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 It is the holiday season, and I'm proud to report, like the good Midwestern son I am, I made it home. It wasn't easy; the last year has been filled with so much strife - be it personal, emotional, or, most important (I'm learning), financial - that the notion of coming back to my hometown as a vacation rather than a last resort bailout seemed, for quite some time, more like some sort of fantasy version of normalcy than an actual plan I could execute and follow through.

(That was a really long sentence that didn't really go anywhere. It started in a clear, focused direction, but veered dangerously off-track about halfway through. I apologize. Bear with me. I haven't written one of these columns in a while. Gimme a few swings in the on-deck circle before I get my stroke back, if you could please. I thank you for your patience.)

That said, I put my fiscal house in order and made a trip back to glorious Mattoon for Thanksgiving. It was quite simple, actually. I had a week in between jobs - I will not discuss the new job here, because I am older and wiser now and, truth be told, am most enjoying the employed lifestyle and want not to do anything that could possibly disrupt it; oh, by the way, my boss is handsome and charming and dashing and it makes me smile just to think of him mmmmmm - and the week fit perfectly. It was time to hop in the car and just go go go.

Oh. Yes. The car.

When I was growing up, our family vacations revolved around two things: Our 1985 Buick Skylark and the St. Louis Cardinals. Our summer excursions were always based on which stadium the Cardinals were playing at. One year it was Cincinnati - if you know of anything interesting to do in Cincinnati, well, you're about 15 years too late for the Leitches - one year it was Philadelphia. And we always drove. Save for one strange exception at the age of eight, I hadn't been on a plane until my senior year of college.

When I mentioned to friends in New York that I would be planning on driving to Illinois for the holidays rather than flying, they looked at me in likely the same manner the distant cousins of that American Taliban defector would have looked at him at Thanksgiving.

"You're driving?" "Well, of course!"

People on the East Coast are spoiled. Everything here is within four hours of everything else. Four hours is nothing in the Midwest. Four hours is a cough. Four hours is chicken-feed. Four hours is horse-swaggle. Four hours is sliced cheese, hold the mayo. In Mattoon, you've got to drive four hours to find someone who has ever eaten a bagel. Car drives are easy. We're used to them.

But my friends here were appalled, not least of which my girlfriend, who was not only traveling with me for the holidays, but also supplying the car. I think when I initially brought up the notion of driving, she thought I was kidding, possibly stoned, definitely delusional. As the time for departure approached, her trepidation broke through. I started receiving frantic emails three days before we left. "It's not too late! Isn't there an airport in Mattoon somewhere?!" I explained that no, no airports within two hours of Mattoon. "Jesus! You live in the middle of nowhere!" Yeah, duh.

I'd been warned several times about the potential devastating effects of 13 hours in an enclosed space with your significant other. One friend told me he took an eight-hour drive with his girlfriend, and after they arrived, they didn't talk for two days. Another said she became so sick of her boyfriend in the car that she purposely turned up the radio full-blast just to drown him out. I had absolute (absolute! Really!) faith in my relationship, but who can predict what would happen on such a new endeavor? Part of me was just hoping I'd arrive in Illinois with my genitals still intact.

Or, as one friend told me, "if you two can survive 13 hours in a car together both ways, you better marry that girl." Well, ah, er, ahem, yes, how about that, OK, let's just cruise onto the next paragraph, shall we?

But deep down, I couldn't wait to drive. My father has exactly the right attitude about long car trips: You do not stop. Not for the restroom, not for food, not even for gas until it's absolutely necessary. You get in, and you go. He and I once made an epic voyage from Mattoon to Las Vegas in 25 hours straight, stopping four times for a total of 21 minutes. Braking is for the weak.

There's something about car rides that's liberating. (My father once fantasized about retiring and living life as a trucker. My mother vetoed the idea, saying she'd heard just about enough Skynryd for one lifetime, thank you.) Particularly now that I live in such an enclosed city, being out in open space, moving faster than even the express train, in total control of my own destiny, it's just wonderful. Typically, I don't even prefer to have the radio on. It's a time to be truly alone. The Drive clears your head, and it when you're out there in the middle of America, pausing in gas stations in western Pennsylvania that sell hunting clothes, you feel somehow connected to a world that's easy to forget.

And I talked so tough. "Don't worry, dear, you just sit there and sleep, and I'll get us there before you know it." I'd handle the whole drive myself. No problems.

We left at 9 at night, with a 9 a.m. Central Time arrival our goal. I loaded up on Diet Coke and Marlboro Reds, and after practically having to drag the kicking-and-screaming girlfriend out the door, we were off. The first five hours were cake, and we weren't even fighting. She then wisely fell asleep, and I was in total control. The road stood no match.

And then the fog hit. It started in Pennsylvania, and I thought it was just a brief hurdle. But it continued into West Virginia and Ohio, and more Ohio, and more Ohio (this goes without saying, but there is no worse state in the union that Ohio. Maybe Florida). It's one thing to drive all night, it's one thing to start your drive three hours after you left work, it's one thing to bravely tackle an impossible journey. It's another thing all together when you're surrounded by fog for about eight hours. The worst part about fog on a drive is that it plays into your already-prevalent awareness of your lack of sleep. After five hours of fog, the sweeping low clouds start becoming little dream angels, wooing you join us, join us. Sleep suddenly seemed like an excellent idea, something I should pursue sometimes, perhaps even, oh, now.

I knew I was in trouble when, about two hours outside of Indiana, I came upon, much to my surprise, a floating elephant head. He was smiling. His trunk was pointing upwards, and I think he might have even had an earring. "Hello, elephant head. Fancy meeting you here. What brings you to I-70?" Then he flashed his red, red eyes at me, brightly at first, then blinking repeatedly. "What do you need, elephant head? Why are you blinking?" He then darted to my left and began to fall behind me. "Where are you going, elephant head? Are you dissatisfied with our correspondence?" At this point, the trucker I was passing honked and flipped me off. Mass hallucinations: The no-turning-back tipping point of every long drive.

I pulled over, splashed some Diet Coke on my face, had a cigarette and collected myself. I was losing the battle for my mind. I turned to sports radio, heard an Illinois basketball score and was snapped back to reality. This could be beaten. Even if it was going to take me down with it, it could be defeated.

So I slogged back through the fog, saw no more elephant heads and entered Indiana just as daylight broke. About three hours from home. My girlfriend awoke, yawned, stretched and looked at me. "How close are we?" Er, shake, shiver, head scratch, must answer real-world question, person in car with me, talking, must respond, mind gone, how does one respond to questions again? "Three hours."

"Really? Three hours? That's it? Man, that was pretty easy."

Next time, we're flying. Promise.

This column was sloppy. There were many disparate cords that, in retrospect, probably didn't connect. We're off our game over here. Please, excuse our dust. We're remodeling. Matters will be back to a reasonable facsimile of their typical state of mediocrity soon, we assure you. Plus, we've been drinking a bit. Don't call the cops, please. We're of age.



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