It is never easy getting out of a warm bed, today was no different. The full pancake spread was on display along with juice and coffee. Tommy did the dishes. I packed the bus.
We left the campground at 9:20am. At 9:50 a mere 22 miles afterwards, a sudden and loud popping noise shouted from the back... POW, POW, POW, POW, POW! I pulled over and shut her down. Tommy knew to exit and stand outside rather than remain inside a parked vehicle. I gave the engine a quick once over and looked underneath as well. She fired up easily but when I revved the engine the noise persisted. I instantly knew what it was. It was broken. I instantly knew what to do. I called Guillermo Rodas. A brief discussion, video and photo revealed the very obvious problem. It was broken. But he knew what it was and walked me through the easy roadside fix. Somehow, spark plug #3 wriggled loose and the engine pressure popped it out, though still attached to the wire. Having a VW guru at the end of the phone line to give advice is empowering. Tools were retrieved and after a bit of a cool down, my torso was wedged inside the engine bay, swallowed whole like a Jaws victim. Trucks were whizzing by. I was thinking we are not going to miss the game, we can make it.
A bit of oil and it screwed in, just as a guy named Kurt stopped by to lend a hand. Kurt owns a 1970 bus and said "we don't just drive by, we stop and help." He had a deep socket 13/16 and 30 seconds later, the bus was purring like a 44 year old bus again. Thanks Guillermo and thanks Kurt. The 40 minute mishap would cause us to be late for our two-hour pre-game arrival which meant we would still be there before most. I grinned for five minutes about the simplicity of Sweet Pea.
The bus was secured in the $5 city lot and we walked three blocks into one of my favorite ballparks. An entry ticket hiccup was resolved and Tommy took control of our walk to see the sights and check out the food offerings. Standard grub was had and our choice seats in Section 219, Row 2, Seats 10 and 11 were enjoyed.
First pitch was a called strike. I then asked Tommy how he felt about this particular breakdown vs. some of the others. He said at first he was worried that we would never get home, but once Guillermo was on the phone he knew we'd but alright. I agreed.
It was sunny and hot today. We stuck it out through the 7th inning stretch, singing the song and the taking a walk. I showed the boy where a pinch of his brother was ceremoniously released, deep center field with a view of the whole field. Later, Michele J. enjoyed our travel story as she ushered fans in the shady section. A late tying rally was erased in the top of the 9th by a three-run shot which held up in front of 19,184 fans.
Tommy motioned towards the exit and we returned to the lot, checked and then added oil before hitting the road. Lola the dashboard hula girl, hit the deck and broke both legs. But we kept on going.
Stillwater, MN is a gorgeous hamlet along the St. Croix River and our plan tonight is a stopover at our friend Randy Boler's place. Talk about Minnesota Nice! We took a walk into town and enjoyed malted milkshakes, sandwiches and friendly service on the patio. What a beautiful town.
Today was great. We only covered 98 miles and the issues encountered were all resolved by a different smiling face. Minnesota Nice!
Today was pretty mundane. Stop reading now. Ok, you asked for it.
We were wiped out yesterday and crashed with little regard for the customary nightly prep. Though there are window curtains all around, the eastern facing windshield had been left uncovered. As the blinding sun rose over the Wisconsin treetops just across the St. Croix river, there was no need for an alarm clock to wake us up in Minnesota. Having a great view of the river was nice and after a few attempts of falling back into that interrupted dream, I slid open the door and the world was at my feet. Unsteady feet, it was gravel after all.
The final ballpark is in Detroit, roughly 650 miles away and this trek can be either two long days or three simpler days of travel. The plan was just get going, and keep going until one of us quit.
Tommy did his part in packing up, shutting off shore power, stowing loose items, checking the oil. The bus started up and our friend Randy Boler stopped by from his morning run to wish us well on our continuing journey. He is a genuinely kind and generous man and we are grateful for his warm hospitality. He walked towards his yacht and we crept slowly out of the marina lot towards the interstate.
Hello Wisconsin! The ride was cool, a bit overcast and for the first time, all of the bus windows were rolled up. This continued through the Badger State and into Illinois. It was windy, bumpy and quiet. We just kept on going today and ended up in Indiana after 411 miles over 10-1/2 hours. We stopped to eat, for gas and to actually rest. We are settled into a simple hotel, showered and content.
So it looks like we will be watching an actual game tomorrow night at Comerica Park in the Motor City. Back in 2017 we visited this ballpark for a game that never took place. Players never stepped on to the field and a pitch was never thrown because the game was called off due to rain.
I said to Tommy then that although we did sprinkle a pinch of Johnny's ashes behind the right field foul pole, unless there is a game played and a 7th inning stretch, we will have to return. Tomorrow we are making good on that promise. No asterisk games for us!
The curtains are drawn tightly and I am already nodding off. Today was a marathon but worth the effort for tomorrow we complete our 30th ballpark game together. All three of us.
Getting up and at 'em was easy today. 256 miles were all that remained before Tommy and me to finish what began in April 2015. It did seem to be finished in July 2018, after all, Johnny's ashes were scattered at all of the ballparks. Yet, Tommy did not see every ballpark and we did not see a game in Detroit due to weather. So in 2021 we planned and traveled and cheered in Houston, Arlington, Kansas City, Minneapolis and tonight, Detroit.
The bumpy miles passed by like the tractor trailers bearing down on Sweet Pea, though more than 55 per hour. I thought it best to find a hotel outside of the city, settle in, shower and work a bit before heading in to Comerica Park. Plymouth, MI fit nicely.
On the ride to the ballpark, the skies were clear and the traffic volume surprisingly light. That's where I let it all sink in; where each ballpark, in order, ran through my head. They do not make RainEx for eyeballs so I just wiped the tears away with my hand, that volume was heavy.
I purposefully do not try to imagine what Johnny would be doing today if he had lived. That to me is too hard. I know he would be happy and kind and he would be making me smile and so very proud. These are the traits he had all along and how I remember him. Today I thought that if he were along for this ride sitting in the backseat with Tommy life would be...
Then I stopped doing this to myself. Life is what we make of it, whatever happens. I choose to remember and celebrate Johnny the way he was; a lovely nine-year-old boy. That is all I can manage.
Furthermore, this trip is about Tommy and how we set goals and finish what we start. I asked him what his favorite ballpark was and he said Fenway because that is where his family is from.
We pulled into the "Tiger's Garage" and the lady in the ticket booth lit up like a light. She saw the bus years ago, four years ago, when last in the Motor City at he infamous rainout game. She looked for the photo on her phone to no avail. We chatted for a couple of moments, spoke about this being the culmination of many travel miles and that we are happy to be here tonight. I smiled knowing that this silly vehicle spreads so much joy.
We took photos in front of the impressive entry before the gates opened, of course. Tickets were scanned, we walked the lower concourse, watched batting practice and meandered to the third level to our seats. Great skyline views were enjoyed, the anthem respected, and a first pitch strike delivered. The game was immaterial tonight. I watched it. I was there, but somehow I was back having a catch with Johnny during his little league days. The best of the best of times.
We stretched and Tommy can sing quite well. The Astros were in complete control all night winning 12-3 before a meager 12,600 fans. We left in the top of the ninth. Pam the parking lot attendant said several people were taking selfies with the bus, herself included. She congratulated us on the milestone, as many other friends did too and we drove off into the night in silence, smiling.
PANCAKES ON TUESDAY?
FRIDAY: JUNE 25, 2021
Rain had fallen steadily at dawn washing away 3,146 miles of dust clinging to Sweet Pea. Ten states worth of travel now puddled around the bus as we enjoyed a hot breakfast and an 11am departure.
Turning south and towards home, it was fitting that the atmospheric low pressure matched our open schedule, our tempo. The ballpark visits are over and there's no place like home, but getting there can be an adventure or a curse. Trips are always more fun on the ride out, with the sun on your back. Today, the sun is behind a blanket of overcast clouds. Yet the left arm is still tanner than the right.
Friday brought us into Ohio and the incessant blows suffered in Detroit had thrown the front end out of alignment or at least a wheel or two out of balance. We pulled into a Pep Boys, then a Midas shop for a courtesy inspection without success. An independent shop, Belle Automotive, confirmed a stabilizer bar would need replacement but they could not get the item easily, that the bus was safe, we we could live with the nuisance vibration at 60MPH. We pressed on in a drizzle after the 3 hour Ping-Pong search without wrenching, at 55. The long day netted 210 miles over 8.5 hours mixed in with a few breaks. The Hampton Inn - Vadalia, OH was chosen with a Fish Fry country dinner at the adjacent Cracker Barrel. A travel team baseball coach and I chatted by the bus of his teams travels and of ours. The game just has a way of connecting with people.
SATURDAY: JUNE 26, 2021
It was a hot and slow ride into Kentucky. Watching the oil temperature gauge climb as did the bus in elevation, kept the odometer limited to 170 total miles on the curvaceous interstate. The handy camping app found is a lovely RV Park just 1/2 mile off the exit. Site # 26 was perfect and we emptied the bulk items, swept, stowed, hooked up, charged up, washed clothes and then dined next door at a surprisingly low priced Mexican Restaurant (that was its name too), before turning in by 9pm. Camping is way more fun than the hotel experience, though the showers are not quite as nice, or hot.
SUNDAY: JUNE 27, 2021
Today brought us through Tennessee and into Georgia. We stopped four times due to the oil temperature creeping to 230° mixed in with lunch and refueling. I bought a laser thermometer to more precisely check the engine temps in seven different spots. Developing a new routine and baseline to measure against kept my mind as focused as Tommy's Nintendo Switch backseat gaming exploits. The boy would pop his head up every so often to let me know I hadn't left him anywhere. The 930am to 6pm trek was especially fun once we cleared mile marker 153.6 and held on tight for ensuing rollercoaster descent. Crossing a state line was a simple goal met, and I needed a good shower. Holiday Inn Express worked fine and we showered up before deep dish pizza, a treat in a vacant Pizza Hut. Sleep ensued ten seconds after hitting the bed.
MONDAY: JUNE 28, 2021
The 28th was a marathon day through The Peach State. Atlanta driving and midday traffic jams were quite taxing. Zap went the laser device several times over the course of the day and though dropping the speed to 53 MPH annoyed drivers, it pleased the old girl. We fueled up at the station beside the looney bin and skipped making sandwiches here until reaching a rest area. "Safety in numbers" was uttered by the boy and I agreed.
The afternoon began to cool off and the sun emerged from the persistent overcast ride. Sticking my hand out the window to feel the cooler air was commonplace. Looking at the virtual map and using my math skills, reaching the FL/GA Line and beyond kept me busy. Do we press on for an easy run in the morning by pushing more now, or do we stop and stretch the state over two days? Sweet Pea spoke up and we started to slow due to the strain of these past days, the heat, the need for a tweak here and so on.
We crossed the border and settled in Alachua, FL at 745pm after 391 long Georgia miles. The rest of our trip is yet to unfold...
At the end of each trip done in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, Orlando was visited to enjoy one of the theme parks. 2021 was no different. The 220 or so mile drive from Alachua, FL to Universal Studios took us 3 hours and 35 minutes and another hour to enter the park after the world’s longest and slowest ticket line; but the boy said, “we’re here, we’re in, let’s have fun”. We did. He led the way, made the choices, and aside from picking my lunch, did all of the thinking within the Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios for the both of us. It was great, a bit wet from the persistent cloud cover which closed all the rollercoasters, but enjoyable still – except for the weary feet. Ouch.
We left just before the 9pm closing time and the handy app my sister suggested proved worthy again, scoring us a nice room just six miles away for $95. The Hilton TRU was close, comfortable and being in Orlando, a good value. The routine of locking the bus after removing the valuables and calculating the life expectancy of the deep-cycle battery powered fridge was done in a flash. He is an expert now and can read and interpret the voltage draw and temperature like a submarine commander in an old movie. Showers were taken and while I watched a movie, Tom hit the pillow and fell into a Rip Van Winkle slumber. Energy sapped to zero percent meant we did it right.
Some mornings are for sleeping in. Today was different. We left the parking lot at 8:25 AM after finishing Fruit Loops and quick showers. The coffee was excellent and reminded me that in 24 hours, whole beans would be hand-ground into my favorite mug, a Philadelphia Phillies 16 ouncer acquired in 2017. Road trip coffee can be as bland as racetrack pizza but today started out bold and it was sunny. Never before has Orlando been left in our rearview as early as today. See you again soon.
The Florida turnpike has become quite familiar to us. We always yell out “yee-haw” where Route 60 bi-secs this highway known as, you guessed it, Yee-Haw Junction. I know that he will likely do this whenever he is through here in the future, and forever. It is a law in my book. Markers in life need to be rooted somewhere, like recalling an experience when hearing a song from youth. It is part of the job, one that I cherish. Rain was just off to the west and the drop in temperature quickly cooled us down. The doomsday cloud ahead dropped buckets of sweet-smelling water as we passed through it just before refueling. We were very lucky with weather this trip. The tropical storm that went through the panhandle missed us by two days, the heatwave plaguing the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast were nowhere near us and severe weather rainfall chased us in the Midwest eastward, but fizzled out, embarrassed that it could not catch Sweet Pea. A few brief showers, some steady wind, and one long and hot detour in Louisiana towards Texas were all that truly impacted us.
As we inched towards the exit just a few miles away from my place, I told Tommy that I was enormously proud of him. We crossed into 18 states over 19 days driving 4,482 miles, spitting out one sparkplug and having zero complaints. I reminded him that when we began traveling to the ballparks in 2015 he was only seven years-old and now he has peach fuzz on his teenaged face, a deep voice and he grew an entire foot. Naturally, the typical dad joke followed about finding three matching shoes. He let out a groan. I just cannot stop, it is hereditary. The boy has logged tens of thousands of miles, has driven through 40 states in all of our ballpark pursuits and spied incalculable items with his little eye. I reminded him that over the years, he jumped off of a quarry cliff, toured various museums, stood in the shadow of Lincoln, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, marveled at Niagara Falls and at giant Redwood trees. He saw The Statue of Liberty, deserts, the Rocky Mountains, the high plains and both oceans. He visited friends, family and met so many people along the way that were warm and caring and generous. We experienced a few breakdowns but nothing substantial, and we learned to ask for help and carry on.
Mostly, I reminded him that there was a purpose to it all, that he will always have a big brother and that he is at rest in all of the Major League Ballparks, places he was destined to visit someday, and that every time he sees a game, be it on TV or in the stands, that his brother Johnny is out there smiling and equally proud of him too.
We backed into the gravel driveway, recorded the mileage, and unloaded our bags and related items. A load of Tommy’s laundry began sloshing around and I made a PB & J for us both. I looked at him and said this is the world's best sandwich, enjoy it. Without taking a bite, he said mom’s are better. I smiled.
DON'T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT