I hated long car rides as a child. To be fair, I was an ornery child and found fault with a lot of things, but long car rides were high on the list. (The only time I grew to bear them was after we bought a minivan with a pull-down TV for me to hook the Nintendo to.) I also loved to argue as a child. Especially with my parents, about anything and everything. (The reason for which dad is still convinced that I was born to be a lawyer, a point that, incidentally, I continue to argue with him about to this day.)
In short, I was a menace on family road trips. That was difficult for all involved, as dad loved taking us on road trips when we were kids. Though, I realized later that it was not so much the ‘taking us’ as it was the driving itself.
I was born to argue against him on law school; he was born to lose himself on the road.
It’s ironic then that as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown to love the road. Trains, buses, cars. All bring with them a sense of inner peace and comfort in anonymity, watching the world with fingers pressed to the glass without thought of being watched in return. I love driving, especially. I forgot how much, too, after living in the city with my car parked at mum-and-dad’s a hundred miles away.
So when L suggested that we take a summer road trip upon her return from Mexico – during one of our many gchat dates a few months ago – it took little convincing to get me to agree. (Dad would’ve been proud.) An epic trip, we decided, since it would be the last bout of free time either of us would see in a summer. Three weeks, from Canada to the border of Mexico, stopping for barbecue and old friends along the way.
It ended up as more of a four-week event for me, as I spent a few days in Toronto prior to L’s arrival for the wedding of a dear cousin. A flurry of music and dancing and henna and conversation and food – god, so much food – worthy of a write-up in and of itself. But this story isn’t one of family, so I’ll keep those words tucked away for myself.
The night after the wedding is when L met me in the city – her first trip to Toronto – and we caught each other up on days past and mapped out our plan of attack for the coming weeks.
The itinerary was this: we’d spend a few nights in Toronto, getting our bearings and taking in the sights by strolling through the Distillery District and eating our way along Yonge Street. Next would come a border cross into Michigan, camping along the lake, before continuing toward Chicago. Three nights in the city, with days to spend exploring downtown and Pilsen and evenings in bars near L’s sister’s apartment. Then 700 miles southwest to Missouri, where we’d spend a night to break up the remaining 500 to Austin. There we’d stay three nights with one of my dearest friends, one with a gracious host with an eclectic house, and one in a motel on the outskirts of the city before setting off early for West Texas. A short stay in a ghost town off of Big Bend National Park and a morning weaving along winding desert roads through dusty mountains before making our way back to the land of cell service and Starbucks. Then three nights to sleep a mile from the French Quarter of New Orleans, with afternoons full of chicory coffees and beignets, and boat rides through the bayou for gators. Winding down with a brief sojourn along the cobblestone streets of Savannah and a night stop at an old friend of L’s, rounding out three weeks away with a short drive home.
L and I had traveled together previously – five weeks rooming together in an apartment in Spain – and it didn’t take us long to fall into rhythm once again. We quickly picked up a routine, driving around 120 miles before stopping off at gas stations to stretch our legs for bathroom breaks and coke zero refills before switching off, nibbling on frosted mini wheats between meals as we scrolled through playlists of Ana Tijoux and Outkast, while the Midwestern landscape drifted past in flurries of greens and yellows.
(In all honesty, L is probably the only person I could have spent holed up with in close proximity for three weeks without wanting to commit either homicide or suicide. The rarity and benefit of a good travel partner is a blessing indeed.)
Toronto was a pleasant stay, full primarily of eating and visiting the SOMA Chocolatemaker on a daily basis, and hoping to take advantage of milder summer weather by exploring on foot. Evening rain storms kept us holed up at the apartment – graciously lent to us by my cousin and her husband while they were off on their honeymoon – though we made up for it with movies on the laptop and good conversation.
We arrived in Muskegon a few hours after leaving Ontario, just as dusk was falling over the wood along Lake Michigan. Parking our car at our camp site, we made to unload the camping materials L had packed for our trip.
“Hold on a minute,” she said as she stepped onto the patch of dirt that was to be our floor for the night. “Ground is wet. Aaaand I don’t have a tarp.” We looked at each other for a moment, considering, before declaring in unison, “Car.”
Throwing everything back in the trunk, we decided to hike down to the lake before night fully hit and we were stuck in the confines of the two-ton Corolla. The path was thick with trees blocking the last of the daylight, branches brushing against us as we made our way down, but the sky opened up around us as we arrived at the beach, grey and quiet save for the rolling of the waves and the last laughter of kids playing in the distance.
We threw off our shoes and walked along the sand, at the point where cold waves could just reach for our feet as we strolled down the beach. We didn’t say much, allowing the grey to darken to night as the sun slipped below the horizon, lost in our separate thoughts as we climbed onto rocks to see the lake stretching out for miles. It was beautiful in an eerie way, once the sun set fully and a heavy fog descended over the trees. It wasn’t long before we could hardly see the path forward, covered as it was in the muted grey of the fog.
“It’s the mist, like in those old horror movies, waiting to kill us and drag our bodies away,” L joked, though we both had goose pimples from the chill and decided to turn back. Anyone else who had been on the beach when we first arrived had gone, so it was just L and I, walking along through the grey and the silence as if we were the only two people left on earth. It was strange, feeling so infinite and so acutely aware of how no one would know or care if we actually did disappear right then and there. But not as unnerving as it was peculiarly calming.
Eventually we found our way back to the car, emerging from the thicket of wood ready for a night of Ambien and makeshift pillows. We stayed up for a while, reclining on car seats and flipping through music and talking about nothing as we drifted off.
Early morning saw stiff necks and a much-needed stretch after being cooped up in the car for the night, but we were quickly off to lunch and back in the Corolla for a few hours’ drive toward Chicago. I’d been to Chicago once before – a year ago this autumn – and was excited to go back and experience its serene charm again.
We stayed with L’s sister while in town, in a one-bedroom straight out of Apartment Therapy nestled just south of Logan Square, and began our visit with a dinner at the Boiler Room, meeting some of L’s cousins and indulging in cheap pizza. L and I took the train into the Loop early the next day after a breakfast of strawberry-rhubarb pie and savory biscuits at !Bang Bang!, wandering through the business district before hopping on one of the architecture boat tours that run along the Chicago River. It was a warm and sleepy afternoon, watching the looming buildings float by as we listened to the history of the city and the inspirations of Skidmore and Goldberg in its design. The late afternoon was spent thrift shopping – the beginning of a dangerous addiction that would follow us to Texas days later – before meeting up with L’s sister for a trip down to Pilsen for a dinner of too-many tacos and late-night live music.
It was a peculiar day, both lazy and busy with things to do and oddly ordinary, and made me feel as though this was what my life would be like if I were to settle down with a job and a place of my own. It wasn’t bad, but rather perturbing. I went to bed that night ready for sleep to erase whatever strange, unidentifiable emotions rattled my mind.
The following day we enjoyed a late start, lounging around the apartment with L’s sister before she headed off to practice for a show later that night. The vestiges of the previous night’s weirdness lingered in the back of my mind, but I brushed them aside when L suggested we walk a few blocks over to explore the Randolph Street Market Festival (which she had only then discovered was happening). It was a perfect afternoon to clear our heads as we strolled from vendor to vendor, admiring handmade jewelry and vintage clothing, picking up a few trinkets as we went along, trying on too-expensive sunglasses, and stopping into used bookstores where I began what would eventually be a 14-book purchase. Feeling giddily happy and pleased with our purchases, we dropped our things off at the apartment before heading toward Lincoln Hall for dinner and L’s sister’s Mortified Live show.
I was not previously familiar with Mortified, but am now determined to attend any performance that is within reasonable distance. It was a series of monologues performed by people reading from their childhood diaries, ranging in topics from losing one’s V-card on a study-abroad trip (none too romantically) to youth obsessions with the X-Files and Ginger Rogers, all read in perfect comedic timing with dramatic flair. L and I were in stitches sitting in the theater, wiping tears from our eyes as each performance matched the last in spit-out-your-drink-from-laughing fashion. We rounded out the day with a late-night plate of pad thai before heading back for our last night’s stay in the city. The next morning was a quick Sunday brunch at the Bongo Room, plates piled high with meyer lemon-blackberry hotcakes and croissant sandwiches that left us in pleasant food comas, before we bid goodbye to L’s sister and set off for Missouri.
There’s something about cars that are perfect for conversation, for words hidden behind closed doors that aren’t meant to be heard by curious ears, not to be brought up again once you’ve arrived wherever you’re headed. The same sorts of conversations that nights are made for, to talk about things that don’t belong in the day, moments lost as the sun begins to cast its morning glow. L and I shared many of those as we made our way down the many miles between Chicago and Austin, between quiet gazes out of the window at cows grazing along the Midwestern countryside. After a full day of driving, we stopped at some nondescript town in Missouri for a dinner of barbecue – my first experience with it, and not the least bit disappointing at that – and a night in an anonymous hotel of Psycho demeanor.
“You know, if we die here, no one will find our bodies,” she warned in the same sort of joking-but-not-really-joking manner that she did with the fog in Muskegon. The room smelled musky and the air conditioner rattled like a longtime smoker, oddly chilling despite the blazing Midwestern heat.
“Freddy Krueger’s probably hiding in the bathroom,” I remarked ominously as we set pulled our suitcases in for the night. We exchanged quick glances and sheepish grins reading I know we’re just kidding but honestly this is the creepiest damn place we could have picked. Popping a few sleeping pills, we tucked in for the night and hoped we’d still be around in the morning…