The Vacation Continues: The highs, lows (and implosion) of an “unplanned” vacation

IB Publisher Jody Glynn Patrick blends work and life in this very clear departure from both her column for In Business magazine, and the other bloggers. Awarded national recognition for her previous work as a newspaper columnist, she brings us all back "Closer to Home" with her insights and remembrances. A nice place to be "After Hours." Check back often! Read Full Bio

When this Wild Woman takes a “no plan” vacation, anything can (and does) happen! Ride in the passenger’s seat on Jody’s recent “vacation.” NOTE; THIS IS THE SECOND OF A TWO-PART SERIES! If you missed the first installment, click here.

I left Madison the following day about 3 p.m., landing in a La Porte, Indiana’s Best Western hotel room before sunset, intent on completing a geneaogical cemetery search for a Webster family branch that clustered in Indiana in the early 1880s.

Hmm. Plenty of daylight left to search for a small burial ground located on private land about 15 miles outside of town. Supposedly this tract had about a dozen bodies buried in it in the mid 1800s — at least one of them connected to the family I was researching. There wasn’t an actual location for the cemetery posted on the Internet, but that’s part of the challenge, right?

I began making inquiries in the general vicinity; an elderly patron of a small gas station recalled that a farmer friend had some old tombstones on his property. He told me how to get there, adding, “The family is probably at a neighbor’s graduation party, so just go on and look around. I’ll tell them I said it’d be okay.” (It actually wasn’t as easy as this; I’m offering the abbreviated version).

The farmhouse was nestled in a grove of trees, invisible from the highway. The farmer may have been away when I left the gas station, but by the time I arrived, he was perched high in his pickup truck at the end of the long driveway, apparently notified I was coming. A big black lab roamed nearby, so I didn’t rush out of my car to confirm why I was trespassing, nor did the farmer ask — he simple gestured to follow him and he drove toward the back of his property. He pointed to a clump of trees, turned around, and drove away.

Not one word was exchanged. I parked and looked around. It took a minute to spot the stones, but then…. Bingo!

The little cemetery (see the stones?) and the farmer’s house and the field on the other side.

I photographed the individual stones, and then found yet another remote cemetery, too, before returning to town. The hotel had a pretty good restaurant; I returned in time to order a fish basket and a cold Guinness “to go” before it closed. Soon I was settled in my room with my favorite meal — a room with a Jacuzzi and wireless Internet.

Ah, I couldn’t have planned it any better than that! I called home to share the day’s successes with Kevin, and to reassure him once again that I was perfectly fine and happy alone on the road.

Road Trip x2
Halfway through central Indiana, while still following a trail cemetery by cemetery, my cell phone chirped.

“Jody, is that really you?!” a somewhat familiar voice cried.

“Cindy?! Is it really you?”

Cindy and I were best friends in Chicago when our children were young and, 30 years later, we recently had used Facebook to reconnect. We had chatted online about potentially seeing each other in June, but hadn’t actually spoken or made concrete plans. What a thrill it was to get her call — particularly while driving through her home state of Indiana!

We agreed to meet later in the day in Danville, Illinois, just across the border from Indiana, because there was a recognizable hotel there. [Safety lesson learned during a previous vacation: pay for the name brand when traveling.] She drove two hours to meet me for dinner, then offered to donate a couple days playing “research assistant” on the road so we could spend more time together and catch up. [Cindy teaches calculus, so maybe this was more appealing for her than it would have been for your long-lost buddies.]

What an adventure was in the making! We hopped from courthouse records to historical biographies, to a historical society, to a Newtown cemetery, finding all sorts of small clues along the way about the family I was researching. Cindy spent hours “in the stacks” where circuit clerks keep the county’s most valuable hand-written ledgers. She dutifully looked up land holdings while I chased down marriage and birth records.

Cindy pulling out the next ledger in the court house in Covington, Indiana.

An antique dealer suggested that we make the acquaintance of an elderly historical society matron in Veedersburg. The lady turned out to be a genealogical P.I. doing Web-savvy searches and accessing county records all across the state to solve old mysteries for the sheer pleasure of discovering the truth about local legends. She shared some of the scandals she had unearthed … from secret pregnancies to murder. Who did what to whom? Marjorie knew! What a delight she was.

It looks like serious research, but the stories Marjorie told were anything but boring!

We ate well on the road, sharing catfish, homemade hash, biscuits and corn bread, fresh strawberries atop homemade shortcake. We ate in small diners in small town squares that took us both “home.” Meanwhile, we verified with first-source documents that Amos (the primary subject under investigation) was the first school teacher and first justice of the peace in Newtown, Indiana.

Cindy learned how to reclaim worn tombstones. I learned that her daughter Sarah — remembered by me as a little blonde toddler — is now a proficient Webmaster. We traded family stories and listened to great music and swapped audio books. It was time well spent that went way too fast, and it was understandably very hard to say goodbye.

“Come and stay with our family for a day or so, and then go from there to Ohio,” Cindy offered. “We could sit around our pool and have a couple drinks. Relax.”

But no, that sounded like a plan, and I wanted an unplanned vacation.

I also was perhaps too aware that I had limited time for the vacation, and the latest lead was drawing me back away from Ohio, and northward again, toward Watseka, Illinois. I was just “this close” to confirming another family line, and I suspected that branch of the family might have reached their final destination in a forgotten little burial ground a couple hundred miles away.

“When you start to coast, it’s all downhill from there.”
I relied on Garmin [using the pre-selected “Daniel” voice] to select the best route from Danville to a country intersection in upstate Illinois. Following the GPS system’s audio instructions, I drove on field roads, gravel paths, and even attempted to drive on washed out roads. For much of the trip, I was subjected to a disapproving British man-in-a-box chanting “recalculating” every mile or so. “Daniel” lacked capacity to understand that I was forced off route by practicality — the “road” kept disappearing behind “closed; road construction” signs. [The “recalculating” reprimand happens with GPS systems when you drive a parallel path to its suggested route; it “corrects” you in a somewhat offended tone until you finally cave in and travel where it tells you to go.]

Lesson learned: Don’t completely abandon MapQuest for Garmin, and keep a physical old-fashioned map for backup.

Had I known what was waiting for me, however, I might have turned around and gone home instead.

After arriving at the little cemetery, which was quite picturesque and inviting,
I was almost immediately set upon by swarms of biting black flies. Blood sucking mosquitoes are the norm in this kind of work, but flesh-eating horseflies are not. Soon, the car was literally covered with them. I nearly climbed into my trunk for an impromptu Off! sponge bath, liberally dousing my clothes with it, too. The flies perhaps didn’t light after that, though I felt phantom insects all over me after the first rude bites, and they continued to buzz around my head and ears and dart in and out, trying to get past the chemical shield. In turn, I shouted at them and swatted my way through the cemetery, photographing each of the 92 graves.

It was toward the back of the cemetery that I became aware of strange sounds … not human, but definitely sounds made by living things. About then, frankly, I got a little creeped out. When I walked to the very far side of the burial ground to investigate, I discovered the root cause of the fly infestation and the sounds: a free-range buffalo herd grazing around a big pool of stagnant, muddy black water.

The upside of that was the photo op and delight of watching the buffalo families. But eventually the flies became even more emboldened, and I became too nauseated from the smell of Off! to apply any more. It was hot as blazes outside, causing me to feel a little faint around the edges. My mouth was dry, the water bottles too hot to hold (let alone drink), and it was time to get back in the car, kick up the air conditioning, and pray that Garmin would divert to a real highway if I listed a major city as my next destination.

Perhaps it also was high time for me to divert from a working vacation to a relaxing one, as my friend had suggested. I was more than ready for a hot shower and a fun reunion with a couple grandsons who might appreciate an impromptu visit from their Nana. So, with that half-formed plan, I entered “Chicago” as my new destination for Garmin, and was promptly instructed to go back down the hill the same way I’d come up it.

Next stop: Nowhere that OnStar Recognized….
The few other vehicles I saw in the next half hour were primarily pickup trucks. I soon lost my patience — what little of it I still possessed — with a maniac pickup truck driver. I’d get within passing range of his truck and he’d speed up, making it impossible to pass. Then he’d slow way down while inside a no-passing zone or on a curve. Faster, slower, real fast, ridiculously slow.

Women traveling alone who have played this game with a stranger know it isn’t fun or exciting. It gets a little scary, sharing an unfamiliar road with a nut case. He wasn’t so out of line that I felt comfortable or justified calling 911, yet his erratic driving didn’t seem so much erratic as bullying. I had to wonder if he was bored or, well, perhaps sinister.

So I dropped back out of sight during a series of curves and then, as we cleared them and he stalled for me to catch up, I really hit the gas. Surprise! I believe I did catch him off guard because I flew past like he was standing still. How fast? I DON’T KNOW HOW FAST I WAS GOING, OFFICER. But I would have hugged a state trooper right then. It would have been worth the price of a ticket (if, in fact, I was legally speeding, which I’m not admitting to in any way, shape or form).

But just as I started to pull away and get my little piece of the world back on its axis, my car lost all inertia. Confused, I glanced in horror in the rearview mirror to see if the truck was gaining on me again (he was). Worse, a big plume of smoke billowed from my exhaust system. Black smoke. It didn’t take a car mechanic to tell me I was in serious trouble. Then the oil light flashed on, the engine seized, and the car engine died.

Do you know where your emergency flasher button is? I didn’t. I was completely disoriented inside my own car because it was in a different place than the one in my last vehicle. However, I did have enough presence of mind to turn on my left-turn flasher, to warn the tailgater of a new game.

He braked to slow down with me. The best outcome I could imagine was to be stranded by myself rather than with him and I prayed he wouldn’t follow as I pulled the car into a tight turn at the next intersection — without power steering or power brakes. He hit his horn (whether in annoyance or warning, who knows?), but he kept on going down the road. I coasted about half a mile on the new, narrower blacktop road before the car came to a complete halt. There was no shoulder, but I pulled over as far as possible. My heart, however, continued to race.

My primary cell phone didn’t work. I pulled out the backup phone — different brand but same outcome. Admittedly, I was not okay when I realized I truly might be stranded.

Think! I told myself. Don’t panic! Then I remembered OnStar, the GPS system that I pay all those premiums for. The ultimate insurance policy. See that little antennae on my back my car window? That’s an expensive little add-on, but it’s also something I’ll never give up. OnStar, the satellite system that works even when the car engine is dead to provide emergency medical or roadside service. Anywhere, anytime. That’s the promise.

Relief washed over me. I pushed the button on the rearview mirror apparatus to summon help and explained my situation to the technician who dutifully answered my call. (It’s not the first time I’ve used it, so the disembodied voice materializing from my radio speakers didn’t freak me out as much as it has in the past.) However, this time was different. There was a new fly in the ointment….

“Where exactly are you?” the operator asked. “I can’t pinpoint your location for some reason.”

“I’m about half a mile from where I lost power, where I turned off a blacktop intersection. I’m about a mile from the nearest farmhouse, I think. It’s all fields, everywhere I look. I think I’m still in Illinois. But actually…well, I could be in Indiana maybe by now….” [And no, I didn’t think to check longitude on Garmin or on my hand-held GPS unit. All of my brain reserves had been spent remembering the OnStar button.]

The operator replied, “Can you walk back to the intersection and then come back and tell me what the signs say, so we can send a tow truck? I’m going to keep this line open, so you don’t have to worry about that. But I really need more information to find you.”

Sure. The car already was well over 100 degrees inside, and without any air circulation, the smell of Off! in the confined quarters was making me weak and dizzy. I had to do something, go somewhere, or I believed I really would pass out. But before me, like a mirage, were trees. Lots of trees, framing a farmhouse off in the distance. Shade trees. Cool shade trees.

“Wouldn’t it be better if I walked to the farmhouse and called you from there? If somebody’s there, they’ll know where we are.” And I could get a cold drink of water from an outdoor hose faucet even if they aren’t there…

“Ms. Patrick,” she said gently, adopting to tone you’d use with a child, “We’d prefer that you walk to the intersection, write down what it says on the signs, and come back and tell us what the intersection is. Please… otherwise stay by the vehicle,” she instructed. “We’ll get help to you as soon as possible and just as importantly, we’ll tell you who we are sending for you, and who to let approach you.”

Ahh. Stranger danger again. Duh! If the “we don’t know who lives in that house” fact had been a snake, it would have bit me right on the nose. (In my fantasy, a farm wife wearing a crisp flowered apron would offer ice cold lemonade, and her husband, obviously good at fixing mechanical things around the farm, would have some extra oil and know how to fix the car and get me on the road after a nice home-cooked supper.)

But no. That was delirium. I pulled my synapses together and then I hiked to the intersection and reported it to OnStar. She deduced where I was (approximately, anyway) and then we discussed options like two sensible women. I refused to be towed to the nearest town — yes, there was a dealership, but no hotel or car rental. Where would I go on a Friday at 4 p.m., to stay until, at a minimum, Monday? Finally I argued OnStar into agreeing to tow me to Kankakee; it would have a car rental, shop, hotel, and food. Hopefully even cell phone service.

“The tow truck driver can reach you in 40 minutes to an hour,” I was told. “In the meantime, please stay with the vehicle.” Yes, the hot, hot vehicle. In the sun.

I next called my husband (OnStar gives you phone minutes through the radio) and I tearfully begged him to immediately leave work and come and get me (which, of course, made no sense, as Kevin was three hours away).

As I talked to Kevin, a man in a silver car passed by me, going pretty fast. He braked hard at the intersection stop sign, then continued across the other highway. But once he cleared it, he braked again and stopped for a few moments, as if considering something. Watching him, I felt the stirring of true apprehension again. I had been standing by the passenger door, but then got into the car and shut the door. I had never found the emergency flasher button (in fact, I’d forgotten all about those or the flares in my trunk), so I didn’t think he would be coming to help me…. I told Kevin what was happening.

“Lock the car doors,” he said shortly.

Sure enough, the driver turned his car around and started back toward me, approaching very, very slowly. I locked myself in my oven, heart racing again.

“I have mace,” I assured Kevin breathlessly, reaching into my pocket and flipping off the cap as we spoke. (It’s legal in Illinois, WHERE I LEGALLY BOUGHT IT, OFFICER). I wondered if I’d be downwind if I pushed the trigger…. but no, there was no breeze.

“Oh, my god,” my husband muttered. “Maybe he wants to help you, but stay in the car. What’s going on now?”

The driver continued to approach my car real slow….

“Oh, thank God!” I cried!

Following the car was the tow-truck driver.

I said good-bye to Kevin and hung up in my excitement. OnStar broke in to alert me that the tow-truck should be arriving and if so, he was legitimate.

The silver car driver simply sped away. (He probably just realized that I had help and drove away, but everything seemed more dramatic to me in the moment — and why didn’t he turn around again to resume his prior route? He did not.)

My husband met me that evening in Kankakee at the hotel where a car mechanic deposited me after accepting the car for service. I repeated what the tow-truck driver and shop mechanics told me: a technician didn’t screw the oil filter on correctly during a recent (Madison location) oil change, and it literally fell off into the oil pan later, where the tow-truck driver found it. The threads were all intact and the filter was not initialed by an employee to prove it was “checked” (per company protocol). That’s why the engine blew.

We maintained the chain of custody for the filter and photographed it and e-mailed the photo, via Kankakee repair shop, to Valvoline — who saved us all a lot of aggravation by accepting responsibility. However, its insurance company was more troublesome to deal with and even then, the end result didn’t exactly mean making me “whole” again by a long shot. I was to settle for a “comparable” rebuilt engine, as soon as it could be located (five days later). There would be another two days waiting for it to be put in. I spent extra days stuck in Kankakee, while car rental arrangements were made (Valvoline eventually got approval from its insurance company to pay for the rental).

There is no way to get back the vacation days wasted, and the time spent in fear and frustration, but I’m going to leave those behind me now because remembering it all just makes me a mad again. I often drive with grandchildren in the car, and I can tell you that I’m never going to be someone’s quick in-and-out clipboard job again.

But I also was reminded, probably for the 100th time, that if I need my husband’s help — even just to calm me down — it is given with good humor and love. Kevin spent a night with me at the hotel, drove me to rent a car, took over the ridiculous number of phone calls it took to negotiate with Valvoline, assured me we could manage the strain on our budget if we had to become interim financers of the fiasco (we did), and then he made the ultimate sacrifice of accompanying me to photograph a graveyard outside Kankakee to once and for all put a halt to my pity party.

It’s nice suspecting your husband is a saint, but it’s great to have it proven when you least expect it.

My saving grace.

Then I took those grandsons swimming in Chicago. And we had fun.

So that’s what I did on my [unplanned] summer vacation.

And now you understand why I need another.