We drove on like that through most of the night. The dark, driving chords of Nugent’s guitar usurping the stagnant summer air. Admittedly, I got tired of it after a while. Though I liked the Nuge’s music, he was far from my favorite, and I was ready to move on to something else. But Ryan wouldn’t hear any of it. Every time I suggested we listen to something else he would yell out and slap my hand away from the CD player, then mumble something about finally having his eyes opened. It was a statement that was apparently both literally and figuratively true. His corneas were the size of clementines, now completely dilated from the copious amounts of LSD he’d ingested a few hours earlier.
When I realized I wasn’t going to get him out of his Nugent-inspired reverie, I decided my best course of action was to simply stare straight ahead and keep my foot on the gas with a weight that would get us home as soon as automotively possible, while also keeping us under the radar of Johnny Law. We had been driving like that – me with a frozen glare, the future Congressman bobbing his head along to the beat – for at least an hour before Ryan decided he had something to share.
“It’s all starting to make sense to me now, man,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked. Stranglehold was playing for the sixth time that night.
“This song, man. I think I get what he’s talking about. It’s, like, about how we’re all in a stranglehold, and we need to get out.”
“Are you sure? I always thought he was talking about fucking.”
“Sure I’m sure. That’s why he’s so brilliant. You think that’s what he’s talking about, but there’s a much deeper message hidden underneath.”
Oh no, I thought. Here it comes. If you’ve ever been forced into cramped confines with someone going through an extreme hallucinogenic meltdown you know there will inevitably come a time when said person will decide to inundate with you with the deep truths they’ve learned about the world at the feet of the great god, Psychedelia. I feared this was what I was about to endure. As he began his diatribe, I realized I was right. It was the nature of his revelation that I found fantastic, though.
“You see, in this song Ted’s talking about how, like, the government has got us all in a stranglehold, and it’s up to us to find our own way out.”
“Where do you get that?” I asked him.
“It’s right there in the song, man. I can’t explain it. It’s just a feeling. When I hear Ted wailing on that guitar I can just feel the truth. I can see the notes flying up into the sky.”
“Again, I think that might just be the acid.”
“Laugh all you want, but I’ve seen the light, man, and the light is about freeing ourselves from the shackles of government.”
The way he said it made his theory sound patently ridiculous, but when I took into consideration all that had become of Nugent in the nearly twenty years between that song’s release and the night I found myself driving down a lonely, desolate stretch of Ohio with Paul Ryan, it didn’t seem all that implausible. Still, I decided to see just how far into the darkness this acid trip had taken him.
“What happened to Marx and Engels? A couple of hours ago you were extolling their virtues and talking about the evils of money and politics.”
“What, these guys?” he said as he pulled the copy of The Manifesto out of his travel bag. “Fuck those dudes,” he said, his voice dripping with scorn, as he flung the book out the window.
“So that’s it? One night and a sheet of blotter acid and you’re ready to completely revamp your worldview?”
“Stop attributing this shit to the acid, man. I’m telling you, I’ve seen the light. This is for real, homey. I’m going to release myself, and the rest of this great country if I can help it, from the stranglehold of tyranny.”
I couldn’t help but smile. At that point I assumed he would wake up tomorrow, or maybe the next day, and have only the faintest memory of all that he had babbled at me that night. I figured that for him it would be nothing but a hazy dream, half remembered. But whatever his reaction would be, our time together had come to an end. The sun was fighting its way up over the horizon as we pulled up in front of Ryan’s dorm. I paid him no mind as he stumbled out of my car, still nonsensically stammering about supply-side economics and traditional family values. Just when I thought I was rid of him he turned back to me.
“Buchanan in ’92!” he shouted, before running off into the still dark quad.
As I pulled out of the parking lot I wondered whether I would ever see him again. I wondered what would become of this long-haired hippie freak who I’d seen cross the entirety of the political spectrum in one drug-addled night. I pictured myself driving down the road some morning in the future, blankly staring at the passing fields, until I spotted a broken down Oscar Mayer Weinermobile on the side of the road. At which point I would probably step on the gas and drive right on by. I had learned my lesson.
As it turned out, that vision never came close to coming true. However, about a year later I did come across Ryan again. It was hard to tell it was him at first. He’d shaved the beard and cut his hair. He appeared leaner, too. Although that might have just been because the suit he was wearing appeared to be three sizes too big for him.
He was standing on a street corner in front of a polling place. It was election day, and there he was, the former miscreant who had taken me on a wild drug binge across our country’s heartland, standing outside a gymnasium passing out anti-abortion campaign fliers, commemorative Ronald Reagan lapel pins, and the collected treatises of Friedrich Hayek.