In the 38 years since I got a driver's license, I have aimed a Jeep across a South Carolina beach, a BMW across the African plains, a Chevy through snowdrifts in Utah.
But I had never driven a truck until Mother moved.
She had lived in New York City on and off (mostly on) for 60 years. The Apple had been her home, her passion, the center of her world.
But now she was 81. She had begun to wobble. Her bank balance had begun to tumble. My brother and I decided to rent an airy, two-bedroom house for her, across the street from his, in Burbank, Calif.
Mother would fly west. She would arrive about when the second round of coffee did. But how would six decades' worth of Mom-iana make the cross-country trip?
I volunteered to drive it out to her--in a rented truck. My 12-year-old son, Allie, was drafted to ride shotgun.
Oh, the anticipation of a cross-country jaunt via a snarling, belching, 350-horsepower Ford truck! It would be slower than a plane, bumpier than a train, more expensive than going by car, more tiring than going by bus--and all of those were pluses.
We started planning three months ahead. I knew the truck would be a bear to handle when fully loaded, so I decided to avoid cities as much as possible. I really didn't need rush hour in Chicago while steering a 15-foot-long, 10-foot-high, 12,000-pound load. We chose a route that was nearly all interstate highways and nearly all southern. The largest city we would hit would be Memphis.
I sent away for booklets issued by every major motel chain. I collected maps. I jumped on the Internet and checked out construction projects in New Mexico, the average rainfall in Arkansas, average temperatures in Death Valley so the tires wouldn't pop from too much heat.
Allie prepared by making sure his hand-held portable TV had batteries, and by loading up on Busta Rhymes and Dave Matthews CDs. He set aside three books and a collection of "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoons. On the appointed Saturday morning, we rented a bright yellow Ryder truck at an outlet in lower Manhattan. Allie immediately nicknamed it Big Bessie II (apparently, Bessie I is the star of some deathless program on MTV).
Outside Mother's East Side apartment building, six hired hands loaded Bess to the rafters with furniture, cartons, her beloved piano. Then, with a jaunty beep of the horn, we headed north on teeming First Avenue toward glory--or more immediately, toward the Bronx and the George Washington Bridge.
That first half hour may have been the toughest part of the trip. I wasn't used to Bess yet, and as the rental agent had warned me, she lurched from side to side whenever I changed lanes or stopped short. When a cab braked suddenly right in front of me, at 110th Street and First, I thought death was at hand--for two Leveys and one mission.
You've heard the expression "standing on the brake"? I think I pushed Bessie's through the floor. For days, Allie kidded me about the soundtrack Dad produced at that Harlem corner--something like "Ohhhhhh, nooooo!" I managed to miss the cab by about an inch.
We trundled across the Hudson River and onto Interstate 80. By the time we hit Paterson, about 20 minutes into the New Jersey 'burbs, we were in cruise mode. Dave Matthews was rocking. I was nibbling on one last corned-beef sandwich bought from a deli on Third Avenue. Bess was handling the curves all right. There were no ominous squeaks or bangs from the rear compartment.
I began to relax. It all seemed possible.
Dragging six tons behind you is not an ideal way to see the country. During more than 60 hours on the road, I worried constantly about tight restaurant parking spaces and idiots who cut me off. I didn't think once about quaint country inns or out-of-the-way curio shops. We had only seven days to drive Mom's stuff from smog to shining smog and to fly home. This was an exercise in get-it-done, pedal-to-the-metal concentration.
And it was an education. Behind the wheel of a truck, you have to remind yourself constantly that it takes twice as long to stop and about four times as long to pass.
Nor can you reach back for extra juice in a tight spot. Mother Ryder puts "governors" on all her trucks. Maximum speed is 64.5. If you try to stamp the accelerator beyond that point, it will push back as if someone slipped a board behind the pedal.
Backing up is your worst nightmare. In Harrisonburg, Va., just after dawn on a Sunday, I got trapped in a Days Inn parking lot (some genius had placed a Dumpster right in my way). I had to go in reverse for about 100 yards, as Allie directed me with hand signals and shouts. I came within a foot of totaling some guy's sailboat.
Meanwhile, if you hit a pothole, the truck will rock from side to side as a canoe would if you stepped on one gunwale. Yet while the truck rocks, you continue to hurtle forward at more than 60 mph. Strange, and unsettling.
You'll never produce economic miracles behind a Ryder wheel. We managed about 11 miles to the gallon--worse in New Mexico and Arizona when we had to climb long hills.
Nor can you maintain a consistent speed. I reached 71 mph on sharp down slopes, but I'd retreat to 50 or less on the way up. I told Allie that if I were writing a book about the trip, I'd call it "Learning to Love the Right Lane."
Yet Bessie provided fringe benefits. In Virginia, when a trooper began to close in from behind, I knew he couldn't be after us because Bessie couldn't even reach the speed limit.
From the cockpit, you can see the sights quite well. The seats are about twice as high as those in a sport-utility vehicle. The windshield is about twice as wide. Noise is minimal. As Allie put it, "This is almost pleasant."
Two hours after leaving New York, we crossed into Pennsylvania at the Delaware Water Gap. As we approached the toll booths (the only ones we'd see on the whole trip), I was doing my usual Type A dance of trying to pick out the lane with the shortest line. Then I remembered--trucks in the right lane only. As I pulled in behind a tanker from Missouri and a milk truck from Iowa, I felt an unaccustomed kinship.
We passed through the resorts of the Poconos (heart-shape bathtubs are still all the rage, to judge from the billboards) and turned southwest on Interstate 81. Allie kept a diary of the trip, and the stretch between Hazelton and Harrisburg was unanimously voted Worst Piece of Road We Encountered. It doesn't look as if they've done a thing to repair the ravages of the last dozen winters.
We blew through brief slices of Maryland and West Virginia and settled into the Saturday afternoon Virginia traffic alongside the Blue Ridge Mountains. Trolling for amusement, Allie found an NBA game on Washington's WRC-TV. A touch of home.
About 4 p.m., we established a pattern we'd follow every afternoon of the trip. Allie whipped out the motel guidebooks and began figuring out where we should stay.
First, we'd calculate by the roadside mileage signs where we'd be in about two hours (I had promised my wife that we wouldn't drive at night). Then Allie would study the listings for that town. We settled on Harrisonburg and a Days Inn just off the highway.
All looked fine as we approached the canopy near the front door. But then my eye fastened on a sign I would never have cared about if I had been driving a car. "Clearance 10 Feet," the sign said. That gave me no overhead room to spare.
I pulled to a remote part of the lot and went inside. Good--the motel had rooms available. Better--it had no-smoking rooms available. Best--it had truck parking in the back.
But the minuses equaled the pluses. The "restaurant on premises" that the Days Inn guidebook had described was closed. The "exercise facilities" turned out to be a health club on the other side of town at which motel guests had privileges. Not exactly convenient. And "truck parking" turned out to be a line of longer-than-a-car vehicles, each parked across three or four car-size spaces.
There was a Howard Johnson's within walking distance. We decided we wouldn't die from the experience. We were almost wrong. Allie's salad with beef strips looked as if it had been in the freezer for a month. My fajitas were made from the same beef. We hit the sack early, a bit discouraged by such a lackluster culinary start to our trip.
As we rolled south past the Shenandoahs the next day, we admired the scenery, the trees--and a neatly built walkway that passed under the highway near Lexington. It was a walkway for cows. Obviously Farmer Jones's property had been bisected by 81, and his price was a way for his herd to get from the lower 40 to the upper.
Entering Tennessee northeast of Knoxville, we turned west onto Interstate 40. "Get used to it," I told Allie. "We'll be on this road until we're two hours from Grandma's."
For nearly 500 miles, we passed lush hills and billboards that praise the University of Tennessee Volunteers. We gorged on real country music from Nashville radio stations (Best lyric of the trip: "I met all my former wives in traffic jams"). When we stopped for the night at a Comfort Inn in Jackson, Tenn., midway between Nashville and Memphis, we were delighted to discover a real exercise room, as the booklet had promised.
Allie ran on a treadmill while I pumped at a recumbent bike. Sweaty but happy, we had a good dinner at a buffet restaurant on the grounds of a Casey Jones theme park. Best of all, we had killed nearly 800 miles in the first day and a half. The script was holding.
We survived a rainy Monday morning rush hour in Memphis (Allie wanted to stop at Graceland--"Next time," I told him) and crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas. I celebrated by teaching Allie an awful folk song I remembered from my sainted youth. It was sung by an Arkansas balladeer named Jimmy Driftwood. The chorus goes:
Down in the Arkan, down in the Arkan, down in the Arkan-sawwwww
The sweetest gal I ever saw was down in the Arkansas
A few hours later, we were into Oklahoma and a series of Indian reservations on drab plains. Oklahoma City at 5 p.m. felt suspiciously cluttered and urban. Besides, I remembered with a start that Timothy McVeigh had driven a yellow Ryder truck into the same city, via the same highway, just before the blast he so memorably created.
Allie "researched" us into El Reno, Okla., for the night. We chose a Best Western that offered free breakfast and an AARP discount (the first and only time my guy has ever been proud to have a 50-plus Pop).
In El Reno, we walked to a great little Chinese restaurant with a seriously spicy hot-and-sour soup. A far cry from Howard Johnson's humdrum. We joked all through dinner about the startling roadside signs we had seen just before "our" exit. El Reno is the home of a large federal prison. The signs said, "HITCHHIKERS MAY BE ESCAPED INMATES."
The Texas Panhandle is more than 200 miles wide, but barren and dull. Irrigation rigs slowly spout water onto vast fields. Brief swatches of legendary (and now abandoned) U.S. 66 run right beside I-40. The highlight of Texas: doing my regular Tuesday "talk show" on washingtonpost.com in a town called McLean, from a pay phone in a cafe.
The place looked like an outtake from "The Last Picture Show"--red plastic booths, 10-packs of Rolling Rock in the cooler, souvenir scarves with pictures of the Alamo appliqued onto them. Allie drank a Sprite and read People magazine. I tried not to notice the other patrons listening as I dictated in old-time newspaper style--"That's McLean, M for Mary, little C for Charles, no space, big L for Louie, little E for Edward . . .").
In New Mexico, the land tilts sharply upward. Bess was dipping as low as 45 mph to make the hills. We stopped at an adobe Best Western near Old Town Albuquerque, the 300-year-old part of the city that was settled first. We had an excellent Mexican dinner at a place within walking distance. The next morning, after five hours, we had easily reached Holbrook, Ariz., in the heart of a Navajo reservation. It was Wednesday afternoon. About a day and a half left, I figured. A piece of cake.
Not so fast. Just west of Holbrook, the desert wind whipped into gusts as strong as 40 mph. I had to keep a tight hold on Bessie, hands at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock, because she wanted to drift. Fifteen miles later, gusts were consistently above 60, and sand was whipping across the entire landscape. Visibility was near zero for 10 seconds at a time. I was beginning to get concerned when, suddenly, traffic came to a standstill.
A state police officer was parked in the infield. He said there had been "multiple accidents" along I-40 just ahead, caused by the wind, and there had been "multiple fatalities." Authorities had closed the road.
Although it was only 1:30 in the afternoon, I elected to turn around, go back to Holbrook and find a motel room. The officer had said the road would be closed for "two to three hours at least." I figured that meant 10 or 12.
It turned out to be 16. And when we inquired at the front desk of the Holbrook Days Inn at 6 the next morning, we were told that westbound I-40 was snow-packed and ice-caked all the way to Flagstaff (about 75 miles). It was snowing at the rate of an inch an hour. Schools were closed. It may have been April Fool's Day, but the weather gods weren't kidding.
This turned out to be the same storm that snowed out a professional golf tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., and led to the deaths of nine illegal aliens from Mexico who froze in mountains east of San Diego. But it wasn't snowing in Holbrook--at least not yet. After consulting several other local residents, I decided I might be able to beat the snow if I headed south to Phoenix, and then west from there.
But that meant 200 miles along two-lane highways--a far cry from the interstate quality we'd been enjoying for half a week. Allie hopped in, trusting as always. I gulped, gunned Bessie and headed south.
We beat the snow, all right.
For 10 minutes.
It started to fall gently, then heavily. The road became slush-covered. "Oh, man," I said to Allie. He glared and tucked into Dave Matthews.
For more than five hours, without a break, I battled the storm, across two mountain ranges, through gales of white that cut visibility to about 20 feet at least a dozen times. I didn't dare go more than 45 mph. By sheer luck, the temperature never fell below 34, so the road never froze and most of the snow never stuck.
At last, we burst through a mountain pass. I saw the Valley of the Sun laid out below. Light rain was falling in Phoenix. Never has bad weather looked so good.
The western Phoenix suburbs gave way to open desert. I began to sense California by the SUVs and Mercedeses that passed us. As we crossed into the Golden State, we stopped at an agricultural checkpoint. The agent asked if we were carrying any fruit. "Two bananas," I informed him. Somehow, he let us pass.
Death Valley turned out to be cool and windy--no worry about Bess's tires. We fought through an L.A. rush hour on the 210 freeway as the sun set in the west. I found the Buena Vista exit in Burbank. Mother happened to be standing on her new front steps when we pulled up. As we turned into her driveway and parked near her cactus, she raised her right hand to her cheek, half in delight, half in shock.
My brother gave me a hug, followed rapidly by a glass of Napa Valley red wine. Allie ran off to shoot baskets in his uncle's driveway. My mother asked, as mothers will, if I was tired. " 'Relieved' might be a better word," I told her.
Bottom line: 5 1/2 days to cover 3,049.6 miles. No accidents, no flat tires, no broken axles in remotest Nowhereland, no problems whatsoever (as long as you don't count snow). The $4,447 tab (it covered truck rental, insurance, meals, motels, gas, packers and a sinful slab of Tennessee fudge) saved us more than $10,000 over what a professional moving company would have charged.
I won't miss being blown three feet to the right every time an 18-wheeler passed me on the left. I won't miss the squeak under Bessie's left front wheel that sounded like a sea gull's caw. I won't miss spending $35 every time Bessie needed a fill-up of unleaded regular. But Bessie was a star. She did not need a drop of oil or water. Her tires had the same pressure in them when I dropped her off as they had when I got her.
I had fretted about accepting a truck that had been driven more than 151,000 miles. As I said goodbye to her, in the Ryder lot in Burbank, I gave her a friendly kick amidships. "You did well, girl," I said.
Necessity was the mother of this voyage, but empathy is the result. I will never cut off a truck of any size again.
A few hours after we had flown home, I hopped behind the wheel of our dowdy family Toyota to run an errand. The car felt squishy, boring, too low to the ground. Mother was solidly anchored in Burbank. But I found myself musing that, if she ever decides that it has to be northern Maine instead, I'd know immediately how to get her stuff there, and who would do the driving.
CAPTION: Levey with son Allie (top) at the NYC starting point, and with Mom in Burbank at trip's end.
CAPTION: Bob Levey behind the wheel, left, and his son's travel journal.