There's no in-between.
It doesn't matter what time of night it is, the long, dark stretch of interstate between Knoxville and Chattanooga seems never ending following a Tennessee football loss. That is, until you pass Chattanooga, slog through South Pittsburg, crawl over Monteagle Mountain and hit Hwy 64, heading through long-sleeping towns like Altamont, Winchester, Salem, Huntland, Flintville, and, finally, New Market, Ala.
But, oh, when we win ... there's nothing like that quick trip home. You almost don't want it to end. Hopefully, I've got somebody in the passenger seat like my Dad or another buddy to pass the time away, reliving important moments, dissecting how we won the game, listening to the postgame locker room show, scoreboard show and call-in program. Then, turning the radio music down low and striking up conversations about the day gone and the games ahead. Even those nights where I'm alone with my satellite radio and a late game blaring through the speakers, I'll roll the windows down and let my mind race over how good it feels to get a win.
I've been known to stop by a convenience store, buy a cheap cigar and cheaper lighter and enjoy the sweet, smoky taste of victory.
That sure beats the heck out of the multiple times when my faltering eyes would play tricks on me and imaginary animals would dart in front of my truck only to never be there in the first place. Those nights when I'm tired and ticked off come mostly after losses. Each line on the road seems to be mocking you, and you wonder why in the heck you didn't just spend the night with friends in Knoxville.
The worst of those games came when I was a senior in high school and my Dad, buddy Clint and me decided after the high school football game on Friday night that we were going to drive straight through the night to watch UT play the Gators in Gainesville.After buying counterfeit tickets, dodging ushers throwing fans out of Ben Hill Griffin all day and getting pummeled in Peyton Manning's final trip to the Swamp, we decided we'd had enough of that damp armpit and turned right around and drove home. Twenty-six hours later, none of us had slept.
But let's not talk about the bad times. There have been far too many long, disappointing trips home lately.
Instead, let's re-live the best times. I remember as a youngster how cool it was to even be at the game with my Dad. We didn't have a ton of money, so we didn't go to many games until I was in high school. But those few that we did get to attend, I'd sit quietly in the backseat and listen as the grownups talked the whole way home about the win. I never saw a loss in person until I'd reached my junior year of high school, after all.
Though I'd have plenty of input on the games, I'd bite my tongue, knowing I wasn't supposed to speak unless spoken to. Sleep was there to be had in the dark backseat, but to close my eyes or nod off would mean missing all the Vol talk, so that never happened. When I was finally talked to, I remember getting compliments on my knowledge of the game and of the Vols in general. But, I mean, that was my passion. I'd memorize names, hometowns, plays. If there was a question about any of that, it didn't take long before my elders knew I'd know the answer.
I believe it was in those backseat rides home that I originally decided I wanted to be a sports writer. Though I can't pinpoint a time or a game, there was a little bit of ego massaging when I knew my elders believed the answer rested in my immature brain. So, I'd pride myself on being ready to answer.
Traffic never mattered. Time never mattered. Distance never mattered. When the Vols won and it wasn't an overnight trip to Knoxville, that trip home flew by. As an adult, the wins have been fewer and farther between recently, but when UT does win, it's equally sweet. Once I'd get off the Interstate, I anticipate being able to get home, pull up Rocky Top Talk, GoVols247, Volquest, GoVolsXtra and the Chattanooga Times-Free Press and read all the postgame stuff posted in the wee hours of the morning. It isn't uncommon for me to be crawling into bed as the first rays of daylight creep through the windows.
It's a lot of fun, and that feeling hasn't been prevalent lately. I cannot wait until I get to consistently experience those short trips home again soon.