(For the first chapter of this journey, read “History and the Call to Adventure.”)
And so the story’s end begins one December night in Northern Virginia. A few days earlier, I had received the text from my dad who, after a good bout of rumination, saw that the beauty in the idea could not be denied—“It’s on. The Chevy is coming home.”
I stood in front of the 14-year-old beauty I had left under the auspices of a family friend in the suburbs, remembering how it had come to this. I had tried to keep her with me when I moved out of Maryland and into D.C. However, since she still had California plates, I couldn’t get a city parking permit for her. As a result, I’d hide her on an unzoned street about a 15-minute walk from where I now lived. I’d learned of this secret street by word of mouth, and it was always lined with cars proudly displaying their out-of-state plates. My California Chevy was typically nestled between Missouri and Pennsylvania. In the beginning, I checked on her at least once a week. It always broke my heart when our time with each other would close and I’d leave her there to go on my way alone. As life in the city picked up, I visited her less and less, sometimes only once within nearly three weeks. It was after one of these longer stretches that I was confronted with a small piece of paper reminding me that I had to make a choice—“Warning Notice for Determination of Proper License,” also known as, “Give up your California identity within 15 days or we start ticketing.”
She couldn’t stay, and I wasn’t prepared mentally nor financially to make that type of decision. So, for the next two months, I left her in Virginia believing that I had forgotten about her, that I no longer wanted her. I visited her once to give her a quick spin, fill up the gas tank, and let fluids move through her tired joints. I remember how excited she looked to see me, but I also noticed that it felt as though something in her had died. She didn’t seem to have the same fight I remembered.
But, standing there at the beginning of this story’s end, I smiled, looked at her, and asked, “Well, old girl, I know I’ve asked a lot of you over the years, but tell me this—you got one more drive in you? Because I think it’s time we took you home.”
My dad landed at Washington Dulles International Airport the following day, and the Chevy could sense the building energy. She drove like a dream to pick him up, and she happily came with us for one last trip to suburban Maryland’s strip mall paradise to load up on bulk toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, and canned goods. In the morning, there’d be no looking back.
When the Chevy left California for my new life in the east, my dad and I had recently begun a joke riff about homeopathic healing for cars. We riffed an entire business plan for our shop that included “mechanics” who would sit with your car holding healing crystals, while others would stand nearby blowing didgeridoos. Our riffs are always based in reality, so we found it necessary before I left to practice some of these techniques on my Chevy. The idea was that, although the Chevy was old and there was a high chance she might not be up for such a long journey, a car could be fueled primarily on good energy. Before my Chevy pulled out of the driveway that day to head east, my dad performed a sacred dance with an elk horn he had picked up on a trip to Yellowstone, while I sat in front of the car in deep meditation with a Tibetan singing bowl.
When we were ready to depart D.C., it was not difficult for my father and me to realize that great energy work needed to be done on the Chevy before we hit the road. We were already greatly appreciative of the Reiki work my friend in Northern Virginia had been able to perform on the car when I picked it up, and understood that further ritual was required. Some may think that we went a little overboard, as our energy work postponed our D.C. departure until close to 4:00pm. However, it was all worth it, as it set the stage for what was to come. Plus, we got a great photo of my dad holding the Holy Bible and giving his sermon over the Chevy, while I stood laying hands on the car in worship.
We left the known world shortly after the photo was taken, called to adventure, to the open road. What we found was a great lull. The weather was dreary. It was already dark. The alignment issue I had failed to get fixed when it presented itself over a year ago was now causing quite an uncomfortable frontend shaking when the car got up to 65-75mph, also known as cruising speed for the next 3,300 or so miles. A high carb, high fat dinner just off the interstate had left us comatose. We couldn’t find music to fit the mood. This trip that we had built up so much in our minds appeared to be manifesting itself as just another long drive rather than an epic father-daughter journey.
As we drove through the darkness, nearing the Tennessee border, some supernatural aid in the Universe must have witnessed our lull, our need for a sign that we were following the right path. We crossed the border out of Virginia into Tennessee, and shining like a beacon in the night was a gigantic, glowing, white cross outside of a roadside church. “Wow!” we exclaimed, nodding at each other in affirmation of the moment we both inherently understood, a mutual understanding that would bond us closely as father and daughter throughout the entire trip, and even now as I write this.
We quickly put on some funky gospel music, became All Believers (basically accepting all spiritual beliefs as valuable and a part of our lives—the full description of this new concept will require its own blog post at a later date), and accepted Jesus Christ into the Chevy as our copilot. The entire mood of the trip shifted in that moment like a miracle. With each mile that passed, we began philosophizing, praising the Lord, laughing, laughing more, discussing the past, sketching out the journey ahead, and laughing some more. High on this overwhelming spirit, we stopped at a middle-of-nowhere gas station where we believe we met a bodhisattva working the cash register. He knew he was in the presence of two All Believers, and with boundless grace, offered us a free towel covered in Windex, so that we could clean the inside of the Chevy’s windshield that I had basically neglected since my dad had cleaned it over a year ago back in California. With a clean windshield, we saw our path clearly. We rested our heads in Knoxville.
The next morning, having officially crossed the threshold, we met our next helper along the journey. He presented himself to us in little Crossville, Tennessee at Shadden’s Tire Company. He would fix that disconcerting shaking-at-high-speeds issue we were experiencing so that the road could truly be ours. At checkout, the magnitude of the new world we were in became strikingly evident, as our journey’s mentor explained to us in southern country twang, “I don’t trust nobody. Nobody. That’s why I carry a gun. Now, I’m not goin’ta shoot nobody, but if they shoot, I’ll shoot back.”
We thanked our helper for sharing his world view, continued last night’s riff of letting Jesus into the Chevy, and let that car hit 80mph on the interstate, simply because now we could. It was beautiful. The momentum of the trip was growing, both literally and metaphorically. We dined and bootlegged internet in Nashville, booking our hotel for the night in Memphis with all gravitational pulls orbiting around Elvis.
Each day just seemed to build on the next, outdoing the peace and enlightenment found from the prior day. We were gliding with grace through the Bible Belt, fueled by the Lord and gasoline. As we pointed the Chevy towards Elvis Presley’s mansion, I put on the song that had instilled the desire in me to make this pilgrimage in the first place, a song my mother used to play when I was a kid—Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” I used to hate it, but as the years passed, I could see the words more vividly, I could see what she had seen all along, and I became a devout fan of its melody. Like the man in the song, the concrete reasons for why I needed to pilgrimage to Graceland were unclear, but the pull was strong. As the song filled the Chevy, I felt a lightness in my heart and a tingle in my bones. I smiled. It just felt right.
I can’t say that the parts of Memphis surrounding Elvis’s mansion were very scenic. I can’t even say much for the mansion. In fact, upon arrival, we were informed that Graceland was closed for the day. We couldn’t go inside, but we could walk up to the entrance and view the gardens. It seems silly. We went out of our way for a place that was kind of funky, closed, and honestly, neither of us had previously been huge Elvis fans. Yet, despite everything and anything, Paul Simon was right—“I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.”
I looked at the dense graffiti of messages written by worldwide fans on the walls surrounding Graceland’s grounds, and I was received, and entered a deeply spiritual state. In Elvis’s meditation garden, I was strongly drawn to the religious relics that surrounded Elvis’s final resting place, particularly a stone sculpture of two angels kneeling in fathomless devotion, gazing up in adoration at an open-armed, open-hearted Jesus. Standing under the beaming sun and blue sky next to this sculpture, my dad and I discussed the parallels between this level of devotion and Buddhist meditation.
The spirit of Graceland fueled my dear Chevy back onto the interstate and across the nearby Arkansas border. I worked remotely on a data project while my dad drove. We both took breaks to bond over snack foods while filling up on gasoline, and contemplated whether to just boldly blast through Arkansas or to try to stop somewhere. We had earlier discussed stopping in Little Rock to tour the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, but weren’t entirely sold on the idea. Eventually, however, we decided to stop, and what we found from making this decision was just what we seemed to continue to find during this entire Bible Belt chunk of our journey—the Lord was with us, guiding us, providing us with signs and inklings towards the right direction. As All Believers, we accepted this to be true.
We were bumbling through President Clinton’s library, moved by the remembrance of the many remarkable things he and Hillary accomplished during his presidential years, when a security guard asked us if we’d like to have our picture taken with him. We assumed that he meant in the mock Oval Office we were quickly viewing before hitting the road. However, as we began to pose, the security guard left the room with our camera and stood in a different part of the museum waiting for us. It took a bit of time for it to click, but then my dad and I both realized that we were standing, looking at President Clinton himself talking with a group of VIPs. It was a surreal moment, and one that seemed eerily cosmic. When we rested our heads that night in Oklahoma City, we were in awe of all that had transpired that day. There was no turning back now. This trip was happening, and it was happening in a manner that would undoubtedly reverberate throughout the rest of our lives together on this earth.
Since the beginning of the trip when we realized that we’d be driving through Amarillo, Texas, my dad and I had been incessantly singing the few lines we knew from George Strait’s country gem, “Amarillo By Morning.” Back when we were thinking about blasting through Arkansas without a stop, the plan was to have a 72-ounce steak dinner in Amarillo that night. But, since we had stopped and hence not made it as far as expected, by the grace of God, it was going to be “Amarillo By Morning” (mid-afternoon, but who’s counting). It was going to be hard to top a day of Elvis and President Clinton, but if any city could do it, it sure was Amarillo.
About 80 miles out, we began to see large billboards advertising the 72-ounce steak challenge at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo. If you could eat it in an hour, it was yours free. It was our dream. It was our destination. The billboards counted down the distance for us about every five to ten miles, and our excitement grew each time. The Lord was definitely still with us as we traveled through the Texas Panhandle, but a change was taking place that we wouldn’t fully grasp until we’d wake up the next morning in New Mexico. The winds in Texas were fierce. We had been feeling them a bit while driving, as the Chevy kept pulling off to the right, fighting the wind to keep moving forward. But it was when we stopped for gas that we truly got to sense the glory of the winds. The winds were alive, the force of the Earth herself. They created a mighty dust storm, blurring visibility and throwing tumbleweeds across the interstate in an endless stream. I tried to avoid them. My father and I yelled out in terror each time we saw one making its suicidal journey towards our concrete path. I missed most of them, but there was one that I took out without question. We traveled with the carnage of this sacrificed tumbleweed lodged in the front grill of the Chevy the rest of our journey home.
We did eventually make it to the Big Texan Steak Ranch, and it was everything it could have been and more. My dad didn’t end up doing the 72-ounce steak challenge like I had promised the world he would, but he did finish off a pretty plump 16-ouncer, and I ate a gravy-covered chicken-fried chicken breast that was about the size of an entire chicken. The Big Texan Steak Ranch was great, but what was better was being there with my dad. What was better was looking across the table at him and laughing. What was better was planning our next moves, while singing “Amarillo By Morning” over and over again until it reached the point of incoherence. I was happy. I felt redeemed by the grace of God, or by whatever—it didn’t really matter, it just was, we just were, and it felt great.
We left with full bellies to view some half-buried Cadillacs in the middle of a dusty farm plot. It was colder than the dickens, and we ran back to the car to dramatically defrost and debrief on the extent of how cold we were. And then we hit the road—a road that was, at least for these moments in our lives, our home. I had become the designated closer, taking over driving at nightfall and carrying us through until our heads hit the pillows. As my dad slept, I kept a steady foot on the pedal. The world’s light slowly sank to the bottom of the sky. There was now a darkness above that cradled the ephemeral sun between it and the earth.
It wasn’t until this moment in the trip that I finally stopped to ponder what was really happening. Upon conclusion, my Chevy and I would be going separate directions after having traveled many miles together. My mind automatically drifted back to when we shared company by the ocean, falling asleep to affectionate jazz. I chuckled knowing that my Chevy and I don’t kiss and tell. I knew that she had driven me into the reawakening I had needed. As the sun slipped closer to the horizon, the air around me turned yellow. Everything turned a yellow haze. I let the reality of my impending loss sink in. We were no longer in Amarillo anymore, but as the miles kept rolling behind us, I was reborn, smack dab in the middle of amarillo.
~to be continued~