Sunday, June 27, 1999
Eventually, something was gonna happen to the truck: A flat tire. A busted belt. Some leaky valve. Tom had been terrific, maintaining it on the road, changing the oil every three-thousand miles, having everything steadily checked. But he couldn’t have allowed for me.
He was asleep. I’d been writing. I finished and went out to check the day’s mileage, my last entry each night. As I left the room, the dog barely stirred. In the lot, I got into a conversation with a maybe-twelve-year-old boy. He wasn’t happy. He lived with his dad. They weren’t on vacation: the man ran the motel, and the boy couldn’t wait to get out of there.
I made probably-useless, sympathetic sounds. He asked if I was really from California, and I told him, “No, I stole the plates,” then had to convince him I was kidding. He asked what L.A was like, and even my qualified answer probably made him want to stow away. But that wouldn’t have solved his being nearly thirteen.
Crossing New Mexico soon after college, I stopped for a late-afternoon movie ’cause my eyes couldn’t take the desert sun any longer, and I didn’t just want to sit in a restaurant. At the popcorn stand, I got into a conversation with a high school girl. She was bored. I was about the only one in the theater, and she’d forgotten to bring something to read.
“Can’t you see the movie?” I asked.
“Seen it a dozen times,” she told me, though I’ve forgotten the actual number.
“What do you read?”
I had a few in the car and went out for a couple.
“Thanks,” she said. And I went into the movie.
When I came out, she was gone. She’d kept one of the books, as I’d told her she could since I’d read them all. The others were behind the counter, and someone else gave them back to me. I stuck them in my trunk and continued driving. A few years later, I happened to move one of the paperbacks on my bookcase, and a piece of paper fell out, with the girl’s address. “Please write,” she’d told me, and I would have. If I’d found the address sooner.
I’d tossed it away. As I wouldn’t think of the twelve-year-old in the motel lot again or wonder why his dad let him roam free at two AM. Probably ’cause there was no way he could get in trouble. The main street was empty. At the intersection, the traffic lights didn’t even blink through the night, just went dead at eleven. I’d checked our mileage and gone to bed.
But because Tom had backed the truck up to the motel, the dashboard was out of the light. And since the truck was facing an empty field, there was nothing to reflect the headlights I’d turned on to read the mileage. When the kid interrupted my already-late-night thinking, I’d forgotten to turn them off.
“I saw them on,” the kid told me the next morning. “I thought you’d left them that way on purpose.”
Yeah. Signaling ships.
The battery was dead. It was Sunday morning, and nothing in town was open.
Tom called Triple A—he traveled prepared. We waited an hour, then a tow truck came from some distance and gave us a boost.
“Sorry,” I apologized. I hate being stupid and hate wasting people’s time.
“It’s not like we’re on a schedule,” he joked.
And not like there was anything to see. West Florida is flat. It was misty, and once the humidity found us in Georgia, it wouldn’t let go. We’d been using the air-conditioner steadily, not caring if it cut us off. It made it easier to breathe.
At Apalachicola, a sign said the town had once been the third-largest cotton-shipping port in the South. Eight million bucks annually, in pre-Civil War dollars, when a hundred bucks could buy you what? A couple of men? A fire, maybe righteously, finally burned it all, and by 1950 what little survived was a series of fishing bars. The Main Cotton Exchange sunk even lower by 1970, becoming a laundromat. Now even that was boarded and roofless. Though down the block a newly-renovated storefront sold antiques.
In Panama City, we switched time zones, the first time in almost three weeks. And we gained an hour rather than losing it, the first indication that, ready or not, we were heading home. We’d been driving six-and-a-half weeks, and I’d predicted seven. We’d gone ten thousand miles, and by my map had at least another three thousand to go—if we drove straight west, which wasn’t our plan. The trip would probably take two months, total, maybe fifteen thousand miles, and Tom had already called in for another week off.
His boss had understood. She’d been getting our postcards, as had many of our friends. “It’s like sharing your trip,” someone had told me as we pulled in her driveway, though the very practical reason for the cards was letting people know when we were due. Still, after Orlando, and two weeks of seeing almost nothing but my friends, we’d run out of people I knew. In a way, it would be nice to focus on the trip again, just explore places, rather than driving out of our way for conversations I could easily have on the phone.
And exploring let me understand places like Pensacola: I never understood why it existed, or what made nearby Tallahassee the state capital. Politics, I figured, like Springfield, Massachusetts buying off folks in the western part of that state, or Albany, pacifying upstate New York voters. Pensacola always sounded like a soft drink, and not even the nation’s favorite. Though our guidebooks explained that when the rest of Florida was still Alligator Alley, Pensacola had been a thriving port.
Which didn’t make it interesting. Signs said Scenic Beach Alternate, and our books promised unending white sands. Unmentioned were smothering high-rise condos and carnival bungee-jump towers.
“What’s scenic?” Tom muttered.
“Maybe once we get past this.”
We were halted in traffic.
Finally, we got free. It took some impulsive driving, and faith that—under what on the map were route symbols—there were actually bridges, and that a barely-visible, thin grey road wasn’t a typographical mistake. Soon, we found ourselves in a protected national park. I would have stripped to my shorts and slipped into the water, but the surf looked pretty rough. And there were no lifeguards.
Then the condos came back, fiercely. And motels listed as pet-friendly didn’t take dogs. “Not in summer,” a smiling woman explained.
Still, we got lucky: An older motel, now off what had been the main road, had rooms.
“Did the new bridge hurt your business?” I asked the owner carefully.
“Nah,” she grinned. “In summer, everyone’s full.
We had fresh clams in a crowded neighborhood bar. I would have enjoyed them more, but the band had people so wired, I couldn’t even hear the shells crack.