In Time

by Jenna Schnuer on April 15, 2012

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Though I’ve honed my packing skills for plane travel—usually a carry-on with an expectation of hotel sink hand washing as I go—my packing skills for car trips are wobbly. Terrible, even. I was certain things wouldn’t go well as I packed to leave for a road trip around the U.S. that will, probably, stretch to five or six months.

This morning, after putting the last bag in the car, I realized that not only did I have a clear line of sight from the rearview mirror, but I could probably fit several more giant Ziplocs of gear, paper towels, t-shirts, or whatever in and still see out of the mirror. (Yes, giant Ziplocs. I’m willing to sacrifice style for ease-of-use and a lighter load for my gas tank.)

I’ll admit I was impressed with myself. It was not a classy packing job but it was a good packing job. I half expected balloons to drop from the sky. Or, at least, confetti cannons to shoot off from between the trees. There were no balloons. There was no confetti.

I said my goodbyes, searched out my phone and my keys from beneath one of the Ziplocs, set my stereo to play my now-customary first road trip song, Justin Townes Earle’s Wanderin’, and drove off.

And I waited to feel like I’d set off on a big trip.

But I didn’t. For the first few hours, I thought about how my car needed washing. I had parked it under some trees and the black paint had been tinted bumblebee yellow. And I thought about how I was heading to Pittsburgh and how I didn’t know much about Pittsburgh and how I was looking forward to seeing a little of Pittsburgh. It just felt like a weekender, like the start of any short road trip or, even, how I felt when I drove off to do errands.

I was certain it was because I’d broken the first rule of long road trips: thou shalt only drive back roads. Though that’s the plan for many miles along the way, I hate rules. I was in the mood to drive and, quite simply, I have a thing for moments that break out in beauty. I’ll sacrifice miles and miles of rolling green hills for a field of cows alongside an otherwise dull stretch of highway.

But I feared that my anti-rules ways were going to sink me. I feared I was doing it all wrong. Silly. I know. But it was easier to focus on that than on not seeing my family and friends back home for months and months. I like to go but I hate to leave.

Things started to change in Pennsylvania, the highway edged up against farm lands. I saw the trip’s first weathered barns. There were towns that looked a little tired but beautiful, like movie stars who had given up on having a big comeback. I started to feel, if not like I was on a long road trip, that I was doing something. Something.

And then I saw the sign for Roadside America in Shartlesville, Penn. My family must have driven by it when I was a kid on road trips to Pennsylvania’s Amish Country. Committed to driving, I blew past the exit. I knew I’d made a mistake. I took the next exit and doubled back.

I paid the woman at the counter $6.25 and went through a door that looked more like it led to a bathroom than to an attraction. On the other side: a room that housed all of America, in miniature. Imagine your childhood train set multiplied by 1000. There was a circus and houses from Cape Cod and Ben Franklin and a saloon. And there were buttons to push to make trains go and the circus music play.

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Everybody who walked through that door (bikers, families finishing spring break trips) instantly became part of another era. It was the 1940s and the place had just been built. There was no need for any iPhone camera filters here. We were walking in a room that was locked in time.

Then, over a muffled sound system, a woman at the front of the room—I couldn’t see her clearly at first but imagined she had a beehive hairdo—told us all to step to the back and watch…something. The sound system ate her words.

The lights went down. We saw America at night. They played music that was far too religious for my taste but that worked very well with the Jesus image they projected on the wall next to the Statue of Liberty painting. A tiny airplane buzzed in circles from the ceiling. I’ll take that over a balloon drop any day.

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