Sunday, November 21, 2010

Getting Off the Interstate

Paths cannot be taught, they can only be taken. ~ Zen Saying

Or to put it another way, "Get off the interstate, Ben Stone." Okay, I'll admit that sounds a bit like loose associations, what we in the psychiatric business call the disconnect
between one thought and another that can signify altered mental status. But considering my state of mind late this past Thursday evening, anything's possible.

I'd been driving since 11.00 AM, having gotten away from Champaign slightly later than planned, as usual. I wanted to drop by the PASS Program center and say goodbye to Dr. Francis, his staff, and friends I'd made and with whom I intend to remain in touch. That done, I stopped at the local Meijer department cum grocery store to load up on Diet Code Red Mountain Dew, a favorite since living in Boulder. Trouble is, only the high octane version (with sugar) is available in my neck of the Maine woods. Nor can I obtain the excellent beers from The New Belgium Brewing Company in Ft. Collins, Colorado, up here and I was delighted to find both at Meijer's.

Reminiscent of the film Smoky and the Bandit, I was going to "smuggle" Diet Code Red along with some 2 Below and Fat Tire Ale across the country with me. Meijer was fresh out so I grabbed the beer and stopped in Kankakee, a town south of Chicago and memorialized in Arlo Guthrie's City of New Orleans. There I emptied the shelves of a K-Mart and Kroger grocery, making good my escape with seven boxes of calorie-free nestled in the back of my CRV.

Now, you should know the previous night had been a restless one. The excitement of going home coupled with ambivalence about leaving my comrades in arms made sleep elusive. I realize I often use military metaphors to describe the way medical students feel about one another, but it makes a great deal of sense, and every student with whom I've shared the notion has agreed. Medical school and the confrontation with board exams are so intense they create a bond that is difficult for "non-veterans" to comprehend. I don't know any better way to describe it.

Anyway, somewhat sleep deprived and just shy of twelve hours later, I found myself in what I believed to be Akron, wondering who moved Cleveland in the last eight weeks. The next morning, the night hotel manager explained I had missed the turn for Cleveland and was forty or so miles from Akron in a little borough named, appropriately enough, Streetsboro. In response to my blank look, he offered to call his mother -- the police dispatcher -- for reliable directions.

"The dispatcher is your mother?" I asked.

"Yep, been that for 30 years," he said, proudly, "and if there's a route anywhere around here, she knows about it."

Feeling like I'd just become a participant in an insider trader scheme, I thanked him and a half-mile later, walked into a Denny's like none I'd ever seen before (photo). Usually, America's restaurant is a dimly-lit collection of booths and tables under a modified A-frame roof. This one was a throwback to a 50s diner, the only difference being, instead of Elvis and Jailhouse Rock, the overhead was playing an updated version of Girls Just Want to Have Fun. What happened to Cyndi Lauper or is that too 80s?

In another time, the name on my waitperson's tag might have read Dotty or Flo and the cook would have been a cigar-chewing, t-shirt clad, Army vet known simply as "Sarge" with the tattoo of a heart emblazoned with the word "Mom" on a muscular forearm. She had the personality and physical proportions for a Dotty, but he was a young guy whose demeanor suggested he might slip out for a drag on a joint when no one was looking. It didn't matter because the food was great and the coffee good enough to make the Starbucks Christmas blend I'd had the day before seem more like warm water poured over a rock. I took a travel mug full with me and drained the last drop wishing it would refill with a wave of my hand and a casually spoken hokus pokus.

All too soon I was heading north toward Erie, PA with the Cleveland Clinic on my left and a gorgeous sunrise on my right (photo). What started out as a mistake in the night had turned into a wonderful morning. The surprises that await once you get off the interstate.

(Photos copyright 2010 by the author)
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