800 miles behind us, one year ago tonight

800 miles behind us, one year ago tonight

"What the hell are you doing?" the old man yelled into my window. "You can't park here! What's wrong with you?"

I had just backed very carefully into a space barely wide enough for the car. My friend Kevin was riding shotgun, my dog Ella in a nest in the back seat. Funny, I thought as the man angrily waved me back into the alley, we only missed our target by about twelve feet.

That was exactly one year ago this evening—Wednesday, June 26, 2013. It was the tail end of a 24-hour odyssey that already felt like a dream.

In reality, though, the odyssey went back much farther. For months, my wife and I had been planning a move from Chicago back to New York City. The company she worked for had offered her a job in its New York office, and in fact she was already spending much of her time there, transitioning into her new role. It fell to me to make all the arrangements for moving, to get everything packed, and to find us a new place to live.

That last task turned out to be the easiest. On a trip to New York in May, I looked at exactly two places before I found our new home. It was a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Astoria, Queens, our former neighborhood. The landlord was so eager to have us, in fact, that he knocked $200 off the rent. The only catch was, we had to take it for the first of June. This moved our timetable ahead by a month, and meant that during June we were renting both an apartment in Chicago and a house in Queens, on top of having to pay for a move.

Packing Kevin's painting - click to view - mousewheel to zoom

The week of the move, my wife was going to need to be in New York, working. I scheduled the movers to come the morning of Tuesday, June 25. The plan was, as soon as the truck was packed, I would jump in the car with Ella and my good friend Kevin Swallow, and we would race through the rest of the day and the night to beat the movers to New York City. We would likely arrive in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, and we'd be ready for the movers to unpack that day. Wednesday night, instead of the hotel where she'd been staying, My wife would come home from work for the first time to our new house in Queens.

The truck is packed! - click to view - mousewheel to zoom

I thought I had the Chicago apartment pretty well packed in preparation for the movers' arrival. I had even had a crate built to transport a couple of our more valuable paintings, including one by Kevin himself. But as the movers began to wrap the furniture in pads and plastic and the morning wore on, I began to realize just how big the job really was.

Ella tries not to freak out in the empty apartment - click to view - mousewheel to zoom

The movers had arrived at nine in the morning, but even with my mother-in-law there riding herd on them, the truck wasn't packed until after five. What's more, I had an eye on the weather feed, and I was watching thunderstorms head our way from out of the west on radar. Nevertheless, Kevin and I decided to proceed as planned, despite the fact that we were going to be leaving about six hours later than we had hoped.

We made one last check through the empty apartment and finished packing the car as quickly as we could. I built something of a nest for Ella in the back seat, with her dog bed snuggled in next to the cooler and other supplies filling up the space on the floor behind the front seats. Of course, by the time we hit the road, rush hour was in full swing, putting us even farther behind schedule. By the time we hit the Chicago Skyway and were racing into Indiana, the sun was losing itself in the ominous clouds behind us.

Ella's back seat nest - click to view - mousewheel to zoom

Still, we were making pretty good time across Indiana, even factoring in the time change partway across the state. But we were about halfway through Indiana when those thunderstorms caught up with us. It was fully dark by then, except for when the frequent lightning turned the landscape bright white.

Ella usually does very well on car trips, but she's terrified of storms. As thunder shook the car, she repeatedly tried to climb into my lap from the back seat. Fortunately, Kevin was driving at that point, not me, but I still had to keep shoving Ella back where she belonged, and that was a hazard to him. And not long after the lightning and thunder started, the skies opened up with a rain of Biblical proportions. It was such a heavy downpour that the windshield wipers could barely keep up with it. We had to slow way down because the road was barely visible, and, even so, huge semis with their yellow running lights kept shooting past us and making the road even more dangerous. Kevin was hunched over the wheel, gripping it so tightly I thought it might break.

Finally, we saw an exit and had to pull off the interstate. We sat in the parking lot of a shopping center for a while, waiting for a break in the storm. After about half an hour, the rain slackened enough that we thought it was safe to keep going, but pretty much as soon as we pulled back onto the interstate it started pouring even harder than before. According to my weather app, the situation wasn't likely to change for hours. While Kevin grimly kept us on course, I searched Google Maps for a nearby pet-friendly hotel where we could hole up for the night and wait for the storms to pass.

We were near Elkhart, Indiana. My app showed a Holiday Inn just off the interstate a few miles away. The exit sign hove faintly into view after what seemed like an eternity, and I directed Kevin along a winding access road to where Google promised our hotel awaited. I kept my eyes peeled as we crept along the road through the downpour, but I couldn't spot the hotel. When according to Google Maps we'd gone well past it, we turned around and crept back the way we'd come. We did this two or three more times, in increasing panic, until finally a well-timed lightning strike showed us the hotel. Which was entirely dark.

"Shit, the power's out!" I said.

But the parking lot was full of cars, so we pulled up to the front and I ran inside. Two young women were working the front desk by portable lantern light, taking down credit card numbers to run later as several groups of storm refugees checked in for the night. Because of the storm, the hotel kindly waived the pet deposit, on top of which they offered a pretty big discount on the room itself.

It took Kevin and me several trips to ferry all the necessary supplies from the car up to our second story room, including our suitcases, Ella's food and bed, and Ella herself, who was very fearful and jumpy. It was a hot night, despite the storm, and extremely humid, and the air-conditioning of course was not working. We had to open the window some to get some air, but that only made Ella more terrified of the storm. I went out into the hall to try to find the hotel's ice machine by iPhone light. It was an eerie thing in those long hallways to encounter other people navigating by phone light. You could see the tiny glow bobbing toward you from far off, until you and they passed like wraiths in the darkness, not speaking a word one to another.

Ella loves nothing more on a hot day or night than a bowl of ice cubes, with which the ice machine was fortunately still well stocked. We suffered through an hour or two of the stifling, noisy darkness in that room, the three of us, as Kevin and I texted our wives to tell them where we were and why. Sometime before midnight the power came back on, and we were all able to get a few hours of sleep, with Ella panting near me on top of my twin bed.

Approaching Youngstown, OH - click to view - mousewheel to zoom

I woke up at about 4:30 in the morning. It was quiet and calm outside. I checked the weather. It looked like if we could hit the road by 5:00 or so, we might stand a chance at staying ahead of the next wave of thunderstorms rolling in from the west. I fed Ella and started ferrying our stuff back out to the car. Before long Kevin was awake and we were on our way again.

We made good time across the rest of Indiana and into Ohio. I wasn't sure where the moving truck was, but I figured it had probably been stopped by the storm same as us. We did manage to stay under clear skies the rest of that day, which was punctuated every couple of hours by stops at rest areas for coffee and for Ella to do her business. Periodically I would take a picture or video of Ella panting in the back seat and send it to my wife, so she could see that we were all still fine. I labeled these messages BEAR CAM.

BEAR CAM: Ella on the road - click to view - mousewheel to zoom

We were still going strong as we passed Youngstown and entered Pennsylvania, with its long, long uphills and speedy, enticing downhills. Kevin was again at the wheel when we decided to stop for gas in White Haven, just a stone's throw from the New Jersey state line. It was past mid-afternoon, shading to late afternoon. I filled the tank, then took Ella out to a grassy patch to do her business. I loaded back into the car, and Kevin tried to start it up. The engine stuttered and would not turn over.

Our savior: Jimmy's Automotive, White Haven, PA - click to view - mousewheel to zoom

Kevin brought up Yelp and found a mechanic named Jimmy who was willing to schlep out to where we were stranded. Apparently the combination of those killer uphills, plus the air-conditioning on a very hot, muggy day, plus the stereo running and recharging our iPhones via USB, had all conspired to suck the life out of the car battery. He gave us a jump, then we followed him a couple of miles to his garage, where he charged up the battery for us for a few minutes before sending us on our way. And for all this service, he wouldn't let me give him more than ten dollars, though I tried. So please, if you're ever in White Haven, Pennsylvania, find an excuse to throw some business Jimmy's way. He's a good dude.

Jimmy, a good dude - click to view - mousewheel to zoom

We hit the road again, but Kevin insisted that it was now my turn to drive again. "Everything bad happens when I'm in the driver's seat," he said. "You can take us the rest of the way into the city."

I couldn't really fault him for feeling that way. After all, he'd gone above and beyond the call of friendship just by volunteering to tag along with me on this long, crazy drive. So I drove us from there on, with the windows down and the air-conditioning off on the uphills so we neither overtaxed the fragile battery nor overheated the furry animal in the back seat. We made it across New Jersey and the George Washington Bridge without incident, and from there it was a comfortingly familiar tangle of narrow expressways and harrowing interchanges all the way to the Triborough Bridge, and the borough of Queens.

I found our new street easily enough, and I pulled into the alley behind our new house. Our landlord had told me that his SUV would be parked behind our house, but that there was plenty of room for two cars to park there. It was early evening. I spotted an SUV parked behind a house, but it didn't look like there was very much room left for me to park next to it. It took me a couple of minutes to back my way into the parking space, with the SUV to one side of me and a pole to the other side, but I made it, with only a couple of inches to spare on either side.

Ella and Kevin at the new house - click to view - mousewheel to zoom

And that's when the old dude showed, yelling at me about what was I doing there and how I was going to scratch his sister-in-law's brand-new SUV.

"I live here," I insisted. "I'm moving into this place, and we just drove here from Chicago."

"You don't live here," the man snarled, clearly with the certainty that I was a knave and a rogue of the lowest order, concocting some scam that boded ill for western civilization.

Eventually the fellow and I both realized that I had parked one house down from where I was supposed to be. Right next door, behind the next house, was another parking space with another SUV. That's where we were supposed to be.

For a while there, I thought the guy was going to either have a heart attack or pull me bodily from my own car and lay an apocalyptic beatdown on my ass. How dare I park behind the wrong house? But I couldn't quite wrap my head around his anger because, from my point of view, my companions and I had just traveled over eight hundred miles through storm and calamity, and we had only missed our target by about twelve feet.

Ella collapses in the basement of her new home - click to view - mousewheel to zoom

The rest is history. I had been out to New York a couple of weeks earlier to buy a new bed for the place, so at least my wife and I had a mattress to sleep on when she arrived at our new home from the office that night. On that trip I had also stocked the fridge with beer, since I'd had a feeling that Kevin and I were going to need two or three apiece when we finally arrived. I had no idea how right that premonition was going to be.

Kevin slept in the basement that night on a sectional hide-a-bed the previous renters had sold us so they didn't have to move it. Ella came to realize over the next few weeks that we were back in the same neighborhood where she'd lived from the age of six months until she was almost four, and that many of her old friends and haunts were once again nearby. And she really came to love that nice cold tile floor there in the basement.

As it turned out, the moving truck didn't arrive until a day or two after we did. Which was perfectly fine by me. And that's the story of how Kevin and Ella and I drove from Chicago to New York City and survived to tell the tale.