It occurred to me, then, ripping along at 85 miles an hour, engulfed in the darkness of the night, that one thing I like best about driving is that you are nowhere and everywhere at once. Even though you are bound, to some degree, by geography and law and physics, these are not rigid constraints. Their power ebbs and flows with time, leaving you untethered and free, “passing through,” as they say, and therefore tied to no here in particular. And this means you are — without goodbyes, extrications or explanations — only time and miles and some right and left turns from being there instead.
I like that. And I like it that, driving, I am loosely bound to places like Tucumcari, Abilene and Fargo, Coeur d’Alene and Saranac, to mountains and seashores and vast empty holes on the map, spaces and places strung together like bows on a kite tail by red highways and blue highways and arteries of interstate. And I like that I could stop for the night and no one would know who or where I was. Or I could go somewhere else, wing on a lark, just for fun. Or keep moving until I get away. Nowhere and everywhere and anywhere all at once. Even if it’s temporary, or mostly in my head.
So here I am, cruising alone in high gear, thinking back, remembering stories and tales, regretting, recollecting, hotfooting across Middle America. And as much as I like driving, the motion, the movement, the speed, as much as I like being aimless and unattached, flying solo, alone in the car, I could not in good conscience linger, detour or digress this time. I had places to be, people to see, a death in the family back home. And so it occurred to me, speeding along this moonlight highway, that one thing I like best about driving is that you’re not really anywhere at all. Sometimes that’s better than what lies ahead or what you’ve left behind.
So I am swept into the journey’s midst, miles to go before I sleep, music on the radio, thoughts all over creation, escaping, chasing, scurrying after truths to hold on to, pilgrim on the starbright road to kingdom come. Quarter tank of gas. Headlights and taillights all around, pairs of reds and whites veering through space like flaring tracer bullets in the night.
Interstate driving can take you away. You forget yourself. You fall into space, a zone, a place out of time. Automatic pilot too often. Sometimes you realize you’ve been driving a while but you don’t remember doing it. You don’t remember thinking or making decisions, switching lanes, speeding up, braking, avoiding other cars or collisions.
Sometimes the miles chip away too slowly. Don’t ever take I-70 across Kansas. Or I-90 across South Dakota. It’s about 400 miles straight across, no bend, no curve, and every few miles that big green rectangular sign tells you it’s still 373 miles to Rapid City, then 369, then 361. Your idle brain calculates every instance the distance and the time. It’ll drive you crazy if you let it.
I always take the two-lanes in South Dakota. There’s really lots to see. Red-winged blackbirds, sunflower farms, pheasants and coyote. Indian reservation, Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee and Rosebud. The Badlands, Black Hills and Lewis and Clark’s Missouri River. In Chamberlain there’s an old railroad bridge you can jump off, right into the river. And in Mitchell a whole big building made out of corn. Mainly it’s good because progress is measured in shorter strokes — 29 miles from Yankton to Tyndall, 17 from Firesteel to Glad Valley, then on to Thunder Butte or maybe on to Cactus Flat. Sometimes it’s best not to always be reminded of the big picture but to go from town to town. The Dairy Queen in Winner, the little beach by the Fort Randall Dam, a few good friends in Spearfish. I like driving through Bonesteel just because I like the name. It makes me think of What Cheer, Gnawbone and Possum Grape. Sometimes it’s best to cut it down to size, find the moment, really be where you are. Sometimes the big picture is just too much to handle, too much to take in. Like staring at a starry, starry sky and thinking.
It’s good, too, because out on the two-lanes even the wide-open spaces, the vast sea of endlessly undulating plains, the wind and sky and grasses and sagebrush, tumbleweeds and roadrunners are right there, right before your eyes, real and touchable. The two-lanes bring an intimacy you don’t get on the interstates. You can sense life right there on both sides of the road, teeming.
Too many people glide along interstates, windows shut, vehicles sealed, air-conditioned air, impervious to what’s around them, sailing through on cruise control. I prefer a windows-down, two-lane existence. But you can’t have that all the time. I mean, it could take you three or four days or a week to cross South Dakota if you let it, checking out Deadwood, hiking up Bear Butte or Harney Peak, or stopping to watch Sunday afternoon baseball like I did that time between Mission and Okreek where about 200 Native Americans were out at this scruffy ball diamond surrounded by cottonwood trees, all the spectators having lined up their pickups and rusted Oldsmobiles, encircling the ballfield, to watch the Sioux boys and men play our national pastime. There was much laughter and some ferocity, some pretty girls smiling at me shyly, flaming fastballs and speed on the basepaths and nowhere else I wanted to be for that few hours or so.
You won’t get that on an airplane or even on the interstates where you watch out some tinted window at life too far away, like it’s all happening on TV, remote, impersonal, floating past like a memory you haven’t lived. And you forget there are people out there with lives as complicated as yours, with pasts and dreams and fears and Sunday afternoons in need of filling.
I remember one such Sunday afternoon on one such drive somewhere north of Memphis. I had stopped for gas and lunch. It was a truckstop kind of diner and I went in and had a seat and a good, good meal (chicken-fried steak and black-eyed peas, cornbread, iced tea and some homemade pie for dessert). But what else I remember was how everybody knew each other: black men dressed in black suit, white shirt and tie, and their wives in their flowery Sunday best; old scraggly men in overalls; and a tattooed teen with funny-colored hair. They all knew each other — even the waitresses and the cook — and they asked how ol’ Mabel was doing and about Zeb’s leg and the damage done over at the Stokely place because of Thursday night’s high winds. I had a good time listening and watching, especially because when I was a boy growing up in Louisiana blacks and whites never ate together and surely never ever talked like this.
Sometimes when you’re on the road and you make a stop like that, you think of life being lived and how it’s a multitude of theaters where human dramas are enacted day to day. Over here, for example, is one play about this little Tennessee town and over there is a man getting out of his pickup being greeted with the wave of a woman and a wagging-tail dog, or some ensemble cast coping in a farmhouse with greed, divorce or ghosts. And as the road winds through the countryside, you see the faces on the people on the porches, the children playing in the backyards, the amber light glowing out of windows in the twilight, the cast and victims of Our Town, Spoon River Anthology, Sinclair Lewis and of Willy Loman’s tragic ache. And you move from one stage to the next, and the curtain opens and the lights go up, and the performers take you through their lines, their footsteps, their lives. It makes you feel close to the whole human race if you let it.
But what I like most is the movement, the motion, the advance through space, the riding of landscape, freewheeling and loose. I like how the late-afternoon sun dances like a fiery beacon strobing through a fence row of trees sailing by, how the wind flaps like wild angel wings in your wide-open windows, how the stars late at night form a dome overhead while you travel the cosmos.
It is not speed I like as much as flow. I do not streak down highways like a rocket-car, screaming through space. I do like the surge of acceleration, I like moving on, the tight handling, the precise advance through traffic, breaking free, country roads on moonlit nights. And I like, too, the feel of the car in curves, the lift over hill crests, the glide on long, straight highways that stretch like ribbons across oceanic desert floors. It is about flow, fluidity, confluence and, eventually, sometimes, transcendence. Oneness. Communion and harmony. Sometimes in symphony, moving dangerously close to the Strangelove missiles in formation around you, swept along those six-lane freeways, then sometimes taking the tributary off-ramp, heading out two-lane roads, finding solitary solace within the landscape, coursing through, flowing, rolling, pouring, blending, moving the way water travels. A rippling, white-water current splashing its way from spring-source to sea. I like being a bead in the bloodstream of existence. I like being alone; I choose to be alone sometimes. I like being out under the star-filled night sky, hearing the call from staticky radio stations (late-night talk shows and ballgames and country music) from far-off places like Del Rio and Durango, Walla Walla and Traverse City, feeling at one with a nation full of truckers and trackers, bikers, hitchhikers and the revolving celestial nomadic universe, headlights and taillights and pavement revealing itself as you go, traveling in the spotlight globe of the twin beams’ incandescent glare, a halo of fleeting landscape engulfed by dark. It’s a religious experience in some ways if you think about it.
Of course, death is a passenger in the seat right next to you, the hitchhiker you don’t want to pick up, phantom figure waving in your rearview mirror, the one you can’t quite leave behind. No matter how fast or far you drive, whatever direction you navigate, death is a patient presence on the road. You may forget that he is there, pretend he is part of another landscape, think yourself invincible because of your power and your speed. Or you may feel his breath when you are locked in at 80, bumper to bumper in a mad parade of hurtling metal, trusting those around you, hoping there is no blowout, no mistake, no one testing death’s intentions. But like this drive of mine tonight, death waits like the universal stranger at the end of every line. I have had enough near misses to figure it is but a matter of time.
I know little about cars, what makes them work, how to fix them. I know nothing of real deliverance, whether redemption waits as well. Like all of us sooner or later, I am heading home. I do not know when I will get there. I do not fly. I love to drive. I like how I feel when I am driving fast and the music is loud and I sing the way I sing only when I know no one is listening. I have made tapes of favorite songs. Some of the songs I have been singing for 35 years. I have sung them all along these roads at different times in my life, different places, different stages. The songs are in my blood and in my being. That is pretty funny, I think, for someone who really cannot sing. But sometimes I sing so loud, so long that my throat will get sore and scratchy; sometimes when I sing and the scenery surrounding me is so beautiful that it bruises my heart — like that time in Wyoming when I was approaching the Bighorns — the tears well in my eyes and my voice goes away and I cannot sing, but I think what a divine and glorious world this can be. I like driving through it. I am glad to be a voyager on the road to the next stop.
I learned how much I love the world when I was younger, when I took out on those country roads, fast as I could go. I would head out this way and that, visit country stores, find a pond or creek to swim in, but mostly drive, careening down asphalt two-lanes, cottonfields on each side of me, through the piney, red-clay hills, sometimes tree limbs reaching over me. A shy boy uneasy in the company of people, I learned how much I love to drive just as soon as I could do it. I was stronger, bolder, faster, smarter in the car, transfigured maybe, freer. I learned early on the healing powers of movement, solitude and independence. The roads took me on to Texas, the Gulf Coast, eventually on out west. I’ve driven three days straight some times. I’ve driven all over: Northwest, New England, right to the tip of the Florida Keys. It doesn’t matter. It is all one big thing, one place, one universe where spirit and matter are one. Driving takes you there, to the holy corners of creation, to sense the unity of the cosmos, to know the road, the way, the Tao, to find yourself within the flow. And then, like I said before, you are nowhere and anywhere and everywhere at once. God is where you find him.
One thing, too, about driving: it frees your mind, it causes flights of fancy. The time alone, the music, the motion, the marathon attitude of adrenal floods — they all mix in your bloodstream to ignite the spell, to carry your thoughts toward a crescendo of earnest delusion, birds loosed from a cage disappearing, the wraiths of a drunken imagination. Illusions of meaning and poetry left at the altar of reality. Because sometimes you step out of a car and your body is stiff and tired, and you look around at the place where you’ve landed and what hits you is that you haven’t gotten away from yourself at all. And the world is just like it was. And you are still right there in it. And you are just that much closer to the places you need to go, the people you need to see, the death you’ve come home to tend to.
You stand in the chill, damp air, pumping gas and watching, thinking yourself foolish for having had these grand and melodramatic thoughts. You pay the man and use the bathroom. You stretch your back, your legs, and maybe get a cup of coffee. You watch the lights from the other cars out on the highway — pairs of reds and whites, northbound, southbound, flaring like tracer bullets through the darkness of the night. And pretty soon you’re on your way again to join them.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.