One of my best friends from high school was Randy Pouliot. Randy had spent a semester at University of Lowell in Massachusetts after graduation but had run out of money and had to drop out. He was going nowhere, working at a pizza place when he decided to join the Air Force. At the time he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas and called me out of the blue one day to tell me that he would be finishing up a temporary duty stint in Italy soon and he and his wife Kelly were planning on driving from Nashua to Las Vegas when he got back, and was wondering if I wanted to go with them. I had no job and no commitments so I eagerly agreed and in the fall of 1995 we took off for what would be the greatest road trip of my life, one that would also plant the seeds for my impending wanderlust. We went south from Boston on I95 and drove down to Manassas, Virginia where we stayed overnight at a small military installation then the next morning set out across Virginia towards Tennessee. I was struck by how beautiful the area was. Randy had arranged for us to stay the weekend at the home of a fellow Air Force colleague whose family lived on a farm outside of Knoxville and it was in Knoxville, at a Waffle House, that I was introduced to how seriously people in the south take their college football. It was a Saturday and the University of Tennessee had a game that evening, which we all planned to attend. We were stopped at the Waffle House for breakfast before we met Randy’s friend Shaun and for some reason the waitress was being extremely rude to us. This went against everything I’d always heard about southern hospitality so I asked her if there was a problem. She responded by yelling to everyone in the restaurant “Hey y’all, we got us a Bulldog fan over here!”, at which point the entire wait staff and the cook came over to out table looking very angry. It suddenly dawned on me that I was wearing a British soccer shirt of Manchester United whose colors are black and red. And UT’s opponent that night was the University of Georgia, whose colors are…yep, black and red. Now, I’ve been a huge Notre Dame fan my whole life but that probably didn’t matter to these people. I tried desperately to make them realize that this was not a Georgia shirt, I even showed them the British flag on the shirt to no avail. Finally I said “Look, I’m not even from the south, I’m from New England!” to which the cook, an older gentleman with greasy hair, an even greasier apron, and a cigarette dangling between his lips, replied in a thick southern drawl, “New Anglin huh? He prob’ly a god-dam Notre Dame fan…”. At this point I got up, went out to the car and changed into a plain white t-shirt. When we met up with Shaun an hour later he just laughed and said “Damn Rik, are you trying to get killed?” The rest of the weekend was very enjoyable. We went to Knoxville that night for the game which turned out to be a thriller as Tennessee, led by sophomore phenomenon Peyton Manning, defeated Georgia right at the end of the game.
From there we drove to Nashville and checked out the Grand Ole Opry then continued on to Memphis where we took in Graceland. I wasn’t too impressed by Arkansas which had some of the rudest and slowest people I’d ever encountered but Oklahoma was a bit better. Through the Texas panhandle where I enjoyed my first visit to a Hooters restaurant, then straight through New Mexico and Arizona until we hit the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead as the sun was just coming up which was a sight to behold. Finally, Las Vegas. I stayed with Randy and his family for about two and a half weeks. He showed me all around Las Vegas, we went to all the casinos, I gambled a little, saw some shows, the usual stuff.
Eventually it was time to fly back home but I would return a changed man. The trip across country and the subsequent couple weeks in Las Vegas had made me realize for the first time that there was a whole world outside of Nashua. And I liked it. I wanted more of it.
(Click HERE for Part V)