter from doggie daycare we made the rest of our way home.  We made it in the door an hour before bedtime, with the house still standing and the kitties very glad to see us.