Caroline Barrett

A Road Trip, Eating Good Food and Loving My Kids

Hi Everyone, here is my Times Union story from June 2022. You can see it on their site here, or read below. As always, thanks for reading. xoxoxox

When my oldest child graduated with a master’s degree and decided to set out for the West Coast, he asked if I would make the drive across the country with him, and it took about two and a half seconds for me to say yes. I started planning, charting and mapping our days. What follows here is a journal of sorts, a recap of six cities in six days; what we ate and saw, mostly from the car window, along the way. 

Niagara Falls! And a rainbow!

But before I go into all of that, I’ll tell you first about the person who I rode from Albany to Salt Lake City with, our oldest child, Luca. If you’ve been reading my columns over the years, you might remember Luca. He went off to college at Clark University, then became all grown up, and decided to start life anew on the other side of the states. But something happened during all that time, and this is what it is: Luca came out to us as a transgender person. Luca is now a he. There’s a lot to that story, so much for a parent and any person who loves a transgender person. But this story isn’t about the trans experience; it’s about raising, loving and supporting a child under all circumstances. 

Oh, and it’s about feeding him, too. Luca and I love to eat together and this story is about that. 

So we decided to drive across the country and we also decided to find good food along the way. We’d skip, if at all possible, the fast-food chains and find real food and regional specialties. It was while we talked of savoring all the food along our route that I realized the trip was about savoring food, yes, but more so about savoring the time together. I tried very hard to savor all of it, all while knowing that each mile we drove took us closer to saying goodbye. 

Day One – Niagara Falls, New York

Beef on ‘Weck with horseradish

We rolled into town late in the evening. The streets were empty and we were tired. We crashed, then woke to a brilliant, sunny morning and views of the mighty Niagara River from our room. Neither of us had ever been to see the falls, and we were both excited. The sheer wonder of it, the force and energy of all that water felt like both a New York parting gift and a jubilant welcome to the rest of the U.S.A. We decided against the elevator down to the falls’ edge – with the sandals and the ponchos and the lines of tourists – for the calmer, meandering trail around the island above. We felt the mist of the falls on our faces, saw a rainbow, which I understand is probably not all that rare at Niagara Falls but still, we took it for a good omen. The meal highlight that day was a beef on weck sandwich: Roast beef, piled up on a kummelweck roll (That’s a crusty roll coated in bits of salt and caraway seeds.) Health food, it ain’t. But it came with mayonnaise and a cup of horseradish sauce and we smeared those things all over the sandwich, and washed it down with a deeply purple and deeply sweet loganberry soda. They were a good match. 

Day Two – Toledo, Ohio

I chose Toledo for its middle ground between Niagara Falls and Chicago. It’s funny but most everyone I know has never been to Toledo, including me and Luca. But why? It’s a pretty little city, perched up on a lake, with tons of food and culture and outdoorsy stuff. We were happy there. It took a little over four hours to curl around the bottom of Lake Erie and to pass from New York to Pennsylvania, and then on to Ohio. We saw so many wineries and we both loved seeing the grape vines, so many miles of them, young and green and bursting with vitality. In Toledo we visited the Botanical Garden and were surrounded by more green-ness on a perfectly sunny, warm day. It felt good to take a break from the car and walking in a place resplendent with flowers and trees and peace and quiet was a good contrast to busy I-90. Now, fans of M*A*S*H might remember Toledo as Klinger’s hometown, and he mentioned it a few times on the show. He even referenced a restaurant there: Tony Packo’s. Lucky for us that Tony Packo’s was just down the road from the gardens, so we pulled in hungry. It might sound strange to have pierogies and sauerkraut early in the day but really, if I lived nearby Tony Packo’s, I’d eat there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The big bowl of tender pierogies were billowy with soft cheese and potatoes, and topped with tomato-stewed sauerkraut. We loaded it all up at the free pickle bar and gobbled it down. Thank you, Klinger!

Pierogies with sauerkraut and sour cream: heavenly

Day Three – Chicago, Illinois

From Toledo, we drove to downtown Chicago, to stay with people we know and love. We were happy to break from hotels and cozy up with old friends. In Chicago, we walked and walked, mostly along the shore of Lake Michigan. The water was bright blue, as blue as the sky and though it was a late May afternoon, we were cold. Icy cold. Colder than you’d expect in late May. Dinner was in 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 out. For dinner, Luca and I shared gravlax — done up all fancy, with charred avocados and pickled onions, and crisp cauliflower schnitzel with orange blossom cole slaw. There was green tahini and amba, a sour turmeric and mango sauce. We stayed late and enjoyed the feeling of being out in the city. There’s so much energy in a city, and we soaked it up. In the morning, we took that energy, along with some strong coffee, egg sandwiches and hugs from our dear friends and set out. The great plains of the midwest awaited. 

Day Four – Omaha, Nebraska

We were out of the city and driving through farmland in under an hour. We settled in for a long drive and took in Illinois, then Iowa and finally, Nebraska. Unbelievably, Iowa is filled with thousands upon thousands of windmills. It was on this stretch that I started counting the days—the hours, even—that Luca and I would have together. In Omaha, we stayed in a hotel right by the University of Nebraska, in a neighborhood filled with young people and music. One group of kids were playing volleyball and graduates in their caps and gowns. We chose a Thai restaurant, arrived starved and tired and ordered spring rolls, soup and curry. Just like those windmills in Iowa, the curry was unexpected: fiery hot, filled with crisp vegetables; it was, quite possibly, the best we’ve ever had. I drank glass after glass of ice water, hoping to cool the chiles while Luca laughed at me. The next morning, there was a farmer’s market set up, with hundreds of vendors and a dizzying amount of people. We found coffee, bought beef jerky to bring home and set off for Colorado. 

Tacos in Fort Collins

Day Five – Fort Collins, Colorado

Driving to Colorado is hard. There’s a prize at the end of the road: Glorious, still-snow-capped mountains. But first, many, many miles of long, flat and gray roads. We stopped halfway to Fort Collins, to fill up on gas and find lunch. At a small, roadside restaurant, I ordered a BLT on white toast for us to share, with a side of french fries. The waitress, with a pen stuck in her bun, asked about where we came from and where we were going. It felt like real Americana: folks talking to folks, for no other reason than to be friendly. That sandwich, with thick tomato slices and lots of mayo and served in a big styrofoam box, felt like a very American thing to eat. When we finally arrived, Fort Collins was quiet, rainy and the shops were mostly closed. We rolled in tired and hungry. It had become our process: drive, drive, drive, arrive tired and hungry, eat, sleep, repeat. On that night, we walked around the corner and found tacos. Really, really good tacos. First, there was guacamole and a well-deserved mango margarita. The tacos were a trio of deliciousness: beef barbacoa with crispy potatoes, carnitas with the bite of fresh radish, and fish with poblanos and slaw, all of it covered in cotija cheese. Our bellies full, we ran through the downpour to our hotel. The rain came down hard that night, and we settled in early, pulled our covers up, and snoozed. I counted the hours ‘til my plane would take me back to Albany and away from Luca. 

Day Six – Salt Lake City, Utah

Salt Lake City, Utah

We went north before going west, through Wyoming, where we passed cows and mountains and still more cows. When the road turned to start the descent into Salt Lake, we passed through snow squalls and we caught glimpses of the Great Salt Lake before descending upon the city. Restless and stiff 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 it by being, quite possibly, the most gay-friendly place we saw. There were gay pride flags on nearly every lawn, signs in shop windows. Luca’s friend, Quinn, met us, and was driving the final miles of the trip with him. The three of us settled in for dinner, and comfort food was in order. Luca’s obvious excitement for the journey and 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 around so much joy. With only a few hours more together, I was determined to enjoy every last drop. We ate fried pickles and veggie burgers on soft buns and french fries. After dinner, we ate ice cream. The days had turned to hours and then just moments as we turned off the lights that night. I fell asleep hoping that I had savored enough, loved enough, done enough to successfully send a young person off to live in the world, far from home. 

The next morning, we said a quick goodbye. I would have held onto that last hug for a long, long time, but he still had a big drive ahead. So I waved as they drove away. In the Salt Lake City airport security line, I let the tears come. 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, about how 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 he is our first. Through my tears, I thought of all those things, and all of the time we had together: the miles and the things we saw and ate, all the years, too. I got on the plane sad at saying goodbye but also at peace with the knowledge that our days together were full of love, and that we savored every last bit of it. 

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