The Distance Between Then and Now

Travel Stories: How far can you go without extinguishing the thrill of a moment? On the 50th Anniversary of "On the Road," Bill Belleville reflects on a pivotal road trip of his own.

09.04.07 | 11:13 AM ET

driving at nightPhoto by Frank Murray

The road trip descended on us like a religious vision, inspired and inarguably righteous. It arrived somewhere between the third and fourth rounds of National Bohemian, a regional beer that celebrated the Chesapeake Bay as the “Land of Pleasant Living.”

We were out in the country near Fruitland, Maryland in the Silver Dollar Saloon, all shabby weathered wood with sawdust on the floor and George Jones on the juke. It was summer and we were home from college and adrenalized with the implacable belief we could do most anything, if we really wanted.

The shed-like doors and windows of the tavern were thrown open. The corn field outside was between plantings and one of the locals, even more buzzed than us, was driving back and forth over it in his old Chevy sedan, hollering and waving one beefy farmboy arm out the window as he bucked through the furrows. We could do better than that, we figured.

Driving to Florida would be better, I said, and a few moments later, we were in Betts’ Camaro, headed south.

By then, it was well after midnight and the roads on the lower Eastern Shore were dark and traffic was light. The stars were as bright and full as I’d ever seen them. We had a loaf of wheat bread, a handful of Slim Jims we bought from the bar and an iced cooler of beer. We were young and strong and, like Jack Kerouac, we were more than ready for the road.

The demands of living a grown-up life would close in soon, but for now we had the power to freeze time. Florida was a mythic place where palm trees and sunshine had a seductive power, a place where people went who didn’t want to be found. So we drove into the night, not to be enlightened but to be buzzed with the headiness of youth, the promise of Florida, and all of that National Boh.

The highway we followed, U.S. 13, was a no-brainer since it ran north-south, and all we needed to do was to trace it, staying within the lines as best we could. We did, down beyond Crisfield and Tangier Sound, and into the more remote shore of Virginia, isolated from the rest of the world by the sprawling Bay itself.

Darkness settled in good by the time we hit Birdsnest and Pungoteague, little towns where the hard working watermen were already tucked into bed, boats loaded with crab traps moored to old wooden docks in the quiet night.

The Bay Bridge-Tunnel was fairly new then, replacing a long ferry ride between our peninsula and Norfolk, and it would deliver us across the wide mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, right where it spilled into the great Atlantic. But when the toll booths appeared and we saw they were charging by the passenger, Betts did a U-turn and pulled over. We were impulsive but we knew how to save money—the trunk had room for two of us. Hale was bulked up by training at West Point, and I by freshman football. We convinced Betts and Jackson to squeeze in since they were more compact. And then we were off again, Hale driving and me riding shotgun, both of us laughing in great exuberance.

We were treading a fine line between the bay and the ocean on one level. But on another, the line we treaded was far greater—between youth and adulthood, between our insular country culture and the far more sophisticated one of the rest of the world.

After we hit the mainland, Jackson and Betts started pounding from inside the trunk to be let out. Hale and I hooted, figuring we let them ride there just a little longer, for the fun of it all. When we finally stopped, they weren’t pissed but they were close to it and another 10 minutes or so would have pushed them over the edge. That was part of the deal then—knowing just how far you could go without extinguishing the thrill of the moment. There was no template for how to work it—just an ineffable trust in the gut.

Our conversation was improvised, no literary context at all, just the full immediacy of the moment, the joy of old small town high school chums reconnecting, and the excitement of what the world had in store for us.  We sped along the night road in our Camaro, a universe where time was marked only by the degrees by which each of us gradually dissolved into fatigue.

By 5 a.m., I was driving and we were somewhere in North Carolina, roads lonely and towns scarce. By now, the others were asleep and a nighttime DJ playing slow doo-wop songs was numbing me out, too.

Suddenly, a large American sedan came up from behind, nearly careening into the Camaro as it did. I pulled over to clear my head and a half dozen more cars went by in a blur. I could see them running the first car into a ditch and then chasing the driver into an open field. Then I heard a loud thump, like the sound of an ax handle breaking a cantaloupe.

Whatever was happening, it didn’t look good and I sped away. By then, everyone was awake, and we figured we ought to alert the cops. But in the next small town everything was closed up tighter than a drum. We doubled back a few miles to the open field, where police cars now lined the road. We stopped and a young cop came over, and we told him what we had seen. He said the man being chased was the crew boss for a team of migrant workers, and he had taken the crew’s payoff and run with it. The cantaloupe thump was the sound of his head being broken. The cop told me he got what he deserved.

That sobered us some. By then it was dawn and we picked up a hitchhiker, a surfer, and we stuck his board in the trunk. We pulled out some cold beer from the cooler and ate some Slim Jims and celebrated being in South Carolina. He told us where we were and how far we had to go to at least reach Myrtle Beach. It wasn’t Florida but it had some palm trees and surf, and it might do for now.

By the time we reached it later in the day, Myrtle Beach was packed, no vacancies anywhere. We drove inland until we found a cheap chain hotel in the middle of nowhere. We saved money by crashing in one room, a couple of us sleeping on the floor.

By the next morning, the luminosity of our road trip vision was seriously tarnished. Everyone but me was ready to head home. We loaded into the Camaro and headed back to the Land of Pleasant Living.

As adventures go, it didn’t have the Kerouacian rap of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, but for four young men from a conservative small Southern town teetering on the great edge of change, it was our one last blast before the big chill. Hale went into the Army after West Point and later became a two-star general; Jackson became an attorney, and later, a judge. Betts stayed in town and ran his family’s business and did very well with it.

As for me, I finally got my chance to come to Florida after college. This time I made it all the way and stayed.

I thought of that road trip again the other day, marveling at the distance between then and now, between the spontaneity of the moment and the compromising lock-step of socialization. I’m amazed at how we so easily trade away our own gut-trusting wisdom for the promise of security. I’ve resisted those trade-offs, not always with great success and with less finesse than I’d like to admit.

And I thought of Kerouac, of course, and of his own unrestrained wonder and how it ended for him—in a very bad way—in Florida.

Finally, I thought that any place is mythic only as long as you allow it to be, and that the core geography of the human spirit, where the transcendent rush of the unexpected dwells, is a place unlikely to ever be found on any map.

Bill Belleville is a Florida-based writer, author and documentary filmmaker specializing in nature. His book, Losing It All To Sprawl, was named one of the Best Books of 2006 by Library Journal.

2 Comments for The Distance Between Then and Now

Julia Ross 09.04.07 | 2:03 PM ET

Thanks for this, Bill. Nicely captured.

Erik Chase 10.18.08 | 2:22 PM ET

Sounds like wild story, I never really took a road trip before in a car.  I would like to, just haven’t had a chance.  We always flew, I have a Camaro too, so I think driving in a muscle car would be somewhat fun.  One of these days I will try it!

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