At the end of next week, Mary Jo, Luke and I will be making our 22nd straight Christmas drive to Cincinnati, the third time Mary Jo and I have made the trip this year. That ride, let me tell you, is not getting any shorter.
From our home in the northern Atlanta suburbs, it takes us, on an average day, 45 minutes just to get to I-75. After that, pointing to Ohio, it’s all a gray blur …
Dalton (the carpet capital of the world)
Ooltewah (look it up)
Cleveland (not that one)
Calhoun (another one)
Philadelphia (not that one, either)
the edge of Lexington
then over the Ohio River and into Cincinnati.
The trip lasts, depending on the weather, a quick stop to eat, and how much Coke Zero I’ve had to drink, somewhere between seven and eight hours. Google Maps tells me it’s 453 miles. Sometimes it feels as if it’s 453,000.
Certainly, in the past few years, the drive to Cincinnati seems to have put on a few miles. We always seem to stop for gas at some Godforsaken truck stop in the middle of Tennessee or Kentucky, where I’ll invariably wander into some smoke-stained convenience store, jonesing for my second Big Ass Gulp of the trip’s first half. Wander, though, is not the right word any more. Not even close.
After only a couple hours in the driver’s seat these days, I have to unfold myself from the family SUV when we stop for a break. I sidewind across the parking lot, a semicolon of the man I used to be. If I’m lucky, if it’s not too cold out and I work at it, by the time I stutter back to the truck a few minutes later, I’ve straightened into some recognizable form of a human.
Watching me at a break along 75 is to witness a real-life, stop-action version of the evolution of man. With a giant Coke Zero.
Driving is hard anymore. I can make it around town easy enough. I can head down to Atlanta and back with no problems. But after a few hours on an interstate, I’m ready for a truck stop massage. And I’m not even sure what that entails. But I want it.
Still, this Cincinnati trip, as many times as we’ve made it over the years — and Mary Jo, when I was traveling a lot, used to drive by herself, Luke in tow — isn’t the worst long interstate highway trip ever. Not even close.
In my first year at Arizona State, I did not budget very well. Between food and beer, the choice was clear. Which is why I ended up eating leftover chocolate chip cookies for my first Thanksgiving in Tempe.
I’ve stretched that sob story for a lot of years now. But the truth is, I didn’t budget very well because I didn’t have much to budget. And so, when it came time to wander home for that first Christmas break — I really did wander back then — I had no idea how I was going to get there. All I could scrounge up was about 100 bucks. Which, as it turns out, is just about exactly what a cross-country trip on a Greyhound bus cost back then.
A Greyhound bus from Tempe, Arizona to Dover, Delaware:
I don’t remember, maybe mercifully so, the exact route that I took that year. But that looks about right. And if you think that looks brutal, on a bus, you can’t even imagine.
Here’s a current Greyhound itinerary, departing from nearby Mesa, Arizona. It doesn’t match exactly the map above, but you get the idea.
Even if (believe me) you can’t even imagine.
This is what I remember about that long-ago trip: Stops, all the time. Early morning. Middle of the night. All the time. For five or 10 minutes a pop. Then back on the road.
I remember changing buses in bigger towns, and rummaging for quarters so I could dash into a dimly lit terminal to find a vending-machine snack for dinner.
I remember so many small towns whose names I have long forgotten, where the bus stop seemed to be the center of everything. I remember a few big cities springing immediately from that monotony, and receding almost as fast, into the vacuum of a dark interstate night.
I remember more than two days of this torture. And I remember, then, dim yellow lights overhead in a dark shaft, and rousing from my stupor just in time to see, magnificently, the city of Pittsburgh erupting from the Fort Pitt tunnel.
I remember finally, at the end of those almost 55 straight hours on the road — it might have been even more; except for me, things moved a lot slower back then — my dad standing there, smiling, just as I left him.
Our upcoming trip to Cincinnati won’t be quite as traumatic. I’ll have company. We’ll get to stop as much, for as long, as we want. There will be no bus stops in sketchy parts of town. I’m doing the driving this time.
The end, though, will be pretty similar. Family always makes the trip worth it.