When I graduated from college, broke, badly in need of an adventure, and with little in the shape of a plan or commitment, I decided to set out solo on the long, open road.
Heading out on the highway alone and driving thousands of miles was something I’d always wanted to do; I just didn’t know when I was going to do it… until gas prices sunk to the $1.75 a gallon mark.
Not that I would mind the companionship, but there is an unsung liberation about the ability to stop and go on your own accord. Eat stick after stick of beef jerky. Accumulate a pile of ketchup packets on the passenger seat. Stop for coffee at 10 PM. Take in a beautiful vista. Listen to the music of my own choosing. Drive the speed limit of my choice through the Kansas prairie.
Photo: Nicholas T
The road: there is no truly accurate way or poetic to describe the surreal of cutting loose at 85 miles per hour down a paved and painted Interstate highway 2,100 miles long. When driving solo, you exists on your own terms while factoring in highway conditions and psychological factors, such as the ability to find self-amusement while pulling the 400-some mile haul through Kansas or Nebraska or Texas or the Dakotas.
Time takes on a temporal meaning and distance becomes the only way of calculating your progress. Turn off the music, scan the horizon, and just drive… listen to the cylinders pulse and hum blend with the subtle harmonic pitches of white noise when the wheels drive over different conditions: bridges, tunnels, concrete-slab highway, paved asphalt, passing trucks, grates, and the other variations that make the ultimate soundtrack of the road.
When Kansas City or Chicago or the arch over St. Louis rises over 8-lanes of highway glory after the monotony of the fields and farms and truck stops and travel plazas of the Midwest, it sends an electric pulse through the veins. The urge is to drive faster, even in heavy traffic.
Passing billboards, you acquire hawk-like instincts for the next town along the route, the next pull-off for a piss or a cup of tepid truck stop coffee or a quirky, amusing roadside attraction. These become primitive instincts for highway travelers. After all, who isn’t lured by sheer curiosity about claims of the world’s largest armadillo, a park of replica plastic dinosaurs, a Corn Palace, a cowboy boot emporium, or a pit of exotic South American vipers?
Long miles on the highway and all that time for self-reflection have the tendency to lull you into melancholy. There is ample time to study license plates or think about hobbies not pursued, friendships or relationships lost, those who never left your hometown, mortality, books never read, strangers never acquainted, a project never started.
Perhaps better still is how all that time for reflection can lull you into the Zen-like nothingness coexisting with the alert mindfulness of driving. There is a maddening balance to spending days at a time in motion; the dotted-white line down the divided highway blurs with the phosphorous-mirrored glow of red tail-lights of tractor-trailers.
However, your existence as a social being can easily be reclaimed at night, while dining in no-name roadhouses or yapping it up at 1 in the morning with the front desk clerk at a characterless Econolodge and then heading to the dim-lit bar to toast a cheap Budweiser with truck drivers and talk sports with the road-weary, who can also be chock-full of compelling road stories and tales of Interstate romance.
This is truly the great thing about solo highway driving: it squeezes out one’s xenophobic tendencies through miles of reexamination.
Eventually, one gets to a destination. Long-haul truck drivers drop-off at a delivery point and even Kerouac‘s adventure came to a close looking west at the sunset, dreaming of America the Brave and woefully reminiscing about crisscrossing the continent.
The car is parked, the doors are locked, and – hopefully – you arrive safely over many miles traveled. The brain throbs, thinking it is still in motion, like a Psilocybin mushroom trip at a freewheeling Grateful Dead concert. This is worth a crooked smiling, just at the sheer delight in knowing the accomplishment of covering a significant distance on one’s own terms.
Why do Americans insist on driving when we have Amtrak and cheap, characterless coast-to-coast budget flights? Because the highway-as-symbolism is a working monument to the Jeffersonian ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Highways are a testament to equality in democracy, allowing anyone with the ability to be mobile to access beautiful, spacious skies and amber waves of grain, giving Woody Guthrie’s refrain of “This land was made for you and me” a truly unique meaning.