April 2023 Travelogue: Road Trip

In Which We Visit New England to Celebrate the Life of a Family Matriarch

Only a few days home from our ambitious travels, and we’ve concluded the sacred institution that is The American Road Trip is in a perilous state at a moment the world is still emerging from COVID, a moment we hoped things might have changed for the better since traveling (moving!) when the pandemic was still in full swing. We found signs of hope along the way to be sure, but a few days into our trip suspected some things have changed decidedly for the worse, and for how long is anybody’s guess. To wit, there will always be dirty public toilets, but did COVID teach us nothing about the vital importance of clean ones? If you happen to visit the loo at a Starbucks, all I can say is, shields up! Gentle reader, I’d gladly pay five bucks or more for the privilege of using a clean toilet on the road.

As for our accommodations, we booked all of them in dog-friendly hotels, not knowing up until the last second whether Scout-the-Goldapeake-Retriever would join us or stay with a sitter, owing to his upper respiratory symptoms that turned out to be no more sinister than seasonal allergies. For that we were relieved, and thankful for a sitter prepared to do the gig or not pending the outcome of our third and final visit to the vet right before we launched. Turns out our trip would have been exponentially more difficult with a dog in tow, so the planets aligned well for us and for him.

Still, road tripping ain’t easy in this landscape. Here were our takeaways.

Four Things That Worked

1. A cooler stocked with fresh ingredients and home-baked bread

We’ve always practiced some version of this, packed our cooler with bottled waters and Gatorades and nibbles for the road. But this time our travel menu was more ambitious and included two loaves of sliced fresh-baked bread (one from home and the other from Chef David’s workplace), washed lettuce leaves, a variety of sliced sandwich meats and cheese, a pair of ripe tomatoes, various condiments, and fresh fruit; to this roster we added nuts, chips, and a box of fancy chocolates, et voilà!—plenty of provisions for our roadside picnics, even if we laid out the first of them in the parking lot at a defunct and vandalized paycheck loan place.

The takeaway: Pack ingredients and not pre-made sandwiches or meals—this strategy gives you options, and the individual ingredients ‘keep’ much better than sammiches. Pack healthy food, and lots of it. A beautifully made turkey sandwich on home-baked bread stands in just fine for breakfast if you can’t stomach what the hotel is peddling downstairs as “free hot breakfast.” You’ll thank yourself later that you don’t feel like something that crawled out of a grease trap, and so will your gut.

Tip: If your hotel room fridge doesn’t come with a freezer to refreeze your little plastic thingummies, fill the plastic bag from the ice bucket with fresh ice the next morning to use in the cooler. If the bucket doesn’t come with a bag, as happened to us once, be crafty and appropriate a plastic bag from… elsewhere.

2. Takeout dinner from an authentic Palestinian dive in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts

Beyond the singular joy of gathering with friends and family we don’t often get to see, this may have been the highlight of our trip. On Saturday before Easter, after our memorial celebration of David’s mama in Brattleboro, Vermont, and the burial of her ashes the same day down the road in Springfield, we arrived to check in at our hotel exhausted and not feeling great (one of us, anyway), thanks to several ambitious travel days and out-of-sync routines. We begged out of family invitations to eat out here or there, and instead struck out on foot in a decidedly abandoned area of downtown Springfield, looking a little over our shoulders as we went. A couple of blocks later found us at this humble establishment that does not look like much from the outside.

But when you step across the threshold, you’re met with a sensorial collision one could fairly describe as a warm embrace. It is not just the aroma of the made-to-order authentic Palestinian cuisine that inspires this feeling, but the combination of somewhat careworn (still plenty serviceable) furnishings, the jumble of Middle Eastern artwork, the menu offerings spelled out on paper plates and affixed to the front counter, and the friendly staff, who fell over themselves to wait on us. (Help yourself to free coffee or sage tea, they urged us.) Our orders placed, we sank into a velveteen love seat, sipped tea, and took in all these surroundings. On the wall opposite was affixed a handmade sign inscribed with the message, “We will serve you, but please be kind,” which made us wonder what kinds of miscreants inspired those sentiments in this family-owned and -operated spot. We ponied up cash at the counter when the food was ready while the friendly cashier fished two wrapped pieces of Bazooka gum from a bucket to throw into our sack, and when The Chef said that was okay, no thanks, I objected YES, please. Because who in their right mind turns down free Bazooka bubblegum from a Palestinian family at a dive in downtown Springfield.

hastily made photo of the best tabbouleh ever

Meanwhile back in our hotel room, we devoured our dinners in silence and when we finally came up for air, The Chef said he needed to figure out how on earth they prepared chicken so tender it fell right from the bone like that but still had so much flavor. I will say they also made possibly the best fresh tabbouleh I’ve had, ever. Guarded family secrets all, I betcha.

The takeaway: Sometimes the best nourishment, and not just for the body, comes from where you least expect it.

3. Our digs at the Taconic Hotel in Manchester, Vermont

Call it a luxury post, a reward for our time spent at hardship posts for much of the balance of the trip. We stayed one night coming, and two going. Which is to say, on the back end of our trip, we returned from Springfield to Manchester so The Chef could spend a few more precious moments with his children, grownups all, and one grandchild. Funny thing, what we paid for this “fancy” hotel was commensurate, give or take, with what we paid to stay at the chains, but the quality of our accommodations outweighed the rest by a mile. Highlights: complimentary beer, wine, and popcorn every evening in the lobby, where we visited with other guests and their dogs whilst embraced by comfy club chairs in front of the fireplace (because as everybody knows, Springtime in Vermont = Still Winter); a fantastic, clean workout room with equipment that functioned as expected; dogs, dogs, everywhere adorable dogs; and an incredibly tasteful and well-appointed bawthroom. I am only sorry Scoutie missed the chance to show everybody his adorableness and to comingle with the hotel’s other furry patrons in front of the fireplace.

The takeaway: Even if you think accommodations at a swank hotel will bust your budget, it pays to look first; making reservations far in advance of your travel undoubtedly helps.

4. The time we spent in Staunton, Virginia

Who knew Staunton, Virginia is such a groovy town? I mean besides the people who live there. In what has become a travel tradition for the two of us, The Chef booked accommodations for our last night at an unusual historic property, this one called Hotel 24 South in downtown Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton and not STAWN-ton, a thing The Chef did not believe but finally had to concede to when I asked the hotel clerk right in front of him). We’d already had supper by the time we arrived but had a hankerin’ for ice cream, and the staff pointed us in the right direction. We struck out once more on foot and in short order were met with a charming vibe on this small town’s picturesque main thoroughfare, dotted with restaurants, bars, and interesting small businesses, and by all appearances thriving. But what most grabbed our attention was how clean and kempt the downtown area, how many folks appeared just to be enjoying a stroll with their families and dogs. We stepped inside The Split Banana and discovered fantastic homemade ice cream, walked slowly back to the hotel while we enjoyed it, and then imagined what it might be like to live in STAN-ton-not-STAWN-ton.

Not bad at all, we concluded, and that was the takeaway from this delightful northern Virginia town.

And Several Others That Didn’t

1. La Quinta and Comfort Inns

We’ve stayed at them both before and doubtless will again. We’ve also had better experiences, at La Quinta, anyway, in the past. The best thing about them: Your dog is always welcome. But La Quinta in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania is situated practically right in the middle of I-81, and so there is no rest for the proverbial weary. We also encountered what appeared to be a family business, a side gig as it were, going full-tilt right there at the tables in the breakfast area, a call center from the looks of it. I’ll add the exercise facility is clearly not a priority for that particular property and leave it at that. We’ll avoid it like, eh, plague, in the future. As to the Comfort Inn in Brattleboro, it’s fantastic they welcome pets, but like La Quinta in Chambersburg, the property is tired and needs a complete overhaul; I abandoned hope of working out in their basement facility, where there was no heat at all, and instead defaulted to my yoga mat in the room.

The takeaway: Keep your expectations low for chain hotels that have been around a while, and consider their value only as a place to hang your hat, as we did.

Side note: A place to hang your hat should not take such a big bite out of your bank account.

2. Every chain restaurant we visited

Apart from a single Starbucks in…somewhere, Upstate NY, where everything on the menu was in stock, the staff were friendly, and the toilet was clean. And that is where our good luck ended. While we ate what we packed for most meals on our travel days, we did sit down at a restaurant table on a few occasions. We haven’t visited an Olive Garden or Applebee’s in a long, long time, and I’m confident in saying we shall not be visiting them a long time hence, if ever.

The takeaway: Franchise dining establishments have not yet recovered from COVID, not by a long shot. Expect to pay exorbitant prices for salt and butterfat and indifferent / untrained waitstaff.

Side note: Plan on spending at least $50 for two when you eat supper at a place like Applebee’s, which we once viewed as “budget” dining.

I am reminded how, when we lived in Vermont and once in a while made the long journey south to see my family, I tried to convince myself it wasn’t all that far. But that is folly, for it is indeed far, far away, and there is no way around that, only through it. Our trip was a good one, even if it was fraught with tough emotions. David’s mama Judy lived a full and beautiful life, and had she seen how we all celebrated it, the children and grands, and great-grands and cousins and aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and friends who are really family, she’d have approved, I feel sure. David and his siblings did such a beautiful job to make sure of it. We should all be so lucky.

But there is finally no place like home, and Scout emphatically agrees.

2 thoughts on “April 2023 Travelogue: Road Trip

  1. At least on your travels the COVID shut down that made public restrooms unavailable wasn’t a factor! We travelled and nearly had to find some tall grass! I’m glad you managed the trip with good attitudes and that Chef’s family was able to gather for his mother’s memorial…


  2. Road trips will always be full of surprises and not always pleasant ones! feels great to get home safe and sound.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s