|Mission To Mobile
Paul Vee takes a whirlwind road trip.
"Uh... Paul... what are you doing for the next month or so?"
My friend Bob was calling me from a Motel 6 in El Paso, Texas, where it sounded like he was bouncing off the walls. He was supposed to be hitchhiking around the country with a laptop and cellular modem, sending back reports for an online service, but it turned into a nightmare after just seven miles. Hitching might have been fun in his early twenties, but now he was 31 and homesick. He had planned to get rich on this gig, but he was losing money and his girlfriend had dumped him via e-mail. Now he was a broken man, dick flapping in the wind, in a dusty East Texas town.
He'd called me the night before and sounded bad. Tonight, he seemed desperate. I was between jobs and I love the road, so when he offered me a minimal amount of money to drive down and ride with him, I jumped at the chance. I love a good mission.
After some debate about whether I should fly to Houston or just rent a car in New York and drive down, I opted for the long drive. Bob and I planned to meet somewhere in southern Alabama by Saturday night, so this trip was to be nothing less than a high-speed run to Mobile. The next day, I bought a PowerBook and threw myself into a 48-hour marathon of software loading and configuration, the whole time fielding phone calls and closing down my life for a month. A friend would stay with my cat and keep me posted via e-mail.
I rented a four-door Ford Taurus with only 22 miles on the odometer. I drove it home, packed it up, and picked up my friend, whom I was dropping off at her mother's house in Washington, D.C. She knew I was planning to haul ass, and she brought along a Ministry tape. We stuck it in the tape deck as we came out of the Holland Tunnel, hit the Jersey Turnpike, and picked up speed.
We made it to D.C after one stop at a MacDonalds in Maryland, and I got to see childhood photos of her taken in Iran, before the revolution. I was exhausted after three days of no sleep, and was grateful for the chance to take a one hour nap. I said good bye, then took the backroads to I-81, which slashes through Virginia and Tennessee to the junction with I-75. I rolled through a Civil War battleground area and could feel the ghosts. The South was coming to life with every mile.
I drove and drove. Then I drove some more, munching on Fig Newtons and taking swigs of bottled water. The fatigue was creeping up on me, but I kept getting second winds. It took a while to clear the suburban sprawl of greater D.C., but I finally hit open highway. I moved the seat up a bit, rolled down the window, and stepped on the accelerator. East of the Mississippi, all interstates look alike; none of the crazy stones and desert you find out West. This road was like any other - two lanes in each direction, a shrub-lined median, and low trees on either side. I pounded out 200 miles and didn't think about stopping for the night until I was well into Virginia. Then I started scoping out highway signs for a motel.
At nine pm, stiff-limbed, drooling, and delirious, I pulled into a Super 8 parking lot in Roanoke, Virginia. The last two hours had been like a bad acid trip, and I only made it by locking on to the taillights ahead of me. My lips and eyeballs felt like cotton. In this state of mind, I forced down pancakes at the Waffle House opposite the motel. The counter girl smiled at me and I remember thinking then that Virginia women were the most beautiful and most friendly I had ever encountered anywhere. Back in my room, I hooked the Powerbook to a phone line and dialed in for my e-mail, briefly wondering whether the motel phone system would fry my modem and I would have to kill myself. Online I found Bob, who asked where I was. He sounded encouraged when I told him, and we nailed down a Motel 6 in Mobile to meet at the next night. He was heading east from Texas and I was approaching from the north. We would converge on this godforsaken motel in Mobile from a thousand miles in either direction.
After a wired sleep, I was on the road by 8 am, found I-75, and headed south through Tennessee. It seemed like a pretty state, but it would have to wait. I rolled on to the junction with I-59, which would take me to I-65 and straight down to Mobile. At a gas station in northern Alabama, I knew I was in the Deep South. The climate and the accents had grown thick over the last 400 miles.
It was an exercise in fanatic endurance driving after that. I stopped more often to stretch my legs, ate little, chewed gum, and splashed water on my face. The windows stayed open and humid air was pounding on my face. All was fine until I arrived at the outskirts of Mobile, where a huge thunderstorm blew up and everything beyond the tip of my hood disappeared in the gloom.
I-65 dead-ends into I-10, the mighty southern route from Florida to California, and the junction is littered for miles with motels and fast-food joints. I drove up and down for an hour in that monsoon before spotting the tiny, blue lit sign. Motel 6's are so cheap, I thought, because they're all hidden behind off-ramps. This one was on the edge of a wasteland complex of road services called Tillman's Corner. After killing the engine, I sat for a second while the rain beat on the steel car roof. It felt as though I had just come down the Amazon in a rubber raft.
They were expecting me. The doped-up looking clerk handed me a key and told me what room Bob was in. After parking, I grabbed my bags and stumbled to his door. He opened it, holding a paper box of atrocious Chinese food in the other hand; his laptop glowed behind him with scrolling lines of text from his online chat room. It was like the bridge of a rogue spacecraft lost in some far galaxy. I had planned to say something like "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" but all I could croak out was "Bob!" Up in my room five minutes later I lit a cigarette, my sixtieth of the day, and thought about getting some food. Ahead of me was a month of hard driving and cheap motel rooms, endless e-mail and psychotic chatroom hosting. We were going to pull the great online scam of '97 and I needed to get my rest.
Paul is back at home with more endless e-mail and still hosting
Photo Credit- Shereen Chang,1997