There were three of us, dressed up like colorful lunatics as we roared at top speed down the parkway into oblivion. Looking for the American Dream, or a good place to eat. Whichever came first.
It was about four in the afternoon on a Saturday in July when we piled into my shiny Jeep Wrangler. Top down and the doors off, of course. Blasting The Grateful Dead, we rode that silver bullet through the heart of New Jersey.
We were dressed in the most flamboyant Hawaiian shirts that $10 at a thrift shop can buy. I had donned ankle socks, Ray Bans, and the red, white, and blue Chuck Taylor’s my brother got for his fifteenth birthday.
My associate, the pencil-thin, 6'2" Bo, wore a blue floral shirt, a pink floral bucket hat, and jean cutoffs, but nothing to shade his eyes from the midsummer sun. He clenched a pen between his teeth by the cap.
The third man, Mark, was a surrealist entirely dedicated to the whole “tourist” notion of it all. He had undone the first three buttons of his collared shirt – a green and pink hodgepodge of flower petals and flamingos – letting his chest show. He had on topsiders and aviators, and had purchased a disposable camera and some jerky for the ride. He sat in the front with me.
We were on our way, not quite sure what was going to happen in the next couple of hours, but we minded the clouds as they began to cluster into a dark, stormy mass. But no reason to worry yet. It was time to rip loud and fast through suburbia in that great Silver Menace and not look back.
We had just made it out of town alive when the wailing began. “Ripple” was playing, and Bo was not about to miss an opportunity to showcase his vocal abilities.
“There is a road … No simple highway … Between the dawn and the dark of night!” Bo hollered in a very off-key and unpleasant manner.
“Jesus, man!” I yelled over the blaring music. “I didn’t ask you along just to hear you impersonate Jerry Garcia! Now quick – we need to get our priorities straight! What about Vermont?”
“What?” Bo snapped out of his musical delirium. “What about Vermont?”
“We should go there, hit the road and not look back. This trip isn’t about limitations, right? It’s about freedom!”
Then Mark screamed because there was a deer in the middle of the road. I swerved to avoid hitting the beast before getting back to the subject at hand. “Listen, I realize it’s far-fetched, but after all, this is New Jersey, and I don’t think we’re gonna find a thing that’s worth a damn here. Who knows? Maybe that deer was some sort of sign.”
Mark turned to me. “Maybe it’s a sign that you need to pay better attention to the road.”
“It’s not going anywhere.”
“Well, we should find a place to eat. I’m starvin’.” Bo declared.
“Not yet,” said Mark. “The American Dream won’t be found in some diner ten minutes from home. No, we must keep going.”
It was true, if there was one thing that was important, it was getting the hell away from home for a few hours. But Bo kept ranting that he needed food, so Mark threw the jerky at him and told him to shut up.
At some point I turned my attention back to the road, but we were already lost when I followed the signs onto some highway. The Dead played loud and soft as a I merged and slammed my foot down on the accelerator. Our invincibility was reaching its peak; nothing could have stopped us in that moment. The Silver Menace was roaring past countless soccer moms, businesspeople, and the other human swine that occupy our roadways. We were riding our teenage defiance past the nightmares in the rear view mirror.
It began to rain a little, so I addressed the coalition: “I’m gonna take an exit. Put this damned top up before the car gets ruined.” Mark heard me for sure, but Bo was starting to doze.
So I took the first exit, and we found ourselves in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood. I parked the Wrangler on a residential road between two poorly painted houses and a set of chain-link fences. Mark and I got out of the car, but Bo was lost in his thoughts. No saving him now, I thought.
We were there for a while, wrestling with the beast of a top. Suddenly, the rain got heavier, and it began to thunder. We could see lightning flash violently in the distance. Time was running out. Fear was getting to me. As the loud booms grew closer, a woman teased us from her porch. “Oh, you boys better hurry! Ha ha ha!” Sweat was accumulating on my brow as we struggled to fit the damned top on the car.
We must have looked ridiculous in our Hawaiian shirts. Human peacocks on a rainy day. Just when it seemed completely hopeless, the roof finally latched on behind the mirrors, and we were ready to go.
I took a deep breath and tossed Mark the keys. “You need to drive,” I said. “I’m taking a break.”
We had just gotten back on the highway, and back to our “take no prisoners” mindset, when the rain began to pour on the Jeep in buckets. Visibility quickly evaporated. The windshield wipers did nothing, so Mark put the hazards on and drifted toward the side of the road.
“This is no good,” he said with all the sincerity he could muster.
“Why are we stopping?” Bo asked groggily.
“Open your eyes, you fool!” I yelled as the situation quickly grew severe. Rain was coming through the roof, so Mark grabbed a water bottle from the cup holder and placed it under the main leak. Pretty soon the car was soaked. We were stuck in the turbulent winds and relentless downpour of the worst storm all summer. There was nothing we could do but wait.
Somewhat mockingly, Jerry was singing the lyrics “He has to die. You know he has to die” over and over again. It was no joke. It felt like the end. We could feel the wind shaking the car. The loud crackle and boom of thunder and the sudden blinding flashes of lightning made it feel like a war zone. There was no hope.
I had gone over my obituary in my head about a thousand times before the nightmare ended. The rain suddenly stopped. The thunder was now far away. We were back to our demented reality.
We had made it out alive. Naturally, we felt another wave of youthful exhilaration as that magnificent silver juggernaut returned to chugging down the highway. But the energy abruptly ended when we found ourselves backed up in rush-hour traffic. Two hours deep into a gritty expedition for the American Dream and we were stuck stagnant in a sea of metal.
Tempers were wearing thin. We grew uncomfortable with each other. My cheap Hawaiian shirt began to itch, and poor ole Bo couldn’t stop yawning. I needed to get out of that car. So I told Mark to take the next exit. We soon realized that this was the worst exit we could have chosen, the exit home.
We were back at the beginning, and our spirits were sapped. None of us wanted to go back to the disaster on the highway. So we settled for food at a diner. I ordered a Taylor ham, egg, and cheese on a round roll, a stack of chocolate chip pancakes, a coffee, and a water.
After we were all done ordering I let out a sigh. “What a horrendous failure.”
Bo, somewhat surprised at my disappointment, responded, “I think it went well. I think we really found the limit.”
“That’s why it was a failure,” I said. “Look how low that bar is.”
“What would you even know about it, Bo? You were asleep for half the trip!” Mark chimed in. No one laughed. We all twiddled our thumbs, affirming our disappointment.
“It was a pretty real bummer,” I stated, just trying to make conversation, but neither of them responded. I looked at the clock, impatiently waiting for our waitress to come back with the food. This was the definitive end to our trip. Not much more in the story deserves a spot on the page, I’m afraid.
Early on we figured out that nothing we would do was worth photographing, so we dumped the camera in a trash can. If we had put any real thought into the trip we would have realized to use our phones to capture whatever brilliant encounters we had.
I guess that was the point: There was no planning. No thought at all. Just driving. In search of whatever we found. I guess we found something. The conclusion that somewhere on the parkway the American Dream is stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the January 2016 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.