Roadside Attraction

On the second to last day of our trip we woke up, as we often do, in a Springhill Suites. This one was near the Buffalo airport. My husband is obsessed with his Mariott points and so, although we both had childhoods where a Holiday Inn Holidome (with a pool!) was the height of extravagance, and trips in our twenties where Motel 6 was a splurge, on our family trips, the bland comfort of a Springhill Suites, is as low as we go.

This particular Springhill Suites was nestled in between two large, teal-trimmed hotels that seemed to have been left behind by the 1980s. As we pulled into the hotel the night before we noticed a small park with some sort of memorial next to the Tim Horton’s. We vowed to check out both on our way out in the morning.

The trip had been long, filled with highs and lows. There was beautiful scenery and surprising food finds. But there were also teenagers who still fight over whether or not having your hand near the other person counts as “touching.” The trip was almost evenly split between the past and the future. Personal historic sites, like the house my father grew up in and my grandparents’ graves, were paired with national historic sites like Fort Ticonderoga and Calvin Coolidge’s birthplace. On the other side was the future, college tours for our rising senior. There was tension between our daughter, longing for freedom, and the rest of us, holding tight to keep things the same. For years, what I liked about family road trips was the way they united the kids against us. Kids who rarely agreed on anything at home, both agreed that their father and I were boring. Kids who no longer played together at home, with nothing else to do, suddenly make up complicated pool games.

The forced unity did not happen this trip. My daughter wanted to be home, where she is in charge of when and what she eats and where she sleeps, and who she sees. Where, when her brother’s banjo playing and his opinions on presidents and baseball become too much, she can leave the room. My son, anxious about an upcoming sophomore year, that is more like a freshman year and sensing his sister’s insistence on pulling away, wanted to keep going.

My husband and I, both punch drunk with joy at finally traveling again, both with new jobs waiting for us when we got home, both equally excited and nervous about our oldest leaving in a year, vacillated between the two poles of our children. Thanks to iphones and headphones, there are no longer squabbles over music or audiobooks, and so we were free to scan the radio stations and watch the road, and this phase of our lives, move by.

The closer we got to home, the more tension we all felt. Our daughter often begging not just for the Springhill Suites ingenious divided room featuring a pull-out couch, but her own room. Our son entering every hotel room as though he owned it, turning on the TV, throwing his clothes in multiple places, taking out his banjo to tune while watching TV.

It was in this state of tension, anxiety and general grumpiness that we stopped at Russell J. Salvatore’s Patriots & Heroes Park. We were not prepared. We were not prepared for the music that started blaring once we began looking around. We were not prepared for Mr. Salvatore.

According to the free brochure, which you can pick up at Russell J. Salvatore’s Patriots & Heroes Park, the idea for it came to Mr. Salvatore in a dream. Every inch of the park is pure ego and excess. There are monuments to the Battle of the Bulge, 9/11, a horse, the archangel Michael and the victims of Flight 3407. But really, everything in the park is about Russell J. Salvatore. For example, according to the free, 4-color brochure we picked up “In November 2008, the then seventy-five year old, Russell Salvatore, a world famous iconic entrepreneur opened his latest hospitality and culinary masterpiece, Russell Salvatore’s Grand Hotel … Three months later on Thursday February 12, 2009, a Colgan Air commuter airplane (Flight 3407) crashed into the home … this disaster, happened scant nine-minute drive from this edifice. At that moment, Russell Salvatore, basking in the warmth of his newly fund success and surrounded by scores of jubilant friends and customers was shocked to hear of this event.”

The centerpiece of the park is the mausoleum in which Russell J. Salvatore will one day be buried. For the rest of the day we talked of little other than Russell J. Salvatore. Our son googled reviews of the restaurants and hotels. The two hotels surrounding our poor, pedestrian Springhill Suites were owned by Russell and a relative. Everyone loved the restaurant and the hotel, as long as Russell stayed away. Review after review told of a great meal or special event, ruined by Russell J. Salvatore himself. We found news of a lawsuit from a long-time employee fired when he brought up Covid safety violations. We read and analyzed the brochure, cackling for hours over lines like “Two days later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, to the chagrin of Russell Salvatore …”

I made up a voice for Russell, and then we googled his commercials to see if I was right (kind of). We played them repeatedly and made up a backstory for Mr. Salvatore. My daughter vowed to include Russell J. Salvatore in a D&D campaign. We had spent two weeks moving back and forth between the future and the past, looking for a center, we did not expect to find it where we did.

There is so much about the past that makes us sad. In Troy, New York we visited with my husband’s last surviving grade school friend. I stared at the outside of my great-grandparents’ house, featured in many of my father’s stories, long since bought by a fraternity. My great-grandparents came to this country and built something for themselves, and almost all remnants of what they built are gone.

There is so much that makes us anxious about the future. We do not know how this year will go. We do not know if we will like our new work situations, if school will stay in-person, where our daughter will go to college. It seems unlike that we will ever have another family road trip, at least in this incarnation of our family.

But we know we had this trip. We know we found something ridiculously sublime. We found something we could all cling to in our own ways. We found the source of inside jokes for years to come. The point of a road trip isn’t where you go, it’s what you find along the way, and what we found was Russell J. Salvatore.

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