I love to travel. I also hate to travel. In that way, traveling for me is a lot like algebra. I love it but am not very good at it. I just like saying “quadratic” in conversation. I am not very good at math in general and have gotten worse over the years. If I thought long division was hard in the fifth grade (I did and it was), you should see me now. I tried it the other day and got lost in a scaffold of numbers. It wasn’t pretty.
Neither was a cross-country trip I took with my family years ago before cell phones and 5G internet. My wife and I and our three daughters drove to Washington DC from Berkeley, California so I could attend graduate school. We had a fully loaded, brand new, Penske truck and a Mazda minivan with bikes on the back and boxes strapped to the roof. We followed a carefully-planned route across the middle of the country on Interstate 80 and then 70 as we approached Illinois in order to turn south toward the DC area. The girls took turns riding with me in the Penske. According to my calculations, the trip should have taken six days. But, as Mike Tyson reminds us, “Everybody has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”
Before I tell you about my punch in the mouth, I should give you some context. We had moved two years earlier from Santa Cruz to Berkeley for my wife to study social work. We lived in graduate student housing in Albany, a small town near Berkeley. Graduate housing back then consisted of repurposed Army barracks from World War Two. Five of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment before we became eligible for a three-bedroom unit in a nicer building. We lived in the “village” as they called it for two years, enrolled our girls in the local middle school, and settled into a simple but fascinating life with families from around the world whose fathers or mothers were students at the university.
We met the Nigerians not long after moving in. This was a family of six children and a mom crammed into a one-bedroom apartment. The father had just graduated from the university and gone ahead to Laramie, Wyoming where he had gotten a job teaching sociology to undergraduates. The mom and kids were waiting to join him once he found a place to live. We grew very close to this family of Igbo Catholics, and our kids played together every day. When it came time for us to leave, the mom asked if we could take some of their furniture and belongings to the dad in Laramie. Interstate 80 runs right through the town, so we happily agreed. After all, what could go wrong?
It took two days to load the truck even with four adults and a troop of kids from all over the world. I had to leave a wrought-iron, patio chair because I couldn’t fit it in. Years later I remember packing another truck and not having enough space for bottles of wine. That still bothers me. I might be challenged geometrically as well as algebraically. In any case, we finished late in the afternoon and drove down the main street of the village to the shouts of our friends and neighbors wishing us well. Kids chased us on their bikes as far as they could and then gave up, breathless. I watched them waving goodbye in my sideview mirror.
I don’t really believe in omens, since most of the time they’re identified as such only after the fact. If I had my eyes open, though, I might have seen what happened next as an omen, because it was. Our first stop was Reno. At the time Reno had two Hiltons. As luck would have it, we pulled into the parking lot of one of them and unloaded what we needed for the night only to discover that we were at the wrong hotel. When the front desk figured it out, we dragged ourselves over to the other Hilton. By then it was late, and I discovered only the next morning that I had parked the truck on my wife’s 35mm camera. That was our first casualty of what turned out to be many.
The next morning I ate a breakfast of fried eggs, hash browns, and buttermilk pancakes smothered with gobs of butter and maple syrup. Don’t ask why. I was so groggy I sideswiped a concrete stanchion at the gas pump as I tried to fuel up. It sliced through the side of the truck like an iceberg through the Titanic. Casualty number two. After recovering from that and making pit stops for everything from restroom breaks to batteries and scrunchies (I had to drive the Penske to three different strip malls), we finally arrived in Laramie. We got lost, of course, and found our friend’s place well after dark.
If you’ve followed so far but wondered where I’m going with this and what Laramie has to do with a place called Bloomington, hang on, because this is where things get interesting. Now, I don’t want to get too technical with the physics of weight distribution, vectors, mass, and acceleration, but suffice it to say that I should have paid more attention in physics class when they talked about all of that with weights and pulleys. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what pulleys had to do with anything. Now, however, I was about to learn their importance first hand.
Normally, when you load a truck you put the heaviest items up front toward the cab. This time, however, some of the heaviest items were in the rear (i.e., the Nigerians’ furniture), which put undue stress on the engine. In addition, Laramie has what I would describe as inverse curbs. That is, they’re not curbs but depressions in the street for the water to run down. So, as I backed up to get as close as possible to our friend’s garage, crushing a rain gutter in the process, the rear wheels got stuck in the depression and wouldn’t budge. I shifted in and out of reverse but that didn’t work. Then we rocked, pushed, and shoved the truck but to no avail. Finally, we started unloading the truck from the street and carrying the furniture down the long driveway to the garage.
All of this did not go unnoticed by the fraternity and their partygoers across the street. They rushed over, offered us beer, and decided to fix the problem for us by tying ropes to the underside of the truck and pulling it out of the depression with a Humvee that one of them had. Again, don’t ask why. I have to say, though, that I was relieved when it worked. They freed the truck. I parked in the street, and we did high fives all around before they went back to drinking and smoking weed. All I could think of was, what a relief. “Finally, we got a break,” I told my wife.
The next morning I had a modest breakfast of fruit and coffee. Then we packed our things, and my youngest daughter jumped into the cab next to me, eager to be my navigator. We waved goodbye to our friend and followed my wife’s minivan onto the interstate. Except we didn’t make it. As I gave it gas the engine sputtered, groaned, hissed, and finally exploded. I managed to guide the truck to the side of the street as my daughter and I watched the minivan speed onto the freeway and disappear. It would be three days before we saw them again.
This is the first part of a three-part post entitled “Bloomington.” Look for part two next week. Image credits: feature by Jordan Seott; map by Jean-Frederic Fortier; party by Fernand De Canne. For the full story of Bloomington, go to Nine Lives. See also Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”