Thursday, March 15, 2012

On The Road (Never) Again

I read an article last week that stated 4 out of 10 Americans had made the drive from one coast of the country to the other. Another 4 out of 10 hoped they never have to.

As someone who has done the drive let me just say three simple words, "Hello, American Airlines?"

My cross country tour happened years ago, but the painful memories are as fresh as yesterday's dirty dishes. (Why do teenage girls have such a hard time understanding the concept of loading a dishwasher?)

I had spent the summer between my junior and senior years of college here in sunny Southern California. When August rolled around I naturally had to return to Syracuse for one more year of "education." I thought it would be novel to see the flyover states and go back via America's highways. I quickly planted an index card to that effect on the UCLA Ride Board.

A week later I got a call from Mitch Feinstein, a neurotic teaching assistant who was looking for a companion to share the driving and lodging costs on his way back to Brooklyn. I snapped up his offer, sight unseen. I even lied about my ability to drive a car with a manual transmission, both of which in retrospect turned out to be a bad idea.

The trip started pleasant enough. The small talk took us all the way to Utah, where the nerdy professor and I spent the first night at a campground, sleeping in a tent (to save money) at the Bryce Canyon National Park. I had every reason to believe the next seven days would be equally pleasing.

They were not.

On Day Two, somewhere in western Colorado, Mitch turned the wheel over to me. It was at this point that it became abundantly clear that I had never mastered the stick shift. Or the even tricker three-on-the-tree.

Mitch was not a happy camper. In fact he was a very whiny unhappy camper. The small talk became smaller. The gap in our musical tastes grew wider. And because neither of us wanted to listen to Jesus radio -- which is all you get in the middle of the country -- the silence in the car grew deeper. And tenser. Interrupted only by my habitual grinding of the gears or Mitch's girly pounding of the fists on the dashboard.

By Day Three, we didn't like each other.

By Day Four and little more than half the trip's mileage logged we couldn't stand each other.

Ten hour driving days turned into 14 hour marathons. And the scheduled 8 day trip turned into 6.

When Mitch dropped me off at my house he literally raced from the driver's seat, popped the trunk and unceremoniously dumped my duffel bag on the driveway. If he did say good bye it was muffled by the sound of the screeching tires as he muscled that Buick away as fast as possible.

I keep the memory of that miserable cross country trip in an easy-to-access part of my brain. Because when we're doing a family road trip and my daughters start their inevitable squabbling, it's good to remind myself that it could be a lot worse.

In fact, it was.

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