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The First Road Trip

Adventure is out there, but it might take a while to find it.



In the minds of three 18-year-olds, it was a perfectly good idea.

One of us had just gotten a new car for Christmas, and it was obvious to all of us that we needed to go on a road trip -- to break the car in, you understand. And the only destination that made sense at the time was St. Louis, specifically to get some beer at the Budweiser brewery.

So we worked out our flawless plan, a classic among those with fewer than 20 years' experience in life: I told my mom we were spending the night at Walker's house, Walker told his mom we were at John's house, and John told his mom we were at my house. Beautiful. We were northbound on I-55 by midnight.

Across the river and up through Marion, we were yelling loud enough to be heard in other cars. We were free! We were on the road! We had left behind our suburban lives, cranked up the stereo, and gone out looking for adventure -- and nobody even knew we were gone!

There's a wonderful scene in the film The Graduate. It is, in fact, the last scene. The hero has grabbed the girl from the clutches of an unhappy marriage-to-be, he's swept her out of the church, and now they're riding off into their glorious future together. They wave out the back window of a bus, and then the camera switches to show them from inside, and you can just feel the credits about to roll, and then they both settle into their seats, sigh, and each look out separate windows. And then the credits roll.

It's a powerful moment, and one not planned. The actors thought the scene was over, and it was, in the Hollywood Mind. So they relaxed and thought to themselves, What's next? But the filmmakers decided to leave their reaction in, because their appearance is the definitive look of "What's next," the reality that never makes it into Hollywood. I mean, after the heroes ride off into the sunset, that's great, but the next day that sun comes up again and they have to, you know, live.

I bring this up because, somewhere north of Marion, John, Walker, and I looked at each other and said, "What's next?" Actually, we probably said, "It's 3 a.m., and how many miles to St. Louis?" We had ridden off into the sunset all right, but we had also gone beyond the end of the movie, and we now faced five hours of post-midnight driving on what must be one of the most boring stretches of road in America. And by the time that sun came back up, we were some seriously foggy individuals. We were physically cranked on Mountain Dew and No-Doz, but mentally we might as well have parked the car in Jonesboro.

We were stumbling around aimlessly, trying to find the adventure in predawn downtown St. Louis, when it occurred to me that we had come here for beer. So we went into a store and said, "Can we buy beer?" Again, to our 18-year-old minds, it made perfect sense. To the store owner, underage drinkers had even less than the usual chance of scoring beer at 7:30 a.m.

So we decided to aim for breakfast. I don't recall where we wound up, but I do recall it quite clearly as the worst meal I ever ate. And I've had yak-butter tea. When we ordered scrambled eggs in this place, they scooped them out of a cardboard barrel, like the ones in ice cream stores. The sausage was limp and soggy with grease, though oddly chewy. The coffee probably would have benefited from the introduction of toxic waste.

Between the caffeine of the sleepless night before and now this horrible mistake sitting in our stomachs, we were wishing we could be beamed back to Memphis.

Still, there was this notion of adventure, this need to do something that would one day make a good story. So we headed for Busch Stadium, determined to sneak in. When we arrived, there was a gate standing wide open. We tentatively stuck our heads in and saw no one. We stood there for a few minutes, wondering if it could possibly be the case that the whole of Busch Stadium, including the field where the Cardinals had won the World Series just two years before, was ours for the romping.

And while we were standing there thinking about all this, a groundskeeper came along and told us we needed to split. This was the sense of big-time adventure we had learned in our 18 suburban years.

In full retreat now, and with John curled up in the back seat promising he'd soon reveal his breakfast to us once more, we decided to head for home. There would be no brewery for us. We stopped at a McDonald's on the way out of town and got some hashbrowns and orange juice to settle our stomachs.

Our moms had figured us out by now, of course, and had planned the full range of punishments for us. Walker's mom was talking about grounding him until he got a graduate degree. John's mom was angry but also thought it was kind of funny. And my mom ... well, my mom must have been thinking that if this is what he has in mind for the first 24 hours of owning a car, what else could be coming down the pike? Poor mom. She had no idea.

Back down I-55 with one friend asleep in the passenger seat and another moaning in the back, I figured my adventures would only get better from here.

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