This trip, whatever else it’s about, is also about nostalgia, and I got a big dose of it on the drive to Houston – most of it induced by the long-distance driver’s best friend, the radio.
Music, like old friends revisited and roads previously traveled, can be a powerful memory trigger.
Music and roads, in fact, have a lot in common.
The road itself has a rhythm – the steady thwack-thwack percussion of cracks in the highway, the different humming tones produced by different road surfaces, the rat-a-tat drum roll when you accidentally veer across those lane divider bumps, which always causes Ace to, ever so briefly, wake up.
Then, on the Interstate at least, there is the familiar chorus: Exit ahead … Food, Gas, Lodging … Shoney’s, Cracker Barrel, Taco Bell.
When it comes to roads, some are pop roads, also known as Interstate highways, where you’re not likely to see anything you haven’t seen before. There are classical roads, like Route 66; and blues roads, which are dark and swampy with moss hanging from the trees. There are jazz roads, which meander, make abrupt turns and have unpredictable curves and riffs. There are alternate, or alternative highways, which often lead to something interesting; and of course there are country roads, which may or may not take you home … to the place … you belong.
On Friday, with the radio blasting, I traveled a swampy stretch of I-10 – a combination blues/pop road — from Baton Rouge to Lafayette, crossing a piece of the Atchafalaya Swamp, whose name itself is almost musical. During the drive I had four flashbacks, three of them music-induced.
Blame the first on the Red Hot Chili Peppers – the musical group that, like the vegetable, tends to come back and haunt me.
It wasn’t even the same song I was listening to at the time; it was that “scar tissue” one. Nevertheless, as we traveled toward Texas, it rekindled memories of a car accident in 1993.
I was moving back to Philadelphia after three years on the west coast, reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Isuzu Trooper I was driving then was as loaded down as the Jeep Liberty I am driving now. I also had a dog with me then, Hobo, who’d been adopted from the Huntington Beach animal shelter. I’d just stuck a Red Hot Chili Peppers tape in the cassette player.
After passing through Amarillo at night, I hit an ice storm. The roads froze up and — despite my slow pace and four-wheel-drive — I slid off an Interstate embankment. The car rolled over three times. Hobo and I, as if being tumble dried, bounced around until it came to a rest, right side up, but only about half the height it used to be. Amazingly, it restarted. Peering through the broken windshield, I got onto the exit ramp and pulled into the first motel I saw in the town of Groom, Texas.
The motel was overflowing with stranded travelers but, hearing my plight and observing my squished car, the management found us a room. And they promised to, the next day, give me a ride to the Amarillo airport so I could get a rental car.
One day passed, most of which I spent picking little pieces of plastic out of my skin from the plastic cassette tape holders that had shattered as we tumbled. The ride to the airport was promised again the next day, and the one after that. After three days, feeling a little like a prisoner, I broke out, walked to a truck stop, and hitched a ride on a chicken truck to the airport, where I rented a car and completed my journey. (My old car was pronounced totaled, after which a state trooper showed up to give me a ticket for driving recklessly – even though I was going maybe 30 mph at the time I slid.)
I vowed never to go back to Groom, and I haven’t. But every time I hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers – no matter the song — the accident and my Groundhog Day-like time in Groom returns to my mind.
I was remembering all that when, cruising through Louisiana, I saw a sign for New Iberia, where red hot chili peppers are used to make world famous tabasco sauce. New Iberia is where I weathered the brunt of Hurricane Andrew, which my newspaper had sent me to cover. Andrew, though since eclipsed by Katrina, managed to blow the roof off the motel in which I was spending a sleepless night.
I was remembering that when another song came on the radio — “I Swear,” by Boyz II Men. It’s a sappy little boy band song, but it always brings back memories of a month spent in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood. A seven-year-old girl named Felicia had been killed in the crossfire of a drug-related shooting, and I was doing a series of stories on the aftermath of that – how her death affected other children on the block, several of whom told me that “I Swear” was Felicia’s favorite song.
Being a grizzled journalist, I was surprised when, months later, even years later, I’d hear that song and tear up, as I almost did Friday.
Then – as if the radio knew it had me on the emotional edge – came the knockout blow: “You’re a Part of Me,” by Glenn Frey of the Eagles. Just after my first divorce, when my son and I took a road trip to the beach, we made it our theme song, because of the lyrics:
You`re a part of me, I`m a part of you
Wherever we may travel
Whatever we go through
Whatever time may take away
It cannot change the way we feel today
So hold me close and say you feel it too
You`re a part of me, and I`m a part of you
Like people who become a part of you, music and roads do, too, in a way you can’t always control – burying themselves in the deep recesses of your mind, then emerging, like a gator from a murky swamp, when you least expect it.
As for the next leg of our journey, I’m going to play it safe and stick in a CD.