In December of 2003, during winter break of my second year of college, the football team finished with a DOMINANT 6-6 season, tallying five wins against whatever they call Division I and one against Division II opponents.
The Jayhawks had not been to a bowl game 8 years, but were on their way to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida.. Due to the fact that the team backed its way into a low-level postseason appearance three days before Christmas, university higher-ups offered free tickets to any student willing to haul themselves to Florida.
That’s exactly what Daniel, Andy, and I decided to do. Andy had a car, Daniel and I had binders of CDs, and MapQuest would guide us south. Wanting to make the most of this road trip, we decided on a longer, more southern route in order to hit more states. Being from the Midwest (and NOT the Great Plains) we were used to long hauls and driving hours to get to anything cool.
We also worked out a non-stop driving rotation to avoid paying for the opportunity to get murdered at some Super 8 outside of Birmingham, halfway through our 20-hour pilgrimage. One of us would drive, one would navigate, and the third would rest in the back. When we switched, the driver moved to the back to sleep, the navigator became pilot, and the person in the back would wake up to set the course.
By our calculations, we would be rolling into O-town the day before the big game and still get home in time to unwrap presents.
It is this plan that had me peering into the darkness as Andy whiteknuckled us along serpentine county highways in Arkansas. We had taken a break from CDs to sample the local radio offerings. A girls high school basketball game was the best option, and we soon became heavily invested in the Lady Vikings comeback effort.
I’m always amazed by how easily people, myself included, acclimate to new realities. I know that driving through an unfamiliar state on a fairly deserted road with only printed directions and a cellphone with two functions—phone calls and snake—is something I did. Now, it sounds panic-inducing. What if we got lost? We’d have to use an analog map to get unlost. What if our car broke down? We wouldn’t be able to look up the phone number of a mechanic. Oh, the good old days.
I remember we stopped for dinner at a Shoney’s somewhere in Arkansas, because holy shit, a Shoney’s! It was hopping. While there, we were served by a blonde waitress who was about our age.
“What are you fellas up to tonight?”
Andy happily responded, “Driving to Florida.”
The answer momentarily halted her friendly chit chat. “Seriously? Why? To get out of Arkansas?”
We explained that while getting out of Arkansas did seem like a worthy venture, it was not our starting point.
“Wanna take me with you?”
Because I was—and am—a cinch with the ladies, I asked what time she got off work. If you can’t flirt with Shoney’s waitress when you’re just passing through, what are you even doing with your life?
“Not until 9. Are you leaving right after you eat?”
She was not flirting back with me. She was legitimately asking for an escape hatch from wherever the hell we were. Daniel could not hide his surprised laughter. Andy looked at me wide-eyed and awaiting my next maneuver.
I did not have one. “Uh, yeah, we were just stopping to eat and then we have to go.”
She lamented the fact that our schedules did not align better. We finished our meals, concerned for this young woman. Now, I wonder if she was messing with me in a masterclass of acting. Why would she care about finishing her shift before absconding to Florida with three strangers for who knows how long?
At some other point during our trek, we stopped and ate at a Waffle House, my first time. My expectations were met: My eggs were gray and my Coke tasted like mulch.
And it is this incident that inspired me to retell this story here and many other times to friends and acquaintances. We had to stop for gas. Daniel and Andy went in for snacks and bathroom breaks while I stayed outside to fill the tank.
Standing in the bubble of light created by a highway gas station, I watched a truck with three people pull up. Out stepped two young men with a short, patchy beards who looked like they lived in Mississippi. They appeared to be in their twenties. After them came a girl who looked very high schoolish to me. Maybe she was in her twenties and looked younger than her age, or maybe they were all in high school and the guys looked older. But I doubt it.
That, on its own, might not be concerning. But the giant hickey on the front of the girl’s throat made it concerning. Everyone in that truck was too old for hickeys, to be sure. But a hickey on the neck right below the chin is especially strange. Just right on the Adam’s Apple like a bullseye. That’s a hickey that is preceded by the statement, “I’m going to give you a hickey.”
The hickey chick and one of the scuzzbuckets went inside, while the other scuzzbucket stayed out to pump their gas. Which he did while lighting up a cigarette.
While I anxiously waited to be consumed in flames, I thought about how I would no longer feel guilty for painting the entire lower region of the country as half-wit yokels. You might think that the same gumption which inspired me to flirt with a Shoney’s waitress would also allow me to yell at some cracker to put out his Pall Mall. It did not. He had the physique of a tweaker and his companions looked similarly scrappy.
Daniel and Andy came out of the gas station arms full of soda and snacks, cracking jokes. I told them to hurry up and get in the goddamn car.
Daniel asked me what my deal was and Andy informed me that he thought someone was smoking pot in the bathroom.
“Get in the fucking car,” I whisper-yelled. As we pulled away, I explained our brush with ignorance.
I would like to say that it was the last, but the next morning, 10 minutes after we got into Orlando and were still looking for our hotel, I watched the driver next to us take a pull of a Corona. My friends and I were sleep deprived and our skepticism of the South had grown with each town we passed.
Not much else sticks in my mind about the trip. Our beloved KU got smoked by NC State and their pud quarterback, Phillip Rivers. On the way home, I was at the wheel from Macon, Georgia to just past St. Louis. Ten hours of driving. I felt like Imperator Furiosa.
Like many road trips, this one was not about the destination but the weird stories that come from the journey. And all of my stories have the same moral: Stop as infrequently as possible when driving the backroads of the Confederacy.