When I was 19, my best friend Nick and I drove from Delaware to Colorado via Interstate 40. I grew up in the suburbs in South Florida, and it was my first time driving through any part of the country that wasn’t the I-95 corridor. We stopped in Memphis to stand by the Mississippi River and mourn Jeff Buckley, who’d died that year. We got pulled over in Oklahoma by a state patrolman who searched our Ford Explorer, perhaps illegally, for drugs. We stopped at a touristy steakhouse in Amarillo that had a challenge for anyone who could eat a 72-ounce steak. There was a little stage in the dining room for anyone attempting it, and while we struggled to finish steaks a fraction of that size, a kid about fourteen years old was trying to win the challenge. He looked absolutely miserable, slowly pushing one piece of meat at a time into his mouth while occasionally taking a sip of coke. (Probably not the best strategy.)
Our friends from college were living in Santa Fe for the summer, and we stopped there for a few days, crashing on their floor, getting thrown out of bars and going back to the apartment to drink gas station beer. One night I couldn’t sleep and wrote a one-act play in the bathroom. This was 1997, so I wrote it in a notebook, which means it doesn’t exist anymore, but like many things from youth, it’s probably better off as a memory. After leaving Santa Fe, we headed north to Colorado, spent a couple nights in a condo, and headed straight back east on I-70, the point of the drive being the drive: what we saw, what we tasted, and above all, what we heard.
Among the CDs we packed, I can remember, obviously, Jeff Buckley’s Grace and Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. I can remember Johnny Cash, who was my personal hero at the time. I can remember Nick playing The Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By,” which I’d never heard before, and I remember making him play it over and over until he said, “Enough.” Listening to music was as close to actual religion as we got at that age, so listening to music while driving through America, a country and concept that we still believed in back then, was as holy as it got. We fell in love with the sunset in Oklahoma, how it made colors we’d never seen in the sky before, and surely there was some soundtrack for that moment but I can’t recall what it was.
I wish we’d had, on that road trip, an album like Colby Falkner James’s You Will Always Change Your Mind. Listening to it while quarantining in a house in Miami feels like only half the experience. It deserves a bigger vista. I can’t go back to that moment in my life, nor would I want to, but I can imagine what it might be like to cross Oklahoma as a teenager while the sun races the hood to the horizon, falls into shades of pink and purple, and finally disappears behind the hills just as Colby’s “Ticonderoga” is cresting. I won’t have that experience myself, but I wish it now, almost like a prayer, for someone else.
-P. Scott Cunningham