Call of the Open Road

Tiger Stadium was the excuse: Four guys take to the highway to reprise adventures from younger, giddier days

by Tim Falconer

In the classic American film Animal House, the fraternity pledge Flounder arrives at Delta House in his brother’s shiny black Cadillac. Without missing a beat, the frat boys yell, “Road trip!” And, in the next scene, they’re on their way to misadventure. These days I need a reason to pile into a car and go someplace just for fun. But, as my wife regularly reminds me, it doesn’t take much. Recently, four of us squeezed into a Toyota and drove to Detroit. The excuse: to catch a couple of baseball games at Tiger Stadium before it closes.

A road trip is a dangerous experiment in interpersonal relations. At every turn, it seems, dissension looms. There are uncomfortable hours in a car, shared hotel rooms and decisions to make on what to do and where to eat and drink. Throw in the obnoxious tics and habits, differing political views and clashing personalities of four men and a road trip is a donnybrook waiting to happen. Against all odds, however, most road trips go smoothly. And the ones that don’t usually fall into the someday-we’ll-look-back-on-this-and-it-will-all-seem-funny category.

When I was in university, a Montreal car-rental outlet advertised a sweet 24-hour deal. So we decided to pick up a car at 6 a.m. and drive to Boston and back by 6 the next morning. As soon as we crossed the border, we stopped to buy beer — please, please, don’t try this at home — and by the time we got to Beantown we were drunk and in rancorous moods. We managed to stumble out of a bar not too long after midnight and headed back to Canada. But with his passengers passed out, our driver missed a turn and ran out of gas somewhere in the mountains of New Hampshire. The only house with lights on was filled with college kids on a ski trip. We played cards until they served breakfast and sent us on our way. Needless to say, we’d blown the cheap deal on the car.

I’m older now, of course, so the logistics aren’t so problematic. Getting along isn’t necessarily easier, though. On a Cleveland trip, one guy decided that Saturday dinner was a good time to tell me what he really thought of me. It made for a chilly ride home.

The driver on the Detroit trip was a crazed labour lawyer. He put a tape in the player, turned down the volume and ranted against Internet porn, dished scurrilous gossip and crowed about his sexual prowess. Every now and then, for no particular reason, he’d bellow, “Heeeee struck him out.” His blue 1990 Toyota had, until a few months ago, belonged to his mother. Despite its four doors, there wasn’t much leg room in the back, where I, on account of my stubby little legs, sat. The car did, however, have a handicap parking sticker. He insisted on its legitimacy because he’d had seven knee operations — the same number, he reminded us, as Bobby Orr. Whenever we swung into a premium parking spot, we broke into gleeful laughter.

I’d travelled with him once before and I was apprehensive about doing it again. Fifteen years ago, on a trip to Ottawa, he drove at 130 kilometres an hour in a driving snowstorm and stopped every hour or so to get something to eat and play video games. Fortunately, we made it to Detroit with just two stops.

The others on the trip were a bond guy with a Henry Fonda-ish demeanour, and an eccentric writer with a knack for accents. The bond guy and I have often travelled together, so we shared a room. Since the other two barely knew each other and the lawyer is a compulsive neat freak (his dowdy clothes notwithstanding), while the writer is an absentminded slob, we eagerly awaited the fireworks. Somehow, though, they bonded quickly.

And so did we all. While looking for the Henry Ford Museum, we ended up at the Henry Ford Estate, where a wedding was under way. After the lawyer disappeared into the mansion, we went looking for him, and twice a woman who seemed to be guarding two entrances at once kicked us out. It was the classic road-trip moment: three guys standing in the stifling heat waiting for a fourth. We imagined him sipping champagne and chomping canapes — or having his way with one of the bridesmaids. When he finally showed up, I berated him with a line he’d used so often on me: “There’s no I in Team.” Typically, he defused the situation with inane humour. “That’s right,” he barked at me, “There’s no I in Tim.” And that became the running joke of the weekend.

Every time there was a threat of strife, we ended up in giggles. That’s the magic of a middle-aged road trip: By driving away from our everyday lives, we are free to act like kids again. And there’s nothing a guy likes better than a chance to act like a kid.


This piece appeared in The Globe and Mail on September 6, 1999


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