Eric: Okay, guys. Road trip checklist…Car? Check. Okay. We're good.
—That 70s Show, “Canadian Road Trip” (5/8/01)
A Facebook friend of mine recently posted a link to an article about someone who did a road trip around the entire United States.
The teaser for the article noted that the trip hit all the major landmarks, and was accompanied by this map:
As far as the article was concerned, well, that was a big failure. The map wasn’t interactive, there wasn’t anything about the points that had been “pinned”, and it was pretty clear that the route described on it did NOT hit all the major landmarks of the USA. For instance, it clearly ignores the St. Louis Arch, Graceland, the Grand Canyon, and the Statue of Liberty, just to name a few off the top of my head. So I did a little digging and discovered that the map in question actually traces the path of a time-lapse video made by a guy who did, in fact, drive in a 12,000-plus-mile loop around the United States, starting in upstate New York (see the green pin? there) and heading south to Georgia, then west and so on. If you’re interested, you can see the video here. It’s kind of cool.
This got me to thinking about my own desire to take such a trip—except without the time-lapse video. I love road trips, I really do. And since 9/11, flying anywhere is a pretty miserable experience. Over the past couple of years, I’ve made close to a dozen trips to Florida, most of them by car. And I’ve occasionally taken a different route just to see what else is out there on the road. When you live in Baltimore, it’s pretty much I-95 until you get to Jacksonville, Florida, after which it’s either I-10 to I-75 and another couple hundred miles south, or jump off I-10 in Baldwin and ride US-301 for awhile until you can meet up with I-75 in Ocala. One time last year, on the way down I jumped off I-95 in South Carolina and headed west about 25 miles to a little town called Orangeburg, where I spent the night. As it happens, US-301 passes through Orangeburg, and I was hard-pressed to come up with a reason why I shouldn’t take 301 all the way down through South Carolina and Georgia until crossing into Florida, and staying there until I reached Ocala. On the way up from that same trip, I stopped in Orangeburg again, and the next morning I headed WEST to I-26 and then I-77, unfortunately hitting Charlotte NC during rush hour. I ultimately made my way to Danville, Virginia and spent another night in a hotel. All about the journey, not the destination. It’s a great way to decompress.
Anyway, THAT got me thinking about my great-grandmother. Mamie Devine Shine (“Nana” to pretty much everyone) was born in 1898. During the eighty-four years of her life, she had thirteen kids, eight of which made it to adulthood (only one survives today), and she saw enormous changes in the way the world operated—and that was before the Internet was an everyday thing. She went from horse-and-buggy to the Concorde; from gaslight to electric everything; she lived in the era of sixteen Presidents of the US (two of whom were assassinated). She lived through two world wars and innumerable other such actions. She had thirteen children, five of whom survived to adulthood (child mortality was still pretty common in the 1920s), and all of those made it at least into their 60s. By that time, of course, they were scattered all over the country. My grandmother and one of her sisters was in Florida (albeit many miles apart), one son was in California, another in Nevada, and a third who was on Long Island near us for awhile before moving out to Nevada and finally to Virginia. So in the early 1970s, my great-grandmother took it upon herself to visit her family continuously. She used my grandmother’s house in New Port Richey, Florida as a kind of home base (that is, her mail went there), and she’d work her way around the country, driving in her mid-1960s model Plymouth Valiant from place to place. She had a bedroom in New Port Richey, but I’ll bet I spent more time sleeping in that bed than she ever did. When my brothers and I went to visit during the summer, she was rarely there so one of us got her room while the other two slept on couches.
Nana was a gregarious type, and she managed to make friends wherever she went. She was a straight shooter with her opinion, and while she had a great sense of humor, she also struck you as the kind of person you did NOT want to anger, because you were pretty sure that she was capable of killing you. Take a look at the photo to the left: that was her in 1953, with my mom and my uncle. She was tough as nails, boy. When my brothers and I were kids, she’d give us ten bucks and send us down to the deli to buy her some beer. It was about a half-mile walk, and we were allowed to get something for ourselves. I have no idea why the deli sold the beer to a couple of kids; maybe they figured that anyone who came in with “it’s for my great-grandmother” HAD to be telling the truth, maybe it was because we were buying candy or some such alongside it. Maybe she called ahead, but I don’t really think so. Now that I think about it, it’s possible that they didn’t really care one way or the other.
So Nana would come to our place, and she’d stay for a few weeks, and there’d be the beer runs and her telling stories about people who’d gotten on her nerves, and she’d call my grandmother to find out if there was any mail that she had to handle personally, and then just like that, she’d get back in the blue Valiant and off to another relative. She’d drive in the general direction of that relative, but stop wherever she pleased and manage to find a friend and spend a night or more with them. And she’d reach the next relative and spend a couple of weeks with them, around and around the country. We saw her three, maybe four times a year as she made her rounds. When she was coming our way, we’d be ready but we wouldn’t really know when specifically she was going to arrive.
When I was in college, in my sophomore year, in 1983, I was on the phone with my brother when he said to me “Did you hear? Nana passed away.” This caught me by surprise because I’d had no idea. My brother was living in Florida at that point and I got more information regarding what was happening on Long Island than I ever did when I called my mother at home. So his being the information clearinghouse wasn’t unusual. But getting information like that certainly was. I called home. My mother told me that Nana was out in California visiting her son Bob, and Bob’s wife was brushing Nana’s hair when she noticed that the hair was coming out in clumps. The wife, being no slouch, deduced that this was a Bad Sign, and took Nana to a doctor, who essentially told her that Nana was pretty deep into Stage IV Cancer. Nana apparently had no idea she was sick. She was dead and buried out in California, all within a few weeks.
Now, as far as I’m concerned this all happened over the phone and I have no real connection to it the way I do the loss of my own mother and grandmother. So it’s entirely possible that I misunderstood the whole thing and she’s not, in fact, dead. It’s entirely possible that she’s still tooling around the nation in her little blue mid-1960s model Valiant, at the age of 117, and sending ten-year-old kids out to get her beer. And she’ll turn up on my doorstep, looking to visit for a couple of weeks. And, of course, she’d be welcome to stay.
Or, it’s possible that she’s not, that her journey across America has, indeed, come to an end. In which case, that’s a torch I’d like to pick up someday. I don’t have relatives all over the country, and I’m not nearly as friendly and outgoing as she was, but I could easily take up her Road Warrior legacy and see what this country has to show me. Who’s with me?