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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Twenty Years (Later) of Road Trips - Crunching in a Few More before the Final One

In hindsight, one of the greatest decisions that I ever made was driving cross-country in my return to America in 1998 (twice), 2000, 2002, and 2003. Yes, there were partial trips of incredible distance many other times as well, to include northern Maine in 1997 (and 2 other times to southern Maine), Mardis Gras in 1999, Niagara Falls in 1999. and Biloxi in 2001, but to start counting partial trips, well, that would go on and on with other treks to North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Virginia, and West Virginia. Where to draw the line?

The reality: I've been to 43 states in my life. Everything but Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Iowa. Someday, I'll tag those 7, too. I just need the time and funds.

Since my first group road trip with 2 fellow Air Force trainees from Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas (home of many wannabe Marlboro Men and former home of the Dallas Cowboys training center) to Mather AFB in Sacramento, California, (a base in wind down mode at the time) via Edwards AFB in the desert of southern California (home of The Right Stuff pilots) life changes. Isn't that the message of everything?

As I said, twenty years ago this summer, I was setting out on two long-distance drives. The first was a four point-trek with my friend Brian to go to Chicago, Memphis, Biloxi, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Originally, we were going to head to South Dakota, but the weather out there was lousy, so we went to see my friends Heidi and Will about a month before she gave birth to their first son, Zach.

Let's put it this way, that trip to New Orleans was so hot that June that usually stingy bars actually felt bad for her and let her use their bathroom since she was so ready to pop! Fortunately, she didn't pop on Bourbon Street, and now she is the mother of a 19-year old boy.

The next trip was my defining act: THEE solo cross-country trip, which saw me drive 20+ hours straight to Biloxi. I followed that up the following February with a solo 23-hour venture to Biloxi via the Shenandoahs Skyline Drive to Mardis Gras and back via a friend's house in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

In 2000, I drove cross country with a friend. It was a long trek out, and he freaked out in the quiet isolation of America after being rained on in South Dakota while camping. Nevertheless, we motored back from San Francisco to Big Bend National Park in Texas. Forty hours later, I was sleeping on the side of the road while he slept in the Ford Escort. After we woke up, we trekked all the way to Biloxi that night. Eventually, we got home to normality, but our friendship was essentially dead because of the trip.

So it goes.

Somehow, I didn't mind the exhaustion in those days or the days of 2002 and 2003 when I was driving cross country on 2 other 10,000 mile ventures out to the Colorado Plateau and slightly beyond. I did mind the depression of leaving the shambles of my life in 2002 to face a lot of ugliness in America from a fouled-up rest station north of Chicago to memories of an ex-girlfriend to strained friendships to questioning teaching / teaching questioning me to "who the hell are you?" That trip was very long other than a million stars at Mesa Verde. I didn't last long on the road, but I went to Devil's Tower, Yellowstone, and the Southwest pronto tonto, all but ready to throw every depressing CD mix out the window. Only Mojo Nixon, Drive By Truckers, Dan Bern, Jimi Hendrix, and Limp Bizkit (I admit it) held any ability to move beyond those things. Fortunately, other than messing up at the Wave (PART 1 + PART 2), another story for another time, the 2003 trip was much happier.

Since that time, I put 250,000 miles on my Yaris (The Macho Dude). I put a fair bit on the old Chevy S10. I drove many neat places in my wife's Mini Cooper (Bradley). Nevertheless, as middle age and Parkinson's creeps in, I think about how driving has changed (other than just contemplating how someday it will be no more, and I will be "the passenger").

Now, my wife and I alternate driving every 2 hours, if that, while we drive to and from Georgia. What's more, this is "only" 11.5 hours of actual driving, though with stops, we take about 13 hours without traffic to see her sister. Last time, Heather did the dark mountain driving through the snake loops. I did a lot of straightaways. Gloriously, there are no city loops to go through (like the Helltown of D.C.), but certain exits are bad, such as 81 to 64, which leads to Richmond or Charleston. All the same, it's a boring drive. Even with the Shenandoah Mountains, it gets old quickly. Waiting for states to appear... Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia... isn't enough to help out (so I can yell about where The Rock has come back to). The highways are long and endless.

So tell me; how the heck did I do it back then?

In the day, I didn't think much about traveling and sleeping like this. I remember thinking about how a bed without my fluffy pillow was uncomfortable after 12 days of sleeping in rest stops in a truck bed back then, but yeah. All i had to do was go out and get it to bring back to my real bed. Now? It's tough to drive to the 1,000 Steps, hike it, and drive back in one day (2 hours each way). Let's not even get into how it requires rest to come down from a long hike.

However, I was young and indestructible then. Before my immortality gave way, I learned I could do those adventures by driving 19 hours to the tip of Maine to see Phish... yep. Life is meant to be spent on the road; hence, the opening video of Phish's "Twenty Years Later."

Long story short... a few points.

1) travel while you can. You never know when King Kong and Godzilla will rampage. Parkinson's will take this away from me someday, but as long as I can, as a passenger or driver, I'm going to do it, even if I occasionally get overwhelmed as a passenger! That said, as I cram my final driver trips in before "that" day, I note that I don't intend to stop altogether until I feel too overwhelmed to do the long drives as a passenger. Life is for living.

2) see the world. There's amazing things out there to see. If you spend your whole life where you were born, you're not going to get the real American flavor. All 4 of these places are America.

3) driving across America all those times defined me as an American, a person, and a dreamer. I wouldn't trade that for anything.

4) write your stories about your journeys in and out while you remember them. They're memories for sharing, so don't be selfish! I wouldn't remember more than 25% of mine (even with pictures) if not for the words.

5) Unless your wife can do Tetris, you probably don't want to do the drive in a Mini Cooper, unless you can cram yourselves in there (and still be comfortable)!

6) No matter what you do, take lots of different music. You'll even get bored with favorites.

7) Make sure you take lots of pictures as well... Memories.

These pictures and words I share with you now... My 1998 cross-country journey in image and as a draft toward the story of my life written many years ago.

When my summer college classes let out, I finished up the last few pages of a paper on the poet e.e. cummings, dropped it off with my professor, and after packing up my maroon colored Ford Escort, I filled myself with all of the wonderful thoughts of what could be in an America I wanted to discover. I said goodbye to my friends, and that was that. With that, I left on Saturday August 15th, 1998, filled with the illusion that I was Walt Whitman celebrating myself and all that surrounded me, greeting the new day and all the appeared after the sunrise, hyper aware of all things that appeared, be they natural, man-made or caterpillar nests in trees.

While I was not going alone by choice, I was off on a solo journey to see my friend Will, his wife Heidi, and his son Zach. Earlier in the summer, I had asked my friend Brian to come with me. 

In the time before we were friends, Brian had been across America on 2 separate trips, although he had never made it to the Pacific Ocean. The stories from the road, as well as the experiences and knowledge that he had of traveling like this, made it obvious that I would open up the trip to Brian. I really liked Brian’s company, and he had highway mileage experience, though his journey was marred by the great government shutdown of 1995 when all non-essential government employees were temporarily put on hold until the budget could get approved (I left the Air Force waiting for my final paycheck because of this). As a result, he made it to Dead Horse Point in Utah, but he never made it to Canyonlands or Arches National Parks. Nevertheless, there are still trips he has taken that inspire me, and for the longest time prior to his marriage, I had someday hoped that we could go on the road again, but I realize that this will never be, since we have both gone in different directions with our lives, which isn't a bad thing since we're both in great middle age places.

And yet on the first real trip we took, there was music. Along the highways and back roads, we would end up cruising across the heartland of America to Elvis’ “Burning Love,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis Bold As Love” and Uncle Tupelo’s “New Madrid,” as we drove through flat and dull eastern Ohio. Who would know that I would end up making this journey over and over again many times beginning a decade later?

One of my strangest memories happened as we were cruising across Ohio in 1998, I saw a sign for Kent and asked if this was the town where the riots took place in the 60’s?”

“I don’t know.”

At that, a sign for the school appeared and we looked at each other, smiling as I made him slap in a tape of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Ohio” and we sang along and journeyed off to find the neat-o historic stuff that was sure to be there. Fortunately we didn’t have to look hard; we met up with an X-Files / conspiracy fan who guided us to all of the monuments and hidden, yet poignant spots, telling us the story of what happened and why, asking politely if we would hang out with him, but we had to leave and did.

Then we continued our adventure through a previously unknown to me America of John Cougar Mellencamp style farm country. The small towns and the heartland just opened up and the drive slowed down. With this, we went off into the night and eventually made it to see a gal that he was friends with in Hammonton, Indiana, which is west of the smoke stacks and eternal pollution of Gary, Indiana, and east of Chicago, Illinois. We stayed about as long as his welcome would let us since the gal we were with had a husband that didn’t think much of Brian stopping to visit. Nevertheless, we saw Lake Michigan before we headed south, and then, we headed off into the night sky and south to adventure.

We left Gary around midnight to be in Memphis at noon so we could eat and watch blues musicians play on Beale Street, and then we saw the outskirts of all that is Elvis’s home at Graceland. We saw the Sun records stuff, and even the death site of Danny Thomas, which was a brutal drive as we roasted in near 100 degree heat trying to find the mosque for Brian to pray at. Well we found it and then ended up driving to Biloxi where we saw Will and Heidi and hung out till midnight the next night after seeing the sights of the Mississippi coast and chilling in their presence in grand old New Orleans. Perhaps, the most memorable moment of the trip came when a woman who was standing outside of a nudie bar invited Brian in to watch a live orgy. In his most humorous, but serious kind of way, he asked her if that would be a spectatorial or participatorial orgy, but alas, these sex Olympics events are only meant to be watched in the Big Easy, although I’m sure that things change at Mardis Gras time.

Thus, off we headed home over a day and a half over the bridge at Virginia Beach and under the water when it needed to make way for boats on the Chesapeake. And thus, we were eventually back home after a sticky and sweaty drive straight through a day and a half drive up the Eastern Seaboard after only a brief stop at a North Carolina beach and a quick stop to take pictures of the remnants of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic site. If that wasn’t marathon driving, I don’t know what was.

Brian was my Japhy Ryder, and I could equally be Ray Smith, his little lost dog of a follower, scampering off to meet anyone who poses anything interesting that could make me better, yet all the while tagging along for the ride in some great spiritual way – at least at the time, but during that time, I was learning and changing and getting ready to be something more and to do something great.

As a result, Brian made the road trip across country a lot of what it was, which was an event that defined my life at that time.

Originally,  Brian was willing to go on the big trip if other things didn't happen, but so much of his life was still up in the air with the knowledge that he might get a job teaching in the Middle East. Thus, he went full-fledged into his life when a teaching opportunity came, and I drove off on the journey to my own life.

For the original ideas that my first cross-country jaunt was meant to be a viewing of all that this country was, coast to coast, in large part, this trip became all about the great American pastime. I knew when the Cardinals would be in St. Louis, and the last chance to see them was August 30th. After that, they would be pulling out of town. To see them anywhere else before I saw them in St. Louis was anathema. It all seems so simple to say that I would get to Busch Stadium and see McGwire play and it would be great. The journey itself seemed as if it was pre-ordained.

But first I had to get to Will’s house.

While traveling to Will’s, I was alive with energy, at least until I hit Tennessee. I stopped to get pizza for lunch at an out of the way diner, was looked upon slowly and negatively by the local hillbillies, like I was a character in Easy Rider and they were offering Southern witicisms. Thus, I proceeded to get out of there as quickly as possible. Afterwards, I lost energy rather quickly and tried to sleep at a road stop McDonald’s, but this was no use. I drove on and on, eventually passing the winding river that runs through Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I headed into the empty nothing that is Alabama, where no stars fell for me that night.

After passing through that little bit of Georgia that is the gateway to Alabama, nothing is beautiful while driving in the dark. It is all empty blackness, long stretches of straightaway, and sheer mind-numbing exhaustion. The beauty of stars through my sunroof that I experienced when Brian and I drove into town on that long stretch of Highway 59 wasn’t even close to being there. Though I drove in at nearly the same time, I was beaten into near unconsciousness by the 1,240 mile extent of the drive. Had it not been for the “friendly” police officer who had me pull over onto the side road outside of Shubuta, Mississippi, guilty of the crime of speeding, the drive would have been much worse than it actually was. While the military looking officer of the law let me off with a warning and proper directions (I am still thankful for that), being a northerner in Mississippi who had seen all of those Deliverance style movies one too many times, I knew what could happen on that dark road from just such a man. Fortunately, none of the nightmares came true.

Instead, I was just a stereotypical jerk.

I drove off slowly, cautious of my speed, and felt revived for another hour or so knowing that I was off to Will’s house, and just like when Brian and I went, I didn’t get in until nearly 2 in the morning. Every single trip to Biloxi became an endurance run. To stop anywhere before the casino / military base / pawn shop slums of Biloxi and spend the night seemed like failure when a real "free" bed awaited. All I wanted was that bed, and that was provided by Will and his wife Heidi.

Eventually, like every time before and after, I made it and all was good with the world again.

The next morning I made the call to my parents that I had made it safely. I also made a call to Kat that I was exhausted, and though I would be out to visit her in a little over a week, I wasn’t going to be going with her to do the Seattle trip that we talked about. I suggested a shorter trip instead. She was not happy, and while she held back on much of what she could have said, she still said a lot of what she felt. I didn’t let it get to me, and I had a great time with Will, Heidi, and their son Zach who had been born since the last time that we saw them in June.

There was a truth to the fact that I was exhausted from traveling all those empty miles to Biloxi, and then there was the feeling I knew that I was going to have after the distance heading out across Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and into California for the better part of a week, but the truth was that I was hell bent and determined to see Mark McGwire challenge Roger Maris’ home run record in this magical summer of 1998. I had to be a part of watching Mark McGwire hit #62 and forever stand atop the records of crowning baseball achievement.

There was never any sense of anything that wasn’t mind expanding, as reminiscent of that Whitman-esque way that I had on the first day, for the rest of the journey until I hit Western Arizona. Prior to that, I saw the swamplands of Louisiana and drove into Dallas thinking of the television show Dallas, composing postcards in my head and relaying back all that was the glory of being on the road. When I wrote these cards and dropped them in a box, I named myself after Different Strokes characters, obscure and eccentric as ever, hoping the postman would catch a laugh while he plodded on through his usually mundane mail route.


And now, now I think of a life that's almost twice as old. Some of those things matter. Others? Not so much. Nevertheless, they're who I am, and for that Willis knows what I'm talking about.

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