by way of nashville

Monday afternoon, I took Exit 17 for the first time in nearly 12 years.

“This is happening,” I said to myself as I turned east onto U.S. 58 and traversed the route that killed my 1989 Toyota Camry.

My 2009 Nissan Altima survived.

That moment arrived thanks to a group text over Thanksgiving. We resolved to go to Mardi Gras, and I immediately put in for vacation. And then watched as everyone backed out.

I decided I wasn’t going to undo my days off, so I instead adjusted the dates slightly and decided to visit people I hadn’t seen in a while who lived out of state. I immediately thought of Falyn, who has been a friend since high school, but I vaguely remembered her saying weeks and weeks ago that she had plans that particular weekend. I then thought of Tim and Cathy, Falyn’s siblings-in-law, who I haven’t seen since fall 2013. I had hoped to say hello when Renée and I passed through in December 2014, but we just missed them.

So I climbed in my car and headed to Central Tennessee.

At some point Friday night, Falyn came up. She had recently said she wished some people would come visit her, mostly because it reached a point that we only saw each other on holidays in Hampton. She’s right — I seem to be the last of the road warriors. Other than my wedding, next to no one came to Charlottesville, so my place hasn’t been a road trip destination since I lived atop Chimborazo. Sure, we’re all getting older and have obligations, but it’s really horrible of all of us to stop visiting each other just because.

So we texted Falyn’s husband, Tim’s brother Isaac, to see what was going on. They did have plans —a Samedi Gras party — and we were more than welcome to come. We then told him not to tell Falyn.

The next day, we headed north to the outskirts of Indianapolis. The look on Falyn’s face was worth the trip.

There was so much to see and do and say. Next time can’t come soon enough. I mean that for all my friends.

The next day, I was wiped out, partially because of how late we all stayed up and how early we woke up. I intermittently fell asleep on the road back to Nashville and barely made it through the Super Bowl.

After getting more than enough sleep, I geared up for home. Originally, if Indiana wasn’t a part of the equation, I was going to spend Sunday in Charlottesville for a proper sendoff before landing in Richmond completely and use Monday and Tuesday for getting some things settled in the apartment that we never got around to. We are so close to  it being more than decent enough to invite company over at the drop of a hat.

Instead, I was on the bleeding edge of a snowstorm Monday when I reached Exit 17.

The novel I’ve been working on for the past 10,000 years is based in that part of the state, and a chunk of the action takes place on U.S. 58 between the Interstate 81 and the town of Damascus. In 2004, before the novel existed, I drove around the area because I knew I was going to write something there. Back in high school, I created a city to the north of Bristol and made it the universe for nearly every piece of fiction I’ve written since. It was purely arbitrary, so I wanted to see if my mind’s eye matched up with reality.

On my way back in 2004, I decided I didn’t want to go home the way I arrived on 81. U.S. 58 runs along the entire bottom of Virginia, so I decided to let it lead me and my 15-year-old car home.

My car did not like traversing the mountains there.

The cooling system collapsed on U.S. 58. I got up to Whitetop on a wing and a prayer and coasted down to the town of Independence. I wound up staying there overnight and got a patch job done the next day in Galax, a city a few miles away from Independence. After that, it was a harrowing voyage of more than 300 miles back to my mom’s driveway.

Ever since, I promised myself a do-over. Since no one was with me, I took the exit.

As I headed up into the Grayson Highlands as light snow fell on the already snow-covered terrain, I wondered how I got through it the first time. It seemed a lot longer than I remembered. There was next to no cell service out there, so I couldn’t call anyone for help. Additionally, I was hours and hours away from friends and family. But, there were a few gas stations, so I don’t know what I was thinking when I pressed on deeper into Grayson County. I’m assuming I was searching for a garage.

I hopped back on the interstate after that. I’m saving the Lovers Leap overlook because I want to share the view.

But the main portion has been completed. Twice. I have conquered the stretch of U.S. 58 that has bothered me all these years.

Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that I don’t feel excited or accomplished by Monday’s feat. I guess it’s because it’s not a particularly grueling road. People drive on it every day with no problem. I just happened to be in a ticking time bomb in 2004. I’m more impressed that I made it the first time, that I got myself out of that jam and returned home.

That was when I truly conquered U.S. 58. All this time, I’ve been looking at a success as a failure. I wouldn’t have realized that without what turned into a trip to Indiana by way of Nashville.

Every now and then, you need a reminder of what you’re capable of.

And good friends who set you down that path.

Note to self

During my trip down Interstate 81 last weekend, I was able to travel through a chunk of where Brown River Blues is set. In 2004, I had a (slightly) ill-fated visit to the area I would later overlay my Wessex County when I visited some people from a church I once attended. At the time, I had no idea I would set a novel there that wasn’t the one that shall not see the light of day that is sorta the prequel to Brown River Blues.

I’ve passed through the area twice since then on my way to Tennessee, but I have not yet gone back to triple-checking the scenery and the feel. I need to do that. I’ve had years of abortive efforts; although I take many, many meaningless road trips, I can’t justify such a large jaunt without any person or event being a destination. Sure, getting the refresher counts as a reason, but it seems forced.

Despite that, I’ve had the itinerary planned out for ages: Visit on a weekday, drive by Emory & Henry College and Glade Spring, do some scouting in Abingdon, visit Damascus the next morning and take a circuitous trip back to Central Virginia via U.S. 58 and Virginia 40. I think the road to Damascus part is the sticking point. I could easily pop off 81 and hit the refresher portion while traveling through for one reason or another. I don’t necessarily need to get out of the car. The only point of heading down 58 would be to track through where I had car trouble. It doesn’t have allure.

I drove on a road I’ve driven before, only this time, my radiator didn’t explode!

Yeah, and so has countless other people.

But I digress.

There are some real locations and events incorporated into the narrative, which required some research to keep that suspension of disbelief, like an amazing press release from Virginia State Police that inspired a scene of a speech given on a packed stoop because of a freak rainstorm. That was also inspired by a press conference given on a packed stoop because of a freak rainstorm.

Another example is the distance between Wytheville and Wessex County’s Fielding Administration Building.

I was able to check off that issue on my way home last week. I got between the two in 38 minutes in moderate traffic. One of my characters, staying slightly south of 80 in moderate traffic, definitely could make it in 35.

That’s all I needed to know.

the less than epic adventures of elliott and dave

A few years ago, I promised Falyn’s future siblings-in-law, Tim and Cathy, that I would visit them. They lived in Manassas at the time.

Years passed. They moved to Nashville.

It may take me a while, but I make good on my promises.

I hit the road last Friday with Dave, who was a coworker until earlier that week. He lived in Nashville before and offered to come with me. I was looking for someone to come along, as I figured one person wasn’t going to make it and another said he couldn’t (but swears I never asked him because he’s full of lies).

I was a sub-supervisor of sorts to Dave. I got to direct his work at times but he was in theoretically in another department in the same newsroom. If I were inclined, I could draw an organizational chart but I’m making an effort to not be as boring as I am. It’s not going so well. If you know me, you know I’m not only drawing this chart in my head, I’m choosing the typography.

But I digress.

Somehow, Dave and I became friends. It was probably our mutual love of music and hatred of everything else. And everyone.

On the way down, we passed through the area that’s the setting of my novel. Since we didn’t take U.S. 58 through Grayson Highlands State Park, this doesn’t fully count as the final redo of that trip. I had forgotten how beautiful it is down there, though, and I’m looking forward to finally finishing it up.

Hours later, we were in Knoxville. We waited until Tennessee to get lunch because I needed to be out of Virginia before I stopped. That took a lot of effort since I’m more that 200 miles northeast of Bristol.

Ah, the joys of living in a deceptively large triangular state.

Dave led us to some place downtown and we wandered around on foot to find food. We wound up at a gastropub. Stevie Ray Vaughn blasting. ESPN deconstructing an injury. Ham and cheese sandwich with an unexpected over easy egg tucked inside. Charming accents.

We then went to the Sunsphere. On the way there, I wondered if having the World’s Fair was like having the Olympics as far as decaying remnants an a hit to the municipal budget. Knoxville did a good job of redeveloping the area but I did expect the sphere to be a bit more prominent. I did the touristy things and took a few photos from the top, which were nearly the only photos I took. I made a point to use my phone sparingly and I have noticed that people are beginning to experience things but staring at their phones the entire time.

Surprisingly, there wasn't a wig to be found

I was going to fix these photos to compensate for the gold window tint and such but, no.

Since it's in the Great Valley, I think you can typically see the Great Smoky Mountains.

Apparently, one of the Sunsphere’s selling points is that, on a clear day, you can see the Great Smoky Mountains.

Finally, after about eight hours and another time zone, Nashville. It was my longest drive since my four-hour retreat from Jacksonville last summer.

It was fun.

Especially after I purchased this

Later, I had it aged in an oak barrel and it was delicious.

It tastes like sweat and regret. Don’t ask what the spice is.


Later that night, I was in an airport, as Cathy was coming back from Mississippi. I should not have been in an airport at that time.

Even later, we headed to Five Points and I met up with a friend from Richmond who was visiting his sister. Because you should understand how my life is a closed loop at this point.

I may as well point out now that, because Dave is the type of person I hang out with, I’ve explained this weekend to a good chunk of the staff already, including taking a brief nap in a Subway/gas station. It’s a good thing that journalism is the least professional profession.

The next day, I had Nashville hot chicken from Prince’s, which is apparently awesome. Hot chicken was great and, due to my fingers being greasy, the photos never happened.

If you don’t know what hot chicken is, it’s fried chicken with a spicy breading. I presume it is marinated in it because it’s spicy through and through.

You know how I love my spicy food. I need this shizz in Virginia, like yesterday. Or I need to move to Nashville because, by this point, I totally had a mancrush on the city. It’s now my third favorite city after New York (2) and Richmond (1). Sorry, New Orleans.


But I digress.

Later in the day, Tim and I headed to a brewery to see 2/3 of his roommates play. They are called the Wooly Mamas. They’re pretty rad and from Manassas, hence why Isaac and Tim know them. Remember: My life is a poorly written Charles Dickens novel.

The beer here is delicious.

Another example of my lack of desire to take great photos this weekend.

Afterward, we headed to a house party since it was one of the band members’ birthday. We were supposed to start there and bar hop but the cabs never came. Eventually, we worked our way back to the house and, the next morning, it was time to head back to Charlottesville.

I would say the weekend went too fast but it was basically a day longer than any trip I’ve ever taken to New York and New Jersey. Speaking of that, I haven’t been to Newark or New York in more than a year. I used to say a year without being in New York is a year wasted. I should visit some of my Jersey brothers on an extended weekend and head into the city. Also, I really need to head up to Boston one of these days. It’s a nine-hour drive. I now regret promising my mom I would spend an upcoming five days off in and around Hampton Roads. I do have three vacation days left though. …

But I digress.

I kinda wish I named this blog “but i digress” back in 2004.

The ride back was uneventful. Much like going to New Orleans with Joseph, Dave offered to drive part of the way. I declined. He did bring up another aspect of the weekend.

“Ready to move a couch when we get back at midnight?”

I had purchased Dave’s couch as we never got around to buying one, didn’t think one would fit and would like one when we have a full-sized house toward the end of the month.

I don’t know how I still had the strength to haul the couch out of Dave’s house and into my apartment. It managed to fit. It was in an odd spot until earlier this week. I was going to make it less awkward today — along with doing the dishes, cleaning the house and doing laundry — but only laundry happened. Today was my first true decompression day since the trip; the remainder of the chores have to wait till Sunday.

As I mentioned a couple of times before, Dave is heading to Oregon. I didn’t exactly know when he was leaving.

“Well, this probably is the last time we’ll see each other,” he said after we got his couch into my place.

He was right. I’m not going to Oregon just to visit him and he won’t come all the way this way to visit me. Since we both are degenerate transients, we’ll probably cross paths again by happenstance.

I did hope he wasn’t leaving so soon. I wanted a couple more evenings on his porch before I faced the reality that, despite having a handful of friends here, I don’t have a go-to person in Charlottesville at the moment.

“I’ll probably continue to harass you electronically,” he continued.

Ah, technology.

At least there’s that.

And then that was it. I grabbed the rest of my stuff out of my car. His station wagon rounded the corner and disappeared from view. I went inside.

If anything, last weekend showed me that, regardless of how long or short the relationship is, it is easy to have a profound effect on someone’s life. My innermost circle of friends consist of people with whom I know I could take a road trip or people I’d take a road trip to see.

Something will happen. Dave and I will cross paths again. For now, it’s time to focus on what adventures lie ahead. For starters, all this wedding stuff needs to be nailed down and this bachelor party in Cheyenne, Wyo., need to be planned.

Yes. Cheyenne.

I wonder if they have hot chicken.

1696: happy birthday, nicole

Nicole Cobb

Her middle name is Louise. Long story.

Four years ago today, I left the Pomoco Nissan in Hampton with this car. Unlike, my brief stint where I went through cars like water, I plan on keeping Nicole until she’s officially a clunker. And then my kid’s driving her in high school.

I would go to the car wash today but it’s supposed to rain. I’ll just wait until March. If four years ago is any indication, there is still a threat of a major snowfall still. But I really need to get that brine mix they do here from under my car soon.

On the day of the car, let us reflect on my cars past. I mentioned some of this about a year ago, though.

I. Erin. 1995 Dodge Neon. I had her from 2000 to 2003. She was a major piece of crap and was the unconfirmed car of the daughter of a former Hampton police chief. I got the Carfax report on it after she was wrecked and that couldn’t be ruled out. It looked like she was possibly a repossessed car from Florida. From all that was wrong, she probably was a hurricane car from Florida. I got her painted an iridescent green and nearly had every broken thing fixed when someone changed lanes into me during the summer of 2003. Being in a mostly wooden area with an iridescent green car may have contributed to that accident. We went through hell and high water together. I still hold respect for that car and all she stood for. I still have her license plates, photos from the accident and a car magazine singing the praises of the new Dodge Neon.

II. Simone Tiffany Crystal. 1989 Toyota Camry. I had her from 2003 to 2006. We kept this one in the family. She began as my sister’s aunt-in-law’s car, that she bought brand new and rarely took out of Baltimore city limits. After Theresa’s car died some time after 1997, she was given the car. I put more miles on her than were on it when she became mine. This is the car that infamously had the cooling system blow up a mountain in Grayson County, Va. She survived that, me rear-ending someone, an electrical shortage, and having a window broken and the stereo stolen in Newark. Simone and I just weren’t good for each other, apparently. The cooling system blew again on Happy Hill Road in Chesterfield County, Va. I drove her back to my mom’s house on a wing and a prayer and she never moved under her own power again, as far as I know.

I miss Simone every now and then.

III. Julian Horatio Tennyson Crystal III. 2006 Nissan Sentra. I had him from 2006 to 2007. I was never happy with this car. He was nearly the basest of the base models. Like the step below this one didn’t have a stereo. I didn’t have intermittent windshield wipers. He had a lawnmower engine.  I had more amenities in Erin. I constantly longed for  Simone’s leather seats, sunroof and power windows. I was poor and I was over having mechanically crappy used cars. In retrospect, I should have kept him for a few years.

IV. Marian Michelle Moreno. 2007 Nissan Sentra. I had her from 2007 to 2009. Despite disliking Julian, I fell in love with Nissan cars and Marian was a sexy vehicle. I would still have her but I drove that car into the ground and I still feel bad about it. I had the greatest number of road trips in Marian.

As you can see, I’ve had Nicole for the longest for quite some time now. I’ve been a somewhat responsible car owner since taking her home and we’ve had a great time together. It’s been nearly 90,000 miles. I’ve really cut down on how much I drive, although my longest single road trip has been in Nicole. I have two major trips I want to do soon and I want them to be in Nicole. One of them is the oft-talked about but never undertaken Voyage I Redux. I did say that I was taking someone the next time and there would be photos.

Referring to things in the early days of this blog is probably opening Pandora’s Box.

But that adventure is just a two-day trip from Cville of about 550 miles. And the 10-year anniversary is next year …