There's an old motel about 10 miles north of Louisville right off I-65. The Bel-Air is the kind of old motor inn you see in a David Lynch film: Two long lines of rooms that form an L, an office in the middle and a little swimming pool out front with a stub of a diving board hanging over it.
"There she is," my sister and I would cry from the back seat on our way home from relatives. The sight of her meant we were almost home.
"She" was the neon lady on the Bel-Air Motel sign. She wore a blue swimming cap and bathing suit. Best of all, she was in the diving position and the blinking neon sent her diving down, down, down.
"The pool's over there!" we yelled. "You're gonna hit the grass!"
This never got old.
Kids have no sense of mileage so we memorized the landscape to plot our whereabouts. The Bel-Air lady was a favorite mark.
I still look for the Bel-Air lady, and she's still there, even though the swimming pool is filled in and sodded over, which makes her descent all the more dangerous.
The Bel-Air lady changed my life in a small way. She transformed me from a passive passenger into a captive audience, a wide-eyed observer of the pageantry of roadside attractions. She's part of why I love to drive long distances now. We won't travel this Thanksgiving, and I'm envious of those who will. I should hire myself out.
My favorite long-drive story starts in New Orleans.
Steve owned the car. It was a Pontiac Sunbird that looked more like a cigarette lighter than a car. Our host in NOLA was our friend David. His sister Anita also made the trip with us from Madison.
David was a working musician, and staying with a musician in that city is far and away the best way to experience the place. Hoo boy. Did we experience the place.
David lived in the Lower Garden District. We burned the candle all the way down to the brass that week. On the last night, we drove over an operating fire hose. The undercarriage of the Sunbird tore a hole in the hose causing a geyser of water three stories high. We had to turn on the wipers to make our getaway.
The geyser night coincided with our money running out. The next morning we emptied our pockets. Steve, Anita and I had just enough cash for gas to get back to Madison.
What we didn't have enough of was sleep. So we devised a plan that would get us home in a safe, straight shot. We agreed to take two-hour shifts at the wheel. Two hours and then hand the keys over to the next guy. Like a relay race.
The two-hour shift plan lasted exactly one cycle. We dialed it down to one hour per turn. We may have been broke but we weren't stupid. That was more forgiving, and it lasted into Illinois somewhere. By then, after the wheel hand-off, the person who just drove was reseated and asleep before the next driver even cranked the engine.
We dropped it down to a half-hour per person.
Chicago. Middle of the night. I remember opening my eyes to the sight of the lit-up Sears Tower. I glanced at Steve behind the wheel. He was upright. That was good enough.
The next time I opened my eyes I was the one behind the wheel, although I don't remember being put there. It was like waking up after surgery. I looked around inside the car. Steve was bent like a square root sign in the back seat. Anita was passed out next to me. The shoulder harness drew a stripe across her face. I noticed my hands were at the correct 10-3 position on the wheel and kept the car in motion.
I couldn't drive another minute, and I realized the other two weren't going to emerge from their collective coma. Without even waiting for an exit I angled onto the shoulder of the road and pulled to a stop. I turned off the car and listened to the "tick tick" of the hot engine cooling down. Then everything went black.
Daybreak. I squinted into the morning sunshine like a prisoner being led out of solitary. Once my eyes adjusted I looked around inside the car. Steve was still twisted in the same position. Anita, too.
I looked past Anita and saw a Sheraton Hotel sign. I started the car and looked through the windshield. And there, fellow travelers, looking for all the world like the final, poppy-lined stretch to Oz, was the John Nolen causeway, Madison, Wisconsin.
I lived that year on West Washington Avenue, and from New Orleans to home, I had pulled the car over within walking distance to my bedroom.
I started the car and shook Anita and Steve awake.
"How much farther?" Steve asked.