Low pressure made sleeping so much easier and the accompanying rainfall kept us both in our respective sleeping bags until 9:15. Why I set my alarm for 7am was plain wrong. I already fixed that for tomorrow. It was a wet night and morning with a steady rain that made me groan before stepping outside to face the music. Tommy did the indoor conversion of retracting the curtains, bagging trash and sweeping the floor before heading to the showers. I followed upon his return after lowering the roof and stowing the bulk gear and duffle bags. It's a daily dance done faster when getting wet, but nothing a good hot shower could not make better.
We left the KOA and enjoyed a stop at Dunks, took on some fuel and headed east on the I-90 towards the border.
There was a whole lot of nothing to see for quite a while and the bus just hummed along. We took a break at a rest area for 30 minutes to do some laptop work and a few people flashed a peace sign, snapped a pic and or just a pleasant smile. Pretty normal stuff. One guy came up to the driver side window wearing a VW logo golf shirt and holding a sleek umbrella in a zipped-up black case. I rolled down the window and he said, "I'm Joe Ward and I saw your bus and just had to stop and give you this gift. I work for VW and I'm impressed to see this fine-looking vehicle still going strong." Then he said that he grew up with one as a kid and proceeded to show me photos of the family bus, a 1968 Westy Camper, including one of the actual invoice paid ($ guess ) which even posted a rust proof undercoating option. He not only lived the life, but he also works it now. We spoke about the current trip of Key West to Cape Flattery and back, of Johnny and that we're 3 ballparks shy of the 30 in total and that we wrap it up on Friday. He is a Chicago Cubs season ticket holder and had just given away his tickets for tomorrow's Dodgers game and was miffed that we hadn't crossed paths earlier. He really was. People are awesome. I have had some nice encounters surrounding this trip and am continually amazed that people from all areas of the country are generous. Joe, thanks for the gesture.
The border photo was a success and our plan of 'not having a plan' on where to stay proved a bit tenuous as more and more aggressive Chicago drivers darted around us. The handy camper app generated some clunker spots to avoid; somewhat expected in the largest metro area of the Midwest. So we checked out a few hotels and ended up at a Holiday Inn Express in Arlington Heights, IL after 176 miles of driving, a mere 20 mile distance to the turnstiles of Wrigley Field. Tommy has Wi-Fi, I have an easier morning and very high expectations about a certain ballpark. Now all I need are some tickets.
The most exciting photo of the day...the only photo taken
Easy up and at 'em morning complete with a decent breakfast in the lobby annex. I asked the desk clerk of her recommendation for parking downtown near the ballpark and she pulled out a bus schedule. For $5 each way per person, we could park at a shopping mall and hop aboard a city charter bus which travels 25 miles directly to the ballpark and then back again 30 minutes after the game. So, for $20, we could safely be transported? It was scheduled to leave at 11am and arrive at noon for 1:20pm first pitch.
First gear was engaged at 9am and we parked Sweet Pea at Michael's grandma's triple-decker house precisely at 9:52. The $40 cost landed us a choice parking spot across the street from the legendary marquee adorning the facade of "Wrigley Field". It was money well spent. We chatted for a couple of minutes as he noted the collection of stickers and even phoned his cousin about tickets to no avail. I was happy about taking the ‘private’ bus to Wrigley. There is just something about having your own wheels.
The streets were already crowded with faithful fans sporting team colors, as well as a ton traveling Dodgers fans. That team like the Cardinals travel well. We bought upper deck tickets and walked the streets around this 104-year-old institution. Looking in all directions had us taking tiny steps so as not to trip, as if walking in the dark. A vendor said the quadrangle grassy area where kids tossed baseballs with their dads and played giant Jenga is new this season, that the team offices, store and some area restaurants are also new. What I enjoyed was the feel of how neighborhood dwellings, small businesses and the ballpark blended so well together in a harmony other city planners cannot duplicate. There are many city ballparks but only a few that belong. Wrigley Field belongs exactly where it lives. It breathes life here and its pulse is strong.
The gates opened and we filed back in time to at minimum, my childhood some 44 years ago. The smallish hallways with upgraded food options still sit within the original framework laid out in 1914. We walked the interior perimeter from home plate to the edge of the bleachers and back to third base without yet having seen the grass. We always check out each ballpark, stem to stern, this time sporting give-away promotional ballcaps. I love free stuff. The boy wanted to see our seats and we walked up the narrowing ramp bypassing level two, inching upward and across a catwalk like bridge to the upper deck. That first peek was cool for me. Not the same as my first Fenway experience, but still one that I took pause and surveyed from pole to pole for a while. The sky was a bit moist with a distant fog hovering behind the city and a slight breeze tossed a chill our way, but 72 is still nice. I really cannot wait for summer though.
The stands filled in slowly and we took a stroll around once again as we still had an hour before first pitch. I noticed a sea of blue caps below the labyrinth as we paraded through the standing room only fans on level two taking their coveted spots. These are informed and attentive fans. Grub was consumed and we walked back to our seats as the crowd began to fully fill in the footprint.
First pitch was a ball. The game was a gem for the Cubbies. A 4-0 win featuring diving catches, heady double plays and a superb inning ending throw out at the plate.
Pat Fitzgerald, coach of The Northwestern Wildcats not only threw a fastball ceremonial first pitch, but he led the sellout crowd in THE BEST rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" of any ballpark, past, present or future. 41,199 fans sang and cheered in unison; one shed a couple of tears. It was the moment this spectacular day had been leading up to at a bucket list venue before the term existed. That special time and magical place to truly connect and celebrate the experience of taking my boys out to the ballgame was met. This time, Section 536 Row 4 and Seats 1 and 2. Johnny would have loved Wrigley Field. No other ballpark's 7th inning stretch will compare. Ever. So we will come back for more. The ambiance is that of Fenway. Just as costly. Just as jammed packed. Just as dripping with history. Just as pure.
The rainy forecast was accurate, and we slept in the comfort of the hotel until 8:30 this morning. An 11am checkout would not be squandered today. After showering up, we ate breakfast in the lobby annex again while watching the droplets intensify outside as well as the 'future loop' of impending doom as shown in yellow and red streaking across the device. It was looking like the Chicago White Sox game could be in jeopardy tonight.
The final game on Friday of the 4-year, 30 ballpark trek, was going to be in Milwaukee where the Brewers play. They happen to have a retractable roof and with the ominous forecast tonight and a favorable one Friday, we flipped games and headed north to "Cream City". We will catch the White Sox as we head south with no miles lost, 2 hours gained.
Milwaukee was an easy drive though the roads were a mess wherever we went. A laundromat was spotted, and we took care of business. No sightings of Laverne and Shirley skipping down the sidewalk though. Laptop time allowed for some work to be completed earning another client, keeping the big wheel churning. Then we drove over to Miller Park.
This venue is an isolated island bordering the interstate and an expansive parking lot. We paid $12 for parking and discovered that many fans tailgate here before the games. Some cities like Philadelphia do not permit this, but even under gloomy raw skies with a light mist swirling, fans grilled and tossed corn filled snacks onto sloping game boards all around us. We changed clothes and walked over the pedestrian bridge from the Uecker lot to the ticket window 9 minutes away.
$36 for a pair of upper deck seats on the third base side batters box were purchased and we entered into the 18th season of this technological marvel "Miller Park".
The roof was closed and the skies were grey which darkened up the entire facility. It reminded me of Minute Maid Park in Houston under similar circumstances, both considered pretty when the sun shines and the roof is open but shadowy when not.
The crowd was energetic though and the Pride Night fans wore black tees with a rainbow throwback Brewers logo mitt to mark the occasion.
We did our perimeter walk, picked up a window decal and perhaps the best pizza of any ballpark. Tommy hogged it all, giving me a tiny slice. Our seats were good and we settled in, splitting a bag of peanuts, I got my revenge consuming 3/4 of the bag.
A first pitch strike left the yard to deep center and the Cardinals fans were loud and proud. The game flew by tonight even with a commanding performance by the Brew Crew. Bernie Brewer rode down the yellow slide too; a cool homerun feature out in deep upper left field. And then it just arrived, the 7th inning stretch. Tommy took the packet of Johnny's remains portioned out for the game and laid them at our feet, sprinkled onto the concrete floor and among peanut shells and forever a part of Miller Park, Section 427, Row 13, Seats 1 and 2.
We sat for the rest of the inning but my mind drifting off to a time when the kids and I watched a game years ago in Miami. I do this from time to time and it is good.
Four more runs crossed the plate and now with an 8 run lead, a win looked solid. We walked down the staircases and out into the mist towards Sweet Pea.
A simple fuel up and a 20 mile drive out of the city landed us in a neighborly Walmart lot south of downtown. Tommy dove undercover and fell asleep within 2 minutes. We'll be up and out heading to Chicago by 7am so sleep is precious.
29th ballpark, check.
A 7am Walmart lot departure had us hitting Chicago by 11am and on the hunt for a Cubs window decal. Normally we buy one at each of the ballparks like we did yesterday in Milwaukee for the Brewers. The Wrigley Field visit on Wednesday left us with only a baby blue logo option that yielded frowns from both MacDougall's and I knew that we could pick up the correct color scheme sticker somewhere. Rain continued streaking across the RainEx treated windshield. I should have stock in this company. Target and Walmart as well as Dick's Sporting Goods did not offer a solution, but a salesclerk mentioned Wrigleyville, a souvenir shop near the ballpark. DUH!! that was easy.
So now we had five hours to find something to do in the city before the White Sox game parking lots and gates opened. The weather was cool and gloomy exposing maybe the lower 40 stories of the skyline, so towers were out. Navy Pier while drizzling, not much fun. Tommy said dad, "Jurassic World-Fallen Kingdom" opens today there is a theater near me- ask Google. I am a blockbuster opening day movie fan and the plan made sense. We parked in a garage, selected seats and enjoyed popcorn, coming attractions and another installment in Crichton’s series. Spoiler, bad guys get their comeuppance. Good summer flick.
The plan tonight was to drive south out of the metropolitan area after the game which meant scoring a decal before heading to the ballpark -just in case. We did just that at 'Grandstands' three blocks west of "Guaranteed Rate Park" - home of the Chicago White Sox. The store had the exact decal sought and the clerk provided gas station tips and a parking suggestion too. We fueled up and parked in Lot C amongst the South Side faithful who were already tailgating. Pop up tents were plentiful as were kids tossing baseballs, adults plunking Corn Hole sacks and no less than four selfies in front of Sweet Pea before we stepped out. A make-up game was underway from last night's rain out, and we were on time, 2 hours early. I scraped off a non-baseball decal to make room for the final three relevant ones. Uproot Hootenanny, a Florida band we enjoy, will understand plus they have more.
Tommy helped place the Cubs, Brewers and Sox stickers in their respective places thereby completing the 30-team collage. The man we parked beside asked if we had tickets and said to be sure and get lower section ones as the upper deck ones do not allow access to the lower bowl. He said they sell cheaper obstructed view tickets for $22 each. A guy walked up and noticed the sticker tribute and we shook hands. He got it instantly. No words were spoken. None were needed. Another guy, Frank, chatted about the trip and offered some BBQ and beer, my favorite brand too, free; but we had to do our thing and headed over to the ticket window.
The ticket window agent chuckled when I mentioned obstructed view and said they'd be closing the upper deck anyway sliding two tickets under the glass totaling $15.68 including tax. Thank you sir!
We did our walk around, Tommy keenly seeking out Pizza, me, a statue of a boyhood hero. The employee said she never heard of him. I knew better. Carlton Fisk was larger than life, especially one October night in 1975, but he stood for something grander. He was a leader, a competitor and just went out and did his job for 24 seasons. I snapped a photo of course. I then pointed the bronze out to the friendly lady who just didn't get the whole nostalgia thing and she said "oh him, I see him all the time but played long ago and is long dead so nobody knows him". No words.
We continued our loop, Tommy got pizza, I opted for a Chicago Dog, foot-long, loaded up too.
We sat in Section 142 Row 30, Seats 1 and 2 and watched the game. I know they played baseball but honestly it was a blur. We did the wave, watched a ball leave the park for the A's so I have no idea about the homerun feature, but the fans were into it and the aroma of grilled food was everywhere.
The final out at the top of the 7th had us standing and stretching and singing too. It was nice and calm and happy. I always think of Johnny during this song. He was pure and good and happy every day of his life. Now, he is at rest, at least in baseball terms. 30 ballparks exist in the major leagues and the goal of going to each, to bringing him along, has been met tonight.
We left it all behind after this moment and headed to the bus. It made sense to get a jump on the exit and head south out of Chicago. We still have 1,250 miles to go with a stopover at Disney.
The goal is completed. We set out to do it and we made it, on time. Thank you, Tommy. Thank you all.
We left the Pilot Truck stop at 7:30 and spent the next 12 hours heading south. Hello Indiana. Glad you are fixing the I-65. Pretty rough going for the entire state. Hello Kentucky! We cruised along easily, took an hour break, and continued into Tennessee. The goal was to net as many miles as comfortable today. We pulled of I-24 just a few miles shy of reaching the Georgia border after 586 clicks. Several short breaks were taken just to stretch legs and keep it interesting. Tommy rode shotgun, helping to plot the course, text reply to clients and otherwise allowing me to keep my hands on the wheel. Disney is roughly 625 miles away and it looks like a Monday arrival, a day ahead of schedule. He is such a good boy. No complaints. Ending on a high note is deserved. Before I know it, he will be too cool to hang with me, but we will always have these memories.
We left the Motel 6 behind and took on fuel for what turned into a marathon travel day. Tennessee to Florida spanning 12 hours and 435 miles was done with several breaks.
We had a fuel system delivery issue creep up too. The fuel pump or a vapor lock gremlin caused the fuel pressure to drop off and stutter the proper delivery of gasoline to the carburetor. I thought it was a loose wire at first and after jiggling them it seemed to be fine. The coil connections were good. Then I repeated this step roadside again 20 miles further down I-75. Off we went. Hmmm? Another gas station stop 75 miles later and it sputtered a third time as we drove off so I pulled into a muffler - tire shop open this Sunday. The older mechanic showed me that the flow of fuel was constant through the line, into the clear plastic filter, that it was visible but sporadically the pressure gauge dropped off. A spurlp of air entered the filter causing a drop of RPM from the idling engine. He said you will be fine, likely a simple issue of being so hot or at worst, a pump starting to go. Just feather it home if it drops off and pressure will build, and it will work. He loved the rebuild too. I felt fine with the "have your guy look at when you get home" suggestion. I will. No biggie. Sweet Pea was likely just hot, as I have been pushing her a bit more over the last two days. She is truly running great and I suspect it is a taxed fuel pump.
We continued without incident.
Disney World is now only 160 miles away. We opted for a medium rate hotel and just finished a Ruby Tuesday dinner. The 3-night campground reservation at Fort Wilderness has been made and finally, we will have time to just stay put for a few days. Tommy never once complained. He has learned roadside issues are best dealt with cool heads. And he has Wi-Fi. Life is good.
An easy day. We left Lake City, fueled up and cruised to Orlando over a 5-hour stretch covering 170 miles.
Hello Fort Wilderness.
We have been here many times. Sweet Pea is a veteran of both scout camping, loop camping with the boys and Kristin as well as just me and Tommy on the final stretch home like we did in 2015 and 2016. This is a reward for Tommy.
We are all set up and will be enjoying three nights in one place; a nice departure from the wake up and go-go-go routine.
Tonight we will enjoy a Disney Movie at the campfire pit. Tomorrow we will hit one of the waterparks.
Spent the day at the Typhoon Lagoon Waterpark. We did it all and I reminded Tommy of the time he and Johnny bravely swam "Shark Reef" with the baby sharks, an attraction which closed in 2016. "Ohhh yeeaahh" was mentioned. I probably still have the marks on my back from the clutching hands of that day nearly four years ago. Rain eventually chased us all away, but we picked up return vouchers for a future visit. A crowded shuttle bus brought us to camp and after a hot shower, we took a transport to Disney Springs for dinner, followed by a trip over to the Contemporary Hotel for a drink. The iconic monorail was taken around the park with a finale of fireworks viewed on the boat ride back to our campground. What a day!
Tommy loves Star Wars and Hollywood Studios. I wanted to see the Avatar installment at Animal Kingdom and said we'd be going there. When the shuttle arrived to usher us to the respective park I nudged Tommy on to the bus. He was giggling thinking I did not realize it was heading over to his preference. We stepped off and I said, 'hey wait a minute' to his utter delight convinced he snuck one by the old man. We did it all, twice and with the "Toy Story Land" Grand Opening in 3 days - but closed today, we wanted more, so off to the Magic Kingdom we went. It was packed so we waited longer, still smiling. The coaster lines were 110 minutes and skipped but the ice cream line was not. A full day was had - opening to near close and the fireworks viewed closed out this visit. The boat ride back was peaceful and quiet. Tommy ran to the Settlement shuttle bus stop seeking the Purple Line route to Loop 2000, to our oasis. It was waiting for us and after a shower, we slept easily.
Our three-night stay at Disney World's Fort Wilderness was supposed to be a time to relax and wrap up the journey at the happiest place on earth. It was all that. This familiar place, one that never disappoints, has been visited over the years with the boys and triggered memories of smiles, thrills, shrieks, and experiences enjoyed for the first time or repeated for the tenth. I could see them together clearly with wide grins, holding hands, posing for photos, shielding their eyes - their innocence on a scary ride and laughing out loud when amused. Cherished memories permanently woven into my life. The best of times.
It was sunny and hot at 8am when I rose. I packed up the basics and fed the boy a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch then folded the bunk, lowered the roof, and checked the oil. It was a slow morning and we left site #2061 at 10:45am certain to return again and again. We will always enjoy this place and recall visits of the past.
The ride home was typical along the Florida Turnpike. The right lane speed limit was never reached on our steady 55-60 mph ride. Tommy asked what time we will be home and I answered with a Final Jeopardy whopper. He responded with a 'before or after dark' question that was dodged. He napped, was quiet and simply wanted to see mom. Familiar landmarks piqued his interest, energizing the boy. We rode on talking of his favorite spots visited.
We pulled into the driveway later than expected due to some rain induced traffic issues but all in one piece. The parking brake was set, engine turned off and the mileage recorded. I said to him that I am proud to be his dad, and that we will always have these memories made together under tough circumstances, mixing fun with a promise to take care of Johnny. He said it was fun. Then we unloaded the bus.
An hour later with Sweet Pea set, Roseanne arrived, followed by a pizza delivery and the boy was content.
The ten year-old enjoyed a second slice of pie and I smiled knowing that in the years that follow, that forever, he will be told of things we did, amazing places we visited, of situations we endured, of people we met, of the support we had from family and friends and of strangers all along the way; and of a brother he had, a precious little boy lost who we will always celebrate.
Thank you all for your love and support. I have enjoyed sharing these travels with you and will always be grateful for having you in my life.