As a naïve high school senior, it seemed like a good idea to go to college 624 miles away. I was eager to see how I coped leaving the nest, like the collegiate baby bird I was, feeling absolutely prepared to fly solo. And fly I did. In the first two years of college, I visited every major airport in the Southeast United States, from Memphis and Mobile, Charlottesville and New Orleans, from Louisville, Charlotte, Atlanta and Dulles. So by the time I bought my shiny used Honda at the beginning of Junior year, I was ready to hit the road and try a different, more convenient and familiar form of travel than a bumpy airplane with tiny bags of peanuts. A road trip, I reasoned, would give me a chance to take the scenic route, spend some time with myself and learn to enjoy the journey.
However, I’ve also learned that taking a road trip by yourself is a lot like being a hamster trapped in one of those clear plastic balls. You’re all alone in your little bubble, but you can see everyone and everything around you and you think that by moving as fast as you can, you’ll eventually get to rejoin the world. These periods of scrabbling around, propelling yourself forward or in circles, are interspersed with points where you’re just exhausted, gasping for breath and wanting desperately to escape from the sphere in which you’ve been enclosed.
I recently discovered what it feels like to be a hamster on my drive back to school after Spring Break. It was the first time my sweet car Nelly and I spent nine hours together uninterrupted by the presence of other passengers. Don’t get me wrong—I love having company. It’s fun to have someone to chat with and help choose the music. But this time I was curious about how I would deal with nine straight hours on the highway. I prepared two iPods, all of my favorite road trip snacks and even remembered to put Band-Aids in my purse (I’m prone to cuts and scrapes even in enclosed spaces). Then I loaded Nelly up with all of my birthday loot, plus my new fern named Polly, and set off into the sunrise, with nine hours of solitary driving in front of me. Here’s how it went.
HOUR ONE: First things first: caramel macchiato and a banana bran muffin. Everyone knows that coffee gives you vim and vigor early in the morning. Wow, this is a great playlist! I put some really fantastic songs on here! Driving has never been this much fun. I could do this for hours…heehee, I get to do this for hours! This isn’t so bad. This is going to be fun! Just me and the open road, like Jack Kerouac or Helen Thayer or someone. How exciting is this? Whoever said driving is boring has clearly never taken a road trip like this.
HOUR TWO: Kentucky is so beautiful just after the sunrise. How lucky am I that I get to watch the world wake up today? Heehee, I’m driving South, so the Sun is on my left shoulder, like a giant flaming friend keeping me company from 93 million miles away. Oh Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun, please shine down on me!!! Why is the sun traditionally male while the moon is traditionally female? This discussion is much too complicated for 8am, because it probably will involve complicated things like Greek mythology, NASA and also possibly Einstein. I’ll have to save this thought for later in the day, when things have mellowed out a little bit. Ha—there’s the “HELL IS REAL” billboard. I’m glad I didn’t miss that. Kentucky’s such a funny little state. Or medium sized state. I guess it’s more medium than little. OH LOOK—COWS!
HOUR THREE: Ooh, “Feeling Good”! I love this song! It describes exactly how I feel right now. I’m driving through Nashville, I’m making progress and the car in front of me has funny bumper stickers. I wonder what the cars behind me think of my bumper stickers. Some of them only make sense to me, so I hope they don’t think I’m too out of touch with reality. Oh, look! “Just Married—Spencer loves Lucy”. That’s so cute! I wonder if they just got married yesterday. Spencer and Lucy are good names too. I bet they’ll have cute children. They’ll probably give them traditional names, like Caleb and Andrew and Ella and Maura. Omigosh, that’ll be such an adorable family! I hope my family is cute like that one day. Except I don’t know that I’d use the name Maura. It seems like it would be misspelled a lot. I’ll have to re-think my children’s names then. I’d name one of my children Nelly, but I’ve already used that name for my car. It’s okay, though, Nelly, because you are a Nelly. You have character. You have perseverance. You are indefatigable. Just like me. We make such a good road trip team. Three hours is nothing, so the next six can’t be all that bad.
HOUR FOUR: Why is the sun so bright? Why is my coffee gone? Why am I just now driving into Alabama? Why does my left kneecap hurt when I haven’t been using it? Are the other drivers on the road judging me for dancing so I can stay awake? Have I listened to Cee Lo Green too much already? Is it possible to listen to too much Cee Lo? If I could take a road trip with three other people, living or dead, who would I chose? Who told me that taking a solitary road trip would be fun? Were they insane? Was I insane? Am I going insane? Should I even try to answer that question?
HOUR FIVE: So this is what fresh air smells like…look! People! Outside of cars! I can listen to their conversations while I pump gas! I can also regain the feeling in my fingers. This travel plaza is like the Mecca for travelers on I-65. It’s got everything. Even the Denny’s looks inviting. But not so inviting that I would actually eat there. And they have showers for the truckers. At least there’s coffee. Coffee is so delicious. It makes me feel human again. Let’s hit the road again, Nelly. Are you ready for Alabama? Or better yet…is Alabama ready for us?
HOUR SIX: What was I thinking when I put these songs together on this playlist? So. Much. “Glee”. Why so much “Glee”? I need to wake up. Let’s crank up some palate-cleansing Joni Mitchell. Joni knows what it’s like to go through hard times by yourself, with nothing but a car and a houseplant. She’s been there. She’s a soul sister. Ah. There. That’s much better. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale…
I’m getting a blister.
HOUR SEVEN: Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Okay, that’s an annoying thought. Let’s get rid of that one. What are you going to do this summer? Oh no, that’s much too close. Can’t think about that. Too much reality in NELLY THE DREAM WAGON. Okay, how about this: What are you going to do after graduation? That’s a whole 14 months away, that’s like forever. There are lots of good options out there. Graduate school seems nice. But expensive (Dangnabbit, li’l shoulder devil! Quit being realistic!) Maybe I’ll put off going to grad school for a year or two. Do some traveling. What do you think, Nelly, could we take on the Yukon? Or maybe I will join the Peace Corps. Or the Park Service. Or I could teach kindergarten. Maybe I’ll write a book about my zany college years! I could call it: The Terrible True Adventures of a Wide-Eyed Coed. That’s a catchy title. I could write it in haiku. But it probably wouldn’t get published. I should probably live more before I write a book. I should put off the real, dog-eat-dog world for a little bit longer. Maybe I will go to grad school…and why can’t it be Mother Sun and Father Moon?
HOUR EIGHT: Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer, take one down and pass it around, ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall…
Twenty minutes later: I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts, deedle-dee-dee, there they are all standing in the road, dum dum dum…
Ten minutes later: I’m Henery the Eighth I am, Henery the Eighth I am, I am…
Ten minutes after that: And I-aiee will always love you-ooo (I’m talking to you, Nelly. And you too, Polly. My heart will always go on, you know it will.)
HOUR NINE: 40…more…miles…I can make it. Is this what the Donner Party felt like? I’m out of coffee. And granola bars. All I have left is a pack of gum and some almonds. Please, Exit 4. I’m begging you. Just show up already. If I can just make it to Exit 4, everything will be okay. This nightmare can end. Life can return to normal. Just FYI, Polly, this car is not your new home. No, your new home is so much better than this. You’ll like it on the windowsill. It’s very roomy, if you don’t count the picture frames and the postcard of Princes William and Harry. And the garden gnomes and the pinecones and the Sarah Palin bobblehead and the slinky. And the play-doh. Plus, it gets a lot of sunlight and you’ll have a nice view of your new pal Nelly and the rest of the antics in the parking lot. I promise I’ll try to remember to give you lots of water and love. And if I forget to water you, just know that you were loved. I mean, you’ve been there for me for the past 613 miles. You didn’t complain about the two straight hours of Joni Mitchell or the 14 times I listened to Tik Tok (that was a low point, don’t judge me for that). And here we are—exit 13. WE’RE SO CLOSE I CAN ALMOST TASTE IT. WE CAN MAKE IT. Come on, Nelly. Just a little bit farther and then you can hang out with your parking lot pals. Omigosh. I thought this moment would never come. There’s Exit 4! Unless it’s just a mirage. Please don’t be a mirage, please be real, please be real…
I turn off the highway onto a more familiar stretch of road. As I turn onto campus, everything seems like a dream. It already feels like I’ve never left. Everything seems like a normal Sunday afternoon. My usual spot is open and I guide Nelly into the space and turn the key. I made it. We all made it. I did it. I drove 623 miles alone. I have no idea what just happened. I feel like I could run a marathon. Or take a seven hour nap. Hmm. Well. This was…fun. We should spend more time together, Self. We’ll just ignore that whole Ke$ha thing. What happens on the road stays on the road. It’s a good thing Nelly can’t talk.
“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” –St. Augustine