Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

The detourist


Have you ever driven cross-country alone? I don’t recommend it.

I was moving out west for a new job and wanted to make the eighteen hundred miles from St. Louis to San Diego in three days till I realized I’d be arriving in San Diego in the dark and without a place to stay at the end of day three. I paced myself at five hundred miles a day so I’d get there on day four in the afternoon.

It was late May. I started from St. Louis before dawn, as one does for long road trips, a stack of cassettes handy on the passenger seat and the hatch area of my Dodge Colt packed so full of stuff I couldn’t see out the rearview mirror. It was raining. City stoplights refracted in the raindrops on the windshield and became lightsabers, and that made me feel good about things.

I didn’t mind driving through half of Missouri in the dark, since I’d made the trip on I-44 to Springfield a number of times to visit a friend of mine, but I found I was already getting restless by the time the light came up and wondered how I’d entertain myself all the way to Oklahoma City. I had my Sting tape on repeat. It was time for some Men At Work. Or Talking Heads. Elvis Costello. I didn’t want to go through my whole collection before nightfall.

Just before hitting the Oklahoma border I took a little detour. My wife at the time was from a tiny town in the southwest corner of Missouri called Neosho. I headed south on I-49, just wanting a glimpse of her past, her childhood, because, to be honest, my wife at the time was something of an enigma to many people. Even me. And here I was embarking on the most exciting project of my adult life and I had to wonder whether she was entirely on board. Maybe seeing something of her secret history would give me some insight I could use. Thus, on to Neosho.

What I found when I pulled into the tidy downtown square was not something I could glean much from. An attractive, mid-1800s town of the sort Bonnie and Clyde might have hit back in ‘32. Who knows? Maybe they did. But I didn’t see anything of my wife’s personality there in the neat brick buildings or the budding trees around the courthouse. Her story must have been hiding in the residential blocks, I guess, where in some tiny frame house thirty years before she’d gone through whatever traumas had made her the person she was now. Her past was as vague as she’d made it.

I strolled around the square and watched people for a while, taking note of their Grant Wood expressions, their wire- and horn-rimmed glasses, weak chins. Inside people like that I always assumed there to be tensions. They act out on children and animals, I thought, or they hold it all in and grow tumors and resentments, always toiling and trying not to look back. I was probably being unfair. Even if some of them were related to my wife, I should have given them the benefit of the doubt, but then again my wife had given me certain ideas about her hometown so it was hard to be objective. The rain was gone now and the sun shining on the charming if clichéd square.

To make Oklahoma City by rush hour, I decided not to eat lunch in Neosho — I hit the road again instead. A Micky D’s somewhere along 44 would have to do. I had a lot on my mind now, and I imagined the miles would shoot past as I worked on the mystery of the woman I was married to and what our life would be like at the end of the long road I was on, corresponding more or less with Route 66, American metaphor.

The rest of the ride to the coast was uneventful.


13 comments on “The detourist

  1. kingmidget
    February 7, 2017

    What’s a cassette?

    A few years ago, we (my kids, wife and I) went back east for a couple of weeks. We made a stop in the small town in upstate New York where my wife spent a few of her childhood years. It was kind of a blah moment on our trip. We drove by the house she lived in, the school she went to. She told the kids a few stories of her time there. And we moved on. I wonder if it would have been different for you if your wife had been there when you drove through Neosho.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 7, 2017

      Probably. Though she might have said no way are we driving through Neosho!

      Places we left a long time ago sure have a strong hold on us though. Interesting.

      • kingmidget
        February 7, 2017

        Having lived in the Sacramento area since I was one, I don’t have a connection to that kind of nostalgia. The closest I get is when I drive by the house on 38th Street my grandmother lived in and where my mom grew up. And when I’m in Chicago and try to imagine my dad growing up there.

  2. John W. Howell
    February 7, 2017

    Well done, Kevin. I used to drive between such towns for work in Ohio. Sometimes taking a lunch in the square brought up thoughts much like yours. I didn’t have an enigmatic wife on my mind but the feeling was similar. Thanks.

  3. pinklightsabre
    February 7, 2017

    So visual, somehow. I like the phrase about the refracting rain, the sense of your isolation and removal looking at the people in that town, funny how vividly you can remember how things feel, like that. I drove to St. Louis from Philadelphia in a day with my dad, camped there, then west to Colorado the next, stopping in Kansas. Recall my first White Castle burger there, in St. Louis, summer of ’87 I think.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 7, 2017

      Ah, White Castle. Chateau Blanc. Home of the Belly Bomber. I was around in the summer of ’87. Imagine if we were in line at the same White Castle at the same time!

  4. S.K. Nicholls
    February 7, 2017

    It’s kinda sad when I go back to GA. All the old people I have fond memories of are gone. The middle-aged ones are wreck with disabilities in my hometown. We’re not even allowed on my grandparent’s farm cause my cousin is a neurotic recluse. We went up to Cedartown GA to the orphanage I spent my teen years in and they have turned it into a treatment center. It was nostalgic for me to see the great dining hall with the enormous Palladium windows and brass chandeliers and all the huge buildings. Kinda hard for me to envision myself strolling or biking that campus.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 7, 2017

      Yes, it can be risky going back. I once went back to see a certain house and it had been torn down and replaced with a strip mall!

      • S.K. Nicholls
        February 7, 2017

        I know that was sad. When we went to Detroit we went to see my grandkids great-grandfather’s house. He was in construction and well-known for building gorgeous Victorian homes. Good friends with Henry Ford. It was gone and replaced with a skyscraper.

  5. Adrienne Morris
    February 7, 2017

    I think it’s hard to trust one person’s opinion of a region especially if it has something to do with conflicted feelings about family members or a rough time in high school. Having lived in the country, the city and the suburbs and having once been married to an Irishman and now a Lithuanian from Illinois, I think brutality and kindness are expressed in slightly different ways but are alive in all places.

    I love the way you wrote this.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 7, 2017

      Thanks, Adrienne. I’m glad you liked it.

      I think you’re exactly right, that all aspects of human nature are in evidence everywhere, and I bet this: if I went back to Neosho now, I’d probably have a completely different take on it. For one thing, I have a terrific wife now! 😉

  6. 1WriteWay
    February 9, 2017

    Good luck if you ever came to my little hometown. My family home and a neighbor’s house were torn down several years ago after a flood. Still gives me chills when I do go home and see just a grassy, weedy parcel where I had spent my formative years. And I hope this isn’t the end of your story …

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 9, 2017

      That’s rough. So far I haven’t had a house torn down that I once lived in. Knock wood!

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