Indiana Wants Me

T.S. Lowry

Summer road trips to the known (a story from summer 2020)

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Photo by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash

Being forced to spend 23 to 24 hours a day in my apartment during the pandemic means that I’ve had ample time for getting lost in my thoughts. After all, there isn’t much to look forward to this summer; no vacations, weekend getaways, or evening escapes to the bar for a drink (or three). I’m taking the pandemic seriously (see: asthma) and I won’t be returning to my regularly scheduled programming until a vaccine is available, even after stores, restaurants, and bars bust open their doors once again. So, I’ve been using this extra time venturing down Memory Lane.

As a kid, my dad would pack up my older brother and me in the car, and we would road trip to Indiana to visit family. These trips are some of my favorite childhood moments, placed high up on a pedestal along with memories of my mom picking me up from kindergarten, and our mother-son outings to B&N to binge-buy books (this one still happens to this day).

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It was tradition; for a week or two every summer, my vacation would be our annual road trip to Indiana. Whether we left in the morning, in the afternoon after my dad got off work, or late-night following hockey tournaments, Indiana was hands-down one of the most exciting and anticipated events of not only the summer but the entire year.

I’m not sure how my dad or brother felt about the seemingly endless drive — my dad drove 18 non-stop hours up until my brother was old enough to take the wheel — but I loved it. I sat in the backseat, sprawled out, without a care in the world, as is typical and a privilege when you’re in the single-digit years of your life. People tend to romanticize everything, so let me romanticize this: The car rides to Indiana were just as fun as Indiana itself. Or any destination, for those thinking, no shit, it’s Indiana.

In most cases, the journey to the destination is better than the destination. Anticipation can truly be a gift if only we can picture it as such, and see it for the adventure that it is. We all tend to live our lives on fast-forward, we’re all in such a hurry to get to someplace we're not — but when we slow down for a minute, we can realize that the greatest gift of all, similar to my Indiana trips, is the ride.

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I craved the gas station beef jerky, as well as the plethora of other overpriced and preservative-laden snacks that made the drive with us. Not only am I the polar opposite of a food snob, but these mini-meals signaled a road trip in the process. As a fast-food aficionado, even despite the fact that I’ve had — let’s get pretentious — the best paella in the world in Spain, my brother and I always looked forward to the McDonald’s in Limon, Colorado, because this specific restaurant made double cheeseburgers that looked exactly like the pictures they were pretending to be.

The gas station cappuccino, before I understood sugar (despite my dad being diabetic, and my early addiction to coffee), was the best cup of hyper, solely because it represented being on our way to Indiana.

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Music played as we cruised through Kansas, hands hanging out of the open window, and staring at the same endless scenery for miles. It might not sound glamorous, but music and miles of the big open sky have a way of tuning out the rest of the world — it gives you the time to think about everything. It’s so easy, even as a kid, to put your life on auto-pilot and go through the motions. One day you’re driving in the car with your family and staring out the backseat window, and the next day, the 29-year-old version of you is looking through the rearview.

I remember doing pushups in the backseat as if I was going to drop my flab by the time we got to my aunt’s house in Monticello, or grandparent’s house in Wolcott. While I always had the right mindset, it never worked (I blame the jerky and cappuccino). Future me would discover that crash diets and extreme fitness programs don’t work either — at least not for me. Plus, my form was total garbage.

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The heat always seemed to get more intense as we approached Missouri, and sticky humidity glued beads of sweat to every crevice of our bodies. It was typically my dad, brother, and me, although there was the time when my mother drove us; my dad was already in Indiana, comforting his sisters and awaiting our arrival for his dad’s funeral. In the fourth grade, this was something I didn’t understand at the time and viewed as a get-out-of-school-free card.

Before my parents separated, the four of us would embark on this 18-hour trek, but my still-forming brain didn’t store those memories. There was also the time when my friend and I made the drive together after high school, and once when my brother and I hit the open road during the worst storm of my life one summer. Semis cruised by and drenched my beat-up, hydroplaning VW Golf with rainwater, my legs were shaking and the map showed a purple cloud ominously hovering above, following us for miles. Although both life-after-high-school trips were memorable, nothing can ever replace those excursions from when we were kids, forever young.

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I love Indiana.

I love what it stands for to me: Family. Vacation. Working on my tan at the lake. Living in the moment. Thinking about being the person I wanted to be when I return to Colorado: Funny, kind, and unforgettable.

I didn’t know it then, but being “on” (aka the life of the party) wasn’t always achievable thanks to a debilitating concoction of traditional anxiety and social anxiety. I would eventually discover why people call alcohol liquid courage, and use it to temporarily drown my anxiety away.

These trips eventually turned into times at the lake, playing bags, and drinking too many beers. I miss it. I miss the road trips even more. Mostly, I miss being close to my family as my dad moved back to Indiana after I graduated high school. I left Colorado (where my brother and mom still live) after I graduated college. Now, every holiday is a decision that requires involved planning, as we’re all scattered haphazardly throughout the country.

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Kansas City was the first landmark, I could smell my aunt and uncle’s cooking from there. They own a restaurant and unlike many chains, they focus on quality, fair prices, and building a friendly community. Even when we weren’t ordering off the menu, my aunt and uncle would cook thick crab legs, jumbo barbecue bacon-wrapped shrimp, and countless other home-cooked meals that have me drooling on the keyboard just thinking about them. I lived in a relatively big city in Colorado, and have also lived all over Southern California, as well as visited eight different countries, but it was in a small town in Indiana that I had the best meals of my life. Let’s call that small-town Flavortown. *Guy Fieri chef’s kiss.

While I consider myself close to my dad and my brother, it’s not always easy to relate to your parents and older siblings when you’re growing up. Even if you want to be exactly like them because they’re your heroes. People tend to be closed off when they’re young, and even as we grow older, we tend to keep many of our feelings to ourselves, as emotions can feel sacred.

We blasted music loud and proud because my concert-loving dad was raised on the radio, and raised us the same way. He passed that love down to us. Music and sports are how we relate to one another. Throughout the stages of our lives, these two topics are what keep us tethered. I understand that sounds like every other dude and his dad, but I’m, for one, not a man’s man. You can argue that ‘men like sports,’ but for me, sports were how I inched my way closer to my father and brother’s worlds when I was young. Maryland does crab cakes and football; we did music and sports.

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Driving through St. Louis, it’s crazy to say an annual one or two-week vacation changed my life, but it did. We weren’t exactly the Griswolds (which is probably a good thing because things rarely ever went wrong). Although as I type this, I remember the rental car’s alternator going out on the highway the one time we decided to rent a vehicle. In true sibling fashion, my brother and I fought frequently as kids, adding a bit of ‘excitement’ to the 18-hour rides, and Indiana was also remarkably rough on my asthma. In hindsight, I guess maybe we were a little bit like the Griswolds after all!

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I suppose I didn’t know what was going through my dad’s head as he was funding these excursions. My family didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but my parents did a great job of keeping this from us. They did their best to make us feel just like the other kids, letting us play whatever sports we desired. We were spoiled and didn’t even know it. Alas, hockey equipment and leagues aren’t cheap, but luckily I preferred McDonald’s over Red Lobster for my birthday, so it kind of balanced things out. I noticed that many of my friends lived in nicer houses, but I don’t remember ever being jealous of their more luxurious lives. I wouldn’t have traded those Indiana trips for any of their fancy vacations or all the expensive toys in the world — and I still wouldn’t. Even though I’ve been to Hawaii, Spain, all over the Caribbean, and have lived in paradise (Southern California) for six years and counting, I still cherish those Indiana summers over anything else.

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As we approached the same endless sea of cornfields and landmarks on the drive back, I always felt different. Changed, tanner, my pants slightly tighter. I had new material that I couldn’t wait to unpack on my friends. Again, I had time to explore my thoughts and think about nothing while, actually, thinking about everything. My cousins’ lessons and way of life lingering in my head. One summer, they played “Country Grammar (Hot Shit)” by Nelly and the song blew my mind — my musical tastes would also be forever changed, as I instantly knew this was what cool people listen to; my cousins were cool, or at least my definition of the word, and I had a new artist and album to show off to my friends when I returned home. The catchphrases, the jokes, the attitude, the clothes, the bravado. Sure, I got a lot of that from my brother, but I remember discussing comebacks with him to try to counter whatever my quick-witted cousins had in store for us — we had to prepare for their “Midwest love.” Of course, they always won those battles, but now I could use their language with a twist on my friends. Although I only saw them and the rest of my dad’s side of the family for a couple of weeks each year, that little amount of time, whether they knew it or not, played a pivotal role in who (and what) I am today.

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As we pulled up to our ranch-style home in Colorado, typically tired as hell in the wee hours of the night, I wondered why “Indiana Wants Me?” There were countless other songs by ELO, Fastball, Dishwalla, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Elton John, Queen, or whatever else my dad put on the radio. I guess a more upbeat song such as “The Boys of Summer” or School’s Out” would have been more fitting from a tone standpoint. Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Let Her Cry” always transports me back to those long drives. Despite not being in the realm of “upbeat,” nor had anyone ever broken my heart (yet), I let Hootie take me under his spell. Every time I push play, I think back to when we melted into the car seats and truly lived in the moment. Although we were excited to get to Indiana, all we had was the present, with each other (Indiana summers forever). I guess while I can appreciate a destination vacation, nothing can ever replace being with the people you love, no matter where you are. Years later, as I shuffle through the memories, love is the most important and enduring message I’ve learned through our road trips to a little part of the world, known as Indiana.

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Just a guy who likes to cruise the aisles at the local 7-Eleven

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