Playlist

“These highways make no freaking sense.”

My dad cursed under his breath as the GPS once again flashed recalculating and we cruised past another poorly marked exit that would apparently take us where we needed to go. “Call your brother. See if he can direct us through this nightmare.”

I dialed my oldest brother’s phone number as our navigation system gave up trying to make sense of the crisscrossing highways. “You are on an unrecognized road” the monotonic female voice intoned, causing Dad to growl that we were on the “damn freeway.” The phone rang and rang until my brother’s prerecorded voicemail message told me he was unavailable.

Unavailable? He knew we were arriving in Houston that evening. He knew we had spent the past two and a half days cooped up in my dad’s sedan. He knew that we were coming all the way from Pennsylvania just to spend Thanksgiving with him, so why wasn’t he waiting around for us to call and desperately ask for directions?

It’s like he had a life.

This is the route my dad and I followed from Reading, PA to Houston TX.

My dad’s frustration mounted; he fiddled with the GPS, trying to get it to register the extremely recognizable road we were on, until, finally, he saw an exit sign for my brother’s town. As we pulled off onto the ramp, my tightened muscles relaxed, and the map on the navigation screen decided to do its job and show us where we were and point us in the right direction. The tension in my dad’s face visibly faded — we were back on track. We wouldn’t have to spend the night wandering around Texas, looking for my brother’s apartment. Things were once again going according to my dad’s meticulously laid plans.

The music that had filled the car previously was turned all the way down when we got lost. I leaned towards the dashboard and turned the volume knob to the right. A few songs had gone by while we were panicking, but chances were we had already listened to them a million times on the trip — 22 hours in and I had our music lineup virtually memorized.

Dad probably knew it by heart; his enthusiasm for developing the perfect road trip soundtrack was unmatched, even by the love I had developed for highway rest stops over the course of the drive.

I smiled as I remembered when my dad had started developing his beloved playlists. The first time I walked in on one of his brainstorming sessions, all of my own half-baked plans of studying during the trip evaporated into dust.

It was a weekday, around 7:00, and he had returned from work just moments ago. His tie was still firmly knotted at this throat, cuffs buttoned, and dress pants not yet exchanged for jeans. His laptop sat open in front of him on the kitchen table, and he was staring at the screen.

Now, this was normal. He liked to read the news or browse Amazon while eating dinner after a long day of legal work. Sometimes, he would also turn on the TV and let NCIS play in the background, not really watching but I suppose taking some sort of pleasure in the familiar characters and plot-lines. He had a routine, and he followed it.

However that day there was no plate of food spinning slowly in the microwave, no Mark Harmon filling the space with background noise, and no Amazon wish list being updated with the things I would later purchase for Father’s Day. What was he so eager to do that he had strayed from a perfectly good and familiar system to this new, confusing one?

In an attempt to sleuth my way through this puzzle, I casually walked behind his chair and glanced at the monitor. What I saw offered no immediate explanation; he seemed to be intently studying his music library on iTunes. Was he reorganizing the 10,000 plus songs in a new format that was somehow superior to his beloved convention of artist’s last name, first name? But no, another peek at the screen showed him typing the word “Pennsylvania” into the iTunes search bar. Dad, iTunes isn’t Google.

I learned that what had caused this unusual derailment was my dad’s desire to add another playlist to his already exhaustive collection. This playlist had only one criterion: all of the song titles must include the name of one of the states we would be passing through on our way to Texas.

A section of the infamous States playlist — and what my dad sends when I ask him for a screenshot.

He gave me a list of states — Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas — and asked for suggestions, but the best I could come up with was Billy Joel’s “Allentown.” Dad told me that this didn’t count. Apparently, it didn’t follow the rules. Still, he indulged me and put it on the playlist, anyway (I suppose it was hard to argue with me, when he decided that Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” merited a spot on the list).

The playlist grew — I don’t think he enjoyed watching something develop so much since my siblings and I outgrew the toddler stage — filled with the most obscure songs imaginable. Evidently, “West Virginia” isn’t a very popular phrase to include in a song title.

My favorite addition was “Maryland, My Maryland” by Bob Crosby and His Bobcats. It’s not that the song was particularly good, in fact, I can’t even remember what it sounds like, but when my dad first added it to the playlist, he thought the artist was Bing Crosby, and that really makes all the difference.

There were other playlists too: one filled with 80s poppunk throwbacks, one jam-packed with songs that made middle-aged people go “great song!” (it was called, unexpectedly, “Great Song”), and one that only contained songs with titles including words referencing driving or roads.

We played them on a loop — 44 hours is a very long time to go without structured musical enjoyment — so I was forced to listen to the “Pennsylvania Polka” at least twice each day we spent in the car. I’m a person with ears, so polka music is not my favorite, and when it came on towards the middle of the trip, it proved effective at exacerbating my already irritable mood.

We had been driving for approximately two days at this point, nearing the end of Mississippi and preparing to cross into Louisiana; it was cramped in the car — despite my impressively short legs — and my butt hurt from sitting. We were only stopping every few hours to go to the bathroom, having commandeered food from our hotel breakfast to eat in order to avoid a lunch break.

I was hungry and bored and sore and the last words I wanted to hear were “strike up the music / the band has begun.” I audibly groaned, not even attempting to disguise my displeasure; my patience had run out somewhere around Tennessee. Dad looked at me, smiling as he said, “You know, your grandfather used to play this all the time when I was a kid.”

Okay, but I wasn’t driving to Texas with him.

I bit back a saucy retort and instead opted to let my dad tell me stories about his childhood, most of which I had heard before. He told me about living through the second Johnstown flood and the time he climbed down the mountain to get to town. The incline was closed, and, naturally, the most rational course of action was to hope that he didn’t die while walking down the tree-studded slope.

As a kid, my dad brilliantly decided to climb down this mountain in Johnstown, PA, instead of just staying home for the day. This picture is taken from the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.

I heard about his old record player, and probably asked him what an eight track was eight times. After patiently explaining, and rolling his eyes at my youthful ignorance, he told me that he disposed of all his records years ago, which he regrets, but I suspect that if he still had them, they would just be gathering dust in his closet. Like all the CDs he has, neatly stacked in a box near his shoes, gradually fading into obsolescence.

For all the stories I heard throughout the trip, we spent many hours in silence, gazing out at the passing mountains in Virginia, looking at the trees in Tennessee, admiring the swamplands in Louisiana. Weird place, Louisiana.

To date, it’s the only place I’ve ever been where one can fill up their gas tank and play some blackjack all in one building. The combined gas station/casinos truly are a marvel. My dad and I spent nearly our entire drive in the state giggling each time we saw one. Our similar senses of humor allowed us to find joy in these seemingly innocuous occurrences. Or, maybe, that’s just what spending two days on the road does to a person.

When it came time to change the music, we took turns picking the playlist. I was partial to “poppunk”, and he was particularly proud of the compilation of great songs he had put together — I think because, when I recognized a song, it validated his taste in music. I remember when “Heart of Gold” came on, and I started singing along, he asked me, “How many of your friends even know who Neil Young is?” One, to my knowledge. He smiled, impressed that his millennial daughter cared about music from his own adolescence. Happy that his child could connect with him in this way.

A part of me thinks that Dad went overboard with the music; we have XM radio, after all. But a larger part believes that it kept us sane on the trip. Our spirits were high for most of the drive down, reveling in his nostalgia and ignoring the stiffness in our legs. In fact, while my dad has been known to yell at people in traffic (as if they could hear him in their cars, and would listen to him even if they could), I think the first time he raised his voice is when we got caught on the hellish Houston highway.

Luckily, by the time we found the correct exit, we were only about a 10 minute drive from my brother’s apartment. And after 22 hours of driving, 10 minutes felt infinitesimally small. After a quick stop at the grocery store to pick up coffee (my brother doesn’t drink it — my dad and I need it to function), we arrived around 10:00 at night, gave my brother the appropriate hugs, and immediately crashed in the living room.

For two days, we sat around the apartment, catching up with my brother and watching sports. For two days, I could get up and walk around whenever I chose to do so. For two days, I wasn’t confined to a car.

And then it was back on the road. Thanksgiving break is only so long, and skipping school to hang out in Houston wasn’t really an option for me. The drive back was mostly uneventful, although I do remember almost crying with relief when we passed a Wawa in Maryland. We were back in the northeast.

My favorite moment of the trip came during my first turn at the wheel. We were nearing the end of Georgia, the iPod set to the states playlist, when “Sweet Home Alabama” came wafting out of the speakers just as we passed a sign welcoming us to that very state.

Sometimes, we’ll mention that moment to one another, both of us smiling and shaking our heads, still in utter disbelief. Then my dad will ask me, “how about we take another drive to Texas?” I’ll respond with a firm “no” and turn up the volume of a Johnny Cash song to drown out his exclamations of fake offense.