Why not?” I wondered aloud to an otherwise empty car, rushing to get off at Exit 12. After a laughably stressful sequence of events, something had to give.
It was, after all, the first hour of more than three months in a car. I couldn’t let the first 60 minutes be a bad omen for the whole trip.
Two hours earlier, car keys were placed in my hand and I pulled out of a rental car lot on 77th Street and Broadway in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. One of my greatest fears — driving in New York City — was about to be conquered. It seemed like an appropriate time to confront this demon, considering that this car was my new home through September. I was nervous, but excited.
Eight blocks later, while waiting at a red light, a police officer who was not pleased with the nose of my car in the crosswalk eyed me. So I quickly placed it in reverse. And backed into another car.
Eight blocks. That’s how far I got. It was roughly three full minutes with an undamaged car. It was my first accident in nine years of driving and I was rattled. I got out and assessed the result with the other car’s driver. She looked confident in what to do in this situation, and more importantly, she could tell I most certainly did not.
She talked at me while I stealthily texted my roommate, the one I was slated to drive to Newark International Airport to make an international flight. Takeoff was in two hours and his chariot was currently Exhibit A of a crime scene.
Things had been better.
After taking care of the formalities, she handed me her business card. It said Love & Hip Hop on it, and we pledged to “keep in touch.” And like that, it was over.
But it wasn’t. Because the one skill that I have the most confidence in, more than writing and walking and talking and breathing, is my ability to drive a car. And that had been shattered. One hundred and eighty seconds into a three-month road trip.
And I still had to get my roommate to Newark.
The fender bender, and the frantic drive to Newark, and becoming the driving equivalent of Nick Anderson on the free throw line, was all that rattled through my head as I made my first push, to Rochester, New York.
Then, an hour into that drive, a sign appeared before me. Literally.
Getting off at Exit 12 was not part of the plan that Teena, my British GPS dashboard lady, had mapped out for me. I was to stay on Interstate 80 for the duration of New Jersey and on into the heart of Pennsylvania. Teena said nothing about a “Land of Make Believe.”
Fully understanding that this detour could be the thing to shake me out of my funk or lead to my untimely death, I veered off at Exit 12. Within seconds, I immediately regretted this decision. After rolling down my windows, I could not hear a sound. I did not see a human. This was definitely a trap. Still, I kept weaving through the town. And then this:
That sign was entirely too jolly to not be evil. I immediately thought of murderous clowns, Jumanji, and a daylight Klan rally, also known as my three greatest fears. My mom was going to kill me.
But I kept driving, and by now Teena had become furious. A chorus began to play over and again: “Recalculating” and “Hit a U-turn” and “The sun is going down. I know you’re scared of the dark. I know you’re scared of the light, too. Why are you doing this to yourself?”
Still, I drove. And then, seven-tenths of a mile in, another sign appeared:
KIDS’ PREMIER FAMILY WATER AND AMUSEMENT PARK
And just like that, the day’s stress and possible arrest and potential cult initiation had disappeared. I’d stumbled upon the happiest place in New Jersey on Interstate 80, between Newark and the Pennsylvania border. And while the venue was deserted and not currently open for business, I finally had some inspiration for how to carry out this trip.
Rembert 1, Teena 0.
From now until sometime in September I will be on the road, writing stories. Yes, this series has a catchy name, “Rembert Explains America,” but that’s only part of the story. Also, I don’t enjoy thinking in the third person, so my actual approach to traversing the country takes me back to another great summer of my life.
The Summer of Yes
It’s a simple philosophy that two friends and I invented during the summer of 2008. Newly 21, vaguely employed, and anticipating three thrilling months of independence, we established one rule for the summer: Say yes. To everything. While not perfect, and certainly not always carried out, even having the inclination to always be willing to try something was enough.
Five years have passed, but my approach to the summer still remains the same. The catch this time is that I’d like your help. For this series, a schedule and a route exist, certain stops will be made, and there are stories, long and short, fun and serious, weird and extremely weird, that I have wanted to tell for years, that will finally come to light in this three-month journey through the contiguous 48. But I don’t know everything.
I’d love to hear from you. Think “nouns.” Persons, places, and things that I might overlook. Or have never heard of. Local legends, sights, haunts, sandwiches, stores, smells, whatever. Don’t hold back. Know that if I find out that your mayor was smoking crack after I passed through your town, and there’s a video, I’m holding you personally responsible.
There’s one other way this e-mail address tip line can be mutually beneficial. Another aspect of this trip, in addition to writing pieces that will be placed on the Internet, is a scavenger hunt. When I’m not driving or writing or sleeping, I’ll be on the hunt for a list of items. Thirty-three to be exact. (You can find them here.)
If you have information about any of the items, tell me. And more importantly, if you have any of the items, you are constitutionally obligated to let me know. I was raised in the mid-’90s era of the childhood trading-card barter system racket, so I will make sure to have something worth a fair trade. Unless you’re not willing to part with it, in which case you can send me an image and write “Not For Sale” in the subject line, causing me to spend the rest of the trip detouring to the land of make-believe that is your home and —
The point is, please contact me via e-mail. I welcome it all, even the obnoxious.
The final details:
There will be an official site for this journey, as well as a Tumblr page for images along the way, along with my personal Instagram and Twitter accounts for some combination of vague information on my current location and pictures of breakfast. And finally, there will be a collection of ever-growing Spotify playlists. Examples: “Songs You Realize Halfway Through You’re Screaming at the Top of Your Lungs, But You Don’t Care Because No One’s Around to Make You Feel Self-Conscious,” “Shanice Deep Cuts,” “Selections by Delilah,” and “‘MIRRORS’ AND THE OTHER NINE SONGS THEY PLAY ON THE RADIO.”
I think this will be great. I hope you do too. Get involved.