Preface: The long roadie there and back has come to an end and because I'm not much of a photo snapper you'll have to take my word(s) for what the trip was like. Okay, so there are a couple of pictures--one in particular that's a must see--but these trips are more about moving and the digital camera will never be able to capture that.
I remember a particular road trip when I was a boy, sitting in the backseat of my grandparents' car making little boy sketches of all of the different 18 wheelers that drove by as we made our way from Nashville to Birmingham, my grandfather smoking his cigarettes and telling my grandmother how to drive, my sketchpad filling with all of these different colored trucks, and the road going by in a great blur of north Alabama countryside. A decade or so later I would read Jack Kerouac's On the Road and fall in love, not with the Beat ethos or the hipness of the culture that he was describing, but with the idea of being on the road, of having nothing around me but open America, of the different landscapes, of people not like me doing their work in roadside cafes, of coming to the end of the road and wanting to get back out there again.
People always look at me with questioning eyes when I tell them that I'm driving home for Christmas, that over 4,000 miles and five or six days in a rented minivan will be one of the true highlights of my vacation from the grueling day job. These people don't understand how the road actually recharges my batteries.
That's why I couldn't wait for it to begin.
You can drive that 2,000 miles from San Diego to Alabama in two long days, straight across the bottom half of the country through California, Arizona, and New Mexico desert, along the border at El Paso and into the hilly country of Texas around San Antonio. Then it becomes green and swampy flatland all the way through to Houston into Louisiana and Mississippi, and it's not until Mobile that I feel on familiar ground. And to see Mobile and that new skyline, a 35-story building trying to be the tallest in Alabama, and to see the new development on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, strange but familiar. On to Atmore, the little town where I spent my last days of being a child, and where little has changed except for the hundreds of missing trees, felled by two hurricanes, and the Arby's and Burger King that weren't there when I was a boy.
Atmore for eight days, longest I've spent there in 10 years, and it's all about enjoying the time with my parents, making sure my dogs don't die at the teeth of their hulking and exuberant Labrador. Christmas was a blur of gifts and hugs and hooking up my parents' new TiVo. That night, my brother's old band played a reunion gig at the bar in Pensacola where I once worked serving beer for beer money, and for better or worse, people haven't changed much. The bar is different having burned down a few years ago, the fire consuming all of the grunge, but from those ashes came a nicer, cleaner place. Still, something seemed to be missing. My brother's band provided an edgy soundtrack for a lot of memories, and I saw him, the kid that followed me to San Diego and who struggled with everything that I hoped to protect him from but couldn't be brother enough to do it, I saw him do what he loves doing and what he is good at doing, being in the middle of the stage surrounded by music, making it for anyone who cares to listen. He gave me a great Christmas present that night. He reminded me that to be creative, to be an artist, you have to step back to those times when you are most productive and grab that energy, pull fire from the walls of a smoldering building, and let it burn again. Thanks Scott.
Then the road again and instead of going back the way we came, we headed to the middle of the country, up the guts of Mississippi with its gas stations telling us that some things haven't changed (pictured right), and where more roofs seemed blue than any other possible roof color. And Memphis welcomed us to Tennessee and a detour to Graceland where we would stop just to look at the mansion that Rock and Roll built. Over the Mississippi River and through Arkansas and then to Oklahoma and it's pain in the ass toll roads. Finished that first night in middle-of-the-U.S. Kansas where the man at the hotel asked me if I was there to see the new art project in town. Nope, just passing through, I told him and he responded, "Don't blame you." And the next day it was the great contrast of geography, the absolute flatness of east Kansas to the mountains of Colorado, the tedious landscape of the prairie to the picture-perfectness of Vail. Then Utah at night where the roadside Burger Kings close by 9 and you'd better make sure to have a full tank of gas. And Cedar City for sleep and where the next morning I bought some Ketchup-flavored potato chips which included a free Bible lesson on the back of the bag thrown in to aid digestion. And if anything could ever make me consider the possibility of a god, the drive through the canyons along the 15 in the far northwest corner of Arizona might be it. That was when I realized that the miles we had traveled and the fatigue that we were feeling from all of that road and all of that bad truckstop food and coffee had been worth it. From there, we glimpsed Vegas through the desert smog and fought the temptation to stop for a shot at the slots but remembering that we had dogs in tow we kept moving, into California's golden welcoming arms, through to Baker's Bun Boy and the thermometer and on to Barstow and then the traffic around Riverside.
And at the end of the road, San Diego like a missed pillow and a familiar bed. Our bodies zapped of anything resembling energy, for the time being anyway, until we realized where we'd been, what we'd seen and smelled and heard, and then it's easy to realize that the whole 4,600-plus miles were worth it. And this time next year, I'll be more than happy to load up the dogs and the brother and the brother's girlfriend and hit the road for another Christmas roadie.
For now, back to the tedium of the daily grind.