Even for two travelers used to rolling with the punches, this is an unnerving scenario. I'm behind the wheel of a Jeep Cherokee on a furnace-hot July evening, barreling along a sliver of asphalt through a Louisiana swamp. The alligator-infested water is rising, swallowing up the ragged edges of the road. The moon is wild, yellow. The wind makes mincemeat of the willow trees, hurling branches into our path.
Next to me, in the penultimate phase of hysteria, is my younger sister, Peggy. After eight cross-country road trips, we have a long history of difficult situations—a midnight encounter with gun-wielding teenagers in South Carolina; the mad basset hound that chased us through Cubero, New Mexico; the raging fire on a remote mountain road in upstate New York (caused by a defective hair dryer at the local Cut & Curl). Still, this is shaping up to be something unique.
Since Peggy and I operate under the motto Ignorance is bliss, and because we're desperate to rack up some miles, we've been shooting across the landscape, singing along with Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." But now we're paying the price for our freewheeling ways. We were warned about this storm. A few hours ago, my husband informed me that there is a hurricane swirling around the Atlantic, mere hours from bombarding the Gulf Coast. Anybody in her right mind has taken shelter.
When I called my husband in California, I was looking into a cloudless, peacock-blue sky. Because he's never too thrilled with our aimless gallivanting, I figured he was just trying to get me to "stop all this road-trip foolishness" and come home. It's clear now, however, that the situation is even worse than he described. But at this point we can only cross our fingers and continue traveling.
Only a nincompoop would try to outfox a hurricane. I study the map anyway, hell-bent on discovering a route that will get us out of this pickle without sacrificing too many of the sights on our wish list. So far we have already visited Plymouth Rock, the Daredevil Museum at Niagara Falls, and the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, where we sized up the statue on the book cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Still ahead: New Orleans, where I will make a beeline for the beignets at Café du Monde; Oxford, Mississippi, to see Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's house; Graceland; and, last but not least, the Salt Lick BBQ restaurant in Driftwood, Texas.
As convenient as it is to pin the blame on Hurricane Bonnie, this scrambling and revamping is familiar territory: year after year we bite off more than we can chew. On this particular day, we frittered away the entire afternoon hobnobbing with a father-and-son duo we met at the Big Peach Antique Center in Byron, Georgia. Our plan was to stop for a few minutes, but several hours and dozens of purchases later, we were following the men to their catfish farm, where they claimed to have warehouses full of Southern antiques. Peggy, looking for a culprit, reminds me that it was my bright idea to traipse after them.
We locate a smudge of a town, and check into a motor lodge with a banner welcoming a convention of gemstone dealers. As we lug our suitcases to the room, we see no evidence of the jewelers. Instead, there is a rather unsavory crew sizing us up. They're making us nervous, but we have no right to talk: we have removed from the car the valuable Civil War paraphernalia purchased at an antiques mall in Gettysburg, and what with the dueling pistols poking out of our tote bags, and the rusty scabbard tucked under my arm, we're attracting some dirty looks of our own.
I wasn't aware of it at the time, but my love of the road originated from a childhood spent in the back seat of the family car. Almost every Sunday, our parents would pack a cooler with fried chicken and cold drinks, cram five kids into the Packard (or, later, the Nash Rambler), and set off for an adventure in the Kentucky countryside. We'd travel for hours to Cumberland Falls, where we would spend the day fishing, or to county fairs where we'd ride the Tilt-A-Whirl and toss pennies into goldfish bowls.
When our family moved from Kentucky to California in 1960, my mother insisted on taking Route 66. My father had gone ahead to search for a house. Knowing her penchant for straying off the beaten path, he mapped out an itinerary for my mother, and was dead set against any deviation from it. (Through the years, he had had ample experience with her "shenanigans": even when she was following him in a separate car, my mother would manage to lose him, darting down a side road to see if there was something exciting going on.) Well aware that my dad would object, but determined to travel this thrilling route nonetheless, she had kept the Route 66 game plan a secret.
Our drive to California was every bit as unpredictable and reckless as my father had feared. But it was also full of quirky characters and breathtaking scenery, and it left a lasting imprint on me.
Years later I found myself tethered to my laptop toying with the idea of writing a novel, one that would center on a big rambunctious family and a road trip. As the book's images took shape, I developed a hankering to relive the Route 66 adventure. I needed to unshackle myself from the clatter of Los Angeles and to reconnect with a scrap of family history. Peggy, the perfect companion for such a journey, was dying to join in. (Much to his relief, my husband never even appeared on the shortlist of candidates. Proof positive that opposites attract, he gets cabin fever after being in a car for more than an hour.)
After pumping our mother for Route 66 information, Peggy drove to Los Angeles from her house in the Bay Area, and together we flew to Kentucky to begin where we began in 1960. Since we covered 10 states in a week, we could hardly call it our stopping-to-smell-the-roses trip. But we managed to absorb the essence of the Mother Road. We blazed through the Oklahoma plains with their tepee-shaped motels and cafés where waitresses served fresh berry pie; Amarillo, with its Cadillacs stuck in the ground; and Chief Yellowhorse's souvenir stand at the Arizona-New Mexico border, where we bought turquoise necklaces. Along the way we soaked up an abundance of blue skies and sunsets streaked with paint-box colors; we sang our lungs out with Roy Orbison; we bonded with strangers who had broad, friendly faces and stories to tell.
Peggy and I took that first trip to sate our hunger for the open road, but we also needed to fill in the territory that our weekly phone calls can't possibly cover. We were already accustomed to finishing each other's sentences and reading each other's minds, but we soon learned that the agony and ecstasy of being siblings reaches a high pitch on a road trip. Going from one extreme to another, conversations begin either with "Remember when...?" or "It really bothers me when you..."
That drive was an aperitif to a banquet of trips. Year after year we would jump into the car and zigzag from spot to spot, savoring those few weeks when we were nestled in our little cocoon away from big-city life. Sometimes, Peggy's son Michael came along.
Because the beauty of a road trip is hidden in the cracks and crevices between major attractions, we often leave with no specific destination. Rarely do we book rooms in advance. This catch-as-catch-can method has been a godsend for Peggy; a carbon copy of our mother, she gets lost on a dime. I once fell asleep when she was driving, only to wake up and find myself in Mississippi. She kept swearing it was Tennessee.
But her screwy sense of direction is part of the fun. For it's the kooky, unplanned occurrences that make up our fondest memories—being stranded in Roswell, New Mexico, during the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the purported alien sighting; getting the evil eye at Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo in New Orleans; watching as a Navajo named Ernest grabbed our bumper and begged us to take him away. There has been an endless stream of pinprick towns such as Box Springs, Alabama; Macbeth, South Carolina; and Egypt, Kentucky. There have been quaint churches—Clover Bottom Baptist, Rock of Ages Pentecostal—and the clumps of Appalachian children who whooped and hollered at us as we slunk along the bumpy roads of their ramshackle settlements.
In Louisiana, after the near miss with Hurricane Bonnie, we wake up to an optimistic prognosis. Bonnie has hit the Eastern Seaboard and is already demonstrating signs of weakness. We point the Cherokee in the direction of the Big Easy and dream about a different type of hurricane—the stiff drink available at the Old Absinthe House. If everything goes as planned, we should soon be strolling down Bourbon Street, "go cups" in hand, listening to trombones, dodging drunk tourists, and pitching coins into the jars belonging to boys tap-dancing with bottle caps clamped to their Nikes.
In the meantime, we stop for lemonade and I spot a zinc bathtub in an antiques shop; it's perfect for the cabin in Kentucky that I'm restoring. We spend the next hour rearranging everything in the Jeep, barely managing to get the tub inside. Too many hours and several wrong turns later, we career into New Orleans looking like the Beverly Hillbillies. We're no longer on speaking terms: I'm irked that Peggy still can't read a map; she gripes that I take too many detours.
The situation is tense as we check into the Omni Royal Orleans hotel, but after dinner at Antoine's the atmosphere warms up a few degrees. During a carriage ride to Café du Monde, our driver, a Creole man named Rope, has us laughing at his mispronunciation of "Ten-C Williams." All around us is the scent of jasmine.
By the time we order our first platter of beignets, things are back to normal. Sipping coffee, we reminisce about the great things we've seen on this trip, and study the possibilities for tomorrow. We're already feeling nostalgic—and ready for our next adventure.