Our summer vacation this year was supposed to be a three-week road trip through Europe. For various reasons both mundane and crazy, this didn’t happen, so I decided to take an epic American road trip with my brother Aster and his girlfriend Ashley instead. 6,000+ miles and 29 states in three weeks? Sure, sounds good. What? Why would you do that to yourself? We never thought to ask that. We really could have used you on this trip.
Anyway, the itinerary: New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
To do a road trip like this, you really need a 1990 Toyota Corolla station wagon. These can be hard to find, but thankfully we had one. You want a car that will only fit two small children comfortably and that has a lawnmower engine. Then you want to put a RocketBox on the top that is the same size as the car itself. If you want to cover the RocketBox in Greenpeace, Treehugger, Vegan, Al Gore 2012 and other such bumper stickers, this will greatly enhance your reception in the South.
Our car was affectionately nicknamed “The Sweaty Oven.” After roughly 5,000 miles of driving around with two 6’ 3” guys and one very restless lady shoehorned inside this hilarious POS, we realized what the problem was, that we’d foolishly been driving around with too few people in the car. So we stopped in Ohio and picked up another friend, who is also 6’ 3”. The scene inside the car was just like in the movies when somebody falls for a booby trap in the woods and everybody gets swept up into the trees in a net. There were limbs everywhere.
Some random trip highlights:
We started our North Carolina adventure with a long, long, long beautiful scenic drive down the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. The BRP is a little harder to find than you might expect, at least if you're me, and I spent at least a half hour hunting for it on a gravel mountain road no wider than my couch, with a blind turn every ten yards. I was torn between going five miles an hour, the fastest speed at which you'd have any chance of avoiding a head-on collision should someone come around the corner going the opposite way, or driving fast to reduce the amount of time we were on that deathtrap road. Eventually I ended up behind some guy in a giant truck, which was a relief, since anyone coming around the bend would surely be obliterated by him well before I had to worry about anything. Then the inconsiderate jerk pulled over to let me pass. So much for Southern hospitality.
My favorite part of the trip was our visit to Chimney Rock State Park. If you’ve ever seen the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans (and if this trip has taught me nothing else, it’s that nobody has seen Last of the Mohicans), the last 15 minutes of the film were shot at Chimney Rock, most memorably the striking sheer cliff faces where the dudes fight and the chick jumps off and Daniel Day-Lewis fishes a rock out of his moccasin. Aster and I had long dreamed of hiking those cliffs, so this was our must-see stop in NC.
The problem was that when the park’s private owners sold the park to the state government, the state completely closed off the awesome cliff trails merely because they were insanely dangerous. Never ones to let good sense guide our actions, we decided to find them on our own.
This proved more difficult than expected, as the woods around there are extremely dense, and we spent about two hours basically being manhandled by Mother Nature. Climbing trees, balancing on mossy logs, wading across streams and occasionally taking breaks to watch scenes from the movie on my iPad for inspiration. After countless abrasions and rolled ankles, we finally found our way to the epic waterfall on top of Chimney Rock, where the movie’s climactic fight takes place. Time for a photo.
From there we were able to find the old Cliff Trail from the movie, which had been abandoned for at least ten years. This meant that any semblance of safety features were pretty much gone, and we were left to deal with it like the Native Americans did, or at least the actors dressed like Native Americans. This was completely awesome.
When we weren’t busy clinging to wet rocks and trying to not fall off the cliff, we dealt with the decaying remains of the original trail, which included some extremely sketchy footbridges and boardwalks. On the better bridges, you had to be careful to step where the boards connected to the center support, as that was the only part that would hold your weight. On one of the crazier bridges, at least half of the boards were missing, creating a huge gap in the middle, and we had to shimmy along the outer rusted metal rails of the bridge, looking down at a drop of hundreds of feet into the valley below. For some reason on that bridge the handrails had collapsed outward, which left you wondering if the boards had just fallen out or if some poor shmoe fell through them.
It was at some point around then that I myself fell through a rotten boardwalk staircase, because of course I would do that. Aster had gone down these stairs right in front of me, so I blame him for weakening the boards with his heavy feet. Thankfully I only fell part way through when the board snapped, catching myself at waist level and Aster was able to run back and pull me out. I only suffered a few impressive leg scrapes and whatever happens to your heart when you suddenly almost die.
After conquering the trail’s various Indiana Jones-style booby traps, we were greeted with the fact that we were locked on the inside of a ten-foot-tall wooden fence put there to keep people out of where we already were. This took a bit of teamwork and swearing to scale, and even more to get down from the top. Note to self: Always hike with a lockpicking kit.
To get back to the parking lot we had to pass through the gift shop for the part of the park you were actually legally allowed to visit. I was covered in mud, blood and spiderwebs, and basically looked like a cross between Burt Reynolds at the end of Deliverance and a dead Yeti. Every single thing about my appearance screamed that we had just broken into the forbidden part of the park.
To avoid drawing attention to myself, I tried to stick to the back wall as we passed through the gift shop, keeping plenty of keychains, snowglobes and tourist hats between myself and the park employees. Halfway through, Aster stopped and said wait here, he was going to go take a shit. ARE YOU KIDDING ME WE HAVE TO GO.
After leaving the park we were two hours late for a planned meeting with some folks in Asheville for lunch, several of whom I had not previously met. I walked into the restaurant looking like a caveman who had just thawed out of a glacier and then immediately got into a fight with a bear. I’m pretty sure I made a fantastic first impression.
Florida is an absolute free-for-all, driving-wise. I learned to drive in Los Angeles and I still don’t know what these Florida people were doing. I think part of the problem is that everyone in Florida is on steroids and they all have a Corvette.
The other thing they don’t tell you about Florida is that it’s wet. Like, everywhere, all the time, forever. We found a frog living in our car. After he moved out, a gecko moved in. Everything I wore in Florida is still wet two weeks later.
I will, however, sheepishly admit that Disney World is awesome. Especially if it’s raining and there’s a hurricane or something happening somewhere and you can go on all the rides as many times as you want.
One of the highlights was the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. This is a big fake hotel where you board the elevator, everything goes black, and you’re instantly shot way up into the air and then dropped at unpredictable jittery intervals, with a break in the middle to float outward into a void and travel around through the opening credits of The Twilight Zone.
Ashley completely lost her shit in that elevator. Everyone has their kryptonite, and for her it was the spot-on facsimile of falling to your death.
Walking out of the ride, Ashley was white as a sheet. She looked like one of the podlings who’d just had its essence drained in The Dark Crystal.
Since Ashley looked more scared than I had ever seen another adult be, I gave her a hug and we took a break to sit down for a minute. Then I suggested that what she really needed was to go on another roller coaster. The Aerosmith ride was nearby.
Don’t let your perfectly reasonable distaste for Aerosmith prevent you from going on the Aerosmith ride, it will probably damage your chromosomes but it’s a really fun four seconds. As we climbed aboard the ride, I repeatedly reassured Ashley that everything was going to be fine. I don’t get scared on rides so I was 100% focused on making sure she was okay. The chest restraints arched down over our heads as we nestled into the space limousine. It’s just a ride, nothing to be afraid of Ashley! The restraints clamped down tight as we were buckled and clamped and crimped into place like we were about to test out some new shit NASA wasn’t sure was going to work right.
“This is going to be fun, don’t worr-OH GOD I DON’T THINK I LIKE THIS-” I involuntarily yelled out as the ride’s countdown skipped a number and suddenly accelerated so fast my blood and plasma separated. And that’s how I learned that sudden, unpredictable batshit acceleration is my kryptonite. We did a barrel roll in the pitch black and it was all too fast and chaotic for the pain of listening to Aerosmith to ever catch up with us.
Disney World also has a life-sized replica of Africa there. It’s a big park.
Key West is the result of a government experiment in the 1950’s designed to measure how much tourist crap you can shoehorn into a tiny island. The result is mesmerizing. I wasn’t all that into all the drunk people passed out in the streets or the 17 Jimmy Buffet-themed bars on the same block, but I did enjoy the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor, where you can stand at the southernmost point in the contiguous US and stare forlornly at Cuba, as the coral sands grind your feet into hamburger.
The best part of the Keys is driving across the crazy long open-ocean bridges you take to get there. Parallel to these run the old, abandoned antique bridges that people used to ride those bicycles with the huge front wheel on to get to the Keys, so they could lie on the beach in full three-piece suits and hats. These old bridges are now missing entire sections and have trees growing on them, which I think would make antique bicycling pretty exciting.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you should probably just avoid the Everglades entirely if you’re not cool with alligators getting all up in your grill. It’s kind of their place. We adorably pulled off the road at several outcroppings to scan the swamp waters for the slightest glimpse of a baby alligator’s tail, completely unaware that we were about to have full-sized alligators coming out of our ears.
It starts slowly, a rustling in the trees here, a tail on the road there, and the next thing you know you stop to check the map and look up to find a giant alligator peeking in the driver’s side window, checking to see if you have any babies. I locked the door at this point, which made Aster laugh, but tell me you wouldn’t feel stupid if you were eaten by an alligator just because you didn’t lock the car door.
“Can alligators jump?” Aster asked.
The problem with driving on a dirt road through the Everglades the day after Hurricane Isaac is that there is a surplus of water. In our case, this extra water preferred to hang out on the road. As soon as night fell, the road conveniently became about 40% road and 60% really deep-looking standing water. The 1990 Toyota Corolla station wagon was manufactured specifically for this terrain, however, so all we had to do was stop every ten feet, get out, and wade into the water to make sure it wasn’t more than three inches deep as that would completely engulf the car.
Contrary to popular belief, wading into dark, alligator-infested swamp water in the middle of the night is completely terrifying. Thankfully, that was Aster’s job, and I was instead tasked with laying on the horn and screaming “OH MY GOD RUN!” whenever an alligator appeared or if it was funny. That’s why life gives you younger siblings, they’re like extra lives in a video game.
We passed through New Orleans right after they lifted the Hurricane Isaac curfew. At that point, large sections of the city were still without power. It was completely eerie to be the only car driving through a city with your headlights as the only light source… no house lights, no streetlights, no lights on the freeway signs, just darkness. A section of the freeway was closed due to flooding, so we had to cut across the city, through several impromptu police checkpoints on our way to the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. The Causeway is a 24 mile bridge across the lake, which Wikipedia believes is the longest bridge over water in the world. It had just been reopened hours earlier, and was highly cool to drive over in the moonlight, with the swollen lake seemingly right under our feet.
There was clearly nowhere to get gas in New Orleans, so we were running pretty low by the time we got to Baton Rouge. I pulled off at the first exit and was about to pull into the first gas station there when I realized all of the cars there were police cars. This realization came briefly before we noticed the front of the gas station was smashed open and it had just been looted. Next!
The next gas station had no prices on the sign, which we quickly learned meant they were completely out of gas. Same as the next station, and the one after that, and the one after that. Back on the freeway, next exit down. No gas, no gas, no gas. It gradually became clear that we might really be in a fix. It’s one thing to run out of gas (we’d already done so once on the trip, in Boston). It’s another thing entirely to do it in a region that has also run out of gas.
We gambled to head away from the freeway, hoping that a less-trafficked area might still have a little gas left. A mile or two down the road we found a huge Raceway that was still in business. I’ve never been so happy to have a gas pump ask for my zip code in my life.
Later on we stopped at a truck stop that had a live tiger in a cage in the parking lot. Sadly, the tiger had not been trained to pump our gas.
Driving in Texas is different from driving in Florida. Florida is barely-contained chaos that might get you killed. Houston at rush hour isn’t like that at all. In Houston, they’re actively trying to kill you. Especially if you’re driving a little Japanese car, which apparently is deeply offensive to guys who drive cartoon-sized trucks with four wheels in the back.
Austin is very cool however. At one point, Ashley accused us of driving all the way to Texas just to get popcorn tofu po'boy sandwiches in Austin. This is entirely untrue. We drove all the way to Texas and got popcorn tofu po'boy sandwiches in Austin. There's an important difference.
Austin is almost as cool as rural Texas is terrifying. We stopped for gas at one point in the middle of nowhere in Texas and I went in to use the bathroom. I was greeted inside by a surly dude on a Rascal and a gigantic woman who said “Waddaya want?” the second I walked in. I’m pretty sure there was a shotgun under the counter. Every inch, and I mean every inch, of the men’s room was plastered with nudie posters. The most progressive thing about the entire place was that one of the women in one of the posters was black. I decided to buy an orange juice on my way out in hopes of leaving alive, and when I put it on the counter, the woman barked “What else?”
I asked if they had any Vegenaise.
After that it became clear we needed to leave immediately. I went outside and Aster and Ashley had taken all of the sleeping bags and other assorted bedding out of the back of the car and had it strewn all over everything in the vicinity: the cars, the gas pumps, there may have been a tree involved.
“What are you guys doing??”
“Ashley spilled her water bottle on the bed.”
“Uhm no we need to leave right now.”
During any road trip of this length and intensity each person reaches their breaking point of sleep deprivation at least once. For Aster, it came when he spaced out and we ran out of gas on the freeway in Boston. For me, it came when we reached Pittsburgh after driving for 48 hours straight to get Ashley to a Bat Mitzvah on time, which was her sole stipulation for putting up with all of this cross-country nonsense in the first place. After we dropped her off in front of the Bat Mitzvah, I immediately fell asleep standing on the sidewalk, leaning against the car.
For Ashley, that point came as we pulled away from that gas station in Texas. We had literally left the station 30 seconds ago, in broad daylight, and I looked over and saw Ashley with her face an inch away from the steering wheel, fighting to keep her droopy eyelids open. She looked exactly like Donald Duck in that cartoon where he has toothpicks holding his eyelids up.
I calmly suggested that it was my turn to drive and Ashley relented with all the coherence of someone rolling over in bed to hit the snooze alarm.
I’m a firm believer in location-appropriate road trip music, and on the way out Texas sorely tested how many times I could play Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues” over and over again without going native.
The thing I remember the most about Alabama was walking into a gas station and having the friendly dude inside ask me “YalrunfromK?” I asked him to repeat himself and he said exactly the same thing again. At that point my brain went into some kind of weird survival mode, like a mother pulling a car off her baby with super strength, and I realized he was saying “Are you all running away from the hurricane?” I explained that no, Isaac had somehow got ahold of our itinerary and was just checking out all of our destinations for us in advance to make sure they were up to our high standards. I was in there another ten minutes and I don’t think I understood a single other word the guy or his coworker said. Really nice folks though. I think.
We stopped in Roanoke late one night to find something vegan to eat and yeah, I realize now that’s a completely absurd sentence. Anyway, we found a hooka bar with a kitchen and figured we were set for some falafelin’ good times. Go inside, the dude asks us what’s what, I say we want some food, and he says the manager’s not there. I ask him if the manager cooks the food and he gives me a confused look. I’m starting to think maybe the manager’s name is Food, which would be kind of cool, but then I realize it’s much more likely the dude speaks like zero English. A short game of charades later and we find out the kitchen is closed. Dammit, Roanoke.
Also, Bojangles is totally not vegan.
At some point in the midst of 48 straight hours of driving, we stopped by my friend Jim's house outside of Louisville for only about 40 minutes, because we’re completely inconsiderate. Jim was a very gracious host and his sister’s dogs reenacted a Chuck Wagon commercial to our great amusement.
We were all over Philly like a cheap suit. One of the nice things about visiting a city multiple times is that once you get past all the obvious sights to see, you can get into weirder stuff that’s often more fun. For movie buffs out there, we ate dinner on the bridge John Travolta witnesses the car crash from in Brian DePalma’s Blow Out. For fans of obscure urban phenomena, we spent the better part of another day running around the city and taking pictures of Toynbee tiles in the street, and even stopped by the Toynbee tiler’s house in South Philly. I got a picture of his house, though I didn’t ask the guy to come out or anything, because come on, that dude’s crazy. Later in the trip we got some cool pictures of Toynbee tiles in the streets of Pittsburgh as well.
While we were in Philly we made two attempts to hook up with my friend Mike, who was visiting from Australia. The second of these was successful. The first attempt involved the Dead Sea Scrolls, absurdly dark museum rooms and a bunch of texts like “Are you in here?” “I’m wearing a blue shirt.” “What?” and “Oh my God the Dead Sea Scrolls are boring.” The next day we finally caught up with Mike for lunch, and enjoyed a lively discussion of American gun control laws.
“I’m worried I’m going to get shot when I’m in New York.”
“What? No way man! You’re gonna get shot in Philly!”
While Mike was in the Empire State building, somebody was shot on the sidewalk in front of the building. Goddammit, America.
Ashley will be mad at me if I don't mention that we also drove behind a Bugatti Veyron in Philly traffic, that's a three million dollar French sports car that's also the fastest street legal car in the world (other than the 1990 Toyota Corolla station wagon of course). We were going to challenge them to a race through Philly's insanely narrow one-way streets but then we ran over a ladybug and the Corolla stalled out.
One random Philly tidbit: We were standing on a street corner, looking for tiles in the street like any perfectly normal person would, when a shady dude walked by carrying a stack of tiny aquariums. I opened my mouth to say "WTF?" and he responded "Turtles for sale, baby turtles." Any time anything incomprehensible happened on the rest of the trip, I'd exclaim "Turtles for sale, baby turtles..."
O’Hare Airport has a well-deserved reputation for complete indifference to the concepts of time and space, and it did not disappoint, as I spent at least six hours there waiting out a 45 minute layover. However, they do have an awesome trippy underground moving walkway that makes you feel like a fetus being born into the opening credits of Blade Runner. I rode that thing like seven times. If you ever find yourself there, look up at the mirrored ceiling while the walkway is pulling you along. It’ll totally break your brain.
O’Hare also has vegan hot dogs. The Chicago Dog comes highly recommended, but if you intend to remain a member of human society I’d recommend avoiding the New Orleans Dog. I got one for the road and while I was sitting there at the gate trying to figure out what the horrible smell was, I realized it was my food. There seemed to be no better solution than to eat it, to the complete disgustment of everyone sitting in that tiny room with me. After I was done I realized that my face, my hands and the entire inside of my body reeked like Jim Belushi’s garbage, and I had to rush to take a mini-bath in the men’s room and stuff an entire $3 pack of gum into my mouth before the plane left. Without those precautionary steps I surely would have been charged with manslaughter before we landed in New Hampshire.
I was actually in Chicago twice, the second time enjoying a meal at The Chicago Diner in the gayest neighborhood in the history of gay. Boystown in Chicago makes San Francisco look like Wyoming. Being straight there felt like showing up to a costume party you didn’t know was going to be a costume party. It was wonderfully disorienting. It was an especially funny study in contrasts to drive around the corner into Wrigleyville just as a Cubs game was letting out, which is pretty much the epicenter of frat boy straightness in the known universe.
Yeah, I live here, but it was part of the adventure for everyone else. We got into town late Sunday night, and Aster and I ran to Pizza Lucé to pick up some food before they closed at 2:30am. Right as we pulled up, some kind of hip-hop show let out next door, and all hell broke loose. Hundreds of high as hell people spilled out into the streets, totally engulfing my car. Aster ran in to get the pizza while I contended with keeping drunk people from getting into my car, as the police swept through the streets in waves on horseback, trying to clear out the unruly crowd.
My favorite exchange from inside the restaurant, between Aster and this dude wearing a watch the size of a paperback novel and clutching a giant roll of $50 bills in his other hand:
Dude: "HEY! YOU GETTIN' THEM PEANUT BUTTER BARS?"
Dude: "YOU LIKE TO SMOKE WEED?"
Dude: "THAT'S TOO BAD CUZ THEY'RE REAL GOOD WITH WEED!"
Aster left to push his way through the crowd with the pizza, and right then a fight broke out amongst the throngs of people in front of the restaurant. On cue, one of the bouncers cut loose with enough pepper spray to fumigate a house, and along with everyone in a three-block radius, we got pepper sprayed.
I visit the Northeast every summer so it’s inherently a little less interesting for me to write about than the southern stuff on this trip, but rest assured that Manhattan, Boston, Providence, Portland, Manchester and the podunk towns of Vermont were all enjoyed to their fullest. Did you know it's legal to kill a man in Vermont for stealing your syrup? It's a crazy place... wait, that's not legal? Uh-oh.