Summer Vacation 2014 - There and Back Again

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Introduction

9:30 on Monday, June 30, 2014. We’re all showered, Quin is in bed, Jenny’s powering through another bout with Facebook, I’m watching The Wolverine with Ethan… It’s easy to forget about the events of the last 36 hours. It’s taken me an hour to type up the summary on this page, so I can only imagine how long the actual account will take me. This will be an epic, to be sure. It will only cover about 36 hours of actual time, but I fear it may take me almost that much time to condense my thoughts into the written word. I can promise you intrigue, adventure, horror, romance - well, maybe not romance, but it is quite a story. It will be long. I feel like Tolkien sitting down and recounting Bilbo’s trip back to The Shire. This could take a while, but hopefully it will not bore too much.

For those astute readers (dear reader - sorry, I’ve been listening to a lot of Steven King on the trip), you will have by now recognized that there is a gap in the retelling of our vacation. I found the first two entries of this year’s trip to be limp and boring. I feel like today’s offering has the right components of a good story, and as such, I wanted to ensure I put it to paper as soon as I could so I didn’t forget what I wanted to represent here. I promise I will circle back and summarize the last day of camp for those that are keeping track and are interested. Consider this entry a more secular version of our vacation. OK, I’m going to start now, I promise. You might want to get new reading glasses and freshen up your drink.

Sunday Morning

It’s Sunday morning. We have developed a bad habit of sleeping through the alarm and sleeping a full 9 hours on most of our vacations rather than doing the right thing and getting a run in at altitude. We finally come to around 8:00 AM Mountain Time to get our day started. The camp is not yet ended - there are the closing ceremonies and clean-up yet to occur. We’ve decided to forego these ceremonies and instead get a head start on our 15 hour drive.

Once the kids were finally up and showered, we finally took off by 9:00 and headed down to Denver proper to say goodbye to Maylee and Steve, our hosts from a few nights prior. After a quick breakfast at Einstein’s Bagels, Jenny, Maylee, and Ethan went to Albertsons to procure snacks for our drive while Steve, Quinton, and I went to Lowry Liquors to fill the spot emptied in the car from the donation we made to the camp for the silent auction. Quinton was a big help. Walking into the store, he immediately went to get a cart. I want to think it is because he likes to push carts, but I think it’s because he knows that I typically need a cart when I shop in a liquor store. Colorado has a wonderful selection of beer, many of which I can get in Wisconsin, but many I cannot. For those in the beer nerd crowd, Colorado has moved past the IPA craze and is now brewing and enjoying beers across many different styles! I intended to get 4-six packs, but ended up with 5 and a four pack to boot. Quinton was right. He pushed the cart along with Steve and I while I traded and re-traded selections several times and to the front of the store once I ultimately settled on my final selections. Once at the checkout, the proprietor packed my selections into a box that Quin offered to carry. The proprietor said he could not take that, but asked me if it was OK if Quin had a lollypop instead. Once I said yes, he set an entire bucket of lollypops in front of Quin and said, “here you go,” surely expecting Quin to take one and move along. Quin, somewhat predictably, instead grabbed the entire bucket and started to walk out. He confidently smiled at the owner and thanked him before Steve and I convinced him that he only really needed one…

To go a little Tarantino for a second, Quin’s behavior and confidence at the liquor store reminded me of something I’ve been noticing in Ethan of late. It’s happened on several occasions lately, but it was quite pronounced on this vacation. There were several occasions where Ethan was hanging around with Jenny and I while we were talking with new people that we had just met. They were addressing Ethan directly, asking him questions, as is polite to do, though teenagers seem to dread it and often shy away from that sort of contact. Lately, however, Ethan has been showing a lot of confidence in these dealings, looking people directly in the eye, smiling confidently, and actually maintaining a solid, enthusiastic conversation with them. I’ve been very impressed by this of late. If I don’t get to the topic in tomorrow’s post about the last day of camp, Ethan was also very impressive in this camp by his ability to hook up with and meet new friends. He made a couple of solid acquaintances on this trip that I’m sure he will maintain contact with either through his various social networks or through Xbox live. Isn’t the future great!??! OK, enough of the distraction…

By 10:30 Mountain, the closing ceremonies were most likely in full swing, but we were on the road, on our way through Eastern Colorado toward our home in Wisconsin, which we hoped to reach sometime early on the subsequent morning. Eastern Colorado, or the Colorado Desert is, in a word, boring. If it wasn’t for the mountains, Colorado would be a painfully boring place. Good thing they have the mountains, I suppose! We powered through the 2 hours of 76 in short order, stopping at the end for subs and gasoline. Quin was pretty cranky by this point - having been off his schedule for almost an entire week by this point, but we ate our lunch and powered on through Nebraska - wonderful Nebraska!

The day portion of the trip went on without a hitch. Quin napped a considerable amount, which boded well for his mood later in the day. Nebraska during the day looks much like Nebraska during the night. In fact, there’s little to distinguish between the two. It’s LONG! Along the way we stopped at Hastings at perhaps the most glorious truck stop I have ever encountered. They had a couple of food places, an arcade with a full size replica of Predator, foot-long roller dogs, and actual ice cream shakes which were pretty good! They were even building a Quaker Steak and Lube there, which should be opening sometime this fall. I may actually want to go back there sometime!

We spent 6 solid hours in Nebraska before we finally got to Omaha, which marked the finish of the first half of our journey. Along the way I encountered what may have been, in retrospect, my first omen of what was to come. I’ve had a problem with my van in the past where the condenser drain backed up and started emptying in the car cabin. Sometime in central Nebraska I started to feel a cool drip of water on my bare feet. I knew at once what it was, and it only got worse as the day waned and the A/C ran… My second omen was, again in retrospect, encountered while listening to a book on tape by Michael Crighton called Pirate Latitudes. It was one book that I hadn’t yet read from Crighton, and it proved to be pretty good, though Jenny wasn’t wild about it. The ending was pretty terrible in my opinion, however - I suspect that Crighton either lost interest or died before he finished the book, but they published it anyway… Anyway, at one point during the eastern part of Nebraska, the protagonists encountered the Kraken, a bad omen for their journey. I thought tacitly to myself that this could be an omen for myself as well as for the crew, but I did so jokingly…

Anyway, we passed through Omaha and stopped just across the Iowa border in Council Bluffs where we enjoyed dinner at Perkins, a perennial favorite (and also one of the only places open at 8:00 on a Sunday evening). There was a feeling of relief in the air. There was a definite anticipation for the trip to be over and for life to normalize again - most of all, everybody was looking forward to sleeping in our own beds in 7-8 short hours! Mother Nature, as it seems, had a different plan for us.

Lightening scarred the sky while the crew of “El Trinidad” encountered the Kraken for the second time. Western Iowa was getting some weather, it was clear, though we didn’t really see any significant rain. Des Moines proved to be quite the tease on this leg of the journey. The map said something like 125 miles, and we were averaging around 75 miles per hour, so we figured on getting there some time before 11:00 Central. Somehow, though, the miles kept lagging behind as though we were only averaging 60 miles per hour. Ultimately it took us 2 full hours to get there, though admittedly we did stop once to go to the rest room.

As we pass Des Moines, I begin to get hopeful that we might make it home by 4:00, thinking (wrongly) that we are only an hour from Cedar Rapids, then another 4 hours from home. Cedar Rapids, though, is nearly 2 hours from Des Moines… I was getting a little despondent as we stopped another time, this time to allow Jenny to get a towel to cover herself so I could continue to run the AC and to have its condensed water drip on my feet, keeping me alert and awake.

Monday Morning

The hours passed slowly, the lightening continues uninterrupted. We pass the Highway 151 exit and I briefly consider taking it instead of taking the more traveled interstate toward Cedar Rapids, but I quickly dismiss it. I was tired, the gas tank was getting to the point where I needed to fill it again, but the family wanted to get home! At 12:30, we finally reached I380 and turn north. A short 12 mile jaunt north and we turn off onto Highway 151 to start the last quarter of our journey, the most difficult quarter behind us. I put off gassing up until I’m on the 151 bypass of Cedar Rapids, looking forward to taking on a Red Bull and a water and staying plenty alert for the last 14 of the journey. That proved to be a fantasy, however…

Splashdown

I380 passes over Highway 15130, so the exit winds down and to the east at a somewhat sharp curve. We took it at the suggested 30 MPH speed. By this point I am bleary eyed, but hopeful of making the next 10 miles go quickly so I can stop, gas up, and clear my head. As I round the curve toward 151 I notice that the road is covered in water. I didn’t think much of it, but as I hit the water, it crashed violently over my windshield as the tires on our car stopped responding. I slammed on the brakes and the car stopped… We were obviously in deeper water than I had anticipated. The car was lilting toward the passenger side, where it came up above the floorboards. The driver’s side wasn’t quite as bad, perhaps only 12 inches deep there. There was mass hysteria. I calmed myself as quickly as I could and tried to calm Quin and Ethan (Jenny was going to have to fend for herself). I quickly got out of the car and coaxed the kids out as well. Quin wanted to make sure that his Furby was OK - we had won it in the silent auction at camp. Ethan yelled that the water was coming in the car! It took about 30 seconds for the reality of what had happened to sink in. We were stuck!

The whole family got out but the water was rising somewhat (I may have imagined that). We moved to higher ground and assessed the situation. My next thought was for our stuff, particularly my electronics (stupid westerner!). I went quickly back to the car and checked the situation with our luggage and was satisfied that it was safe and dry for the moment. A moment later, a car came speeding down at us from 380 which was the first reminder that we were standing on a freeway in the middle of the night, and that was scary! He saw our flashers and stopped, luckily. He was from Wisconsin as well, and managed to not get his car stuck, but stopped and asked if he could help us (a trend we would see throughout the evening). I took him up on his offer and between he, Ethan, Jenny, and myself, we managed to push the car out of the 18 or so inches of water toward the high side of the road.

Several other cars and semis came speeding around the curve. Many of them stopped and asked if we needed help. Not knowing what to do myself, we told them we were OK and they should continue on themselves. An eastern European couple came the closest to hitting us, and also had almost as bad a luck as we did. I tried briefly to converse with them as they stalled out about 50 feet in front of us, but quickly found it was pointless as they neither wanted nor were able to communicate effectively with me (nor I with them), so we left each other to our own devices.

On a couple of occasions I tried to start the car. The power was still working, but when I tried to turn the ignition it behaved as though I needed a jump. I didn’t know if it was going to dry out at some point and I would be able to move on, or if we were in real trouble. As Jenny and I were arguing over whether we should walk to a gas station or some other place (there were none around), Jenny dropped her phone in 6 inches of standing water… The dollar signs were starting to add up for me in my head and I got despondent for a brief moment. Getting over it, I decided that the modern day savior, the cell phone, was our best course of action.

I first called the police, thinking that they might want to get somebody there to warn people from running into the same ordeal we had run into. For the first time in my life, I dialed 911 confidently and was answered in 30 or so seconds by a clearly frazzled dispatcher. I tried calmly to tell her where I was and that there was a lot of standing water that was dangerous to the public there. Of course my situation was the most dire in the area at this time!!! She excitedly explained to me that there was major flooding all over Cedar Rapids, and to please hold. She moved away from the phone and was talking to somebody else in the room who was trying to get a boat to perform a rescue at the HyVee. At that point I realized that we were very small potatoes in the grand scheme of this storm. Like a good dispatcher she got back on the phone and asked me to continue to hold, trying to reassure me that I was important, but I convinced her that I could handle it myself and she should attend to the real emergencies - I think she was ultimately pleased. I’m probably on the NSA’s radar now, though, having called 911 for real…

My next attempt was to get a tow truck. I tried the first one that came up on Google only to be met with an answering machine. The second one got me to a dispatcher that informed me that the average wait time right now was 3-4 hours. Aw crap. I hung up and explained it to Jenny who was unimpressed…

During this time, no fewer than 5 cars and many people on foot had stopped to inquire as to our wellbeing and to see if they could do anything. I’m very impressed with the people of Cedar Rapids, for the record! As I tried to come up with another idea, Jenny started talking to four guys in an extended cab pickup truck who said they had a tow-truck they could go get and help us out. She came over to me and told me to go talk with them. As I started to negotiate the deal, a truck from the company that I had called came rolling by and was apparently impressed enough by our situation that he stopped to help us - this was 10 minutes after we were told it would be 3-4 hours! Our luck was improving! To boot, Jenny’s phone was still working - maybe this wouldn’t be all bad!!!

As Pat is assessing our situation, he is preparing us for the worst. I explain what is happening and he told us that we are likely looking at a new engine or new car entirely. First thing’s first, though, he wants to get our car off of the freeway and get us somewhere we can stay the night. Since he had a long night in front of him, he squeezed us all into his cab and dropped us along with our car off at his parent company where they will hopefully be able to address our car in the morning. As we drove there, we had to drive through another section of 2 foot water before finally arriving at a desolate truck repair center near the ethanol plant in Cedar Rapids.

Pat convinced us that we should just call a cab and even wrote down the address for where they should pick us up. I agreed and he left to what was sure to be a long, long night for him - he had diverted from a call to get us to where we were at that point, which was better than drenched on the side of a soggy interstate! He even thought to call us back 10 minutes later to remind us to keep the keys in the car so the mechanics could assess the damage in the morning!

We called a cab, which showed up about 20 minutes later. I had found a hotel, which in my exhaustion I thought was the Comfort Inn, and asked him to take us there. He took us a very nearby cluster of hotels, but there was no Comfort Inn. For some reason it took about 3 minutes to figure out that any hotel will do, just drop us off at one!!! I said if they didn’t have rooms we could just walk to another one. The cabbie would have nothing of it, however, as we were in a “bad part of town” and we “shouldn’t be walking around there.” He meant well, and we appreciated it, but that part of town didn’t seem all that scary to me… Perhaps my central Iowa folks can contradict me…

We checked in and got 4 hours of death-like sleep. At 7:30, Jenny was ready to get on the road again, but we had no idea what we were going to have to do. Would we need to rent a car? Could they fix ours? If we rented one, when would we be able to drive 4 hours back to pick ours up? Or would we ever be able to? All questions that we couldn’t answer until we talked to the mechanic, but first I needed to figure out the insurance thing. Acuity is NOT a good company when you are in a crisis. They are well setup to accept payments and file claims during business hours, but in an emergency, you are on your own. In the middle of the night, that’s a little scary, especially with all of the Progressive commercials that were playing on the TV. By 8:00, however, I was finally able to get ahold of my agent who wasn’t much more help anyway - telling me that we were covered for the tow, but didn’t know what else… I thanked him and realized that we were on our own… Time to grow up, I guess!

By now the kids had awoken and the TV had come on where National Lampoons Vacation was on. Hmm… Another omen??? Perhaps it would have been if it hadn’t happened after the fact, but certainly coincidental! I called the repair place who had just gotten around to looking at the car. I was annoyed, but I later found out that the shop had 3 inches of standing water in it when they arrived and they spent all morning and much of the afternoon cleaning up and making the place functional again!

By now the family was at a bit of a low point. Jenny desperately wanted to be home, or at least at a Starbucks (the nearest of which was 3 miles away). So the kids and I went out and got breakfast to pass the time until we could talk with the mechanic again.

30 minutes later, I called to ATC once again who informed me that they were able to start the car and we might have gotten lucky! Finally, good news!!! Of course, they wouldn’t know for sure until they changed the oil and spark plugs and were able to test it some more. This raised the spirits considerably, but now we had to wait the prescribed 45 minutes before we called back. So we went for a walk!

There’s not much to see along 33rd street on a humid Monday morning, but we walked nonetheless… When we got back an hour later, I called again, and they continued to be positive, thinking now that they would know for sure if we could drive the car in the next 15 minutes. Knowing Jenny and the kids were at their wits’ end, I asked if he thought it would be OK if we just headed down there and waited for it. He said that would be fine, and if we could not ultimately drive it, he would give us a ride to the rental car place. Like I said, the folks in Cedar Rapids are quite friendly!

I tell the family that we’re going to the car place, and there was much rejoicing. I called a cab and headed out to the lobby to check out. There I found out that we were REALLY small potatoes in this whole thing. There was apparently a hospital that had to evacuate one of their low-lying floors to another area, and the manager of the hotel awoke to find her truck submerged up to the windows! I started to feel a little badly, but got over it as the cabbie arrived to take us back to ATC.

After spending 90 minutes at the car repair place, outside, where they had setup their soaked lobby furniture while they mopped the whole place out, we paid our $400 bill (tow included) and were finally on our way again, delayed by almost exactly 12 hours! I discussed the situation with some of the employees of the auto repair place and they were very helpful in finding us a safe way back to Dubuque and the lands beyond. They mentioned that they were expecting more weather that afternoon, and quicker we got out of there the better. That turned out to be true as we were made aware of a tornado touchdown from one of our Facebook acquaintances that afternoon!!!

We drove straight through to Dubuque, about 70 minutes, where we got gas and lunch, and most importantly, Jenny got some Starbucks! The world looked normal again.

We made it back to the Oconomowoc area just in time to pickup our dog, who had apparently barked his fool head off the entire time we were gone. The boarding house lady was VERY pleased to see him leave… Not sure what to do with him. I was glad to see him!

Home

It’s 6:00 - we are finally home! We had spent several days putting together a gazebo for our deck prior to leaving on vacation, and we were worried that bad weather might have affected it while we were gone. We were pleased to see that it was unaffected by any weather the entire 6 days we were gone! There proved to be some weather coming in, though, so we quickly unpacked the car into the garage to beat the rain.

Jenny had packed pretty efficiently, so the unpacking was going fairly quickly. Quin was working on connecting up to Netflix again, something he had missed on the vacation, and Ethan was busy evacuating his bowels, something he had not apparently done properly for the prior 6 days since he was never afforded the requisite 30 minutes to do so. Jenny and I busied ourselves unpacking and we put a couple of frozen pizzas in the oven so we could get a quick supper. That’s when the thunderstorm hit. The lights flickered 3 times - each time we heard a “come on!” from the bathroom. On the 4th time, they went out “for good.” It was at that time that we heard the gazebo get blown off the deck… I guess the Kraken had more for us after all!!!

The severe thunderstorm lasted about 10 minutes, but it did some damage, and our power was still not coming back on. Nobody had the chance yet to shower or eat, the pizzas had been in the oven for only 8 minutes, only about 23 the time required. As I busied myself looking for flashlights (all of which seem to end up in Quin’s room), Jenny finished unpacking. Ethan finished his business in the bathroom, and Quin desperately tried to watch something on Netflix!!! Foiled by the power! Also, the wind had blown the gazebo apart and pieces of it were lying on the ground out back…

On a whim, we decide to call Jenny’s sister who lives only 3 miles away to see if she has power. Oh, the power of the cellular telephone! They did have power, so we quickly brokered a deal to shower over there and hang out until our power was restored. When we got there, they had no idea of any of what had transpired over the last 18 hours. When they asked how our vacation was, Quin quickly exclaimed, “I won a Furby!!!”

After an hour of waiting, drinking their beer, and using their shower, my rudimentary sleuthing techniques informed me that our power was back on, only 2 hours from when it had gone out. We headed back home, thankful for the company and the accommodations, but yearning for HOME!!!

So that’s where we sit now. I completed my shower once we got back, Quin quickly went to bed, Jenny started the prodigious job of catching up on the laundry, and Quin was able to finally download the Furby app and feed his now hungry little stuffed animal while he was finally able to watch Netflix!!! Life is back to normal - sure, we’re 15 hours late, tired, have missed a day of school and a day of work (I wouldn’t say I missed it), but we still have a roof over our heads and our power hungry appetites are satiated once more.

It was a nice vacation, but it’s REALLY good to be home!

Written by Brandon Grady
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