Last month, I solicited your best road-trip stories, and got a ton of excellent ones; starting today, I'll be burning off a new batch of them regularly. But in the interest of fairness, I figured I'd start by offering up another of my own.
When I was 25 years old, I took my dog on a drive to a place called Paris, Tenn., for reasons passing understanding. More specifically, I was picking up a piece of antique furniture for my mother-in-law. This is about a 12-hour drive. I left pretty early in the morning and drove straight through. Now, I'm sure Paris, Tenn. is a lovely place. Lovely. It's not the Paris, of course; don't just go on over to Paris, Tenn., because it's called Paris, is what I'm saying. The place I was headed was in what would have to be called the outskirts of Paris, and it was a little spooky. This was eight years ago. Place could be the Silicon Valley of, umm, Tennessee, by now, but at the time it had kind of a rundown aesthetic going: rural and beat-up, and I'm trying to avoid using the kinds of words and descriptors that will get me in trouble here.
So, I got there, and before long was all too happy to get the hell out of there. The plan was to drive to the local motel in Paris and sleep until morning, and then hit the highway homeward. But the motel in Paris was a beat-up, rundown piece of shit, and by then I was spooked. So the new plan was to drive as far east as Knoxville before bedding down for the night, and I headed off on what I then thought was the road back to the main highway.
And I'm driving along, and the pooch is sleeping in the back, and I'm not totally sure I recognize where the hell I am anymore. Did I pass that burned-out shack on the way in? Weren't there gas stations before? Where the hell am I? And the last thing I want, on Earth, is to be lost on some back road in middle Tennessee as the sun's going down. So now I'm just tearing down this two-lane road, flying around bends, gunning it like a madman, working myself into a total panic. The sun's going down, I have no idea where I am. It's all woods and farms and gutted-looking shacks, and the shadows are getting long.
There, on the right, is a trailer with a neon "open" sign in the window. I screeched into the parking lot, leapt out of the car, and burst into the darkest, loneliest bar into which I have ever been. There's a rough-looking skinny old guy behind the bar, and a single patron, a rough-looking skinny old woman, seated on one of the barstools, and they're just there, together, in silence. "Hi, can you maybe tell me how to get back to the interstate?"
This is what they said, and how they said it:
" ... interstate?"
"Yeah, like, a big highway that, you know, leaves Tennessee?"
I mean, they had never heard of it. I had to describe how many lanes it had and which direction it went before one of them told me they thought they'd heard of such a thing in the direction I was headed. And that was as much as I needed to hear, right then. I tore the hell out of there. And they were right! Later that night, well after sundown, at long last, I happened almost at random upon a faded old road sign pointing the way to the good old east-west interstate, US-40. I played with the dog in the Knoxville hotel parking lot under the street lamps to wear him out and we slept together in the bed before heading home in the morning.
Here's the first batch of your own stories.
It was junior year of college, and I had been borrowing my brother's car while he was serving in Iraq. The plan all along was for me to drive his car on my spring break from Worcester, Mass., to his wife in Jacksonville, N.C., where she would exchange his new-ish Chrysler 300 for a much older Ford Crown Vic, which I would bring back with me to school. He's a nice guy.
My college roommates had separately booked a hotel room at Panama City, Fla., an infamous spring break destination. Since we're from New England, where states are as big as towns in most other parts of the country, we figured it couldn't be too hard to swing by Panama City once we picked up the Crown Vic, and crash on their hotel room floor for a couple nights. This was the plan for my friend and me, since we were both too broke to reserve the hotel room , but too stupid to think this was a bad idea.
So, after a day in North Carolina, we departed at around 9:30 p.m. and drove through the night, planning to meet the other car with the rest of our college roommates along the way. They had five people and would give us an extra driver to make it easier for the two of us to drive through the night. We met in the parking lot of a closed-down restaurant somewhere in South Carolina around 1:30 a.m., hung out for a few minutes, then jumped back in the car. The other truck drove away, and only one person got into the backseat of the Crown Vic. It just happened to be the one person in that truck who didn't know how to drive. He promised us he'd at least stay awake to make sure whoever was driving didn't fall asleep at the wheel. Roughly an hour later he was asleep in the back seat.
We got to Panama City around sunrise to discover that the Crown Vic's air conditioning doesn't work. We changed out of our sweaty shirts and caught up with our friends from the other truck as they were checking into the hotel, and saw that they each had been given the same neon-colored bracelet. We tried to follow them to their room, but got stopped by a really big, really mean security guard who said we had to have bracelets to enter the hotel. This was a problem, because they didn't give more bracelets per room than guests they'd allow to stay in each one. We spotted two college-aged bros waiting for a taxi, appearing to be checking out, and asked if we could buy their bracelets. Luckily they didn't rip us off, warning us instead that the hotel changed the color of the bracelets every day, probably to keep assholes like us from sneaking into their hotel with bracelets we'd bought off other people. We were fucked.
But we needed at least some sleep before we planned our next move, so we looked up the closest motel on a Garmin (this was 2009 and pre-smartphones). It was called the Star Motel, and it reminded me of the hotel where the Colombians killed Pacino's friend with a chainsaw in Scarface. The room cost us $25 for the night, plus a $5 deposit for the key. It still had cigarette butts in the ashtray and pee in the toilet, presumably from the previous guests. Signs warned us against hanging out outside the hotel after 9 p.m. or leaving our door unlocked. We tried to take a nap, but neither of us felt comfortable even moving the blanket, so we laid out on top of it. After an hour of silence, we agreed we couldn't stay and the only move was to drive back to North Carolina. Back when I checked in and paid my key deposit, I had given them a $5 bill. When I got the deposit back, they gave me four singles and four quarters. I have no idea what they did with that $5 in the hour it was in their possession.
That night, we decided we both needed to sleep, so we pulled off into a gas station parking lot at about 3 a.m. We woke up an hour later to screams and saw an old man wrestling with a half-naked hooker outside the gas station, with the gas station employee on the phone calling the cops. So we got back on the road. In total, we drove about 30 hours in a 36-hour period—not counting our two separate trips between Massachusetts and North Carolina—split between two drivers. We chose not to talk to each other for a week or two after that.
Brutal, but character-building. Silver linings, folks.
It was Christmas Break of my sophomore year of college, and I was at home in Arkansas. Christmas was over, and I was stuck in that awful purgatory of dread between spending more time with my family and having to go back to school in Texas. One day, a good buddy of mine I knew through FFA in high school called me up and invited me to lunch. He said he had always wanted to visit California and asked if that was something I would be interested in. Being the adventurous sort, I agreed. That night, my buddy, a friend of his from high school who I had never met (and, shamefully, whose name I cannot recall), and I met at his house and headed west just after midnight in my friend's 2010 Honda Civic. While not the most spacious vehicle, we all agreed the saved gas money would be worth it.
I took the copilot role, and as great as I am in this position, I began to doze when we hit I-40 through the Texas Panhandle. Somewhere west of Amarillo, I woke up and looked over at the driver. He was awake but nervous. I looked at the speedometer and he was doing just south of 90 mph. Then I looked at the gas gauge: it was alarmingly close to empty. Those of you who've been to the Texas Panhandle will understand why this was so unnerving: you never know when or if another gas station will appear. As soon as I got a grasp on the situation, we were being pulled over by a Texas DPS officer. Having gone to school in Texas and realizing we were exceeding the speed limit rather dramatically, I was positive we were getting a ticket. Now, my buddy is very intelligent (I mean like Marshall Scholar smart), but sometimes his common sense trails behind. He informed the officer that he was driving this fast because he thought a higher speed meant better gas mileage and showed him the empty gas gauge. Whether or not my buddy genuinely believed this I'll never know, but I'll be damned if the cop didn't buy it. He followed us to the next gas station and then continued down the road.
My friends wanted to stop at the Grand Canyon on the way west. I agreed. However, my family had once taken a memorable vacation to Roswell, N. Mex., when I was younger, and I suggested we detour through there on the way. This detour, while awesome to me, caused us to arrive at the Grand Canyon after the sun had set. I was chastised severely, and deservedly so. I doubt you have ever tried to look at the Grand Canyon at night, because you're not an idiot, but it boils down to you assuming there's a big hole in the ground over there somewhere.
After being chewed out, we continued. We drove further west and ended up in Los Angeles. We had been driving for a solid 24 straight hours at this point, so we got a hotel on Sunset Boulevard and slept. The next morning, we got up, saw the Walk of Fame and Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and ended up on the Santa Monica Pier for a while. Then we took Route 1 up to Malibu. We met David Spade at a gas station. He was kind, but disinterested. We then headed north for San Francisco. We spent New Year's Eve there and watched the fireworks over the bay. For the record, the DART train on New Year's Eve makes for an interesting cultural experience. We saw the Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, Alcatraz, and all the basics. We also drove through Apple headquarters at night for my Jobs-obsessed friends. My buddy got pulled over again for pulling an illegal U-turn. Another warning. Figuring we had covered the bases, we headed east to Yosemite National Park. We didn't have much time to see everything, but we saw Half-Dome and El Capitan, and then headed for home.
Feeling bad for screwing up the Grand Canyon the first time, I accepted my punishment in the form of driving us there. I drove from Yosemite to the Grand Canyon through the San Joaquin Valley while my companions both slept. Needless to say, it was rough. Not falling asleep and killing us during that is one of the proudest accomplishments of my life. We arrived at about 4 a.m. and waited for the sun to risel watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon was one of the highlights of the trip. It was epic. We then visited the 4-Corners Park. It was nothing more than a Navajo Indian tourist trap. We then drove up through some Colorado mountain passes just for a change of scenery.
At some point on this leg of the journey, I finally managed to hijack the Sirius radio and listen to some BCS Bowl games. I distinctly remember Oklahoma State winning their first. It was a welcome departure from the four days of Alt Nation that had been forced on me thus far. Finally, we dropped back down, caught I-40 in Texas, and cruised back across Oklahoma. We hit town about 7:15 a.m. The unnamed compatriot had to be at work at 7:30. He jumped through the shower and sped off. Personally, I went home and went to bed. When all was said and done, we drove 4,700 miles in the span of five days. It was awesome, but I don't think I will ever do a road trip of that magnitude again.
Now that's a goddamn road trip!
I had just arrived back at college for sophomore year after a long summer of working a bullshit job and partying with friends from home. My friends and I had just finished a caravan trip from Alaska, down through Canada, in order to have our vehicles at school for the following year. That is an entirely different road trip story for another time: very long, lots of fun, but not especially eventful. This is the story of a much shorter, much more eventful trip.
A couple of weeks into the semester, we (my brother, a friend of ours, and I) decide to road trip from my school in Eastern Washington to the Gorge Amphitheatre to catch the tail-end of summer and see a Tool concert. We hop in my '94 Toyota 4Runner, bright red, leather interior, with the roll-down window tailgate. Sweet ride.
For the first hour of the trip, everything is going great, and then, all of a sudden, I smell the distinct odor of burning clutch. Extreme burning clutch. Before leaving for school, I had lent my car to a friend of mine who was trying to learn to drive a stick, and boy, he sure did a number on that clutch. The car only made it about three or four more miles before we had to pull over into a turnout.
I called my mom, and we arranged for my car to be towed back to school to be fixed. At this point we figured we weren't going to make it to the show, and we break out some weed brownies my friend made (my friend forgot to buy eggs when baking them—probably the worst brownies I've ever tasted, but effective!). After about 15 minutes, we decide that we can't give up just yet, so we call 411 for a cab service, and it turns out there's one about 30 minutes away. We agree and order the cab.
45 minutes later, no cab, we can't wait any longer, we need to leave now if we are going to make the show. The new plan? Hitchhike. Now, my dad has always told me never to hitchhike, and he's frequently told us a story about his mom hitchhiking and nearly being kidnapped. But, as we see it, we have no other options. At first, we 're fortunate when a college-aged guy agrees to give us a ride, but only to a town about halfway to the concert. We thank him, but decline and start to look for another ride. At this point the brownies have fully kicked in.
About 30 minutes later, we get a middle-aged guy to agree to give us a ride, so the three of us hop in his Jeep Wrangler. Now, this guy is a straight creep from the get-go: He keeps asking us way too personal questions, and at random times he starts spouting bible verses, real Revelations-type shit. The combination of the weed brownies and my dad's warnings against hitchhiking have me officially freaked out. We ask the guy how much longer it will be; he says not to worry, he knows a shortcut....
A few miles later he turns down this complete dirt road. I was very stoned at the time, but this was definitely not the same name of the road he said was the shortcut. We all confirm via text that this guy is definitely taking us somewhere The Hills Have Eyes-style, and we subtly arm ourselves with whatever we had on us (keys, pens, an ice-scraper), and are fully prepared to attack this guy at the slightest sign of danger. My brother in the front seat has his hand on the door handle, and I swear he almost bails a few times.
About 30 of the highest, most frightening minutes of my life later, we pull out onto a main road and we see a sign that reads "Gorge Amphitheatre Ahead." Our route was in fact a shortcut, and he actually got us to the show a few minutes before Tool went onstage. Great show.
Tune in soon for the next installment; send your road-trip stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.