During high school and college, I would on occasion and at the behest of my father, go along on road trips from Tucson to DeRidder, Louisiana to see his family. Either my older brother, sister or both would come as well. The trip was a long one by any standard; twenty-four hours of driving, give or take, with no overnight stop. Motels were merely blips of scenery, something to gaze longingly at as we drove past. These trips were a marathon, a test of endurance and enduring stupidity. Perhaps the money wasn’t there, but more likely dad was just cheap; he would let my brother take over at the wheel, sleep a couple of hours, then take over again. Stops were for gas ( petroleum and intestinal ) and crappy food; these were brief, treasured interludes of relief in an otherwise endless foray into monotony.
Somehow, my father managed to space these trips far enough apart for me to forget how painful they were and to allow a sense of excitement to creep in. Soon after the driving began, however, I would feel the sharp, stinging backhand of reality. We were a snail crossing a football field; it seemed we were never going to get there, and it was so boring. I liked to read, but it was hard in a car; the 1974 Ford Maverick wasn’t famous for its smooth ride (actually, wasn’t famous for anything). I’d always have to stop reading and have a look around, in case I was missing something (I wasn’t, other than some semblance of a life).
When I was twelve, I went camping with my older brothers and their friends. At the beginning of the trip I found a very naughty (and therefore instantly compelling) book entitled The Reluctant Bride under the back seat. That was the shortest, best and most educational road trip of my entire life. Unfortunately, Dad was used to my relentless whining and complaining on road trips. It was an unspoken game between us; when I was a child I would say annoying things (“When we gonna get there?”, “I gotta pee, daddy”, “I wanna motel with a pool”) until he broke and starting flailing around the back seat with his right hand, all the while keeping his left hand on the wheel and eyes on the road. Even as an adult, I still said annoying things (“I gotta drop one”, “This trip blows”), so a book commanding my attention to that extent would arouse suspicion, and in any event The Reluctant Bride was out of print by then.
Someone driving through far-southeast Arizona and southern New Mexico along Interstate 10 might consider the area a large rash on the bum of America. At least the rash is broken up here and there by a series of boils jutting up from the surface; there is, however bland, something to look at. In west Texas, however, there is simply nothing in the way of scenery. Once you head east from El Paso (Spanish for “The Paso” and shortened from “I think I’ll Paso”) there is literally nothing to please the eye other than nightfall, unless you have a fetish for dirt and scrub brush. The landscape is unendingly flat and without feature. Frankly, I don’t know why dad bothered moving over to sleep; assuming the Maverick’s front end was aligned properly, he could have napped at the wheel for two hours and still been on the road when he woke up (based on personal trials, this is the only place I have found where that will work). I remember seeing a billboard for a town that laid claim to being the home of the world’s biggest piece of toast. So desperate for distraction was I by then that I almost begged for a look, but ultimately thought better of it. I sensed a trap; the billboard may have been put up by a clan of inbred mutant cannibals who knew that anyone dumb enough to go looking for big toast would never be missed. So on we went.
To give Texas some grace, after five hundred miles or so things begin to improve as one approaches San Antonio, and by Houston rocks and dirt have given way to grass and trees. My spirits would begin to lift, as by this point it was clear that progress was being made. Quickly, though, the mood would sour as we invariably hit rush hour traffic (5 a.m-10p.m.) in Houston. One time in particular, I recall, was especially awful. We were stopped dead in traffic. We might have gone a quarter-mile in an hour; my father, being a Peddy and therefore predestined to poor decision-making, invariably placed us in the slowest lane. He was doing a slow burn in the driver’s seat, and he clearly was in no mood to be trifled with.
“I gotta pee, daddy.” (Some things never change). My dad expressed with a sweeping gesture of his hands the obvious: we would need a monster truck to reach any exit.
A few minutes passed. “Dude. I gotta pee. Now.”
“Well, hold it, dammit!” Daddy was mean.
I may have threatened to roll down the window and take care of business then and there; my brother said something clever like “I used to change your diaper. Good luck with that.” Brother was mean, too. By this time I had reached the point of no return; disaster was imminent. As most of us have experienced, there are several “warnings” before an imminent peeing of the pants, when it seems that the calamitous moment has come, and then the bladder backs off; I had run out of these. I took one last desperate look around the back seat for something, anything, I could use for a depository.
After another half hour or so, traffic let up and we started moving again. To his credit, my father started to head for an exit, but I told him it wasn’t necessary. The fact that I used his change jar to relieve myself became a point of contention between us for the duration of the trip (in retrospect, I suppose I should have taken the coins out first. And the bills.).
As you continue east on I-10, the Sabine river marks the state line between Texas and Louisiana. After crossing it, DeRidder, Louisiana is a mere forty miles away. I always enjoyed this part of the trip, mostly because it meant it was ninety-nine percent over, but also because it was pretty. Heavily wooded and evergreen, Louisiana is Eden compared to the hell of west Texas. With the border crossing came a renewed sense of adventure, and Louisiana never failed to deliver. I’ll share with you some of my favorite adventures there when I begin the series Lord, Don’t Let Me Die in Louisiana, coming sooner or later.