June 18th, 2012

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The Traveler Returns

I have survived my week of traveling with the teenagers. I may have to break this travelogue up into multiple posts, so look forward to a week of tales from the trip (however, I do need a Wednesday writing post, so I need questions to answer, as my brain is not currently capable of coming up with something by itself).

To set the stage, we had a motor coach type tour bus with a charmingly surly driver. There were 35 kids, ranging from just completed sixth grade to just graduated high school, with the exception of three college kids who were sort of "camp counselors" who helped with supervision and making things work but who weren't officially chaperones. And there there five adults: the youth director, the choir director, two moms with kids on the trip, and me, the single, childless person who was still the third-oldest person on the trip, after the bus driver and one of the moms. Twenty of the kids were girls, and most of them seemed to be in the high school freshman range. The thing I was most worried about, my extreme need for solitude, turned out to not be as big a problem in a large group as it is in smaller groups. When I travel with one or two other people, I tend to freak out from the constant togetherness, but in a group this size, I can be alone within the group because the others aren't entirely dependent on me for company. On the bus, the adults had seats to themselves instead of a seatmate, and the college students sat in the back with the kids, with the adults at the front providing a buffer zone for the driver. That meant I was mostly alone during the long bus rides. I also turned into an early riser during this trip, so I would get up, make a cup of tea (or, as I called it, Homicide Prevention Juice) and sit quietly for a while in the morning. So, while I am now thoroughly enjoying the quiet in my house, I never reached a freakout point where I couldn't deal with people anymore. Physically, I mostly just have an interesting sunburn (story to come), a few broken nails and a collection of aches and bruises.

Day one involved a bus ride from just northwest of Dallas, Texas, to Memphis. We left right after church on Sunday and arrived in Memphis at about 9 that night. The bus had Wi-Fi, so that kept the kids glued to their iPhones. It also had a DVD player, and I now know why I get along so well with our new choir director. He chose the "in-flight" movies, and we watched Finding Nemo, Monsters vs. Aliens and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 1 -- part 2 came the next day). I didn't realize it until after the movie ended, but I was snacking on goldfish crackers while watching Finding Nemo, which is pretty warped. We slept on the floor in a church gym that night, and that was when I realized that I was way outclassed. When they said to bring a sleeping bag and air mattress, I brought the sleeping bag and air mattress I had from a camping trip my family took in junior high. Air mattress technology has improved since then. A lot of these kids brought Aerobeds -- the kind that are nearly the height of a normal bed, and some of them were even double bed-sized. There was one guy who had a pool float, but that turned out to be a tradition. Apparently, when he first went on one of these trips, his mom said she got an air mattress for him, and he didn't realize until the morning they were leaving that what she had bought was a pool float, with the packaging calling it a pool float/air mattress. Since then, he's always brought that one as a kind of joke and out of sheer stubbornness. If I do this sort of thing again, I may have to invest in a better air mattress because sleeping was my one problem. My best sleeping position is rather sprawled out, and you can't do that in a sleeping bag on a narrow air mattress. That sprawling turns out to be what keeps my hips from hurting, as I guess I'm stretching my hip flexor muscles in my sleep. Without doing that, I'm in serious pain. Sleeping in my own bed last night was sheer bliss, and I already hurt a lot less.

Anyway, we got up the next morning and headed to downtown Memphis to tour the Gibson guitar factory. That was really interesting, seeing all the steps that go into making a guitar. There's some automation, but most of it is done by hand, and a lot of that is freehand. After a walk down Beale Street and some lunch, we headed to Graceland. There, I started to feel old. These kids were actually interested and thought Elvis was pretty cool, but they considered all of it to be ancient history. I was pretty young when Elvis died, but I do remember his death, and I remember some of the events in the later part of his life. Graceland itself is interesting in that by today's standards, it really isn't what you expect of the home of one of the biggest rock stars in the world. The home isn't that big, probably smaller than a lot of the suburban McMansions around here (and probably smaller than where some of these kids live). The decor is extremely tacky, but the current decor is from the early 70s, so it was relatively tasteful for that era. It just looks tacky now. It's not what I'd consider all that self-indulgent, especially not compared to the way a lot of today's stars live. I loved the house itself and the grounds, but I was itching to redecorate it. The true tackiness, however, didn't come from anything Elvis himself did. It's the way the place has been turned into a kind of overcommercialized Disneyland/shrine. Once we finally got all the kids out of the shopping mall of gift shops and on the bus, we headed to Nashville.

Then we had the one part of the trip where I fully felt the weight of the "responsible adult" role. We ran into some nasty weather -- a really obvious wall cloud heading for us -- and started to get nervous about being in a bus full of kids after having seen the 18-wheelers tossed around by a tornado a couple of months ago. The driver was fighting the wheel against crosswinds. The moms had the radar up on their iPads to track the storm, and we made the kids put on their seatbelts. After a brief conference among the adults and the driver, we pulled up at the next truck stop we found -- which amounted to a small metal building with a diner inside and a few gas pumps outside. We waited out the worst of it with the bus parked with its tail into the wind, and we were ready to get the kids off the bus and into the building if we needed to. When the obvious line of the storm had passed and the wind settled down a bit, we got back on the road and watched more Harry Potter, with a few strategically timed lightning strikes to enhance the movie's special effects.

I got a nice moment of solitude when we stopped for dinner at a strip of restaurants near Vanderbilt University, and I headed off to a Panera to eat in peace, until the Crazies showed up, though at least they didn't try to join me. I should explain the Crazies, as the rest of us dubbed them (I got credit for it, but I don't recall being the one to coin the term). This was a group of girls, most of them going into their freshman or sophomore years, who are all best buddies. It's the kind of group that made (or possibly bought) tie-dyed shirts to wear on the trip so they'd all match, and they even planned their outfits so they'd all wear the same colors every day. And they never shut up, ever, until near the end of the trip (full story later). They giggled and jabbered non-stop, and they were extremely boy crazy. Oddly, they didn't seem to be interested in any of our boys, which made chaperoning easier. I think they're mostly at the stage where they love the idea of boys, so they have celebrity crushes and swoon over boys they can't expect to have relationships with, like boys from the church group from another state, minor league ballplayers or river rafting guides, but in spite of all their talk about wanting boyfriends, they don't actually want to deal with a real boy right now. They arrived as I was finishing my dinner (I have no idea where they were before), then I took a walk around the Vanderbilt campus before we got back on the bus.

For the rest of the week, until Friday, we stayed at a church in Nashville where they had a kind of bunkhouse their scout troops use. It had bunk beds and showers, and the girls stayed there. The boys slept on the floor in the youth Sunday school rooms. There were three rooms in the bunkhouse, with two smaller rooms and one large common room the other rooms opened from. The adults stayed in the outer room and we were able to lock the Crazies in their own room. Even so, with the door shut and with my ear plugs in, I could hear their conversations. There were a lot of "y'all shut up and sleep!" moments, and we eventually got them down to a dull roar, but I still don't think they really shut up and slept the whole week.

The next day, we got down to the work part of the trip. I think I'll address that tomorrow, as I still feel like I'm riding in a bus and am barely keeping my eyes open. I have a lot of work to get done this week, but it's work best done in full consciousness, so I should probably take today off to recover. I've walked to the Indian market for tea and some fresh vegetables (after a week of eating food that appeals to teens, I'm craving green stuff) and now it's time for a nap.