June 15, 2016, 6 p.m. CST:
Rush hour in St. Louis—thousands of cars sped past us as we drove into the sun, its brilliant rays making the lane markers near impossible to see. The segment of interstate I was on seemed to have been recently roughed, perhaps in preparation for a repaving, to occur well after my transit of this bumpy road. Up ahead, brake lights on cars began to glow as we rounded a curve. I cursed and applied my own brakes, bringing my car to a tentative stop.
“Meow… meow? Meow. Meow!” inquired Cali, the half-Siamese wondercat who was my passenger, from her cozy carrier on the floorboard of the back seat. Cali and I had been trapped in my car for over 10 hours, and our nerves were wearing thin. She wanted out, and I wanted off of this road! Only arrival at our destination would satisfy us both.
This project had seemed so easy eight months ago, back when my mother and I were visiting my sister and her family. There, my sister's move to St. Louis had been discussed, as well as the fact that they would be moving into an apartment until a house could be purchased… depending on the sale of their current house. To make the transition easier, my mom volunteered to watch Cali until the new house was ready. But how to get the precious cargo 600 miles from Georgia to Missouri?
**Cue “Mighty Mouse” theme**
“I'll drive her!” I volunteered.
Shoot, there were only two states between Georgia and Missouri, right? (It was actually three!) And these two states were the anemic Tennessee and Kentucky, renowned for their length and liquor, but not necessarily their depth on a U.S. road map.
Weeks and seasons rolled by: holidays, New Year's, first day of spring, my birthday. Finally, news came that my sister and her husband had sold their house, and were ready to purchase a new one. The closing and move date would be in June, which synced nicely with my work schedule, as well as my niece's birthday. Plans were made, and itineraries set—I would spend the night at my parents' house, crate the cat in the morning and set off for St. Louis as early as possible. My parents, meanwhile, would enlist pet-sitters and then take a flight later that day. I boasted that I would beat them to St. Louis, no problem!
The week before the trip approached, with lots of last-minute prep: printing maps, hotel reservations and other logistical concerns. Unfortunately, my dad developed a very nasty infection that ended up keeping him in the hospital for almost two weeks, up to and including the day of our collective departure. That morning, my Mom tearfully approached me, and I feared the absolute worst. However, she said only:
“I just canceled the flight,” she sobbed. “It didn't feel real until just then.”
Ouch, Mom! Way to make my heart skip a few beats. (Thankfully, my dad made it out A-OK, and my parents were able to visit St. Louis later that summer.) My sister and I had not wanted Mom to travel while Dad needed her back in Atlanta, so while it was a tough decision to make, we were glad that she decided to stay with him. I assuaged Mom's concerns by reminding her that she and Dad could travel to see my sister as soon as he was better.
The first major task of the trip was actually pretty easy: Cali kitty, who has a penchant for hiding underneath beds, was sequestered in a room, and the kitty carrier had been prepared. She smelled trouble, and immediately ran for cover. I had to lift up the bed to get her out so my mom could corner her. I released the bed and managed to grab Cali, gently tossing her into the carrier without difficulty. Everything else was packed up and ready, so I ambled down to my car, made my goodbyes to mother and set off for high speed and adventure! Nothing would stand in my way, no barrier could contain me! Yes, we were on our way to the Great American Road Trip, full of high-speed action, roadside attractions and the thrill of seeing new and distant lands.
After an hour of bumper-to-bumper Atlanta rush hour traffic, we finally made our way out of the city and began to head northwest. Cali was most vociferous in her discontent regarding the delay, and made her unease apparent to me at every available opportunity.
I was ready for this, and had selected a most excellent audiobook to listen to while on my journey: Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton, the very title that is the basis for the hit Broadway show. It was like a perfect 10-hour loop of NPR documentary, and very informative!
Cali and I sped through northwest Georgia's gorgeous mountains, past Dalton's carpet land and into Tennessee. We went through even more mountains, and I was pleasantly reminded of my former state of West Virginia, where curvy mountain roads were the norm. While gassing up, my brother-in-law called and asked about my estimated arrival time. I told him of my present location, and he estimated, “About five more hours, then.” In Nashville, we ran into another traffic snarl, a lunch rush of epic proportions. I was eating grocery-store sushi and bananas to keep up my strength. I considered sliding a piece of raw tuna to Cali, but thought better about sticking my fingers into a loaded kitty carrier.
Tennessee leveled out into Kentucky's rolling hills, and I began to head due west on what I presumed was a straight shot to St. Louis. Have I mentioned yet that I was not a Geography Bee finalist in middle school? When we entered some relatively flat plains, we drove through an epic Midwest storm—one of those giant systems that was ominously dark for miles in all directions. Alexander Hamilton was performing duties as a plucky artillery captain in the Revolution while thunder crashed outside, and the rain pelted us so hard that the traffic slowed to speeds of about 40 miles per hour, and many folks put on their emergency flashers for added visibility. This was to be the only major weather-related hiccup on my trip, thankfully. We continued on, St. Louis just around the corner… right?
But no one ever expects… Illinois. Sure enough, my route was actually taking me through the bottom end of Illinois, with three more interstate changes to go. How did I miss this, when I had months of reviewing the travel plan? I soldiered on, running into yet another travel delay because of roadwork on some nameless Illinois interstate. After miles of orange barrels, a small crew of idly chatty workers revealed themselves, reveling in their delight of not doing anything and closing off the entire left lane for miles so that they could discuss the recent weather in Kentucky and the upcoming release of Pokémon Go. While wishing famine and peril to them and their children's children's children, we kept going.
Back on the open road, I finally began to see signs for St. Louis. They may as well have said El Dorado! As I neared the city, the interstate began to snake around into a series of exchanges and ring roads, but I soon spotted the 630-foot Gateway Arch, emblem of this Midwestern municipal colossus. We had arrived!
What hubris, what folly I had engaged in, though—I forgot that my sister and her family lived west of St. Louis, in a suburb! It would still be another 45 minutes before we neared their new house, and I finally managed to get lost and go about a mile out of my way before finding their street. It was at that point, bless her soul, that Cali began the full-on Kitty in Distress howl-a-thon. At least it was at the end of our trip.
Ah, and what a sweet arrival! Birds singing and rainbows forming overhead, hand in paw, Cali and I skipped across the lawn to her new home, and we all lived happily ever after, the end…
And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you. Actually, my nerves were so shot that when my sister offered me a beer, I immediately chugged half of it just to calm myself.
Soon afterward, I collected my strung-out nerves and settled in for a three-day visit. We celebrated my niece's first birthday, watched some movies and even got to see the Gateway Arch up close. Given that we had a 1-year-old in our party, we had elected not to go up inside in case the lines were long, which they were. The Arch itself is an awesome monument, and spectacular to see up close—no visit to St. Louis is complete without at least walking around it. The grounds around the Arch are undergoing improvement, and should be complete around the time the sun balloons into a red giant, some 5.1 billion years from now. Lines are expected to ease up by then.
The three nights and three and a half days of visiting passed quickly, and I soon found myself back on the road, but blissfully alone this time, with no distraught kitty to disturb my concentration.
While I had correctly predicted that a trip of Atlanta to St. Louis could be accomplished in one day, it was pretty arduous, so I had planned a stop in Nashville on the way back. I actually have a friend who lives there, but when I contacted him, he was going to be out of the country on the days I would be there. I was hoping for free lodgings, yes, but I instead settled for a nice cheap motel. Confession: Despite my 36 years, I had never actually booked a hotel room. So, this was a first for me!
Upon entering Nashville's downtown area, I noticed that lanes on the other direction of the interstate were closed, which I made mental note of, but figured would not concern me. I found my hotel easily, and took humble pride in my nice little room, with its odd shower, overpowered air conditioner and uncomfortable chairs. After all, I was only there for one night, so I was very content even with these spartan surroundings. I checked the free Wi-Fi and found that it was pretty much hit-or-miss. Sometimes it would work, other times it was a distant dream—but again, I could survive without it for a night.
The hotel was cute, close to downtown and fairly run-down: The air intake in the bathroom was pretty dusty, and the TV set in the room was ancient. Even the plastic plants on the breezeway were wilting. Still, it was my hotel, and I was bound and determined to get $83 worth of lodging out of it.
Despite my friend not being present to show me around, I took a self-guided tour of Nashville's downtown, and even did a little bar crawling. After eating and drinking lots of water, I felt confident enough to drive back to my hotel, so I brought up my smartphone's navigation app, plugged in the address to my motel—and the battery promptly gave out. How foolish I was for lugging a 1-ounce charging cable over 1,000 miles, only to leave it back at base camp!
“No worries,” I told myself. “It is an easy-enough proposition: I arrived in this very stretch of downtown by the same interstate I traveled on three days before; I need only to find my way to that same interstate and get off on the appropriate exit.”
Much like, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” I found that Nashville had its own motto. Only, theirs was: “Our system of roads and our routing of them defy all logic and reason.” I would spend the next hour vainly circling the various roads and interstates around downtown, trying to find my way back to my correct interstate and exit. Even listening to exploits of Hamilton's adventures as a journeyman lawyer were not enough to calm me.
Despite all this, I eventually found my way back and collapsed into bed. Since I was still on Eastern time, I awoke a bit early for the free breakfast, so I snacked on one of my bananas until it was time for my weak coffee and hockey-puck-like biscuit and gravy. I'll admit that I went back for seconds, despite the crusty, lukewarm nature of the biscuits.
Speaking of Luke, my last major stop was to a “Dukes of Hazzard” museum, run by one of the actors from the show. It was a great trip down merchandise memory lane, and Daisy Duke herself was going to be there signing autographs that day… but I felt the longing for home, and so after cruising past the Grand Ol' Opry (just to say I had driven past it), I promptly got on the wrong interstate and drove 10 miles away from my southeastern route. Even after I realized my error, I got back on the same interstate after a stop for gas, and went another three miles out of my way. Nashville's labyrinthine roads had defeated me soundly once again.
After six more hours of driving, with few delays, I was back on good ol’ Highway 316, heading east toward Athens. While Hamilton and Madison were clandestinely writing the Federalist Papers, I sped towards home—and found myself dozing off! The weak hotel coffee had not been enough, and I had been in a barren wasteland sans Starbucks since then.
I steeled my resolve and made it back to Athens in one piece, with lots of great memories and overpriced souvenir T-shirts. I had driven almost 1,400 miles, seen parts of three states I had never visited and had a great visit with my sister's family.
But as I poured myself a nice chamomile and settled into my recliner, I realized that Dorothy was right: There's no place like home. Or was that Glenda?