Summer Road Trip Series: Part VII “You Have Arrived at Your Final Destination”

By Marianna Boyce

Our departure from Sedona took place on a beautiful, sunny day—quite a contrast from the turbulent weather we experienced the previous night. After driving 2,100 westward miles from the Palmetto State of South Carolina, it was time to turn south toward the U.S.- Mexico border. Phoenix and Tucson stood in the way of our anticipated destination.

The thriving metropolis of Phoenix covers about 519 square miles, making it physically one of the largest cities in the United States of America. The layout is incredible and easily navigated, but there’s no gentle transition when exiting this urban complex. One moment, the view is grandiose, architecturally interesting buildings. The next, it’s back to a vast, inhospitable desert. The abrupt contrast is startling. We were suddenly left with nothing to see but swirling dust devils in the distance as we continued our remaining three-hour sprint to the finish line.

Sierra Vista, our ultimate destination, lies seventy-five miles south of Tucson and about twenty miles north of Mexico. This little dot on the map was our prime location goal for one reason only: our precious family lived there.

Tiffany is my bonus daughter (I’m just not fond of the term, stepdaughter). She married Bill, an Army Major at the time, now a Lieutenant Colonel. In 2015, Bill received orders to report to Fort Huachuca (pronounced wah-CHOO-kah) for a two-year stint.

image 4Abby, Emma, and Avery are our precious granddaughters. We also have a beautiful Belgian Malinois (pronounced mal-un-WAH.) grand-puppy named Leo.

As we turned onto their street, the gorgeous mountain range behind their house majestically stood in the distance. Situated on the opposite side of the mountainous terrain lies Mexico.

Little Avery is three. When she spotted us entering their driveway, she rushed outside immediately. Her arms flailing with excitement, along with her pretty blonde hair bobbing up and down as she sprinted toward us, was a wonderful sight to see. Many amazing landmarks we’d seen on our road trip were extraordinary, but this little princess took the prize. This family reunion was sheer bliss.

After a tasty spaghetti supper, we enjoyed each other’s company as we caught up on everything going on in our lives. The girls were thrilled to have an extended bedtime that night.

The following day, we ate lunch in a small town about twenty miles northeast of Sierra Vista. You may have heard of it…

image 3Tombstone is pegged as “The Town Too Tough to Die.” About 450,000 tourists visit each year. Its dusty streets are lined with rustic buildings and landmarks from the 1880s. The infamous gunfight at the OK Corral is re-enacted daily. It’s quite a surreal experience wandering the streets where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday roamed—two of Arizona’s most popular “ghosts of North America.”

We spent one more night in Sierra Vista before embarking on our journey back to South Carolina. The most exciting news was all our girls were traveling back to the Palmetto State for a two-week stay. Bill remained in Arizona with Leo.

Tiffany drove her garnet-colored Explorer packed with enough stuff for a three-month vacation. Cody was in his comfort zone driving my light sage-colored Lincoln MKZ, so we let him drive. He’d passed the test a few nights earlier after driving in the monsoon weather from Flagstaff to Sedona.

I traveled with Tiffany, Abby, and Avery. Gerry and Emma rode with Cody. It was the perfect setup separating Abby and Emma. They were nine and seven at the time, so sibling rivalry was intense.

A year had passed since Tiffany had been home, so she was anxious to get there as quickly as possible. There would be no cool stops along this route, but the fun was just getting started.

Our travels took us about 1,050 miles that day, a little more than halfway. The decision to stop for the night on the outskirts of Houston was a good call. We were all exhausted, but I was one proud GiGi. We heard no complaints from any of the girls.

We departed the western edge of Houston early the following morning with the potential of being home by midnight. We had 1,000 more miles to go, but our aggressive plan just wasn’t meant to be. After an extended traffic delay, our plan simply fell apart. The back of an overturned poultry truck was on fire blocking all lanes on I-10. The driver was fine, but I’m sorry to report that many of the chickens didn’t make it.

image 1We exited the great state of Texas at mile-marker 880 later than we’d expected, and only traveled 400 additional miles after our long delay. Our sibling drivers, Tiffany and Cody, were both exhausted. Tensions mounted, but they merely needed to rest, stretch, and relax. Abby and Emma weren’t the only rivals in the bunch.

We stopped to eat supper in Slidell, Louisiana. We should’ve found a great Cajun restaurant, but Southern homecookin’ at Cracker Barrel is what we chose.

There was no need to push the envelope, so I devised a new plan. As I ate my chicken fried steak, rice and gravy, and fried okra, I made what my bonus daughter calls, a “Mama Bear” move. There was a newly built Hampton Inn and Suites directly across the road, so I asked Tiffany to book two rooms for us, and she did.

image 5The heated, salt-water swimming pool was calling our name. We basically all stepped into a nice, long, Epsom salt bath. This place was perfect, and exactly what “Mama Bear” ordered. Everyone loved each other again.

The following morning, June 16, 2016, was a Thursday I’ll not soon forget. Eight more hours would officially end our remarkable road trip. Unknown to me, at the end of this time span, I would begin my next journey deep into a dark, unfamiliar place that I often refer to as my alternate universe.

We quickly left Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in our dust. We crossed the South Carolina state line about 3:00 p.m. About thirty miles from home, Avery began crying uncontrollably. She told me her tummy was hurting, so I cautiously removed her from the car seat and held her tightly in my arms. I know I shouldn’t have, but I did it anyway. Any great GiGi would’ve done the same.

As I silently prayed for her, a tingling sensation started in my feet. I thought they were asleep, just as Avery now was. As we got closer to home, a perplexing coldness began to overwhelm them. Trying not to disturb her as she slept, I haphazardly tossed my sweater over my feet. An odd gesture, given South Carolina in mid-June, is usually a hot, humid, 100-degrees.

Tiffany drove to her Mom’s house where they’d be staying for the next several days. She hadn’t seen her in a year, so it was reasonable for them to spend time together before heading back to Arizona in two short weeks. I jumped in the car with Gerry and Cody anticipating the arrival at our final destination. Bill selflessly planned to fly to the Palmetto State and drive back with them so they wouldn’t have to travel cross-country alone. I know—he’s great, right?

Four-thousand, six-hundred, and fourteen miles after our journey began, Gerry, Cody, and I pulled into our driveway and opened the garage door—home sweet home!

As soon as my feet touched the ground, the intense cold sensation in them immediately changed to insanely hot. It was as though a high fever spiked, but only in my feet. I stopped dead in my tracks not knowing exactly how to react. I’d never felt that type of pain.

My new journey had officially begun.

image 2I told my husband I couldn’t walk on my own, so he assisted as I hobbled along beside him. I literally watched my feet and ankles swell beyond recognition. Gerry instructed me to sit, relax, and prop up my throbbing, fiery-hot feet. I was horrified at the time, but we actually had a good chuckle about it later in the evening. In our infinite wisdom, we thought riding in the car for an extended period contributed to this unfortunate event. Were we ever wrong!

I am; however, thankful my symptoms stayed at bay until our arrival home. Leaving my driveway eight days earlier, I didn’t realize a life-altering illness was lurking inside my body. Stepping out of my car ignited a chain of events that maniacally unfolded and completely unraveled life as I knew it. Not only was coping with extraordinary pain physically debilitating, but it was also mentally grueling. I didn’t recognize myself after two short weeks.

My 2016 summer road trip served as the catalyst that ushered me from my normal life into an alternate universe. I straddled two worlds on a mission to control them both. Horrible symptoms relating to rheumatoid arthritis ruled my life for an extended period, but I was determined not to go down without a fight. I had a great life. I wasn’t willing to give it up to this vicious disease.

All our circumstances differ, but one thing is constant for everyone: change. Life adjustments are constantly transforming our lives. Many changes are subtle and can easily be absorbed with our fighting human spirit, but as in my case, significant negative transitions create utter chaos.

As I conclude my lengthy road trip series, I want to express my gratitude for those who chose to ride along with me. Enjoy your ride in life. What you don’t enjoy—endure. Remember who’s in control of it all. Come what may, God is good, all the time.

Summer Road Trip Series Part II: “God Bless Texas”

By Marianna Boyce

According to Google, Dallas is the third largest city in Texas, and ninth largest in our nation. In my opinion, it’s the most daunting to navigate. I was a passenger for a previous road trip in 2015 with our daughter and her family and quite honestly, I was awelcome to texas sign nervous wreck. It was nearly impossible to enjoy the mesmerizing sparkling midnight skyline with their intense traffic, but I somehow managed. My heart races just thinking about it.

With this bit of information in mind for our 2016 trek across the USA, I called driving dibs for this enormous metropolis once we reached the city limit sign. I actually insisted. In a meager attempt to persuade my husband Gerry easily, I forfeited the remainder of our driving marathon for him and our son Cody to split between themselves. Surprisingly, they both humored me and agreed to my crazy little deal. Otherwise, my backseat driving alter-ego may have reared her ugly head—and no one wanted that girl on our trip. I could’ve sworn they secretly adored her, but Gerry and Cody both swore they didn’t like her at all, hence my decision to leave her at home. Y’all would be so proud…

After driving all night from Lexington, South Carolina, we closed in on Dallas around lunchtime the following day. This year, we’d see the mega city during daylight hours. As we approached the outskirts, Cody’s driving shift came to a close.

It was lunchtime, but none of us were hungry. We grabbed a pack of cheese crackers and cold Pepsi-Cola from the ice chest and carried on our traditional American, wind-in-the-hair road trip. Finally, it was my turn to drive.

Nervous excitement consumed me, but I’m happy to report, I drove like a pro. The midday traffic was more tolerable than the midnight mayhem the previous year. The intimidating multiple lane roadways were still packed full of cars. I navigated their intricate highway system that in my opinion, resembled a big roller-coaster ride. I loved every exhilarating moment.long straight highway

Exercising such formidable driving ability, Gerry and Cody suggested I continue our quest without stopping for a driver switch. As we exited the Dallas-Fort Worth area, that famously long and straight Texas speed limit 80highway magically appeared out of nowhere. It was right up my alley. This is an area you’d definitely want a full tank of gasoline. There was nothing intimidating here. The speed limit was eighty, so eighty(ish) was what I did.

There are reminders up and down the highway system warning drivers that the left lane is for passing only. After passing, you must safely move back into the right lane. What a novel idea. I wish South Carolina had the same law. Oh, wait! We do! We are merely lacking in the reminder sign department. Where can we start a petition to get those for the Palmetto State? “God bless Texas.”

***

The scenery in this great state is very special. It’s exactly what you’d expect, but in a peculiar way, nothing you’d expect at all. Trains stretch as far as the eye can see. On one side of the road are oil wells. Grandiose wind turbines occupy the other. Chances are, they all belong to the same roughneck or rancher, but who knows? They contradict and complement each other simultaneously. It’s the old and the new, the big and the small. Oh, never mind! There’s nothing small here. The old saying “Everything’s bigger in Texas,” is true. I’ll bet that landmark steeple will never be mounted on a church rooftop.

***

Our course transitioned further north to I-40 via US-287. We were gravitating toward a national historic highway. Maybe you’ve heard of it…

I drove until we reached Amarillo. This is where our road trip took on a life of its own. So route 66far, we’d been driving fast and furious, but join me for my next post where the fun truly begins. What good is trekking across the United States of America unless you experience a little bit of classic Route 66.

Tales From Texas, Part 4

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

TexasClick here to read part 1 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series.
Click here to read part 2 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series. 
Click here to read part 3 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series. 

My culinary journey into Texas ends with the “Texas BBQ” that my sister ordered from T-Bone Tom’s, who enjoyed some Diners, Drive-ins and Dives fame. Of course, here in the glorious South, BBQ means pork, mustard sauce, white bread, coleslaw, hash and rice, and maybe some cracklin’s on the side.  Well, in the great Texas, it’s a whole different ballgame.  They are all about the beef.  Well, hello?  They are Texas, where pretty much all the beef comes from, right?

So the package of a typical Texas BBQ is smoked brisket and sauce, smoked sausage, potato salad, coleslaw, pintos, bread (untoasted Texas toast), pickles and onions on the side. While we don’t typically cook brisket in the South and call it barbeque, I’m a big brisket fan.  I love corned beef so much I check the prices on it every time I’m in the grocery store.  I love meats that “string” when they are cooked.  I was really looking forward to this food.  My brother-in-law picked it up and I helped set it all up on the table for my sweet niece’s 3-year-old birthday party. I’m not sure how many of the other pre-schoolers got their fill of Texas BBQ, but the rest of us were in good shape.

The brisket was simply fantastic: smoked, that nice dark “bark” on the outside and perfectly cooked.  The sauce was a red sauce, of course, because the rest of the world hasn’t discovered the magical versatility of mustard like we have! I’m sure the smoked sausage was great, but being a less-than-enthusiastic sausage eater, I didn’t try it myself. The potato salad was a pretty typical old-school style, as was the coleslaw, but the pinto beans were awesome.  I guess you’d say they were pretty much the “charros” that you find so often in this part of the country. While all the grown-ups polished off most of the barbeque, the toddlers turned their attention to my niece’s very elaborate fondant-covered dragon cake.  Fine, kids.  Eat your cake.  We’ll handle this brisket!

My first trip to Texas was really great.  I was able to spend great quality time with (most of) my family (my husband couldn’t get away and come with us 😦 ).  Taking my child to NASA was an awesome experience and I know she learned so much. Frankly, so did I.  Visiting the Kemah Boardwalk was fantastic.  Vivver wanted to ride the Boardwalk Bullet roller coaster.  She was tall enough to ride, so off we went.  It is a major league coaster and when it was all over, she was in tears.  But, by the end of our day there, she bolstered herself up and wanted to do it again.  She did fine and confessed to me later that it was her mantra “I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m ok” that got her through it and actually allowed her to enjoy the crazy thrill. 🙂

ElizabethElizabeth writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef)”. Follow the page on Facebook. All the cool kids do.

Tales from Texas, Part 3

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

Click here to read part 1 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series.
Click here to read part 2 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series. 

TexasI guess growing up, I always thought of Texas as being nothing but desert, cattle farms and oil rigs. Well, lo and behold, Houston is coastal.  Who’d-a-thunk it?  I mean, I know how to read a map, but for some reason, it surprised me to see so much water and “beachiness.”

The first night we were in Houston, my sister and brother-in-law decided to take us to “the place under the bridge.”  Turns out this is really called Outriggers Oyster Bar & Grill.  Casual, on the water, just across the way from Kemah Boardwalk, and yes, under the bridge.  Apparently, we are in the midst of crawfish season (it was driving them all crazy when I called them crawdads, so of course, I called them crawdads on purpose!).  As we struggled with the children’s menu, my sweet 7-year-old gourmand heard “crawdads” and said, “That’s what I want!”  My mom and I chose the shrimp and avocado appetizer, sister got shrimp tacos, brother-in-law opted for Tilapia Veracruz and my dad selected the oyster Po-Boy.

Mine was fab-oooo!  It was slightly spicy broiled shrimp over two avocado halves atop shredded lettuce, all dressed with a wonderful remoulade.  Vivi’s crawfish were delicious and tender, but were pretty generously coated with spices on the shells.  She made it through about eight of them before the cumulative effect of spice hit her.  I must admit that when I requested a glass of milk for her, I was surprised to be told they have no milk.  I said to the waitress, “Wow, so you don’t serve any White Russians here, huh?” and was horrified when she said sure they do, but they make them with creamer.  **Note to self-don’t order a White Russian here.**  My brother-in-law’s fish was beautiful and he didn’t leave a bit on that plate and he didn’t share a bite with me either L My sister reported that the shrimp tacos were awesome, but my poor dad was disappointed.  His oysters were so overly breaded that he couldn’t even taste or appreciate any oyster.  He was disappointed, to say the least.

But, overall, this is a great restaurant.  I think my dad would have been much happier if he’d ordered what mom and I had.  I bet next time we go, he will, unless he’s already stopped at the Kroger and loaded up on tamales!

ElizabethElizabeth writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef)”. Follow the page on Facebook. All the cool kids do.

Tales from Texas, Part 2

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

Click here to read part 1 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series.

TexasAs soon as we arrived in Houston, we were starving.  Thankfully, Southwest Airlines stills treats their customers like customers and we’d had some Diet Coke, Ritzbits, and peanuts on the plane, but the snack was wearing thin by the time we landed.  My sister works from home and had a few things to finish up, so mom, dad, the Vivver and I headed out to a place called Miller’s Café.  My parents had tried it out on their last visit, so it was a place they knew and could find.  (Important when driving someone else’s car in a foreign town!)

As my sister had already pointed out to me about her new town, everything seems to reside in a strip mall.  There are very few free-standing buildings or restaurants.  I guess since Houston pretty much developed around the astronauts in the 60’s and 70’s, the shopping center mentality went along with that era. Miller’s is on the corner of a strip mall.  It’s a casual, unassuming “joint.”  The first thing I noticed as we drove up was a sign on the window that reads “Home of the Almost Famous Hamburger.”  They had me at hello.

So, we entered and it’s was a pretty typical burger joint.  Big coolers filled with ice and bottled beer and a huge menu hung up high describing all these great burgers.  There were some other sandwiches and stuff offered, but I was all about the burgers.  My eyes stopped on the “grilled onion burger.”  So, I ordered that, mom had a bacon cheeseburger, dad went cheese-less (I know, he’s a cholesterol Nazi) and the Vivver got a basic kid-sized cheeseburger.  The kid burger came with some awesome fries. I tasted them and was tempted to order some for the adults, but turns out, we couldn’t have eaten them. We could hear our burgers sizzling up on the flat top and they were served to us steaming hot.  I think I failed to mention so far that these are hamburgers about the size of my 7-year-old, Viv’s, head.  Like most people, I looked at it and said something profound like “oh, wow, these are huge. I’ll never be able to eat that.”  Well, I realize I was ravenous after my peanut snack, but I’m telling you, this was an amazing burger.  It was hot, juicy, and well-seasoned. The onions were grilled perfectly so that they were soft & sweet.  And, I ate the whole thing with no regrets and no stuffed-to-the-gills feeling afterwards.

I’m liking this Lone Star state!

ElizabethElizabeth writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef)”. Follow the page on Facebook. All the cool kids do.

Tales from Texas, Part 1

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

TexasI guess it was around September that my little sister told me that her husband was looking around for a new company.  She was not excited about the fact that the top location choices were Texas and Colorado, since she now has a little one and has all our family within a couple hours drive of each other.  But, it was a great opportunity and a sweet deal, so in the midst of the holidays, they moved to Houston.  Her husband went before Thanksgiving, while Katherine stayed behind to deal with getting their house in Asheville sold and closed.  After that was completed, she loaded up what was left in her SUV along with the baby, the dog and my parents.  They accompanied her out there to make sure she got there ok and to help with the toddler.

While in Texas, mom and dad happened into a Kroger one day to get groceries to take back to Katherine’s new house.  They couldn’t help but notice that there was a lady behind the deli counter making fresh tortillas.  But, wait, there’s more…she was also making tamales!  Ever since they returned to South Carolina from this journey, I’ve heard about these tamales non-stop.  Other than chile rellenos, tamales are probably our favorite Mexican specialty.  Mom and dad were blown away by how great these “grocery store” tamales were. I’ve been jealous hearing about them ever since.

Well, since the kids had a half day and the next day off from school, we scheduled a long weekend for me and my daughter to fly out with mom and dad for a visit.  (This time of year is crazy for us…it starts with my niece’s birthday [3 this year], next day is mom and dad’s anniversary, March 31 is dad’s birthday, next day is my sister’s birthday [not an April Fool’s joke, it’s legit], then my baby’s birthday on the 8th.  And don’t forget that Easter typically falls somewhere in the midst of all this celebration. So, off to Houston we flew to celebrate all our family festivities and to check on my sister and her new town.

We had several great culinary adventures on this trip, about which I will write subsequent posts.  But today, we’re talking about tamales.  After a visit to the Johnson Space Center (NASA), we went to a Mexican restaurant called Edouardo’s.  Both my parents and I ordered the tamales.  We were served two pork tamales with charro beans. The tamales Tamaleswere certainly better than any I’ve had around here.  The masa was nice and tender and moist. The pork was well seasoned and moist and was that kind of “shreddy” meat that I like. The masa was a bit thick, but since it wasn’t dry, it was ok with me.

However, the next day, mom and dad made a grocery run before my niece’s party started and guess what they came home with?  A 10-pack of Kroger tamales.  I know it sounds improbable, but those little ladies at the Kroger deli have got it goin’ on!  These were some of the best I’ve ever had.  Now I understand why mom and dad have been talking about them for the last 3 months.  Unfortunately, once the package was opened, none of the tamales stuck around long enough for any photo shoots, but I did get one of the (almost as good) ones from the restaurant!

ElizabethElizabeth writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef)”.  Follow the page on Facebook. All the cool kids do.