Oh man, I was going in the wrong direction, it kept getting later, you can guess how this made my nerves feel. I was already exhausted and not sure how much longer I could keep going. On the other hand I wasn't all that far from Mike's if I could just get this ridiculous rig turned around.
I was on the lookout for U-turns, as noted, but there weren't any that I could see. I let one exit pass and then another pass. Soon I was miles and miles in the wrong direction from the Edison Memorial Rest Area and I just wanted to get this thing on the right track.
I picked an exit roughly ten miles away from the Edison Rest Area and got off. At this point I had to pay my toll for being on the Turnpike, which seemed ridiculous because I wasn't even where I needed to be. Nonetheless I paid it, and looked for a convenient place to turnaround.
Somehow I made a wrong turn, and then another wrong turn. I had to get off, I had no choice. The exit that looked most promising was New Brunswick because, if for no other reason, Rutgers University is there. College town, how bad can it be?
The streets of New Brunswick were deserted, and if there was a college there I sure didn't see it. Instead I drove down and down the road, past endless strip malls. Nothing was opened, not one restaurant, not even a gas stations. It was lights out in Mallville, USA.
This was supposed to be a relatively brief little jaunt off the Turnpike but after ten minutes I realized I had seen absolutely nothing that alerted me as to how to get back on the highway. Was I going the wrong way, again? I didn't know, but it was a safe guess by this point that I was.
I drove past yet another empty fast food restaurant, yet another empty carpet place, yet another empty big box retailer. It was like a ghost town, if all the ghosts were K-Mart shoppers. I decided to turn around, and take my chances going the other way.
I made a right, off the four lane road I was on, onto a two lane road, into what was the last opened gas station in the entire area. I needed something to eat, my terrible Nathan's hotdog had been hours ago by this point, and I was thirsty as well. I also thought I would ask directions, since, you know, I was totally crap at actually getting to where I needed to be.
As I got closer to the gas station I saw it was not exactly a friendly place. Indeed it was one of those ones that have the clerks behind bullet-proof plexi glass. Okay, okay. I decided to play it safe and slowly walked back to the truck. Once in I put it in drive, inched a turnaround, and got back on the road, going, I hoped, the right way.
They say the course of true love never did run smooth, and as you can guess by now, neither did the course of one overwhelmed schmo in a rented truck with two cats. I somehow took the wrong direction at a fork in the road, and then got off at the wrong place in a traffic circle, it was, in short, kind of like "European Vacation" except it was neither a vacation nor in Europe. Soon I was driving through the inner city of New Brunswick, or at least a town near New Brunswick. This area, of course, was not empty at this time of night. I nodded grimly as I tried to keep from getting ever more lost.
After about five minutes of this I saw a sign for the Turnpike. Relieved I got back on the right path, I hoped, and was hopefully on my way once more. Of course I still missed more turns, and the like, but I think you can get the picture by now. Altogether this little extra side trip tacked on another half hour to my voyage.
I got back on the Turnpike, and took yet another ticket. It was now 11:30 p.m.
I spoke to Mike and went over the directions for what to do when I got off at his exit. I would make a right, get onto a fairly busy local road, drive past various intersections and then make a right when I saw a Staples mega-store. Got it.
Soon I passed the Edison Rest Area once more, happy to see it get small in my rear view. Then I finally saw Mike's exit. I pulled off, and followed his instructions to the letter.
Except for one part, of course. I missed the turn at the Staples, because it was dark and came up suddenly. Quick turns in this rig were not going to happen. Instead I made the next right past the Staples and decided that I would then turn around and take another shot at it. Yet there was no outlet that lead directly back to the road I had just gotten off.
Somehow I now ended up in an empty stretch of residential suburbia, where the roads curled around with no reason at all, and the road I needed could not be seen. I ended up in a cul-de-sac, naturally, and was now trapped. Uh-oh, I would have to back up, and risk snapping the trailer hitch. You better believe the words of the bitter U-Haul service mechanic (see the last chapter) echoed through my exhausted brain as I incrementally backed up the entire rig. The trailer hitch groaned a little, and the entire procedure was hugely awkward and time-consuming, but eventually I was able to turn around and nose my way out of the one way suburban street. I dearly hoped I would never have to risk it like that again.
After that I drove around the 'burbs in desperate search for the main road that I needed. Somehow I made a wrong turn and ended up going the right way back onto it. Whew!
Can I tell you there was not a soul to be seen anywhere? It was ominously quiet, there was barely any traffic. Just some strip malls, roads without sidewalks, traffic lights, that was it.
I made a left back onto the main road, and tried to then pull a left into the Staples parking lot, as told by Mike. No go, there was no outlet into the parking lot. Of course. I would have to go all the way around, one more time, in order to make it happen.
So I did. I drove another half mile down the deserted road, and turned right at an intersection, and turned around in an empty, and quite large, parking lot. Then I got back on my main road, and once more drove up the the lot at Staples. This time I approached it with an almost crab-like slowness, and made the turn!
From there I called Mike to let him know I was actually close by this time, and I meant it. It was now 12;30 a.m. My god, what a day. This had been, easily, the worst day of travel in my entire life.
I drove out through the back of the parking lot onto a small residential road, then I made a few relatively quick turns, and within five minutes was in front of Mike's house. And there was Mike, waiting for me.
I parked the truck on the street, and got out. The vastness of Freehold, N.J. seemed to swallow all sound. It was quiet, dark and virtually dead, or so it seemed. But it was good to see Mike. He smiled at my exhausted face and welcomed me inside.
Mike helped me unload the cats, offered me something to drink and set me up for the night on an extremely comfortable couch on his living room. Together we chatted for a while while we watched the last 20 minutes of "Johnny Dangerously" on HBO. (That Mary Lou Henner, va-va-voom!)The room was intensely air conditioned, so much so that it was almost cold. What a contrast to my apartment in Brooklyn, with its window mounted AC units that were either pointed directly at the floor or at the nearest wall.
The cats were placed in a small bathroom, which wasn't wonderful, but was sure better than being in a kennel all night. They meowed, as you can expect.
I finally turned in at 1:00 a.m. It had been way too long a day. It was virtually impossible to believe that it had only been that morning that I dropped off my beloved wife and child at the airport.
I couldn't think of it all now. I couldn't think at all, period. As the movie came to its predictable end I charged up my phone, and got under the covers on the couch. Then Mike went upstairs and I slept the sleep of the dead.
Now, at last, the trip could really begin.