I don’t think Franz Kafka ever drank sweet tea or wore a seersucker suit, but his spirit haunts the American South. Maybe not the entire thing, but at least the tiny swath of land between the McDonald’s, Wendy’s and the Gas’n’Go in Podunk-nowheretown, Georgia. The late author’s twisted world of senseless decisions and illogical consequences is alive and well in Dixie.

Thirteen hours into the long trek south to the National Championship in Atlanta, and hunger had set in. It was late, we’d already suffered a three-hour detour and two near-death experiences, and all we wanted was cheap food. Every moment of temporary salvation turned into disappointment, however, as each 24-hour “restaurant” had locked its doors and thrown away the key. Cashiers stood behind registers, but wouldn’t respond to our desperate taps on the windows. Nothing made sense. Somewhere, Kafka smiled.

Welcome to the road trip from hell.

Let me rephrase that, actually. Welcome to the second half of the road trip. A harrowing seven-ish hours where everything came crashing down around us. To put it in March Madness terms: Good had been upset by evil, and evil’s fans had stormed the court. Good put up respectable first-half numbers, but was just outworked by a more motivated team.

Road trips have changed now that everyone and their dog has an iPhone. Our parents, clad in bell bottoms and covered in weird facial hair, read maps and never had to worry about them running out of battery. Today, if you handed an actual road map to the average college kid, they’d probably ask you if it came in touch-screen. Our Kafka-esque McDonalds catastrophe wouldn’t have occurred just a decade ago, since only .5 percent of them operated 24 hours a day in 2002 nationally. That number now stands at about 40 percent.

Is the “new” road trip more valuable than the “old,” though? I’m not really sure. I asked the people in my car, but they were too busy on Facebook to answer me, so I guess I’ll think for myself.

I don’t think the essence of a road trip has changed substantially, and I doubt it ever will. Some of the tools may have changed such as satellite radio and GPS, but many have not — the car, the highway and the realization that Ohio actually sucks as much as they say. Road trips don’t exude glitz and glamour, but rather a romanticism for the open road and the freedom that comes with it.

Finishing a road trip is a victory. The vanquished foe can be something powerful, like the elements or something a little less legendary, like a wrong turn, but reaching your destination carries with it a unique sensation. It’s a mixture of satisfaction and relief and though it may sound kitschy, it can be a bonding experience.

My road trip from hell contained aspects from both the good and the bad, but more than anything else, it was an adventure. A semi-truck nearly demolished us, but after the initial scare, we laughed since we were still breathing. We took a three-hour detour through the Bible-Belt version of Las Vegas — Dolly Parton has a theme park there — and drove for 30 minutes through an unlit, backcountry neighborhood in the Smoky Mountains. We even ran into a 50-strong biker gang in Kentucky that wasn’t particularly keen on sharing the road.

For seven hours straight, it was blunder after blunder, but when we arrived in Atlanta, I think I understood, on a much smaller scale, what Odysseus felt. While we’d only been blown off course for a few hours, and not a few decades, seeing Atlanta’s skyline reminded me of a homecoming of sorts. Even though I had hopped in the car with no tickets, no place to stay and no idea who two of the people in the car were, everything ended up working out. Within five minutes of entering Atlanta, my tickets and my lodging were confirmed, and I found 10 of my friends.

Kafka-esque usually carries a negative context about a world where nothing makes sense. For a few hours, I agreed. I was having a miserable time, and I just wanted to get out of the damn car. In retrospect though, everything that happened was just part of the experience. While I absolutely would prefer not to lose three hours of my day again, I don’t think I’d trade the experience — unless you’ve got floor seats for the game.

Andrew Eckhous can be reached at aeckhous@umich.edu

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