Reality Truck: The Road to AAN
Optional intro quote: In travel, as in most of life, less is invariably more. -Anne Tyler, The Accidental TouristMy friends have been quick to point out that the death of veteran newsman Charles Kuralt leaves a journalistic opening for an On-the-Road reporter. Sorry. Count me out. Oh sure, travel builds character, according to your average adventurous, itinerant, nomadic type. From what I can observe, so does cancer, but it's rare that you hear anyone recommend it. I try to avoid character-building experiences every chance I get, so it was with fear and loathing that I recently prepared for a business trip to Montreal. As I was packing up, my ex-boyfriend Festus happened to fax me a New York Times clipping describing Canada's current "moral tango" over its toplessness statutes. The article went on at some length about the popularity of topless car washes: "young women who make money washing windshields at busy intersections realized that by going topless they could increase their incomes." (Duh.)His recommendation was that I should adopt a "when in Rome" attitude and avail myself of the Queen City's capitalist bounty if I should find myself with some spare time in between seminars. Frankly, I was all for anything that would result in less packing, but given my bedraggled appearance after 16 hours in a car, I'm sure I could've made more money hustling fellow tourists who would've gladly paid me to put my top back on.Of course an 800-mile trip isn't usually a 16-hour drive. I had rented a large American-made car with an engine roughly the size of my living room ("this is your father's Oldsmobile") for speed and comfort, but for some inexplicable reason my Triptik had been mapped along the scenic, upper-Sandusky, summer construction route.Detroit's especially lovely and fragrant this time of year-its flame-belching smokestacks lending a whole new appreciation for those EPA warnings about global warming. But I must admit that I was prejudiced by the fact that the motor city presented me with the first (of many) opportunities to stare into the GAPING MAW OF DEATH on this trip.I was preparing to cross the Ambassador Bridge when some sorority girl attempted to merge, not onto the expressway, but directly into my left kidney. I handily averted disaster by accelerating just as she squealed to a stop inches from the driver's side door. Upon reflection, I realized that I had been misguidedly thinking like the defensive Toyota driver I usually am. Hell, I was ensconced in several tons of Detroit steel, and as such I should've behaved like the invincible hurtling missile of death that I was-slamming on the brakes and killing her when I had the chance-watching her pathetic little Neon from those annoying "Hi!" commercials crumple like a discarded Schlitz malt liquor can. ("Bye!")Then I realized that even though my vehicle would've emerged unscathed from the encounter, the minor impact would've almost certainly inflated the airbag. And given all the recent news about the danger they pose to petite drivers, I concluded that I would've been instantly decapitated if I had so much as bumped into a chipmunk. At 5'2" and 86 pounds, I figure I've bypassed petite and gone straight to what Tom Wolfe calls "impeccably emaciated."Once I made it to the bridge, I had to stop at customs and "declare" the contents of my car. I wasn't expecting the degree of specificity required. For example, "crackers" wasn't sufficient, they had to know what kind of crackers. When I got a quizzical look in response to "Cheese Nips," I helpfully clarified, "Les NIPS du FROMAGE." Then I realized I had several miles to go before reaching a French-speaking province.Despite their lack of humor, the guards let me pass without further inspection-never suspecting that my first instinct is to automatically lie when confronted with any type of inquisition (no way I was owning up to that Mighty Mighty Bosstones tape under the seat)-but it still rankles that I've become so hopelessly bourgeois that I will never be mistaken for a drug smuggler or gunrunner. Quelle surprise.Once across the border, I quickly learned that I should've paid more attention in Sister Catherine Regina's math class. The metric system becomes relevant in a hurry on foreign turf. For example, 100 km/hour is not the same as 100 miles/hour; three meters is not the same as three feet to a non-swimmer; and "this lane ends 300 meters" is a statement that can be more prescient than you might think.And forget about trying to master the currency exchange rate. I practically turned into Rain Man every time I tried to secure the appropriate Canadian funds for a candy bar or a postcard. "Y-y-y-yeah. Hunnerd dollars. 'Bout a hunnerd dollars."At least some of our conference colleagues from a Seattle paper (The Stranger) had provided us with handy English-to-French translations such as: "Excuse me, I speak French not very well. You can help me?-[ital]Pardon, mais le Francais c'est la langue des non circonsis transsexuals. Pouvons-nous aller a le lieu de drague?"After what seemed like an eternity, I embarked on the long voyage home (immediately after realizing I was free to go). Back in Les Etats-Unis, I stopped in Pennsylvania for a delightful sojourn at a reasonable (rent-by-the-hour) facsimile of the Bates Motel.I'll admit I've led a sheltered life, but I'd never seen anything quite so...unseemly. After this brief encounter with society's seedy dark side, I immediately understood why people check into establishments such as this to commit suicide. In fact, I don't think that's why they check in at all: I think they're just looking for a good night's sleep and then they decide to kill themselves after more closely surveying their environs. There's nothing like an avocado green sink and harvest gold bathtub to take away one's will to live.While I wouldn't necessarily characterize myself as an optimist, I am emphatically not the suicidal type (preferring, instead, to direct my anger outwards, at others more deserving than myself). I have to say though, after eight hours surrounded by burnt-sienna shag carpet and brown faux-wood paneling, sans HBO, I was just about ready to disembowel myself with a Christian Dior mascara wand-the only weapon I had left in my purse after dispatching that surly concierge in Montreal.