A Midwest road trip

The Notre Dame stadium exudes love and respect! Just look at it! What that stadium says about the infinite dignity of man!

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(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame is not an Ivy League university and, in what I assume is some sort of intentional point, its buildings tend to be ivy-free. Perhaps it is the absence of ivy, perhaps I am just flat after a long day’s drive across Ohio and Indiana, perhaps it’s just winter, but the campus seems more sterile than I had expected. It’s Good Friday, and my friend Margot is studying classical architecture here. She’s showing me around the grounds. I don’t really know what I’d hoped to see. Amy Coney Barrett? Multiracial friendship groups, skipping across…

Notre Dame is not an Ivy League university and, in what I assume is some sort of intentional point, its buildings tend to be ivy-free. Perhaps it is the absence of ivy, perhaps I am just flat after a long day’s drive across Ohio and Indiana, perhaps it’s just winter, but the campus seems more sterile than I had expected. It’s Good Friday, and my friend Margot is studying classical architecture here. She’s showing me around the grounds. I don’t really know what I’d hoped to see. Amy Coney Barrett? Multiracial friendship groups, skipping across the green? As soon as I see the stadium, though, I am transfixed. Margot is visibly disappointed when I say that I adore the stadium above all the other buildings. I can tell, with every word, I am lowering myself in
her estimation. But it has such vitality, Margot! That stadium exudes love and respect! Just look at it! What that stadium says about the infinite dignity of man! Even the stadium car park is a triumph. It sings of a tailgate to come. I immediately text friends of mine who are Notre Dame football fans, and ask to come to a game with them next season. Margot will be gone by then, studying in Italy, where there are, tragically, no gridiron stadiums whatsoever. The Colosseum is but a pale shadow compared to this arena, here, in sweet Notre Dame. Margot or no Margot, ivy or no ivy, I will return. Later, Margot takes me to see the university’s grotto and the basilica. These, too, admittedly, are beautiful. I make confession, lest I die on the drive tomorrow.

We say goodbye to Margot in South Bend, and drive toward Austin on Easter Sunday morning. There is no time for an Easter egg hunt, but thankfully my three children are too young to expect one. We will begin that tradition next year, which is what I say every year. Our 2005 Toyota Sienna is loaded up with all our worldly possessions, said children, my wife and our traveling companion, Anna, who has very charitably decided to spend her Easter holidays helping us move across the country. Usually, Anna lives in Switzerland, where she is studying to be a classical violinist. Indeed, an unusually large number of my friends are mastering classical disciplines in far-flung locations. Getting to see these two women over Easter is a great blessing. Anna is more passionate about music than anybody I know. We share the drive and take turns playing songs across America. We listen to all the upcoming Eurovision entrants. None are great. We listen to them all again, just to make sure. Then Anna plays “Andrew in Drag” by the Magnetic Fields. My three-year-old son, back in the third row of our car, is a fan. He will spend the next few weeks demanding to listen to “Andrew in Drag.” I make a point of not reflecting on that.

I am a genius. I have discovered a new, exciting, affordable way to travel across America. The trick is to fix upon a final destination, several days away, and drive in that general direction without planning where you’ll stop along the way. Then, in the late afternoon, you estimate how much further you’re willing to drive and open up Airbnb. Verily, the chances of finding a good, cheap, interesting Airbnb in any given town are slim. But with my new, ingenious method, you can survey potential properties across thousands of square miles and hundreds of towns. Surely at least one of them will offer value for money.
It works, and we end up in Branson, Missouri, in someone’s opulent three-story timeshare. It has an elevator, a fridge that makes ice, and only costs about a hundred dollars per night. It’s in the Ozarks, which I have only ever seen on the television program Ozark, and I spend the first night somewhat suspicious that I will be killed in my bed by drug manufacturers. But so outstanding is the Airbnb, so comfortable is my bed, and so recently have I made confession, it might not be such a bad time to die.

I’ve never heard of Branson before — or, rather, that’s what I think at the time. Later, I discover that Branson has been a punchline in several well-known episodes of The Simpsons, which jest that it is Walt Disney World for elderly hillbillies. This is true, and it is even better than it sounds. Branson is a revelation. At breakfast I eat a Monte Cristo, a kind of deep-fried sandwich I’ve never had before, and drink a cocktail that is only slightly smaller than my head. Immediately afterwards I ride a high-speed roller coaster with my daughter and, miraculously, do not vomit. I ride the Ferris wheel with my boy, and look out over Branson’s mighty mountains, its spaghetti house, its Titanic replica. Our party is so besotted by Branson that we decide to spend another night, even though that will necessitate a thoroughly long and unpleasant drive the next day. Behold, Branson’s upside-down house, Branson’s disco-ball/octopus statue, Branson’s wax museum and the crown jewel, Yakov Smirnoff’s comedy theater. Uncanny, yet familiar; unexpected, yet welcome; humble, yet glorious — Branson rather reminds me of Easter itself.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2024 World edition.