Above: Yours Truly (bottom left) and my FarmerCon friends at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus, Ohio, during the 2016 PulpFest convention July 21-24)

Apologies if I’ve looked or acted a little out of it over the past week or so, but it hasn’t been without reason. My mind and body have been in recovery mode, trying to get re-acclimated to the usual day-to-day routine after the whirlwind extravapalooza that was (drumroll, please) Small Family Vacation 2016.

We set out bright and early on the morning of Sunday, July 17. Not as early as I would have liked, thanks to my wife’s work schedule; had it been up to me we would have left a full day earlier, but that’s life. Even with the day’s delay we managed to hit the road at what, for us, was a reasonably decent time and managed to get as far as Springfield, Mo., by the end of that first night.

Day Two saw us travel through the St. Louis area and across southern Illinois to Terre Haute, Ind., where we stopped again for the night. The next day, July 19, started with me taking a moment alone to remember my late younger brother Jimmy on what would have been his 50th birthday; after leaving our motel we made a bit of a side trip to Lake Monroe and the Hoosier National Forest, where our son Joshua got in a bit of the nature photography he enjoys so well. Then we made our way back towards Interstate 70, stopping in Bloomington just long enough to grab a late lunch at the local Steak N' Shake before going on to stop for the night just east of Indianapolis. 

The following day saw us arrive at our primary destination for the first leg of the trip: Columbus, Ohio, where we checked into the Hyatt Regency to attend the 2016 PulpFest Convention. There I joined some of my fellow writers and friends - Win Scott Eckert, Christopher Paul Carey, Paul Spiteri, Ron Fortier, Danny Adams and others - over the next three days, selling books we have written and celebrating the pulp fiction that was popular during the first half of the 20th century and gave us some of pop culture’s most famous heroes: Tarzan, Zorro, Doc Savage, Conan The Barbarian and others.

Once again a second event was held in conjunction with the main PulpFest program: FarmerCon, the annual celebration of the late Hugo Award winning science fiction author Philip José Farmer, the creator of the popular “Riverworld” and “World of Tiers” series and so many other classic tales. It was the 11th such tribute event; they were originally held in Farmer’s hometown of Peoria, Ill., and Win, Paul, Michael Croteau and the other FarmerCon organizers began holding that event in tandem with PulpFest several years ago following Farmer’s death. It was an appropriate move, given that Farmer was so inspired by the old pulp magazines and actually saw his first stories published near the end of the pulp period, and from what I've seen the PulpFest folks appreciate having us Farmerphiles join them every year..  

It was our third trip to the combined PulpFest/FarmerCon event, and it’s always a blast to hang out with my friends and fellow authors. In the past Melissa just sort of tagged along, always happy to see our friends but a little less interested in sitting around talking about pulp fiction heroes all day and often well beyond midnight. This year, however, that was not a problem for her; she and some of the other wives - Lisa Eckert, Lisa Croteau and Claire Spiteri, along with Claire and Paul’s two lovely teenage daughters Gina and Maddie - decided to go out and have a few adventures of their own away from us boring old writer types hanging around the convention hall. The ladies dubbed their activity “BettieCon” - in honor of Farmer’s late wife Bettie - and by all accounts they had a ball, shopping and visiting museums and other cultural attractions. It was nice to see Melissa having a good time with the rest of the girls.

Meanwhile, Joshua and I were getting in a little shopping of our own, snapping up all kinds of used books from convention vendors and at the nearby Acorn Books, one of the finest used book stores in the country in my opinion. We also picked up a few newly published titles by some of our friends, including a new Lone Ranger-Phileas Fogg crossover tale by Mr. Eckert and the two-volume Crossovers Expanded by our mutual buddy Sean Lee Levin - his first published work, which made its debut at this year’s PulpFest. Watching Sean’s reaction to his first booksigning and interaction with folks who bought copies of his book was a lot of fun, partially because we are all proud proud of Sean for his accomplishment and partially because it brought back a lot of pleasant memories of my own experiences as a first-time author.

Joshua and I also managed to sneak off one afternoon and walk a couple of blocks up the street to a local movie theatre to catch a showing of Star Trek Beyond. It was a great movie - our favorite of the three recent “reboot” Trek films - and if you haven’t seen it yet you need to. To me it seemed the perfect way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Trek franchise… albeit a bittersweet one, given the passing of both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin. 

On the morning of Sunday, July 24, we shared one final breakfast with our PulpFest/FarmerCon friends and said our goodbyes before setting out on the second leg of the two-week vacation. After leaving Columbus that morning we headed further east to Hershey, Penn., where we spent a day at Hershey’s Chocolate World - the perfect vacation destination for an overweight diabetic like Yours Truly, let me tell you. (Had to double up on the ol' Metformin that night, I’m afraid…) The three of us had our picture taken by a Hershey’s employee and later wished that we hadn’t; we’d just come in out of a pretty intense rain storm and so weren’t exactly looking our best. Oh, well...

From Hershey we drove the next day through New Jersey, stopping at Liberty State Park long enough to get some photos of the Statue of Liberty and the New York Skyline from our side of the bay. We then crossed the George Washington Bridge into New York, driving through a portion of that state as well as Connecticut and Rhode Island before making our way into Massachusetts.

We took a room that night at the Embassy Suites in Marlborough and spent the next day exploring the Boston-Salem-Cambridge area. In Salem we walked around a sizable portion of the old historic part of town, including a visit to a museum dedicated to the infamous Salem Witch Trial of 1693. Josh thought it would be neat to make like Scooby and the Gang and do a little witch hunting ourselves while we were there; unfortunately the closest thing we saw to an actual witch was one angry looking woman (who admittedly did look a little like Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz) wearing a “Vote for Trump” T-shirt. So Josh and I walked behind her for about a block chanting “Go Hillary Go!” That was fun…

We also ate lunch at a McDonald’s in Salem that included something called a “lobster roll” on its menu. I thought about ordering one, just for the novelty of it all. ("Hey, guys, you know what I ordered at McDonalds while I was on vacation? LOBSTER!!!") But at $9 a roll it seemed perhaps a tad too novel, especially for a fellow of my social standing and less than impressive bank account. So I settled for a Quarter Pounder instead. So much for adventure...  

We got plenty of adventure in other ways, though. Unfortunately most of that day was spent trying to find our way around - and mostly failing; between a large amount of road work, the strange way the streets in that neck of the woods seem to be laid out and the crazy way the locals appear to like to drive, we spent far too much of that day lost, tired and cranky. At one point we were trying to locate a used book store I had looked up online at the motel that morning and followed the directions included on the website, but somehow ended up on a street whose name we were uncertain of because there were no signs telling us the name; the cross streets were named, but the thoroughfare we were on was not for blocks and blocks and blocks… By the time we finally realized that we were indeed on the street we’d been looking for, we also found that we’d been going the wrong way the entire time. Needless to say, we never did find that particular book store. (And I’ll bet it was the one place that had that one old book that’s been eluding me all these years, too… drat the luck!!!)

To top things off, when we got back to the room that night Melissa tried to order a pizza to be delivered to our room. The desk clerk at the motel had given us several menus to choose from, and we picked one specifically for a certain variety of pizza we’d never seen before and very much wanted to try. Unfortunately, the fellow on the other end of the phone either couldn’t speak English, had no idea what was on his own menu or both; listening to Melissa’s growing exasperation as she tried without luck to place our order sounded reminded me at times of those old standup routines Bob Newhart used to do; it might have almost been funny, if we weren’t all so dad-gummed tired and cranky from the day’s misadventures on the road - and starving into the bargain. (Ask Melissa about the entire ordeal the next time you see her; she tells the story better than I do.)

After about five minutes of trying to place the order - including one point where she found herself actually having to spell the pizza topping she was trying to order - Melissa finally threw in the towel, hanging up in a huff and calling one of the other restaurants the desk clerk had recommended. That turned out to be the best decision we'd made all day; the fellow on the other end of the line knew what was on his menu and didn’t ask Melissa to spell anything, and their pizza arrived quick and hot and was quite tasty indeed - and apparently so was the gyro that Joshua ordered. (I know it certainly looked good…)

So if you ever find yourself spending the night in Marlborough, Mass., and decide you want a pizza delivered to your motel room, be sure to order from Clockwork Pizza. You can thank me later. 

The next morning we checked out and, before leaving the Boston area, made one last stop at an attraction I’d been wanting to visit ever since I was a boy: the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, where we saw a short film detailing JFK’s early years before touring the collection of historical memorabilia and interactive displays highlighting Kennedy’s life and legacy. For me that visit was the highlight of the entire trip.

After leaving the JFK Library it was time to hit the road and start the long drive back to Johnston County, Oklahoma. We got as far that first night as Scranton, Penn., where we drove downhill into town in another pouring rain storm on what I’m pretty sure was the same stretch of road that Harry Chapin sang about in his song “30,000 Pounds Of Bananas.”  Steep grade would be something of an understatement...

From Scranton we made a quick return to Hershey’s Chocolate World, just long to pick up some souvenirs for my Capital-Democrat co-workers, then drove all day before stopping for the night in Zanesville, Ohio, home of the legendary western author Zane Grey. The next day we made it back to Missouri, and the day after that drove all the way from St. Louis to Johnston County - a one-day total of 604.9 miles, the longest single day of driving during the entire trip. We pulled into our driveway about 7:35 p.m. on Sunday, July 31, where we unpacked as quickly as possible so I could get to bed at a decent time in preparation for returning to work the next morning.

All total we drove through 12 states during this year’s vacation, logging a total of 3,982.3 miles and cramming in as much exploration and adventure (the Massachusetts Quarter Pounder notwithstanding) as time, money and patience would allow. It was exhausting, yes, but fun and educational and worth the drive... exactly the sort of road trip I’ve loved to take ever since I was a wee nipper and it was my father at the wheel. 

People often ask why we prefer driving to flying when we travel. To me, the destination is only half the trip; it’s the sights and sounds and people and places you find along the way where the REAL fun and memories are to be found. The family and I love road trips precisely because of the feeling of discovery they engender; flying to Canada or Seattle or Washington D.C. or San Diego or Boston or any of the other places we have visited over the years would have gotten us to those locations faster, but it also would have robbed us of the joy of those unplanned side trips to places we found along the way. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You can have the friendly skies. Give me the open road any day.

Of course, I’m not a young man anymore, so it takes a little longer to recuperate from these road trips these days than it used to. (My legs tend not to bend as easily getting in and out of the car as they once did, for example.) But that’s okay; it’s still worth it. Legs that are at once both stiff and wobbly and dramatically increasing my coffee intake for a couple of weeks out of the year seem like a small price to pay to be able to get out there and enjoy life and meet this great country of ours face-to-face.

Even though I’m still working the kinks out of my legs from this year’s trip, I’m already looking forward to hitting the road again next year. And maybe, if I’m lucky, I might just get adequately rested up in time for (drumroll, please) Small Family Vacation 2017


(Copyright 2016 by John Allen Small)