One of my favorite parts about road trips is listening to music in the car. I don’t mean the mixes—I guess they’re called playlists these days—I’m talking about entering a new state, hitting “scan” on the stereo, stretching my legs out on the dashboard, and listening to whatever music pops up.
Our road trips usually consist of driving back and forth from Maryland to the Midwest, and driving away from the Chicago skyline brings a pain that I need to sit with in silence until I can’t see the Sears Tower anymore, so I end up playing my “scan the stereo” game once we hit Gary, Indiana. I don’t know why, but Indiana and Ohio play great ’90s music. I can always count on spending a few hours with teenage Callie before we hit the Pennsylvania border.
I was a bit of an unassuming sneak as a teenager. I relied on my reputation as “the quiet one,” because I knew most people mistook being quiet for being meek. I wasn’t meek.
Once, on a spring day that screamed for flip-flops and a cruise in the convertible on Lake Shore Drive, I convinced my best friend, Celena, that since we both had fourth period study hall, fifth lunch, and sixth PE, we should ride downtown and check on the waters of Lake Michigan. Surely that is more important than sitting in study hall or running a five-minute mile.
“What are we gonna do for lunch?” Celena asked, walking with me towards the dark hallway where none of the security guards patrolled.
“I’ll buy fries and Diet Cokes at McDonald’s,” I told her.
“So we’re just gonna take your mom’s car?” Celena asked as we ran outside into sunshine.
“I’ll leave her a note.” My mom worked at the library about a block from the high school.
“In the empty parking spot?” Celena chuckled.
“Yeah,” I said, unlocking the car door. “You got any tape?”
We put the top down and drove towards the city listening to The Spin Doctors, Salt-n-Pepa, and Boyz II Men.
We pulled back into my mom’s spot thick as thieves just in time for eighth period: geology. We’d missed seventh period due to traffic. I figured that wasn’t a big deal, until later, when my English teacher, Mr. McBride, walked onto the football field where I was warming up for drill team practice.
“You can make it to practice but you can’t make it to my class?” he asked.
“I wasn’t feeling well,” I told him, slipping into my “I’m shy and afraid of you” mode. I learned if I did that, teachers wouldn’t expect much from me.
“Get to class,” he said. “You are good at more than dancing, but you won’t find that out if you skip.”
He was right, but I wasn’t brave enough to do the work. It was easier to say “I’m stupid” and drive towards the Chicago skyline.
I never missed his class after that day he met me on the field. He helped me write the essays that would get me into college, and every year I was there, I wrote him a letter thanking him for his teaching. “Don’t thank me,” he wrote back once. “You done the work.”
Catching a station on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is tricky. This is the most interesting and exciting part of the drive, as the road rests on the curve of the Allegheny Mountains range, and there’s lots to pay attention to. Water pours out of rocks or, if it’s winter, icicles cling to the bluffs in mid-fall, waiting for warm weather. Trucks drive fast and leaves on the trees paint the valleys, so that reds, oranges, and yellow pop from the shutter-blink of the gray truck beds speeding by.
Two stations always come in clear: a twangy country station and a scratchy banjo bluegrass station that sounds as though the guys recording it are in a friend’s garage or basement. Maybe it’s a church basement, because these guys are always singing about Jesus. I imagine that they stuck around after the service ended, after the coffee was cleaned up and cookie crumbs were swept away. After everyone left to start Sunday supper, these guys fetched their banjos from the trunks of their cars, met in the basement and sang about Jesus; plucked the strings, tapped their feet, nodded their heads to the truth of their confessions.
I don’t have much patience for praise music. I’m more of a hymn girl, but these songs feel reverent, intimate, and sacred in a messy way. Like, the guys playing are having so much fun making music, their fingers are flying, they’re so wrapped up in the work they’re doing that they cry out to Jesus.
Once, on a summer vacation in Glen Arbor, Michigan, my family ate dinner at a restaurant called Boone Docks. Everyone in Glen Arbor knows about Boone Docks. Unless it’s winter, you sit outside at picnic tables, share pints and watch the fishermen bring in that day’s catch. The night we were there, Boone Docks had bluegrass Jesus music on. We tapped our feet to the beat as we passed potato skins and poured beer from plastic pitchers into our glasses, and I hoped that communion would be served this way in heaven. Not all the time, but that crazy fast banjo picking shakes my soul up.
By the time we get to Frederick, Maryland, a mere twenty-five minutes from our home, I want to throw myself from the car. I don’t care what is on the radio. I want to stretch my legs and run through some of those Civil War battlefields flying past my car window.
On our last trip home, Casey Kasem was reading a bit of history behind the song “Don’t Leave Me This Way” by Thelma Houston. This was her #1 hit in 1977, and she won a Grammy for it. Before that, though, there were a lot of false starts. Kasem took listeners through years of hard work, and projects that were dropped. Houston always kept singing, he told us, even if it was demo recordings or playing for small groups.
I stopped fidgeting and listened, rapt, to Houston’s bio. I don’t know why I had tears in my eyes, but when Jesse, my husband, made a move to change the station, I slapped his hand away. “She worked so hard,” I told him. “The least we could do is listen to her sing the song.”
And so Houston brought us home, to our little backyard with room enough for two red Adirondacks where Jesse and I sit on cool nights and I ask him about our future: Do you think you’ll always do hurricane storm surge? Do you think I’ll ever write books? Do you think we’ll move to the city? Or move back to the Midwest? How long do you think I’ll teach this time around? I tell him I feel like I’m making so many mistakes, so many false starts, so many projects are being dropped. How many times am I allowed to fail?
He holds my hand while I ask him questions he can’t answer. He promises to sit with me while I try to work out a melody I don’t understand.