Adventures for the Contemporary Explorer

Keith Lee Morris October 1, 2013

I was sitting in the living room the other night trying to get through Middlemarch, the same thing I’ve been doing for most of this decade, and my ten-year-old son and his buddy kept interrupting to ask questions as part of this game they were playing. One of them would say, “Where do you want to go?” and the other one would say, “Georgia,” and the first one would say, “Which direction is it?” and the other one would point, and the first one would say, “Dad/Mr. Morris, what direction is Georgia?” and I would pretend I knew and point in the opposite direction from whoever pointed first, and then they’d go, “Ha! Told you! You couldn’t make it to Georgia!” Then they’d start over with Kentucky.

Fascinating as this is, it’s not the actual subject of my piece. No, the actual subject is what their game made me think of, which is this road trip that I took with a couple of good friends from Brooklyn, Ethan and John, several years back. They used to come down to Clemson, South Carolina every summer, and by this time we’d gone through our list of interesting places within three hundred miles to visit (Savannah). We needed something different, so we devised some rules for the road trip itself instead of concentrating on the destination.

RULES OF THE ROAD: 1. Point the vehicle in a particular direction [in our case, east], and begin driving. 2. Become lost as quickly as possible [for me this took five minutes]. 3. No maps. Not in the car, not on a computer, not consulted at the service station while someone else is using the restroom. NO MAPS. 4. No timepieces. No watches, no digital clocks on the dash, no checking the clocks at greasy diners where you stop on the way. [None of us carried cell phones back then, so that wasn’t an issue.] 5. No four-lane roads. Two-lane or one-lane roads only. If a two-lane road becomes a four-lane road, turn off it as quickly as possible. 6. No road signs that tell the names of destinations. If you’re on a road and you see a sign telling you where you’re headed and how many miles it is till you get there, turn off as soon as possible. 7. No fair asking directions. 8. Continue driving until you reach a predetermined stopping point. In the continental U.S., this should generally be a) an ocean, or b) an international boundary. [Improvise if necessary—if you’re starting in Kansas, say, it might be “any state that ends with a vowel.”]

Why would anyone want to do this? I’m not sure. For me, there was an element of nostalgia involved. I grew up in Idaho, but my relatives lived in Mississippi. This meant that each summer we loaded up the car and drove two thousand miles across the country. My father and I liked the back roads. My mother and my sister did not. This meant that we couldn’t turn off the interstate until they fell asleep. One of my fondest childhood memories involves riding merrily down a dirt road in Nebraska, the world closed off on both sides by cornfields the height of redwood trees, utterly lost, my father cussing semi-inaudibly behind the wheel, my mother cussing quite audibly for the only time I can ever recall when she woke up in the back seat and saw where we were (or weren’t).

And then there’s the sense of adventure, the can-do spirit that lies at the heart of such an endeavor. Imagine the sense of camaraderie we felt as we turned onto yet another one-lane road that turned out to be a private driveway. The passionate and animated nature of the discussion concerning which way to go when the sun began to sink and we still hadn’t gotten fucking anyplace.

*
The real reason that Ethan comes to visit us is to hunt down rare species of barbecue. He is always on the lookout and comes armed with names of way-far-out-of-the-way establishments he’s found on the Internet (we once drove about two hours out of our way to go to a place called Sweatmans (!?) that also happened to be near a town mentioned in a Denis Johnson poem). Ethan essentially sees the South as a large kind of ramshackle barbecue joint. Places that aren’t directly involved in the sale of barbecue are to him locations where barbecue might be enjoyed.

John has a peculiar phobia for which I believe there is no name, if that’s in fact possible in this day and age. He is terrified of running out of gas. His discomfort becomes acute—I’m not kidding—at the moment when the gauge points to less than half a tank.

My weakness is that I like to play tour guide.

So there were many conversations like this one:

Me: This area of the state is known as the Sandhills. It lies between the more mountainous Upstate and what’s called the Low Country.

Ethan: According to a recent article in the travel section of the Times, the barbecue here is usually mustard-based.

John: I wonder how far it is to the next town. Is this car a four-cylinder?

(One hour later)

Me: You may be surprised that there aren’t more cotton fields in this rural area of Low Country South Carolina. It may help to know that rice and indigo plantations, rather than cotton, were the norm here.

Ethan: Do I smell wood smoke? Is that a plume of wood smoke rising above the fields?

John: Is that a Conoco sign I see there through the trees?

*

I remember with some pride our budding navigational skills. We only screwed up once, really. As we got close to Columbia, all the roads began to suck us in, like valves at a fish hatchery. You couldn’t get on a road, two-lane or otherwise, that didn’t say “Columbia—14.” So we put the game on hold and drove on into the city for barbecue. At one point later on, thoroughly lost in a maze of kudzu and blacktop, we were rescued when we came across a flea market. We strolled through the open-air booths and nodded politely at the vendors who sold Confederate paraphernalia and foam rubber NASCAR hats. There was a gentleman selling animals—parrots, snakes, iguanas, hamsters, kittens, feral hogs, what have you. We ended up buying boiled peanuts (John is a fan, as am I, Ethan not so much), and I think John picked up some plain white T-shirts and a hat to wear on the beach.

But mostly things went smoothly. Since we started midmorning, we figured out what we had to do was keep the sun in the right-hand portion of the windshield for a while then let it slide on around gradually till it was coming in the rear passenger window. That would be about six or seven hours, the time it would take us to drive all back roads to the beach. Obviously there were a lot of points, what with turning off four-lane roads and roads that contained signs, etc., where we got turned around ass-backward, but they didn’t last for long before we’d get the sun right back where we wanted it. We even had it figured out where, if there was a heavy tree canopy above the road so you couldn’t tell exactly which way the shadows fell, we would put an object—maybe a bag full of discarded boiled peanut shells—on the dashboard, and it would invariably cast enough shadow to let us know our direction.

Except we kept on not getting there. To the beach. Okay, the trip went on forever, I admit.

Eventually, the sun got so low that we decided we’d better just keep it right square in the rearview mirror if we intended to hit the coast. Where was the damn thing? The frigging eastern seaboard?

All of a sudden we came up on this burned-out church that could have been a location from The Seventh Seal, sometime toward the end when Max von Sydow is losing the chess match and death is near. The only people thereabouts were members of a geriatric motorcycle gang. Ethan and I picked through the ruins while John lingered behind to talk to a leather-clad couple sporting matching silver ponytails. We should have suspected something, but we were too busy marveling over the non-appearance of the briny ocean waves. Couldn’t we almost smell the sea from here?

When we started driving again, the sun turning an ominous red and us still without a place to lay our weary heads for the evening, John started saying things like, “Why don’t you take a left on this road?” and “No, I think you should keep going straight at this light,” and next thing you know we were in the coastal town of Murrell’s Inlet, where we heard later Mickey Spillane lived.

John and I frolicked for a while in the briny ocean spume and Ethan refrained and then we headed up the road a piece to the old part of Myrtle Beach, where we rented rooms at a fleabag motel and spent the night wandering from old-timey arcade to old-timey arcade playing Skee-Ball.

So the point isn’t that John cheated, all right? That ultimately we were so bad at this new pastime that we couldn’t even hit the Atlantic Ocean given a rental American mid-size sedan and ten hours of daylight to burn, that we had ultimately to rely on directions given to us by somebody’s Harley-riding grandmother. No, the point is that we pointed. That’s right, goddammit, we pointed in a direction and we said, “Yes, we can go there,” and we gave it a try—hell, just like Ferdinand Magellan. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to being explorers. Try it yourself some time—one last word of advice, though: you’ll notice there’s nothing in the rules against packing an astrolabe.


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Author

Keith Lee Morris is the author of a novel, The Greyhound God, and a story collection, TheBest Seats in the House, both published by The University of NevadaPress. His stories have appeared in New England Review, Southern Review, and New Stories from the South 2006. He is completingwork on a new novel, The Dart League King.​

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