It finally hits me in Utah at 1AM.
I’m filling up the rental car at an un-manned gas station along a desolate stretch of I-15. It’s barely lit and the convenience store is closed.
Eddie, the guy I’m driving cross-country with, is taking a whiz behind the building. An SUV pulls up at the pump across from me. Four guys who maybe, kinda, sorta look middle-eastern pour out of the car and stretch.
This is where I mention it’s four days after September 11th, 2001. No one can fly, so I’m driving back home to New York City from Los Angeles with a co-worker I’ve known for all of a month, who also happened to be out west.
Because of this, I’m thinking four things. One: Who are these guys? Two: Where are they driving to at 1AM? (Nevermind that it’s totally legal and we’re also driving at 1AM.) Three: The only plausible answer to one and two is that they’re somehow involved in 9/11 and driving under cover of darkness, and now that they’ve seen me see them they’re going to kill me. Four: Will Eddie pee long enough to miss it all and escape?
As I contemplate how best to use the gas nozzle to defend myself, a pick-up truck rolls in to the rescue. But wait: it’s two drunk women blasting country music. The driver slows down just enough for the passenger to open her door and puke. They pull away before she’s even closed it.
On beat, Eddie strolls out, nods hello to the maybe-terrorists, and hops in the car. I put the nozzle back and slide behind the wheel. Only 2,400 miles to go.
“Things are getting weird,” I say as I drive off, looking in the rearview mirror.
I couldn’t tell you if things were weird on our road trip because they honestly were, or because everything just felt weird that week. No matter what you did, it was done with 9/11 in mind. Terrorists just attacked the country, is it OK to get a cup of coffee? To listen to music? To do anything other than watch CNN?
I’d always wanted to drive cross country. I’d done a couple runs up and down the east coast by 2001. I’d eventually drive from San Diego to Seattle, too. There’s just something about crossing the country, though. It’s like giving America a bear hug. However, I didn’t want to do it like this. Because of this.
If you were from NYC and not in NYC that day you felt both gratitude for being spared the experience and a nagging sense of guilt. You wanted to be there for you family, your friends, your loved ones. You wanted to be there for the city. Not just the people, but the island itself. The week after 9/11, that meant driving no matter your starting point.
I’d flown from NYC to LA with a friend on the night of September 10th. When my cell phone didn’t stop ringing at 6AM the following morning, I knew something was going on. By 6PM that evening, I knew I didn’t want to fly anywhere. And by the next day, the point was moot. The whole country was grounded.
I called Eddie on the 12th. He’d been out here for a wedding the week prior and had a rental car. The Hertzes and Avises of the world were waiving a lot of fees and rules so people could get back home. I asked if he would be willing to do the drive. He said yes and we agreed to leave in a few days.
When he showed up at my friend’s house in the white Ford Escort, I thanked him for doing this.
“You know I don’t know how to drive, right?” I said.
Before he could punch me, I told him I was joking. We drove to a supermarket and bought a case of Hostess fruit pies, a case of peanut butter cracker sandwiches, and a case of bottled water. Then we headed to Las Vegas.
As I mentioned above, Eddie and I had only worked together for a month. Hardly the amount of time to say with any confidence, yeah, we’ll get along fine cramped in an economy rental car for 2,800 miles. So between LA and Vegas, we got to know each other. Luckily, we quickly recognized that we both had similar upbringings and a love for 80's metal.
This might just work, I thought.
The plan in Vegas was to grab some food at an all-you-can-eat buffet and quickly triple our gas money. The food worked out, the gambling not so much. Honestly, our hearts weren’t in it.
Las Vegas normally makes you want to shower repeatedly after you’ve been there, but that feeling came on quicker and stronger in the days immediately after 9/11. Everyone was either dripping with guilt or oblivious to the fact that the nation was in mourning. If America was a choir that week, Vegas was the tone deaf tenor. I think we lasted an hour.
After that Eddie and I agreed to drive straight through. No cities. No landmarks. No nothing. This wasn’t a sight seeing tour. This was a mission. We’d drive until we both couldn’t drive anymore. Which, it turns out, wouldn’t be until we crossed the Mississippi.
Google Maps says the route we took from LA to NYC along I-70 should take 41 hours. We made it in around 56. Which means we spent a grand total of 15 hours not in a motor vehicle over two and a half days.
To the best of my calculations, those 15 hours included the one mentioned above in Las Vegas, an hour at a Denny’s in St. Louis, six hours at a Motel 6 in Terre Haute, IN, and two hours eating dinner in Pittsburgh. That leaves about five hours for gas stations, drive throughs, rest stops, and midnight piss breaks on the side of the road.
How’d we manage that? Well, with the exception of Terre Haute, we’d take turns sleeping in 3-to-4 hour shifts in the passenger seat—or roughly the amount of time it took the driver to burn through half a tank of gas, find a station, fill ‘er up, and squeegee the front and back windshields. (Which also means if Eddie writes his version of this road trip, it’ll include all the things I missed while sleeping with a sweatshirt over my face.)
Our second gas stop in Utah was better. We walked into a 24-hour gas station/convenience store around 4AM. It was just us and the kid working the register.
He’d never seen an Italian and a Korean individually, let alone at the same time. We’d never seen an albino-Mormon-headbanger before. (Think: Garth from Wayne’s World, but paler.)
So we all got a story out of that one.
The days after 9/11 aren’t normally associated with beauty, but driving through the Rocky Mountains at sunrise was one of those unplanned natural marvels that leave you slack jawed. Some mornings, if I’m driving and the light is just right and the temperature is crisp enough, I roll down the windows and can almost trick myself into thinking I’m back.
Getting reliable information about the attacks was tough enough if you were in front of a television. So being in a car was like a sattelite circling Pluto trying to pick up communications from mission control. This was before smart phones, so we got whatever info we could from local radio stations and whatever the people at the gas stations knew.
One thing everybody seemed to know was somebody in New York City. A cousin, a friend, an old classmate. I don’t know if that’s mathematically possible — 8 million people in NYC and 342 million Americans everywhere else—but if you mentioned you were driving to New York, you realized the whole country was pulling for you and the city.
Well, almost the whole country. A police officer told us not to take people up on offers to stay at their homes—there were occasionally signs hanging on overpasses advertising free lodging in spare bedrooms for people driving to New York and DC. Turns out it was a scam and travelers were getting robbed. American ingenuity at work.
In Kansas you can see forever in front of you. And it’s always exactly 3 more hours away.
We crossed into Missouri that evening, hungry for something other than Hostess fruit pies. We pulled off the interstate in Kansas City to find a juke joint for some BBQ. We found a bunch of people who looked at us funny. We drove to a Burger King, but those people gave us even funnier looks. We decided the peanut butter cracker sandwiches in the back would do nicely and we got back on I-70.
We ended up at a Denny’s in St. Louis around midnight. There were 20 Japanese tourists there. At that point, Eddie and I agreed it would’ve been weird if there weren’t.
By Indiana, Eddie and I were seeing double thanks to very little sleep and our bodies working to digest something other than fruit pie filling. We pulled off at Terre Haute with recent memories of Timothy McVeigh and found a Motel 6. It was one of those courtyard motel set-ups, where every room faces a common outside area. Multiple people with tattoos were yelling at each another while running in and out of various doors.
We got a room with twin beds and tried to re-familiarize ourselves with life outside of a car or a rest stop. Eddie grabbed a hand towel in the bathroom and the whole rack came down. Exhausted, we laughed for 20 minutes. We were road simple by then.
When I finally crawled into bed, my body felt like it was still moving. It was the first time in over 24 hours that I was sitting or lying down in something other than a state of motion. My brain, however, was still on road.
The Terre Haute-to-Pittsburgh leg was like the food coma I imagine comes in the later half of a 10-course meal. It happened, but I couldn’t tell you what exactly. Except one thing.
Baseball had started again. I remember Eddie driving through a mountain and when we came out the other side a baseball stadium was there, fully illuminated like a mothership just landed. The Pirates were playing the Mets. It was like seeing the country take a breath again.
I passed out after dinner in Pittsburgh. It was technically my shift, but Eddie drove the last leg. I woke up that night on the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel. We could see that the skyline was different. And we could smell the smell everyone had been talking about. But I also remember the lack of traffic. There was one cop standing at the mouth of the tunnel, between here and home. He stopped us, glancing at the California plates.
“What you guys doing here?”
“Heading home. We were in LA when it happened. Drove back.”
He nodded like we weren’t the first, welcomed us back, and waved us through.
2,812 miles. 14 states. 56 hours. Repressed number of Hostess fruit pies.
Eddie dropped me off outside my now-wife/then-girlfriend’s building in the West Village. He and I were too tired to make a big deal about finally reaching our destination, so we waved goodnight to each other unsure what was going to happen next to the city we’d driven to get back to as quickly as possible.
I let myself into the apartment. She was asleep. Our dog curled up on my side of the bed. The only light came from the TV. A low hum of chatter from CNN explaining whatever was the breaking news at that point.
I didn’t need any news, though. I was with the person I drove all those miles to see. I shut the TV, crawled into bed, and closed my eyes. My body didn’t feel like it was moving. Nothing felt weird anymore. I was home.