The Road Trip
On Boxing Day, I spent fourteen hours in a Subaru, never dropping below 45 miles per hour unless we were coming to a full stop. New Years’ Day was similar, but light traffic meant it was only twelve hours.
My lovely wife has family near Atlanta, Georgia. I use “near” in the same sense that we live “near” Chicago proper – the city is easy enough to get to, but far enough away that we deal with different sets of daily struggles. Not suburbs proper, but smaller towns in collar counties.
We were meant to fly down to see my in-laws on Christmas Day, but heavy rains across the South scuttled our flight and rescheduled us for the day of my mother-in-law’s surprise birthday party. That wasn’t going to stand, so we decided to go ahead and make the road trip.
We’ve done it before. Each time, we say we’ll never do it again.
Part of the issue is half our route. Rather than take the expressway through Illinois, we usually drive State Route 47 all the way from the Wisconsin border to a small town with the unlikely name of Mahomet. If you’ve not been to our little slice of the country, let me say this: it’s really, really flat and featureless. In summer it’s not so bad. In summer you can watch the waving green and gold of the corn, the endless expanse of blue skies overhead, you can open up the windows and feel the warmth against your skin.
In winter, though, the crops are down and the skies are slate and the temperature doesn’t get above freezing even in the middle of the day. It’s a special kind of bleakness that comes with the fallow season of a land meant to grow, more hollow than the wide expanses of natural grassland and prairie in the west. There’s a promise of things to come in the rich black soil, yes, but it’s a promise that slumbers more completely than any fairy-tale princess or divine daughter of Hellas and it’s a promise that seems to stretch throughout forever.
You escape that dreamless slumberland when you enter Kentucky. This year, thanks to El Nino, western Kentucky is currently as emerald as Erin – a bright green carpet stretched across the rolling hills, broken by abandoned tobacco farms and herds of cattle in every color. Also thanks to El Nino, the rivers are out of their banks, ancient grandfathers high on a second wind and straining to be recognized. The Ohio River crossing into Paducah, from whence you move on to Nashville Tennessee.
I don’t mind driving through Nashville. It’s a decent bypass, and you get to see the Tower of Sauron – no idea what it really is, but by the Valar it sure looks like Peter Jackson’s most famous phallic symbol, including the twin horns to hold the terrible eye. There’s a lot of traffic, though, and I don’t believe there’s ever been a time when it wasn’t under heavy construction, so Nashville is always my cross to bear whichever way we’re driving.
After Nashville you come to my most and least favorite part of the southern leg – Monteagle. I’ve never lived outside the flat confines of the Midwest, and while I took a single trip across the Rocky Mountains I was younger, more distracted, and therefore more immortal at that time. The road up the mountain isn’t so bad, as long as you’re not in the right-hand lane and stuck behind an asthmatic, lurching cargo truck; but coming down? Tennessee drivers fly down that mountain like Jesus in a Ghibli, and the truckers make up every second of the time they wasted crawling up the other side.
This time around, we had the misfortune to spot the most insane roadkill I’ve ever seen. A deer which had not been hit so much as torn to shreds, its head and antlers staring up from the middle of the left-most lane as we came around a curve, the rest of it who knows where? Maybe thrown over that black mountain side. Fortunately, we’d seen the reflection of the blue-and-white police lights before we got to the gore.
The Tennessee River wasn’t just over its banks, it was over the treetops. Literally covering the trees, with just the hints of branches peering up from the whitecaps. We could watch the currents in the center of the river throwing up their sirens, waving and beckoning to take your hands of the wheel for just a moment and drive yourself into the darkness.
Chattanooga’s a strange kind of wonderful in the dark of night or dim pre-dawn. Lookout Mountain looms, but in the dark you don’t see it except as an absence, a blackness against which there are no stars. The same is true of the river on the other side of the road, a void which developers have not yet managed to cover with fluorescent light and fire sales. The city’s a sprawl, but one contained out of nature and necessity, and its lights make it nearly as pretty as Chicago in the darkness.
From there it’s the strange and lovely silence of north Georgia. Towns like Ringold and Rocky Face, Calhoun and Cartersville, towns which are posted along the roadside but invisible to the eye thanks to the endless folds of forested hills. It holds but a single point of interest for me, as someone who collects little quirks of the people he loves.
Somewhere along the drive stands an immensely tall railroad bridge, towering over I-75. Alongside that bridge is a wide river, which 75 itself bridges. As a child, my wife was always told to “lift your feet and duck your head!” So in keeping with tradition of long trips her family made so many years ago, we dutifully carry out the motions – lift your feet as you cross the river, hand on your head as you pass below the bridge. I don’t know why that should make me smile, but it always does.
So, too, does arriving safely, and stretching my legs, and sitting to supper after an eternally long trip.
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