Rembert Explains America: Life, Death, Hail, Rainbows, Feds, and Redemption on the Road to R. Kelly
Where the hell were you, Brenda?
Aimlessly wandering from level to level, dealing with 100-plus-degree heat and two bags filled with dirty clothes — second floor, third floor, fifth floor, fourth floor, third floor, second floor, first floor, fifth floor, third floor — all I wanted was to find her so this ordeal could be over.
This, of course, was no one’s fault but my own. In this day and age, there are so many ways to remember where you parked your car. Drop a pin. Take a picture of the car’s location. Write down the parking space number and what floor you’re on. Simply have a memory. I did none of these, instead going for the “park car with eyes closed, spin around 20 times, and then Men in Black flash yourself and sprint to the casino” move, which is why the following day I was left with no choice but to helplessly push the lock button on the key fob, hoping to eventually hear Brenda chirp back to alert me she’s alive and well.
Twenty-five minutes later, after I canvassed seemingly every inch of the MGM Grand parking structure, she finally showed her face.
As I sat in the driver’s seat, I prepared myself for what was next: something infinitely more taxing than Brendaquest. The act of plugging in a destination into my GPS is usually a moment of anticipation; once the computing is finished and an arrival time is delivered, it becomes a challenge, one that tends to be easily graspable.
Typing in “Chicago, IL” when you’re in Las Vegas is different. It was 3:30 on Friday afternoon and my set arrival time, should I drive continuously without eating or sleeping or stopping for gas: 7:02 p.m. Saturday.
1,754 miles. More than 25 hours.
Nothing about this was inspiring. But this was the hand that I decided to deal myself. Because I needed to see R. Kelly on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. at the Pitchfork Music Festival. I had to.
There are a few artists who I’ve longed to see perform in their hometowns. I refuse to let myself die before seeing Justice in Paris and would cancel an audience with the Pope if it conflicted with an announced Outkast show in Atlanta.
Not far down on this list: R. Kelly in Chicago.
Again, I did not want to do this. But I had to. So I started the car and left Las Vegas.
1,712 Miles Remaining
I thought Brenda was about to explode.
One hundred and thirty degrees. As we sat in a one-lane jam narrowed by roadwork, the temperature inside the car began to rise a degree every few minutes. It was more than 110 degrees outside, but once we stopped moving, we were no different from a rotisserie chicken in an oven.
I’ve never been involved in anything that was 130 degrees, but I knew it wasn’t ideal. This wasn’t a great start, and I hadn’t made it out of suburban Las Vegas yet.
1,653 Miles Remaining
There are places in America that are terrifyingly difficult to navigate with a car, less because of other cars or windy roads and more because of the difficulty that arises when one looks into the distance in amazement with both hands over one’s mouth, screaming “Oh my god oh my god” while Instagramming. The first time I drove on California State Route 1, I found myself pulling over every few minutes to take in the Pacific and not drive off a cliff.
This was also the case during the short segment of the trip that passes through the northwest corner of Arizona.
Growing up in a city in which the two biggest natural wonders are Stone Mountain and urban sprawl, sights like this still bring me to a standstill. Or, more accurately, to an “almost drove into a mountain.”
1,601 Miles Remaining
After only three hours of driving, I had to shut off the radio. I’d fallen into such a terrifying K-hole of sound, I wanted nothing more than the sound of the air conditioner, mixed with the (at times troubling) sound of items loosely pinballing around in my trunk.
You see, I had just spent a full hour listening to Kidz Bop on satellite radio.
It started as a joke. First I was merely amused that there was a station dedicated to current jamz sung by kidz, but after six or seven songs I was torturing myself, perhaps as an act of punishment for something I’d done in my past.
The gateway was Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.”
Why lie? I have heard worse songs. I wasn’t mad at it, even though I did pray for the children living on the Kidz Bop plantation who had been forced to prepubescently harmonize “only got 20 dollars in my pocket” until it was perfectly sharp by a half-step.
After Macklemore, there was “On the Floor” by Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull, which is an unsalvageable song, even with the talents of the Kidz Bop army. Following that, “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga. I’ll go on record and say I prefer Kidz Bop “Born this Way” to Lady Gaga “Born this Way.” I loved it. Yes, this song was yet another track featuring one short solo by some Kidz Bop executive’s child with zero vocal talents, but in the case of “Born This Way,” the nepotism was overshadowed by the soon-to-be Disney starlets.
It was phenomenal.
The next song, a truly uninspired version of “I Got a Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, almost made me change the channel, but that was prevented by another fantastic cover, this time “Without You” by Usher and David Guetta. “Diamonds” by Rihanna and “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen were tolerable, but by that point I was all-in on Kidz Bop. As I began to calculate how many songs I could potentially listen to in 25 hours, there was a commercial break.
First, there was a commercial about Kidz Bop auditions at Six Flags Over Texas. Then an in-depth interview with a 9-year-old singer name Julian Feder who cited John Wayne as an inspiration, and then a plug for the channel with the motto “Real Music for Real Kids.”
I don’t know why it took so long, but after 45 minutes, I finally started feeling creepy. And then the nail in the coffin:
Radio. Off. Forever.
1,580 Miles Remaining
Pulling into a Starbucks in Cedar City, Utah, during the seven o’clock hour, I quickly knew my day of driving was over. The sun was beginning to go down, I was tired, and I did not want to make a push through Utah’s national parks at night. While this was undoubtedly the safer move, I was well aware of what that meant for the next two days, with only a 174-mile Friday: at least 10 hours of driving, Saturday and Sunday, if I wanted to make R. Kelly on Sunday.
After setting a hilariously ambitious alarm for 3:30 a.m., I drove out of Cedar City at 7:15 a.m., ill-prepared for what a 12-hour drive would feel like. A day earlier, the GPS had me arriving Saturday evening. Now: late Sunday morning. It wasn’t too late to call this whole thing off, I repeatedly told myself, but every time that thought crept into my head, I imagined all of my friends in Chicago, seeing R. Kelly, and then telling me how incredible it was.
I couldn’t live with that. So it was time to push.
1,403 Miles Remaining
Apparently, AT&T has yet to discover a place called “Utah,” because the few times I had any form of a signal, it was so short-lived I had to assume it was an accident. Sorely needing gas a few hours into Saturday’s drive, I noticed a 12-mile detour to a town called Emery that claimed to have a gas station. Assuming that a gas station implied humans and humans implied wireless, I gladly went off-course to handle some business.
Driving through the main road of Emery, I felt like I was part of a one-man parade. Not because my presence was anything to celebrate, but because everyone was focused on my presence. It was almost as if they knew no one in town had this car, because everyone knew everything about everyone.
Also, just the fact that it was a car to begin with.
Most people I saw getting around in Emery were not in cars. Full families, from the parents to the littlest ones, were on either motor bikes, ATVs, or lawnmowers.
As Brenda filled up with gas and my attempts at finding wireless were quickly denied, I watched this dance of everyday X Games vehicles take place in the intersection. I had so many questions, but then the gas clicked off and I remembered my projected arrival time did not take into account the purchase of an ATV and getting riding lessons from a 6-year-old.
1,087 Miles Remaining
Nearing the 1,000-mile mark, a significant milestone for my psyche, I texted a friend in Denver. I was outside of Vail, not far from Colorado’s capital city, and thought it would be rude to not say hello as I drove through his town.
His response: “I’m in Vail.”
Not knowing if I had to wear a tuxedo to get off at the Vail exit, I slowly veered off the highway to put more gas in Brenda’s tank and tried to find my friend. After unsuccessfully navigating through every roundabout in town, because I’m convinced you need a PhD to understand them, I found him and his wife, we all embraced, and then we walked around town.
For the duration of my time in Vail, I didn’t see a single person frown. Everyone was just so happy to exist in the space that they were currently inhabiting. And it was infectious. I’d fully forgotten the task I had at hand, enthusiastically saying “yes” to a nature walk and “of course, yes” to a Häagen-Dazs pit stop.
Joy was certainly in the air, a feeling only eclipsed by the backdrop.
So this was why everyone talked about this place. I got it now. Related: I’d somehow been there two hours and my target Saturday destination of Omaha, Nebraska, was still nine hours away, not including a time-zone shift.
It was time to come back down to earth, say good-bye, sit back in the captain’s seat of my Wendy’s-scented car, and continue to drive east.
954 Miles Remaining
A theme of the entire road trip has been driving into storms. Or being stalked by storms. Or traveling alongside storms. Pretty much anything related to “storms.” Driving in rain has never been an issue for me, but due to some meteorological phenomenon, at a distance even the slightest sun-shower in the western part of this country looks like an F4 tornado to me.
So it’s an understatement to say I’ve been scared for a good portion of this trip.
As I made my way through northeastern Colorado, something ominous appeared to be forming in the distance. And then, suddenly, I was directly under it.
And then the rain.
And then the hailstorm.
After attempting to drive through it for about 10 seconds, I followed the car in front of me and pulled over. It sounded like my car was being shot repeatedly, from all angles, and I wasn’t fully convinced Brenda would make it through this hail gang war.
I sat for 20 minutes, fully expecting the car to be damaged by the dime-size hail balls filling the street and nervously Googling questions, from the practical (“can hail break a windshield and kill you”) to the absurd (“survival tactics if your car is lifted off the ground in Colorado during a hailstorm”). More frustrating than being trapped and increasingly claustrophobic, however, was the clear sky directly to the left of the storm. Bright blue sky, just taunting me.
Finally, it let up enough that I could see what was ahead, and I drove off. Into this:
Which became this:
Which, then, became this:
While terrifying and then beautiful, the ordeal was a nice reminder that weather has no vested interest in my safety or emotional state. And that I better not forget it.
868 Miles Remaining
Post-hailstorm, I immediately looked at the weather report for the remainder of the day. It was now late afternoon and it looked as if the storm I’d just driven through was on the same course I was, through northeastern Colorado and into Nebraska. Not wanting to call it a day just yet, I continued until it began truly storming again, in Sterling, Colorado. The storm was slowing me down, and this was the last town I could find with hotels for potentially 100 miles, so whether I liked it or not, this was the end of my Saturday travels.
I’d undershot Omaha by 413 miles. Almost six hours. For the first time, there was a real possibility I’d traveled all this way only to miss R. Kelly in Chicago. That realization deeply soured my mood, a mood spoiled further by Sterling’s lodging accommodations.
There were four motels in town, and the first three were sold out. The fourth, a Super 8, thankfully had a few rooms left. Those rooms, however: all smoking. In no position to be choosy, I gladly took the room and made my way into the lair. Despite having no qualms with the smell of cigarette smoke, the fact that a faint haze actually existed in the room was disconcerting.
In many ways, I was hitting trip rock bottom all at once. There was a 13-hour drive ahead of me, my room was sponsored by Pall Mall, the advertised “Wi-Fi” was not real, it sounded like someone was bowling or line-dancing above me, the first thing on the Magnavox when I turned it on was Burlesque, and all I had for dinner were curly fries from my earlier Arby’s trip.
This room and I were soul mates.
Retreating to the least smoky part of the room, the bathroom, I drew a bath in a tub that wasn’t dirty, but certainly wasn’t clean. But it didn’t matter, because that was a perfect metaphor for my evening and my body. After spending the first half an hour fanatically stressed and borderline angry, I turned off the lights and submerged myself into the tub, seeing nothing and only hearing that faint stream of water ever so slightly seeping into the drain. At that point, I stopped thinking.
For 10 minutes, I was at peace. Leave it to the Super 8 smoking room in Sterling, Colorado, to be the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a spa.
I set an alarm at 4:45 a.m. and woke up at 4:45 a.m. There was no other choice. In less than five minutes, I was packed and ready to leave the motel. I walked into the lobby to get my receipt, but there was no one to be found. So I left. There was no time for anything.
After typing “Chicago, IL” for the last time into my GPS, I was given an arrival time of 6:20 p.m. Understanding I still had a final time zone to cross, I knew what that meant. Roughly 13 hours behind the wheel. Weirdly enough, I was excited. It was a challenge. Also, this trip was based in extreme fandom, a quality I hoped to never lose.
I was traveling across the country to see a show, something crazy that people do all the time, and something that is easy to forget about after living in New York. When everything is in your backyard, it makes you lazy and ungrateful. Once, I passed up great tickets to see a show at Roseland Ballroom, a venue 10 minutes away — by foot — simply because I didn’t feel like leaving my couch.
So I felt good about this insane trip ahead of me. I needed it. My soul needed it.
760 Miles Remaining
Passing through Paxton, Nebraska, was a giant moment. I was finally in the Central Time Zone, making that time of arrival more tangible. In Paxton, my arrival time was 6:15 p.m. When I began that morning: 6:28. I was driving safely, but certainly on the upper threshold of the reasonable “over the speed limit” range. You know, 63 in a 50. 74 in a 60. 91 in an 80.
Shaving minutes off became a little game, something to break the monotony of simply driving straight. Another thing to break up monotony, greatly enhanced by having a race against time:
The song is “Feds Watching” by 2 Chainz, and I listened to it 23 times in a row. Fully losing myself in the song as I plowed through Nebraska, there is a moment toward the end when a siren sound shows up on the track. Every time I’d panic that the real feds, played by the Nebraska State Police, would be in the rearview. But then they wouldn’t be, and I’d go back to pretending to be 2 Chainz, which is never bad.
601 Miles Remaining
You had to be kidding me.
It was 9:28 a.m. and a Nebraska sheriff had my license and registration. While my concern should have been with the police officer, all I could think about were all the minutes I’d shaved off, going to waste.
After spending 10 minutes with my information, the officer came back and had a few questions, the first of which was why I hadn’t returned the rental car on the 17th in Los Angeles.
This was bad.
I explained to him that I’d gotten an extension to return it to Denver, but did it online so didn’t print anything out.
“So you were in Los Angeles but then are supposed to return it to Denver but now you’re in Nebraska,” he asked. “Yes sir,” I replied. Didn’t really have much else.
Next question: Did I have any proof of employment for Disney/ESPN?
Steering far from the “check my byline, son” response, I told him I had no business cards, but could “show him e-mails.”
He went back to his car. At that point, I was pretty sure I had a sheriff on my hands who thought I had a stolen rental car. In Nebraska. My previous shaved-minutes narrative no longer mattered.
And now, for the third time, Officer Hernandez returned to my car. He wanted to search it.
I know my rights, and he stated very clearly that I could deny a search, but I was not in “99 Problems” mode right now. I knew what came next if I said yes. If I said no, who knew?
Sure, sir. Search away.
I got out of the car, stood in front like he instructed, and he went for the trunk. Before he opened it, he asked what was in there.
Through all of my fear, this was a moderately laughable moment. Because this was the state of my trunk:
“Two orange sleds, a few bags, an olive green blazer, a football, and I think some cowboy boots.”
He looked at me, and then opened the trunk.
“Where’d you get the sleds?” he asked. “I got them in New Mexico,” I replied, further digging myself in this hole of truth that sounded so fake. “Are you in the military?” he asked, pulling out the camouflage hat and canteen. If there was one thing I wanted to lie about and get him on my side, it was this. But instead, the truth came out with “No, I just got them at a flea market in El Paso.” He didn’t seem impressed.
After five minutes, he closed the trunk and went to the backseat. As he walked, some small talk:
“Whaddaya do for ESPN?” Still not fully knowing how to answer that in a non-Nebraska sheriff setting, I settled with “I write on the Internet. Sports.”
That was my only lie of the day. “Sports.”
“You’re not drinking on the road, are you?” referring to the two-week-old unopened case of Pabst Blue Ribbon on the floor of the backseat. “No, sir,
it’s closed are you kidding me Jesus Christ let me go I hate you Nebraska,” I responded. For a moment, though, I actually had to remind myself that I was not 19.
“And where did this come from?” he said. I knew exactly which item of the clown car he was referring to.
“You mean that key to Memphis?” I responded. “I got it in Memphis.” He asked if it worked, and I told him that it didn’t. He proceeded, seemingly convinced I wasn’t trafficking heroin through Nebraska, but sold on the fact that I was not well.
After digging through the front seat and telling me to return to the car, he came back 10 minutes later with a ticket for going 18 over the speed limit. And then told me the date and location if I wanted to challenge the ticket in Nebraska in a few months. I thanked him and drove off.
Estimated Chicago arrival time: 6:50 p.m. I’d lost 40 minutes.
300 Miles Remaining
There’s a scene in the film I Love You, Man when Jason Segel and Paul Rudd go under a bridge and start yelling at the top of their lungs, because it makes them feel better. In the middle of Iowa, this was all I could think about, as I began screaming as loudly as I could, for as long as I could, for no reason. Or every reason. I didn’t really know. I was losing it.
144 Miles Remaining
After finishing Nebraska and a Jay Z discography–fueled Iowa, I’d reached Illinois. I was actually going to make R. Kelly. Pulling into a gas station to make my final stop, I began texting friends that I was en route. Turning the car back on, I —
The car wouldn’t start.
I tried again, and again, and it didn’t start.
Four more times — no start.
I got out of the car and gave Brenda a minute. I’d put her through a lot, so maybe she needed a breather. I got a coffee, walked around for five minutes, patted her hood, and then got back in the car.
She was back. A scare, but everything was all right. I’d still make it in plenty of time. And the R. Kelly playlist I’d been saving for this final stretch was sure to make these last two hours a breeze.
Eight Miles Remaining
With the Chicago skyline in my sights, my phone buzzed. It was a good friend from home, one I hadn’t talked to in a while. Fumbling to answer it, I missed the call, and told myself to call him back later. Less than a minute later, a text: “Rem please call me man. It’s important.”
There was no way this was good. Not in the slightest. As I made it through my last few miles of highway, I called back, hoping to have the call, and whatever it was about, wrapped up by the time I got to the exit. On the other line, a grown man, whom I’ve known since I was 3 years old, answered the phone, sobbing.
A close friend’s father had passed away unexpectedly earlier that afternoon.
I went numb. The phone hung atop my shoulder near my ear and my arms barely rested on the steering wheel. The fast, deliberate driving that I’d done for the previous 25 hours had all but ended, with my car gliding down the interstate at the minimum speed as cars raced by. I didn’t know what to do.
A few minutes later, I got off the exit and parked and sat. I don’t really know how long I was there. I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend and his father. As a young boy who grew up without a dad for most of my childhood, my friend’s father filled that role in a way I could never thank him enough for.
I called my friend and left a message, and then began walking around. I didn’t want to see anyone, but I also couldn’t be alone. Not anymore. The purpose of this trip had long become null and void, but a byproduct, being around friends, was a blessing compared to what could have been if, say, I had to deal with this alone in some small town in Utah.
So, unsure of what to do or how to act or where to go, I entered the festival.
It’s an amazing thing, crowds and music and happiness, and the temporary solace they can provide. Without telling a soul what had just happened, I was given a quick reprieve from what would ultimately become a tumultuous emotional breakdown.
I hugged friends I hadn’t seen since the trip began tighter than usual, met some strangers who were so excited to be in attendance, saw R. Kelly in Chicago, and then afterward celebrated the event that was seeing R. Kelly in Chicago with friends new and old.
It was a four-hour block that I don’t remember much about, even though it happened only days ago, but I remember everything feeling good. And normal. While it was not the ending I had hoped for, it was the ending I needed. If I couldn’t be home, there was no other place at that moment — no other space that blissfully loving — that could have consoled me in such a way.
But then it ended. The temporary reprieve, while nice, was over. And now it was time to go home.