The morning of our departure from the farm dawned bright and clear. The farmhouse kitchen was a hive of activity, with my friend’s mother rustling up another fantastic breakfast and the two of us hastily packing our overnight cases to throw in the newly repacked car. Sprocket happily jumped in the back seat as we bid farewell to my friend’s parents. Her dad pressed an I-Pass into our hands (the Wisconsin version of an EZ-Pass) to get us through the maze of toll booths we were about to encounter on our journey east, and I was given strict instructions to hold the pass up as we went through our first turnpike, after which we would pull in at a rest stop and pick up a holder to attach it to the windscreen.
I’m afraid I’ve inherited my father’s dislike for toll roads. He will happily drive miles out of his way just on principle, arguing that the taxes we pay are more than adequate to pay for the cost of infrastructure, or rather, they would be if our taxes were being spent appropriately. I prefer the term turnpike to toll booth, as it evokes, for me, a medieval time when the rich could, on a whim, levy whatever taxes they wanted on those less well-off than themselves, and enforce it with the sharp end of a pike. How times have changed. Well, at least they don’t use pikes any more. Passing through a turnpike always reminds me of the Greek myth of Charon the ferryman, charging souls a toll to carry them across the river to Hades. Shunpikers were doomed to wander for eternity in that perilous no-man’s-land between heaven and hell. By comparison, today’s option to drive the back roads feels like you’re getting off lightly, plus there’s the added bonus of seeing more of the places you are passing through.
My friend’s mother enveloped me in the warmest of hugs and produced a bag full of homemade sandwiches, chocolate and juice for our trip. I had grown immeasurably fond of her over the couple of days I’d spent on the farm and our departure felt for all the world like I was leaving home for the very first time.
We pulled out of the farmyard with my friend at the wheel, me in the passenger seat for the first time on the trip and Sprocket curled up comfortably in the back seat. It didn’t take us long to get back onto I-94 and soon we were through Milwaukee and heading south towards the windy city of Chicago. I’d been warned about the dreaded traffic around Chicago, but somehow we managed to avoid it, motoring along at a good clip around the bottom of Lake Michigan. As we passed our first toll booth, I dutifully held up the I-Pass and watched as the barrier magically lifted to let us proceed. Shortly thereafter we found a rest stop and purchased a suction-type holder which we stuck on the windscreen and slipped the I-Pass into position.
Onward we travelled, with the traffic increasing as the day drew on. There was less to marvel at now, certainly compared to the wide-open vistas we had enjoyed up until this point, although we did spy a colourfully painted car not dissimilar to a Pollack masterpiece, which brightened up an otherwise unremarkable drive.
Then disaster struck. A turnpike barrier failed to open, and my friend hit the brakes to stop in time. We rolled to a halt a few feet short of the barrier, and heard a shift of boxes from the back of the car. Turning around, all we could see were Sprocket’s eyes, wide with surprise, staring back at us from amongst a pile of boxes that had once resided in the space behind the back seat. The barrier begrudgingly opened and we drove through, pulling off to the side of the road, where I jumped out and rushed to shove the boxes back where they belonged and hug Sprocket. We felt awful, shocked and jolted by the event, and my friend’s eyes brimmed with tears as she looked back at Sprocket’s expression. He bravely lay back down again and waited until we reached the nearest rest stop, where he jumped out of the back seat and into my friend’s arms. After a long walk to shake off the attack of the boxes, we repacked everything and fully extended the headrests in the back seat so there was no chance of anything moving forward. It was packed so tightly now we doubted we would be able to get anything out of the back ever again, but we didn’t care, as long as Sprocket was safe. I re-positioned the I-Pass in as prominent a place as I could on the windscreen, to ensure that future barriers would open promptly.
A couple of bikers on the long journey back from Sturges told us that Erie was a good place to stop for the night, so we settled upon driving that far by the end of the day. As we got ready to leave, Sprocket jumped up into the back seat and we saw, to our dismay, the faintest string of drool hanging from his jowl. That was more than enough for us to agree that my friend would sit in back with him. I took over the driving as she snuggled under a blanket with her best friend, and soon, the two of them were sleeping soundly.
I drove along in silence, through Gary, Indiana and onto I-90, which runs for 157 miles along the Indiana Toll Road, all the way to the Ohio state line, at which point it turns into the Ohio Turnpike. Traffic was thick and heavy and progress was slow. Driving manners were different too; back west an indicator flashing was a polite inquiry as to the possibility of moving out into your lane; here, it meant ‘Look out, buddy, here I come, ready or not‘. I-90 does an interesting dance along the Ohio-Michigan border; signs saying ‘Welcome to Michigan’ pop up along the way, although, confusingly, you never actually appear to enter Michigan unless you turn off the freeway. Nonetheless, it was very neighbourly of Michigan to welcome us; I must make a point of visiting the state at some point.
I pulled off near Toledo to fill up the tank, my friend still asleep in the back. When I was getting back in the car, I took a quick peep at Sprocket and was thrilled to see he had put the incident with the boxes far behind him, and was looking sleepy, very relaxed and hungry for treats. I obliged, of course, giving him a big kiss on his head for being so brave, and was rewarded with the happiest of licks right on my nose.
Driving along the freeway, Lake Erie tantalisingly just out of sight off to the left, I longed for the freedom of the open roads we had driven out west. These roads, by comparison, were not open; traffic thickened the further east we drove, and as the turnpikes – greedily gobbling up the credit on our I-Pass – proved, they were not free either. It was dark by the time I manoeuvered through the quagmire of traffic and intersections around Cleveland, searching for the right turn-off to ensure our safe arrival in Erie for the night. My friend was awake by now and did a stellar job as navigator; Cleveland passed by in a blur of neon and Lake Erie, off to the left, remained hidden from sight under cover of the night. By the time we arrived in Erie it was very late, so we found the nearest motel and had a picnic with the sandwiches my friend’s mum had packed. Food never tasted so good. Happily full and relieved to have the stress of the day behind us, we staggered into our respective beds and drifted off to sleep.