Adventure of the Open Road

Brian J. Sullivan

I must be getting older because I have begun to break long driving stretches into more manageable distances. Gone are the 20-hour straight drives with no breaks and little sleep. Today's leg of the trip was to be approximately 625 miles according to MapQuest, so roughly 12 hours of driving plus some time for lunch, gas, and antique breaks along the way.

I've already been driving in the pre-dawn darkness for several hours, adjacent to the barren fields. To the east, an orange glow is beginning to reflect off the night sky before the sun actually breaks over the horizon. Mile after mile, I drive on. The sound of my wheels riding over each control joint in the highway makes for a consistent and steady tempo. Thump, thump, thump. I turn the radio up way loud to try to drown out the high pitch wail of my tires and wind rushing over my less-than-aerodynamic van.

Billboards hawking "Don's Flea Market," "Lookout Mountain," "Wall Drugs," or "Big Lick State Park" adds visual excitement to the miles and miles of unplanted fields. This is America, the melting pot.

My goal each art fair trip is to take time to explore back roads, small towns, and seedy neighborhoods (before the Walmarts take over). For this is the fabric of America I want to experience. For too long now I have been the victim of the Interstate efficiency, stopping only for gas at the first quick mart off the highway, never venturing into the small towns.

Seeing America from behind the glass of the windshield has left me more than satisfied; I wanted more. More than the same visual ubiquitous Walmarts, Home Depots, McDonald's, and Howard Johnson's, which have taken over each exist ramp, creating a feeling of being on the road for hours, driving thousands of miles but feeling like one never left home. I was determined to change this on my next trip.

It felt familiar, yet somehow strange, like I had lost something along the way. I resolved this trip to be more adventurous. So here I go; a sign reads, "Forest City, Arkansas: 2 miles." I decided it was time. No more excuses. I took the exit, drove past the chain restaurants, the strip malls, and the asphalt parking lots of the big box stores, straight into small town USA. I'm guessing that Forest City had a population of maybe 2,000 people. I followed the main street until I reached the once heart of Forest City—its two-block downtown section, if you could call it that. Beautiful architectural store front buildings from the turn of the century lined the two-block street. I parked my truck and decided to walk the business district. I photograph many old signs, well worn but nonetheless classics in their day. At once I noticed a slower pace than the highway had offered, a quiet respite. I notice names like "Moms Home Cooking," "Bill's Muffler Shop," and "Ralph's Service Station." It was as if time had stood still. People were gathered in each store I entered and were actually taking the time to visit with each other; shopping was secondary. Here people mattered. I went into Janet's Antique Store which she explained was the original hardware store at the turn of the century. I purchased several items I thought that I could use in my next piece of art. Had I missed something? I began to question my fast paced lifestyle. Where had I gone wrong? How insidiously had the big corporations forced the Ma and Pa stores out of business? I needed more.

The lady at the antique store gave me directions for the fastest way to the next town by way of the highway. I said, "No! I want to take the back way. Is there any other way to get there?" Politely she obliged. Brinkley was the next large town after Forest City of any size with scarcely more than 1,500 people.

Along the way every car coming in the opposite direction waved to me as if they had known me all my life. I waved back. A smile crossed my face. When was the last time you waved at someone on the highway, I thought. This was farm country with light sandy brown colored soil, much different from the black Midwestern dirt I was used to seeing.

People were really poor. Many lived in trailers converted to permanent residences simply by reason that the tires went flat a long time ago. Bluish smoke rose from the vent stacks coming through the corrugated tin roofs. Even with my truck windows closed I could smell the distinct odor generated from wood burning stoves used to heat their houses. Garbage littered their yards, like mini landfills of scrap steel, old lumber, car parts, and miscellaneous things not needed anymore.

I arrived at my first night's hotel just as the fire trucks were pulling up to the factory next door. Flames poured through the roof as thick black smoke belched forth from within the building into the night air. News crews were assembled across the street like piranhas in a feeding frenzy. Helicopters circled overhead. I had bad feelings about this one. But it was too late; reservations had long been paid for. I parked my truck and headed for the office. Used condoms littered the parking lot. On either side of the hotel were strip clubs with glaring neon signs flashing unnatural light into the atmosphere. The man behind the desk spoke little recognizable English and communicated more with nods and a toothy grin than by words. I got my room key and headed for my room. I was tired and was looking forward to a good night's rest.

The smell of stale cigarette odor overwhelmed me as I pushed back the door. I flipped the light switch, only to find one dimly lit bulb working; all others had been removed or broken a long time ago. A wall sconce hung precipitously over the bed, having been pulled from the wall several times before by evidence of the multiple holes left unfilled. The dark green carpeting was stained to various colors of green depending on the nature of the spill. The one table provided in the room had two saw cuts into the top surface from when someone had previously used it as a saw horse and went a bit too far with the cuts. Cock-beaded drawer faces had multiple nails through the front of them, trying desperately to secure them for one more season. Luckily, I found no live bugs. My leaking picture window faced the highway and rumbled with each passing semi-truck as it shifted through its gears.

The toilet ran non-stop as water continued to trickle into the bowl. A rusted towel bar lay on the floor next to the wall where it had obviously been pulled from the wall. Globs of dried green gel tooth paste decorated the lower bathroom wall below the sink in defiance of the proficiency of the cleaning service. The shower I had so longed for was best described as either too scalding hot or icy cold since the mixing control faucet was non-functional.

Right about now you are probably wondering why I stayed. Several reasons led to my decision. First, I had already prepaid at a non-refundable internet site. I did ask to see other rooms with the thought that I would move to one of them, but they were worse than mine. This was an adventure filled with colorful visual stimulus and I aimed to make the best of it. Tomorrow I would be somewhere hundreds of miles away, this a faint memory. And finally the real reason I stayed was because freezing rain/hail was starting to coat the roads, trees, and windshields of all vehicles, and I did not want to venture out in search of another hotel.

Instead, I bundled up and went for a walk to find some food at the nearest restaurant but was a bit dismayed to see all the businesses lining the streets had security bars over their windows. For safety's sake, I did not want to venture too far from my hotel. I found a great Middle Eastern restaurant with no one inside except the owner, his wife, and their two small children. After hearing that I was an artist going to an art fair, the owner and his wife gave me several drawings from their personal collection of children's art located underneath the Plexiglas tops which covered each table.

As I left the restaurant, the owner locked the door behind me and turned the lights out. I may have been his only customer all night. He feigns a faint smile; I return the same with a slight nod. I walk back to my hotel, lost in thought about tomorrow's art fair set-up procedures.

That night I slept well and dreamed of what could possibly top today's adventures.