A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

On the road, in Wisconsin.

My one beef with the All American Road Trip is that, at its core, it’s built upon seeing things. Over the past 40 hours, I was on a road trip for the annual University of Chicago scavenger hunt, affectionately known as “scav”.

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Our route was to take us from Chicago, through the southern bits of Wisconsin, through Minneapolis to Fargo, swinging over to Duluth and finally back to Chicago. Unfortunately, our trip was cut short just short of Eau Claire, WI when the driver of our car swerved at 55 mph to avoid a raccoon in the middle of the road. Our car hit a berm and flipped 540°, and turned around such that by the time we came to rest in the mud of a rural ditch the car faced opposite our direction of travel, and the driver’s side was furthest from the road.

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Until about 3 seconds before our car left the road, I had been half-sleeping. I was listening to Gold Panda’s album, Lucky Shiner. Through my headphones played the song “After We Talked”. We left the road surface at 2:20, and by the time we dropped it dropped.

If I told you that I saw my life flash before my eyes, I’d be lying to you. I didn’t see much of anything. I heard buzzing synths and a “Fuck!” and a smash bang crash crunch, that lurch of bent metal under torsion. The drivers side window was gone, five or six inches of mud replaced it, extruded into the car like filthy play dough. Things appeared normal, but gravitationally things were off. The girl sitting next to me in the back seat was above me. Her hair hung down.

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There was a sickening moment of perfect silence. Not even the spring peepers sang.

Ohmigod ohmigod is everyone okay? Fuck. Fuck. Is everyone okay. I’m okay. Yes. Yes. I’m okay. Oh my god. We’re upside down.

The girl above me undid her seatbelt, and she fell like a prisoner condemned to hang. Linchpin pulled. Are you okay? Yeah, I’m fine. You missed me. Oh my god. Are we trapped?

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The guy in the passenger seat, with whom I’d just stared up at the night sky through the back windscreen before we switched drivers, opened the front door. The night sky greeted us, glowed darkly. Our car landed on its side: upside down, at a 45° angle against the side of the ditch closest to the road. The air smelled of extremely rich dirt, like if one turned over the vegetable garden on a crisp spring morning. It was about forty-five degrees. We could see our breath. The peepers started up again.

We climbed out of the car, taking care not to do damage. We stepped back, and each of us did that thing where you grab the front of your face just under your nose with your thumb and forefinger, tug slightly, and release: that thing everyone does in times of crisis to feel, if only for a second, oneself slacken. Go back to normal.

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It was bad. One of us wondered aloud what we were all thinking. “Nobody’s going to find us out here.” It was cold, now. Shock settled in.

I felt numb and tingly, as if I was extremely over-caffeinated. My brain was going at five hundred trillion miles per second, but I was totally calm. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, one never really knows what it is to live until one gets shot at in the trenches. Or climbs out of a rolled over car without a scratch.

This I realized was what it meant to feel alive, because this feeling, this extraordinary pulsing resonance, the bleary-eyed ecstatic poignancy with which I felt the world around me was so obviously the opposite of what it must be to not be. This moment, I realize now, some eighteen hours after the event, was one of total ego death. There was no mediator between the outside world and cognition. No critic or internal monologuist. No parser.

Within a minute of leaving the car to survey the damage, I found myself balanced on my pelvis from the car’s roof reaching down into the back seat to find my phone, my friends’ phones. As I was doing this, car lights shone from around the corner.

The driver of the pickup truck was nineteen. He worked at a gas station, smiled a lot, sounded kind of like Sarah Palin, and shrugged off bashfully our gratitude for his choosing to stop. One of the passengers, an eighteen year old, seemed so excited to be finally through with high school, in two weeks. The last passenger, a sixteen year old, joked with me, after the group helped us figure out exactly where we were and which police station to call, when the siren’s screaming shut out the peepers, that this is probably the only time in the both of our lives that we’re thankful to hear sirens. “Ain’t that the truth.”

It was the norepinephrine talking. During this period, while we were waiting for the tow truck to come, the four of us who were in the car embraced several times. I joked that this was an inopportune time to have just lost five pounds of body fat. This as I shed my sweater for the girl. We reassured ourselves, recursively, that we were lucky. That we weren’t hurt. That we’re alive. That the car, a ’95 Oldsmobile coup, was probably totaled but that’s okay because it was built like a fucking tank and didn’t crumple and crush us.

Redundancy, repetition, constancy is the fundament upon which we regroup and rebuild. That three-word narrative, “We are okay”, it’s a powerful one. The center holds.

It took two tow trucks to salvage the car: One to winch it right-side-up, and one to haul it to the salvage yard. The driver of the large flatbed wrecker seemed tired. His wrinkles indicated prolonged, subtle sadness worn in. His younger assistant, about 40, carried that same doleful expression. One got the feeling that they’d seen a lot.

The drive to Eau Claire was a silent one, save for a discussion with the driver. He gave us some fatherly advice, said for the first time a phrase I’d hear repeated over and over. Next time, we should just hold steady and “take the animal”.

We were all fine, but one of the passenger’s mothers insisted that we go to an ER to get checked out. So we did. The tow truck driver dropped us off in front of the Sacred Heart medical center’s Emergency entrance. Just as he was pulling away, one of the multitudinous little tragedies the hospital staff must deal with was unfolding. There was a later-model black sedan also parked at the ER. Its engine was running loud. Two tan muscular college-aged men got out from the front and opened the back doors. Two generically attractive college girls got out. They were wearing identical trucker hats.

It was clear that the two girls had been taking care of a third, who was sprawled awkwardly across the back seat. It was clear that she’d had a rough night. Once the two girls went inside for a wheelchair, and the guys muscled the passed out girl into it, the two drove off, no doubt back to the party. They left the two to take care of their younger, prettier sister in arms. We’ve heard that story before.

The four of us stood in line to check in. We handed over identification and insurance information to an honest desk receptionist. “Slow night?” I asked. It was a slow night, she said. Unfortunately, that means that her shift passes slowly. I suggested that slow nights, on balance, could be a good thing. Yes, she conceded, but time flies in crisis.

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I stood, tweeting to the outside world that we, the far-flung wayfarers of team Phoenix Envy, were okay. That we were safe. I did this only half-attentively. The two girls wore trucker hats that boldly proclaimed their current “WINNING” status. One held the wheelchair-bound girl’s. She thumbed the bill, which was red, to match the condensed bold WINNING typeface. I eavesdropped as they checked in their fallen friend. Just barely coherently, they explained to the receptionist that they’d been celebrating Cinco de Mayo, and that this was so, like, weird, right?

When I turned around from facing the waiting room I saw the passed-out girl’s eyes roll slightly as her head bobbed a little into a blue and white plastic mask/cup thing which appeared to be purpose-built for catching vomit. She pulled her pretty tanned face from the cup in a moment of half-lucidity, and what appeared to be cream of wheat ringed her mouth like bland clowns’ makeup. It glistened menacingly in the fluorescent lights. I noticed a stack of these little blue cups within easy reach at the reception desk. One of them pulled the mask from the girl’s face. She gasped, said “oh–” and trailed off, replacing the mask to hide the mess. To preserve her dignity, perhaps. This must be the hospital where all the UW-EC students end up.

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A skinny blonde nurse checked my blood pressure and temperature. She was pretty. A red puffy shadow was about her otherwise untanned but well-complexed face. As though she’d been crying. She returned, after showing me my bed, with a soft blanket which must have been kept in a warming cabinet. Expertly, she folded the massive white thing in half and shrouded me with it. She explained that she folded it so I can get extra warm. If I needed anything, just let her know.

Every once in awhile, you meet one of those people who stick with you. The doctor who checked the four of us out, a tall, soft-spoken, athletic man named Christopher Felton is one such individual. He was delayed in checking us. He was dealing with a code blue in the upstairs ucc. His calmness, how unfazed he was, a deep refulgent happiness seemed to radiate from him. It was virulent and quick to set in in us.

I told him about how I’m taking a break from studying political science to work on a startup. He asked me what I was doing, and I’d explained that I’m working on developing some collaborative software that’ll eventually be built into a project and course management platform, kind of like a cross between Blackboard and Basecamp, with some special sauce added in. “So, you’re building a better mousetrap.” You could say that.

He said that he’d worked on a startup with a couple of colleagues, too, a few years ago. He’d “sold it twice” (presumably he’d liquidated his equity in two tranches), giving him enough money to do whatever he’d like. He said that he works the overnight in Eau Claire’s ER “for fun”. After ensuring that none of my limbs were misplaced or damaged, he proclaimed me both lucky and totally fine. I was going to ask him what kind of startup he worked on (I’m inclined to believe it was in biotech), but his phone rang. He answered it, smiled and said, again totally unfazed and preternaturally contented, “Wow. For a nineteen-year-old, that’s impressive!” And then he was gone, off to tend to the winner.

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After we were given the okay to leave, we were faced with a problem. By this time, it was 2:00 AM. We needed to sleep. We convened in the waiting room, and Dr. Felton told us that he called the Holiday Inn down the street about five blocks. He said he knows the guy at the front desk, Dan, very well. Dr. Felton lives in Milwaukee, and flies to Eau Claire weekly to have his fun. His “plane [was] having work done,” so he’ll be staying in the Holiday Inn as well. He’s a regular there, and got us half the usual Sacred Heart special rate: $35/room/night.

“Here’s what I suggest, the four of you borrow my car. The Holiday Inn is four blocks down the street on your right. You can’t miss it. I’ll walk there after my shift. I’ll just need my car by noon, when I leave. You can leave the keys with Dan at the front desk.”

Dr. Felton offered his keys to Joe, the guy who’d just three hours ago totaled a car. Joe declined, politely. And Dr. Felton gave me the keys instead. “It’s the Acura TL in front. Silver.”

Now, before I continue, I want to give you a minute to let that sink in. This man just handed over his keys to a $45k vehicle to four out-of-state college kids–one wearing a clown shirt–who told him they were on a scavenger hunt which was supposed to take them to Fargo, ND, and who’d just broken the cardinal rule of rural driving by not just taking the animal. Give it a minute. Think about what this says about Dr. Felton.

We walked over to his car. He had a suit hanging in the back seat, a new and expensive-looking one. Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin, and a pair of iPhone earbuds were in the front seat. Dr. Felton is the kind of guy who would read Linchpin, and I mean that in the best possible way.

We checked into the Holiday Inn after some deliberation about whether to stop at the McDonalds across the street. We hadn’t eaten proper meals in about 24 hours. We slept like rocks.

The next morning, yesterday, Friday, we all took showers and donned the clothes we’d worn for the past forty hours. Food was the priority.

I’ve never enjoyed mediocre Arby’s BBQ sandwiches, two of them, or an order of greasy mozzarella sticks and a diet Coke more than I enjoyed brunch that day. I ate everything in the space of about five minutes.

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One of the students on our scavenger hunt team is from Minneapolis. His mom drove the hour and a half down to Eau Claire to pick us up. She drove us to Minneapolis, from where we took a Megabus back to Chicago. We arrived at Union Station at 1:30 on Saturday morning. We were debriefed on the goings-on with the team.

We were home.

Returning to my point about the fault I find with road trips, about the thing-oriented nature thereof, I still don’t like road trips. But I don’t consider this a road trip. Not the latter bit. We didn’t see things so much as see people. The thing with road trips is that, more often than not, the attractions one stops to see are usually inane, are superficial novelties one can only passively interact with. Most are devoid of meaning. Their significance on America’s cultural landscape stems only from their power to distract visitors from boredom, to hold off that inner voice that constantly makes attempts at introspection, that voice we spend so much time and money trying to silence. Who the hell really cares about the world’s largest ball of twine?

World's Largest Velocipede. It was approximately 40 feet tall.

If anything, roadside attractions are a testament to Middle America’s cultural vacuity, to just how little it takes to entertain a person. In a place as wildly unexceptional as the Midwest, it’s no surprise that American exceptionalism is on full display. Of course, the most culturally devoid regions feel this compulsion to express their cultural uniqueness. Each little town gets it’s fair share of gravitas for possessing the world’s largest, smallest, or best, no matter how small that share is. And it is small. And it is fair.

But that’s why I come away from my Scav Road Trip experience not caring about the things I saw (with the notable exception of the Forevertron, which was amazing). I don’t really care about the Angel Museum, no matter how adorable the porcelain statuettes were. I don’t really care about the Mustard Museum, no matter how well their blueberry mustard synthesized two mismatched foods I find delicious. The clown museum was okay, okay? It wasn’t spectacular. I didn’t come away a better person, a more informed person, because I’ve seen the world’s largest six pack of mediocre beer, or because I’ve seen anything else on this wild adventure.

What I did see, however, was the kindness of total strangers. I saw the power of crisis to bring together four people who, heretofore, had almost nothing to do with each other. I came to terms with my own Midwestern-ness. But most importantly, beyond the clarity with which I now see things, a clarity that can only come with realizing one’s mortality very suddenly, I’m a less jaded person now. I see the good in people.

In spite of all the ugliness, the horrific violence we’re able to inflict on one another, the exploitation and the sadness and the pain, that which might be called “depravity” or “monstrosity”, in spite of all of this, there is this deep visceral inclination toward helping others in need. But the really magical thing, the thing I appreciate most about Midwesterners not from Chicago, is that some people actually act on that inclination. They shed their suspicions, their internal cynic, their parser, and give of themselves. They gave of themselves not to us but for us. That, I believe, is really special. And for this I’m appreciative beyond my abilities to articulate.

Our Car.

When we picked up our stuff from the car on Friday morning, we talked with the owner of the wrecking company that towed our car. The younger assistant was also there. The owner told us about the things towers have to deal with. There’s the insurance, the trucks that cost $200,000, and the unpleasantness of the work. He told us to always take the animal, that unless it’s a human in the road, don’t swerve. He said that he’d pulled a lot of cars and people out of ditches who’d tried to avoid animals. He told us that deer are dangerous, that he responded to deer collision and found the truck that hit one more or less split in two.

He told us that pigs often escape from local farms, and that running into a 1000 pound pig is like hitting a solid brick wall. He described, intermittently spitting his dip throughout the story, one accident he responded to. “So this turkey flew through a semi’s windshield at 60, 70 miles an hour. Practically took the driver’s head off. God, that was a mess.” The assistant assented to this. “Or, just a few weeks ago, a semi rear-ended another semi, which was parked where it wasn’t supposed to be, and, uh, the truck that ran into the other one caught fire. I think the driver was dead by the time the fire started, but you never know. It started right after the collision. That was a tough one.” I asked a question out of morbid curiosity. “Yeah. We had to take him out.”

The owner of the tow truck company sat in his office, which was decorated with models of cars, photos of cars, old wreckers, men in trucker hats, and, improbably, a large poster of a F-117 Nighthawk and a framed wrapper from a 12-pack of Cottonelle Extra Soft. “I like it.” He was happy as a pig in shit. Dr. Felton was in his element. He wore those scrubs like a second skin. The nurse and the receptionist, they also seemed like there was nothing else they’d rather be doing. The boys in the pickup truck, never did I see a group more honestly say “We’re just happy to help.”

People who deal with ugliness on a daily basis, it seems, turn into one of two things: either they become harsh and jaded and turn off their capacity to empathize in an act of self-defense, because feeling the pain of others is singularly the most damaging thing one can experience. Because one doesn’t mediate those events through the lens of the self. The parser’s gone.

On the other hand, there are those few who, instead of ensconcing whatever kernel of personhood they possess in layers of cynicism, doubt, and self-involvement, radiate an intangible but nonetheless real sense of happiness, confidence in what’s right, and express a desire to help. I believe it’s because this latter group of people tend to see the darker sides of humanity. They see the sadness. Toward shadow they cast light. They have to.

I’m proud to say that, at least for now, I’ve crossed over into this latter category. On the scavenger hunt, it seems, I found something greater than items; I attained something more valuable than points; I met very good people. I experienced generosity. Pure, un-self-interested generosity. And after some searching, I’ll salvage, scavenge what generosity I have in me. I’ll nurture it. I’ll have to.

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

3 thoughts on “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”

  1. The tone and feel of a roadtrip really does depend on the purpose of it. If you’d been through that part of Wisconsin on a less gray and dreary day, it might have felt like there was more to see. The southwestern part of the state is our more geologically interesting part.

    If you liked all the bars in Eau Claire(third most in the state), you should see Appleton(second) and Madison(most.).

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