On The Road

May 18, 2012

It’s been said, and it’s probably true, that, statistically, flying is a safer way of traveling than driving, although I wonder if anyone has ever studied the likelihood of surviving a car crash versus surviving a plane crash. And while driving you don’t have to worry about things like the car suddenly dropping out of the sky, or having to swerve around mountains, or a fellow passenger’s underwear exploding, or, most dangerous of all, airline food. Flying may be the fastest way to get from one place to another, but driving has its advantages. If you fly into a place you have no real sense of what it’s like because you’ve approached it from above. Driving you come into it gradually and can get a sense of how it’s grown. You can also stop a car and stretch your legs whenever you want. Or whenever the person driving wants. You can watch the countryside go by, while in a plane for most of the flight all you can see is sky and clouds, although I understand there are long stretches of interstate 80 through Iowa where all you can see is sky and corn, but at least you could stop the car and pick some corn. Try that in an airplane.

And I also admit that driving from Tennessee to eastern Oklahoma the countryside doesn’t really change that much, although there are things that make it interesting. For one thing no matter where you drive on any long road trip you’ll pass at least half a dozen places that claim to be world famous. They’ll claim to have world famous pickles, world famous tattoos, world famous tattoos of pickles, world famous cabinets, or world famous barbecue. All these places have one thing in common: you’ve never heard of any of them. Their claim to being world famous is that a dozen years ago somebody from Belgium who was visiting the United States decided to stretch their legs and sample the local pickles or maybe get a tattoo. The barbecue places all have one other thing in common: they always have pictures of smiling, happy pigs on their signs, which always makes me wonder if the pigs really would be happy if they knew they were about to be knocked on the head with a hammer, have their throats cut, their bellies split, and, eventually, their ribs thrown on a metal grate over a fire. I was kind of disappointed that eastern Oklahoma looks a lot like Tennessee and Arkansas. I was honestly expecting to see arid plains, tumbleweeds, and saloons once we crossed the border. I was expecting Woody Guthrie and all I got were toll booth attendants, even though I admit they were some of the nicest toll booth attendants I’ve ever spent six seconds talking to.

The main difference is that while Tennessee and Arkansas have towns with names like Franklin, Springfield, Knoxville, and Bug Tussle in Oklahoma the towns have names like Muskogee, Anadarko, and Okmulgee. It’s a good thing I don’t live in Okmulgee because if I did I’d constantly tell people where I lived, especially if I were visiting another place. Someone might ask me, "What time is it?" and I’d say "It’s a quarter after three in Okmulgee". And they’d say, "But we’re in Quito." And then I’d zone out for a couple of hours trying to decide whether Okmulgee was a cooler name for a city than Quito. (Answer: Okmulgee. Three syllables beats two.) I have to add that I regret never being able to find a postcard for Okmulgee. Or even Muskogee, which really is world famous because of the Merle Haggard song. I collect postcards. It’s a habit I started several years ago when I was on a long trip and my camera wouldn’t work, which didn’t bother me much because I felt walking around taking pictures made me look too much like a tourist anyway. But I wanted to have some memento of places I’d been, so I started buying postcards, because no tourist would ever walk into a hotel gift shop and buy twenty-seven postcards. I also have postcards of places I’ve never been but would like to visit, which is pretty much everywhere except Brussels, and postcards of works of art I like, and unusual postcards I just happened to like. People even sometimes send me interesting postcards, like the time a friend sent me a postcard with the Earth on it and on the back he wrote, "Wish you were here", which is a Steven Wright joke, but I’m flattered that it also applies to me. I even have complete strangers’ old postcards that have fallen out of used books I’ve bought, so I can say, "Hey, that’s great that Myra made it to Wales even after the amputation." I like postcards because I’ve discovered that most people are better at taking pictures than I am, especially since, when I got home from that original trip, I discovered the reason the camera wouldn’t work was because I’d put the batteries in the wrong way, but that’s another story. Something else you’ll notice about traveling west is that somewhere in Oklahoma they have very few road signs and they decided to not put numbers on the interstate exit signs. This might not be a problem, but Oklahoma’s roads actually warp the fabric of space time, so that it’s easy to drive from Muskogee to Tulsa but if you try to go back the way you came you’ll end up in Wyoming. This reminds me of a time when I was on a high school trip and I was riding with one of my classmates who’d just gotten her license. At one point we passed a sign that said "Welcome to Kentucky". I pointed this out to her and she said, "Oh, yeah, it’s part of Kentucky that juts down into Tennessee". Since we were supposed to be going southeast I wondered how far exactly this part of Kentucky jutted down.

And you can’t rely on a GPS device in Oklahoma. If you try using one all it says is, "Recalculating…recalculating…recalculating…I give up." I really wouldn’t complain about this if they’d just number the exit signs, mainly because I have a mild obsession with counting exit sign numbers. I think this started when I was a kid and my family would drive to Florida every summer, and at a certain point in Georgia my mother told me I could count down the exit sign numbers. Once we passed exit number one that meant we’d soon cross over the border into Florida. On another long road trip my father gave me a simple speed and distance math problem, and even though I hate math I worked it out and realized that when you’re traveling sixty miles an hour you’re going a mile a minute. And I would see signs that said 198 miles to the next town, and I’d calculate in my head at sixty miles an hour the next town was three hours and eighteen minutes away. Except I’m never sure how they calculate that distance. Is that the distance to the town center, or just to the edge of town where there’s a place that has world famous tablecloths? Anyway, that discovery, unfortunately, became another minor obsession and led to me calculating that thirty miles an hour is a mile every two minutes and fifteen miles an hour is a mile every four minutes, so if you’re traveling at seventy-five miles an hour you’re going 1.25 miles every minute, and at that point my ability to do math in my head completely breaks down until you get to a hundred and twenty miles an hour, and then you’re either flying or traveling through Wyoming. In conclusion I think it can safely be said that flying and driving each have their advantages, especially since while driving you are at a risk of exploding underwear if you’ve stopped to eat at that place that has world famous enchiladas.

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