Friday, April 26, 2013

The New Orleans trip, part I

By Eliot Sill

John Steinbeck and I were leaving Texas together. He ended up getting out a couple hours before I finally did, but we were there together, and instead of consuming he and Charley's travels, I was rivaling them. Instead of a dog, a fully equipped truck and a fantastic poetic disposition, I had Nick, Brian, Conor and Nina Horne — a friend of Conor's from Oklahoma University — for companions.

I suppose the most important aspect of my vacation is that I did it. Until a week before, I was fairly committed to the idea of using Spring Break as a sabbatical to catch up on classes and read some books in the solitude of my efficiency apartment, in a city that everyone I knew would be vacating for a week. It would be nice. But I was tired of turning down my friends' expeditions for the sake of giving myself time that I could only hope would be put toward bettering my journalistic aspects. I could only hope to use that time. I would put myself in the arena and wait for the game to be played around me. I needed to leave the arena. The ease with which I did so was liberating. I simply decided to go. A week later, I had gone.

The trip began without ceremony. I left my dog Mac(s) and my mom behind, riding with Nick and Brian out of Springfield (we were to meet Conor in Norman, Okla., and Nina in Dallas). I fell asleep pretty soon after we got on the highway, have vague sleepy memories of the difficulty experienced navigating St. Louis, then woke up in earnest somewhere in Missouri. How nice.

The weather for the first leg of our trip, a 10-hour dive down to Norman, was utter shit. Gray skies made for ease of sight, but eventually those skies opened up and spit and urinated on our silver Taurus for approximately 900 percent of the trip. My driver's license was suspended, so I was useless beyond added conversation and enthusiasm for radio plays of Taylor Swift's “Trouble,” which I had picked up on pretty quickly as what would be a hallmark of the trip. Other hits were Justin Timberlake's “Suit and Tie” and R.E.M.'s “Losing My Religion.” What a crew.

After Nick spent a few hours trying to outrun the rain — which looked on the radar like a Google Maps route line for our progress thus far — we pulled into a Steak N Shake for a late lunch in hopes that the rain would get over itself. I felt the familiar judgment one feels whenever walking into his local Steak N Shake chain; these places are typically filled with locals who have a good chance of knowing anyone who would walk in. I ordered cheese fries and was greeted with phony ass nacho cheese drizzled over my fries. Oh, Missouri. Pretty soon after Brian took over the driving duties, the rain became inconsequential.

Robert once called Missouri “the brooding artist of the Midwest,” speaking about its geography. I don't know if they were his words, but if they were, he can take satisfaction in knowing that the phrase has stuck with me and is warmed in my memory every time I travel through Missouri. Missouri has great hilly rifts within itself that paint the highway scenery in such a way that makes even the 70 mph speed limits not enough to counteract its beauty. Steinbeck wrote of his travels in the time when such interstate highways were just being built, and he saw them as a potential demise of the aesthetic appeal of travel. I subscribe to this belief, if for no other reason than that I've never been wowed by high speed countryside.

The 70 mph speeds, when combined with the gray rainy weather barf, were enough to make Missouri as breathtaking as a pile of wet toilet paper. At one point, Missouri open fired on us with a barrage of hail that changed the 70 mph speeds to 0 mph ones. Nick, driving, laughed in terror as Brian and I sat more upright in our seats and used our hands to hold on to things. Other than that minute-long sample of hell, the weather was drab and boring. Brian, Nick and I were left to commenting on Missouri's alter ego, Missouruh, which is how we referred to Missouri's trashy parts. Brian went so far as to say that Missouri's landscape is just like Illinois' but with hills, which I agreed with in the same vein that I think the ocean shares Illinois' geography, only it has water.

Eventually Brian took us into Oklahoma, which geographically is an impressionable friend of Texas and Missouri that holds no loyalties to either state. It is plains upon plains with minor variations here and there, but nothing particularly characterizable. It is also a big state, and hides Norman from Illinois like the human body hides its liver. We traveled through Oklahoma for exhausting lengths of time.
Our correspondence with Conor to this point had been very little. We were going to spend the night with Conor in Norman before shipping out for New Orleans the next day. Eventually we made it to Oklahoma City, where I saw that one building TNT always shows during city cut-away shots before and after commercials of Thunder games. OKC phased seamlessly into Norman, and suddenly Conor was within shouting distance.

Conor was a friend with whom I had become quite distant over the past couple years, mainly because I kept turning down offers such as these for extended stays with him. Staying in Champaign had produced exceedingly moderate results, but this decision produced Conor O'Brien, right in front of me, when I otherwise simply would not be in contact with him. At Conor's, we had beers like men while catching up and swapping stories and engaging in a random dance-off to please the funk emanating from his iHome. The catching up felt sweet and genuine and more or less I was with my boys again for the first time since Solstice 2011. A game of Mario Party 3 stopped short, thank God, and I went and slept.

I had read John Steinbeck's “Travels With Charley” at a stone's pace over the semester, and was determined to finish it on this trip because the stack of books I was “determined to finish” before the end of the semester was mounting, having been defeated by course readings yet again. Steinbeck was an appropriate romanticizer. He would take a brief conversation had by some local in a stranger, with he in all his writer's pretense and massive, overstocked truck dubbed “Rocinante” — he may as well have been a blog riding an elephant, and characterize an entire state or region with care and poignancy. Many digressions of his tackled seemingly outdated subjects with an uncanny timelessness that made me lower the book in incredulity. Maybe it was his writings, and how he tied these tales of wisdom to the simple fact that he got the hell out and went somewhere, that persuaded me to enlist in this vacation.

I read a lot of “Travels With Charley” before the trip, and this made me want to take Mac(s) with us, though I knew how implausible that was. But the half of the book I read on the road made me glad Mac(s) had stayed back.

That and the fact that we picked up a fifth person just a few hours after leaving Norman and our car became stuffed. Nina Horne, an Ultimate teammate of Conor's from Oklahoma, whose parents live in New Orleans, was someone who had let me sleep in her bed before I ever met her. Maggie Tyson turned out to be one of these people as well, but we'll get to her later. Nina was someone whom I'd wanted to meet since Conor began telling me stories involving her two-plus years ago. Plus she was from New Orleans, so how awesome could she not be? Nina's dad, Kevin Horne, or Mr. Kevin, as Conor called him, had shelled out drinks like peanuts last time Conor, Nick and Brian had visited. He had quite a reputation, and his daughter was friendly, polite enough not to chastise us for singing along everytime “Trouble” came on the radio, which was very frequently. We had to alternate the GPS with the iTrip because the Taurus only had one cigarette lighter plugin. The iTrip was off in city areas, and the competition between “Trouble” and “Suit and Tie” was in full swing. As of this writing, it is still ongoing.*

It was during this leg of the trip, after picking up Nina from Dallas, where I read to the end of “Travels With Charley.” The sun had joined us for the drive from Norman to New Orleans, thankfully enough, making reading a more pleasant experience. I am not a skilled reader. I still pass through stretches of text while thinking about my personal life without remembering to reread the passage. I hate to think of how many intricacies I passed over during moments of sleepiness and bright sun. I hate to think this because I don't like rereading books. I like it in theory, but I am not a skilled reader, and thus read quite slowly. To reread one book is to unread another, and I need not unread any books, few as my kill total stands. I always try and force more interaction between myself and the outside world than is required, because ultimately it is this interaction that keeps one from passing through the world unnoticed. However, I know full well that I still do a lousy job of this. In Steinbeck's time it was more commonplace to talk to strangers, now everyone's just afraid you're here to rape their loved ones, and with understandable reason, given the commonality of such tales of late.

I came to a part in “Travels With Charley” where Steinbeck drove through Texas, which was doubly cathartic when read while traveling through Texas. A memorable passage was of a grand dinner he and his wife (who had visited him during this phase of his traveling) had with some wealthy Texans. He talked of the special preparation with which the meal was prepared. He ended by stating he refused to believe people in Texas ate like that every day. This realization is one that everyone should inherently know about hospitality, but doesn't think to consider specifically. In Steinbeck's journey, he left Texas for New Orleans, which in reading created a giddy excitement in me. I was also heading to New Orleans via Texas. Steinbeck was going to see the Cheerleaders, New Orleans mothers who protested integration of schools. I was going to glorify the unique cultural blend harbored by the city. There we differed, and it was ironic. Steinbeck's writing lost passion after New Orleans. He tired of traveling and this was reflected in his writing. It made me feel good to know that the Steinbecks of the world get tired of projects they enter with ample excitement and are carrying out successfully. For this reason, the book ended quickly after Steinbeck's trip to New Orleans, and I partly wished it would have ended there, but I was thrilled with the parallel nonetheless. Of course, I had been riding the superhighways that defeated the beauty of travel, and was neither writing my experience down as it occurred nor washing my clothes in Brian's trunk.

Nina soon ran into a traffic jam. We chided her for “driving so slow” and she took it well in stride, which while not surprising was pleasant and went to make it easier to talk to her. I wanted to get a start on my next literary target, Dostoyevsky's “The Idiot,” which was, uhh, placed in the trunk for this journey. Our traffic jam slowed to a dead stop, however, and Nina agreed to pop the trunk while I ran out into the middle of I-20 to retrieve it. “The Idiot” scared the hell out of me. Tiny text, imperceptibly thin pages, translated work, 1800s writing, Russian setting I knew nothing about. This was not the timeless Steinbeck writing an acute depiction of a country I already knew in a neat 250 pages. This was Dostoyevsky, whatever the hell that meant. I read that day until it got dark on the road, reading for pages and trying to invest myself in a story I knew a certified nothing about.

We got to New Orleans after midnight.

The city — though we were merely on the outskirts and away from “the city” in the sense one would imagine it — greeted me with a hug of warmth, the kind which I had not felt in months, that of a natural, night warmth. Like an invitation to see someone you thought was angry with you, it grabbed me by the shoulders and led me out of the car. Here I met Kevin Horne.

Nina's dad, Kevin Horne, was here for the same reasons I was. The difference was that he had gotten to stay here and raise a family, and I likely will never get that chance. It only took about halfway into our handshake for me to envy him. His salt-and-pepper moustache was not so flamboyant as to be handlebarred, but was an upward twist away from that level, and nevertheless a prominent feature of his. He sported horn-rimmed spectacles that reminded me of something my mom would find at a thrift store and subsequently try to pass off as vintage-fashionable. His gut toed the preferred side of the line between happily married and fat. He was wearing shorts and sandals, but the rest of this paragraph should have given that away to you already.

Out of the corner of my eye, from the low-lit front yard, palm trees tugged at my attention from the corner of my eyes, as if to say “Hey, see us? We're palm trees. And down here, we're freaking walkway foliage.” I took their arrogant jabs in good stride, knowing that I'd have palm trees in my front yard if I lived in New Orleans as well, and they'd be instructed to convey the same message to any out-of-towners.

New Orleans, for its cultural sublimity, is my version of a dead-sexy Hollywood actress that I can't get out of my head, that I don't admit to my friends just how much I love her based on only surface knowledge. She is the one whom I must have, be she out of my league or not.

We parted with Nina and went over to the Tysons to sleep. We parked our car in front of their yard and nervously walked our way around the house to the back door, where we were greeted by a bug-eyed black and white miniature boxer pug pup with a red, rubber-stubbled ring in his mouth. It was as if we were late to an appointment to play. No humans found us as we snuck up quietly to the bedrooms the Tyson family had sacrificed and set up for us. We quickly, quietly divided rooms, before finding one of Maggie's two sisters — whose name may have been Sarah but I can hardly remember and she shouldn't credit me for thoughtfulness if I'm correct — who gave us the Wi-Fi password so we could get on with our lives after hours spent away from the Internet.

Classic and I shared a room, and the puppy came up to play with us, feeling stood up. We were nervous about making noise and thus were poor playmates. We sent him out of the room eventually, and I turned a light on, read a chapter of Dostoyevsky, and went to sleep.

part II will come out eventually; just wait, knuckleheads.

*- It is no longer ongoing. 


  1. "Brian went so far as to say that Missouri's landscape is just like Illinois' but with hills, which I agreed with in the same vein that I think the ocean shares Illinois' geography, only it has water."

    I laughed at this a lot.

    1. Only took you a month to think that one up, you dick.

  2. This is cool! Now I know what you were thinking that whole trip.

    "The city — though we were merely on the outskirts and away from “the city” in the sense one would imagine it — greeted me with a hug of warmth, the kind which I had not felt in months, that of a natural, night warmth. Like an invitation to see someone you thought was angry with you, it grabbed me by the shoulders and led me out of the car."

    A beautiful description of how I feel every time I return

  3. "Nick, driving, laughed in terror as Brian and I sat more upright in our seats and used our hands to hold on to things."

    This was my favorite part.