Travel Essay: Driving After Work

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A quick essay about a road trip that almost wasn’t. Enjoy, and always seek the winding road.

My day at the office ended as most others do. I sent one last email, uploaded a file archive of an almost-late project, and glanced over the task list that would face me come weekend’s conclusion. My wife Margaret keeps an organized schedule of or work obligations and social plans, so sometime around Thursday night each week, it has become my custom to ask her what is on tap for the next three days.

“Nothing,” she answered, “Really nothing, wide open.”

Did I hear correctly? This is never the case, but it is especially unbelievable because this is the three-day weekend containing the most patriotic of all holidays, Independence Day. Surely we’ve been invited to a cookout. Maybe we’re tagging along on someone’s family picnic. At least one person must have asked us to join them for evening fireworks. Nay. We didn’t even have a pencil scratch of a plan – just three empty white boxes.

I have been a member of the grown-up world, at least in the technical sense, for just over seven years, since I graduated college and married in the summer of 2002. If there is one thing I have learned about being an adult, it is this: each passing month brings deeper roots, more complex obligations, and an exponentially more crowded calendar, all of which pose a serious threat to any sense of freedom and spontaneity.

Wired for and motivated by the latter, I cringe a little at the continuous crashing waves of career duties, family events, church happenings, social gatherings, and the like. It is all too easy for me to keep saying yes, let the agenda fill to the brim, and relegate adventure to another week in the future.

But along it came, and seemingly out of thin air: a ticket for Margaret and me to do whatever we wanted. I am ashamed to say that my first thought was not, “Can we get to Hawaii and back in three days?” No, my head mulled over such mundane suggestions as renting movies and grilling chunks of cow with buddies.

Adulthood is persistent in its quest to pigeonhole its captives into work-a-day lives, but I am delighted to confirm that, at least for the present, I still have a sense of adventure. So I asked Margaret if she would like to take a ride. It wasn’t long until we were pulling down our Atlanta driveway with a couple sets of clothes, a tent and a box of cereal. It was around eight hours and a time zone later that I knew we were onto something good.

I sat port with hands on the wheel, and Margaret reclined starboard with crossed bare feet adorning the dash. The desolate interstate corridors of mid-America mesmerized with their visual mantra of dashed road paint and bumpy lane reflectors. Juking a soundtrack of evening tones from the likes of Amos Lee and Norah Jones, we hardly noticed when the date changed. Only a lone roadside motor lodge or floodlit gas station would break the visual silence as we collected miles and bounded northward.

Somewhere around 1:00 in the morning, we took the car off of cruise and wound our way through the neighborhoods of Memphis to T.O. Fuller State Park. A quick brush of the teeth and folding of the car seats was all we had the energy to do. Morning seemed to dawn a second later, and we were greeted by a quilt of stately oaks and sun-swept fields.

Margaret and I are classic tourists in two ways: First, we like to experience all of the kitschy attractions America has to offer, and we also like to pretend that we somehow levitate above other tourists in our abilities to scout out local fare and findings that all others must have overlooked. This day was no exception. Sure we visited Graceland and yes we walked the length of Beale Street, but we were all pats-on-the-back when we stumbled upon Neely’s – a dive of a barbecue joint in a local pocket of town that serves the gooiest, juiciest, most finger-smacking ribs I have ever devoured. My toothy grin and orange-stained fingers were my silent response to our server’s astonishment that I did not need a doggie bag.

A few picture-snaps later, we were back on the road; this time headed another century of miles to Missouri and its famed Monument to Dreams, also known as the St. Louis Arch. Independence Day fireworks have never appeared so glorious as the stunning display offered at this riverfront. The seemingly endless pyrotechnics swished and curly-cued around the night sky, peppering a mélange of booms and white smoke through the atmosphere. As each bouquet of color ignited for seconds of glory, reflections of their fiery dots danced in the current of the Mississippi like a thousand fireflies. A sea of delighted fans whooped and cheered as their plastic flags fluttered in the breeze.

It goes without saying that we rode the tram to the top of the famed monument for a peek at the city. How could we not? Though it may be a tourist attraction at its core, I must pay the structure a fine compliment: I have never seen anything that has spoken more highly of the ingenuity and creativity of mankind. It is a stunning artwork of grand proportion, and I was glad to have left molecules of my tires on over 500 miles of asphalt to make a visit.

Camped in our tent on a beautiful evening along historic route 66, we were unpleasantly awoken halfway through the night by buckets of rainfall and crashes of thunder. Already behind on sleep, we gave up trying to rest around 6:00 in the morning. A warm shower and an early-bird special at the Courtesy Diner was the fuel we needed to get back on the highway and return to Atlanta in time for work on Monday morning.

Road-trippers often have thumbtacks in the map of their minds (such as Memphis or St. Louis) when they take to the highway. But the best moments often come unscripted when something catches the eye of the traveler. Rule number one on such adventures is to keep it loose, and rule number two is to check out anything that looks even remotely intriguing. Following these two guidelines, we discovered the practice field of the Olympic baseball team, perused a custom and classic auto show, viewed a private presentation at a planetarium, devoured a banana and peanut butter ‘concrete’ at a famous frozen custard stand, visited a herd of bison complete with several babies from a distance of ten feet, drove over the Kentucky dam, and snapped photos with an oversized Superman statue just by keeping our eyes open and being willing to give something a try – even if it meant logging a few extra miles on the odometer.

Home again, and tomorrow will bring a barrage of voicemails, work assignments, volunteer activities, visits with friends, and the like. Our departure is now nothing more than a faint wisp in the fourth quadrant – it hardly seems like only three days ago. Knowing the sheer glory of this weekend’s journey, it is scary to think I might have settled for popsicles with the neighbors, folding the wash, and repairing our busted doorbell.

A little bit of risk and five stops for petrol reaped the wondrous rewards of lasting memories forged and magical freedom savored. Knowing there will always be ample opportunity to settle for the ordinary, it shall be my practice to choose the route of adventure in those increasingly rare moments when the occasion presents itself.

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