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:


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.


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.

I Love the Open Road: Outsider Life

I love the open road 
and all that it suggests 
wheelwagon dust 
weeds and infidelities 
and always swore our love 
never questioned why 
in a wooden house 
immovable and silent 

-The Smashing Pumpkins, “Soot and Stars”

Once in my life, I believed that the only real way to understand the world was to get out there and travel it, and I didn’t (and don’t) mean that in a tourist way. I mean packing up a car and getting out there to see as many places as you can. For awhile, I thought about living in this mode: driving cross-country back and forth as I wrote and worked odd jobs. The romanticism of the idea got me the most, I think. Of course, I was also young at the time and didn’t feel I had much to lose. I also had a loose network of friends across the country whom I knew I could count on to help me along the way. I’ve changed a lot since then, and I’m not sure that the prescription in the first sentence is entirely accurate any longer, but the idea is still enchanting to me.

Something in my bones drew me to the road – and it still does. It’s hard to explain to those folks who don’t feel the same pull. You can, however, send those folks to some of the great road books and movies, like On the Road and Easy Rider to get some feel for what attracts us. The sense of freedom drew me in, and they talk about that some in Easy Rider. If freedom really is about having nothing left to lose, then I had a near-perfect freedom at various points in my life. The pull of the road seized me the strongest during those periods. Continue reading

Out of Office: A Writer’s Vacation

As I post this, I am on vacation. I will be splitting vacation this year between the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where I grew up, and New York City.

Returning to the Shenandoah Valley is something of a right of passage. Autumn in the Shenandoah Valley is very important to me. Of course, I developed my love for writing in the Valley, growing up, but Autumn in particular was a very productive time for me. One of my favorite pastimes as a child was to go for a walk across my small town (in a time when a child could still do such a thing) in the chill Autumn twilight, with perhaps a cinnamon disk or a starburst mint melting in my mouth. I soaked in the autumnal atmosphere, loving the scent of woodburning stoves and fireplaces on the wind. It was a small both warm and inviting and, yes, desolate.

Now that I’m older I can see that I associated the smell with family. A family gathering around the hearth, or watching television while the fire burned in the stove. We never had such a thing. Thus, the desolation of being on the outside looking in. That actually helps me to understand why I’m so drawn to writing outsider characters, but that’s a subject for another time.

So returning to the Valley for Fall has become an annual tradition, like I said, a rite of passage. If we ever move far enough away that I can’t do it on a regular basis, it will be a deeply missed tradition. The colors down there are just spectacular, too, and I know of some back roads into the mountains that side-step the plodding pace of Skyline Drive. Places where you can get out and stretch, go into the woods for a bit.

Being a former local does, after all, have its advantages.

On the backside of the trip, we’ll be leaving for New York City. I’ve never been to NYC. I know, I sound like some bumpkin just fresh out of the country, but somehow I just missed out on it. I’ve been to Boston, I’ve been to the Twin Cities, I’ve been to Atlanta and Indianapolis and a host of other smaller cities. I’ve driven through others. I’ve just never been to New York for some reason, but the fiancee wanted to visit again, and I thought it would be worth my time to get the experience.

Strangely enough, there is a connection between the two places for me. I’ve always associated Autumn with New York because I had a desire to see Central Park when the leaves had changed. There was a time, in fact, when I had planned to propose in Central Park in the Fall. But those plans fell by the wayside. I am, however, very excited to get to see it.

Experience is just so important as a writer. I mean, sure, there are great tools these days to write like an authority. Wikipedia. Google maps. Google Street View. You can fake just about anything, but there’s something more about actually walking under the sky you’re describing, about understanding the cracks in the sidewalk. I’m eagerly anticipating the whole thing.

So in the meantime, for regular readers, I worked my heart out last week to ensure that there’s a strong cache of quality posts ready to go. And, of course, I’ll be sharing some of my experiences over on Twitter at @crimnos, if you’re curious about what I’ll be up to. Have a great week!