Being stuck in a cramped dorm room these past rainy-sleety days has been making me want to hop in a car and go somewhere. Anywhere, really. But instead, I've been looking through pictures, digging out the ones from my road trip this summer. I'd gone to visit an old flame. I had met him when I was 14, had a brief summer fling with him when I was 15, and then when I was 18, decided to take a trip up to Minnesota to see him.
My friend Sandy had a boyfriend who was also up at Carleton College in Northfield, so the two of us loaded our road maps and bags into her bright blue Neon last July and took off down I-80/90, bound from South Bend, IN to Red Wing, MN.
We'd joked about taking a road trip for a long time – ever since we'd first stumbled upon Jack Keroac's restless prose – but only when we were both officially adults did the adventure come to pass.
We stopped for gas before we began. Sandy dutifully marked down the price per gallon, the date and the mileage in the little notebook her mother had made her keep since she'd started driving the thing nearly three years before. She stepped out of the driver's seat to start pumping. The nozzle squirted all over. She was indignant. An Indiana State Patrolman on his coffee break patronizingly tried to tell her what was wrong, so she rattled off her knowledge of auto mechanics. The cop slunk away. "Typical," she shrugged at me. "He sees a woman with a car and assumes she doesn't know the first thing about it."
But soon, we were off on the highway, complaining about men like that, about the rules at my boarding school, about parents who made you write down the price of gas. We talked about how sick we were of South Bend, how much she had hated her high school, how eager we both were to get away.
Then, we looked out at the country. I've heard people new to the Midwest confess their wariness of a landscape so devoid of any constraints – the acres of flat land, the yellow sun, the green corn stalks stretching into the horizon like an infantry, row on row. After a while, though, that freedom gets in your blood. So you crank up the radio, fiddle with the malfunctioning air conditioner and finally roll down the windows and scream along with Melissa Etheridge while hurtling like all hell has broken loose down the nation's arteries.
Our highway looped into greater Chicago. We crossed the bridge over Gary's steel mills, over the thousands of tiny houses and the factories. Buildings towered in the distance. We joined the indistinguishable navy, black and white commuting masses on the Dan Ryan Expressway as we swooped past the skyscrapers, past the merges, past the always rattling elevated tracks and then farther and farther away from the lake.
The Neon cruised out into northern Illinois. Rain started to fall as Illinois became Wisconsin, but the storm was traveling the other way. Through the steadily beating windshield wipers, I watched the bars of rain descend over the fields, engulf the sky, and then, just as quickly beyond Madison, fade behind us.
Chunks of oddly-shaped rock loomed large beside the Wisconsin freeway, obstructed only by the signs for convenience stores advertising "Cheese" and "Gas," in that order. The hours blipped by on the Neon's digital clock. We talked about our lives and our philosophies of the universe. When we entered the vast tracks of land where the radio would pick up nothing but the twang of three chords and the truth, we played Sarah McLachlan's "Possession" and then Meredith Brooks' "Bitch" on Sandy's CD player, singing along until we knew the words by heart.
As the journey grew longer, we started talking less and less about where we had come from. I loved the music and the low rumble of the engine, the way the miles circled on her odometer. We entered Mississippi river country, crossing the bridge into Minnesota as the bluffs ascended the horizon. The speed limit climbed to 70. Sandy pressed the pedal to 80, just to see what it felt like.
Our endless ribbon of concrete twisted along the river, soaring past the houses that were built right on the water's edge. The inhabitants preferred a life dangling on the rushing current to one half-lived inland. They were near the river's source. Perhaps the floods would rise farther down, far away, somewhere in Missouri or Louisiana.
But it wouldn't matter to us if the rains came down or the floods came up. We were only passing through, singing heartily along with Janis Joplin's scratchy voice that "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." No, Janis, I thought, maybe we had nothing left to lose, but we also had the world before us to gain. On the open road we were not determined by anything beyond our own nature or being; we were capable of deciding for ourselves.
Sandy angled into the left lane to pass a big 18-wheeler. Soon, though, we turned off into the little towns on the river, sitting impatiently through traffic lights and school bus stops, bumbling through 30 m.p.h. residential zones until finally she dropped me off at the door of that certain house and I had to reacquaint my feet with the solid earth.
But later that night he and I cruised in his convertible up to the bluffs. We hiked in the darkness to the top, then sat looking out at the lights of the town. The river kept flowing, that same restlessness pushing on for thousands of miles. I saw the tail lights on the highway fade into nothingness. The road disappeared over the horizon. I wondered where it led.