Thursday, June 27, 2013
Go West, (Young?) Man
In addition to Thanksgiving, hand-me-down cars, and Old Navy shopping sprees, one of my family’s most esteemed traditions is road trips. The tradition dates back many years, rooted in the conventional minivans-and-forced-smiles adventures we took to Disney World and Washington, D.C when I was a kid.
But over the years, the Stoller Road Trip has taken on a new look, evolving into something more focused, something more purposeful. This change was borne out of necessity, as my brother and I have lived in a bunch of different places since college, and thus, we’ve had to move. A lot. And because we’re from Texas, we always have to have a car (what is this public transportation of which you speak?), and the only way to get that car to where you’re going is to drive it. When my brother signed on for his first year of rabbinic school in Israel, it was only after he found out that Triple A didn’t make a cross-Atlantic TripTik that he conceded he couldn’t drive to Jerusalem.
And so we hit the road, on numerous operations through different states, different time zones, and different haircuts. Houston to Denver. Denver to Chicago. New York back home. And given the outrageous distances these operations have typically demanded, my brother and I have often required a wingman.
Enter our father, Joe Stoller.
The kindest, most devoted father a son could ever ask for, Joe gives Izzy Mandelbaum and Morty Seinfeld a run for their title of World’s Greatest Dad. He’s blessed with that parental endurance that allows him to handle any situation involving his sons—and this is never more apparent than when he gets behind the wheel of a car that’s loaded with everything my brother or I own.
It’s been said that clutch athletes and cold-blooded serial killers have ice water running through their veins; my dad has pure iron pumping through his—meaning he’s a true Ironman in every sense of the word. There is no mileage count too high or hour count too obscene. Just give the man the keys, and let him do his work.
While his White Lines Hall of Fame career has been full of unspeakable brilliance, for me personally, his one shining moment will forever be the nonstop D.C.-to-Houston run we pulled in the summer of 2000. I had just finished an internship outside of New York City, and the plan was for my father to fly to Washington, where I’d pick him up, and we would then stay the night with my brother, who was living in D.C. at the time.
The following morning around 7am, my brother woke up and hopped in the shower to get ready for work, while my dad and I gathered our things and hit the road. Making our way southwest throughout the day, we stopped at Dreamland BBQ in Birmingham, AL around 7:30pm. Mileage-wise, this was the halfway mark, the perfect spot to call it a night, get some rest, and finish the job the next day. Or, we could suck it up and push on through. As we sat there atop our theoretical tipping point, we were forced to look deep inside and ask ourselves the question that every road tripper is faced with eventually: should we stay or should we go?
In actuality, it wasn’t a question at all.
Hopped up on pork ribs and sweet tea, I handled the post-dinner shift, getting us somewhere into Mississippi at around midnight. The keys were now in my father’s hands. We’d already put in 16+ hours, and we were still about seven or so from home. I-10 was just about deserted. It was late, it was dark, and what my dad was facing was undoubtedly the toughest, most brutal stretch of the entire trip.
In other words, it was exactly what he was born to do.
What I witnessed (when I was actually conscious) over the next several hours was a man perfectly in harmony with his craft, the working man’s version of poetry in motion. This was Peyton Manning dissecting a defense or Jack Nicklaus grinding out one par after another. The cold, hard truth of the highway’s endless white lines were staring straight through to my father’s soul—and he was staring right back. Every so often, he’d stop for coffee, and each time I’d ask if he wanted me to take over.
“I’ll get us to Texas,” he repeatedly replied, as if he was some sort of grizzled cowboy bringing in his herd.
And just after 5am, fueled by Waffle House “regular” and the energy that comes from being exactly where you’re supposed to be, he did just that. As we crossed over the state line, he pulled off to the side and confidently tossed me the keys in the same way a rapper drops his microphone at the end of an encore performance. It’s something only a legend can do, knowing that he’s just painted his masterpiece. And as the man rested contentedly in the passenger seat, I guided us the remaining 80 miles or so until we were finally back in our driveway.
A funny footnote to all of this is that around 6am CST, we called my brother in D.C. to update him that we’d almost made it home. The phone rang and rang, but he never picked up. Turns out he was in the shower, getting ready for work. It had been 24 hours since we had left, and his daily routine was starting all over again.
And my dad and I were still in the car.
So given this storied history, when I decided to come out to Oregon, it was a no-brainer that my father would make the drive with me. How could he not, considering this would be the longest stretch any of us had ever taken on? Maverick couldn’t imagine flying without Goose, and I couldn’t imagine rolling without my dad.
But as luck would have it, my travel schedule coincided with a visit to Houston by my brother and niece. And as is typically the case (and as it should be), the tie goes to the grandchild, and thus, my father stayed home while I made the cross-country trek alone.
Admittedly, it wasn’t the same flying solo. I missed my dad. I missed the time spent together, and I missed our batting rotation that allowed me to relax, close my eyes, and not look at anything for a while between shifts (I especially missed that in Nebraska).
But what it did provide me with was some quality quiet time—time to observe, to contemplate, to soak in my surroundings and examine what life is really like on the road. So here, in all of its randomness, are some casual observations from my four-day, 50-hour, 10-minute expedition across 12 states, four time zones, and countless cheery toll booth operators, from sea to shining sea...
Motion Picture Soundtrack
There are two requirements of a road trip song—1) An energetic, running tempo that matches the rhythm of the road. If it were used in a movie, it would seamlessly sync with the camera shots of the passing scenery. There’s no better example of this aspect than the opening credits of “The Sopranos.” And 2) Lyrics that capture the underlying spirit of your journey. Doesn’t matter if they’re upbeat or more somber; you just have to be able to sing along with them with every fiber of your being.
My song of choice for this trip? “Time to Move On” by Tom Petty. Click here to hear its rhythm, and read below for a sampling of its lyrics:
It’s time to move on, time to get going.
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing.
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing.
It’s time to move on, time to get going.
A quick aside…when you’re driving, do you ever pretend you’re in a movie, and the song you’re listening to is the song playing over your scene? What you’re looking at through the windows are the POV camera shots. Your movements start matching up to the beat. And when the especially identifiable lyrics are sung, you do the serious “eye shift/head turn/look off into the distance” move that’s always done for dramatic effect.
What’s that? Nobody else does this? Cool…forget I mentioned anything.
On Your Left!
Am I the only one who finds it ironic that just a few yards past the speed limit sign is another sign that says, “Slower traffic keep right”? It’s like a parent telling their child, “You can’t have ice cream,” and then adding, “But since I can’t stop you from having it, the cookies n’ cream is in the freezer.” Don’t get me wrong…I’m not knocking this fast lane-slow lane etiquette; it just feels like there’s some level of disconnect here.
What I have no problem knocking, though, are the drivers who still fail to comply with this etiquette. Outside of a few lost souls who are completely lost in their own worlds, my guess is that the vast majority of left-laners are simply impatient; they’re going faster than the traffic in the right lane, and they don’t want to put up with the inconvenience of being knocked off their pace.
Of course, by getting over to the left lane, they’re now subjecting the faster cars behind them to the same frustration that they themselves were infuriated by mere seconds before.
The kings of this brand of narcissism are truck drivers. In fairness, they’re generally pretty good about staying in the right lane, but the second they come up on anyone who’s slowing them down (typically another truck), they immediately move to pass—regardless of whether there’s an approaching car coming up behind on their left or not. In their mind, the three seconds they’d have to wait for me to pass them is more valuable than the 30 seconds I have to wait for them to pass whoever’s in front of them.
And this whole process increases exponentially if they’re on an uphill stretch. Apparently, trucks are completely neutered by inclines, which then means both lanes get blocked, as the two trucks, side by side, combine to form the perfect road eclipse. It’s like the Berlin Wall, just with a drastically lower and less impactful level of tyranny and oppression.
(Lack of) Full Disclosure
For as unnecessary as the “Slower traffic keep right sign” is, the value of the blue signs that denote what services (gas, food, lodging) are found off each exit cannot be overstated. They’re absolute lifesavers, especially when you’re driving alone and can’t pull yourself away from the road to search Google Maps.
The only problem with them, though, is that while they may tell you what restaurant or gas station is off the approaching exit, they don’t tell you how far off the exit each establishment is. Sometimes it’s 0.1 miles, sometimes it’s five. And there’s no way of knowing until it’s already too late.
This is such vital information, especially when you’re on the road, where time is of the essence, where everyone is trying to get somewhere, and it makes no sense why it’s not included. Typically, unless it’s a bathroom or starvation emergency, I would never get off an exit if I knew the place I wanted to go was further than, say, a mile. It’s just too disruptive. That’s what makes those toll road travel plazas so redeeming—they’re like one, big, do-everything drive-thru, right there in plain sight.
The most asinine aspect of all of this, though, is that there are signs that give you the distance (and direction) of each place—they’re just at the bottom of the ramp, viewable only after you’ve already gotten off. What’s the point of this? Why can’t that distance be painted on the signs that are actually on the highway? For whom is it fun to turn getting some gas or picking up a sandwich into a “Price is Right” behind-door-number-three game?
What Al Pacino Said
There are many frustrations you have to deal with on the road. Sketchy hotel bed spreads. Full service gas stations. Stretches of interstate in Wyoming—Wyoming!—where the only obtainable radio stations are ones that play festive Latin music.
(I never have figured out why the least listened-to stations (Church Lady talk, Spanish music)—and therefore, seemingly the least profitable—can reach the most remote locations, whereas the most profitable stations are confined to such restricted circumferences.)
But nothing compares to the frustration of traffic. Or, more to the point, traffic without purpose.
The most glaring example of this that I encountered were the countless lane closures for road work—with no road work actually being done. There were signs telling me to merge, and there were plenty of orange barrels, but I seldom witnessed any crews doing any actual work.
It was always my understanding that the big construction jobs were done at night, so as to disrupt travelers as little as possible. But if that’s the protocol, then why do they keep the lanes closed during the day? After all, delays aren’t caused by the road work itself; they’re caused by the lane closures that are in place to allow the road work to be done. Once the lane is closed, that’s the ballgame, so why aren’t we getting anything out of it? Why not let the guys work a normal schedule instead of a constant graveyard shift? Or, are they already working standard hours, and their union just started demanding a brunch break?
Whatever it is, there’s a ridiculous amount of inefficiency, and all I ask is that if you’re going to make me come to a standstill and ruin whatever time I’m making, at least let me know it’s worth my while. Show me somebody on a forklift or pouring cement or coming out of a Port-a-John. Give me something. Don’t let my suffering through the sweet sounds of Huarache Musical be done in vein.
What’s In a Name?
McDonald’s has always been my driving food when I’m on the road. Maybe it’s because it was my comfort food as a kid, or maybe it’s because it’s just so ridiculously good, but whenever I’m between cities, those golden arches have always doubled as yellow, hump-shaped beacons calling me home.
But in an effort to be a little healthier, I vowed ahead of time that I wouldn’t stop there as I made my way across the country. Instead, my lunch spot of choice would be the “Eat fresh” option, Subway. On Day 2 of the drive, as I was cruising through the heartland, the personification of a John Cougar Mellencamp song, I noticed a Subway sign towering above the horizon off in the distance. The only problem, though, was that the sign was also advertising the Subway’s adjoining gas station, which bore this name:
My reaction? That’s alright…I can wait.
Then the next exit came up, and it was the same thing all over again—a Subway-Kum & Go partnership. It turns out that Kum & Go is a chain all through the middle part of the country, from Montana down to Arkansas (just be careful what you type when Googling it). And while learning it was a national brand gave me some peace of mind, I still couldn’t get over its name. Who had come up with this? How did it ever make it past the developmental stages? Who could’ve possibly thought this was the ideal moniker to connect with the road weary, to invite people in to relax, get their fill, and take a load off?
On second thought, don’t answer that.
Ain’t Never Gonna Break My Stride
As I’ve explained before, I’m not much of a sightseer. Despite having lived in D.C. since late 2008, my Smithsonians-per-year average is well below the museum Mendoza Line. For me, simply driving past the monuments and admiring them from a distance has always been enough to satisfy.
But one of the goals of this whole endeavor is to change, to transform, and so it was tempting to use the outgoing road trip to Oregon as a means to stop and at least look at the roses. After all, when else would I have the opportunity to see the real-life bridges of Madison County in Iowa or the Mountain Man Museum in Wyoming? Did I really want to drive by them, only to look back one day on that decision with regret?
So with that in mind, I thought about stopping each time I noticed a sign for an upcoming tourist site. I really did. But outside of a couple of football stadiums, I couldn’t help but keep on going. And while this probably speaks more to my narrow interests than anything, there was still a part of me that wouldn’t have felt right breaking my stride. I was on a mission, like I’d been on so many times before, and I couldn’t shift my focus away from that. My car was loaded up, my dad was riding shotgun (in spirit), and I had a schedule to keep. I’m a Stoller, after all, and humpin’ it to Bandon was all that this was ultimately about.
Ain’t nothin’ but a family thing.
- "It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?