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The I-40 Journey

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Gerald Wallace is in the midst of a cross country bus ride from Los Angeles back to Charlotte, because doctors have ordered him not to fly for fear of further lung injury. I wondered why everyone was treating this with amusement, until I realized that I'm probably one of the few people who have made this road trip, and so it's not so novel to me.

I moved to Charlotte from San Francisco. Or, more precisely, when I moved to Charlotte, the process involved driving from San Francisco, to Flagstaff, AZ, to Amarillo, TX, to Memphis, TN, to Asheville, NC, to Charlotte, to New York City for a two week stay, and then back down to Charlotte for good. Let's just say I'm well-acquainted with I-40.

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It took less than a week to traverse the country, but it's something that changed me forever. Gerald is traveling in a luxurious Madden Cruiser, but I drove solo in a Toyota Matrix packed to the gills with all my worldly possessions. Each night, I'd pull my guitars and computer out of the car, bring it into my motel room, and pray that no one stole my clothes, books, and such.

In a way, it was a lot like the typical Charlotte Bobcats season.

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This is me on the first day, about four hours south of San Francisco, somewhere off I-5 in California's Great Valley. Cool. Confident. Rocking the AC/DC shirt. It's still morning. I may be just another driver on the road, but I know my destination is something bigger than an end point on a map.

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Still confident, but we've made some adjustments. Hat's turned around. Not carrying the messenger bag everywhere, anymore. This is somewhere in the Mojave Desert. If you look closely, you see gas cost more than $3.00 per gallon. I'm still undaunted by the task at hand.

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I didn't take any pictures in Flagstaff. At the time, it seemed like just another day, though I was glad to get off the road after 12 hours of driving. That night, I recorded a podcast with my Sportszilla boys. We talked with Will Leitch and Henry Abbott. The world was huge, but even though I didn't know where I was, I knew where I'd come from and where I wanted to go.

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Crossing in to New Mexico from Arizona nearly moved me to tears. That's seems a little melodramatic, in retrospect, but I watered up. There was something about the clouds playing over the rock formations that hit me just so.

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Here I am in Albuquerque, stopped for food just outside the University of New Mexico. The mouth's turned down a bit. No more cap. No more frills. I'm just doing this thing. Gotta get to Texas.

Driving in and out of town was surreal, in that you drive down into the city, and then as you leave you face a straight stretch of highway that disappears over the horizon, still straight, still flanked by open land. I looked so long at that highway that I lost sight of the end point. My only goal was Amarillo.

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The road went on. And on. And on. I suppose there were a few distractions along the way, but nothing that jumps out. Before hitting Texas, I had to stop again.

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I am weary from traveling. Somehow, I'd injured my foot, so I'm limping everywhere. Carrying my gear into motel rooms is going to be a battle from here on. The journey requires sweat because the terrain demands it. Still, amid the pain and the doubt, there's always determination.

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No pictures from Texas, because Amarillo was a shock of bald commercialism gone amok. For miles along the highway, all one can see are Red Robins, motels, and various chain outposts designed to lure in travelers unwilling and uninterested in mingling with the locals. I questioned why I was moving, why I'd bothered with this foolish adventure, why I'd been dumb enough to purchase an audio book of "On The Road" as read by Matt Dillon. Matt Dillon! Sal would've hated Matt Dillon.

Gotta get to Memphis.

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Of course, I'm driving through Oklahoma during a terrifying storm. I get to Oklahoma City in a downpour. Gotta get through this, or else I'll have to spend an extra, unplanned, day on the road.

East of OKC, the storms get worse. I can't really see through my windshield. It feels like I'm in a carwash. Cars are pulling off the highway. I tell myself I'll pull over if I see a motel, but I don't. The water is gushing along the road, and I wonder if I'm actually hydroplaning and don't realize it. What if there's a tornado? I turn on the radio, searching for a tornado warning. Instead, I get flash flood warnings and commands to stay indoors for Okfuskee County just as I pass a sign that says... Welcome to Okfuskee County.

Gotta get to Memphis.

Eventually, the rain lightens. I get to Arkansas. I'm over this trip.

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It's not fun anymore. I'm in the middle of nowhere. Albuquerque and Oklahoma City are the biggest "cities" I've seen since San Francisco. I can't recall the last time I've seen a movie billboard. I want my life back. The sophisticated urban twenty-something. Oakland hills and the bay. Brooklyn. Either one will do. Not this Arkansas crap.

East of Little Rock, I take this picture, which I love.

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I'm too far along to turn around. Mother Nature lured me in with her New Mexico rock formations, and then she tried to kill me as I passed through tornado country. But somehow, I've made it to a well-kept, freshly mowed, rest area, with sheltered picnic tables and a panorama of rolling hills behind healthy trees.

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Memphis is on the Mississippi River, the waterway that splits the United States in two. Crossing it was anticlimactic. I'd survived trials. I'd found my way past obstacles. Why didn't I feel better about it?

The downtown waterfront looked lovely, but Memphis is at least as much Hustle and Flow as it is Marc Cohn, and my motel was in a Djay part of town. Get inside. Sleep. Limp back to the car, and take off again. No Memphis barbecue this time.

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Charlotte is confusing. Streets change names without warning. It's populated by northerners who are constantly surprised to see so many Boston, Jersey, and New York compatriots wandering the streets, and yet the southerners and natives are equally represented and seem constantly bewildered that so many outsiders have made their way here.

The Panthers are the number one team in town, followed closely by the Tar Heels, Gamecocks, Celtics, Redskins, Steelers, Yankees, and then maybe the Bobcats. Every day, implicitly or explicitly, Bobcats fans have to ask themselves: Why should I love this team? They're going to tell me it's all Southern California sunshine from the draft forward, but I know I'm going to have to drive through Oklahoma and Arkansas, eventually. And I will be mostly alone.

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In Charlotte, I have a job, friends, and the Official Girlfriend of Rufus on Fire. These are all good things, just as good things come out of every basketball season. We have DJ Augustin. We have Emeka Okafor taking a step forward. We have a real NBA coach.

But there's no way I'm driving across the country alone again. I'm still on a journey, but the only way I'm running the I-40 gauntlet again is if someone else carries me.