“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”- Dr. Seuss
Are we there yet?
The decision to drive to Disney World was born out of equal parts nostalgia and the fact that we procrastinated and couldn’t get cheap airfare. Regardless, we hit the highway loaded down with fruit snacks (but, oddly enough, very little fruit...), four cartons of juice boxes and a Garmin navigator whose voice sounded like a Stepford Wife with a sinus infection. I also carried along a few worries and anxieties I wanted to shed along the way and an alarmingly vague idea of how long it would really take to drive 1200 miles.
Are we there yet?
My wife and I loaded the car with every imaginable magical title in the Disney catalog, Tangled for her, Cars for him, The Godfather Trilogy for Dad, we had them all. Unfortunately, the kids’ DVD of choice on this trip was Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a movie I’ve never actually seen but could recite every word to, including the lyrics to Loaded Diaper’s signature song, “Exploded Diaper” (the kids sang it all the way to Florida). Sound annoying? You bet your last fargin’ shred of sanity it is.
Are we there yet?
It took several hours driving south before I had my first we-are-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment; a sprawling farm of wind turbines rose up from the Indiana horizon. The kids took a break from fighting with each other to ooh and aah over the majestic yet silent turning blades, then it was back to “I want gum!” “I have to potty—no I can’t wait it’s coming out!” and “more volume please.” Damn you Southwest Airlines.
Strange things happen when you’re driving seven hours nonstop and you begin to develop that road weary thousand-yard stare. You notice things, odd things, racing past on the road around you.
As you travel into the south along our nation’s highways, you come to the horrifying realization that the forces of good and evil, light and dark, are waging a war for your soul from the billboards posted along the way.
It begins innocently enough with a tastefully crafted sign featuring a flowing cursive script (Wagner Bold, I think) reminding us that “Jesus died for our sins.” Fair enough. Always a comfort to be reminded.
Then it turns dark.
Several hundred miles later as you enter Georgia, the billboards turn black, the font gets all Helvetica bold and the messages become more ominous; “When you DIE, you will be JUDGED”, GOD is WATCHING ALWAYS" and my personal favorite abandonment of subtlety; "HELL IS REAL!"
Every 10 miles or so, Lucifer gets in his shots with ‘STRIPPERS! Need we say more? Exit 4A!" And "Boiled Peanuts and Cracklings Exit 5A!" (You just know Beelzebub wrote that one because only the devil could like boiled peanuts).
Nothing like contemplating your own mortality along with the mysteries of the afterlife to get the family in the mood for Cinderella’s Castle and Fantasia.
Are we there yet?
True story. Hotel bar in Chattanooga, Tenn., 10 soul-searching hours behind us, eight remaining, torn between confession and a lap dance, ordering a well-deserved Sam Adams and room service for the family. For reasons I still don’t understand, or perhaps I was guided by the higher powers behind the billboards, I smiled and nodded to an older, white-haired gentleman to my left and said “Good evening.” Seemed like a good idea at the time.
He set down his bourbon rocks, glanced over and looked directly into my eyes and said: “Have you ever watched the show Paranormal State?”
He continued in a hushed tone. “My momma died in my house, but I know she watches ovr' me. She’s there. When I was asleep last night, I dreamt of the demons that would take me and I see my momma there keeping em’ back, watchin’ me, keepin’ em’ at bay.”
Slowly, he motioned as if he was going to lift up his shirt and an icy jolt of panic rose up through the floor and shook my body.
Terrific. All I wanted was a beer, nuggies for the kids and a Cobb Salad for my wife (CHRIST WHERE THE HELL DID THAT BARTENDER GO!?!) and now I was going to be featured on Nancy Grace the following night as the case of the Tourist Corpse with the Tanned Left Arm. The stranger (I think his name was Jerry) motioned to his side. “When I woke last night, I had three scars. Three.” He raised his hand and counted out three fingers. "Father, Son and Holy Ghost. That’s how I know my mama is there.”
I took advantage of the momentary distraction of an ESPN football highlight on the TV overhead to flip $20 on the bar for my $4.50 tab and run back upstairs to the room. I looked back repeatedly to make sure I wasn’t followed and double-locked the door behind me.
The remainder of the trip was uneventful. (Note to Tennessee, I will not see either Rock City or Ruby Falls no matter how many times you ask. OK, maybe, but just stop asking. No, I won’t do it, and you can’t make me. Just stop. Stop asking. I’ll do whatever you say, please stop...) And the battle for my soul officially ended when I spotted a Chick-Fil-A Billboard featuring cows and a message to "Save the Herd!" That’s funny.
Disney was—Disney. I’ve never aspired to enter the Iron Man Triathlon, or hike to the highest point of the Haleakala volcano on East Maui, but having survived nine days traversing every inch of all four Disney Theme Parks with my son on my shoulders and the Florida sun on my back, I know I don’t have to. I’ve been there. The days spent at the Magic Kingdom are especially brutal due to old Walt’s refusal to allow beer sales.
It’s no coincidence that Epcot is my favorite of the four parks because you can simultaneously keep the kids entertained and throw back a culturally appropriate beverage in every country.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this trip had a higher purpose for me than just "It’s a Small World" and sunstroke. Maybe it was the 1,400 miles of spiritual guidance from the side of the highway, or scary Jerry in Chattanooga with the Holy Doctrine scar and a tattoo of Super Mario on his forearm (did I mention that?) There had to be a something greater.
On the third day, I found it. My epiphany came on our first morning at the Magic Kingdom. On the fiberglass log that carried us along the river on Splash Mountain, through The Laughing Place and up Chick-a-pin Hill toward the 80 foot plunge down into the Briar Patch, I looked across at my son’s face and saw the magic, the unbridled joy and excitement of the entire trip, and this moment beaming from his face (see photo).
It was in this moment I realized that this journey wasn’t about me at all. It was about him, this memory, a time he will never forget. As we plunged down the falls in a chorus of screams, I thought, "This makes having to listen to ‘Exploded Diaper’ all the way back to Chicago worth it. Almost."
The last message of my spiritual quest wasn’t a billboard at all. In the passage leading to Splash Mountain, deep under the Briar Patch, past Brer Frog on his rocking chair, there is a patchwork picture mounted to the rock wall that says, “You can’t run away from trouble, ain’t no place that far.”