Here's another one from the school files. It's a bit of an old piece and it is about a trip that happened years ago. Still a fun time though...
It was 2013 and I was starting to feel stagnant. Something needed to change. My twenties were ending soon and I felt like I hadn’t gotten out to have an adventure in too long. The monotony of city life without reliable access to a getaway cottage or campground a couple times when it’s warm enough was getting to me. Sometimes I was lucky enough to get away in a year, but I guess it had been a while. It felt like forever since I’d gone to Chicago or New York.
So maybe it was America that was calling. Or at least the idea of that great Kerouac-inspired frontier image, a big sprawl of road with fun and excitement and then more, more road. So when my friend Tony told me he was interested in checking out a music festival called Bonnaroo, I looked it up.
There were well-known bands and a few genuine rock stars. Tom Petty was the big headliner, well him and Paul McCartney. Tony and I went to college and studied journalism with the guy who did Sir Paul’s pyrotechnics, so it seemed like an interesting trip. We’d catch up, listen to some live music, and drink some beers together again in a new environment. Plus it was in Tennessee. I’d always wanted to go there… well not really. But I had wanted to see more of the continent and check out some new states. The map said that the drive would take me quickly through Michigan, into Ohio for a good long while, down through Kentucky and finally into our destination state of Tennessee. (I was genuinely interested in seeing the green rolling hills of Kentucky after watching Justified, a show based on an Elmore Leonard creation.)
The tickets weren’t so expensive, even when translated into the relatively poor Canadian dollar. It was a little pricier than I was used to at four or five hundred (as I’ve never had a lot of money to throw around) but I thought it was worth it at about a hundred dollars a day. Plus it was a camp site, so that was lodgings too. That meant we only had to worry about the cost of food and gas. Well, and alcohol and cigarettes. But priorities first. Oh, and places to stay there and back. Plans started to form.
I mapped it out on Google, finding out how many kilometres it would be (adding about 200 for detours and crap), what the current price of gas was (factoring in currency conversion costs), and what the estimated mileage (or kilometrage) of the likely rental car would be. Then I doubled it for our there-and-back-trip and got within probably about $40 of what we ended up spending. Probably because of overthinking finances like that I was the only one of us who had the credit to actually rent the car. I drew up some more numbers and got our final budget estimates.
Tony thought that was neat, and asked if he could drive the car. He couldn’t get on the rental without a credit card, so no, I said. Otherwise the credit card insurance doesn’t work and I’m out a car that costs 10 times as much as this trip if you crash, I said. I had my G2 for about two years, maybe a little more, and Tony drove to and from work for like 12 years. Life’s not fair sometimes I guess—I know insurance companies aren’t. “Nope,” I said, “I’m driving.”
The car was a beauty though. It was that year’s model Chevy Impala and had less than 2,000 on the odometer. I took a picture of that number, because we’d double that before we took it back. It had that new car smell and everything, and space for four passengers (or two with a bunch of luggage and camp crap). I looked under the hood and it looked like the workings of the USS Enterprise. I knew nothing about cars, but it would definitely get us there.
So midway through that flattened-out eternity of roadwork they call Ohio I got into my first altercation with a state trooper. I’d been driving about 8 hours by now and it had been night for a while, but I was hyped up with traveller’s euphoria. Unfortunately what I had not done was read the damned manual on how to change the speedometer from kilometres to miles when crossing the border. On account of that it was a little hard to make out what exactly I was doing in the metric to imperial conversion on the fly.
This country fought to get away from the Empire, I thought to myself. Why the fuck are they still using Imperial measurement?
The kid in the cool uniform walked up to the driver’s-side window, his car’s lights still strobing intimidatingly in the background. A flashlight, a Maglite with brand-new batteries no doubt, blinded me briefly.
“License and registration, please,” replied the humourless voice, slightly higher than expected. We’d gotten into accent territory too, apparently.
I explained that I was from Toronto, showed the rental papers and my license, and he explained to me that the state of Ohio had a hand-in-hand working relationship with the province of Ontario and I would be held accountable if I didn’t pay up even if I never returned to Ohio and my license would be suspended if I did not comply with the terms of the citation.
“Great, loud and clear. What was I doing?” I asked. He told me I was doing 68.
“This isn’t a 70 zone?” He told me it was 65.
“Sorry, my dial’s not showing miles, should I just drive a little slower?” He told me to drive 65. Great, it’s an upper and a lower limit. I thought.
Nerves rattled, I managed to make it about an hour more before we found a place to pull over and rest up. They had free wi-fi and American television, which was a treat in how it’s strangely different from Canadian television. I guess it’s the same way with the billboards along the highway. Suddenly they’re advertising guns and fireworks and booze, so everything’s mostly the same but just a little different, in a way you can just feel.
It was good to take off the mantle of responsibility, if only for a few hours. I think I’d picked up the car around noon and it was now well after 1 a.m. (Tony had been late to arrive, so we only really got out of town around 4.) We’d made no stops other than to slow down and check through the border, and so this was the most driving I’d ever done.
We strolled across the street to the gas station to get some walking in and pick up some beer and we were glowing from that fresh vacation perspective. The beer was something like 6 for $8 or 12 for $10 or some crazy ratio like that, so of course we got the 12-pack. We didn’t drink them all, but we stayed up and went over our inventory of stuff and the lineup of acts we wanted to catch and watched highlights of the Stanley Cup playoffs while we were still in a state that knew what hockey was. We felt simultaneously like we were waiting for the holidays to start and that we were far from home, and felt an in-betweenness that was more of a relief than anything else.
The next day we got up and looked for a place to have breakfast. We wound up at a Cracker Barrel, which is junk food to Americans, but once again the little differences were what made it for me. For one thing, biscuits and gravy really should have taken off here a long time ago. For another, a breakfast place with a built-in gift shop that sold rocking chairs just brings a smile to my face.
We finally made it through to the bottom of Ohio, after going through several long stretches of construction. You realize how important it is to know the dimensions of your vehicle when your lane suddenly shoots left to divert between two concrete barriers that stretch on for miles and have a surprising number of curves to them. Navigating between those while trying to maintain 55 MPH with an eager trucker in an 18-wheeler behind you can be jarring.
At the bottom of Ohio on the Kentucky border is Cincinnati. It’s where a few rivers meet and the rolling, forested hills start to form to the south. There’s bridges everywhere and even with my focus on the road the city looked gorgeous. I wish we’d stopped, be we had tracks to make. Past the last bridge I saw a water tower on the other side that proudly proclaimed “Florence, Y’all!” We were in the South.
Driving through Kentucky was a breeze. Not only were the roads wider and in better shape, but the scenery was breathtaking. The air felt fresh and lively, and the landscape seemed untamed. You looked out at it and it was hard to imagine anyone ever thinking that they could rush in there and set something up and get it connected to everything else. But somehow they had, as there were little towns with people who’d smile and greet us and ask us where we were headed whenever we stopped to stretch our legs and have a smoke.
One of the stops we made was in Louisville. Growing up playing baseball and always relying on a Louisville Slugger instead of one of those aluminium things, and going to college idolizing Hunter S. Thompson, I felt a connection with this place. Again, we didn’t stay long. We got gas and found out where the Walmart was so we could get the last of the things we needed for the trip.
“It’s not here, it’s nearby though,” the attendant said. “E-town.”
I asked him to repeat that. “E-town,” he said.
I eventually figured out that E-town was Elizabethtown and it was on the way. Walking back to the car, Tony had struck up a conversation with a couple of girls in the car next to ours. They wore bright colours and big smiles and their car was loaded with camping gear. It turned out they were going to Bonnaroo too, and they were from Toronto. They seemed pretty cool, but we didn’t get their numbers and we didn’t see them again. We had not yet liberated ourselves of the hangups that keep city-goers from talking to one another at length without knowing each other first. That would come later. Plus we had a goal in mind, and city folk love goals.
After a couple of wrong turns we managed to find the massive Walmart. We found hats to try and protect ourselves from the Tennessee sun and realized that you can buy beer at Walmart in America. And why not? You can buy it at gas stations. Our shopping diversion ended up taking more time than we thought it would, and our tempers were starting to flare a bit. Fatigue and road-weariness were setting in, as well as the doubts that come with being in a foreign place with nothing but a vague destination and a map from Google. Maybe it was the massive superstore with the sprawling parking lot with the unfamiliar rental car somewhere nearby, or maybe it was the lack of food kicking in. We found the car, found some cheeseburgers, and made our final push towards our destination.
We crossed into Tennessee and decided to head straight for the farmland that the festival was held on. We’d had aspirations of seeing Nashville, but we were too close to our destination. American highways seem to pull you along at a surprisingly quick clip, but maybe it’s the same in Canada. One day I’ll make that Canadian road trip, but it seems that America is a lot less linear in terms of where to go and how to get there. From Canada, nobody ever wants to go straight north, and if you go straight south you wind up in the States.
Soon we spotted lines of cars, sections of highway just backed up with cars festooned with stickers and loaded with camping junk and alcohol and who-knows-what-else. In the sky there were helicopters, and on the ground police from different levels of government everywhere were directing traffic and letting us know who was in charge. I considered how much different their accents would be down here. Like Ohio State Trooper but with more “Florence, Y’all.”
We got in the lineup of cars off the highway with the sun beginning to sag under the weight of the early June evening, and by the time we actually got to the gates it was full dark. Along the way we’d passed a number of farmhouses with locals smiling and waving. Apparently some of them rented out rooms to visitors who didn’t want to rough it and didn’t mind the B and B experience.
I was about to learn what we were in for with this five-day festival. I’d never driven in the US, never been south of New York, never gotten a speeding ticket, and hadn’t been camping in years. But I’d checked a bunch of things off my list and gained some confidence along the way. And the fun was just about to start.
The next few days would be a mad rush of making friends, discovering new music, running from one end of the farm to the other to catch that one act everyone was talking about, chatting around outside the food truck circle, checking out the arts and crafts plaza, hiding from that high Tennessee sun, laughing our asses off at nothing in particular, and generally appreciating truly and wholeheartedly what it was like to check your baggage at the gate and just live for the sheer moment and take it all in through a filter that made everything appear warm and sparkly and accepting.
I’d soak it up, and I would return to Toronto with a fresh perspective. And a yearning to return to Roo, and to relive that sanity saving sonic pilgrimage.