It was a dark and stormy drive.

We left late, like we usually do. Ella and I had plenty of time to get ridiculously large breakfast at Dairyland before she dropped me off at Kate’s. When Kate greeted us with a noise that was somewhere between a groan and the roar you’d hear from a bear waken too soon from hibernation, we took the time to go to the coffee shop. A large iced coconut latte managed to help Kate return to human form, and we got on the road in the early afternoon.

Kate and I roadtrip fairly often, but in sheer terms of mileage, this was probably one of more ambitious trips. Here was our itinerary for the week:

  • Saturday, April 12: Nicole gets to Madison, has sleepover at Ella’s.
  • Sunday, April 13: Nicole and Kate leave Madison, drive as far south as possible.
  • Monday, April 14: Arrive in New Orleans in the evening.
  • Tuesday, April 15-Thursday, April 17: Drink a lot of sazeracs and eat a lot of food.
  • Friday, April 18: Drive as far north as possible.
  • Saturday, April 19: Drive to Indianapolis. Go to Kate’s cousin’s wedding.
  • Sunday, April 20: Drive to Chicago, see John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats) perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music. K departs.
  • Monday, April 21: N goes back to work, dies a little inside.

A cold front chased us south from Madison, dogging our heels as we made our way towards warmer weather—or so we hoped, anyway. We armed ourselves with tortilla chips, Double-Stuf Oreos and caffeinated beverages as we drove through rain, thunderstorms, flooded fields and packs of terrible Illinois drivers.

Kate and I have driven through the flattest parts of the flyover states a number of times now. As someone who’s spent the majority of my life surrounded by mountains, there’s always a mild dread that comes with being able to see the horizon. It’s unsettling, that ironed-out landscape that stretches miles, which in turn makes it somewhat inspiring. All that scraped-clean land sits on my gaze, inescapable and strange. And then there are the names of the towns, paired together on Interstate exit signs into unlikely full names: Belvidere Marengo. Byron Oregon. Rochelle Dixon. Eureka Morton.

“My ex always joked that if he ever needed to fake his death, he’d rename himself after a couple of small towns in Illinois,” Kate said.

“I’m stealing that for a story,” I announced. The rain had turned the world on the other side of the windshield into a gloomy Impressionistic painting, smears of gray road, brown earth, bruised-purple sky. I was white-knuckling the steering wheel as my visibility shrank down to a couple dozen feet in front of me.

Kate and I talked more about the possibilities of this nebulous story, mostly to distract me from believing that I was driving us straight into our impending doom by vehicular accident or a flash flood. Instead of a person faking their death and starting a new life, I thought that maybe these names belonged to a different class of being, some kind of new variety of demigods: the patron saints of southern Illinois. Peoria Pontiac: protector of dancers at truck-stop strip clubs. Urbana Champaign: goddess of the cowboy songs on the juke box. Havana Carthage: guardian of big-named people with ordinary lives.

It rained and rained. We stopped at Mario’s in Springfield for pizza and to check the weather, making sure we wouldn’t encounter a tornado and end our vacation in Oz. The pizza was surprisingly good.

We got into St. Louis just after eleven and waved to the Arch and the Mississippi river as we passed them both. The last time we were down this way, Kate and I spent a day in the City Museum and the Museum of Westward Expansion and marveled at how Missourians pronounced the word “pen.” We bought mouth harps, and I hammered out the details for another story I’m writing, about monsters and racism and small towns. That last time, it took us two days to drive down that far. I made us listen to Paul Simon’s Graceland album as we drove along the river.

(Missouri had its own patron saints: Florissant, Festus and Ferguson De Soto, the triptych gods of what you should do with your night; what you do instead; and how you pay for it in the morning.)

The next morning, I shot awake at nine in the morning and ran down to the hotel lobby for continental breakfast. Continental breakfasts are both a novelty and a reliable constant: breakfast cereal, cheap coffee, metallic-tasting orange juice and donuts. This one also had yogurt, and I grabbed a cup for Kate, along with a coffee and a handful of sugar packets.

(Columbia Waterloo: the patron saint of breakfast in bed.)

The morning news was talking about the sudden cold snap that had left frost on the flowers starting to emerge from the ground. On Facebook, our friends were wailing in all caps about the snow flurries that had dusted Madison and Chicago. We put on Pharrell’s “Happy” (which I’d never seen) and tweeted our sympathy for all the suckers north of the Mason-Dixon. We had a few hours of decent weather, just enough for us to stop for lunch at a Cracker Barrel in Horn Lake, Mississippi. And then it rained until we crossed Lake Pontchartrain.

(Pontchartrain: guardian of weary travelers, gatekeeper for seekers of good times. As liable to pick your pockets as to buy you a drink, but you’ll adore her anyway.)

 

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