Lighthouse At Casco Bay, Portland, Maine (Photo by Yours Truly)

I wanted to. I really did.

There I was, driving along U.S. Highway 22 west on the evening of Aug. 5, through the most torrential downpours that I had seen in many a moon. It was the longest single day we would spend on the road during this year’s summer vacation - a 12-hour, 682-mile trek that began that morning in Maine and would ultimately end at the Doubletree Convention Center in Cranberry, Penn., that night - and to be honest, there were a couple of times when I thought we might not make it.

With the windshield wipers on maximum, the headlights on our Rav-4 cutting through the murk like a plastic fork through overly refrigerated butter, and wife Melissa hunkered down in the passenger’s seat providing an extra set of eyes while exhorting me to slow down just a little bit more, all I could think of as I held my death grip on the steering wheel was, “Boy, they could sure use some of this rain back home in Johnston County.”

I also remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could pull a Pecos Bill and lasso some of those rainclouds to bring back home with us?” But it was never really anything more than wishful thinking. Pecos Bill, after all, was a mythological figure like Paul Bunyan and Frankenstein’s Monster and a certain super-powered visitor from a strange planet known for leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Besides, my throwing arm just isn’t what it used to be…

But I wanted to. I really did.

As it turned out, Aug. 5 would be the worst rain we would encountered during our annual road trip - but it wasn’t the first and it wasn’t the last. It rained on us a lot, truth be told, but it could have been a whole lot worse. The storms that created all that damage in Kentucky had taken place just a few days before we hit the road, and subsequent forecasts of additional heavy rains in that part of the country had our son Josh concerned enough that at one point before our departure he suggested we consider changing some of our plans.

But that was never an option. Not really.

And therein lies a tale:

Last summer, not long after writing my annual “How I spent my summer vacation” column for the Sentinel, it occurred to me that of the 50 states that make up this great country of ours, I had thus far been to all but seven of them at one time or another in my life. And with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii, those states were all located east of the Mississippi River. 

Specifically, the five continental states yet to be visited by your wandering bard at that point included Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, North Carolina and South Carolina. As it happened, my wife - who has fond memories of a visit to Maine with her family when she was younger - had long wanted to make a return trip, and over the ensuing months took on the task of looking into possible places at which to stay should the opportunity arise.

At the same time, I was considering making a return trip to Cranberry to attend this year’s PulpFest - the annual convention similar to the San Diego Comic-Con, but devoted to pulp fiction of the 1930s-40s and its more recent iterations. 

As longtime readers may recall, I’ve been a professional participant at the event several times in the past (thanks to my “extracurricular” fiction writing endeavors), but this would be my first time back since 2018 and I was really looking forward to hanging out with those fellow writers and friends who have become my extended family.

After months of planning, Melissa and I finally hit upon a vacation itinerary that would take us both to Maine and PulpFest - taking us through Vermont and New Hampshire along the way, thereby crossing three of the five eastern states off my “still to visit” list. 

Unbeknownst to me early on, Melissa and Josh had also put their heads together and concocted a route that would also take us into both Carolinas, thereby crossing the last two states off that list as well. 

Sure, it would mean one extremely long day on the road and limiting our stay at PulpFest to just two nights and one full day. But it would also fulfill several personal goals, while allowing Melissa and me a fair amount of much needed “alone time.” 

It would also give me the opportunity to finally give our trusty new Toyota - the odometer of which, roughly 10 months after purchase, showed only 5,386 miles on the morning we left - an overdue “shakedown cruise,” sort of like the one Scotty was looking forward to giving the Enterprise-A at the end of Star Trek IV

Sounded like a plan to me...

So bright and early on the morning of July 30 we pulled out of our driveway and hit the open road, our day-to-day cares temporarily behind us. That first day ended in Fenton, Mo., just outside St. Louis, where supper happily consisted of the first fresh-off-the-griddle White Castle burgers we’d had in probably five years. (The frozen ones you buy at the grocery store just are NOT the same… but as usual that’s a topic for another day…)

Day Two got us from Fenton to Zanesville, Ohio - home of the famed western author Zane Grey and a Denny’s that looked like a 1950s diner straight out of Happy Days but played music from the late 1960s and early ’70s, which put kind of a weird spin on a dining experience that already saw us having breakfast for supper. 

There’s nothing quite like eating an omelet and hash browns at 7 p.m. in a dining room adorned with pictures of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly while Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” emanates from the sound system to make you scratch your head and wonder if maybe you’ve driven through some kind of time warp...

The third day took us through West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York before finally spending the night in Hartford, Conn. It was a long, emotionally challenging day punctuated by traffic problems stemming from miles of road construction and some of that aforementioned rain, and exacerbated by an overnight stay on the third floor of a motel whose elevator had decided to quit working on the very day that an Oklahoma journalist with a bum leg decided to show up. 

Our mood and our fortunes improved considerably the next day as we drove through Massachusetts to Queeche, Vt., where we made our first really serious souvenir stop at a quaint little shopping area that looked like a street scene from an old Frank Capra movie. From there we backtracked just a bit before taking the swing through New Hampshire and north to South Portland, Maine - Home Sweet Home for the next three days. 

We celebrated our arrival with dinner at a wonderful restaurant just up the block from our motel called the Coppersmith Tavern and Table, home of the best haddock either of us have ever eaten. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure it was the first haddock either of us have ever eaten.

Most of the next day was spent walking around the Fisherman’s Wharf area of Portland’s Casco Bay, where we made what may well have been the single most important discovery of the entire voyage: they don’t give you bags when you go shopping, at least not in that part of Maine. Not at the souvenir shops, not at the bookstores, not even at the local Walmart when you stop in for those few travel necessities you’ve suddenly realized you forgot to pack before leaving home. 
If you want your purchases put in a bag, you either need to bring your own or buy one along with the rest of your purchases. 

Their reasoning is both sound and commendable - it’s all part of the local effort to cut down on waste and pollution - but it sure would have been nice to have known ahead of time. Somehow the whole “bring your own bag” thing never turned up during Melissa’s extensive research…

The day also included a tour of the bay on one of those duck boat rides and a quick lunch at a eatery called Elevation Burger, where we enjoyed our first-ever Surf and Turf Burger (a hamburger topped with lobster meat). Our stay in Portland also included several stops at bookstores and Maine Vintage Toys, whose co-owner - a very nice lady named Courtney Fairbanks - seemed genuinely impressed that a couple of married senior citizens from southern Oklahoma would drive all the way to Maine to check out their selection of Lego mini-figures. 

I also got to keep a promise to Melissa during our stay by paying a visit to the Old Orchard Beach, where I had fun watching my wife kick off her shoes and spend some time playing in the ocean. (I’ve got the pictures to prove it.) 

That was the same day we had lunch at the restaurant with the single most unusual name we encountered during our travels: Buck’s Naked BBQ Steakhouse. Good food. Nobody was naked, though…

(I’ve been waiting two weeks to share that joke.)

Eventually our sojourn in Maine came to an end and we made that 12-hour trek - the last 100 miles or so driving through that torrential summer shower - back to Pennsylvania and the company of my compatriots at PulpFest. 

It was a blast hanging out with friends and colleagues like Win Eckert, Christopher Carey, Paul Spiteri, Anthony Cardno, Frank Schildiner, Matthew Baugh, Kim Turk, Sean Levin, Jim Beard, John Bruening, Kevin Neal, Jason Aiken and so, so many others too numerous to mention individually here - but each and every one of them good and loyal friends, who have demonstrated time and again that “family” is more than simply a matter of blood.

Having no new books of my own to hawk this time around (maybe next year), I also had a little more time than usual to spend prowling through the vendors’ room looking for new additions to my own home library. Among the treasures I picked up this time were several re-releases of works by a literary hero who became a friend - the late science fiction author Philip José Farmer - as well as volumes by such writers as James Blish, Isaac Asimov and Victor Appleton. 

And in one of those odd examples of the tables being turned, I also found myself being interviewed by a filmmaker working on a documentary about the 1930s pulp hero Doc Savage after the filmmaker learned of my involvement in previous projects centered around the character.

The next morning, after bidding my PulpFest tribe a reluctant adieu, Melissa and I set out on our two-day swing through North and South Carolina before heading west through Tennessee and Arkansas and returning home. 

The motel stay in Jackson, Tenn., was made especially memorable by the presence of a breakfast room attendant who looked and sounded remarkably like Samuel L. Jackson; being greeted by Jedi Master Mace Windu almost made me drop my plate of scrambled eggs...

By the time we finally pulled back into our driveway at home, we had traveled a total of 4,590 miles through 18 states - which I’m pretty certain makes it the single longest road trip Melissa and I have taken together since we were married in 1986. 

As exhausting as the voyage was - and make no mistake, it WAS exhausting - it was also a grand adventure that served as yet another reminder of those wonderful road trips I took with Mom and Dad when I was growing up. 

There’s a part of me that likes to think they were right there with us this time around, staring out over the New River Gorge in West Virginia and riding the waves on Casco Bay…

Now that I’ve set foot in all 48 of the contiguous states, that’s one more item marked off my “bucket list.” (A term I detest, by the way, but who am I to cast stones at the pop culture gods?) Which still leaves Alaska and Hawaii to be visited one day, of course, but whether or not that ever comes to pass is at this point left to the Fates. 

Melissa insists she’s going to make it happen, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned after all these years it is to never doubt her sense of determination.

We shall see...

(Copyright © 2022 by John A. Small)