Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Christine Drives to Indianapolis

My drive to Indianapolis made one thing clear: I don’t get out enough. I was driving through a dreary January day along dreary Highway 69 to spend the weekend nursing my sick mother, and I felt as bright and frisky as a puppy.

My new Jeep Liberty took on the rainy slush like a champ as I headed west, settling into a sedate driving style punctuated by occasional manic swerves. I kept accidentally bumping the turn signal post or pushing weird buttons on the steering wheel. I learned to change my music CDs by feel – sort of. Now my audio book CD is in the Backstreet Boys CD case and the Boys now live in the Mozart CD case. Mozart, meanwhile, is trapped in the case of some weird singer Ron likes.

I rediscovered my love for travel on that drive. For nearly a year, my world was a 1,500-square-foot house and the cow path between the kitchen and baby’s room. So I hummed along to the Backstreet Boys (the mental energy equivalent of refilling the paper towel holder) as I tailgated a gigantic mobile home on a trailer, finally emerging triumphantly in a spray of rainwater. I stared at the home as I passed: pale blue, ratty, rusty, bouncing dangerously on its trailer. Where was it going? Why would anybody want to move it?

After an hour of such excitement, I pulled into a rest area wrapped in orange construction fencing and circled it twice, looking for the entrance. Then I spent a disturbingly happy 20 minutes with the large wall map and adjacent vending machines, lost in delicious indecision between cheese-pretzel combos or a Snickers bar.

I pulled back onto the highway, once more narrowly missing the Giant Blue Mobile Home of Death, which had caught up with me again, and gratefully escaped I94 to I69 South to the border. Indiana is considered a Midwestern state, but has a definite southern accent. I saw billboards for Texas ribs and listened to crooning country songs at the Fort Wayne Burger King. The state’s sudden obsession with James Dean puzzled me until I zoomed past Fairmount, the ever-boyish actor’s hometown.

Motorists zoomed past me as I poked along the right lane, giving me disappointed looks, like they expected better from a Jeep driver. A tiny Mazda pickup truck nearly flattened me as it zipped by on jacked-up tires, which nearly brought its height up to my wheel rims.

A flirtatious Shell sign lured my thirsty Jeep off the highway, but then I took a wrong turn into some rundown little Indiana town, past the faded remains of painted drugstore signs on its largest downtown building. The whole place looked soggy and closed up, except for a craft store housed in a former Chicken Shack restaurant.

I have, and I’m sure I share this with others, a great dislike of turning left onto a road. I will drive for miles down a crummy road, passing street after street on the right side, until I can find a likely place on the left to turn around. So was the case with Daleville (for that was its name). I drove two miles out of town in the wet mud before I could turn around at RainTree Estates, a rare housing complex with a name that actually describes its surroundings.

The Shell sign still eluded me, rainbow-like, so I stopped at a Subway, where the lady assembled a veggie salad, complimenting me on my choices (“Oh, yes, honey, you definitely need carrots!” and “Feta cheese is so good on salads!”) When she wasn’t raising customers’ culinary self-esteem, she was on the phone with a truck driver. “You think you’re tired? You get to sit all day; try standing 16 hours on a concrete floor.”)

The unseasonably balmy breeze had grown colder, and I hurried through the dusk to my patient Jeep. As the sky darkened and the rain picked up, I amused myself by eyeing the gas gauge (now ominously tipped below a quarter-tank) and calculating how many miles remained to Mom’s apartment. Let’s see, 46 miles to Anderson, then perhaps 20 more to Indianapolis, with three exits 50 miles apart on the 495 bypass, divide by four, carry the two …

Math wasn’t my strong suit, but I was obviously cutting it close. The Christine of five years ago would have barreled ahead anyway, peering anxiously at the gauge, thrilled with the drama of it all. This Christine had enough drama in her life. I pulled off 10 miles later in pursuit of another Shell beacon, wasting 15 minutes circling a Mighty Mart until I realized that sometimes a sign is only a sign, and the actual Shell station was across the street and a quarter-mile down.

Refreshed and renewed by 15 gallons of unleaded and a can of Coke, the Jeep and I pounded through the blowing snow, headlights blazing. Author Bill Bryson chatted on the CD player about London cabbies and leafy walking paths and fetching Roman ruins. I figured out how to operate the rear windshield defroster with some frantic button-pushing and only one near-death swerve into a rail. The snow fell harder, obscuring the road. I merged onto the 465 bypass, leaping into a dark spot in the string of rush-hour headlights, only to brake hastily before hitting an unlit sports car.

I skidded onto the Meridian Street exit and came to a hasty stop, watching the flakes swirling in front of the traffic light turn pink. Panting, I clutched the steering wheel.

“Westin was surprisingly lovely in the morning sunshine,” Bill Bryson said.

I consulted my scribbled directions under the dome light and promptly turned the wrong way, onto a dark road lined with trees. Swearing, I found a place to turn around -- on the left, of course. The Jeep skidded again as I read off street signs – Emily, Emily, where was Emily? Where are all the damn street lights? Was I even on a road anymore?

“Out in the sparkling bay an island basked in the clear clean air,” Bill said, “and beyond it rose the green hills of Wales.”

I wound around Indianapolis’ snowy streets while Bill ambled through the Cottswalds. We both reached our destinations at the same time. I pulled into a parking space across from Mom’s front door, shining my headlights into her neighbors’ living room window.

“I emerged hot, sticky but triumphant,” said Bill, who had been running down steep hills, flailing his arms like a dancer from “West Side Story.”

I knew just how he felt.


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