A Run for the Roses (Part 1)

[First of a three-part post.]

“Pickin’ up the pieces of my sweet shattered dream, I wonder how the old folks are tonight…” —Gordon Lightfoot, “Carefree Highway”

There’s no telling what you can learn about yourself when you travel.

So travel I did.

Page 74 of my 1993 journal kicks off its seven-page entry with the title: Monday, May 3, 1993: The Big Derby Weekend.

It’s funny because as I reread the entry I thought of much earlier memories—ones nearly 20 years before that road trip to Kentucky. Dad positively lived for our summer family vacations cross-country. But my memories were of course also tied to music, particularly Gordon Lightfoot’s “Carefree Highway,” which hit the AM airwaves in 1974. I still adore that song; it totally evokes wanderlust—a feeling I drank in 100% proof in late April 1993.

And while I didn’t own a fancy convertible back then, I did take my 1986 Mitsubishi Mighty Max pickup south to hang out with University of Iowa roommate Bud Morris and his new wife Ellen and their families. I was going to “Do the Derby,” smell southern flowers in bloom, and recreate for a couple of days.

But the real protagonist of this story, I think, is the road itself.

It asserts itself in a circuitous way, like the winding Highway 61 out of St. Paul I took the morning of April 29, 1993. I wrote about this in a previous post (“Grandpa in His Garage”), where I focused mostly on my family and one of my last visits with my maternal grandfather. I left just after 7:30 a.m., following the Mississippi down to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where I turned east and had lunch at Essen Haus in Madison.

I was in Indiana by 7 p.m. and stayed overnight with my paternal grandfather in East Indianapolis, where I saw my aunt, uncle, and cousins Marcy and Joshua, who was getting ready for his school prom. The following morning, April 30, I awoke at Grandpa Maupin’s. “…We had instant coffee, he had instant oatmeal and he warmed up an apple pie (like a toaster pie) and I gnawed on that and looked forward to breaking out on the road.”

Again, the road asserted itself.

But I jotted down some observations about Grandpa, since it was probably the last time I saw him alive, too: “[He’s] looking bent, and it’s wearing hard on him, doing things on his own. I love the old guy, for all he’s been through—the Maupin thing is: Tough, Skeptical, Humorous, Opinionated, Generous…I’m damn proud, but know there’s better we could work on: Sensitive, Accepting, Logical/Reasoned. Oh well. Help! Anyone!”

After a visit with Grandpa Adams, “I hit the road again (FREE!) around 2 PM. The sun was shining…” so I stopped and bought two 12-ounce Coors and sipped them on the highway south to Louisville. “Life,” I wrote in the journal later, “and Freedom are simple things like cold beer and a bright road and hopes ahead.”

I crossed the Kentucky state line early afternoon and steered into downtown Louisville around 3 p.m. I stopped to call Bud and Ellen but had a confession to make as it was the Friday before the Kentucky Derby: I was going to place a bet at Churchill Downs. They were adamant I shouldn’t do that, but I went ahead with my plan, parking “off Peachtree Street not far from the Downs… It was warm and I had my Cricketeer jacket on and there were street vendors in everything from t-shirts to hot dogs and [Derby] tickets and barbecue and balloons. It was hilarious. I got my pick-tickets and walked all the way round back to the truck and then got stuck in traffic for over an hour before I was able to get back up to Eastern Parkway and over to Bud & Ellen’s off Bardstown Road on Richmond.”

Once I met up with my friends, we were off for supper and drinks “at a place called Kelligan’s Café.” On the way over Ellen played a song by Arrested Development titled “Mr. Wendal,” and we made a plan to catch Steve Ferguson of NRBQ at Uncle Pleasant’s, but not before we’d first grabbed some ice cream at Graeter’s. At the show, everyone was sipping Mint Juleps and beers and boppin’ off the walls to Ferguson’s cover of Huey “Piano” Smith’s (and Johnny Rivers, as I remembered it) “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.”

“Her name was Ann and I’ll be damned if I recall her face, She left me not knowin’ what to do.” —Gordon Lightfoot, “Carefree Highway”

Ellen’s sister Lynn, who’d I’d met at the wedding, joined the party, and later I confessed to the journal that she “looked as lovely as ever. Ellen told me she’s currently ‘guyless’—but it’s funny…I had Lynn in the back of my mind, but never felt there was likely to be a renewed connection. I have to admit, also, that I was relieved there wasn’t a hint of one.”

Ears still ringing from Ferguson’s “Midwest Creole,” we disappeared again into the soft spring night. The journal paints the picture:

“Driving back, we stopped by the Derby eve parties of the Limo Crowd off Cherokee Park, you know, John Goodman and Tony Curtis, et al., they were having a New York theme this year and a huge head of the Statue of Liberty was on the lawn of one mansion on the hill, with music in the distance and police cars and leafy large trees shading the wealthy from moonlight and high clouds.”

It was a heady evening.

Back at their apartment, Ellen played a scene from an independent film that Lynn helped line produce out of Tennessee titled Borderlines.

I wanted to watch the rest of the movie, “but it was late and we had tomorrow ahead of us, Derby Day.”

~ by completelyinthedark on November 15, 2019.

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