Chippewa Herald * January 10, 2007  

Forced time-off means road trip to warmer climes

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

Everything was coming together this year. We'd always wanted to take our five kids south to see their cousins in Miami, but hadn't done so since 1994. Back then, 60% of our kids weren't even born yet, and half the ones who were born were still young enough to fly for free.

These days, though, with seven plane tickets to buy, air travel is another matter. Meanwhile, Cray had a mandatory shutdown over the holidays, forcing me to use vacation time spanning ten days. Hmmm...could we do it? Could we DRIVE all the way to Miami?

I've always thought that we'd need two weeks to drive that far. But wild horses cannot drag my wife Beth south in the summer, so a ten-day Christmas break was the best we could do. And with Ben already a junior at Chi-Hi, this year might be our last chance.

We took our trusty 1999 conversion van to Martell Tire for a final tune-up. Since it had just crossed the 100K-mile threshold, we felt safer having them check over every belt and hose.

Our trip got off to a precarious start. With the pre-Christmas snowstorm just getting underway, we pulled the kids out of school an hour early and escaped just in time. Sliding down your driveway without the tires rotating is NOT a good way to begin a 4000-mile road trip.

Once we got to Madison, though, the snow turned to rain and our van finally accelerated past 50 MPH. (It was the last time that we were grateful for rain on that trip.)

We decided to call this excursion the "Granddaughter of all Vacations" (since "Daughter of all vacations" was already taken). We've gone on long trips in a rented RV and with our pop-up camper, but this was our first-ever "normal" vacation driving only the van and staying at hotels.

True to our tradition, we did not want to plan ahead of time where we'd stay each night. We find it more adventurous to play everything by ear, with only a general idea of our schedule and route. And this time we'd need to keep moving, given the distance.

However, we still managed to make some stops. We took the tram up to the top of the St. Louis Arch. We even saw Graceland, Elvis's estate in Memphis.

Since our kids had never been to Louisiana, we continued straight south on I-55 all the way to New Orleans. We were amazed at the freeway built over swamps, lined by shacks accessible only via boat.

The downtown area of New Orleans seems to be back to normal -- for their definition of "normal," that is. We made it all of two blocks down Bourbon Street before Beth made the kids shut their eyes and made me turn off.

The surrounding areas were another matter. Ten miles outside of downtown, we could see the tall signs from I-10 for fast food, gas stations, and department stores. But when we exited the freeway to fuel up, the entire shopping center complex was a ghost town! Neighborhood after neighborhood of houses were also totally deserted. There is a lot of work left to do there.

On Christmas Eve, we took another diversion to Kiln, Mississippi, Brett Favre's home town. The Packers had ten days off, so who knows, he may even be home for the holidays! Alas, we didn't see him, but we did sign our names on the giant Packer wall on the gas station in "downtown" Kiln (by the lone traffic light), along with a few hundred others who beat us to it.

We drove down the gulf coast of Florida, since the sea shells are better there than they are on the other side. Our main target was Venice Beach, "Shark Tooth Capital of the World." While we did gather buckets of shells, we had to wait for a tourist trap to buy our shark teeth (along with alligator heads).

The rain finally stopped just as we got to my sister's house in Miami. We enjoyed two non-travel days there at beaches, and bought delicious take-out meals from Cuban and Nicaraguan restaurants before turning north again.

We had one more big stop -- Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Our tour guide explained that the Crawler, the tank-like vehicle that hauls the space shuttle to the launch pad at 1 MPH, gets only 40 FPG (feet per gallon). We didn't get to see the shuttle that had recently landed, as it was in the assembly building getting its fifty-million-mile checkup.

That night we stayed near Daytona Beach in the cheapest hotel of our journey -- only $40 for the seven of us! We found the most expensive room the very next night, a guest cottage at the famous Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, which included a private maid and butler and went for $2800 per night. We decided to keep looking that night.

Our final score was ten new states in 4181 miles over 9 days of driving, for an average of 465 miles per day. We used 318 gallons of gas, giving us a fuel economy of 13.1 MPG, or 69168 FPG.

If we keep these trips up, we'll soon be back to Martell for a fifty-million-mile checkup of our own.


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