ME, MY BROTHER, AND A ’73 CHEVY CONVERTIBLE: AN ALL-AMERICAN ROAD TRIP
First, the car: a 1973 Chevrolet Caprice Classic convertible with a midnight blue body and a snowcap white top. It featured a white leather interior and a thin, oversized wheel that they don’t make anymore—the kind that makes you want to lean back a little bit more, roll down the window, relax your grip, and settle in for a long drive.
It had spent its life under my grandparents’ care in Texas and didn’t sport so much as a scratch. My oldest brother, Patrick, had wanted it from an early age. He waited patiently—years—for that car, and one day in 2003, they told him it was time. It was his, so long as he could pick it up in Houston and drive it home—across five states and nearly 1,500 miles—to northern Virginia. He needed a wingman for this adventure, and so I volunteered.
The drive is roughly twenty-one hours and one you could force in a day, but we wanted to enjoy the car without pushing it too hard. Our Granddad went directly to the AAA offices and printed out our route: we’d go north toward Dallas, through Texarkana, overnight in Memphis—where we’d pause to enjoy barbecue, live music, and, of course, tour Graceland—then head northeast from Nashville and make our way up Virginia via Roanoke. Pat even hoped we’d fit in a detour to the Carolina coast and see the beach along the way.
At the time, I was twenty-three and working my first job out of college. He had just wrapped more than a decade as a professional musician, touring and playing live shows nearly three hundred days out of the year. This type of trip was old hat for him, but for me, driving half the country with my oldest brother in a car like this was something I’d brag about for years to come.
Since my vacation days were tight, we had to pack in the family visit in Houston and drive the car back over a long weekend. Yet the morning we were set to leave, Hurricane Isabel entered the DC area and wreaked havoc on flight delays. We arrived late by nearly a day, truncating our already-tight itinerary.
I started to do the math: We’d either have to cut short our family visit or skimp on driving time. I didn’t want to do either. Pat, however, was no stranger to travel mishaps. He just shrugged. “Honey, it’s going to work out the way it’s going to work out,” was his general response.
To be sure, even a flight delay couldn’t level the fun. No visit to Houston would go without some quality time with our grandparents as well as the chance to see our aunts, uncles, and cousins who also live out there. I was finally at the age where I could enjoy Granddad’s nightly gin and tonic hour (to this day, one of the best G&Ts I’ve ever had). There would be a meal at Brennan’s, an outing for Tex-Mex, and most definitely a night where Granddad fired up the grill for Texas steaks. That was our final night, our last feast to protein-load before taking off.
We pulled out of their driveway the next morning toting a cooler Gram had packed full of sandwiches and snacks. Even with a long drive ahead, cruising the South with Pat would be effortless and fun. He knew how to pass time on the road—making up games to span the hours, leaning into the joys of being beholden to the whims of intermittent radio connections.
I was nervous to drive the car, convinced the odds of something happening to it were in my favor while I was behind the wheel. But Pat gave me my first harmonica and my first keyboard. He taught me how to make pie crusts from scratch and gave me my first pocketknife; he was all for having me take my shifts.
I have a great driving record, but he still taught me things like how to be helpful to truck drivers—flashing your lights so they know they can move into your lane, keeping a safe distance from them before switching lanes yourself. Even from the confines of a car he’s charismatic; I remember getting waves from other drivers regularly along the way.
As we neared Memphis, Pat laid out our game plan. He had toured there before and was excited to return. We’d see the famous duck walk at the Peabody Hotel; grab barbecue at Rendezvous, one of his favorites; and, of course, cap the stop with a visit to Graceland.
We rolled into town high on anticipation—until we walked up to the restaurant, ravenous for lunch, to find it empty. “Did it close down completely?” I asked, confused.
“No,” he said slowly, something dawning on him. “It’s Sunday.” We ended up eating elsewhere nearby, though I don’t remember much about the meal. I was already worried about what else might be closed. Sure enough, Graceland wasn’t doing tours. But when you’re traveling with someone used to last-minute changes, you can trust that they’ll negotiate new plans on the fly. We walked around the grounds that were open to the public and goofed off at the gift shop, marveling over the ways you can repurpose Elvis’s image: on bedspreads, thermoses, even soap-on-a-rope (which we bought).
We never made it to the beach for our detour, but we saw horizon-leveling stretches of farms, tumbleweed, the colored peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and even crippling DC-area traffic. The car did great. It still does; it’s parked in his garage today, ready for its next spin.
I asked him about the trip the other day, wondering what he’d have to say about the mishaps: the delayed flights, the missed barbecue, the fact that it seems we never had enough time to fit in all the things we wanted to do. He just smiled.
“Yeah,” he said. “But we still pulled up to Graceland in a ’73 Chevy.”