Occasionally the passage of time forces upon you a kind of perspective, one where you come nose to nose with recurring and sometimes ill-fated patterns in your life. For some, such recollections are a source of pain, serving as unkind reminders of one’s shortcomings. However, because I find it easy to laugh at myself, these moments of clarity are often a source of amusement for me. I see them as “a tale told by (and about) an idiot” within a larger and more wonderful comedy. Moreover, these events often permit me to see where I have grown and where I am still yet unformed.
Recently, I had one of these moments of clarity while looking at some pictures of a trip I made to Colorado in 1993 for World Youth Day. As I was looking at them it dawned on me that some of the events from that trip were a sort of microcosm of my life.
I was twenty four at the time and had all of the markings of an immature and overzealous Catholic: I wore a rosary around my wrist, I regularly encouraged people to “offer it up,” and I was dating a really hot girl (Jeanne) while secretly wondering if I was called to be a priest. Not long ago, I was reminded by a friend that, during that trip, a group of people were discussing their future aspirations. When it was my turn to share, I nonchalantly replied that I wanted to be a martyr. While I was oblivious to it at the time, apparently the faces of those listening to me had become so twisted with shock and dismay, that nearly twenty years later that image is still crystal clear to my friend. Today, I wonder with some horror and even more humor if God will one day take me up on that offer.
I know that it sounds like a cheesy slogan for a travel agency, but in truth, half of the adventure was just getting there. We were to make the drive to Colorado straight through, driving in shifts. I prepared myself for the arduous journey, like an athlete for a marathon, by not sleeping at all the night before. At 5:00PM, right after work, the four of us, Tim, his girlfriend Anne, Jeanne, and I piled into the car and headed out of Cincinnati.
As we departed I decided to catch up on some much needed sleep. After about an hour’s worth of shuteye, I was somehow nominated to take over driving duties. My first order of business: COFFEE. I drank about a cup an hour.
At that point we were moving along at a good clip, about 90mph. We arrived at the eastern portion of St. Louis at about 10:30PM. The coffee had gone straight through me and I had to use the bathroom with some urgency, so I got off at the first exit I could find. As we passed a sign that said read ‘East St. Louis,’ Tim said, “East St. Louis, I hear they call it the Harlem of the Midwest, it is supposed to be a pretty rough area.” At that moment, my need to relieve myself of the five cups of coffee I had consumed earlier outweighed any fears of rough neighborhoods. We pulled off of the exit ramp, the neighborhood looked like a bombed out wasteland. I found a gas station and pulled in. As I got out of the car and walked over to the gas station entrance, I could not help but notice that the place looked like a fortress; there were heavy steel bars over all of the windows, and razor wire around the roofline. I walked up to the window and asked the attendant if I could use the bathroom. He said, “No way, man, I don’t open the door for no one.” I got back in the car and we headed down the street looking for any establishment that would have a bathroom. Every place we passed was either vacant or closed. As we drove along, Tim pointed to an alley and said, “Just pull behind that building there and pee in the alley. I was sorely tempted to, my need to pee and gone from urgent to violent. There was a painful churning sensation in my lower abdomen. I did not know if anyone had ever died from holding “it” in too long, but I was certain that I might soon be the first. “Let’s go on a little further and if we can’t find anything, we’ll circle back and I will go in the alley,” I said. We drove on a little further….nothing. I turned around and headed back the way we came. As we approached the alley way, and much to my surprise there was a police cruiser sitting right where Tim had suggested I go relieve myself. If I had taken his advice, I would have spent the night in jail, in East St. Louis, for public indecency. There was a part of my brain that thought it might be worth it.
Giving up on East St. Louis, we got back on the freeway and continued our search. Finally, four exits later we finally found a gas station. Eyes watering and arms flailing I dashed into the bathroom. I will not lie; it was the best pee of my entire life. Thinking back upon it still brings a smile to my face.
With that business now completed we continued on our journey. As we drove along, Tim and Anne, who were seated in the back fell asleep. For the next couple hours I continued to drive while Jeanne and I had a lovely talk (probably about papal infallibility, angels, or about the merits of the virtue of celibacy). Tim woke up and asked where we were. I was so caught up in my conversation with Jeanne that I had not been paying attention. We then saw a sign; we were still in St. Louis. I could not imagine how that was possible, it was like an episode of the Twilight Zone. I attempted to explain to Tim that St. Louis must have at its center a quantum singularity that prevented cars from escaping its event horizon. In truth, the only super dense matter that could be blamed was between my ears. It turned out that instead of continuing straight on I70W I had somehow steered us onto 270, St. Louis’s circle freeway. I had been driving in loops for hours.
Finally, after being trapped in St. Louis for three hours, we escaped that wretched city and continued on toward our destination. I remained the designated driver throughout the night, and everyone else stayed awake to make sure that I did not take us on any more loops. Finally, after twelve and a half hours, we reached Kansas City, and I handed over driving duties to Tim.
To say that I was delirious at that point would be an understatement, and as it turns out, that delirium was contagious. We did not realize it but we were about to engage in the most strenuous part of the journey, the drive through Kansas. If you ever happen to wonder what it is like to drive though Kansas, let me spare you the experience. This is exactly what it is like: Corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, tree, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, house, corn, corn, corn, corn, barn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, sunflowers, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, cow, corn, corn, corn, corn………..for six grueling hours. We averaged 105mph through Kansas (so just say that “corn, corn” thing really fast).
Bit by bit, with each passing mile we surrendered a little more of our sanity. We finally stopped at an exit and went into a restaurant to eat. We were so completely fried at this point that while we were sitting in the restaurant, we were all overcome by a case of the giggles. We could barely eat our food we were laughing so hard, and about what, none of us had any idea. The patrons of the restaurant ignored us, so I imagine this must have been a common phenomenon.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we saw a sign that said, “Colorado 80mi.” We felt a collective rush of elation; at 105mph we would cross the state line in less than an hour. A few minutes later we saw another sign, both troubling and yet alluring, like a siren’s call: “Prairie Dog Town: Home of the World’s Largest Prairie Dog.” We then knew then that Kansas was not through with us yet.
To be continued…….