Editor's note: Illinois writer Doug Kamholz promised us travel gems, like this vessel from heaven at the Antique Boat Museum on the St. Lawrence at Clayton, NY. What we didn't expect was a primer on keeping your spouse happy on the highway while traversing swaths of America.
by Doug Kamholz
Of course you know the phrase “singing a different tune.” Well, that stuff’s about to get real. Fortunately you will not be subjected to my caterwauling; my lovely wife Sheila Walk cannot say the same.
OK, let’s say your traveling companion is less than thrilled at a multi-day car trip. What to do? This was the riddle I had to solve. My first attempt was heading southwest from our Illinois home to Henderson, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas. (For some unfathomable reason we thought Fourth of July would be a dandy time to go to a desert).
This trip would cross five state lines: Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and then the state of inescapable blistering heat. So with a couple days of sharp-eyed shopping, I assembled five appropriate gifts including an Eric ClaptonCD (long before his COVID nuttiness) and a bubble gum baseball card featuring pitcher Bob Walk who may or may not be her relative. Each time we entered a new state Sheila got a gift. Sometimes it was only a couple hours until the next gifting; sometimes it was the next day. But it worked!
A few years later we were heading to California (or for our purposes, eight states away). By this point in our marriage, Sheila had found the command “NO presents!” to issue previous to all my gallivanting. So I needed a new tact. When we crossed into Iowa she received the first of eight envelopes. Each one had a state’s name on the outside. Each one contained a piece of prose or a poem with our new state as a theme. Our last crossing, for example, brought forth a bit of history on the ill-fated 1846 Donner Party in part because it stepped off from Springfield, as had we. (Both wealthy Donner brothers, George and Jacob, farmed near here.)
Going west worked well, too. I recommend this for traveling companions who are not the principle drivers and who tend to repetitions of “Are we there yet?”
Last fall was going to be a challenge. The destination was Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine. Now we are up to nine state lines plus a bonus to be revealed later. What to do? What to do?
Well, as you can deduce from the opening paragraph and my theme for this month’s Moxie, it was going to be a new song for every new state. Not just any song, but one that used the name of the state we were entering. I was off to the internet when Sheila was not around.
Here goes. (With some exceptions, I felt obligated only to sing enough of these tunes to get to the name of the state. I do love her, after all. And the sooner that state name appeared, the better.)
Cruising east out of Illinois into the Hoosier State, I had the quickest way to deliver my first mini-concert: “Gary, Indiana, Gary Indiana, Gary, Indiana,” I warbled in my best Professor Harold Hill Music Man/con man voice. Three Indianas in the first six words.
Later in the day, Sheila heard, “Why, oh why, oh why oh / Why did I ever leave Ohio / Why did I wander / To find what lies yonder” though in fact we had just gotten there. It’s from a movie with Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams, but I remember it best sung by Doris Day, a Cincinnati native.
After overnighting near Erie, PA, and venturing to beaches on the far reaches of Presque Isle in the Great Lake, we pushed on to my one and only deceit. All these songs of all the other states were about a whole one fiftieth of the country, for example Indiana or Ohio. Certainly The Empire State offers such tunes. Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” comes to mind. But I cheated. This number’s New York really refers to our largest city. I cheated for a chance to sing the very first adult secular song I remember (and one appropriate from me to my audience of one):
Around the world I’ve searched for you
I’ve traveled on, when hope was gone, to keep a rendezvous
I knew somewhere, sometime, somehow
You’d look at me, and I would see the smile your smiling now
It might have been in County Down,
Or in New York, in Gay Paree, or even London Town
No more will I go all around the world
For I have found my world in you
As you might imagine, this one went over rather well. And that’s a good thing as it had to last almost a week while we went gawking at wooden boats and architecture and suffrage history and a friend’s Cooperstown opera house, ending with good time with good friends who saw us off across Lake Champlain by ferry to the widest part of Vermont.
My selection for our first New England state was a wellspring for this whole musical atlas thing,with “Yankee Lady” sounding in my ear. The late Jesse Winchester is one of my generation’s great songwriters. In this song he extols the state’s virtues: “I lived with the decent folks in the hills of old Vermont / Where what you do all day depends on what you want.” He nods to Vermont’s beauty as well as youth’s wanderlust: “An autumn walk on a country road / And a million flaming trees / I was feeling uneasy / Cause there was winter in the breeze.” In the end his Yankee Lady loses to his urge for going. It’s a story many of us can tell wistfully now that we’re wiser.
Later that same day we traversed the skinniest part of New Hampshire. Here I utterly failed. You’d think somebody would have penned some lyrics saying “I am chilled and dew-damp, sir / Camped out here in New Hampshire" or perhaps "Wool abounds from new lambs' shear / on small farms of New Hampshire." But, no. So what Sheila got was only part, thank goodness, of the poem "New Hampshire" by Robert Frost which goes on for more than 3,000 words at the end of which the poet pointedly tells us, "At present I am living in Vermont."
Crossing into our destination state I sang delightful strains of Roger Miller's "King of the Road." Miller describes his travel as "Third boxcar, midnight train / Destination Bangor, Maine" while we were on our way to a cottage a tad more commodious (and costly) than Miller's "eight by twelve four-bit room."
A week later, after Sheila's cute little ears recovered, we headed west toward home with hardly any new states to celebrate in song. First was Massachusetts, which is the title of a Bee Gees song that pines "the lights all went down in Massachusetts," supposedly a heartfelt retort to all those going-off-to-California songs of the era. My rendition was so bad Sheila, a child of the '70s, could not recognize the number.
Next we just clipped the northwest corner of West Virginia, a state I dearly love, to borrow Jimmie Rodgers' singing about Texas. I just couldn't leave its musical appearance to John Denver. He places the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River in West Virginia where they only barely are. And really, any valid song about the Mountain State has to have some pathos. I chose another late great from my generation and someone I got to know a little personally: U. Utah (Bruce) Phillips. He wrote "The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia / Are the nearest place to heaven that I know" while recounting remorse that times are so hard he cannot stay, but rather must join that sad economic exodus: "I'll move away into some crowded city / In a northern factory town you'll find me there . For this troubled life is more than I could bear."
On our last day on the road, the homestretch into Illinois, I serenaded Sheila with one final song, that aforementioned bonus, a traditional folk tune collected by poet Carl Sandburg in his wonderful 1927 anthology The American Songbag. It uses an old spelling and outlandishly promotes our Prairie State. The lyrics tell that Adam, upon seeing El-A-Noy, would surely think it was the garden he played in as a boy. Sheba, coming upon this land and feeling joy, would declare herself the queen of El-A-Noy. And so on. Here's the chorus:
So move your fam'ly westward,
Good health you will enjoy,
And rise to wealth and honor in
The state of El-A-Noy.
That's one way to sojourn with a song in your heart. Travel well. Be well. Thanks for coming along.