Freshman Orientation and Our Disastrous Road Trip Home

It was the perfect plan. I used the word “seamless” to recap the first leg of my journey to the University of South Carolina (USC) for freshman orientation with my son, Mac.

So, really, I jinxed myself right there. If this was a movie, the ominous music would signal I had sealed our fate.

Dun, dun, dun…

Road trip home from freshman orientation
The University of South Carolina was where my son would be a freshman. (Photo Credit: Dfscgt21)


The original plan was to fly to and from orientation

Drive time to USC is a little over 7 hours from the old homestead, totally doable. However, the orientation schedule indicated a 5 pm end time. After a day of trekking around campus, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be in the car until midnight or later, even with really great snacks.

I was torn between a flight and an extra night in a hotel. Then, Expedia sent me a stalker email with a great round-trip fare to Charleston. We could fly in Tuesday morning, rent a car, take our time getting to campus less than 90 minutes away and take an 8 pm flight home Thursday.

Boom, booked it.

I felt pretty smug as we pulled into the hotel, fresh as a daisy. We even stopped at Walmart and bought some USC swag on the way. We came, we oriented, and we left. It was a whirlwind 48 hours, and Mac was done by 3 pm Thursday. As his roommate headed down the road with this family, we pitied them for the drive.

Even though our flight would get us home a mere hour before driving, Mac and I agreed we would rather sit around an airport for a flight than sit in a car until 10:00 or 10:30 pm. Besides, the Charleston airport allowed me to spy on one of the stars of BRAVO’s Southern Charm. Totally worth the price of a ticket.

You can go ahead and cue that music again. The Jaws theme would be perfect for what lie in wait for us.

My stomach did a little drop when the departures board at the airport showed every flight to the northeast was delayed except ours. The weather in DC had closed Reagan Airport earlier, but it was open again, and we were slated to be the first ones out.

We boarded on time and felt guilty about flying when everyone else wasn’t. I mean, how stupid were we? We should’ve known right then that we were going nowhere. And 30 minutes later, we deplaned and got our comeuppance.

We weren’t special; we were stranded just like 500 other passengers.

I am confident that a huge chunk of airline employee training is devoted to maintaining a smile even when people want to punch you. The gate attendant’s demeanor almost made me believe that a flight with two stops and an arrival a full 24-hrs after my original ticketed time was an amazing turn of events.

Fearing the sheer volume of people with ticket changes would force us to get bumped again the next day, we waved the flag.

After our flight was canceled, we decided to drive

We were driving. 

In other words, we had lost our minds.

Hertz was the only agency still with cars; at 10 pm, we scored a Nissan for $130. We were off once I figured out how to turn on the headlights. If we drove straight through, we would arrive at 5 am.

Mac offered to drive so I could rest. This is how I know his brain is not fully formed. No mother in her right mind would trust that her 17-year-old would stay awake in the middle of the night to drive while she slept. I was pulling an all-nighter with or without him.

Our first stop was precisely 10 minutes out of the airport. God punished my smug attitude with a rental missing a USB port and satellite radio. We bought a car charger, a bottle of 5-hour energy, a bottled Frappuccino, and enough snacks to send a Boy Scout troop into the woods for a week.

We stopped less than two hours later and again an hour after that. We could not stop stopping. Mac didn’t feel well at the third stop, so I offered to take the wheel. I went into a 24-hr gas station to get him water and pretzels before we pulled out.

That is when Fidelity cut off my MasterCard.

The clerk looked nonplussed, like most of his customers got denied daily. Since Mac and I appeared to be the only suburban mom and teenage boy within miles of these stops, so I understood where the cashier was coming from. There was a strong chance some of the clientele lived at the mini-mart and enjoyed watching me count out spare change and pocket lint to make my purchase.

I then enjoyed spending the next 25 minutes on speakerphone with Fidelity’s fraud department. I realized, to them, it seemed as if someone had stolen my card and was headed North on I95, making $20 purchases until the card was cut off. I also realized the notion of a caffeine and snack-deprived mother ripping up the highway was probably unlikely.

I attempted to answer random security questions, most of which I did not know the answer to, hurting my chances of reinstatement.  I was going 80 mph at 12:45 am, hepped up on 5-hr energy with a kid who may or may not projectile vomit any moment, and Fidelity wanted to know my automatic monthly debits in the previous year.

We were going down in flames.

Whose idea was this anyway?

Having survived the interrogation, I focused on my surroundings. It was just me and the truckers out on the open road. Oh, and the rain. Did I mention the rain?

It rained (read: poured buckets) as Mac slept through the entire state of North Carolina. Thankfully, we had figured out how to sync his phone, so I begged for a decent, non-rap Spotify playlist to distract me as he went comatose.

I tried to ignore that the playlist was titled “Oldies.” Mostly because I was starting to feel mighty old.

He woke up at about 3:30 am, and we chatted and sang for the next hour. I was impressed that he had downloaded “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” I belted it out at the top of my lungs… “Leroy looked like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone…” while Mac stared out the window and looked slightly nauseous again.

What does he know anyway?

The sun rose slightly after 5 am, but we were still two hours from home. All the stops and rush hour in Woodbridge slowed us down. The 5-hr energy had worn off, leaving me feeling like someone had tied me to the bumper somewhere outside Richmond and just left me there to drag along the asphalt.

Mac fell asleep again, which made me envious and angry simultaneously. I spent the remainder of the trip talking to myself, fidgeting in my seat, putting my face out the open window, singing Christmas carols, and generally doing anything to stay awake. I’m sure I looked crazy — ok, I know I looked crazy — but I had made it so far; I wouldn’t fall apart in the home stretch.

I cried when I got home

I cried when we got home 1) because I got my first glimpse of myself in the mirror in hours and 2) because I am 52 years old and have no business staying up all night, let alone operating a motor vehicle during that time.

After a few hours of sleep and despite a vow to never get in a car again, EVER, I headed down to Reagan Airport to rescue our car from the garage and return the Nissan.

As I drove, I realized that this trip would live on. I was smiling as I remembered singing, talking, and laughing with Mac throughout the trek, not to mention our encounters with all the bizarre folks who wandered around gas stations in the middle of the night (including a well-dressed gentleman who tried to shake us down for $17).

It was a horrible plan. Misguided at best. But it gave us ideal time together before he embarks on the next chapter of his life at USC, which is perfect for me.

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About Maureen Stiles

Maureen Stiles is a Washington DC based freelance journalist, columnist and editor. With over a decade of published work in the parenting and humor sector, Maureen has reached audiences around the globe. In addition to published works, she has been quoted in the Washington Post and The New York Times on topics surrounding parenting and family life. Maureen is the author of The Driving Book for Teens and a contributor to the book Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults as well as regularly featured on Today's Parenting Community and Grown and Flown.

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