Saturday, April 12, 2008

Pie in the Sky, Parts I and II

Several mentions here recently about the big Pie in the Sky II road trip, and since the Excellent Element hits the highway a week from today I figure it's time to tell how the voyage got that name, and when and where we're going.

It all started seven years ago, actually, when Miriam rescued me from unemployment and potential bankruptcy by offering me a job at the Los Angeles Times. That story here. I was scheduled to start work in mid-October that year, 2001, so Michelle and I decided to leave a month early and take the long route from Seattle to LA ... via Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington, Louisville, Denver, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.

We both always had wanted to take a cross-country road trip and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. When I called Mom to tell her about the plan, though, she thought it sounded over-ambitious.

"That sounds a little pie-in-the-sky to me, Mark," she said.

Well that cracked me up, so we immediately dubbed our trip the Pie in the Sky Tour, and made concert-style t-shirts, complete with projected tour stops on the back, to commemorate the adventure. I still wear mine.

Amazingly, the day of our scheduled departure -- with the moving van showing up early that morning -- was Sept. 11. Yes, that Sept. 11: 9/11. The moving dudes knocked on our door at about 7:30 and asked if we were watching TV. No, we said, and we turned it on to see the footage of planes flying into the World Trade Center. And then the moving guys unplugged our TV to load it onto the truck and Michelle and I climbed into my old Honda Civic wagon and we started driving east.

Weird. No planes in the sky and by the time we got past Spokane, a couple hundred miles east of Seattle, no solid radio signal either. We went for hours at a time without any news about what was going on.

And yet, we managed to have a great trip. We camped in Yellowstone, played cards in Deadwood, ate dinner with a bunch of flag-waving patriots in a small red-state diner someplace and then, later that same day, cruised into the liberal college town of Mankato, Minn., to find a peacenik coffee shop still open at midnight. Trippy.

Our plan had been to see ballgames in some classic parks like Wrigley Field, but the terrorist attacks suspended the baseball season. Some guy in a poker game in Shakopee, Minn., was raving about the beauty of the northern shores of the Great Lakes around that time of year, so we decided to blow off Chicago and head north instead, through Duluth and into Canada. That leg of the trip truly was as beautiful as advertised, but strange too. That's where we ran into Canadians, including the proprietor of a B&B where we stayed, who told us Americans had the attacks coming and almost seemed to hold us responsible.

Eventually we made our way through Niagara Falls and Boston and into New York, where we visited the less-than-two-week-old Ground Zero -- eerie, upsetting and unforgettable -- before moving onto happier destinations.

Some of the coolest parts of Pie in the Sky I were hooking up with friends and family, including M&M regulars Ronelle and her crew in New Jersey and Janice (below) and hers in Louisville, as well as Michelle's sister Renee and her family in Colorado. We also loved the Grand Canyon and the area around Moab, Utah (top picture). All those stops will be part of Pie in the Sky II as well.

Although we had tour dates on our t-shirts, we didn't really have a set agenda for that first trip, and that was a lot of its charm. The Canada detour was just one example of our spontaneity. We had a big Rand McNally atlas with us, and we traced our path in pen as we went -- it still hangs on our wall.

For this trip, with three times as much time on the road, our plans are even less set -- really, really, pie-in-the-sky, Mom -- except for the first two weeks, which are planned. We're leaving next Saturday, heading for Mom's place in Eugene; then to San Francisco, where Michelle has a speaking gig at the San Francisco Chronicle; to Santa Barbara, where she booked us an awesome camping spot on the beach; to Los Angeles, where she's speaking at a Cal State Fullerton writer's conference; to Las Vegas for a night; and then to New Orleans for JazzFest.

After that, wide open. We know we want to see some friends and hit some card rooms. We both kind of want to see the Florida Keys and Maine, where we've never been, and we hope to stay off the interstates and travel the smaller highways and back roads. The beauty of a long break. We'll camp and sleep in the tricked-out car when we can, grab a motel room if we absolutely need a shower.

Overly ambitious? Pie in the sky? Maybe, but something tells me we'll pull it off. With stories to tell.


Rita said...

What a FANTASTIC post!

What can I say? The II at the end of what I said the first time, says it all.

Of course it will be a wonderful adventure and, of course, you will pull it off with stories to tell, and a book to read!

I'm excited to be the first stop.

I still have my shirt too.

Ronelle said...

Hey I didn't get a shirt! I remember the pie in the sky tour well and especially your visit here at such an unforgettable time. I also remember the sites and SMELLS of NYC in Sep. of 2001 -something that I will never forget. I remember your stories of the emotional climate of the country as you traveled across during that time. I am very excited for the PITS Tour II. Will you bring a laptop and steal or borrow wireless networks in stranger's front yards to post updates once in a while? I wish there was a little more room in the Element -then maybe Aunt Rita could stowaway.
I know it seems as though I have been absent from M&M for a while -but I have been a silent observer. So many of the topics were very thought provoking and by the time I decided where I stood and what I wanted to say the moment had passed. ha ha Also I am stressed out and exhausted from trying desperately to LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND during the NJ State Testing in 2 weeks. I am still watching and enjoying. Have a great trip -can't wait for the east coast leg!

Mark said...

Ronelle, thanks for the comments today. We've missed you!

My advice: Leave a couple kids behind -- there are millions of 'em -- and come back and hang with us cool kids.

Glad to see you haven't forgotten us completely. We're looking forward to seeing you this summer ... and yes, we'll be blogging as we go.

As our plan comes more into focus we'll keep you posted about a likely NJ appearance.

freda said...

great post, I love it. Your upcoming trip looks great, one of these days I want to do that. My brother David took a wonderful trip last year, or was it the year before, and took lots of film which he used in his play. He really got me interested in the idea of visiting places which aren't even on the map. Looking forward to seeing you soon.

LaSue said...

In college I read a book called "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat-Moon. State Highways on his version of Rand McNally were in blue, hence the name. I used his philosophy to help guide my highway choice when traveling between New York and L.A. It also helped the "Gray Ghost' to stay on blue highways because anything over 65 mph made the old Mercery Tracer shake like a vibrating bed in a cheap roadside motel. I have wonderful memories of traveling the roads of Iowa (of all places) with corn fields higher than my car lining the highway for miles. It was like a magical green carpet ride across the plains.

I also remember a quote by Charles Kuralt, famous man of the road, he said something like this, "The Interstate Highway system has made it that Americans can travel from end of the country to the other end without seeing any of it." I love that.

Keep to the slow lane and enjoy the ride.

Looking forward to your upcoming visit.

Val said...

If you go to Maine, you should hook up with my sister Sharoan -- she and her husband run Maine Island Kayak Company on Peak's Island in Casco Bay, 20 minutes by ferry from Portland; they run half- and full-day tours. It's quite beautiful there. Let me know if you want me to put you in touch with her.

Jim Thomsen said...

I will live vicariously through you. Through you, the impossible dream remains for me.

I hope you'll have reasonably regular wireless Internet access on the road.

Jason Bellamy said...

I've read "Blue Highways," too. Great idea and good story, but any "M&M" account will kick its ass.

(Aside: William Least Heat-Moon also boated across the country and wrote about it in a book called "River Horse." I attended a reading he gave from that book in college, and only a rugged traveler or a guy desperate to sell a book makes it to Pullman.)

Anyway, can't wait to experience the journey..and to be part of it, when "PITS-deux" hits DC (showers offered free to our smelly friends)!

Mark said...

Excellent comments, everyone, thank you.

Michelle and I were just noting the other day how many people have mentioned "Blue Highways" when they heard about our plan. Funny thing is, that was my original inspiration for this book idea -- blue highways meets the green felt -- and she and I have been reading the book together for several weeks. Good inspiration.

Val, please do put us in touch with your sister. Or maybe we'll just communicate through her web site when we get close. Kayaking in Maine sounds awesome.

Jim, your "vicarious" thing made me laugh. Yes, I'm sure there are elements of each other's life we'd both happily trade for.

Pie in the Sky II, though, isn't on the table.

Val said...

I talked to Sharoan this morning; they'd love to have you. (Sharoan was 12 when she last saw Michelle!) Anyway, she sez the best way to get in touch is the email address or phone that's on the Web site -- see the Reservations or Contact Us pages. I hope you guys can make it happen -- you'll have a ball!

Val said...

oops, I just remembered -- you should get in touch sooner rather than later, even if your plans are still fuzzy -- that way you and they will both have a good sense of what's possible and when. Enjoy!

Mark said...

Val, thanks for this. Very cool. I hope we're able to get together with your sister this summer.

Janice said...

I think I have a photo somewhere of Sharoan riding on Michelle's shoulders. Taken during an evening at the Cohen house making lego structures on the lazy susan

Val said...

ooh, Janice, I'd LOVE to see that!