Saturday, May 15, 2021
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The Last Road Trip (Maybe)

I am sitting at the bar of Robert’s Western World in Nashville, Tennessee, drinking a Miller High Life and listening to a band play “Rhinestone Cowboy.” 

Though I feel like I’ve been teleported here, it was actually a slog: We left State College at 9 a.m. a couple of Fridays ago and pulled into Music City at 10 p.m. Central time – with stops, a 14-hour drive.

The “we” here is me and my buddy Michael Yonchenko. And when I say buddy: We’ve been friends for 50 years. 

Michael’s a videographer, mostly retired. His latest project is a labor of love: a documentary about a New Orleans musician’s musician named Pat Flory. A few weeks ago Michael asked me if I wanted to be involved – as co-pilot, co-interviewer and another pair of ears, eyes and hands. 

My first response was: Impossible. It’s the last two weeks of the semester. 

Then I thought, it’s the last two weeks of the semester on Zoom. I can teach and grade and meet with students from anywhere. 

Plus, there’s tradition here. Michael and I are adventure buddies. We tromped from one end of Manhattan to the other when we were in our teens, camped all over the West together when we were in our 20s and scooted around Thailand together on mopeds in our 30s. This trip to Nashville and New Orleans might be our last hurrah before we age out.

Nor could I forget that I once called Michael in San Francisco and told him I was going prom dress shopping in NYC with my daughter and two of her friends. 

“You in or out?” I asked him.

“I’m in,” he said, and booked a flight from SFO to JFK. 

So that’s what I said when he asked me if he could pick me up in State College on his way south from New York. 

What Michael really needed was someone half my age who could wrangle video gear and serve as a production assistant. But he would have had to pay such a person. I come cheap. As in, free for nothing. 

You get what you pay for, though I’d like to think I was a slightly less useless production assistant at the end of the trip than I was at the beginning.  

* *

Downtown Nashville has sprung back to life now that lots of folks are vaccinated and the authorities have eased restrictions on the honky tonks. The streets are clogged with party buses and pedal bars – open-air contraptions tricked out with beer taps and bicycle pedals. 

The town is a hot spot for bachelorette parties, apparently. One posse wore pink cowboy hats. Another was led by a bride in a veil and a white minidress. 

In Nashville we interviewed four of Pat Flory’s musical proteges, including Bela Fleck, widely considered one of the best banjo players in the history of the world. Bela recalled Pat giving him his banjo when he was just learning to play: “It was like the sun shining down on me,” he said.

From Nashville we drove to New Orleans for another round of interviews, including a marathon session with Pat himself. Sitting in a house full of model trains and stringed instruments — a house that had been flooded by Hurricane Katrina — Pat played us a few tunes and told story after story about his life in music and his life on the Gulf Coast. 

“The trees talk to me here,” he said. “The light talks to me. The clouds talk to me.”

By the time we left that part of the world, I had an inkling of what he meant.

* *

When we weren’t interviewing people, we were eating, naturally. The pink-haired waitress at the café across the street from our hotel called me “babydoll.” It’s not that I’m all that babydollish. She called the guy at the next table “babydoll” also.

Lunches and dinners were all the NOLA classics: po boys, oysters, red beans and rice, jambalaya, fried catfish and etouffee.

The French Quarter was even more of an adult amusement park than downtown Nashville. Pandemic? What pandemic? 

The local version of “State College: A drinking town with a football problem”: “I got Bourbon-faced on S*** Street.” The asterisks are mine.

The only snag was an automotive one: As we got on the interstate after one of our babydoll breakfasts, I noticed that the gas gauge was on not-even-fumes. Then I noticed that I was going 0 miles per hour, had no oil and the engine was colder than cold. 

In other words, all the gauges were dead. I pulled over. We hoped it was a simple matter of replacing a fuse. It wasn’t. 

For the rest of the trip we tracked our speed on our phones, and stopped frequently for gas, just in case.

Oh, and as for teaching, I taught one class from our hotel room, one from an empty hotel restaurant and one from Sherry’s Café in the town of Trussville, Alabama, on the homeward journey.  

Online instruction isn’t all bad.