A few nights ago, I sat down in front of my lengthy TO DO list, both practical and aspirational tasks scribbled and spilling off the lines of my notepad.
I still delight in hardcopy list making. Something about the satisfaction of physically crossing an item off a list cannot be replicated by the push of a button on my phone. Sorry, Wunderlist.
Nothing appealed. I have posts sitting in my drafts folder. Words and stories and ideas unwritten. I have house projects left sitting unfinished since before Thanksgiving. Knitting projects. Photo books. Fundraisers to organize. Birthday parties to plan. Summer camps to research. Books to read. Friends to call. Laundry to wash. Dishes to clean. And blah blah a version of every adults’ life blah blah.
And so, naturally, instead, I took a drive down memory lane. Last week marks five years that I’ve worked in my current job, so I’ve been waxing nostalgic and been reflecting on the magnitude of that decision to leave California and move back east. I got sucked into photos from our life in California, including our road trip west. I then cracked into my pre-marriage email account and found the emails we wrote about our adventures, because back in 2007, in a world when phones lacked cameras and blogs were for HTML code wizards, that’s how we documented our travels, with emails blasted to lists of friends and photos attached after being uploaded to our laptops.
That hour spent re-reading our adventures and flipping through photos had James and I in fits of laughter, recalling how blissfully young and stupid and carefree and clueless we were. A wonderful reminder of how far we’ve come, both collectively and individually. That is a time and experience I’ll never regret, but I am grateful of how I’ve grown and matured and shifted my perspective since. Life is complicated and messy and contradictory, and with every passing year I treasure simple moments of contentment more readily. Simplicity is no longer considered with scorn and a sense of settling, but cherished for the relief and comfort it provides.
But instead of writing about the now, I’m rehashing the past and documenting it in the form it would have taken had we road tripped at 24 in 2015. The writing is subpar, the pictures mediocre, and yet they recount such a pivotal and important moment in my lifetime that I felt they were worthy of compiling into a more easily accessible format here.
Without further ado, CALIFORNIA, HERE WE COOOOOOOOOME!
*Set to California by Phantom Planet, the seminal theme song of our favorite college TV show, “The OC,” which was played at every state border crossing.*
Day 1 (Tuesday, September 11, 2007)
After successfully stuffing most of the engagement party gifts into the remaining nooks of the Volvo the night before, we had a relatively relaxed morning (Ed note: James and I were engaged in the summer of 2007 and my parents’ threw an elaborate engagement party in my hometown days before our departure for CA). James left in the Volvo and headed to PA to collect the Penske. Ashley and Kimmy hung around Cohasset, slowly packing up the Jeep in the pouring rain. Neighbor Jimmy Curly apparently watched the two blonde sisters bring item after item out of the house and stuff them miraculously into the Jeep. Everything but 2 rugs and a giant pillow fit. While James was in PA wrestling with the trailer, Ashley and Kimmy were eating Circe’s sandwiches and saying goodbyes to their mother, departing around 6pm.
Ash and Kim arrived in Blooming Grove to find an even more enormous Penske truck than imagined. James had somehow already moved in most of the enormous items such as a TV, bureau, desk, etc. We continued to pack and unpack and repack until about 1:30am. James was the master in the Penske, fitting each item and tying it in where appropriate, while Ash and Kim mostly schlepped things to the van. Ursa’s role was to drop her ball and whine that no one would stop the packing process to play fetch with her. Thinking the night was a success and also complete, Ash and Kim prepared for bed. Kimmy went to bed but Ash realized James had disappeared. She heard an enormous crash and went outside to investigate. There she found him. James was out in the dark trying to move the enormous trailer with the Jeep. Let’s just say the trailer was heavier than predicted. This “moving of the trailer” fiasco lasted until about 3am. Good thing that diesel engine is so quiet…
Day 2 (September 12, 2007)
We said we would wake up at 8am… but that ended up being 9:30am… we paid a brief visit to ZiZi and T before hitting the road.
James drove the Penske with Ash as copilot and Kimmy drove the Jeep with Ursa snoozing in the back. It was not the most exciting drive but Sheetz and a photo at the border of Ohio were pretty eventful. Kimmy had never been to Sheetz or Ohio – big deals. We also assigned ourselves call signs to use over our Motorola TalkAbouts: James said chosing Top Gun names was uncreative, thus the Penske is “Big Bird”, the Jeep is “Cheroke”, James is “RedMan”, Ash is “BagHag”, Kimmy is “WhiteLight”, and Ursa is “BlackDog”.
Chez Cart we dined on Salmon and a birthday cake for James that was topped with an 18-wheeler, a Volvo with a surfboard, and a small airplane. Sarah also produced a bottle of Cassis so Ash was able to have some more of her favorite Kir Royals. Ursa had a ball hanging out with her black lab pals Giles and Sealy. After dinner Ash continued to plastic bag bag and James got in a few songs on Guitar Hero. We also happened to mention to Ben that we would need to purchase some trucker hats to add to our serious trucker look in the very seriously large Penske. He emerged a minute later with a bag full of his own atrociously authentic trucker hats and told us to take our pick. James chose a Poland Ohio, Ash took an oil company, and Kimmy’s is Western Reserve Fire Dept. The pictures at the border are so much better now.
Day 3 (Thursday, September 13th)
We were on the road at 8:30am!!! Not too bad for the Ulmer sisters. It was a long day of driving through many states – meaning more pictures and more screaming to our official border crossing song “California” (the OC theme song). So we drove out of Ohio, though Pennsylvania and on to West Virginia (which to this day, James and I talk about as one of the most beautiful states east of the Mississippi based on that scenic ride). We stopped for gas in WV and just our luck the gas station was located next to Hillbilly Haven – a cabin rental place with a killer name. We fueled up and James bought a bright orange trucker hat emblazoned with “Go ahead, Buck. Make my day” on it. Classy.
We passed through Virginia into North Carolina. We stopped for gas and James punched Ash in the face… well, not really but it makes a better story. Apparently James was holding on to Ursa and Ash leaned down to grab a ball at the exact moment Ursa lunged upward, thus causing James’ hand to clock Ash in the left eye. It was only slightly awkward when James went to ask for some ice and people wanted to know what had happened.
Anyway, we made it safely to South Carolina into Elizabeth Lesley’s arms. We realized there was no way we were going to park the Penske-Volvo combo in the driveway and be able to back out the next day. Sooooo we drove around the culdesack and found a perfect spot. James was able to swing the whole apparatus around, though it involved some severe driving across someone’s grassy lawn/field area. We decided it was good enough for us and people could still drive by, so we went for dinner. All Ashley and Kimmy wanted was fried chicken so we rolled to the nearest Zacksby’s and got fried chicken and texas toast. We were even able to try some sweet tea – golly it is sweet. We then went to the local ice cream slash coffee place, Spill the Beans, for some dessert. We also had a brief tour of the Clemson campus. The stadium was impressive but NOTHING compares to Clemson’s intramural sports fields.
The most amazing “southern moment” occurred when we returned to the Penske after dinner. Kimmy hopped out of Elizabeth’s car to grab the digital camera box out of the cab when a man came out of the home across from where we had parked our enormous vehicle ensemble. All Kimmy could understand was “is that your truck?” to which she nervously replied “yes”. The thick southern drawl made it hard to understand exactly what this man then had to say about the location of our Penske, all Kimmy understood was that he had just purchased a new light bulb for the outside of his house. Expecting a northern response of “well, you can’t park here, this is private property, blah blah”, Kimmy couldn’t believe that the man was explaining that the light bulb was purchased so that he could better keep an eye on our truck for us. This man had a huge truck of his own that he usually parked there but he managed to shove it into his driveway. He told us he owned the large lot that included the grassy field we had driven over, and that beyond the field was a warehouse containing over $5000 of steel. He had been planning on loading up some of the steel into his truck but since we parked in his spot he said he would simply just have to keep a better eye out tonight, which he mentioned might include not sleeping. He assured us we could stay as long as we want and that our truck would be safe. He then closed with a huge sweaty, glory hug and an offer for us to come back sometime and have a barbeque and some beers. How we love that Southern hospitality!
Day 4 (Friday, September 14th)
We all slept in while Elizabeth went to take her genetics exam. We were still asleep when she returned home… then we had a slow breakfast and showered and such, the nice slow southern way. Elizabeth had grits for breakfast of course, but the rest of us stuck to cold cereal. The house Elizabeth is housesitting has a collection of over 20 motorcycles located on top of what used to be an in ground pool. Elizabeth and Max (as she calls Kimmy) posed for a photo on two bikes and then it was off to Atlanta in the rain.
When we entered Georgia we were unable to pose with the welcome sign because it was on a bridge. Lame. We arrived to Sco & Alberta’s and went out for some burritos for lunch. Then we all enjoyed just sitting and visiting. Ashley taught Alberta how to make plastic bag yarn, James napped. Scott retuned home from work and Ashley and James were able to visit with him briefly before heading into downtown Atlanta to visit Ash’s friend Karen. On their trip they were able to experience the joys of Atlanta traffic – comparable to joys of DC traffic. They arrived at Karen’s super swank grown up condo in n adorable Atlanta neighborhood. While waiting for Luke to arrive (again thanks to traffic) Ash and Karen had a chance to catch up. Then the double date headed off to a hip euro-style lounge where they fesasted on copious amounts of food, martinis, and excessive dessert options. James and Ashley contemplated Karen and Luke taking them out on the town, but by 10pm they decided that glorious double bed was calling their name.
Meanwhile Kimmy was sucked into the RedSox-Yankees game trying to hold it down for Boston among two hard core Yankee enthusiasts. They dined on pizza from The Mellow Mushroom. Before dinner Kimmy felt she should take the opportunity to use suburbia to Ursa’s benefit and go for a long walk slash ball throwing session, despite the drizzle. Alberta mentioned their was a park at the end of their street and suggested Kimmy drive. Thinking a brief walk would help tire Ursa more she said they’d simply walk. About half an hour later they finally reached the end of the quite hilly street. Ursa was already rather tired but she is always up for playing fetch. Kimmy ran her ragged and then they walked the 30 min back home. Neither Kimmy nor Alberta stayed up to watch the entire baseball game and Kimmy was pleased to go to sleep knowing the RedSox were winning.
Day 5 (Saturday, September 15th)
Unfortunately Kimmy awoke to find our from Sco that the Yankees had won. Ashley and James returned to the house around 7am to begin the longest drive yet. From Atlanta we drove 1000 miles to Wichita, Kansas. We pounded out almost 10 hours before stopping for lunch at a Waffle House. States covered on this drive include: Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. We drove past the Talledega Speedway and through Birmingham, AL, the most depressing town ever. There were no people there. Well we spotted maybe 20 people total, 14 of which were outside a church together. It was like a movie set waiting for the extras to show up. I also think it is pertinent to mention the amazing snack we were able to purchase Wesley when we stropped near the Talledega Speedway – “You Don’t Need Teef to Eat This Beef”, that’s right, it was soft beef jerky in a tin. Amazing.
Kimmy drove the truck for the first time and relished in the opportunity. It was a full body experience considering Kim’s feet only reached the pedals when she pointed her toes and sat very far forward on the seat. (Kim was disappointed to find out that in New Mexico James realized you actually could slide the seat forward.) The calf and quad workout to drive the truck as well as the freezing air conditioning environment made truck driving a very active experience.
We took pictures in the dark at the Oklahoma and Kansas borders. By the time we made it to the state of Kansas we were so ready to be done driving but we powered through and arrived around 2am. Auntie BJ and cousin Laura has waited up for us we said brief hellos and thanked them profusely and then promptly passed out.
Day 6 (Sunday, September 16th)
A day of no driving! Hurray! We got to sleep in and took full advantage of the opportunity, arousing only when BJ came over around noon to tell us if we wanted to have lunch with everyone we needed to get up. Laura had to work all day but Caroline and Garrison, as well as BJ and Grampy, and the three of us all went out for a glorious lunch. We ate ourselves silly and topped it off with some ice cream before returning to the house. We then came home and lazed around. Garrison entertained Ursa for hours and we watched Caroline show us some of her crazy flipping gymnastics tricks. But we mostly just lay around.
We rallied for dinner at an Italian place, where James romantically ordered two glasses of champagne to surprise Ashley on their 4yr anniversary – awww.
The real drama of our trip occurred upon our return to the house after dinner… the plan was to just grab cameras and then head to the Keeper of the Planes monument for a photo op… but as we pulled around the corner to approach the house, we noticed police lights flashing and then saw a small silver sedan crunched under our massive trailer with the Volvo now perched diagonally off the side of the trailer. We literally could not believe our eyes. Ashley proceeded to shout profanities, even in the company of little Caroline. Kim escorted Caroline over to her mother’s car and went with Ash to the scene. The girls first thought was that all the engagement finery and artwork that they had strategically packed into the trunk of the Volvo was now in pieces. Ashley started to weep. The cute, young police officer seemed uneasy at the sight of Ashley’s swearing and crying but a few minutes later she pulled herself together and she and Kimmy unpacked the trunk. To their disbelief, nothing at all seemed to be broken!
Three kids were perched on the sidewalk, watching the scene. Apparently one of them was the owner of the crunched car that was not yet 3 days old. He had let his friend drive the vehicle but the driver was at the hospital and unavailable for comment. We are still unsure why the driver felt it was necessary to speed through this residential cul-de-sac and how he missed seeing our large bright yellow Penske…
BJ, Grampy, and the cousins returned and we all set up camp watching tow trucks haul away the totaled vehicle and maneuver our Volvo back onto the trailer. Penske came and assured us that our truck was drivable and a new trailer would arrive later in the evening. We had to remove the Volvo from the busted trailer and the poor car sounded like twisting metal death. We hoped for the best.
Day 7 (Monday, September 17th)
We awoke to find a new trailer attached to the Penske. So we drove the poor Volvo back on board and packed everything up before saying our goodbyes.
Today was another long day of driving on very straight roads. James marveled at the ability to see the horizon on land. We drove through huge cattle ranches and open fields with enormous drip irrigation machines. We even saw the damages a tornado must have caused in a small town along the road.
We stopped in Texas for lunch and found ourselves in the company of 8 men all wearing cowboy hats and boots, and flannel shirts. Kimmy asked James over her enormous burger if he thought there was a gun in every Chevy truck that was parked outside the restaurant. They agreed that at least half probably did.
We were able to outrun a huge thunderstorm that seemed to approach us for hours. The landscape changed from Texas into New Mexico. Plateaus began to appear on the horizon. New Mexico was the most interesting Landscape we had driven through yet, though it was depressing to have the plateaus in the distance not appear to get any closer even after and hour of driving towards them.
We arrived in Santa Fe at Jason’s mom’shouse. She was in the midst of preparing us a lovely dinner of chicken, rice, salad, and fresh bread – so much better than Waffle House! We hungrily ate and chatted about our California plans and our recent accident fiasco. We were so thankful for the free access to internet, the healthy and delicious meal, and cozy beds to sleep in.
Day 8 (Tuesday, September 18th)
We awoke and allotted ourselves some time to explore downtown Santa Fe a bit. There were a lot of art galleries and jewelry stores, all featuring very brightly colored items. Santa Fe’s downtown was so cute and had a plaza that reminded Ashley of Oaxaca, Mexico. The weather and air quality were also lovely in Santa Fe.
On the drive James called to deal with the 4 insurance companies involved in the accident (Penske, Volvo, owner, and driver). What a mess.
The Arizona border sign had a rest stop next to it so we were able to have a more intense photo shoot including some jumping action shots. James then had us stop at the Petrified Forest in Arizona. (These photos are no where to be found. ALAS!!) We arrived only 30min before closing, but got to see everything in the sunsetting light. It was absolutely gorgeous and we got to use our new digital camera to do some landscapes and portraits. The petrified wood really did just look like logs, but was strange to the touch to feel like rock.
We then drove to Sedona, AZ. We had thought New Mexico had been a cool drive, but Arizona proved to have higher, redder, and more numerous plateaus and cliffs. Unfortunately we arrived in Sedona in the dark so we didn’t get a true sense of its natural beauty.
Day 9 (Wednesday, September 19th)
The day of amazing views. We awoke to walk out of our cheap motel and be surrounded by gorgeously tall red cliffs. We drove along the scenic route out of Sedona and stopped to see a church built right into the side of one of the cliffs. We got the Penske kind of stuck in a sticky spot but a park ranger was helpful enough to clear a parking lot for us to turn around in. We took picture after picture and still found ourselves driving into more and more beautiful views.
^^RUBBER PANTS! This sign gets us every time.^^
We then continued north to the Grand Canyon. The drive to the Grand Canyon is flat and grassy and rather lame – you would never guess that you were 50miles away from one of the craziest natural structures ever. We arrived at the Grand Canyon National Park and just went to the first view available. It was ridiculous. The Grand Canyon is HUGE. I mean, yes, we all know it is big, and we read in our guide that it was about 7miles from one side to the other. But then standing there, you just look left, you look right, you look down, and you look straight across and it just doesn’t seem real. It is so so so VAST. It was awesome. We took some photographs and posed for some portraits and then continued on our way to Vegas. We are so thankful for Kendra’s Park Pass engagement party gift, that really made it easy to see all these cool parks.
James took the Jeep so he could drive over the Hoover Dam, leaving Kimmy driving the truck with Ash as copilot. The lame drive the truck had to make included lots of hills with at least a 6% grade. Going up one particularly long and steep drive the truck drove 36mph, pedal to the floor baby. Needless to say it took the girls a while to catch up to James. They met in Nevada, outside the Las Vegas borders and switched drivers so James could have the honor of driving the Penske into Vegas.
^^Selfies pre-Selfie Nation^^
We found somewhere to park the Penske and dressed ourselves for the strip. No glittery mini dresses were involved but we did put on clean jeans. We drove the length of the brightly lit strip and decided to park and walk. We had dinner at Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffet’s restaurant and bar, where on the hour a volcano of margaritas explodes and a half naked waitress slides drown the volcano into a giant glowing blender where she dances seductively to the rest of the song. )We had delicious margaritas and nachos that we inhaled in about 2min. After dinner we explored each of the posh hotels, stopping to watch the fountain show at the Belaggio. Ashley and James debated just getting hitched at the drive-thru chapel with Kimmy as their witness, but in the end decided going to bed was a better option.
Day 10 (Thursday, September 20th)
THE DAY WE REACH CALIFORNIA! We drove out of Vegas and thru the desolate desert into California. Probably the worst drive ever. We did have a powerful “dance around the cali sign” photo shoot at the border. Ashley finally drove the truck, hated it, and promptly switched with James in the middle of a desert traffic jam.
Not wanting us to hit LA traffic, Ashley suggested we take smaller roads. This resulted in Kimmy driving south east towards Arizona, and Ashley and James driving 50 miles north, paralleling the road they had been on from Vegas. Kimmy and Ursa were so done with driving on sketchy mountains roads with hills like a rollercoaster and NOWHERE to pee or eat. When they finally came across a McDonald’s Kimmy graciously let Ursa pee first and then had to physically shove the dog back into the car so she could go inside and use the rest room. The two then sat there sharing fries and refusing to continue on alone. Luckily Ashley and James arrived in the truck and James dropped Ash off roadside to take over driving the Jeep.
We called our realtor to ask where to pick up our keys if we didn’t happen to make it by 5pm. She told us the keys and paperwork would be in a drop box behind the realty office and gave us the code. Then 3 hours later when we called to confirm that we would not be arriving by 5pm we were told that we were now not allowed to have the keys until we gave her our second cashier’s check… mind you we had passed plenty of banks where we would have been able to stop and get a cashier’s check, but now, at 4:45pm, that did not seem like it was going to happen. Kimmy asked if she could have the number of the owner to call and beg that they spend the night, and also told their realtor that it was kind of unprofessional to assure them their paperwork could be handled the next day and to then inform them at an hour when it was no longer possible that they needed to get their hands on a cashier’s check. James called and the realtor said to him that the cleaners left an extra set of keys on the counter and that the back window doesn’t lock… Perfect.
So we basically had to break and enter into our own house. The electricity wasn’t on so we moved in by candlelight and a dura flame log lit in the fireplace. Our welcome-wagon was a drunk neighbor named Allen who is in the Navy and is a self proclaimed “red neck.” After unpacking the entire Penske we went to In-n-Out Burger to pick up dinner, and ate our burgers and french fries by firelight. How OC of us!
We were finally in California.