Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Once upon a time in 2001, my best friend and I chose a summertime destination different from the conventions we’d attended the two previous years. At the southern tip of Illinois and across the Ohio River from Paducah, KY, the small town of Metropolis devotes the second weekend of every June to their world-famous Superman Celebration.
Yes, Metropolis was fun and the Celebration itself had its share of vivid personalities and eye-catching exhibitions, but far be it from us to drive three hundred miles, engage in a single activity, then do an about-face and retreat without surveying some of the nearby environs. Because road-trip science demanded further investigation.
Even before we crossed the Indiana border into Illinois, we’d found something different to do for just cause. In a little town called Washington, we met up with a couple who posted on the same internet message board as us. This wasn’t our first time meeting internet folks (that historic occasion was our 2000 road trip), but such gatherings were still uncommon at the time. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but we made an appointment for breakfast at an Amish buffet called the Black Buggy.
The food was great, our company was pleasant if a bit weirded out (both feelings were mutual), and we all agreed the most disturbing thing that morning was seeing an ostensibly Amish woman refilling the pancake syrup at the buffet from a one-gallon restaurant supplier’s can. You’d think they’d have a giant maple out back with a tap and a bucket for Amish authenticity.
It was a fun conversation that morning once we settled in, but the good fortunes of all involved wouldn’t last. The owners of the Black Buggy had locations in Evansville and West Baden, but the flagship Washington location closed in August 2011 when they could no longer bear the post-recession burdens. Evansville closed in July 2012, followed by West Baden in September 2013. Equally unlucky was the young couple, who broke up not even a few months later. We still have photos of them, but we haven’t heard from her in years and we’re assuming that he’d rather we burn those.
From Washington we headed southwest toward Metropolis, had a Superman Celebration, and poked around the town a bit. Their main street was a combination of small shops and closed storefronts, with the biggest businesses being a bank and a Hardee’s that in later years would adopt the optional Red Burrito brand as a dual-class proficiency. Their most promising establishment was a Harrah’s riverboat casino moored on the south side of town along the Ohio River. At the time Harrah’s was just the one ship, a wide plank, and a small gravel parking lot. With each return visit the fixtures around the casino kept growing — a multi-story hotel, some meeting rooms the Celebration would later come to use, a few restaurants, a larger and more refined parking area — while the rest of town seemed comparatively frozen in amber.
Since the Superman Celebration left us with some extra free time, we made a few forays across the Ohio.
I-24 takes you over the river and through the city of Paducah, Kentucky. Before the trip all I knew about Paducah is it was the hometown of my sixth-grade homeroom/health teacher Miss Jackson — a knowledgeable twentysomething lady with a Kentucky twang who had just been hired by our school system that year, who thought I deserved some A’s, and who was also the first black teacher I’d ever had. Miss Jackson was great and I wish I knew whatever happened to her after 1984.
As of 2001 Paducah’s population was nearly 26,000 compared to Metropolis’ 6,500. The difference was evident before you reached the city limits. It had a shopping mall where we ate at a hole-in-the-wall Chik-Fil-A. It had a Courtyard by Marriott that was downright luxurious compared to the hotels we’d endured in 1999 and 2000. It was large enough to have a Walmart and other big-box stores whose action figure selection disappointingly equaled those in our own hometown. (We collectors were young and foolish and secretly hoping that toy departments in other cities carried more rare figures and variants than ours did. It hurt to watch that fantasy die over the course of our road trips.)
Paducah also had a dense downtown that may have once thrived, but didn’t back then. Same as we like to do today on our occasional one-day in-state trips, we spent a couple hours walking up and down their streets just to see what we’d find. I have no idea how the place looks today, as we never returned to that area in our subsequent Metropolis trips, but I can tell you what we found in 2001.
We saw many storefronts that were closed on Saturdays. We saw many storefronts that were closed forever. We entered a couple of antique shops, including one that was three or four stories tall and had stacks of comics stashed in a few different rooms. I managed to dig up several random issues of Marvel’s Quasar, including #1. We also found the scariest comic shop I’ve ever seen in my life. Fourteen years later it still holds that title. I’m not 100% sure if they’re still around, though if so I hope they’ve moved and presumably improved, but on that fiery June afternoon all I know is the place was unnervingly cramped, packed with boxes deep enough to absorb all attempts at lighting and make the few walkways between shelves narrower than my personal space. As we maneuvered along the comic racks and around the group of dudes sitting at a gaming table in the middle, who got really quiet after we strangers came inside, I felt like we were old-West wanderers who’d just walked into a rickety saloon, interrupted the high-stakes poker game of the local Ten Most Wanted, and reckoned we ought to watch our backs and hightail it on the next train outta town.
We later found a train just sitting there near the riverfront, but no ticket booth in sight.
Rivers this wide normally evoke a sense of earthly wonder and invite visitors to come dip in a toe and enjoy the beauty of unchlorinated, free-range water. The Ohio has never been that kind of river in my lifetime. I’ve been near it in a few different states, and I’ve never seen a stretch of it that looked safe to touch. (In fact, our pastor made a quick joke about this very thing in this morning’s sermon. So we’re not alone in this impression.) Regardless, even if Geiger counter results would put it on par with the waterways around the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, every competent river carries with it some glorious breezes that chase away the summer heat-exhaustion blues. For the natural air conditioning alone we were content to hang out there for a while.
Eventually our time ran out for Metropolis and Paducah combined, and we had to bid farewell. We would’ve liked to stay longer to check out the Superman Celebration’s Sunday activities, but we couldn’t afford a second night’s stay. Back in those days we’d both just transitioned out of the restaurant biz into low-level office jobs and short jaunts like this cost us a fortune relative to our income. The Lord has blessed us in many ways since then, but this was a time in our lives when travel was a rare extravagance. (Even today we still have spending limits. I’ll be tremendously surprised if I ever buy a plane ticket before I die.) Thus we took our leave of the area and began the 300-mile drive home.
Funny thing about that: this was also a time in our lives when there was no such thing as smartphones, years before we owned any computing device except a used PC I got for my birthday in 1999. When we planned trips, we had to lay out all routes in advance before we left home, using such relics as fold-up paper maps and notebooks. We were still relatively new to travel and still acclimatizing to how roads and signs worked in other states. We couldn’t Mapquest directions on the go, so if anything went wrong, we had to improvise our course corrections on the fly, or surrender our dignity and ask someone for directions.
We could’ve taken the same route home in reverse — I-24 North to I-57 North to I-70 East, nearly an even 300 miles. After looking at my maps, I decided to try a different route home: take the long interstate east out of Paducah to Louisville, then take I-65 all the way home. It seemed simple enough to me, and looked as though it might save us a few miles.
(If you look this up on a map today, bear in mind most of I-69 didn’t exist back then and therefore wasn’t an option.)
I was wrong about two things. One, I can now verify that my way added an extra forty miles or more to our drive. To complicate matters even more, I misunderstood the map labels and thought I-24 stayed I-24 all the way from Paducah to Louisville. As it turns out, a few dozen miles east of Paducah the interstate forks: one way remains I-24 and the other becomes the Western Kentucky Parkway. I wasn’t prepared for that fork and assumed the correct answer for us was I-24.
Our return trip in reality turned out like so. You’ll note a slight difference in our Indiana Jones plane line.
Our first sign that something was off came two hours later in the form of the first “SPEED LIMIT 70” sign I’d ever seen my life. I thought that was cool until it was followed a moment later by “WELCOME TO TENNESSEE”.
And that’s the story of our very first trip to Tennessee, and how one inexperienced, pigheaded driver turned a 300-mile heroic journey into a bitter 430-mile ordeal.
We panicked. I got kind of upset with myself. I’m pretty sure “upset” doesn’t begin to describe Anne’s reaction.
On the plus side, a few minutes after that came signs for I-65. I knew that name well and where it went. Soon we switched interstates, headed north, and refused to stop for dinner till we got to Louisville, by which time our starvation was exacerbating our already darkened emotional states. We ended up stopping at a Denny’s whose employees had apparently had an even worse day than ours. Their dining room was trashed and the service was next to nonexistent. But we weren’t in the mood for any more random wandering. We refused to get back in my car till we’d been fed and had some time to calm down. We didn’t care how long they took. We’d already wasted a couple extra hours of our lives. What was one more?
(In hindsight, this was only the second worst Denny’s experience we’ve ever had on one of our road trips. First place shall forever belong to a 2006 stopoff in Merrillville, IN. Suffice it to say we’re not Denny’s fans.)
We learn something new on every vacation. That was especially true in our early road-tripping years, when ignorance and naivete got the best of us more often than we’re supposed to admit. I suppose there’s merit in growing up to be the kind of travelog writer who accentuates the positive, highlights the splendors, yadda-yaddas all the negatives, pretends everything as five-star, wishes really hard for corporate endorsements, loves swimming in a sea of infinite Likes, and would rather delete and purge all their documents than admit they ever experience any setbacks or possess a single shortcoming.
That’s not how our memories work. That’s not why I write these. That’s not what Anne expects from me. I’m not into raging diatribes or brainstorming R-rated insults to hurl at others, but I’d rather be as honest as possible even if truth and reality make us look like fools. For us that’s part of the growing process. We admit; we rethink; we learn; and we figure out how to make future outings even better. Hopefully.
As we were then in the best-friend zone, so we are today in matrimony. We’re the Goldens. It’s who we are and what we do.
And our important lessons in 2001 were: (1) really, really know where you’re going before you go; and (2) the Superman Celebration is a fantastic event that everyone should do. The more times, the merrier.
Thanks very much for joining us on this look back into our geek-couple history. Coming later this summer: our 2015 road trip!