Lessons from the Road (Learned the Hard Way)

One Esurance writer chronicles his journey from Chicago to Los Angeles and realizes the road (and a 15-year-old car) aren’t always friendly.

Not long ago, I learned I’d be moving from Chicago to Los Angeles. Upon realizing I’d be driving this distance, I cried a little. Then I looked at a map … and I cried a lot. Not since Ivan Drago’s Rocky IV haircut had a large, flat expanse looked so terrifying.

But once the tears had dried, I found myself loading my car, Sweet Delilah Grant, and looking on the bright side. “I can see breathtaking scenery,” I told myself. “I’ll become one with the road. I’ll eat gas-station club sandwiches!”

All packed, I turned Delilah’s ignition and she purred like a kitten. I looked to my lone passenger, my girlfriend Angie, and we smiled at each other. Foolishly, of course. For we had no idea what mega lessons from the road were about to be handed down to us.

Lesson 1 — daytime TV must be doing alright

Thursday, 2:32 p.m. I vacate my parking spot, which (unsurprisingly to Chicago natives) I’d been occupying for roughly a presidential term and the trip is underway!

Thursday, 2:37 p.m.
Immediately, I’m stuck in rush-hour traffic. I don’t know when people started leaving the office at 2:00, but I can’t help wondering, with Oprah off the air, what is there to rush home to? One length-of-a-football-field down, about 2,000 miles left to go.

Lesson 2 — the sun is punctual, to a fault

Thursday, 7:25 p.m. I nervously realize that every sunset on this drive will be right in my face. This wouldn’t be an issue, of course, if Delilah still had sun visors. But they’re missing for reasons I can’t remember (though possibly related to a post-college need for dinnerware). “Maybe the sun will set in the East,” I tell Angie. “Global warming?”

Lesson 3 — only the cows know what’s really going on

Friday, 9:02 a.m. We begin day 2 in Angie’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. And, joyously, I find the city’s morning traffic to move more like a synchronized swim routine than a defensive line on a football field. Bravo!

Friday, 9:45 a.m. Alas, our quick start is nothing but a tease as we soon encounter endless road construction. You know you’re moving too slowly when you can recognize cows by their individual smirks. Yep, that’s Bessie #27. So smug.

Friday, 11:00 a.m.
After the twelfth lane closure on I-80 within 60 miles, I turn to Angie. “Was there this much construction when you lived here?” “This much?” she says grimly, “there was this exact construction.” Well that explains those smirks.

Lesson 4 — when your hood unexpectedly flies open, it’s irritating

Friday, 1:38 p.m. (!)

Lesson 5 — Tetris: it’s preparation for life

Friday, 4:12 p.m. Ascending the Rocky Mountains is gorgeous. Until you notice your car has stopped accelerating, that is. I check Delilah’s vitals only to find she’s in perfect order — it’s just that, towing about 300 pounds of stuff, this is simply as fast as she can go.

Friday, 5:08 p.m. After stopping mid-mountains to gas up, merging Delilah back onto the steep interstate onramp proves difficult. The gas pedal is to the floor yet, amazingly, we begin to fall backward (a uniquely horrifying sensation I thought possible only in Mario Kart). “Why did we pack so much?” I say, downshifting with fury. “I told you you didn’t need your own balsamic vinegar barrel!” says Angie. “Whoa. Let’s not say things we can’t take back.”

Lesson 6 — maybe there’s something to this yoga thing

Saturday, 8:12 a.m. I’m noticeably achy as I crumble into the driver’s seat for the third and final day. You might wonder if Angie is ever going to get behind the wheel. Unfortunately, no. For Delilah is a stick shift, which Angie never learned to drive. On one hand, I understand her lack of interest in handling a manual transmission, but on the other hand … DEAR GOD, MY LEGS!!

Saturday, 8:35 a.m. If the detached sun visors and temperamental hood didn’t give it away, Delilah is no spring chicken. She’s a 1997 Volkswagen Passat with 127,000 miles. Despite her age, though, she’s performed remarkably well — until right now. It’s here that I lose one crucial component to the mega-road-trip: cruise control.

Saturday, 12:49 p.m. With cruise control, driving the rustic eastern Nevada roads could be rather tranquil. Without cruise control, it’s just plain brutal. My knee, shin, and ankle bones whine as I labor to keep up with the speed limit on these never-ending straightaways. Meanwhile family vans are zooming past me — toddlers lean out the window to shake their fists and shout, “Sunday driver!”

Lesson 7 — mother nature hates leather upholstery

Saturday, 3:55 p.m. There’s a traffic jam in Las Vegas, and we’re at a standstill. Temps float near triple digits. Oh, did I forget to mention that Delilah (spirited old thing that she is) also doesn’t believe in air conditioning? I lean forward to adjust my position and I’m not sure if that ripping sound is my back tearing from the leather seat or my sanity finally pulling the rip cord and making a break for it.

Saturday, 4:11 p.m. So hot that the steering wheel is literally shedding layers onto my palms. Is that a giant ice cream cone or just a Wayne Newton cutout?

Lesson 8 — Sometimes high-5s will do

Saturday, 5:01 p.m. Things have cooled off now as we move into California. I’d smile, but I can’t seem to move my facial muscles. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I blinked. Utah, maybe?

Saturday, 5:42 p.m. Have to stop at the agricultural check. “Bringing in any fruits or vegetables?” the guard asks. “Only myself,” I say. “Only myself.” He makes a face, then does a thorough 10-minute check for exotic foodstuffs.

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. When you start a journey that’s estimated conclusion is 2 time zones and 3 days away, it’s a semi-unreal sensation when you actually enter your final hour. But we have. “Pinch me,” I say to Angie. “Pinch yourself,” she says. Ah, the camaraderie of the road.

Saturday, 7:42 p.m. I fit Delilah into a new parking spot on our new street. Then get out and reach to the sky. With 33 hours of driving behind me, I look in the window reflection at my greasy hair, sweat-stained shirt, and owl-circled eyes. Angie’s cousin is waiting there to greet us. Her arms open to hug me. I stare at them for a long moment. “I, um … you better not.”

Related links

Tips for staying entertained on the road
Packing a road trip emergency car kit

2 Responses to “Lessons from the Road (Learned the Hard Way)”

  1. Evan Greenwald
    May 2, 2013 #

    Hmmmm, better not tell her about the three times I drove cross-country in my trusty Datsun B210, 5 speed manual, and over packed by at least 300 pounds….lol I loved it! Best Day: leaving the Garden State!, Worst Day: Dust Storm in South Dakota!…

  2. Bill Field
    October 15, 2014 #

    Number 6- Your kids or friends don' t want to borrow it

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