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My Car Stays on the Road but My Mind Wanders

I 94

Midwest. Winter. Road trip. The prospect can be both exciting and terrifying. When my son texted last week inquiring as to if I could drive him back to school on Sunday I had a complex nauseating sensation overcome me; excited to spend time with him in his waning weeks as  a teenager, visions of a “blizzard of the century” and memories of providing the same whirlwind service last year for him but in April. It is a sad reminder that I have grown up, weather and road conditions being real factors in my life. Whatever happened to that girl who decided it was a good idea to go to an isolated cabin with no phone, furnace or running water during a snowstorm with friends during college? Well I did survive the trip yesterday (and the cabin trip thirty years ago) my son survived another sorority formal and this time he didn’t even encounter police in riot gear like last year. During the return trip last April I encountered road construction, a snow storm the entire return route and white knuckle driving for nearly four hundred miles. The return trip being longer than necessary due to a Milwaukee detour caused by lack of visibility and missed exits. Yesterday was different, 780 miles of clear roads.

I picked Eddie up in the morning two blocks from where he came home from the hospital to almost twenty years ago. A quick detour to pick up his belongings at another of the new student complexes near the University of Minnesota and we were on the road by 7 am. I told him we would stop in Menomonie Wisconsin to grab some coffee and a bite to eat.  He fell asleep as we crossed the Wisconsin border and a short time later it began to snow. Fear of potentially worsening weather and my philosophy of never waking a “sleeping baby” kept me driving. Radio stations faded and despite his being sound asleep I refused to play the country stations because they made him car-sick as a kid. I regretted having only the Chorus Line CD in the car, as it really is intended to be played at top volume. Nearly three hours later he woke up (about two hours past Menomonie) and we stopped for gas and then breakfast at Perkins in Tomah Wisconsin. A typical Sunday morning the place was filled with lots of families, many with little kids and here I sat with my own baby eating Eggs Benedict and reflecting on how when he first began eating it he ate meat and I would usually cut it in bite sized pieces for him.

We got back on the road and he fell asleep again almost instantly. In less than an hour I told him I needed to stop and get a drink to keep me awake, not even noon but having breakfast had made me tired. We stopped at a gas station that had an A&W, Rocky Rococo’s Pizza and Cousin’s Subs. I got my car beverage and my son a cod sandwich and green milk shake. I assumed he had not eaten since Christmas break and it would be three weeks until he had spring break and likely another full meal. We got back on the road. He stayed awake and we engaged in conversation about campus happenings, friends and then covered current events; the Grammy’s, Oscars and Kardashians (just keeping up). The next few hours passed quickly and we arrived on campus, unloaded his things and I hit the road after giving my final hug to a teenage offspring.

My first thought once back on the road was to borrow recorded books from friends in the future for these return trips alone. Then I fell into a regular rhythm of switching stations about every fifteen minutes as their local reach was exceeded by my driving. Having been a Mass Communications major I have a special affinity for small market DJ’s and the roles they play in their communities; Grand marshal in parades, face of local philanthropic efforts and a connection to what is happening outside the town borders. With internet access their role is not quite what it was in the past but I admire whatever it is that brought or kept them in a place where they likely get more feedback from their listeners than the DJ’s in larger markets. Their butcher, beautician, bartender and pastor are all probably listening, as well as those of us they have for fifteen minutes to a half hour depending upon their range.

I have written before about what a personal trigger music is for me when it comes to memories and this seven hour journey was no different. I listened to new music, old music, the music of my youth and was surprised how many songs I heard more than once. With new songs like Kelly Clarkson’s Heartbeat Song or Taylor Swift’s Blank Space this came as no surprise but I found myself singing along to Kanye, Rihanna and Paul’s Four Five Seconds, despite having no real grasp of what the lyrics meant but was glad to be home by Monday morning just as the lyrics stated. It was more surprising to hear Billy Idol’s Mony Mony three times during my drive and I took it simply as a sign that I was not to fall asleep at the wheel. I should perhaps include in my Living Will “resuscitation via Billy Idol’s Mony Mony”, because honestly if that were not to get me moving it would clearly mean my work here is finished.

From my year living in Missouri I had developed a four prong method of staying awake behind the wheel on long drives; cigarettes, Coca Cola, windows down, singing at the top of my lungs. I no longer smoke, limit my caffeine and due to age related temperature management am not necessarily impacted by cool air like I once was. This left me with one option. I was that crazy lady on I94 singing at the top of my lungs! My apologies to Eric Clapton for my vocal accompaniment on I Shot the Sheriff, he may have actually been aiming at me for destroying his song. Every time I hear a Clapton song it reminds me of my aunt who served as his nurse when he was hospitalized for a time in St. Paul many years ago.

Further down the road while singing the Kinks Lola I tried to remember if I had any inkling of what the song was about when I first heard it in elementary school and then further wondered if my parents had ever really listened to the lyrics. It made me think of some of the little girls I am aware of that now identify as men and the few boys I know that have transitioned to life as women. The song made me think how much easier this challenging situation must be today compared to in 1970 when the Kinks released the song. In some ways it surprises me that the song was even permitted airplay over forty years ago. I got more than five miles worth of thinking out of that song.

As I was approaching Menomonie Wisconsin where I worked from 1988 -1990 instead of a static laced fading away of a station, my radio went silent. A slight turn of the dial and Billy Joel’s first released track Piano Man was coming out of my speakers, from the top. Impeccable timing as this song had practically been an anthem at closing time during those two years living in Menomonie. The song always reminds me of my coworker Kim who arrived to work at UW-Stout the same year I did. For Kim it was more of a reminder of her housing staff from Steven’s Point where she had done her undergraduate work. I had thought of her earlier in the day while passing an exit that would have led me to her former campus. It has been nineteen years (next month) I believe since we have seen each other. I thought of many of the funny times we had in Menomonie; The Log Jam, Off Broadway, noon bowling league and dressing in polyester pantsuits to attend a chicken feed during our week of training. We had bonded quickly, both sharing somewhat outrageous humor and big personalities. One of my favorite memories took place off-campus while we were attending a conference in St. Paul. Good fortune had friends from my undergraduate staff in attendance from South Dakota and Michigan where they also worked in student housing. We all ended up in a bar and after drinking quite heavily ran into some representatives of the Winter Carnival Vulcans. My girlfriend Bobbie and I being from Minnesota were familiar with the costumed carousers and when our friend Kim was grabbed by a pair who smudged their sooty faces against her cheek (a tradition of the Krewe whose job is to chase away winter) the Lake Manitowac Wisconsin native was reasonably concerned and yelling for our assistance. We confused her more as we nodded and smiled and were oblivious to her actual panic. We all had a good laugh once we explained the really odd activity of the strangely clad men.  As times have changed the tradition of the Vulcans have been tamed. Somewhere I have a great picture of Kim with her smudged cheek. One Billy Joel track and that’s where I find myself, cruising past Hammond, heading for Hudson, an hour from home only fourteen hours after leaving. The road conditions were great and this trip all of the detours were simply in my head.

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