Sometimes you just have to drive

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So the reason I’ve been so scarce around here for the last month is that it’s October.   When you write scary books you quickly realize you will never have a Halloween season to yourself ever again.  

Also, because of a family illness, I had to get back to California – with my cats.   Instead of flying, I decided to drive, and luckily my sister was up for doing it with me.   I kept a journal and am excerpting it here, because anyone who hasn’t driven this country really is missing the experience of a lifetime.

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Road trip, Day One, Saturday  (Raleigh NC to Hickory NC)

A friend of mine who’s obsessed with ON THE ROAD has pointed out to me that in that book, going West is always happy and optimistic and full of adventure, and going East is always sad and depressively introspective and fraught with setbacks.   Which obviously means that just by geographical orientation this has to be a happy trip.

Actually my sister and brother and I live for road trips.  We were programmed for it early on during the family’s summer cross-country trips – pile into the station wagon and drive a different route every year so we could experience the country.   Like, all of it.   A huge, priceless gift we got from our parents.   Well, and Dad just loved to drive.

We’ll miss M. on this one, but E. and I travel pretty much perfectly together – she’s really one of a kind: Dorothy Parker’s wit, Julia Child’s effervescence (and cooking skills), and the artistic sense and surrealist mind of Salvador Dali.   We drive until we drop, tell each other stories, pull off whenever anything looks interesting, and laugh until we’re sick.  The trick here is, we’re going to have to drive eight good hours a day to make it to an event I have to do in Vegas this week, AND – we’re taking my 14-year old cats, also sisters, but who hate each other and Do Not Travel Well.  We have kitty Valium but they’re still way too old for this on top of everything else they’ve been through in the last few months, and most of the stress I have is about how they’re going to hold up.

This first day was a little – um – nuts: I was committed to teach a writing workshop for a half day before we could hit the road.   Lucky for me I could do this one in my sleep, because I’d had all of 20 minutes the night before.

The workshop went spectacularly well even in my unconsciousness and then I had to race back to get the house in order, pack more stuff into the car than I would have thought possible and then hit the road…

… just in time to get caught in a crazy traffic jam around the U 2 concert at local Carter-Finley Stadium.  (I heard people were just abandoning their cars along I-40 and walking, a mini-Woodstock.)  It took us 20 minutes to get a half a mile, but then we were out of it (saw the back up for the next 30 minutes of driving, though).   I’d been blocking that U 2 was in town that night and I’d miss them, but there was a radio station playing A to Z U 2 songs that night, so E. and I got a mini-concert of our own.

The full moon was up and the sky was so bright that we could see the whole landscape on the road to Asheville, a totally different experience than that tunnel of black that I-40 here usually is, just beautiful.  

The open road is always about endless, infinite possibility to me.   The world is huge and it’s all available to us, every second.  I am grateful to have this chance to vacuum out my head, and become open to everything.

 

Day 2, Sunday  (Hickory, NC  to Somewhere, Tennessee)

 7 pm            

We are now in a rather dubious motel at the side of I 40 in Tennessee, somewhere between Nashville and Memphis.   Not as bad as those scary motels conveniently located right behind the ubiquitous “Adult Superstores” along 40 (is “Adult Superstore” a Southern code word for brothel?).  The room is actually clean, and totally fine for a night but I suspect illicit truck stop activity is soon to come.   It was just raining too hard not to pull off, and no other options in sight.

But the door is double-bolted and chained, the cats are mellower tonight, and we’re watching Titanic on HBO as I write this.   Will never make it up to the end; I don’t care to see Leo’s oh-so-romantically-tragic death anyway.   But man, those eyes…

So the day…

Not much sleep between 3 am and 7 because of feline hysteria, but still felt fine in the morning.   E and I drank five cups each of that incredibly sugary motel vanilla cappuccino (which I think is like a whole week’s worth of calories) and then hit the road.   A gorgeous fall day: blue, blue sky with wispy clouds, and even saw some turning leaves – just a taste of the psychedelia to come.

We made a brief stop in Little San Francisco – I mean, Asheville, and did a quick tour around downtown – stopped in at Malaprops to sign books and at Street Fair to buy hippie clothes.   I got at totally great orange and purple and teal leaf-embroidered tank top for fall.  I absolutely love Asheville, really must spend more time there.   It has that sensual, mystical quality of San Francisco and New Orleans – and what a riot of fragrances and colors and art and books and architecture and coffee and every sensual pleasure.

Too, too short a time there, but we got a taste.  Then up over the mountains (love that one tunnel, very filmic) and crossed into Tennessee, which immediately has a different feel to it.   Still forest and leaves, but the roads are carved between rock cliffs.   The sky was getting gray and truckers honked at us every few miles.

My sister is on a quest – she’s obsessively trying to recreate – food-wise – the eating highlights of a West-to-East cross country trip we took about four years ago.    Her rule is that we eat regionally, and today her mission was The Bean Pot in Crossville, TN (where the time changes from Eastern to Central).   I have to say she was right – those are the best beans and cornbread sticks I’ve had anywhere, ever.   The restaurant itself is almost a parody… I think I hope it’s a parody.   Beside the door is a horrifyingly realistic mannequin of a mountain boy straight out of Deliverance – or Texas Chainsaw Massacre.   He’s in a wheelchair, legless, wearing denim overalls, gap-toothed and vacant-eyed.   One of his arms is attached to an invisible wire and the woman behind the register will pull the wire to make him wave hello and goodbye to customers.  Nightmare-inducing.  The souvenir shop next door sells racist table implements and statues of dogs lifting their legs to piss, along with all manner of Confederate flag apparel – but sadly, not a trace of the cactus penises we remembered from our last trip and have always regretted not buying, even just to prove they exist.

The rain started early afternoon and got steadily harder.   I was glad to have remembered to have the windshield wipers changed, something that never would have occurred to me in Southern California, but after five years in NC, I was ready.   The rain made it easier to have to drive right by Nashville, another totally great city that we had a charmed evening in on our last road trip.   But with JT and Randy living there,  I can go play any time I want.

The soundtrack today was nonstop 70’s, lots of singing along, and let me tell you, no matter what you think your problems are, it’s nothing compared to the travails of poor Lola at the Copa – Copacabana.

 

Day Three:   Monday   (East of Memphis, TN  to Fort Smith, Arkansas)

It’s so nice to wake up in the middle of nowhere! Foggy and cool this morning, very green all around, trees and fields.

E. wanted BBQ but we couldn’t find any that early in the morning, and she had never been to a Waffle House and we don’t have them on the West Coast, so we did that for the experience.  

Crossed through Memphis, over the Mississippi, my favorite river, on that great bridge, into Arkansas.

E. had some business to do today so she made some phone calls while I drove and spaced out.

Arkansas is a state I know not much about, except of course for the Clintons, but visually and geographically it seems to be divided along I-40 into three very different terrains: the Eastern side is relatively flat with fields of this almost surreal marigold color, bordered by very unforesty trees, more like oaks and apple trees.   After Little Rock, the Western side turns into woodland with lots of water – lakes, rivers, creeks.   And then suddenly, the Ozarks, which are stunning, very low hills and vegetation I’m not familiar with, but just beautiful vistas.   And apparently it’s wine country. 

We got a lot of driving done today – left early and pushed through, but the cats were not happy campers for most of the time, and we were tired, too, so we gave up around five and found an Ozarks motel with a view out the window that goes on forever and the perfect local restaurant right across the parking lot: Big Jake’s, with photos of prize-winning livestock in the lobby, a very cool model train running all the way around the balcony of the dining hall, and dead animals hung on the walls.

We had big plans of doing yoga in the room tonight with a DVD we brought, but maybe tomorrow!  It’s not even nine, but I’m crashing.

Oklahoma next, which means a day of roadside tamales of the gods.

 

Day 4 – Tuesday –  Fort Smith, OK to Amarillo, TX

Today was Oklahoma – where the wind really does come sweeping down the plain.

There was a thunderstorm when we woke up this morning so we waited it out a little but still managed to leave by nine.   There was instantly a different feel to the day.   The sky is enormous, a huge bowl, and it was so liberating to be able to see horizon again.   That is one thing that really continues to unnerve me about Raleigh:  no vistas. 

As I remembered, Oklahoma is a gorgeous state in a totally different way from anything in the South:  vast fields…. All kinds of fields… of yellow flowers, sage green ones with shiny pretty waving grasses by the road, red freshly plowed ones, and even black ones dotted with white cotton.    We had a spectacular cloud show all day long in that endless sky, constantly changing layers, some dark funnels of rain, and then the sun coming out after a few hours.    And signs every few miles marking a different tribal nation.   Would really love to go back to graduate school in American history… um, next lifetime.

Oklahoma City would be interesting to hang out in for a day or two, just for the wonderful historical downtown – SO Midwestern:  all shopfronts and great examples of Plains architecture, which I recently learned about on an architectural tour of Chicago during ALA that made me just about rabid to read more about the history of American architecture.   That I might be able to get to before the next life.

We couldn’t stop, though, because in the afternoon I had to stop for 45 minutes to do a four-way phone interview with a Vegas radio station and Rhodi Hawk and Sarah Langan, the other dark suspense authors I’m going to be doing this Southwest tour with.   Elaine and I were in the middle of nowhere so we pulled off at a Cherokee Trading Post with a huge cutout billboard of a feather-headdressed chief against that bowl of blue sky, and I did the interview on my cell phone in the parking lot with a strong and really noisy wind whistling around me and a family of bison staring at me from a nearby field.  The connection was terrible on my end and I could hear the host’s questions but not a single word of Rhodi’s and Sarah’s answers, and I can only hope what I said was vaguely in the ballpark of a coherent conversation.   And on top of all that, halfway through the interview I had to run out into the parking lot, phone in hand, and help E. rescue a turtle heading straight for the freeway in an apparent suicide attempt.

One of those absurd moments my screenwriting partner and I used to call – EXTREMELY ironically – “The glamorous life of a Hollywood screenwriter.”  

It was pretty great, even so.

Back on the road, and the cats were being placid after spending the interview prowling around the car and eating, so we pushed on, and crossed into Texas just after four.  The landscape, again, was immediately completely different; I always marvel at that fact of border crossings.   Who decides these things?  Or does the landscape change to fit the character of the state after it becomes a state?

Texas is much flatter than OK, and a lot of scrub brush and smaller trees at the border.  Signs for bail bonds, derelict gas stations, and oil wells almost immediately, even if they’re tiny ones.

And then the land opens up into this immense, bare flatness, with very gentle curves of hills and low dry grass and patches of yellow, and the occasional steer, under a HUGE sky.

Now you can really tell you’re on Route 66; the Americana is non-stop.   The billboards are endlessly entertaining:  “Free 72 ounce steak”   (isn’t a usual steak, like, eight ounces? The mind boggles.)   “Five miles to the Jesus Christ is Lord Travel Center.”  (We didn’t have the nerve to stop.)   “Two miles ahead: the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere, a spiritual experience you will never forget.”

I wouldn’t call it a spiritual experience, but it WAS a big cross, sort of ominously impressive against the darkening sunset.

But the sunset – now that was a spiritual experience all on its own – it started out pearlescent, all those clouds in that huge sky, and then went on for HOURS, climaxing in shimmering reds and golds and purples – and then even more spectacularly, the sky went deep blue and the clouds appeared backlit, as if painted on to an enormous theater scrim.   Just jaw-dropping.

We hit Amarillo exhausted – just enough energy left to stop for tamales.

Which were, of course, divine.

 

Day 9 – Los Angeles

She’s seen her share of devils in this angel town.

–       Shawn Mullins, Rockabye

You can check out any time you like… but you can never leave.

  –  The Eagles, Hotel California


Aaaahhh!!!!   L.A.!!!  Again!   How did I end up here again???

Well, okay, my trip journal went to hell once we hit the Southwest – some very crazy driving back and forth – dropping my sister and the cats off at a hotel in Vegas (E. threatening the cats with a debauched night of bourbon and whores once I left), meeting Rhodi and Sarah for our booksigning in Vegas (Books in Vegas!  Who knew?), jumping in the car with Rhodi and driving back to Phoenix to meet Sarah for another signing, circling down to San Diego for another, then up to L.A. for yet another signing and then cruising around the Southland for about two dozen bookstore drop-ins.   I have one whole day off and then flying to Indianapolis (up at 3 in the morning – please just kill me) for the World Mystery Convention.   (Which Steve has recounted beautifully here).

There were four border checkpoints en route to San Diego because of some recent drug cartel shootout, and I kid you not, Rhodi and I froze like deer in the headlights each time a border cop leaned in the window to ask us, “Where are you coming from?”

I mean, how do you possibly start?

And then one of them threw in a trick question:  “Where are you headed?”

I swear, it was something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

It’s a good thing we don’t look like Mexican drug runners, and/or were perhaps showing some leg at the time, or you may never have heard from me again.

– Alex

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November is Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month, in which thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of writers, commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30.

I’ve been doing a Nanowrimo prep on my blog, and there’s still time to get yourself in gear.   Come on, you know you want to!

 

16 thoughts on “Sometimes you just have to drive

  1. JT Ellison

    I feel like I’ve been on this trip with you. Thanks for sharing (and if you near but don’t stop again, we’re going to have words…. ; )

    Isn’t it funny – the whole sky thing? I always feel mildly claustrophobic here, missing the expansive sky that is my Colorado home. I need space.

    Glad you made it safe. It was great to see you in Indy!

    Reply
  2. Louise Ure

    Good Lord, Alex. Cactus penises, Waffle Houses and suicidal turtles. I feel like I’ve been on that road trip with you.

    You’re lucky to have such a fine traveling companion as your sister. My husband is one of those "get on the road and no stopping even for bathroom breaks" so I rarely get the fine local flavor you two enjoyed on this trip.

    Reply
  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I knew I was in trouble the minute I wrote that Nashville part, baby!!

    It was the cats, though, the cats. Really, you didn’t want to see.

    Oh, my God, the skies. Just thinking about it now….

    Reply
  4. Dana King

    Great stuff. My daughter and I have taken three road trips from Washington DC to Denver and back to visit my brother’s family. We take a scenic route one way each time, last year deviating as far north as MOntana for a trip through Yellowstone and Little Big Horn.

    Everyone should make at least one trip like this in their lifetime. It can’t be adequately described. not even photos do it justice, except as a reminder to someone who’s been there.

    Thanks for reminding me.

    Reply
  5. Melanie

    I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing.

    I live in Mexico and get stopped at checkpoints pretty much anytime we travel out of our town. It IS unnerving, especially the "where are you headed?". Fortunately my pale skin helps us sail through the majority of the stops.

    Reply
  6. Karen in Ohio

    Alex, your trip sounds like such fun, especially spending lots of quality time with a beloved sister. My own sister and I are not that close (and my brother is a pib to travel with–he and I have been on two disastrous road trips together), but I do have a fun friend who would fill the bill.

    On my own, with my family, and with my husband, I’ve been almost everywhere in the US by car, except Alaska, the extreme mid-north (N. Dakota, Idaho), and the extreme mid-south (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama). It’s a remarkably beautiful country we live in, and you’re right–everyone should have or make the opportunity to see it, in particular via a car.

    But we differ on the sky thing. Here in Southwest Ohio we have too many trees and hills to see much sky, so when I’m out on the plains all that sky creeps me out sometimes.

    Reply
  7. Catherine Shipton

    Well that just revved up my roadtripitis beautifully Alex. I love the transition of geography, that reflects/determines (chicken/egg) the mood and possiblities on a long, long trip. Regional cooking really makes vivid a time and place…I still regret not going to some soul food kitchen I was told about in LA.

    I’d love to do a linked US National Parks tour some day….if I can conquer my fear of driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

    I think it’s more likely that sometime in the next few years I’ll try a train trip across the southern states…disembarking here and there for a day or two as I please.

    Are the cats ok now, or are you getting a lot of dirty looks still?

    Reply
  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Dusty. Things are a lot better.

    Catherine, the US National Parks are unmissable. I worked at Glacier one summer; it was one of the highlights of my life, and there have been a LOT of highlights. Trains are great travel, too, now you’ve got me jonesing.

    And you’re a cat person. One of them is thrilled to be back in sunny So Cal. The other – still the cold shoulder.

    Reply
  9. Kaye Barley

    I swear – I now know why I’m not such a great road trip person. I’ve never taken one with you! I loved reading this!!
    and loved getting to spend a little bit of time with you in Indy.
    And when you get back here, let’s try to get together in Asheville, what say?!
    sending hugs!

    Reply
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