The road trip with Luca allows love, good food

When my eldest son graduated with a master’s degree and decided to go to the west coast, he asked me if I would travel across the country with him. It took me about two and a half seconds to say yes. I started planning, plotting and mapping our days. What follows here is a sort of diary, a recap of six cities in six days; what we ate and saw, mostly through the car window, along the way.

But before I get into all that, I’ll first tell you about the person I rode with from Albany to Salt Lake City, our oldest, Luca. If you’ve read my columns over the years, you might remember Luca. He went to college at Clark University, then grew up and decided to start his life over on the other side of the States. But something happened in all that time, and that’s what it is: Luca came across to us as a transgender person. Luca was a she, and is now a he. There’s a lot to this story, both for a parent and anyone who loves a transgender person. But this story is not about the trans experience. it’s about nurturing, loving and supporting a child in all circumstances.

Oh, and it’s also about feeding it. Luca and I like to eat together and this story is about that.

So we decided to drive across the country and find some great food along the way. If possible, fast food chains would be avoided and real food and regional specialties would be found. It was while we were talking about savoring all the food along our route that I realized the journey was more about savoring the time together. I tried very hard to savor it all, knowing that every mile brought us closer to goodbye.

Day 1 – Niagara Falls

We arrived in town late in the evening. The streets were empty and we were tired. We crashed, then woke up to a sunny morning and a view of the mighty Niagara River from our bedroom. Neither of us had ever been to see the falls and we were both excited. The sheer wonder, strength and energy of all that water felt like both a parting gift to New York and a jubilant welcome to the rest of the United States. We decided not to take the elevator to the edge of the falls – with the sandals, ponchos and tourist lines – for the quieter, winding trail around the island above. We felt the mist from the falls on our faces, saw a rainbow, which is probably not that uncommon in Niagara Falls, but we still took it as a good omen. The highlight of the meal that day was a beef on weck sandwich: roast beef, piled on a kummelweck roll (it’s a crispy roll coated in bits of salt and caraway seeds.) Healthy food, This is not the case. It came with mayonnaise and a cup of horseradish sauce and we spread those things all over the sandwich, and drizzled it with a deep purple, deeply sweet logan berry soda. They were a good game.

Day 2 – Toledo, Ohio

I chose Toledo for its middle ground between Niagara Falls and Chicago. It’s funny, but most people I know have never been to Toledo, including Luca and me. But why? It’s a cute little town, perched on a lake, with tons of food and culture and the outdoors. We were happy there. It took just over four hours to loop the bottom of Lake Erie from New York to Pennsylvania to Ohio. We saw so many vineyards and we both loved seeing the vines, so many miles, young and green and full of vitality. In Toledo we visited the Botanical Garden and were surrounded by more greenery on a perfectly sunny and warm day. It felt good to take a break from the car and walk around in a place resplendent with flowers and trees. The peace and quiet contrasted well with the busy I-90. Now, “M*A*S*H” fans might remember Toledo as Klinger’s hometown, and he mentioned it a few times on the show. There is even a reference to a restaurant: Tony Packo’s. Luckily for us Tony Packo was just down the street from the gardens. We arrived hungry. It may seem odd to have pierogies and sauerkraut early in the day, but really, if I lived near Tony Packo, I would eat there for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The large bowl of tender pierogies was puffed with soft cheese and potatoes, and topped with tomato sauerkraut. We loaded it all up at the free pickle bar and gobbled it down. Thanks Klinger!

Day 3 – Chicago

From Toledo, we drove to downtown Chicago, to stay with people we know and love. We were happy to break away from hotels and reunite with old friends. In Chicago, we walked and walked, mostly along the shores of Lake Michigan. The water was brilliant blue, as blue as the sky and even though it was a late May afternoon, we were cold. Glacial cold. Colder than expected at the end of May. Dinner was at a restaurant serving Israeli soul food. They set down a bowl of warm hummus with roasted eggplant and puffy, warm pitas, fresh from the oven. The pitas warmed us from the inside. For dinner, Luca and I shared gravlax – made fancy, with charred avocados and pickled onions, and a crispy cauliflower schnitzel with orange blossom coleslaw. There was green tahini and amba, a sour sauce with turmeric and mango. We stayed late and enjoyed the feeling of being in the city. There’s so much energy in a city, and we’ve absorbed it. In the morning we took that energy, along with strong coffee, egg sandwiches and hugs from our dear friends and left. The Great Plains of the Midwest awaited him.

Day 4 – Omaha, Neb.

We were out of town and through farmland in less than an hour. We settled in for a long drive and visited Illinois, then Iowa and finally Nebraska. Incredibly, Iowa is filled with thousands and thousands of windmills. It was on this stretch that I began to count the days – the hours, even – that Luca and I would have together. In Omaha, we stayed in a hotel right next to the University of Nebraska, in a neighborhood full of young people and music. A group of children were playing volleyball and the graduates were wearing their caps and gowns. We picked a Thai restaurant, arrived hungry and tired and ordered spring rolls, soup and curry. Just like those windmills in Iowa, the curry was unexpected: piping hot, full of crunchy vegetables. It was quite possibly the best we have ever had. I drank glass after glass of ice water, hoping to chill the peppers while Luca laughed at me. The next morning there was a farmers market set up, with hundreds of vendors and a dizzying amount of people. We found some coffee, bought some beef jerky to take home, and set off for Colorado.

Day Five – Fort Collins, Colorado.

Driving in Colorado is tough. There is a prize at the end of the road: glorious, still snow-capped mountains. But first, many, many miles of long, flat, gray roads. We stopped half way to Fort Collins, to refuel and find lunch. At a small roadside restaurant, I ordered a BLT on white toast to share, served with fries. The waitress, with a pen stuck in her bun, asked where we were from and where we were going. It was like real Americana: people talking to people, for no other reason than to be friendly. This sandwich, with thick tomato slices and lots of mayo and served in a large polystyrene box, looked like a very American thing to eat. When we finally arrived, Fort Collins was calm, rainy, and the stores were mostly closed. We arrived tired and hungry. It had become our process: drive, drive, drive, arrive tired and hungry, eat, sleep, repeat. That night we walked around the corner and found some tacos. Really, really good tacos. First, there was guacamole and a well deserved mango margarita. The tacos were a trio of delights: beef barbacoa with crispy potatoes, carnitas with a bite of fresh radish, and fish with poblanos and coleslaw, all topped with cotija cheese. Bellies full, we walked through the downpour to our hotel. It rained hard that night, and we settled in early, pulled our blankets, and took a nap. I counted the hours until my plane took me back to Albany and away from Luca.

Day Six – Salt Lake City, Utah

We went north before heading west through Wyoming where we passed cows and mountains and more cows. As the road turned to begin the descent to Salt Lake, we drove through snow squalls and saw Great Salt Lake before descending into town. Restless and numb from days curled up in the car, we walked for an hour. America surprised us again and again on this trip, and Salt Lake City did so by being, quite possibly, the most gay-friendly place we’ve seen. There were gay pride flags on almost every lawn, signs in store windows. Luca’s friend Quinn met us and was riding the last few miles of the trip with him. The three of us settled down for dinner and comfort food was in order. Luca’s obvious excitement for the trip and the new chapter kept me from crying as we chatted and ordered our food. He was so happy. Quite simply, it was hard to feel sad with so much joy. With only a few more hours together, I was determined to enjoy every last drop. We ate fried pickles and veggie burgers on soft buns and fries. After dinner we ate ice cream. Days had turned into hours, then moments as we turned off the lights that night. I went to sleep hoping I had savored enough, loved enough, done enough to successfully send a youngster to live out into the world, away from home.

The next morning we said a quick goodbye. I would have kept that last hug for a long, long time, but he still had a big road ahead of him. So I waved as they walked away. In the Salt Lake City airport security line, I let the tears flow. It’s hard to let go, especially in a world that isn’t always kind to transgender people. But Luca is brave and smart and full of hope and joy. There’s a saying in the trans community that the first transgender person you know is special and paves the way for all the trans people you’ll know in your life. Luca is our first trans person. Paul and I are so proud of him, proud that he is our first. Through my tears, I thought of all these things, and all the time we spent together: the miles and the things we saw and ate, all the years too. I boarded the plane sad to say goodbye but also at peace with the certainty that our days together were full of love and that we savored it down to the smallest detail.

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