We're on the road to somewhere; or, the mystery trip

I've just gotten home from a day with my brother. Those of you keeping score at home have already figured out (or already known) that I have one brother; he is three years younger than I. We enjoy a tremendously fun relationship, a fact that makes me happy. Part of the reason our relationship is as strong as it is: a phenomenon called the mystery trip. When faced with the mind-mess that is a mystery trip, one has little choice but to bond with one's confusion companion.

Because it's late, I'm not going to be able to remember the first mystery trip that I can remember--or, apparently, how to write the sentences that I can write. But I'll offer one of the most famous ones, by way of illustrating how deep my brother's and my shared (I slipped and typed "scared" just now) skepticism was, as a result of the mystery trips. One summer day, while we were living further south in Indiana than my family does now, my parents packed us into the car for a mystery trip. We set out on US-50 east and drove for a couple of hours. Eventually, we found ourselves in the King's Island parking lot. My brother and I refused to believe that King's Island (the nearest big amusement park, near Cincinnati, OH, for those of you who haven't had the privilege of visiting its 1/3 scale Eiffel Tower or its wide range of scream-inducing thrill rides, of both wet and dry varieties) was actually the destination. Not until we were actually going through the gates did we really feel secure in what we were being told.

I realize that these turns of phrase could make our parents sound monstrous, which they're not at all. I don't know whether there was a higher pedagogical purpose to the mystery trips, or whether they just allowed our mom and dad (who were, after all, only in their mid-30s at this point) to indulge in some creative orchestration of suspense, disbelief, delight, and finally blissed out satiety. The two chief components of their artistry: surprise, fear, and a ruthless efficiency. The three! three components! Ah. The actual rules of mystery trips (and yes, we're allowed to talk about them):

1) People being taken on a mystery trip can ask any questions they want of the people organizing the trip.
2) The people organizing the trip can opt to answer any question truthfully, falsely, or not at all.

That's pretty much it, really. In the hands of a cruel person, such rules could open up chances for humiliation or manipulative idiocy. In the hands of my parents, they made it possible for the four of us to make it to an amusement park in the Malibu without either of us kids' knowing what was up. And being a fan of a good surprise's pay-off, I started using these rules to create mystery trips for others pretty much as soon as I could drive.

I organized my first mystery trip for a guy named Dave with whom I was madly in what I thought was love for years and years. Dave and I went to our high school's winter formal together our senior year. (There's so much more to be mentioned there, from the self-abnegating way I asked him out to the coughing fit I had in the car to the marvelous dinner that the three guys in our six-person party cooked beforehand to the nutcracker ornament, painted as a soldier, that I slipped him when he walked me to the door, in solidarity with his decision to go to West Point. [Another friend of ours had just given him Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, a move that appalled me and that I was seeking to mitigate somehow. I don't know whether my mom will have known before this moment that I swiped that soldier from our Christmas tree in order to give it to him.] But perhaps that sketch will suffice for now.) He had had a close relationship with our eighth grade English teacher, and I was pretty sure that these two hadn't seen each other for years. And so the day after the dance, I picked Dave up in my ubersexuelle Toyota Previa and drove him over to this teacher's house. Many surprised outbursts ensued. The three of us then hung out for the afternoon, catching up. And then I drove Dave home and didn't hear from him. My imagination runs pretty fast and is pretty creative, and so I'm sure you can imagine that I had seen this narrative unfolding in a different direction. I believe that this mystery trip taught me not to organize mystery trips unless I was actually doing it for someone I knew--not just someone I wanted to know. As a getting-to-know-you gambit, it's a little heavy. (Unless you're sure that the other person wants to get to know you. An addendum: when I stumbled out of bed this morning, my mother told me that my father used to take her on mystery trips when they were first dating. They celebrated their 35th anniversary this year.)

One of my favorite mystery trips is the one my excellent OhioanIowan friend and I took the summer after I finished grad school. I was staying with her and her husband in their new house south of Des Moines. She was working during the days and bumming around with me at night. Because I was going to be in town over a weekend, she commissioned a mystery trip. We had gone on one before, the summer that she was doing consulting work in Manhattan and living in Chelsea and planning her wedding; that time, the day after she found her wedding dress at Kleinfeld's in Brooklyn, we walked along 23rd Street until we hit Fifth Avenue...and ran into the Gay Pride Parade. The planned goal had been to see the Flatiron Building, but this was a pretty good surprise. Encountering surprises while on mystery trips: one of the side benefits for everyone involved. And then I had thought we would wander down to Washington Square Park to see the Washington Arch, which I thought would happily remind her of the Arc de Triomphe in her beloved Paris; there's surely a connection to be made between it and the Ohioan Eiffel Tower, if only I weren't so sleepy. Though we ended up having to take the subway down there because it was hot and she was exhausted, it was still an effective enough surprise that she commissioned another mystery trip three years later.

To facilitate my planning--because she is a consummate planner--she left me with a short stack of tourism materials when she left for work the first day after I got to town. Flipping through the materials, I found an image that looked wonderful to me:

This otherworldly landscape is part of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway in western Iowa; it's the Broken Kettle Grasslands. I set my heart upon our seeing this vista--this very one. I wouldn't rest until we saw it. And so, that Saturday, we got into her husband's car, with its full tank of gas and a set of CDs and our cameras, and we drove west, and then north, and then around on lots of gravel roads, and we took 300 pictures until we found almost this very vista, just as the sun was about to go down. If I remember correctly, we drove about 600 miles that day. We saw a windmill; I ate some Danish sandwich whose horseradish sauce involved lemon gelatin; we spent time in three different states. I would show you what the grasslands looked like through my (camera-aided) eyes, but those pictures are in my own house, where I am not right now. So, a postscript will follow soon enough.

Yesterday, the inspiration for a mystery trip struck again. I have been wanting to see the movie Capote for quite awhile, but one of the tricky things about living in a tiny rural town is that seeing most movies requires a lot more advanced planning and logistical work than it did when I lived five minutes' walk from the nearest arthouse cinema. (sigh.) This year, I've started figuring out that interesting things can happen while I'm en route from Indiana to Gambier, and so I'd been checking around to see what showtimes might coincide with the times I'm planning to be passing through Cincinnati and/or Columbus later this week. And then it occurred to me: my brother loved In Cold Blood when he read it during a junior semester in London. He loved it in a way I've never known him to love a book. Thus was the mystery trip hatched.

Alas, the only cinemas playing Capote anywhere near here were the Esquire and the Mariemont, in Cincinnati, and the Keystone Art Cinema (or whatever it's called) in Indianapolis. And the only times we could go were after he finished working--at 8 p.m. And so we were going to go over to the Mariemont for a 9:30 show... until he suddenly had his days off switched and we were able to go this afternoon. Everything went off without a hitch; even as we walked up and down Ludlow Avenue, outside the Esquire (which had the better early showing, plus the added bonus of being somewhere I'd driven myself before), he had no idea what we were there for. (Something that makes mystery trips extra fun is fielding guesses about and offering red herring possibilities for destinations. Today's lies included: we're going to see my ex-boyfriend! we're going to see the historic tower tree in Greensburg! we're going hanggliding! we're going to a casino! we're going to Lexington to surprise my friends there! [That last started to feel like a good option, actually, since it would have multiplied the surprises all around, particularly for a couple of small dogs with curly tails, but when the time came to decide between I-74 and I-275, we stayed the course...]) Movie-going, Thai-food-eating, and mall-ratting ensued. One of the best elements of the day was that a couple sitting one table over from us at Thai Cafe, in one part of Cincinnati, showed up at a Barnes and Noble, in a whole other part of Cincinnati, when we were also there, a good three hours after dinner. We had called this one as a first date, based on the level of awkwardness happening in the restaurant (e.g., the girl wore her coat the whole time; the boy told ridiculously inane stories, bad enough that my brother wanted to slip them both notes--one to tell him to get better material, and one to wish her luck). But when we saw them at Barnes and Noble, she seemed happier and he cooler. Best of luck to them, then.

By the time we made it back to my brother's house, we were incomparably well prepared by our own road trip to watch one of my favorite movies of last year, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Alas that I was too tired to stay awake for everything from the stoned cheetah ride to the climactic hangglide to the Slider Palace itself.

And alas that I am just too tired to write you a lovely conclusion this evening. But, rejoice! I acquired a truly stunning book about Joseph Cornell while on the trip today, and thus you're likely to get some meditations on what's inspiring this Cabinet's development, sometime soon.

sources for today's images: 1) the totally phat-with-a-ph Southwest Ohio Amusement Park Historical Society; 2) a Polish site; 3) America's Byways (go see the Loess Hills!).