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Gone Walkabout, Day Seven: In Which Things Finally Go Catastrophically Wrong

Posted by kozemp on December 16, 2009

I do not, as a rule, have recurring dreams.

I do, however, have one recurring nightmare of a sort. It’s not the same exact nightmare every time, but it’s always variations on the same theme: I am aimlessly driving my car around either Philadelphia or Los Angeles (the Valley, specifically, up and down Sepulveda and Laurel Canyon from Vanowen to Ventura) until I get on a very convoluted highway system. The dream culminates with me driving up onto a very high and inexplicably very thin on-ramp which I inevitably drive off of, waking up as the car plummets to the ground.

In a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees, the fact that my only recurring nightmare involves driving is something I should have considered before deciding to go on a week-long road trip.

So come Tuesday morning, even though I had been on the road for six days, my leg was killing me, auxiliary power was gone, shields were down, there were hull breaches all through engineering and Reliant was coming about to fire again, despite all that I woke up in my hotel in Cleveland and got showered and dress with alarming speed (for me, at least) because I only had one thought in my head:


I knew that once I got into the car, in about 6 hours plus stops for food and gas I would finally be home. From when the phone rang with my wake-up call to me turning the key in my ignition was 21 minutes. I was not fucking around; I got showered and dressed, packed up everything I had, checked out, and got out of there.

Of course, even for the smartest of us, working at that sort of speed you are bound to make mistakes. And to my credit I only made one, which in a purely quantitative sense is pretty good.

I was so obsessed with getting on the road and finally getting home that at no point in the morning did I bother to look at my gas gauge.

Okay, excuse making time:

– Every other car I’ve owned has had a big nasty red light on the dashboard to warn you when you are low on gas. My current car, for all its nice features, does not; in the little status window that shows you your mileage and the temperature and whatnot it will occasionally say “low fuel” and make a slight pinging noise one cannot possibly hear over the sound of a very loud car stereo.

– It was dark out when I left and I have poor night vision.

– It was dark out AND raining a little bit, and Cleveland’s interstate system is only slightly less complex than Chicago’s, and for that matter navigating any sort of highway interchange is tough in the dark and in the rain.

– I have pre-existing issues about driving at night in the rain that cause my brain to short-circuit.

– Once out of Cleveland I was listening to “Live in New York City” and kept constantly checking between my iPod and the GPS to see if “Youngstown” would be playing when I was actually driving through Youngstown.

– The song “Youngstown” DID come up while I was driving through the actual city, and that was a really cool coincidence that occupied my mind for the better part of 20 minutes.

However, all that was chased out of my brain at a miracle moment when the iPod was quiet between tracks and my car chose that instant to make the “low fuel” noise.

I looked down and saw the little notice on the dashboard and thought, “well, okay, I’m getting something like 31 miles per here, the noise means I’ve got just under two gallons, I’ll make it to the next exit just fine. Hell, I could make it to the next exit in the middle of nowhere just fine.”

Perhaps six minutes later, as I gunned the pedal up an incline to pass a truck, I heard that telltale pop in my engine, and watched as my tachometer and speedometer both started to drop precipitously.

I started shouting in my car. “No! NO! FUCKING NO! Come on, don’t… NO! Oh, for fucking… NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

In desperation I muttered the last invocation I thought might still have some power: “come on, baby, hold together.”

As I tried to wrestle my car onto the shoulder I flashed back to my freshman year of high school and my English class with Mr. Lane when we read Antigone: the first time in my life I ever heard the word “hubris.”

It was at this point that the only remaining sliver of luck I had came through and the last sputters of juice my car had managed to actually get me into the driveway of a highway maintenance depot. My car finally stopped moving on its own power just as I had completed the hard right turn into the depot. There was a truck sitting there waiting to leave, and the driver rolled down his window.

“You okay?” he shouted.

“Yeah, looks like I ran out of gas,” I shouted back.

“The guys inside can call Triple-A, you’ll be all right!” he shouted before driving away.

I pushed my car a little further into the depot when one of the guys who worked there came out and walked over to my car. “You ran out of gas?” he asked. The guy in the truck must have radioed inside.

“Yeah,” I said. I got out of the car. “I guess I just wasn’t paying attention to the gauge. I was so obsessed with getting home.”

He gave me a sympathetic look. “How long you been on the road?”

It took me a couple seconds to actually remember. “A week.”

“Well, we called the wrecker, he’s on his way.” He jerked his thumb back at the huge garage. “Why don’t you come and wait inside?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let me just get my phone.”

He went back inside, and maybe four seconds after I fished my phone off the front seat of my car and closed the door the light drizzle that had been going all morning switched to a full-on downpour. I was instantly soaked.

I looked up at the sky, looked down at the ground, and muttered, “fucking Sophocles.”

Before heading inside I reached back into my car and grabbed the other object on the front seat – my towel.

As I walked into the depot garage I was trying to dry my hair, and the guy said, “do you always drive around with a towel?”

Now ordinarily this would be a moment where I would explode with mock fury at someone who did not understand the importance of knowing where your towel is. But I was cold and wet and bone tired from a week on the road and, most importantly, not on my way home.

I stopped drying my hair for the briefest of moments and simply said, “absolutely.”

He seemed to accept that.

At one point I asked him, “how far is it to the next exit where I can get gas?”

He said, “there’s a Pilot at the next exit, four miles from here.”

“FOUR miles?” I said. I did some quick calculations in my head. “Christ, the low fuel thing must have gone off right when I left the hotel.”

“You said you were coming from Cleveland?” the guy asked. “That car, yeah, that seems about right.”

I thought, “I REALLY need to get home.”

Eventually the wrecker showed up – real nice guy, I’m going to send him and the depot boys Christmas cards – and I was back underway after only about a 40 minute layover. I pulled off at the next exit and followed the signs for the Pilot Center. Pilot Centers are a lot of fun. In addition to gas and food (a McDonald’s, in this case) they have the always-wacky Pilot Shop, which is a weird combination of a 7-11, a Pep Boys, and a Nordstrom Returns Center. There’s the usual soda fountain and coffee stuff, snack food and whatnot, and then there is a rudimentary collection of clothing like gloves and hats and jackets that are absurdly overpriced, and then there are racks and racks of auto parts.

This Pilot Center, though, had one distinct problem. It was apparently right on the boundary of a different township or city or whatever the crap they have in Ohio, and just before the driveway was one of those “you are entering” signs that read:


I was being forced to gas up my car in a town called Liverpool.

I thought, “is there no end to the indignities I am forced to suffer?”

After getting the filthy Scouse gas I was finally back on the road, only an hour behind schedule. This wasn’t too bad. I would still be home at about 4 o’clock. I’d also been doing so much highway driving that my car was up to a whopping 31.4MPG: I wouldn’t have to get gas again, this tank would take me all the way home.

But something was wrong.

Once I got out of the western Pennsylvania hill country I was finding that I was having trouble staying focused on the road. It couldn’t have been sleepiness, I thought, I’d had ten hours sleep the night previous, and an unscheduled hourlong break that very morning. No, I suspected that the horrific stretch I drove on Sunday in Iowa and northern Illinois had permanently disabled some critical system needed to keep me fully alert while on the road (any of the biological persuasion are welcome to speculate). I was maybe 300 miles from home at this point. I couldn’t bear the thought of stopping for another, longer break. Even if I were going to break the “never drive cross-country at night” rule – which I probably could have done for the last 50 miles or so of the trip, I certainly knew how to get myself home from Downingtown – I could not bring myself to rest for more than a few minutes. I was so close. I couldn’t stop.

Problem was, in my current state it was more likely I was going to stop by driving into something. Drastic measures needed to be taken. I saw a sign that a rest stop was three miles away, and with a sinking, sickening feeling, I knew what I had to do.

I pulled into the rest stop, walked into the convenience store, and bought a Sugar-Free Red Bull.

Now, understand something: Sugar-Free Red Bull is the most disgusting thing you can drink. It is, by any reasonable measure, the single-worst-tasting substance in the known universe. Red Bull on its own is pretty gross, but when you take the sugar out of it the level of foulness transcends anything most human beings can imagine. It’s not just that it doesn’t taste good – it is one of the few things you can legally consume that actively tastes BAD, that attacks your taste buds and violently makes you regret ingesting it.

If you are wondering, you take the sugar out because once you do so the stimulant high you get from the caffeine and other nasty shit in it is not later mediated by a sugar crash. Sugar-Free Red Bull is for when you absolutely cannot fuck around with staying awake and don’t care how bad it tastes to do it.

And you really can’t care about how bad it tastes because, trust me, you’ll never taste anything worse in your life. The first time I took it was when I was driving home from Somers Point in the wee hours of the morning and it was recommended to me, “just open it and pound the whole thing at once. If you don’t finish off the can the first swig you won’t be able to go back and finish the rest.” This is absolutely true. The four previous times I have had to consume Sugar-Free Red Bull I have downed the entire can in one gulp, which does not mediate the violent unpleasantness of drinking it any, but does at least mean that you only have to endure it once.

I sat there in my car, staring at the can, desperately trying to think of some other way to solve my problem, but I was too far out and had too many hours to go. Another cup of Starbucks swill wouldn’t do it.

This was the only way.

I opened the can, took a deep breath and pounded the whole thing. Once it was empty I crushed the can in my left hand like a drunken frat boy and started pounding the dashboard of my car with my right, screaming, “AAAAAGGGGGHHHHH FUCKING FUCK FUCK AAAAAAGGGGHHHHH!’

You really cannot comprehend how bad this shit tastes. It is an assault on your sense of taste, and taste loses badly. Once it was down I had to wash my mouth out with a bottle of water, spitting out the open door of the car just to get the taste out. I will say this about it, though: it works. Sweet zombie Jesus does it work. Ten minutes later I was on the road when it kicked in and it is like the back of your head getting hit by a car carrier. One second you are a normal, somewhat tired person and then the next second BANG! you are the most awake person in the world.

The other downside, besides the taste, is that the next four hours are something of a blur. I drove, certainly, and I have vague snippets of memory of the time – loudly and vocally debating with myself whether to take the Schuylkill or the Turnpike to the Boulevard is the clearest, followed closely by singing along to every note of the Original Broadway Cast album of Avenue Q – but not a whole lot else.

But finally, at 3:39PM and after 2,685.8 miles, I pulled up at home and remembered: this is the best part.

I have said numerous times that while I am someone who loves traveling I hate being other places. And that’s true; I really, REALLY don’t travel well. But I do it anway for two reasons. One is that I crave new information like teenage girls crave bad vampire movies, and going places I’ve never been is a simple and easy way to get some.

The other is that feeling from getting home, that indescribable feeling – believe me, I’ve been sitting here trying to describe it and I am officially giving up on the process – and if a week of bizarre crap across half this amazing country and back is what it takes to get it, well, that’s what it takes.



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Gone Walkabout, Day Six: In Which Precious Little Actually Happens

Posted by kozemp on December 16, 2009

Once I had made the plans to head back home through Chicago, I always knew that this was going to be an easy day. Chicago to Cleveland is only 350 miles, and when you’ve routinely been clocking 450-500 miles a day a quick little 5-hour shot like that is chump change.

So, then, the very few interesting things that happened on the road yesterday were:

– I mentioned that my uncle lives off of US30 in Indiana. He does, out near Valparaiso, but from there he commutes to Chicago. After making that drive in the outbound direction yesterday morning I do not envy him his morning commute of 40 miles into the frankly baffling Chicago interstate system. My GPS spoke more in the first half hour trying to get out of Chicago (“keep right,” “keep left,” “bear right,” etc) than it did on any entire day the  rest of the trip. The Byzantine system of highway interchanges would test even the toughest driver, but to do it in rush hour traffic twice a day, great gods. The man is made of sterner stuff than I, though inasmuch as he hunts spies for a living that was sort of a given anyway.

– Since my driving day was reasonably short, I made the one and only sightseeing stop of the entire trip when I went to the University of Notre Dame. It was 35 degrees and pouring when I was there, so I didn’t really get to DO anything other than drive around and look at how pretty everything was, but suffice it to say I have now seen yet another college campus that assures me that I was utterly, totally robbed at LaSalle (on the campus front). Notre Dame isn’t THE nicest campus I’ve ever seen – that’s still, and likely always will be, UCLA – but I’d wager it’s probably #2 on the list, even in a depressing December rain.

– On a related note, deserted college campuses are kinda creepy. Even the nice ones. Anyplace that is SUPPOSED to have lots of people in it is always weird and uncomfortable when there aren’t people, and being dark and rainy in the middle of the day does not alleviate that weirdness any. (And, before you ask, I never loved rehearsing in empty theatres, either.)

– The drive across Indiana and Ohio on I-80 is only slightly less boring than the same stretch on I-70, and only there by virtue of the fact that things resembling civilization occur a little more frequently along the way.

– This does assume that we include Toledo in our definition of “civilization,” which I am frankly not 100% sold on.

– Important safety tip #3: If you find yourself driving cross-country on a Midwestern interstate on a dark, rainy, and otherwise unpleasant day, and you find yourself at a point in your life where you have a thing for someone, and your iPod serves up “Tunnel of Love,” unplug your iPod from whatever is broadcasting it to your stereo and throw it out your car window. You may want to increase your speed a little before you do this so that you guarantee it will shatter into unrecoverable pieces when it hits the ground.

You must throw it out the window because if this confluence of circumstances takes place it means that not only has your iPod inadvertently gained sentience a la Wintermute, it has also become manipulative and psychotic like Wintermute and it knows that the combination of a seemingly-unending Midwestern winter and a 45-minute folk opera about the birth and death of a marriage will convince you that the pursuit of relationships is an inherently and absolutely doomed endeavor.

– Actually, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, if you are on a long drive with your iPod set to album shuffle you should probably avoid Bruce altogether. Song shuffle, fine, go for it, but when you listen to entire albums straight through… suffice it to say that no matter how bright things seem at the start, Springsteen albums never end happily.

Tomorrow: the story of the final push home (and oh boy do things happen).


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Gone Walkabout, Day Five: In Which Important Lessons Are Learned

Posted by kozemp on December 14, 2009

Yes, I am aware that we skipped a day there. I’m going to go back and do day four after I get home – it’s a lot of ridiculous stuff and I would be hard-pressed to do it justice out here on the road, especially in my current state (i.e. completely drained of all energy reserves). For now, we continue with just road days – check back in late Wednesday or so for the full recap on my 40 hours of actual vacation in and around Kansas City.

Moving on to the body of today’s ravings:

As I’m sure we all know, my primary concern in all things is your safety. Yes, YOU, reading this right now. Your safety. It keeps me up nights.

With that in mind, let me give you a very important safety tip.

If a person you know – a person you care about, even – says to you, “hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s drive from Kansas City to Chicago by way of Des Moines,” look into their eyes, take a deep breath, and kill them. You must kill them before they kill you, or worse, before they cause you to kill yourself.

Anyone who suggests such a thing clearly has evil intentions.

I left Kansas City at 7:30 yesterday morning and had hit the snow line by about 8:30. Everything I saw was completely covered with snow until I was just outside Chicago around 4:30.

That is eight solid hours of driving through a winter wonderland. It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be. In Missouri and most of Iowa it’s not TOO bad. There is terrain there, at least. The road goes up and down, there are hills and bluffs and the occasional rock face. In Missouri and Iowa people build farmhouses reasonably close to the highway. There’s stuff to look at.

And then in Iowa there is the issue of the wrecks.

By the time I got to Des Moines and got onto I-80 there was serious snow on the ground – I’d estimate more than a foot. And it wasn’t long before coming over a hill I saw up in the distance a car abandoned on the side of the road. As I got closer, though, I saw that snow had actually been plowed over the car, meaning it had been there for some time. I didn’t think much of it, but then I saw another one. And another. And another.

By the fourth one I was pretty well away from Des Moines, and that stretch to Iowa City is pretty desolate. It isn’t like there are gas stations every mile or so you can walk to if your car breaks down. I started to wonder – what happens to the people in these cars? Do they just start walking off the highway towards the farmhouses in the distance? Do they just abandon the cars entirely? Does someone pick them up?

Then I saw a car, in the snow, abandoned, but this time it was upside down and covered with police tape. Lying there, on the side of the highway, upside down in a 5-foot snow drift, taped off.

Driving past, I said out loud to myself, “what’s up with THAT?”

Shortly after this came the first abandoned tractor trailer. Again, out in the middle of Iowa nowhere, off the side of the road, snow piled up around it. The snow had drifted up high enough to block the driver’s side door, and the other door was flush up against the embankment at the side of the road.

The first thought in my head was: is there a dead guy in there?

The second thought in my head was: I have wandered into a Stephen King story.

Then came the second tractor-trailer, this one on the median, this one upside-down. THE ENTIRE THING. Cab and payload both, laying upside down in between the lanes of Interstate 80, covered in snow.

I said, again out loud, “what the FUCK is going on here?”

Between Des Moines and Iowa City I saw a total of about a dozen of these, mixed between cars and tractor-trailers. Just left to rot in the snow by the side of the road. I know this isn’t standard procedure because I drove past two crews working to haul cars back onto the road that had ended up out there earlier in the day.

I started to wonder: does the Iowa Department of Transportation determine if you are somehow a “evil” driver, and then leave your wreck out there for all to see as a warning, like the Royal Navy hanging pirates at the mouth of a port? Are they automotive scarecrows of some kind?

I though the creepy haunted highway stuff was bad, but I didn’t know what bad was – I had no CONCEPTION what bad was – until I left Iowa and found myself on the Illinois Tollway.

(“Tollway,” seriously?)

Interstate 80 in Illinois – the Tollway to you, pal – is a highway connecting Chicago to the Iowa border. It is the worst road I’ve ever seen. Oh, yes, I’m planting my flag there. It is worse than the pre-construction 309. Worse than the Schuylkill. Worse than the Garden State Parkway on a Sunday night. Worse than Route 1 through Princeton. Worse than anything you can think of. It is the worst road in the history of the universe. You heard me. It is the worst road in 14 billion years.

“But, John,” you say, “I’m looking at it here on this map and it doesn’t seem so bad.”

“Oh, are you?” I say.

“Yes,” you say. “It’s pretty much straight for the whole length, and my contour map shows that it barely changes elevation at all.”

“Well, okay,” I say. “But let me ask you something.”

“Sure,” you say.

“Do your nice little maps have A FUCKING FOOT OF GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKING SNOW ON THEM?” I ask.

Remember earlier, when I noted that in Missouri and Iowa people build farmhouses close to the highway? That’s an important contrast, because in Illinois for whatever reason they don’t do that. So, while you’re driving on a highway that is for some reason almost completely deserted, the only thing you can see, aside from the occasional dead tree, is just a solid field of white. Perfectly flat. In every direction. Almost out to the horizon. It’s just your car and the road, and everything else in the entire world is just white.


It’s hard to accurately get across how desolate this drive is. If there weren’t so much snow it probably wouldn’t have been so bad, you could at least see the fields and whatnot, but the snow smears everything together into one solid mass. At one point I had to get gas and when I pulled off the sign on the exit ramp read “GAS 4 MILES.” The gas station was FOUR MILES from the highway! And care to guess what’s between the highway and the gas station? Anyone? Any guesses?

That’s right – more snow and more white.

For the first half hour or so I figured I was just going through a blank spot or something, that eventually SOME semblance of civilization would appear. And I was right, it did – you start seeing buildings and stores and whatnot about 20 miles from Chicago. Until then, you have to deal with 140 miles of stone white nothingness.

I did not handle it well.

At one point it got  so monotonous and so mind-numbing that I saw a sign for US 30 – known better to most of us as the White Horse Pike – and I was SURE that I had fallen asleep at the wheel and was dreaming that I was back in Jersey. It took me a couple seconds to actually remember that US30 goes all the way out here, that my uncle lives off it in Indiana.

You can only stare at a solid field of white for so long before it starts seriously messing with your mind. About 100 miles from Chicago my iPod (set to album shuffle) served up Darkness on the Edge of Town, and while listening to the end of Racing in the Street – admittedly one of Bruce’s most unhappy songs – I thought, “if I just turn the wheel a little bit to the right…”

I shook my head and said, “I’m going crazy.”

(Important safety tip #2: do not listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town while driving cross-country. The River isn’t a great choice either.)

By this point I was at the point of cracking the windows (in 31 degree weather) and blasting the radio so that I wouldn’t get hypnotized by the road again. I’d been driving for seven straight hours. My leg was killing me. I had to do something.

I saw a sign for an upcoming rest stop that had a Starbucks.

Now understand that I am not a fan of Starbucks. I don’t care for any of the usual stupid crap people get mad about with Starbucks (globalization, homogenization, whatever) – I just really dislike their coffee.

I saw the sign and said, “the hell with it, I’m gonna fucking die out here.”

I limped into the rest stop – quite literally limped, after seven hours in the car my leg had stopped working completely – and found the Starbucks. It was across from the Panda Express. I am not making this up. The rest stop, which is technically called the DeKalb Oasis (not making that up either) has a McDonalds, a Starbucks, and a Panda Express. Like you do.

I limped over to the Starbucks counter, and when the guy came over I simply said, “black coffee. Large.” I paused for maybe a quarter of a second before I remembered my manners. “Please.”

The coffee guy looked at me and said, “do you want – ”

Before he could finish his sentence I opened my eyes as wide as I could and gave him a look clearly indicating that if he kept talking my next sentence was going to consist primarily of the loudest and vilest profanities I could muster.

He said, “large black coffee, right,” and turned away faster than I would have thought him able.

Tomorrow – home.


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Gone Walkabout, Day Three: In Which The Road Begins To Take A Toll

Posted by kozemp on December 13, 2009

Okay, so, last night. Yesterday was a short driving day, only about 250 miles from St. Louis to Kansas City, but all the same after dinner last night I was dead tired.

And I mean DEAD tired. I sat down to start writing up the story of the road yesterday and I just couldn’t stay awake. You know that thing you do in a meeting, where you’re really tired and you have to keep your eyes open and look like you’re paying attention, but you also have to keep your head up even though it feels like there’s a brick taped to your forehead? That’s what I was doing last night, and eventually I realized if I actually fell asleep at my laptop and let my head go all the way down the laptop would probably lose. So yesterday got put off until today.

Tonight, unfortunately, I find myself also pretty tired. Not too tired to get this stuff out there, mind you, but a little too tired to whip up a complete narrative on two days. So today we’re going to do yesterday with a series of short vignettes (mainly to see if I can do “short,” I’m guessing no) and hopefully tomorrow we’ll get to cover today.

So, to wit:

– The drive from St. Louis to Kansas City, while short, is not nearly as boring as the stretch from Columbus to St. Louis. There is much in the way of actual geography between the two cities.

It's still better than Illinois.

Admittedly not a LOT of geography, but there’s at least an elevation change you can clearly see here.

– No wacky stuff on trucks yesterday, but we did get some quality wacky sign action. First there was this guy:

I saw that and I was like, well, that’s certainly a definitive statement on the subject.

What I didn’t know at the time was that it really WASN’T a definitive statement. “Jesus is real” merely sets up the pins. This bad boy knocks them down:

The second picture is so bad because I wasn’t prepared to take it – I didn’t realize the first was part of a series and that the continuation would come so quickly. You would think that folks of the sort to spend what has to be significant dollars advertising  on a major interstate would have the presence of mind to alert you to the fact that there are multiple signs and that they are related. Next time, in addition to “Jesus Is Real” or whatever message you choose to impart, put something like “Sign 1 of 3” at the bottom right corner so we know to keep our eyes peeled for the rest of the message. (Though I would be willing to hazard a guess the rest of the message is not something like “and everything is nice.”)

– Something I caught twice on the road but was never able to get pictures of: actual sheepdogs. Like, big herds of sheep with a couple dogs running along with them. I’m not really the sort of person to say that things are “cute,” but even I will admit that those came close.

– The signs for road numbers in Missouri, like in Ohio, are shaped like Missouri. This is the bad kind of “cute” and part of the reason I don’t really define things as “cute” that often: “cute” usually means annoying. I don’t know why but the whole “signs shaped like states” thing annoys the hell out of me. Missouri, though, adds a twist to it: whereas in Ohio, if the road number doesn’t fit inside their little Ohio decal, they reduce the font a little bit to compensate, in Missouri they just WIDEN MISSOURI. Now most of the time you wouldn’t notice this except for when you get one exit with two numbered highways on it and the sign (which I repeatedly tried and failed to get pictures of) has two Missouris of different widths on them.

I wish I was at the highway planning meeting when these were designed.

Highway Commissioner #1: “Okay, we’re going to go with the Missouri-shaped highway signs?”

Highway Commissioner #2: “Yeah, they’re cute.”

Highway Commissioner #3: “Uh, guys, the number decals we bought, we can only fit two of them on the Missouri signs.”

Highway Commissioner #2: “That’s fine, we’ll just get some other, smaller decals.”

Highway Commissioner #3: “We spent 114 million dollars on THESE decals.”

Highway Commissioner #1: “Okay, so how about we just widen Missouri on the signs with three numbers? No one will notice.”

Highway Commissioner#2: “Yeah, that’s still cute.”

– Continuing our wacky sign theme, you know those LCD warning signs that there are, like, two of back home? One on 95 at Allegheny and another one at Broad? Okay, once you get out into the Midwest they’re fucking everywhere, and unlike the ones we have that are never on, these things are fountains of useful information out here. My favorite is the list of upcoming exits and how long it will take you to get to each of them. Genius, that.

However, once you hit St. Louis on I-70, and for a solid 20 miles thereafter, the warning signs say:

“Interstate 64 Now Open. Completed As Promised.”

Does MissouriDOT just blithely promise to build highways and then not come through so often that the populace has become jaded and mistrusting? Maybe it’s a “Show Me State” kind of thing, but as I have long maintained on that particular subject: fuck you, Missouri.

– My entry into Kansas yesterday at approximately 2:59PM increased the number of US States I have been in to 35.

– I am not actually staying in Kansas City. I am staying just south of Kansas City in Overland Park, KS, which has been voted one of the 10 nicest places to live in the US. And it is quite nice, if you like shopping.

When I arrived at my hotel, one of the questions the staff asked me was “are you here for shopping?” I thought it a bit odd at the time and said “no, I’m here for a basketball game.”

Then I drove around Overland Park a bit.

Understand something if you’ve never been to a city out in the Midwest: what we of an eastern extraction think of as “suburban sprawl” is pissant shit compared to out here. My hotel here in Overland Park is on Metcalf Street, which I think is sort of the main drag. I have now driven 10 miles of it and it is NOTHING BUT STRIP MALLS AND CAR DEALERSHIPS. NOTHING. I’ve ventured off Metcalf a bit when I needed to pick up some supplies – again, nothing but shopping centers and office buildings. I’ve covered large stretches of Overland Park the last 30 hours or so and I haven’t seen so much as a single house. There are CARS everywhere, and people in them, and people shopping in these places, but I’ll be goddamned if I can figure out where any of them fucking LIVE.

Back home we complain about “suburban sprawl” when someone puts up a Best Buy on a vacant lot. You have no idea how good we have it. You have no idea what suburban sprawl really is: it is FRIGHTENING. We’re lucky that there is enough pre-existing population density to keep our hometown from ever looking like this, and thank god for that. The next time you hear someone complain about suburban sprawl in Holland Township or whereever, ask them if they’ve ever actually seen an area the size of Bucks County given over to nothing but commercial real estate, and then kick them in the junk. They have no idea what they’re talking about.

– Unfortunately, it has turned out that spending 8 hours a day in my car does quite the number on my back, and through my back my leg. Originally my plan was to head south from here, to hit San Antonio for a bit and then New Orleans on my way back home. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

The problem is that going south from here means six more days of driving, and I don’t think I’m up for that at this point. Driving this much is causing me to take my daily max of Vicodin, which is bad for two reasons:

1) Vicodin is delivered with Tylenol, and there is a limit to how much Tylenol you can take in a day before it starts to, you know, kill you.

2) At my current consumption rate I do not have enough Vicodin to last six days.

You may note that “getting addicted to Vicodin” is not an issue here. I have asked three different doctors if I should be worried about this and they all said no. One of them actually laughed and said “you’ve been watching too much House.” And they’re probably right – as someone who has taken other, much more powerful, narcotic painkillers, Vicodin isn’t that great. Getting addicted to Vicodin would be like getting addicted to Bud Light. Why even bother?

Anyway, instead of heading south I will be heading back home tomorrow. I’m getting the procedure done on my back in like two weeks, by which time I should hopefully be able to do all the driving I want, and it’s not like San Antonio or New Orleans are going to go anywhere anytime soon (well, San Antonio won’t at least). Instead of just heading back the way I came, though, which would be incredibly boring, I am returning by way of Chicago, and then Cleveland. This not only affords me the chance to see and drive through areas I never have, the time spent tomorrow in Iowa will increase my state count to 36.

It’s weird, the things that make me happy.

Tomorrow: Iowa and Chicago, where I will Titan up.


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Gone Walkabout, Day Two: In Which My Ulterior Motives Are Revealed

Posted by kozemp on December 11, 2009

Beginning, as they say, at the beginning, this morning brought with it yet one more awful superlative to add to an already-long list of awful superlatives:

Today, I was colder than I ever have been in my entire life.

Before this morning the coldest I had ever been was on Valentine’s Day of 2005. (That isn’t a Valentine’s Day crack, I just remember the date.) It was about a month after we closed Hurlyburly and Janice, who played Darlene, was appearing in a benefit performance of The Vagina Monologues. It had been snowing for the better part of a day and it was fucking freezing cold to boot , but I had promised her I’d go and I’m a sucker for charity (a charity performance being the only possible way to make me pay to see the unmitigated crap that is The Vagina Monologues).

Between the foot-plus of snow and the performance being at the Prince (which meant trying to park downtown in a foot-plus of snow), I decided to take SEPTA. But between the continuing snow and blowing wind it was damnably, ridiculously cold. I had bundled myself up in three layers of normal clothing and even borrowed my father’s gigantic goose down parka, winter cap and thermal gloves. I had taken every precautionary measure against cold that was possible, save the surefire measure of not actually going outside.

Getting down there at 8 o’clock wasn’t too bad. My father drove me the two blocks to Frankford Avenue so I could wait for the bus in the car, and back then the 66 dropped you off right by the door to the station at Bridge and Pratt.

Coming back at 2 in the morning, though, that was another story. The 66 only runs twice an hour that time of night, and back then the 66 loaded way the hell up Bridge Street, about a block from the station and with no protection from the elements. I must have just missed one bus when I got off the El or they were running behind on account of the weather, because I stood out there on Bridge Street in the snow for a solid half hour FREEZING MY FUCKING ASS OFF.

I actually recall thinking at the time that if it wasn’t so goddamn cold it would have been quite pretty. It was the middle of the night and there was no one around for blocks and the snow kept cars off the road, so between the snow and the lack of traffic it was about as close to silent as it ever gets at Bridge and Pratt. And since it’s a major SEPTA station the entire area was floodlit to the hilt with orange sodium lights, which combined with the snow to make an oddly beautiful winter scene, ruined only by the fact that it was FUCKING FREEZING.

Before today, the coldest I had ever been was a half hour on a city street. This morning we surpassed that in a parking lot in a little over 90 seconds.

I remarkably managed to get out of bed this morning (more on that later) promptly at 7AM, and once I checked out I had to make the unfortunate walk from the hotel lobby to my car. Now you might be thinking, and rightfully so, that a walk from a hotel lobby to a car shouldn’t ordinarily be that unfortunate. And under most circumstances you would be correct.

In this case, however, it was unfortunate because a temperature of 11 degrees Fahrenheit and sustained winds of 40MPH translate to a wind chill of approximately -15. That isn’t in the frostbite zone – it misses by a few degrees – but it hardly matters. That is Death Cold.

In the summer here (well, home here, not here-right-now-in-Saint-Louis-here) we talk about really hot days where you walk outside and the humidity is like getting hit by something. A wet sock, a hot towel, pick your metaphor. -15 degree wind chill isn’t like that. It’s not like getting hit by something. It’s… I dunno, it’s the OPPOSITE of getting hit by something, if such a concept exists.

When you first step outside you simply register that it’s cold out, and that’s it’s very cold and oh my, isn’t this unpleasant, but that feeling only lasts for a little less than a second. Before that second is up you get hit with the wind, and that is… I’m not sure I can even describe it. It’s like the life gets sucked out of you. Not only life, but the very WILL to live (/snicker, end of Episode III, /snicker). Remember reading the Jack London story “To Build a Fire” in 7th grade? It’s that kind of cold. You just want to stop. You might as well, it feels like you’re closing in on absolute zero anyway. It’s the kind of cold that makes you think, “you know, I’m a basically good person, I’m pretty sure I’ll end up in heaven.” Cold like that is what it feels like to be a monster in Final Fantasy and have someone cast Shiva on you.

Put it this way: when I stepped out of my hotel this morning, it was too cold for me to shout profanities about how cold I was.

But, hey, going back to the getting out of bed thing, I have a confession to make: the LaSalle-Kansas game isn’t the only reason I embarked on this ridiculous excursion.

One of the problems that comes out of the nuclear annihilation of my lower back is that sleeping in my bed hurts. A lot. This is some bizarre function of the fact that my bed is a twin and it is JUST big enough that I can lie in it but cannot roll over. If I roll over in my bed I hit the wall next to it. For the last however many years this has never been a problem – when I rolled over into the wall I’d wake up for a second or two, shift myself into a more comfortable position, and go back to sleep.

NOW, though, thanks to some fabulous biological alchemy, when I roll over into the wall next to my bed it feels like someone is jabbing the business end of a katana into my lower back and I wake up screaming. I put up with this for a little while but eventually decided, in the interest of sleeping through the night without excruciating pain, to sleep in the recliner in the living room. It’s reasonably comfortable and, most importantly, I can’t roll over and hit anything. I don’t sleep that well on my back, but sleeping through the night a bit restlessly is far preferable to being woken up every hour or so by every single pain receptor below my waist.

But a road trip, now, hang on a second. A road trip means hotels. Hotels mean king- and queen-size beds. Bigger beds means being able to sleep without bumping into anything.

Seeing LaSalle play Kansas in person AND sleeping in an actual bed for a week? Sign me the fuck up.

I wish I had more interesting stories about the road today, but aside from one big thing and a couple little things (which I will get to shortly) nothing that good happened on this leg. No detours through unanticipated states, that’s for sure. As I mentioned yesterday, the stretch of road between Columbus and St. Louis may be the most boring stretch of highway in the Western Hemisphere. It’s farms. And more farms. And more farms. There’s a city or two, sure, but one of them is Indianapolis, for Chrissakes. And it’s flat. It’s the flattest thing you’ve ever seen. Flat farms. For 450 miles. It’s death.

But, I have another confession to make: the LaSalle-Kansas game and sleeping in beds weren’t the only reasons I decided to make this trip.

I could have flown to Kansas City for the game and stayed in a hotel out there. It would have meant less driving and thus less hotels and thus less sleeping in beds, and it would have been slightly cheaper, and I am documented as being really, really, REALLY bad with airplanes, but I still could have done it. Some people are saying that I SHOULD have done it, that I must be mad to willingly drive to Kansas City (and beyond) when I could just take some NyQuil and get on a plane.

To that I say: I drove out here for two reasons.

1) My car is more comfortable than an airplane.


About goddamned time.

After many long years, finally.

I haven’t had breakfast at a Waffle House since I was in Amarillo in December of 2000. Many long years have I waited, and my long wait was worth it.

Waffle House is a shining exemplar of The Pizza Hut Theory (“Pizza Hut is not pizza, but it is delicious”), so much so that I think it should really be renamed The Waffle House Theory. For breakfast this morning I consumed a waffle with butter and syrup, bacon, coffee and orange juice. The coffee came from ground up coffee beans and I am reasonably certain the syrup was actually refined molasses, but other than that the names of everything else I ate are cruel misnomers at best.

A Waffle House “waffle” is not like anything you’d get anywhere else. For starters, it’s as big as a dinner plate. When you first see it from a distance you balk at its sheer size. The thing is like a foot across. There’s no way I can finish that big a waffle, you think. Then the waffle gets placed in front of you and you notice the second odd thing about it – it’s the size of a dinner plate and about as thick.  The thing might be a quarter of an inch high if it’s that much. The foodstuff I was given that was marked “butter” was nothing of the sort. It had never been near a cow. As near as I could figure it had never even been near a food science laboratory; if you’d told me it was dropped off here by aliens I would have seriously considered the possibility. The “bacon” did not come from any animal you or I would recognize as a pig and did not even taste remotely like bacon. The three strips of fried matter I was told were bacon more closely resembled wooden paint stirrers in consistency and and sturdiness than anything involving pork and salt. The orange juice was, and I say this quite literally and with zero comic exaggeration, the most vile tasting liquid I have ever consumed in my life, and that includes once having a shot of Three Wise Men.

However, despite these obvious deficiencies, I WOULD EAT THIS SHIT THREE MEALS A DAY FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE IF I COULD.

This would, of course, not be a particularly LONG life, but it would be a life suffused to the breaking point with pure pleasure. Despite its highly dubious pedigree the atavistic joy of eating Waffle House breakfast cannot be understated. This is the best tasting food on earth and for the most part it ISN’T EVEN FOOD.

It’s a good thing that I only get Waffle House once every ten years or so when I drive across the country, because if this shit were less than two days’ drive away the sheer level to which I would fuck up my insides would make my endocrinologist faint in terror.

(Hi, Dr. Cavale!)

Much like my fateful reunion with Waffle House, the other minorly interesting things that happened today – the only things, in fact, to punctuate the brain-crushing boredom that was the run from Waffle House to St. Louis – were also cross-country classics.

Since the scenery, for the most part, is such absolute shit one of the truly interesting things on the road once you get out into the Midwest is the insane things you will see on the back of trucks.

First up today was the true classic, and perhaps the greatest single realization of the form, the “truck towing like three other trucks.”

There has to be a filthy euphemism for the second truck on the stack.

This can't be safe.

I’ve only seen one of these so far, but as I get into Oklahoma and Texas I am certain there will be more.

This afternoon, though, came the mother of all “weird things on trucks.”

Is that a tank?

Are you kidding me?

That, my friends, is a tank.


On the back of a truck. And not, like, an army truck. A privately-contracted hauler.

Which means that someone BOUGHT this tank and shipped it someplace.

God, I love this country.

Tomorrow: a quick shot to Kansas City.


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Gone Walkabout, Day One: In Which Things Go Right For An Entire Three Hours

Posted by kozemp on December 10, 2009

I should have known something was up from the start.

If you’ve never gone for long drives on the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, understand something:  it is a bit like no limit hold’em or working at a city pool. It is long stretches of mind-numbing boredom occasionally punctuated by moments of abject terror. For the most part you’re just sitting there not really working that much; keeping yourself awake and your car on the road is hardly difficult. The terror comes when every now and then you are forced to play dodgeball with 18-wheelers at 70 miles an hour.

Let’s think about the implications of that for a second.

Inasmuch as actual dodgeball is a classic game of physics the version played on the interstate is no less so. It is, in fact, far more dire. Consider you and your car. Together you weigh, at a rough estimate, let’s say 3000 pounds. You are traveling at 70MPH. That gives you a kinetic energy of about 666,141 J. Not too shabby, right? With that much energy you could put an eight pound ham in your microwave and turn it into a smoking brick. The problem is that the 18-wheeler up ahead of you has a kinetic energy of approximately 1.8×10^7 J. With that much energy you could turn that same eight pound ham into a hunk of fissile material so hot it would melt through to the earth’s core.

In a road situation, the truck is the ham and you are the earth. You don’t just lose, you lose spectacularly.

But dodging trucks is a way of life on the highways. This is why, when I was cruising along nicely on a completely empty Pennsylvania turnpike for the better part of an hour this morning, I should have realized something was terribly, terribly wrong. Actually, that was only the FIRST thing that should have tipped me off that something wasn’t right. The second thing was when, for the first time ever, my GPS actually changed its mind.

I was going on the turnpike when, at one point, it suddenly said “recalculating.” It normally does that if you veer off the course it gives you. I’d never heard it recalculate while I was actually driving the prescribed route. Instead of the straight shot all the way to Columbus it had given me, it was now telling me to get off the turnpike at the Gettysburg exit and pull more than 50 miles of Central PA back roads whamma-jamma.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked it. Some people name their GPS units. Talking to it is as far as I’m willing to go, and for a very good reason: my GPS sounds exactly like Claudia Black, and I am fully aware that if I personify it any more than I already have I will start calling it “Aeryn” and that will be the first step down the slope with “full-on crazy” at the bottom.

So, my GPS starts recalculating and I argue with it. The best, and thankfully most non-crazy, thing about this is that it basically was an actual argument. It would say, “recalculating – exit at…” and I would yell, “no! No! I am not getting off there! What the fuck is wrong with you?” Then I would not get off at that exit, and it would say “recalculating – exit at…” again, and I would say, “for the last time, NO! I am NOT FUCKING GOING THAT WAY.”

But then just before the Carlisle exit the lights on the “Emergency Traffic Information – Turn Radio To” sign were flashing, and I turned on the radio to find that, for some reason, a 60-mile stretch of the westbound turnpike was closed and I had to get off the turnpike for a detour.

I looked at the GPS and said, “I’m sorry I doubted you.”

The detour, though, this was another story. The detour that Turnpike Radio suggested was to take I-81 south into Maryland, and then pick up I-70 west to get back into Pennsylvania. Not an earth-shattering extra distance, but by my rough estimates it added about 30 miles to the trip.

Throughout the detour down I-81, though, my GPS kept suggesting that I get off 81 and hack through Pennsylvania. I knew that I couldn’t do that – there was a foot of snow on the ground, the back roads weren’t in great shape, and I couldn’t tell if the new route would put me back on the Turnpike after the closure. I had to stick with the radio detour; eventually my GPS matched up to it.

My trip was three hours old and I was already driving through a state I wasn’t supposed to be in.


So I got on I-70 in Maryland. However, where the nice turnpike radio robot lady said I was supposed to take 70 all the way back to the Pennsie Pike, my GPS said that I should instead get on this road called I-68.

The GPS tried to protect me from the road closure, so how could I doubt it now? Thus, when the time came, I got on I-68 and not I-70.

This was both the best and worst possible decision I could have made.

The reason it was the worst is because…  if you’ve ever made the turnpike shot across Pennsylvania you know that for the most part it is pretty uneventful. A couple tunnels, the occasional slight curve, some minor hills and whatnot, no big deal. It isn’t I-70 through the Great Plains (check back here tomorrow night for that), but its not exactly the Super Fun Happy Slide either. It’s a relatively easy drive.

Interstate-68, though, is NOT EASY. Not even a little bit. I-68 goes through some quality peaks in the Applachians and it DOES NOT FUCK AROUND. It goes up. It goes down. It curves. It switchbacks. It reverse-banks. I-68 is 112.6 miles of serious wartime driving. It’s requires far more effort to drive than the pleasant blandness of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. So, thanks to the problems on the turnpike, what was supposed to be an already-long 479 mile drive ended up being more like a 580 mile drive with a three hour stretch of leg presses in the middle. In my little Cobalt you gotta stomp on the pedal to get up those mountains.

As for why it was the best…

Okay, remember the bit from Star Trek III when David and Saavik are walking around on the Genesis Planet, and there’s just a straight line with a glacier on one side and tropical forest on the other? That’s what I-68 is like. It is the Genesis Planet condensed to a 112-mile road in northwest Maryland and West Virginia. You go through about 12 distinct climates between I-81 and I-79.

The first stretch is your basic mountain-with-evergreens, but today with the twist that about a foot of snow was on the ground. It’s quite beautiful, actually – rolling hills that gradually rise into mountains, all covered with tons of pine trees, and all of that covered with snow. It’s a hell of a vista.

Then you get to the first ridge, and shit starts to get real.

While you’re driving through the early lowland parts of 68 you can see fog on the mountains off to the south. “Oh,” you think, “that’s some very nice fog.” Then you get to the first peak. “Oh,” you think, “the fog seems to be swallowing the world.” The fog comes down on you harder and faster than winter in The Valley. The road just keeps going up and up and your visibility just keeps going down and down.

And then, in an instant, it’s all gone.

As you climb the ridge the fog gets thicker and thicker, but the moment you cross the threshold onto the downside of the mountain the fog just INSTANTLY DISAPPEARS. The first time this happened I went nuts. It’s like a magic trick. One second, fog and visibility to shame Mr. Magoo. The next second, clear skies for miles. It’s fucking amazing. When I mentioned this to my father he started going on about windward and leeward sides and whatnot. He was using geography to take the wonder out of an amazing moment. Not exactly the dark side of the Force, that, but come on – enjoy a natural miracle, for Chrissakes. Even -I- didn’t overanalyze it.

But the best part about the magic disappearing fog is that it happens like TEN TIMES.

Every time you start going up a ridge the fog descends even thicker than the last time, and you think “this is it, it’s not going to go away and I’m going to drive like this all the way to Pittsburgh,” and then BAM! you hit that sweet spot on top of the mountain and it all poofs up into thin air.

Then, just before the border with West Virginia, you get to Keyser’s Ridge. Going up that one I was sure that I was going to die. The fog came down earlier. It was thicker. Visibility was less than a thousand feet. At one point I basically couldn’t tell what direction the road went right in front of my car – I was steering by stealing glances at the GPS and seeing which way the road turned, like a pilot flying a plane on instruments.

“This,” I thought, “is not good.” I seriously considered that I might die on top of a mountain in Maryland.

Then it all changed. And it wasn’t that the fog disappeared. The whole world flipped. All morning I had been driving through various permutations of rain, snow, and grey skies. The weather was never dangerous but it was never good, but once I crossed some magical line on Keyser’s Ridge it was like David and Saavik walking across that line on the Genesis Planet.

Not only did the fog disappear – the entire sky changed color from grey to a stark, blinding blue. It was the bluest goddamn sky I’ve ever seen. The sun, which I hadn’t seen all morning, was suddenly stabbing into my left eye. The ground was dry.  After going over one more ridge I was heading into a giant valley with mountains out west and everything in between covered with green grass and bright green trees. It was the Allegheny version of Monument Valley. I was in a completely different world and the transition took less than a second. My jaw dropped.

I said out loud, “this is SO much fucking better than the turnpike.”

Now one of the neat little features in my car is a thermometer in the dash that tells me the outside temperature. It had hovered in the mid-to-low 30s all day, with one hair-raising stretch on I-81 bottoming out around 33. Once I got over Keyser’s Ridge, though, and started heading into West Virginia, the temperature started to rise. A lot. First 40. Then 50. When it read 60 I opened my windows. By the time I stopped for lunch and gas in Morgantown (home of the West Virginia University Mountaineers) it was 65 degrees and I was walking around in a t-shirt.

Two hours later, as I was crossing the Ohio River, I was once again sure I was going to die.

From Morgantown you take I-79 north up to 70, and you hop on that west all the way out to Columbus (i.e. here). Around about the Pennsylvania side of 79 it started to get windy, and I’m not talking a little bit. An in-dash thermometer and two power outlets are nice features of my car, but one of the less-nice features is that in any wind of more than about 9MPH it is almost impossible to keep the car in one lane. I tapped a few buttons on my phone (keeping my eyes on the road, of course) and learned that the next four hours of my trip were under an advisory predicting 50 mile an hour winds.

O… kay…

Just wind was one thing, but as I approached the Ohio border (on my second leg through West Virginia) it started to rain.

“Eh, a little rain isn’t too bad,” I said. “This fucking wind, though – ”

It was at this point the atmosphere underwent the liquid equivalent of flashover. Everything that was once air became water. Water moving at 50 miles an hour. Again, I had somehow managed to completely change climates over the course of about three-quarters of a second.

(Note to self: could this be another terrible mutant power to go along with “inadvertent electronic breakage” and “meeting celebrities in weird circumstances”? Must investigate.)

Understand that at the moment this happened I was barrelling for the bridge over the Ohio River. I was going down a 5% grade doing about 70 when suddenly giant sheets of solid water the size of the Comcast Tower were flying across the highway at 50MPH.

Remember what we said earlier about kinetic energy?

My reaction to this turn of events was, I thought not unreasonably, to calmly pause my iPod (playing “Fragile” by Kylie Minogue), think that driving my car into the Ohio River in the first ever Allegheny monsoon was probably slightly more survivable than driving my car off of a mountain in the fog, and shout “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!

Then, once I crossed the bridge and started up the incline into Ohio…

It just stopped.

The rest of the ride was uneventful – I mean, it’s Ohio, for chrissakes. Ohio is the definition of boring driving, at least until tomorrow when I tackle Indiana and Illinois. The mission for tomorrow is to try and find a truck stop restaurant and a small town I stopped in ten years ago without being able to remember where either of them are. That and, you know, not contemplate my own death more than once.


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