On February 11, 2000, I inherited a Mom-in-law. She was already very experienced as a Mom-in-law, since I was marrying her youngest child, and the rest of her kids were already married.
One challenge, which I really didn’t consider at the time, is that my Mom-in-law would not fly. She was 80 when I met her, and she had never been on a plane, and never intended to set foot on one.
In fact, when I met my wife in person for the first time, she and her Mom had taken the train to Dallas to visit my sister-in-law’s family. I guess this should have been a warning, but I thought it was a bit romantic – if you have the time, why not ride the rails? I had taken the train for years.
The other challenge was that my (new) wife had lived with her Mom all of her life, and for many of those years, it had been just the two of them, so I was breaking up the band.
No big deal, I thought. People move out of their parents’ house all the time, I thought. Everyone will survive, I thought.
Our first Christmas together brought a crisis that was easy to solve, if not inexpensive. On Christmas Eve, I found my wife sitting on the floor, wrapping gifts and crying. It was her first Christmas without Mom. Fine. I can fix this. I bought two plane tickets, we flew to New Jersey on Christmas morning. Wife stopped crying. Mom-in-law gave me brownie points. Crisis averted.
When we got married, my Mom-in-law listened in – by cell phone. We were on a boat off Key West, she was in Flemington. She didn’t fly.
Later that year – “Mom should come down here to visit. We have an extra room.” (It is still called her room, and she’s been gone over ten years.) Here is where the Texas & New Jersey came into being.
How do you get an elderly woman who won’t fly from New Jersey to Texas? There are four options I came up with: train, bus, cruise ship and car. She also doesn’t drive. Now, it’s chauffeur, ship, bus or train. Uber hadn’t been invented yet. Dallas is land-locked, unless you count the Trinity River. Flemington is not much better. Trains and buses don’t allow pets. That leaves cars. Specifically, our car.
(My eventual suggestion was Benadryl and a non-stop flight, but I was overruled.)
Looks like we’re heading North.
Luckily, as my wife and I were both born after flying was not considered magical, we will fly, which saved three days of travel. I was spending time in Europe ever year for work, and I wasn’t taking tramp steamers, so sometimes, we could even get upgraded. So, we would fly to Newark (or Philadelphia, which was closer), rent a car one-way (so it will be their most high quality car [ha ha]), pick up my Mom-in-law, spend a couple of days with the local in-laws, load up supplies, and drive back to Texas.
We would drive until we were getting tired (or cranky), and then use our cell phones to try and find a hotel in range that had cheap(ish) rooms and allowed pets, and was close to food. This is when we should have discovered RVs, because it wasn’t always easy, but it always seemed to work out. There were usually two overnight stops, plus all the stops to walk my Mom-in-law’s Shih-Tzu (or my Mom-in-law), so it was not the most efficient method of travel. We would travel about 1320 miles in three days, for an average speed of 18 1/3 miles per hour. Ouch. That is cruise ship speed. Why was this not more relaxing?
So, that became the ritual. In the Fall, we flew to Jersey and drove back, in the Spring, we drove to Jersey and flew back. For extra excitement one year, since my son was on Fall Break, we took the actual train to New York City (via Chicago) and drove back from New Jersey. It was a fun ride, it really was, but somewhere between changing trains in Chicago and sitting on a siding outside of Cleveland, I realized we really needed a railroad that went from Dallas direct to Flemington. I think my original name was “The Grandma Express”, but that was a train name, not a railroad name. (The one reason planes are not as sexy as other modes of transportation – ships have names (“Norwegian Jade”), train routes have names (“Texas Eagle”) and flights have numbers (“American 5437”) – which is more romantic?)
So, I created the Texas & New Jersey Railroad. On paper, anyway. Thank you, Google Maps!
This was the other reason I wanted a railroad – since we were in New Jersey, had a car, and were headed home, my wife would always think of the things she couldn’t find back home that were essential to (her) life – usually semi-perishable foodstuffs, and bring “some” back. Well, not “some” as much as “as much as will possibly fit in the rental car.” (There were trips where I was wondering if my luggage would still fit, or if I was going to ship it home. My son was looking into alternate travel arrangements the year he came along with us. I found him with my cell phone, trying to determine if the Boy Scouts had a hitchhiking badge.)
Breadcrumbs. Bagels. Italian pastries. My wife would also bring some for her sister in Plano. This should just double the order in theory, but her sister (for example) uses a lot of breadcrumbs. One time, my wife took all the breadcrumbs off the shelf, loaded her basket, and at check-out, she asked if there were more in the back, and then purchased all of them, as well. That’s when the checkout clerk asked, “Where are you opening your restaurant?” If I ever questioned the quantity of anything in the cart, her defense was, “Well, most of it is for my sister.” Oh, good. So, I’m emptying my bank account by buying the entire breadcrumb stock in a Shop-Rite for someone else. Whew. This gave the Texas & New Jersey Railroad its original slogan, “Crushed Toast … Coast to Coast.”
Just think, with a real train, we could have had a sleeper car for Mom and her Shih-Tzu, a sleeper car for us, a bar car for me, and three or four boxcars for breadcrumbs.
The Jersey Line
The Jersey Line was the original route, plus it’s a good short name for the Texas & New Jersey Railroad. Our first route was relatively simple – probably from Google Maps or a AAA Triptik (remember them?)
Head east out of Dallas on I-30. In Little Rock, I-30 merges into I-40. Keep going across Tennessee until you reach I-81 (this is longer than it sounds.) I-81 will take you to Pennsylvania. Eventually, you reach I-78 and that will take you into New Jersey where you can take state roads to Flemington. Here’s a tip – the Northeast apparently had all of their roads built before the invention of the streetlight, so don’t arrive there at night your first time.
It sounds simple. I remember hitting the button for directions on the GPS and having it say, “Next turn, 381 miles” or something like that.
In reality, it is simple, but almost all of Tennessee is hills (mountains to city folk) which always tended to be in a torrential downpour. It rained virtually every time we did the route, and much of the time, it was raining hard. You know who else loves I-40? Truckers. You know what slides a bit in the rain? Trucks. True story. Also, the slowest trucks on the road all say, “Swift.” Ironic, no?
So, all across Tennessee, if you were driving next to us, you heard: “We’re going to die!”, “Shut up!”, “Gin. Are we stopping soon?” on repeat. Fun.
The Southern Line
Eventually, I got bored driving the same route over and over – plus, rain and trucks, so I said, “Hey, if we just keep heading south on I-81, instead of turning off onto I-40, we can meet up with I-20 and head into Dallas that way. It’s not even that much further!” This route added about fifty miles and three hundred fifty-seven hours to the route. I’m not really sure why it took so much longer, but now I know why Bob Dylan said he stayed in Mississippi a day too long. (Yes, Sheryl Crow said it, too, but Bob Dylan wrote it.)
We almost added an extra night until we finally decided to push through. Technically, this line was decommissioned as soon as the test run was completed.
The Northern Line
After the Southern Line debacle, I suggested going North. Not really going North, just heading South later, rather than sooner. Head across almost all of Pennsylvania (instead of almost all of Tennessee), through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and then head south through Oklahoma into Dallas. As an interesting foreshadowing, the route went through Columbus, Ohio, which is less than 50 miles from the termination of the Cedarville Line. (After further review, it went through Springfield, Ohio, as well, which is the other side of the Interstate from Cedarville.) This was actually not a bad route, vastly superior to the Southern Route, preferable (to me) to the Jersey Line because there were White Castles, and I would have voted for it again, but at that point, my Mom-in-law moved in with us permanently, so we didn’t have to drive to Jersey any longer.
The best part of this route was crossing the Texas border and being almost home. When you cross the Texas border from Arkansas or Louisiana, you are still a long, long way from Dallas. Plus, the gas stations in Oklahoma that are on reservations have slot machines.
So, three routes to get from Dallas to Flemington, two overlapping. That’s enough to make a railroad – the Texas & New Jersey. All aboard!