June 22, 2010: The Ralstons Return

Today is the big day, the Ralstons return home to America after fourteen months in the Congolese jungle!

Liesl is feeling some better today.  Not great but she appears to be improving.  She is still lethargic and not herself, though.

I got up at five thirty this morning, got packed, showered and downstairs for coffee by seven.  Not bad for getting just five hours of sleep.  I am not good at packing either – good thing that I had very little that I needed to pack.

I got the Mazda PR5 all loaded up and then stopped by in the kitchen for some coffee.  John and I hung out for a little bit – a little longer than I had anticipated so I was running later than I had planned when I went out and hit the road in the Mazda to go towards Virginia.

I was a bit later leaving Arnold, Maryland than I had planned to be.  I watched my Blackberry carefully in case the Ralstons were attempting to call me, but I did not hear from them during my entire drive.

The trip from Arnold to Dulles took quite a bit longer than I had thought that it was going to take and longer than any of my planning mapping software had predicted.  I had to drive right through the middle of Washington which is never fun and especially not during rush hour.  It went well, though, and I made it through with few delays.

Once I was out on the west side of the city and into Virginia things took much longer than I had anticipated.  The Maryland and Washington portions of the journey went surprisingly according to plan.  In Virginia I drive from Alexandria on I395 up VA110 to I66 in Arlington and took the expressway out to Dulles.  This bit of the trip took an amazingly long time.  I guess that I had no idea how far Dulles was from Arlington.

Fortunately the amount by which I mis-estimated the travel time out to Dulles was about exactly the same amount by which I mis-estimated the amount of time that it was going to take them to get through bagged claim and American customs.  When I was on the final approach to Dulles I called Mary, Art’s mom, to get the most up-to-date arrival and flight information, but she did not have that.  So I called dad who did some quick research and found that Dulles reported their flight as “still in customs.”  At this point it was right around nine forty in the morning.  The trip out from Arnold had taken more than two hours and they had been on the ground since five minutes till eight.

While I was still on the phone with dad Art called me to tell me that they were ready to be picked up.  Talk about perfect timing!  They were at the door that I was approaching.  I told Art to run outside so that I could see him.  I was able to pull up right to the very first door and there they were.  The timing was literally within seconds.  I was able to drive from Arnold to Dulles and they did not have to wait a single second for me.  Had I been any earlier or any later they would have to have waited some time for me to get to the arrival point to pick them up.

We quickly packed as much into the Mazda as we could.  Brenda was also picking them up as they had so much stuff that two vehicles were needed.  Brenda was in the parking garage so Danielle and Michael went with her to get her car with the last of the luggage.  We were going to a home nearby so that the Ralstons could get showered and cleaned up after their very, very long trek from the jungles of the Congo to Ethiopia to Rome to Virginia.  The last stretch was sixteen hours on a plane so you can imagine how badly they wanted to be able to shower.

So since Art and I did not have a GPS we just got basic directions (head to Sterling, Virginia on route 7) and we were to get detailed directions to the house once we were away from the airport and everyone else was out of the parking garage.

We got out and were several miles away from the airport before we managed to get a hold of Brenda and Danielle to find out where we were supposed to go.  The directions were simple so we headed out on our way.

It only took a little bit before we were pretty suspicious that we were lost.  The road that we needed to look for never came up and we just drove for miles and miles.  We knew that we had gone quite a bit farther than it was supposed to be to the house.

We ended up stopping at the brand new Wegmans in Leesburg to regroup, get new directions and use the restrooms.  The Wegmans was a new development and in a huge new “village” development, which was gorgeous, but not being done yet it was extremely confusing and we had entered through a one way so we were kind of trapped and unable to return the way that we had come.  So we spent a good fifteen minutes just trying to get back to route seven!

At this point we got new directions that were nothing at all like the original directions.  Instead of going towards Leesburg on route seven we were to go away (a pretty significant point) and the name of the road that we were looking for was the wrong name and that wasn’t the road that comes off of seven anyway.  So we were to head all the way back and start over with new directions.

We finally got out of the Wegmans parking lot and on to seven in the only direction that seemed to be available to us.  This took us back past the exit for Dulles (so we thought) but we were never able to find the new road that they had described “just past the Dulles exit.”  So we ended up driving for miles and miles getting not all that far from Winchester, Virginia far out to the west.

We decided that this just had to be wrong and we knew that we had never been out here before.  Everything just felt wrong but we could not figure out what could have happened since we had gone back past the Dulles exit even though we did not recognize anything along the way.

We decided that if we made it all of the way back to Wegmans and never found the road that we were looking for that we would just pull back into Wegmans and let everyone find us there.  The whole purpose of this leg of the journey was only to get showers in and Danielle and Michael had already had theirs and Art was getting less and less keen on taking one now as we had already lost an hour or more and could have been well on the way back home to New York at this point.  The total journey home is under five hours so losing even one hour here was pretty significant and very much taking away from time at home.

We never found the road and when we reached the Wegmans we came to the horrible realization that it was on the wrong side of the road from what we were expecting.  We surmised that somehow, although we could not figure out how given the existence of the Dulles exit, that we had gone the wrong way on seven.  So instead of stopping we continued on to the east to see what we could find.

There was quite a bit more driving to do since we were only now beginning our original “turn around” move having been completely in the wrong direction all of this time since leaving Wegmans.  Once we continued on we came upon the Dulles exit again (yes, there is one on either side of Wegmans roughly equidistant from one another!) and figured that we were on the right tract now.

We found the road that we needed, Algonkian, which through us off because we thought that everyone had been mispronouncing Algonquian.  We turned onto Algonkian and started looking for the road that we were told to turn onto from it.

Once again, we got lost.  We drove Algonkian way past Potomac Falls.  Luckily we did not go too far because it loops back around onto seven and that would have cause so much more confusion.  So Art called to get a new set of directions.  It turns out that we weren’t given the next road name yet so there wasn’t even a hope of us finding the road that we were looking for.  It also turned out that no one at the house, including the locals, even knew the name of the road that they were off of and could not figure out how to ascertain it.

So at this point, after about an hour and a half of driving around to find a place just five minutes from the airport, we found out that we had not yet, even now, been given the most basic instructions yet for getting to the house!  At least they could have looked up the road name when they drove down it an hour and a half ago.

So now, since no one knew where the house was, they had to send someone out to sit on the side of Algonkian and wait for us to come by since directions could not be given.  That sped things up and took only about ten minutes for us to find them and follow them back to the house.  At that point we read the road names for ourselves and while the final road name was close enough for us to have likely found it this time (had we been given the intermediate road name, “Winding”) it was still incorrect.

We pulled into a parking space and immediately Art and I both looked around and noticed that the landmark given to find the house (should we somehow get there without any road names) – an old Chevy truck – would have just confused us further as there was no Chevy truck anywhere to be seen but immediately we both saw a Ford way down the road that “couldn’t be it” since they had been so specific in that the pickup was a Chevy.  But no, that was the landmark.  Art also realized that we had the wrong town name.

So, after two hours of driving around looking for this house, Art was finally able to run in and take a shower.  In the end we had the wrong direction on the highway, wrong destination road name (twice), missing exit off of highway, missing exit off of Algonkian, wrong town name and incorrect landmark.  We literally would have had been luck with no information except the amount of time that it took them to arrive from the time that they left the airport.  We would have at lest had a rough region to look in with that information.

Art showered and we were back on the road pretty quickly.  I had been hoping to have been able to have gotten online for a few minutes in order to communicate with work and let them know my status and to turn on my out of office notifications which I had expected to have been doing several hours ago so now I was getting a little bit desperate to get online.  No luck at the house, though, so I was planning to hit a McDonald’s or something quite soon to get some WiFi access.

From the house we needed to run a few miles up the road to go to the outlet mall so that Danielle could go shoe shopping as she did not have any shoes or footwear that fit at all and desperately needed some right away.  That actually worked out pretty well, timing wise, as there was a Panera Bread right next door.  So I ran in Panera to get online while they all shopped (Art, Danielle, Brenda and Michael.)

I managed to get a ton of work done with my time in the restaurant.  The WiFi worked great and I was really productive.

After the show shopping was done, Brenda took Danielle and Michael and got right on the road towards New York.  Art walked over to Panera and found me.  We packed up the laptop and headed out ourselves.  We figured out later that we probably were thirty minutes or so behind everyone else at this point.

We got on US15 headed north, which is a crazy beautiful drive through northern Virginia headed up towards the Maryland border and all through Maryland.  It only starts getting not so nice once you enter Pennsylvania.  We stopped for gas at some weird, out of the way backwoods gas station and were in pretty good shape for our journey at that point.  We had run through a lot of fuel in our search for the house earlier.

We got up to Harrisburg and Art could not resist the lure of American cuisine any longer so we stopped in to McDonald’s.  He has been looking forward to this moment for a very long time.

We ate while driving and right as we left McDonald’s I got called by SpiceWorks to find out that I am speaking at SpiceWorld 2010 in Austin this October.  There had been some confusion and they had thought that I knew that I was speaking and I thought that they had enough speakers and had decided not to have me speak this year since I had spoken last year.   So this is very good news.

At this point the rain started coming down pretty hard but did not last for long.  That was the only adverse weather conditions that we experienced on the entire journey.

The trip was uneventful up to Willamsport.  We were making decent time although everyone else was far ahead of us at this point.  In Williamsport, however, as we would discover later, somehow we missed a turn and ended up taking 220 West far out of our way.  Actually this happened because we had missed a turn in Shamokin Dam and in looking for that turn where it was not supposed to be we ended up missing another turn.

So we lost at least an hour driving way out of our way on 220.  That was not fun.  We discovered that we were on the wrong road right as 220 turned into a dead end.  This is getting to be the longest drive from Dulles to Mt. Morris ever.

We got back on the right road, eventually, after taking several really, really tiny backwoods trails to wind our way through the Pennsylvania hills.  It was some seriously gorgeous country but slow going.

We were still looking for US15 in Pennsylvania when everyone else arrived in Mt. Morris.  So there were several hours ahead of us at this point.  Depressing.

The rest of the drive went fine.  We stopped in Kanona for gas, as always; it is the best place to stop on this drive.

We got to Mt. Morris to Art’s parents’ house and had some pizza before Art and Danielle drove me up to my dad’s house and dropped me off.  They are taking the Mazda PR5 indefinitely so I am sans automobile while in New York.

It was late when I got in to dad’s.  I’m not sure of the time but I am guessing that it was around eight or nine.  It was definitely dark out.

The original plan was to have made an attempt to run out to Frankfort tonight to pick up Dominica, Liesl and Oreo and to bring them back to Peoria, but that was based on the original schedule that put us arriving at dad’s as early as four or five o’clock with six being a pretty realistic time.  We lost at least five hours today between customs, the Virginia getting lost and the Pennsylvania getting lost.  It has been one of those days.

Dad and I hung out for a little while.  I was off to bed on the early side.  It has been a long week for me.

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