(The following is the first of several forthcoming pieces about trip to the Gulf Coast this winter)
The open road has always been home. Even compiling insurance receivership statutes for a fifty-state survey can make me nostalgic. When I coast into a new town or city, I love to hang out. One night in El Dorado, I pledged to party in all fifty states.
The dream began on a strange night in Bernice, Lousiana. It was 2006, and I had been doing Katrina relief with Hands on Gulf Coast in Biloxi, Mississippi. A non-profit named First Read wanted to bring thousands of books to the children affected by Katrina, and asked if I would take a dozen volunteers to a remote warehouse in Northern Louisiana to package the books. We spent three days in a state park cabin, and one night we got an itch to hit the town. Of course, there was no scene to speak of in Bernice, so I busted out my AAA road atlas and found that we were a mere 20 miles from El Dorado (the City of Gold!). This was the best chance any of us had had to set foot in Arkansas, a gimmick that persuaded two cars worth of voyagers to embark, one of which was pulled over for speeding and nearly arrested for much worse. Suffice to say, El Dorado is not the wildest place on a weeknight, but it has its charms. When the night was over, I could proudly declare that I had partied in Arkansas.
Before college I had hardly ever been outside of the northeast. I could not drive, and my understanding of the frontier was dated by hundreds of years, perhaps augmented by tidbits I’d learned watching sports. College made me think of myself as an American rather than a New Yorker, and inspired an Amtrak/Greyhound trip in 2001, which I finished days before 9/11. Upon graduation I got a 1999 Subaru Legacy Outback, creatively named Suby by a friend that summer. Suby and I drove over 100,000 miles together over the next six years. Suby broke down once, crashed twice, and was even returned to me after I gave it away as a gift. For about two years you had to open the doors in a very specific order or else set off a car alarm that could not be turned off. For our final journey we did the great Northwestern run together, where Suby met her death in the cold hills of Idaho.
During our drives, many of them solo, the ponderous highway became a refuge for zen. This is not Jack Keruoac’s road- Eisenhower killed that dream (to considerable convenience for the rest of us). Even though every rest stop looks the same, after a 13 hour drive the air starts to taste different. The NPR fades in and out of signal. The day turns to night, and the car cruises on the darkened pavement like a riverboat. There is no better feeling than looking down to see the gas tank drop from full to half. That means you are at peace with yourself and the world…or that you gas tank is leaking and you need to find the nearing place to pull over. As the years went by, weekend adventures, political campaign work and cross country road trips with Suby in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 put me in serious striking distance of partying in all fifty states.
Going this Christmas vacation, only ten states remained: Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah and West Virginia. That, my friends, is why we’re stuck inside of Mobile. Delaware and West Virginia are just a matter of time, and the Kansas-Oklahoma-Nebraska corridor could be fulfilled by a well-timed college football trip. Alaska and Hawaii are obviously non-road trip destinations, and so de-prioritized, leaving the problem children of Utah (no legal boozing) and Idaho (traumatic John Birch Society country).
Each of the forty states I have checked off has its own story. Putting aside the obvious greatness of venues like New Orleans, Las Vegas and Denver, my most memorable destinations include a rolling New Years in Savannah, Georgia; a zany road trip to Bennington College, Vermont; and crashing a wedding in Columbus, Ohio. Wyoming wins for “most disappointing time”, and that’s after we set the bar quite low. South Dakota, in contrast, sports The Zoo, one of the best dive bars in the country. Where else can you get well drinks for 75 cents on a Thursday, free tacos on Friday, and Snow’s “Informer” in the DJ’s regular rotation? Boston, and Massachusetts generally, remains a vastly overrated party location, while Tennessee’s hotspots Nashville and Memphis give you everything you need, with some fine music and food to boot.
It’s a heck of a world out there, and no one has time to see all of it. But this young American, every state is worth doing, and anything worth doing is worth doing right. So here’s to you, Alabama. Show me the way, to the next whiskey bar.
(In Part II, Janos explores Mobile, Alabama. Will he get to 41?)