|Sept/Oct 1999 Nonfiction|
Exhausted from driving all night, I pull into a Motel 6 in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. After I sign in and get my key, I go out to move my car and two kids walk past me and go into the office. I look at the pool and think about going to see the famous university the next day if I have time. Who knows why this idea holds such importance for me, but it does. Maybe it's that I've gone on this trip to see things firsthand, to try to understand if really I've been wrong the whole time.
The next morning I wake up early and go over my atlas. I'm hoping to make it to Memphis later in the day. On the road, miles of nothing really. I pass a very expensive-looking penitentiary. Later, I stop at a wayside that doubles as kind of park by a lake. Rend Lake, I think. I call my mother to see how things are going with my family. I think about Erin.
Walking back to my car, I look at some of the wayside employees sitting on a bench and wonder why they seem so depressed. I think about talking to them, asking them why they look so dejected, almost troglodytical, but don't. I think about sitting under a tree and writing in the journal I've brought along, but don't. I just leave.
Mistaking Jackson, Tennessee, for Jackson, Mississippi, I find myself having gone 100 miles out of my way. Still, I learn that Jackson, Tennessee, is Carl Perkins's birthplace. And when I get into Memphis, the check engine light in my car has been on for 50 miles.
A profound feeling of loneliness comes over me when I sit down on my bed in my hotel room. What am I doing out here alone? I call my grandmother. I call Erin. Later, down in the hotel restaurant, I'm talking with a guy, a trucker, who was born in Baltimore but now lives in Mississippi and, I think, is attending a trucker's academy here. I tell him I'm traveling alone, to get away. I don't tell him anything more. He tells me about how as a trucker he's always traveling and how he likes it much better now because he's divorced, which allows him to have girlfriends in many states. This kicks ass, he says, because when one of them pisses him off, he can just go on to the next one. He says he loves being on the road.
The next day I go to Graceland, tour the area, and then have lunch at Sun Studio. The tour guide at Sun shows us a microphone that Presley actually used on some of his early recordings. Two skeletal, nearly totally-tattooed chaps stand behind me. I try to imagine what it was like when Presley, Cash, Lewis, and King were recording here. Then I think of my family back home, my friends at work, the ones I've known for years, think of Al, Suzi, Madeline, Erin. I have lunch, consider recording the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man" while I'm here (which you can do, record songs), but then decide to just move on.
On the way to Nashville, bizarre signs hang on trees and posts off to my right along the highway. "Adultery, AIDS, Hell," says one. "Judgment day is coming," says another. When I pull into Nashville, I find a Super 8 right next to a Ford dealership. I buy two cameras at a local grocery store and watch 8MM that night.
The next day the service guy at the Ford dealership tells me he was born and raised in Green Bay which, naturally, we find to be a remarkable coincidence. We talk about football and such, and he makes me think about the guy at Wal-Mart in Manitowoc. I'd stopped there to get some duct tape for my car because the black plastic strip outlining the windshield had partially come off on the right side. I remember him--the guy at Wal-Mart--seeming almost like a guardian angel. He had a little table set up near the exit and was collecting donations for abused children. I gave him a dollar. What seemed odd to me was how he ignored the two people walking out in front of me, almost as if he were waiting for me specifically, almost as if he were doing something important for me in particular by soliciting my donation.
Kentucky. When I went through on my way to Memphis, it was more jungle-like and there were fewer hills than there are here. I stop at a tourist information center in Bowling Green. An older woman there gives me directions to the National Corvette Museum, which is where I go next. I take pictures of as many models as I can, of engines and transmissions. I get some gifts at the souvenir shop.
Though I stop at Mammoth Caves, I don't take any tours as I don't have time and am horribly claustrophobic. In fact, every night laying in bed before I fall asleep, at some point or another I have to cover my eyes because it feels like everything is closing in on me--the room, the walls, the clock, even my eyes themselves. I wonder if the Amish I see at the Caves are real or actors. Going back to the highway, I stop by a large valley and take a picture. When I get the picture developed, you can see the roof of my car.
On my way to Elizabethtown, I take pictures of the scenery while I'm driving. For some reason I think they'll be incredible when I get them developed, but they're not. Finally, when I arrive, I get a room at a Best Western, go to an antique store, get some things for some friends. The owner has a fairly deep Southern drawl, and I find it hard to understand him at times. He asks me where I'm from, why I'm traveling alone, and I tell him. He asks me about the winters in Green Bay and tells me about his recent trip to Atlanta.
Back at the hotel room, I think about Graceland and watch game 4 of the NBA finals and try to read The Book of Tea. Later, in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, I'll buy a book detailing Presley's profound excesses, his gluttonous appetite, his self-absorbed, soulless womanizing, and will be sickened by it all.
I've decided to drive all the way to Canton rather than stopping at Lexington, which will allow me to shave a day off the trip and give me additional time to rest before going back to work. On the news last night, a cop was reported shot by a gangster in Louisville, which makes me think of Al, wonder how he's doing. Needless to say, I merely pass through that city, then pass through Cincinnati, Columbus, and finally arrive at Canton. I think about stopping briefly in Steubenville to see if there is anything memorializing Dean Martin there, as that was his birthplace, but don't.
I go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I leave and decide to go all the way to Toledo, where I find a hotel room. I stop here because I know Kathy is a big MASH fan and would know that Klinger was from Toledo. I know that Erin knows this too. I'm thinking the next day I can go to a game and get Kathy and myself a jersey, but when I call, the stadium the game is at 7:30. Given the parameters of the trip, I can't go.
I get a bad haircut, eat some pizza, listen to Janis Joplin, CCR, Jimi Hendrix on the jukebox. The place is empty except for me and two families eating together. I call Erin to let her know I'll be home soon and try to call Kathy. I'd called my grandmother the day before. Everyone I've talked to back home misses me, worries about me. I miss them, too. I toss and turn for hours in bed and then finally fall asleep.
I pass through Indiana like it doesn't even exist. I think about making a surprise trip to see Erin's friend Nikki, but think it would be too grueling and I probably wouldn't be able to find her. Gary is dirty. It seems like a series of factories stretched along the lake and nothing else. In Chicago I'm caught in a horrible traffic jam it takes 45 minutes to get through. Finally in Pleasant Prairie I find a Super 8 and watch Everyone Says I Love You while two kids put my bed together, get fresh towels for me. I read my Elvis book.
I leave Pleasant Prairie and stop in Sheboygan, maybe to go to some used bookstores there. I think about Erin telling me that Howie's acting in a play there now. Then I think of passing through Columbus again, how it reminded me of the time when Erin was still in school and she went there as part of a play competition. I still have the shirt she got me, and every time I wear it, I think of her.
Finally, when I get home, the city seems changed, and yet it doesn't. I seem changed, and yet I don't. I've learned everything and nothing on the trip, confirmed what I already knew. And it seems like I was gone forever and yet never gone. I think about Graceland again. I think about my heart.