Of KFCs, Strip Clubs, and Jeff George: The Open Road, Volume 1

It’s kind of a cliche, but when you live in a rural area, you actually do meet folks who have never left the state. It’s uncommon, to be sure, but it does happen. I won’t speculate on the reasons for this particular phenomenon, but I can say that looking at old photos of the Shenandoah Valley has granted me some understanding of just how isolated things were in the middle of the 20th Century. Not exactly shocking that the outside world seemed like such a foreign place, I suppose.

By the ’80s our schools were making an effort to take day trips to Washington DC and Baltimore to get us out of our bubbles and offer an up-close look at government in action. Even so, out-of-state family road trips seemed to be a relative scarcity, something that maybe came around once a year for the more fortunate families in the neighborhood. It wasn’t that we had no interest in travel, rather that money and opportunity prevented such treks. So it was that until the early ’90s I hadn’t exactly seen the world or much else outside of the Valley and DC.

That began to change in 1990 with chaperoned trips to Baltimore (and the Orioles) and Atlanta (and the Braves, back when they were a joke). We had a lot of fun and I got to experience some new things, don’t get me wrong, but they very much felt like kids tagging along with the adults. It’s hard to really experience the road when you’re reclining in the back of a van watching movies.

So I wouldn’t say I really “traveled” until 1993. I was a Senior in high school, 17, and working at Burger King in my off time. Being the smooth guy that I am, I had made some friends at BK; one of them, an assistant manager whose name will be withheld to protect the innocent, was a lifelong Colts fan and had never been to Indianapolis to see a game. Seeking to live the dream, he sought out three of us to hit the road and go to Indy to see the Colts (and budding star Jeff George, heh) take on the New England Patriots and their young quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

I had a passing interest in football but didn’t care much about either team, being a die-hard Redskins fan. Still, this would be my opportunity to live my own dream: an 11-hour trek across five states, a nascent version of my lifelong vision for crossing the United States in a car. You see, even as a young child I had harbored a deep fascination with travel, obsessively poring through road atlases and planning road trips, envisioning these highways in my mind. And I knew this particular route very well. Adventure? Hell yeah, I was in. The game would just be gravy.

We departed Harrisonburg on a Friday evening in late October, headed south on Interstate 81 bound for the I-64 Westbound junction. This road would take us through West Virginia and on into Kentucky. At the time I saw West Virginia as Virginia’s dysfunctional cousin and just the bit of the trip that we had to endure to get to the other side, but my view changed when I caught sight of the Charleston capital dome, bathed in light from below. The view captivated me and tugged at my heart, confirming some of what I suspected about such road trips and their transformative nature.

It came back to the idea of a secret world, of something hidden from view and yet in plain sight: the empty spot on the side of the road at 2 AM with you as the only soul around. The feeling that you might as well be the only person in the world (save for your driving partner) and of knowing something that the rest of the world does not. This wouldn’t solidify until later in the trip, but it began with that Capitol building. It’s tough to find a shot of the Capitol at night that can be used freely, but here’s a shot of the place in the day:

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So you get an idea of what it might look like at night, with that gold dome all lit up. Gorgeous, at least to my innocent eye.

From there we hit the roughest stretch of road, between that and Kentucky. I wasn’t cleared to drive the rental van due to being so young, so my job was to sit with the night driver and keep him awake and aware. It would prove to be an important – and difficult – job, as our guy for that stretch of road nodded off more than once, taking us onto the shoulder before I could shake him awake. You would think that one such incident would have shocked him awake (Lord knows it woke me up), but no. It took a few times to rattle him. Impressive, really.

At last we reached Lexington, Kentucky, and took a sharp northward turn. My mind wants to impart Lexington with more importance than it had for me at the time, but the truth is that the city would only mean something to me in 1995, a story that will wait for another time.

What did strike me, however, was Cincinnati at night, and this one particular revelation would be no joke, a shining jewel of beauty as compared to the flicker of brilliance back in Charleston.

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I had never seen anything like it, not even during the trips to Baltimore or DC. Here, then, was the summation of my road dreams as a child: something truly beyond my experience. A shimmering novelty, yes, but also true knowledge of a world beyond the one I’d known. Taking in that city as we passed through it on the flyways, gazing down at a darkened Riverfront Stadium, I grasped the importance of leaving the places you know, of gaining more context (there’s that word again). It also whispered something that I would truly understand later, the suggestion of what these dark roads could mean: hidden liaisons, dark secrets. Beauty and tawdriness, all at once.

And yes, I really did feel this at the time, though I didn’t yet possess the language to express it. It came across as a bittersweet and fascinating emotion.

We arrived in Indianapolis around sunrise and again it was something I’d never seen before. I find a certain poetry to pulling into a McDonalds on a gray morning to get breakfast and finding ourselves staring across the street at a gun store, right next to a liquor store. Familiarity juxtaposed with a sense of the desolation and danger of this strange new city. A pointed reminder that we were not in Virginia anymore, or at least the Virginia that I knew and understood.

The rest of the day is a blur. I know that I slept for a bit and I seem to remember trying to arrange a meeting with a girl that I knew out there, but that may have belonged to a different trip. I do remember the guys hitting a strip club that night, but for better or worse none of them were willing to take the risk of taking my underage ass into the place, so I stayed back at the motel picking my nose and watching TV. But hey, at least I got part of the experience, as my roommate brought a stripper back to the room. Sounded like those two had a fun night. I will give them credit, though, they did try to keep it quiet.

The game almost felt like an afterthought after all that, though I did enjoy it and would become a fan of live pro football. Again, something to talk about another time. The trip home passed in a blur of KFCs, Subways, and those mini flags that football fans used to attach to their car antennas (antennae?), but that’s always the way with such trips – the way back home is the inevitable decline after the climax. Warm and happy, but lacking in that distinct brew of anticipation and excitement.

It’s funny. That trip was the prototype for many trips to come and laid the groundwork for my relationship with my wife, but I hadn’t thought about it in years. It didn’t have the sheer drama of my Illinois or Minnesota trips or the beauty of my Savannah, Boston, and South African journeys, but I might not have found the courage to take those treks without this one. It opened the door to my love of the open road and provided the first glimpses of the secret places in my soul that I would later glimpse during my time on an Illinois highway, on the back roads surrounding San Antonio, and in the parking lot of a regional airport in Waco. The path to those moments wound through time spent passing through Cincinnati and gazing upon that Capitol dome. It was all, ultimately, about a greater understanding of my place in the world and connection to everyone else and would change my life.

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