Friday, March 22, 2019

Road Trip Day One

The trouble with old people, just one of the many troubles old people suffer, is they take what they encountered personally or learned from others in the past as truth and ignore new information.  The world changes without them.  History is not so much rewritten as it is scrutinized and made fresh with new facts.  Old people think they know things, when in fact it’s often only half the story.

I had a smart uncle who read ravenously, talked about ideas and other places, and was always trying to learn new things.  Uncle Ed could truly have been called a life-long learner.  Trouble was, he was a farmer in a little town, never went to college, and had limited access to information such as a good library or a home computer   One of my nephews, reacting to me characterizing him this way, made this observation.   

“Think what Uncle Ed could have done with Google.”

He was right.  Give Uncle Ed a laptop, WiFi, and a rudimentary knowledge of search engines and the world would have opened up to him like a present on Christmas Eve.  He never lived to see it, but you and I live in a new time.  Never has life been richer for the curious, regardless of age.  Properly equipped and connected people now have scant excuse for ignorance.  Not only can you learn something new every day, you can use that new information to change how you view the world.

With Uncle Ed as my inspiration, I set off on a road trip to learn and experience new things.  My companions were a 2006 Buick Lucerne, a Rand McNally road atlas, a smart phone, a laptop in the trunk, a thermos of coffee, and a sack of CD’s.  I left well before dawn on a Tuesday morning, the 26th of February.  By the glow of its dash lights in the garage the Buick revealed 134,548 miles on the odometer.   

Driving in the dark is not a good way to go.  With little traffic, the Buick and I sped through the darkness, following our headlights as if we were in a tunnel.  As the day slowly brightened, somewhere on Interstate 65 in Indiana near the Lowell exit, I made out this message, black letters hand painted on a white 4x8 sheet of plywood wired to two steel fence posts. 




I don’t believe in hell as an eternal destination, or heaven for that matter, but something about that warning seemed a bad omen.  The fact that this blunt message was conceived and created by an individual, using their own resources, painting it freehand and displaying it for the world to see, told me someone believed the opposite of me in an emphatic way.  It woke me up.  I poured myself a cup of coffee and started paying attention to my surroundings.

I’ve chronicled trips in the past, noting each little town, each state road.  On some road trips I’ve managed to avoid interstate highways entirely.  That’s hard to do, and slow going, but you see such a different side of America.  My plan this trip was to concentrate on Alabama.  I was determined to get there as quickly as possible, and that meant Interstate 65.  After you pick it up in Indiana 65 is a straight shot south to Birmingham, via Nashville.

While at times it’s picturesque, I 65 is like all the rest of our interstate highways;  bland, controlled, banked and curved identically, one overpass exactly like the next.  With the advent of self driving cars interstate highways might well evolve into something like train tracks without the rails, carrying zoned out people reading their phones, sleeping, god knows what.  This being 2019 I still had to pay attention to where I was going and what I was doing, though cruise control helped a lot.  The speed limit was 70.  I put the Buick in the left lane, set it on 79, and leaned back.

That entire first day I didn’t turn on the radio.  I just thought.  There is something to be said for a good long think.  I can’t say exactly what I thought of, but by afternoon it felt like my head was less cluttered, as if I had stored nagging thoughts away into marked compartments, hid others in places where I was likely to find them, and threw others out entirely.  In the end I was able to move new ideas into the newly cleared space, unfold and examine them, see them more clearly.  I’d been waiting for that feeling all winter.

The day shaped up to where I figured I could make it past Nashville before looking for a hotel.  I like to drive past big cities so I can take off in the morning on open road without much traffic.  I didn’t take the beltway, instead I just plunged through Nashville on I 65.  Thought I’d see what downtown looked like these days.  Big mistake. 

Later in the trip a young bartender in Memphis, talking about his city’s growth specifically and Tennessee’s in general, described Nashville as a “sponge that can’t hold any more water.”  After my drive through downtown I knew exactly what he meant.

I could feel Nashville close in around the Buick.  Brake lights lit up ahead, cars changed lanes, horns honked.  And all the while we were slowing, cars bunching up, getting closer.  Finally we came to a stop.

There are cranes on the horizon on top of new building shells in downtown Nashville.  Apartment buildings with tiny balconies are built right out to the interstate.  I imagine rents have gone way up.  New construction is overtaking the old.   I had plenty of time to look around.  We weren’t going anywhere.  There were flashing lights ahead.  Probably an accident.  The exits were jammed too.  I hate it when that happens.

Time usually equals distance on road trips but in Nashville the Buick and I were frozen in time like a fly in an ice cube.  All the cars, the Buick included, idled.  Exhaust filled the air, and the sun began to set.  I imagined the cars on the beltway leaving the city behind.  I tried to conjure up my most Zen like attitude.  But it’s not easy being tranquil in traffic.  I have never found the answers to two questions I first asked as small town farm kid when encountering too many people.  Where did all these people come from?  Where in the heck are they going?  By the time the Buick got back up to 35 miles an hour it was almost dark.

I got off I 65 at the Brentwood exit.  It was equally jammed with cars.  Google maps was rerouting me onto what I thought would be back roads, but I don’t think there are any back roads in Brentwood.   The whole area looks like it was built last year.  But then it was dark.  All I really saw with the help of the Buick’s headlights were the faux fancy signs and guard booths of gated communities, strip malls, over engineered streets with turn lanes, one ways, stop lights and my new favorite-roundabouts.  Give me a regular street with two lanes and a sign in front of the building I am seeking any day.

After looping around suburbia I could see the sign for the Holiday Inn Express I was trying to get to but how to travel there was a complete mystery.  It was if it was floating behind a shopping center, not quite off a service road, somehow related to an Outback Steakhouse and a gas station.  My smart phone was equally confused.  I’m not sure how I finally pulled up in front of the place.

Upon entering, an over friendly hotel clerk handed me two bottles of water and began gushing about all the services they offered, the free hot breakfast in particular. 

“How’s that Outback restaurant I passed?”

Outback appeared to offer the closest and fastest way to get dinner.

“I never recommend that Outback.  It has terrible reviews on Yelp and all the sites like that.” 

“Aren’t they just steak, potatoes, and deep fried battered onions?  How do you screw that up?”

“I don’t know but apparently they do.”

“So what else is close?  You got a good independent joint, something that’s not a chain?”

“No.  Not out here.  Not really.  I always recommend Cheddar’s.  In my opinion you will never go wrong with Cheddar’s, and this one is excellent.”

I sighed, but I was too tired and hungry to argue.

“How do you get there?”

“It’s just across the highway there.” 

He then launched into a litany of lights, turns, a one way street, a roundabout.  I’m just polite when directions go past about three steps.  My mind shuts down.   I nodded like I understood.  I figured I’d find it, asked him to hold my bags till I got back, and thanked him.  One more trip in the Buick and my day would be done.

I did find it, after about ten minutes of U turns and rerouting from the barking woman in my smart phone.  I wish I could figure out how to change that voice.  I ended up in a parking lot of a doctor’s office or something right next to the place, unconnected.  Why they don’t link up those parking lots I’ll never know.  I just parked there and walked across the tiny no man’s land between the lots.   

It was crowded but a place for one is usually easy to find.  I was prepared to sit at the bar but they squeezed me into a little table.  When the waiter came for drinks I ordered a bourbon, a salad, and a burger.  I followed it with another bourbon.

There I was in suburban Brentwood at a Cheddar’s.  It was not the South I was looking for, but it was the South all the same.  Long day.  Tomorrow I’d be in Alabama.

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