May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, June 1999

They called it an unmapped drive through Indiana. But it really was a silent cry for help.

My Delta, Myself | A Little Good, Clean Lust in Utah | Wave Good-bye to the Fiberglass Moose | Montana, the Dry Run | Birch Bark in Excelsis! | I Brake for Spelunkers | Borne-Back Blues | Honk If You're Irrational

Mary Catherine O'Connor

Can't Beat These Beats
An all-star guide to the best in road tunes

"It takes one to know one" is a phrase we haven't uttered since grade school. But in assembling this sampling of sound-track-for-the-road music, it seemed to make sense. Everyone knows songs are sweeter on the highway, but these musicians' musicians know better.

"When you're a long ways from home and you hear some down-home blues like Charles Brown's 'Driftin' Blues,' it really picks you up. He's deep-deep blues, like melike when he hits a home run he goes deepand I like it."
"I like 'French Connection' from the Upsetter Collectionbecause it doesn't have a lot of words, so I can write my own lyrics to it. And it's kind of trancelike, which helps the milesand my mindmelt away as I drive."
"I like smooth songs, you know, the Commodores, Lionel Richie. But I also like that new song by Nate Dogg 'Never Leave Me Alone.' The beat takes your mind off the fact that you're in the car."
"One time I drove from L.A. to Atlanta with Jim McKayand we had Neneh Cherry's 'Conquistador' on repeat the whole way."
"Neil Young's 'Tonight's the Night' is good for those last 100 milesthe graveyard shift. He sounds as ragged as I usually feel."
"Once I was driving three cats to the vet. They were loose, running around my feet, and since I'm allergic, I needed to get out of the car fast. But then 'Nellie Kane' by Hot Rize came on, so I just went around and around the cul-de-sac in front of the vet's office until the song was over."
"My favorite road-trip song is Little Feat's 'Feats Don't Fail Me Now.' I also listen to my Jane Fonda workout tape when I'm driving to gigs. She's so commanding and stern."

Seasoned travelers love nothing more than to hawk advice about road trips. They'll go on and on about first-aid kits, raingear, and the importance of "knowing where you're going" during blizzards. This is just the sort of logic that causes good folks like you and me to make lists, and transform what should be a thrilling glimpse of the unknown into the air-conditioned misery known as vacation. Now, I'm not suggesting you careen around America with hookers, five cases of whiskey, and a crossbow; you shouldn't carry any liquor in a car. But you should be prepared to take a holiday from logic altogetherto do the wrong thing at every turn. Like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, you have to go all the way upriver and leave linear thinking behind. If you approach this kind of travel correctly, your loved ones should eventually get a postcard written in a scrawl that, though childlike, is recognizably yours, and whose alarming content metaphorically sets fire to middle-class values. Here's how!

Though I say it myself, my friend Frank and I have perfected the art of Random Roading. Our crowning achievement was in the mideighties, during an exploration that led, as best we can reconstruct, from Wisconsin to Kentucky. The Midwest, we figured, has an almost complete lack of geographical wondersan unrelenting flatness that drives any right-thinking traveler to perversions too grotesque to list here. So we resolved to do this trip right. We'd make so many aimless turns on the road that we'd lose track of where we wereeven what we were. "'Veer' and 'swerve' are such negative words," we told each other wisely. "Why must this be so?"

In no time, our anarchic little system took shape. The first rule: Screw up. If you and your roadmate decide to stop for the night in Clay City, floor it through Clay City while telling him you're going to "drive on to Woodford." Later, inform him there's no such place as Woodford, then watch the fun begin!

Even buying supplies can offer ample opportunities to confuse. In a town called Manson, Indiana, Frank and I purchased nothing but baked beansthree cans of every brand of baked bean. The cashier seemed to think we were consumer advocates, but our giggling soon deprived him of this reassuring delusion. As we left, he actually said, "I don't like the look of you." I replied, "We're bean people."

Indiana is a wonderland of bad nameswhich all by itself can get you good and lost. The one planned destination of our trip was a spot called Kurtz, which we had to visit to accord with our Apocalypse Now theme. En route, however, I was so distracted by a place called Spraytown that in no time Kurtz was a faint memory. When we finally set about reorienting ourselves, we learned the hard way that there were four towns called Needmore within 120 miles of one another. This said it all: These Hoosiers knew the game.

The day was cloudless, but we played one of those Environments cassettes of a thunderstorm to keep off-balance. Eventually, with invisible rain pelting our sunny windshield, we found ourselves somewhere in Hoosier National Forest. Frank had dozed off and asked, rather blearily, what we were looking for. I told him I'd read about "a ranch where they've bred plants made of red meat, and sometimes the plants scream."

Even half-awake, Frank wasn't buying any of this. So I told him the truththat we were close to John Cougar Mellencamp's hometown, Seymour, and that I thought it was only proper that we stop by. This pleased Frank greatly. Both of us hated Johnny Cougar, so we were keen to stride up to his door with our supplies and offer to "break bean" with him. Who knew? If everything worked out, maybe we'd come to understand his scruffy "hurts-so-good" philosophy.

As it happens, we were a mere 30 miles away, and it pains me to tell you I only learned that a few minutes ago. In the Random Roading game, you want to stay confused, but there comes a time in the evening when you dearly want to change back into a regular joe with access to a campground, or even a Kampground. That's the price of the dice: You laugh your head off all afternoon, but you spend a lot of late nights squinting around, worrying about deer, trying to find pavement again.

Most people zip through Indiana in six hours. But Frank and I spent a solid four days trying to get out of that state. We were that little cartoon Billy from "Family Circus," making dotted lines all over the Midwest, blaming any problem on "Ida Know" and "Not Me," those two rascal ghosts. (Is there any life situation Bil Keane fails to capture?) We asked grocers in Delphi if they carried "fresh monkey or donkey." We annoyed everyone by lurching at a snail's pace through the town of Speed. In a place called Floyds Knobs, we simply asked "to see them."

I recently phoned Frank; he's a professor at MIT, but not even he can accurately redraw our route on that trip. We do have a number of photos that offer enticing clues. There's one of a toddler girl riding a gigantic cow and blocking a dirt road. Another shows me looking disappointed in Seymour, not far from where John Mellencamp lives. Though I suspect I know why that was. Sometimes love don't feel like it should. MARSHALL SELLA

Getting lost off I-65 between Gary and Louisville could land you in Muscatatuck County Park near Seymour, bouldering the dolomite.
DON'T MISS: La Porte's House of Torture, replete with a bed of nails, an iron maiden, and an enormous kettle for boiling someone in tar.
BEST EATS: Homemade milk shakes at Larrison's Diner in Seymour, where any of the now-middle-aged patrons might have been Jack or Diane. (The diner, once a John Cougar haunt, is the official HQ of the big guy's fan club, the Mellenheads.)
TOP DIGS: Oak-shaded campsites for $10 at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (219-926-7561).
INFORMATION: Indiana Visitor Information Line, 800-289-6646.

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