It’s an autumn afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio as I drive away from campus. My first year at university has gone well so far, but we’ve hit the Fall Break hard and everybody wants to go home. For me, that means making the five hour drive through Southeastern Ohio and down the middle of West Virginia alone. For those of you unfamiliar with my ancestral stomping grounds, that means, after you escape the urban sprawl of the city, you experience rolling hills of farmland until the state border. The WV half of the trek is more treacherous because the interstate weaves around hills in near-claustrophobic valleys. In total, about 300 miles. Most of it on the same road, interstate I-77.
Twenty minutes into my maiden, solo voyage, I’m already having fun. The last time I drove this route, it was in the opposite direction because I was moving to Cleveland for school as a freshman, and when one moves in as a freshman, one’s parents insist on coming along.
Driving with Mom and Dad is like driving with a Greek chorus.
A Greek chorus who are more than happy to sing out every possible issue or infraction with the transportation service you, the driver, are so generously providing. It’s not that Mom and Dad don’t mean well, it’s just that they’re Mom and Dad. They remember when you were learning how to put a shirt on (Thanks, Dad!) and now look at you, you’re steering heavy machinery at great speed through time and space. Huzzah!
That is to say, I get it, Mom and Dad. I do. And maybe, I should thank you for all of your advice. Probably. In fact, I will, because without the racket of your Greek chorus, I may never have appreciated the warm solitude that a long trip gathers. A quiet, unending meditation. Alone with my thoughts, the purring rumble of the engine, and the reflecting silence. Not.
I blast tunes from my iPod which is connected to the radio with a device I got for Christmas (Thanks, Santa!).
After Cleveland, but before the farmland, comes two smaller cities, Akron and Canton. The only thing worth mentioning is that they have a Football Hall of Fame that looks like a pope hat, and, on Exit 111, there’s a magical IHOP.
There’s traffic at Akron and Canton and it’s backed up due to construction. This was true then and it’s probably true now. What bugs me more about traffic isn’t that I’m stuck in it, but that I’m convinced the other drivers know more than I do about the situation.
There’s a moral high-ground in believing that switching back and forth between clogged lanes doesn’t help, so, never wishing to cede the moral high-ground, I pick one lane and stick with it. Inevitably, it’s the wrong lane and as I’m watching all the smug bastards in the other lane move merrily on by, I wish for the car of my boyhood dreams.
When I was a kid, I wanted a Ford Expedition with a giant machine gun on the top, in case of traffic. Like all great childhood ideas, I am horrified by the thought now. Plus, I think the Army already has one. And if I could revise it, I’d take a Mini-Cooper with a bazooka. Better parking.
Once free of traffic on the maiden voyage, I see a sign on Exit 111 for food options. In happy blue and white, the emblem for IHOP beckons to the road-weary traveler. In my mind, I hear my father wondering if it’s going to be close to the exit. On one level, I get why this is a concern. No one wants to drive a far piece off the route just to eat backwater Burger King. But part of me, probably the same part that wanted a Ford Expedition, demands a better reason. Isn’t the point of traveling to see new things and have informative encounters with locals? Don’t we say life isn’t a destination but a journey? When we seek to sate our hunger for food are we not also quenching our thirst for adventure? And why do we always gotta wait until we see a damn Cracker Barrel?!
Okay, I may have gotten a little personal there. It seems every family has their preferred place. My parents enjoy Cracker Barrel and I do too, but there’s no feasible Cracker Barrel on this leg of the trip so when I see the IHOP sign, I’m sold. Luckily, it’s only two stoplights up a strip-mall.
The IHOP, or as it’s known to the non-acronym community, the International House of Pancakes, doesn’t look like anything special on the outside. Or on the inside. It’s a pretty generic place, really, but when you’re hungry enough these details do not register. The hostess asks how many in my party, and I realize I’ve never eaten at a sit-down place alone before. Am I supposed to say something? One, I tell her. Part of me braces for her to say No, as if eating at a sit-down place requires two people or simply isn’t something I’m allowed to do alone. Where are your parents? Do you need a kid’s menu? Why not that Burger King a few exits back? I imagine her asking these tough questions as she hostesses me to the table. It’s a four person table, but the place is near-empty and quiet.
I order the French toast.
Waiting for your food to arrive is part of the sit-down restaurant experience. Usually, you talk to the others in your party, but when you’re alone, all you can do is read the little dessert/drink menu and stare at other people. When you’re hungry, the waiting becomes interminable. Having just fended off Ohio drivers for the past hour, I wondered what fresh Hell I had uncovered by trying to eat at a sit-down restaurant alone while figuratively starving.
Five minutes later, I get a plateful of heaven.
Piled high on the platter are fluffy, golden triangles of french toast crop-dusted with powdered sugar, exactly as I ordered. But that’s not all! Not exactly as I ordered, there’s a dribbling, fried egg on top with crispy bacon stacked all around. I didn’t order this, I try to say, but my mouth is full of bacon and the server leaves unburdened. Oh well. I eat nearly all of the platter, but I leave some edges. My friends like to call dibs on my leftovers, often the crusts, hence edges, because my leaving them behind is a frequent thing. We’re not animals though, there is a dibs rule. If you call dibs before I declare open season on my edges, I am obligated by law to attempt to eat the meal in its entirety and leave nothing behind. You have been warned.
Oops. We got sidetracked again.
Maybe this is why you don’t eat at places a far piece from the interstate. I prefer to think it’s because at any second, the locals may get restless and you’ll need a quick getaway. That’s more exciting than banal practicality. I left the IHOP thinking it was magical not only because the wait time was swift but because the French toast had come with extras. The next time I stopped at this IHOP, I read the menu more carefully and realized there was an exact item with all the accouterments I received. The server probably didn’t hear me right when I ordered only the French toast. This was my 3rd year having a damaged voice and I was still getting used to the limitations. So maybe the place isn’t as special as I thought. Although, despite the frequency of my visits and regardless of the number in the party, the wait time always felt like magic.
Back in the car, I’m ready to cruise control all the way home. Clear road. Full tummy. Can’t lose.
Remember the warm silence of the solo trip? The gentle roar of the engine? The rolling hills of farmland? Falling asleep? Me too, while driving. I drift for a second, my tires BUZZ the warning strip near the road’s edge. I jolt out of my drowse. I can’t believe I’m falling asleep at the wheel. News articles about sleep-related car accidents flash in my head. Panicked, I look for a place to pull over, collect my nerves, but there’s none. Wide open road and I’m drifting. Even my worry doesn’t stave off the French Toast coma. Stay focused, I repeat. Stay. Focused.
Up ahead, I see the sign for a gas station in New Philadelphia. I can get an energy drink, I realize. Salvation! And not for the last time.
Spring break, sophomore year of university, Eastern Ohio gets hit with a massive snowstorm, well beyond the usual lake-effect nonsense. Students leave campus as fast as they can in order to avoid the bad weather. I make the best time I can, but it’s not good enough. Before I can even get out of the city, I have to pull over in a parking lot to get the wiper-blades unfrozen. I don’t stop again until I reach the gas station at New Philadelphia, where, from the chatter of other beleaguered travelers, I learn I’m barely ahead of the cops shutting down the interstate. I guess I’m a bad boy like that.
Of all the things a gas station sells, like unique gifts, I always buy an energy drink at New Philadelphia. By this point, it’s a tradition.
Reinvigorated with chemicals, I strike out once more on my maiden voyage to face the pastoral desolation of Southern Ohio. The farmlands are beautiful, but not at night because it’s dark and you can’t see anything. A funny thing happens to the radio though, which is picking up the short-range signal from my iPod. The frequency the iPod music is playing through gets challenged by a bizarre Bible radio broadcast. Back and forth, REM’s songs remix with the ramblings of the Bible Radio. By the time I reach Marietta, the last town before the state border, the Bible radio has dissipated, like a ghost. Sometimes I think about taking a few tracks and trying to blend with them with deranged ramblings, but then I remind myself I don’t listen to [REDACTED].
One more stop before home. I promise.
The same span of interstate where the Bible radio feuds with my music is, coincidentally or not, tinged with another memory. Driving home one year for Christmas, I– Hold on, I need to explain something. When I enter the realm of Official Christmas Season (AKA after Thanksgiving), I try to listen to only Christmas music, so my playlist in the car was exclusively Christmas music. Why I do these things to myself, I do not know, but I’ll blame my mother anyway (Thanks, Mom!).
Where were we? Oh, right. I’m in the car. I’m driving home for Christmas. I’m listening exclusively to good Christmas music, and I see, projected on the road ahead of me, the twinkling lights of Jesus.
Okay, it was LED lights in the shape of a cross on the front grill of the Semi-truck passing me, but, for a moment, and not for the last time, I thought the good Lord was talking to me. After all, this is where the Bible Radio chose to make a stand my first time through. I giggle at myself for assuming such self-importance that God would bother talking to me through headlights, when I see, in the rear view, another Semi-truck passing me on the left. At the same instance I spy the truck, I hear exactly which Christmas song my iPod’s random function has selected. It was Mannheim Steamroller’s rendition of WE THREE KINGS. The second semi-truck passes me, following the Jesus semi. I think to myself, if I see a third truck, then- well- something, right?
There’s no third truck. The song finishes, I leave it at that.
The final leg of the trip is the hour and change to Charleston, West Virginia. From there, it’s an hour to home. The scenery is beautiful during the day. At night, like the farmlands, it’s pretty boring. The rest of my maiden voyage is fine. Four days later, I drive back to University without memorable incident.
After a long trip home, I’m ready to stop.