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Monday, September 17, 2001 - Friday, September 21, 2001 - Just Drive

On Sunday, I had made it through St. Louis on I-70, took I-64 East for a short stretch through Indiana, then soonafter picked up I-57 South, ending up in Whittington, Illinois at the Holiday Trav-L-Park campground. As I waited to register for the night, an elderly gentleman before me was talking about the events in New York City with the woman behind the counter. Everywhere, everyone is talking about it. On Monday morning, I found it hard to get up and get moving. But I was making good time on the road and continued south.

Got onto I-24 right before the Kentucky state line, passed through Paducah where I had camped last year, then a little while later, I was in Tennessee. Through Nashville, then tried to make it to Chattanooga, but it was getting late in the evening, so we camped at the KOA in Manchester, Tennessee. tennessee

This trip was reminding me more and more of my Power Drive in October 2000. Little time for soaking in the sights, just focused on my destination and clocking as many miles a day as the RV and my brain would let me.

I stopped at a Wal-Mart to pick up groceries and searched for an American flag. As I arrived at the proper aisle, I could hear a salesclerk telling another woman that they have been sold out of all American flags and anything red, white or blue for days. I wanted to put a flag on the RV. I was determined to find a flag.

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

I was beginning to feel the humidity in the air and by the time we got to Tennessee, the mosquitos were thick and aggressive. I left Manchester Tuesday morning with about 25 mosquito bites, smearing Aveeno no-itch cream all over my arms and legs for relief.

Passed through Chattanooga. Sometimes, when I fail to reach my driving goals, I realize the following day that if I only drove one more hour, I would have gotten there. But the night before, another hour seems like an eternity, and I'm still incredibly sensitive to the RV engine as well as my own fatigue. flag

When I realized I hadn't been eating very much, I stopped along the way at Waffle House. Outside, a young boy was waving American flags. I ran outside and bought one for $2. Before getting back on the interstate, I taped the flag onto my RV with duct tape. Much better.

It scared me a little that I had covered so many miles already, and I couldn't remember where I had been the day before or what anything looked like. I was already in Atlanta, clenching the steering wheel as I remembered the horrific traffic accidents I had witnessed around Atlanta last time I passed through. Although I had complained about Florida drivers, I had concluded that drivers in Atlanta were not only bad, they were deadly.

I drove carefully to KOA Atlanta North where I had stayed before and felt a certain comfort being somewhere familiar. As I was settling into my campsite, there was a knock on the RV door. Several young girls were asking for donations to buy socks for the rescue workers in New York. It is everywhere. Everyone is affected. Everyone is trying to help.

Wednesday, September 19, 2001

I was in Atlanta to give a speech on Thursday but had arranged to check into a hotel downtown the day before. Since the Hilton Towers where the event was being held did not allow dogs, I had made a bunch of calls until I found a downtown Atlanta hotel that did. In addition to the Berts, I had to consider the RV and had to make sure that the hotel had an outdoor, open parking lot and not a parking garage. The Days Inn confirmed both criteria with me, so in the morning, I called to get directions before getting back onto the highway leading into downtown.

The first sign that the day would test my patience was when I discovered the hotel gave me entirely the wrong directions, and I found myself driving the RV through a confusing maze of downtown streets. I finally called the hotel on my cellphone and had them talk me through each turn until I finally saw the Days Inn sign.

When I asked the deskclerk where their open parking lot was, she informed me that they had a parking garage. What? I wanted to cry. Suddenly, little dumb mistakes seemed like the end of the world to me. Finally, I drove by the hotel and turned up a side street, holding back tears. A block later, I found an open public parking lot and pulled into a space, trying to catch my breath and calm down. This is not the end of the world. This is not a big deal.

I loaded a big backpack and put the Berts in their carry bag, then lugged the heavy bags six blocks to the hotel, arriving with sweat pouring down my face and body. On the way, I noticed a huge open and empty parking lot near a church. Maybe I could park there tomorow when I had to leave the Berts in the RV while I went to the conference.

When I got to the front desk, all I could do was smile and breathlessly give them my name. The Berts were thrilled to be in a room with wall-to-wall carpeting and ran around the small hotel room as I got immediately into the shower. Everything is fine. I kept having to remind myself that everything is fine.

In the early evening, I walked the Berts back to the church - Lutheran Redeemer - and asked around until I found someone to ask about parking the RV in their lot. The woman, Maria, said she'd let me into the lot the following morning. I felt better about leaving the Berts in the RV in a church parking lot with security guards than a regular public lot.

That night, I finally made a few handwritten notes for my speech the next day. What could I possibly say that would make sense? That would matter? I didn't really know. I wasn't really sure anymore.

Thursday, September 20, 2001 sign

In the morning, I drove the RV to the church and Maria unlocked the chain to let me in. I gave her a copy of my new book as a thank you for her generosity. Then I caught a cab to the conference for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Despite everything, I knew afterward that I was glad I had attended the event. I think my speech went well, and the response was so positive and tremendous. Everyone was very supportive and kind, and I realized that at that moment, I needed the validation. Also, being with so many people who were trying to go about their lives was empowering.

My plan for the afternoon was to leave Atlanta and head north. I wanted to get to Charlotte, North Carolina next in order to visit Metrolina Dodge to get an oil change and check out some oil leaks and funny engine sounds. I had been to Metrolina Dodge several times before and besides Fairbanks Dodge in Coconut Creek, Florida, they were the only other Dodge dealer I knew and trusted.

Getting out of Atlanta in the afternoon took a long time, and I finally parked the RV for a while at a Cracker Barrel and made something to eat. By the time I got back onto the highway, rush hour traffic was finally fading. Less than an hour later, I couldn't drive anymore and pulled into the KOA Commerce/Athens.

The Berts and I sat on the grass by our campsite. The sun was already gone but the sky still glowed. Later, the night sky was filled with stars. I was beginning to see everything around me again and was reminded why I loved being on the road. I am here. I am part of the world. And the world is so immense.

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