Growing up in the direct center of Wisconsin, if you saw out of state plates, you knew that person had to travel at least 2-3 hours from the nearest border through 2 lane highways to get to Marshfield. I know I'd always think, “What the heck is this person doing here and why did they travel so far for this little town in the middle of nowhere?” I bet the same thing is now going through people's heads when I am back visiting and they see my Texas plates.
With that being said, I rarely traveled outside of Wisconsin growing up. Prior to my first big road trip, I had been out of Wisconsin a few times to go to Mall of America in Minnesota. We also took a family road trip to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore and the Badlands when I was going into my freshman year of high school. The week of spring break 2005, and coincidently, the week of my 16th birthday, we took a family trip and flew to Louisiana to visit my uncle in Lafayette. The only other time I had been out of Wisconsin besides the aforementioned trips was when I flew to Nashville, Tennessee to compete in the national competitions for Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) before my senior year of high school.
I was fortunate that Herzing University had a chapter of Phi Beta Lambda (PBL), the college component of FBLA. At the state conference in the spring of 2008, I placed well enough in my competition to qualify for nationals. That year the national competitions were being held in Atlanta, Georgia.
While I had not left Wisconsin very often, that didn't mean I wasn't driving a ton in the state. The nice thing about Herzing University is the way they structure classes. They had block scheduling of classes. I had the afternoon block so I'd have class from 12:30pm-4:30pm. They also had 2 classes per 8 week term. The first class was on Monday and Wednesday and the second class was on Tuesday and Thursday. After 8 weeks, the term would end and you'd start a new set of classes. It worked out to 16 credits a semester when everything was said and done.
With having a 3 day weekend, I was able to come back to Marshfield and work at Roehl Transport on the weekend. I had started there with the Youth Apprenticeship program my senior year of high school. They liked me so much that, to keep me on board, they provided a significant amount of tuition assistance, as well as a pretty good hourly wage for a college student. It was also great having a job in the field I was going to school for. Pretty much everything I learned on the job, I could easily relate to in school and everything I learned in school, I could apply to the job.
Every Thursday night after class, I'd hit the road and drive 140 miles north from Madison to Marshfield. Once I got up to Marshfield, I'd go straight to work and work from 6:30-7 to about 12:30am or whenever the AS400 mainframe decided to play nice after routine Thursday maintenance and start spitting messages back out to the dispatchers..
After everything checked out, I'd go to my parents and catch a few hours of sleep to then be back in at 6am. I'd work an 18 or so hour day until 12:30am for the AS400 to come back up again. Then it was off for another couple hours of sleep to be in again at 6am on Saturday. I'd work to whenever I had my 40 hours in. Basically I was going to school full time and working full time. Saturday nights were my nights to have fun and I was either in Marshfield hanging with my friends or in Stevens Point hanging with my buddy who was going to UWSP. I joke that my college experience revolved around going to school in Madison, working in Marshfield, and partying in Point. I also did a lot of driving to accommodate that sort of lifestyle.
Going back to PBL, I was excited to go to Atlanta to compete at nationals. Another thing was Roehl also had a terminal in Atlanta. I told my boss I was going to go to Atlanta and asked if I could visit the terminal and get some work hours in during the down time of the conference. He agreed and we figured out some things I could knock out while down there.
For PBL, the plan was to fly to the conference. Since I was 19 at the time and renting a car was most likely out of the question, I decided to drive. This would allow my car to be readily available to go back and forth between the hotel and office. I also decided to go buy a GPS unit, as they were finally coming down to an affordable price. I paid around $150 for the unit. Today it's kind of laughable because you can buy them for a fraction of that, but at that time that was cheap for that kind of technology.
When I was at my parent's house, they asked me if I had planned the route I was going to take. I told them I didn't need to since the GPS does it all for me. They were amazed that you could just punch an address into it and it would take you right there. They were a bit skeptical and saying I should have some sort of plans just in case that fails.
When it came down to making plans, I guess I put a little blind faith in technology. The dates of the conference coincided with the end of the term and a small break between the start of the next term. It was perfect in terms of my school schedule. The night before I was supposed to leave, I worked into the late hours and hammered out my final project. I attended class the next day and handed in my project so I could hit the road right away.
Being the days prior to smart phones, I had to address of the hotel, as well the address to work, written down in a notebook. I got in my car, fired up the GPS, and then punched the hotel's address in. I was then off to have turn by turn navigation to my destination half the country away. Being young and dumb and not exactly in tune with my circadian rhythm, I decided to push myself through the night and make as few stops as possible.
Along the way, I made 4 stops. It would have only been 3 stops, but the bathroom was out of order at the gas station in Kentucky so I had to stop at a rest area. The interesting thing about that gas station is there were a bunch of drunks outside it hooting and hollering. I remember getting gas and then going. One of the drunks must have got in their car because a ways up the road, I was caught up in the slow traffic of a construction zone where there was one lane going each way. I looked in my rearview window and saw the drunk weaving back and forth behind me. I don't know how he didn't hit any cones or run into the back of me, but somehow he must have made it home. I was paranoid that he'd run into the back of me so I was definitely happy when the lanes opened up again and I could get away from him.
I hit Atlanta at about 7 in the morning. It was right in time for rush hour traffic. Now I hadn't slept much the night before and now I'd been up all night driving. It was definitely a treat navigating my first time in a major city during its rush hour traffic period. Another thing that made me paranoid was having Yankee plates on my car and now being in the Deep South. I made sure not to really speed too much and, with that, people were passing me like crazy even though I was probably going 10-15mph over the speed limit.
Arriving early in the morning, I found out the hotel wasn't ready. I decided to go to work and see what I could do. By then I was pretty wired on energy drinks anyway so I worked a good part of the day. As I was driving back to the hotel to meet up with the other members in our PBL chapter who had flown in, this interesting song came on the radio. Since this was 2008, Katy Perry was just hitting the charts but, being from rural Wisconsin, I never heard of her. I remember her first hit, “I kissed a girl,” came on the radio as I was driving town Peachtree Boulevard. I thought it had something to do with urban music and it seemed so controversial for the time. I definitely felt out of my element hearing this in the biggest city I had ever been in.
I unloaded all my stuff at the hotel and then the valet took my car and parked it. This was the first time I ever had a valet park my car. After we got everything in the room, we decided to go out and explore the nearby surrounding area. As we scouted out the downtown area by our hotel, there was a guy in a suit trying to hand us fliers for some urban charity. One of the guys decided to make a smart comment and ask where this charity was. The guy said down the street and he'd lead us there and proceeded to try to lead us through a back alley. We weren't buying that and walked away. We did a little more exploring and then I crashed for the night and got a good night's rest.
If I wasn't doing conference things like my competition or the leadership activities, I was working. One thing I remember is how humid it was. My Atlanta coworkers were laughing at me and saying it was nothing compared to North Florida. Since this was the dead of a Southern summer, it was definitely hotter than I was used to.
Since Atlanta can be a dangerous city, my coworkers gave me some safety tips. They explained how they don't keep regular schedules with certain things like getting groceries because home invasions were common there. All the things they were telling me were definitely new. In Marshfield a lot of people don't even lock their doors and leave their cars running in the parking lot while they go into a convenience store. The whole idea of safety was definitely different between what I experienced growing up in Central Wisconsin.
I've had a goatee since I was 16 so I have always looked older. At 19, they must have thought I was over 21 because another tip I was given was, “If you see a bar with a big rebel flag out front, don't go in.” I had no intention of trying to hit up a bar anyway, but I definitely knew I was a Yankee in Southern territory when I was told that.
Another big thing I noticed was when I was downtown, there was a cop on every corner. There were a lot of people begging and since the lines to wait for restaurants were often long and out into the street, you were constantly being harassed by beggars. Every once in a while a cop would come over and tell the beggar to move on and leave everyone alone. It was definitely reassuring to see a cop on every corner but it was an eye-opening experience.
I remember one trip to the office being interesting. The GPS technology was decent overall, but when you were downtown it would easily lose signal. Then with the fast moving traffic and the slow processing power, by the time the GPS would get a signal and route you, you were 3 blocks ahead of your turn. You would actually have to stop for it to be able to catch up with the short city blocks and fast city traffic.
Well my GPS had lost signal and it stayed in a rerouting loop since I was moving too fast for it to keep up and give me a valid route. Finally I hit a T intersection and it caught up. When I made my turn I looked around and everything had tall walls or fences with razor wire. Anything that didn't was graffitied up with broken windows and other vandalism. Even the housing project had a big fence with razor wire at the top. There was nobody around and it was a bit eerie.
I just remember thinking how I am definitely an easy target with a new car and Wisconsin plates on it. I was actually debating whether to stop for the stop and go light if it turned red. I thought someone might jump out of the bush and try to carjack me. Fortunately, the light stayed green and I was able to get to work safely.
The conference itself flew by and I found myself soon back on the road. They decided at work, since I was coming from that direction anyway, to swing by the Gary, Indiana terminal and work there. After the awards ceremony, I hopped in my car and again pushed myself through the night. I got to the Gary terminal in the morning and then starting hammering out issues there. I also taught a few classes to the mechanics on the mobile telematics solution that we were starting to put in the trucks.
After a day of working, I was still revving to go (I wish I had this energy now) so I decided to just drive back to Marshfield. I drove the whole way back and since I was so wired on energy drinks, I even went to hang out with my friends after that. I think when everything was said and done, I was up for over 40 hours straight.
With this major road trip, I realized how easy it was to travel with the use of a GPS. This got the ball rolling for future trips and exploring around. Work also sent me on some other trips including going to Gary a few more times, Kaukauna, and Iron Mountain. Now, with the use of GPS, I could go anywhere and not get lost or even have to worry about the drudgery of directions or logistics. Enabled with a car that got great gas mileage, I was free to explore and see anything I wanted to see that was in driving distance.