Suddenly, there were headlights coming straight towards us. They swayed erratically as they accelerated out of the exit lane. We were no more than 200 yards apart – and the gap between us was closing at a rate of 50 yards each second. Adrenalin pumped furiously; white knuckles glowed in the dark; we could feel our hearts beat.
I instinctively swerved our car on to the shoulder of the interstate. Time stood still. If the other driver chose that moment to turn in the same direction, time wouldn’t start again.
We didn’t have time to hold our breath before the headlights sped past us, rushing the wrong way into oncoming traffic.
The longest four seconds of our lives were within a hair’s breadth of being our last.
We were just 100 miles from the end of a 10-day, 10-state, 3,000-mile road trip around the southern United States. It had been laugh-out-loud funny and painfully distressing. It had been wonderfully tacky and serenely beautiful. It had been inspiring, poignant, enthralling, confusing – and just plain weird.
Faced with the task of adequately conveying the diversity of these experiences, I was tempted to write a “first-we-did-this-then-we-did-that” account of our trip. Indeed, my notes regarding the places we saw and the things we did were laid out in chronological order, listed under the names of the states that marked our clockwise progress through them.
However, I soon realized that was merely the context. It wasn’t the story.
We had started with only a vague idea of where we wanted to go. Beyond deciding that San Antonio, Texas – 1,250 miles from our North Carolina home – would be the westernmost point of our adventure, everywhere else took its tentative place in a sketchy itinerary. If we had taken the time to write it down, we would have done so in pencil. Very lightly.
A rough calculation would also have revealed a journey involving approximately 50 hours of driving. When we weren’t in the car, a small, variably musty, characterless box of a room would serve as our home for the night.
And so, as we pulled away from our house, the heavy anticipation of our unknown adventure was only matched by the unspoken trepidation of three people about to spend every minute of the next ten days in close, inescapable proximity to each other. It was as if we had volunteered to participate in a social experiment – a kind of mobile Big Brother – designed to show how the effects of an ill-chosen word, a careless act, or an otherwise barely perceptible mannerism are magnified when there’s nowhere to hide.
The success of our journey ultimately depended on no one wanting to vote someone else out of the car.
Within a few hours, however, any lingering pensive thoughts were shaken from our minds by the high-speed bedlam of Atlanta’s orbital interstate, where the rules of the road – not to mention a few of the laws of physics – are suspended as cars weave chaotically in and out of lane markings that seem only to be there for decoration.
We travelled on through the jarring contradictions of Biloxi, with the nerve-jangling neon signs of its high-rise hotels and their offshore casinos and, a few yards inland, its random series of concrete foundation blocks; all that remains of glorious southern mansions that, until Katrina’s 2005 visit, kept watch over the Gulf of Mexico.
There was the expected decadence of New Orleans; a city better equipped than most to confound its guests. Yet, it was the relatively healthy experience of being joined on our morning run by a few thousand Crescent City 10K runners that revealed a city that retains its capacity to surprise.
There was a refreshing lesson in city planning in San Antonio, whose River Walk simply demands exploration. It was also the city in which we unfolded a map and plotted a different route home; a route that would take us through the middle of a nation’s inconvenient past.
Austin’s weird present stood between us and that past. There was a swarm of bats under the South Congress Street bridge, a man playing a ukulele inside a large lemon, and an apartment complex whose buildings had been numbered as if to confuse an invading army.
Then there was the poignancy and mildly disconcerting feeling of driving over two Xs in the middle lane of Elm Street in central Dallas; both visible from the 6th floor corner window of a former book depository.
There were the disturbing images of vicious hatred, the incendiary language and the unapologetic racism that, 60 years earlier, brought Central High School in Little Rock and nine brave children in search of an education to the world’s attention.
There were 180 enthralling Memphis minutes spent standing outside the Lorraine Motel in silent tribute to a giant of a man, watching small ducks waddle down a red carpet, and walking in the footsteps of legends at Sun Studio.
There was a church on Birmingham’s 16th Street, standing proudly and defiantly. Within its walls, a 1963 atrocity took the lives of four young members of its congregation, shocked a nation, and galvanized a movement.
And there, experiencing it all with wide open eyes and minds, were the three of us.
Unburdened by a fixed itinerary, we made instinctive decisions – to turn here, to stop there, to throw out yesterday’s tentative plan in favor of today’s impulsive idea.
As mile followed mile, we relaxed into our roles like reality show contestants who had forgotten about the cameras. The conversation flowed, but the silence was comfortable. We expressed opinions and we compromised; our new, shared experiences enhanced by our different expectations.
When we sat down for dinner, our phones remained out of sight as we recalled the events of the day – and anticipated what lay ahead tomorrow. When we arrived in our room for the night, we didn’t instinctively reach for the television’s remote control.
Yes, we used our phones, but not in a heads-down, oblivious-to-the-world-around-us manner. We used them to capture images of our journey; to navigate the streets of today’s unfamiliar city; to access the podcasts we would listen to, together, as the wheels turned.
Then, late on a Saturday evening in South Carolina, just as our minds were turning to thoughts of a familiar bed, less than a mile ahead of us someone was accelerating past a “wrong way” sign.
We had spent the last ten days constantly in each other’s company. Any feelings of trepidation we felt before we left home had been blown away by an air of self-congratulation. But we weren’t merely approaching the end of a successful journey. We had explored. We had laughed. We had taken mostly unsuccessful selfies. We had lived.
And we were still speaking to each other.
These thoughts were interrupted by unexpected headlights rushing towards us. Looking back on it now, swerving out of their path was like a final act of defiance: we were simply not going to let a wrong way driver rewrite our script with a desperate, terrifying, ratings-grabbing plot twist.
This is our reality show. It’s our story. It has my favorite characters and an intriguing narrative. And I hope it will run forever.
Immediately after the wrong way driver incident, we called 911 to alert the police. When we arrived home, and for the next few days, we scoured the local news for reports of accidents in the area on that Saturday night. There were none.