I miss driving. Not the stoplight, cross traffic, 18-to-30-minute-commute-depending-on-traffic driving I do everyday. I miss the 3+ hours on the road and you’re in a brand new place driving. The drives I used to do before the advent of smartphones and GPS. California has some of the most dramatic drives around, and I covered a lot of road during my recent trip. From L.A. to La Jolla and back, and then L.A. to San Luis Obispo and back. On each drive, you go round a certain bend and BAM, there’s the Pacific Ocean view. Teal green or navy, white caps or glassy, depending on time and tide.
I used to do road trips so long that you’d get sick of the mixed tape and turn on the radio, just for a change of pace. That is if the car I was in had the luxury of a tape deck. During the Arizona years, I spent a lot of time on the road. New Orleans and Tucson are roughly 1,400 miles apart, and I made that drive at least eight times, sometimes alone, but usually with my friend Kristen. Texas is more than half of that drive.
Long drives are not for everyone, I know that. But I found out they suited me like Isotoners at a very young age. My Dad would pile all of us who weren’t old enough to protest (I am the youngest of seven children) into our ’75 gold Plymouth Voyager van and drive us all over the lower forty-eight. KOA Campgrounds were our zero-starred accommodations. Or billion-starred, if the weather was nice and the light pollution was low.
I loved those trips. I still dream about making trips like that, highlighting the route in my head like the AAA TripTiks I used to covet. I swear I was like Coronado, and those TripTiks showed the way to the Seven Cities of Gold.
Back then, I always looked forward to Sundays on the road. No matter where we were – the Badlands of South Dakota, or the White Sands of New Mexico – some radio station would play Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. The gold van had an eight-track tape deck, but there’s only so many times you can listen to Fiddler on the Roof and Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. Casey Kasem always offered a refreshing change of pace, with the comfort of a familiar voice. If I couldn’t watch Scooby Doo on the road, at least I had Shaggy playing delightfully crappy pop songs for me.
It’s the joy of hearing music you love, but never invested in. I’ve never owned a Tom Petty album, but “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is a great song to hear on a long drive. Every time I would pass signs for Reseda, “Free Falling” would go through my head, whether it was on the airwaves or not.
Now, between satellite radio and Bluetooth connections, you can engineer a play list (or have one engineered for you) that can last as long as your satellite-mapped drive. That’s why I kind of like rental cars. This past California trip, I was at the mercy of the airwaves. It seems that the radio stations I land upon in Southern California get fixated on certain songs. Roughly ten years ago, Tim and I were in Southern California together, and we heard Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” every fourth song. This time around, it was Elle King’s “Ex’s and Oh’s.”
Twenty years ago, in November 1995, I drove my Nissan Sentra to New Orleans from Tucson and back again. No Kristen this time, I went totally solo. I was out of school, four years into a job, and had vacation time saved up. My father was home in New Orleans, and undergoing chemotherapy to treat his first occurrence of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I wound up spending ten days to two weeks in New Orleans, I don’t remember the exact length of my stay.
There would be two more recurrences of his cancer – one in November of 1998, and the final one in the fall of 2000. There were many more trips to New Orleans during those years; but from Los Angeles, not Tucson, and all by plane.
Two memories to share from that ’95 drive – one there, one back, and both related to songs. Here’s the crazy thing, and something that makes me realize how unreliable memory is – my first memory was the wrong memory, in both instances. I first thought I had set my solo driving record on the way there, on that ’95 trip, but upon further reflection, I remembered I set that record three years earlier, in 1992.
But of this I am fairly certain – in 1995, I stayed alone at a hotel in El Paso, and swam laps in their pool, and Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” was in my head the whole time. That’s the one with the refrain “What if God was one of us.” “Just a stranger on the bus / trying to make His way home.”
Here’s the memory from the trip back. Not two minutes after I left my parents’ house, turning onto Causeway toward the I-10 on-ramp, I heard a song from The Cranberries. Perfect example of music I never owned, but never minded hearing.
That fact that it was The Cranberries is indisputable. I know this, because it’s one of those indelible moments that exist out of time for me. It’s the intervening haze of twenty years that makes the particular song an object of dispute. Upon reflection, I think the actual song was “Linger.” But when I first started writing this, I was convinced the song was “Dreams.” I think because the lyrics better suited my thematic aim.
I was stuck on the lyric “I want more / impossible to ignore.” With the benefit of hindsight, I know that a year from that time, in the fall of 1996, I would move to California. One year later, leading into Christmas 1997, my first marriage would be headed toward dissolution. As trite as it sounds, I wanted more. I was in an ambivalent marriage and lonely, working in a two-person office in Tucson. Leaving New Orleans, and my family, and my ailing father, to return to Tucson caused an ache that was impossible to ignore.
I don’t think the idea for those momentous changes originated in that indelible Cranberries moment from November 1995. I suspect the seed was already there, but maybe that’s when it took root. And the fertile environment of the long drive ahead gave it the air and the nourishment it needed to break the soil.