“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – Elton John, 1973.
A song that for its performer was the hope of remaining himself as his star rose ever higher, for me has a more literal meaning in that it summons recollections of the by turns pitted asphalt and by other turns smooth concrete curves of Interstate 75, the artery by which thousands of Canadian snowbirds flock each year from their wintry, igloo-bedecked homeland (at least if you believe the propaganda) the seventeen hundred miles to the palm trees and orange groves of Florida. Cast a glance out the window on the southbound lane and you’ll no doubt spot dozens of minivans or sedans crammed to bursting with holiday gear and restless kids kicking the backs of the parents’ seats. It’s a rite of passage for families in this part of the world, as it was for my family, at least once a year, usually over Easter. Though my parents shared the driving, my father’s heaping piles of mixtapes were the music of choice, with this particular tune conjuring a visceral image of an empty road just after sunrise, bellies full of the “kids eat free!” breakfast from the exit ramp Days Inn, and the trees and mountains of Tennessee blurring into streaks of green beyond the cold glass.
What lay beyond the Yellow Brick Road? My grandmother’s winter home in Englewood, on the Gulf Coast just a few miles south of Sarasota. It was, and probably still is, a sleepy community of retirees who live in converted mobile homes built on trail-like roads that wind their way between tiny ponds. The waterfowl that lend their names to the streets flock lazily amidst the bulrushes and the tall marsh grasses, eager for a crumb of bread from a passerby. A mile from my Nana’s old place on Mallard Drive was Englewood Beach, where I spent hours combing the surf for shark’s teeth and curious seashells and got my first severe sunburn – never again would I fail to apply sunscreen to the backs of my knees. There was also the shopping plaza with a Beall’s, a Publix (home of my favorite yogurt) and an Eckerd Drugs. An innocent’s perception of Oz, but more than enough to seem like a slice of paradise.
Getting there was a dervish of anticipation and scrupulous attention paid to each detail of the voyage. It’s interesting that I have almost no memory of the return trips, except perhaps the resignation that pervaded the last night in Emerald City with the long road that beckoned beyond dawn’s first light, and the envy of those who could stay behind. The southbound adventure, on the other hand, is replete with trivia; loading up the Griswold-mobile in the bleakness of the cold Ontario morning on day one, the dry stretch down to the Ambassador Bridge crossing at Detroit, the transition into the wide-eyed novelty of the UNITED STATES. Woohoo! Gallons instead of litres. Miles instead of kilometres. Bright red-and-blue highway signs instead of our modest old white ones. Amoco and Chevron and Exxon stations instead of Petro-Canadas, Shells and Essos. Billboards every hundred yards announcing how far you were from the next McDonald’s, or how much John Q. Lawyer could win for you if you were injured in a workplace accident. It was all waiting past Exit 83, Next Right.
Even the most mundane aspects became objects of fascination to a young brain determined to soak it all up. Counting down the mile markers to the state lines and noting how quickly Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee would slip by, versus the endless slogs through Ohio and worst of all, Georgia. No offense to Georgians, but when you’re eight or nine and it’s not your final destination, man does it take forever, especially that Atlanta bypass. Endless curiosity about the varying quality of the highway rest areas, depending on the state: some full-fledged, full-service stopovers, others little more than a turnout, porta-potty and lone rotting picnic bench. An almost OCD-like need to collect paper directories from the Days Inns, memorize their locations nationwide and wonder why we didn’t have any back home (we do now, not that I’ve stayed at one since). Dinners at the Cracker Barrel and trying without success to conquer the jump-a-tee puzzle placed at each table before diving into something accompanied by biscuits and sausage gravy, to my mother’s chagrin. My sister’s innocent query, as we passed through the Bible Belt, of what was with the all the pictures of the guy hanging on the post.
And always, there was the road, and Elton John singing about what lay beyond it. It was a perfectly prophetic number for where we were going, even if the end of the journey wasn’t anything life-changing or evolutionary – truly, how many family vacations are? Still, the song itself is about a return to simplicity, leaving the penthouse behind and going back to the plough. The fact that I recall with clarity such minutiae from these yearly adventures – moreso than what we did once we actually got there – speaks to the notion that you can find great joy in that simplicity, that fancying it up with expensive hotel rooms, front row seats and $500 rounds of golf doesn’t necessarily make for lasting memories. Maybe you just need a reasonably reliable car, a loving family, and a yellow brick road.