Five decades seemed long enough. I took my last road trip in 1960, when my mother and I journeyed to New York City with my Aunt Lil and Uncle Dave. (Dad quit traveling after he threw up a cheese sandwich in a plane swooping over the Grand Canyon.) Mom and I sat in the back seat, admired the scenery, and shared PB&J sandwiches. In the city, we saw Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway and stayed at the legendary Essex House hotel across from Central Park: big stuff for a small-time girl.
On the way back, the fun excursion took a nasty turn at a Jerry’s restaurant in Fort Wayne, where a waitress accidentally poured hot coffee down my back. The scalding pain, I recall, didn’t compare with the embarrassment when Mom tore off my blouse, hollering like a banshee for ice. I wound up in the ER with, thankfully, only minor burns. The memory, which I came to associate with lengthy car travel, lingered.
This time, a half-century later, my husband and I were to embark on a two-day drive to Florida so we’d have a car at our destination for the winter. I looked upon the outing with some trepidation, not so much because of my childhood trauma—that had faded—but due to the man’s penchant for scholarly audio lectures. The prospect of being confined to a vehicle worried me far less than the thought of listening to Philosophy and Intellectual History, Volume 2 for 18 hours. As a compromise, I purchased the 12-CD set of The Boys in the Boat, the bestselling account of the University of Washington rowing team’s quest for a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics. If my itinerary was reliable, we would complete the book and the trip at approximately the same time.
8 a.m., Day One. Nineteen degrees. Passing flat farmland, I see little of interest until we approach the famous Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Had I not once suffered a sweaty, breathless bout of claustrophobia in the submarine USS Clamagore in South Carolina, I might suggest we stop. This time I wouldn’t have my friend Ann pushing through the crowd, saying, “Excuse us, claustrophobic here, move along, move along.” Joe Rantz, my favorite character in The Boys in the Boat, is deserted at age 10 by his parents. He begins to learn the skills necessary not just for survival, but for success.
12:30 p.m. We are chasing warmth. Forty-three degrees at the Tennessee border! Before long, Opryland signs dot the terrain, tempting me. We pass the weirdest-sounding town yet, Murfreesboro, and I wonder how residents identify themselves. Murfreesboroites? Near Chattanooga, The MoonPie General Store sounds fun; so does Lookout Mountain, which has a zipline. Let’s be honest, though: I’d more likely be rubbed with pig fat and swallowed whole by an anaconda, like that crazy dude on the Discovery Channel, than zoom through the treetops in a harness. With brainpower and tenacity, Joe Rantz has found his way to the University of Washington, joined the crew team, and defeated the California freshmen.
We didn’t stop to smell the flowers, but we caught a good whiff as we drove by.
3:30 p.m. Fifty-one degrees in north Georgia! We have passed the Tennessee River shimmering in the sunlight, and Nickajack Lake spreading out on both sides of the highway. Dalton, Georgia, the world’s presumed carpet capital, is littered with billboards and warehouses. Outlet malls take the place of soaring hills, and I wonder how nature can identify a state line. Coach Al Ulbrickson reminds the boys that the objective is more than just winning the highest rowing honors in America. To go to the Olympics, and win the gold, is the goal.
5:45 p.m. Atlanta! I feel energized, happy. A road trip is fun! I’ve seen signs for Bojangles’ Homemade Biscuits and Sugar’s Ribs, and recognize I am squarely in the South. Joe Rantz is racing in the Oakland Estuary off San Francisco Bay in the rain.
8 a.m., Day Two. Dips in the road, vistas, and billboards advertising adult bookstores. The cotton fields seem so foreign, I at first identify them as snow-covered cropland. Double-decker signs for Chinese buffets and truck repair shoot up everywhere. Lady Bird Johnson was right: Our fragile American landscape should not be pockmarked with crass commercialism. Sixty-three degrees in Valdosta! Joe spends the weekend with his girlfriend, Joyce, on Lake Washington, where he and his father, since reconciled, are building a house. The couple worry about Joe’s siblings, now motherless.
11:25 a.m. Welcome to Florida! We spot signs for Ron Jon Surf Shop, although, after countless trips to the state, I’ve never seen the store. Spindly white pines have shed their lower limbs, and the landscape is as flat as Indiana’s. Seventy-eight degrees! We pass Florida State Fire College, and I wonder aloud if they teach how to set blazes or, I hope, put them out. Joe’s crew team, having won nearly all its college races, is led by a police convoy through New York City en route to the Olympics.
2 p.m. At a curious town called Howey-in-the-Hills near Orlando, service plazas host 18-wheelers in Crayola colors, parked at perfect angles. By 3:30, we admit to growing stiff and weary. The boys are aboard the SS Manhattan on their way to Berlin.
5:30 p.m., Arrival. Eighty-one degrees! We have gotten to know America, at least this swath of it, in a way we never had flying overhead. We didn’t stop to smell the flowers, but we caught a good whiff as we drove by. It takes us three sessions in various parking lots to finish the book and learn who wins the gold medal. It is, despite Hitler’s devious rules, Joe and the boys. He and Joyce marry and raise five children.
In his author’s note, Daniel James Brown says that books can have hearts and souls. This one, full of both, has helped us to drift 1,100 miles south in perfect harmony. Like Joe, we attain our goal—he by racing, we by taking it nice and slow.
Illustration by Andrea Eberbach