Drive, They Said

For the last four years, I’ve kind of been stuck in place, emotionally and physically. Years spent tackling the long, arduous process of healing – from chronic pain, to brain surgery, to the newly unclouded realization that life really is a sad, often tedious joke.

I’ve hunkered down and worked myself silly, six jobs at once, in a bid to free myself of the bonds that keep us locked down. The financial desperation, debt, and hopelessness. The need to sacrifice the best years of your lives to long hours, stressful commutes, and bosses who are bullies and psychopaths.

I stopped my serious travel. My month-long vacations to Europe were reduced to a handful of weekends in New Orleans, or elsewhere. Short jumps. I drifted towards becoming a shut-in, my Nissan sitting idle for weeks, collecting leaves, pollen, snow, and grinding to an alarming start whenever I needed to run a quick chore.

When I drive now, I feel awkward. No longer at peace with the steel and plastic around me, and the vague whimsy of the road. I’m happier on foot, or at the dull mercy of public transport.

I used to like driving. I used to take long road trips whenever I had a free day. There was never a destination in mind, I’d just wake up on a Saturday morning and get in my car, see where the road wanted to take me. Listen to that travelling spirit. The road does speak to you. Sometimes it even shouts so loud that you find yourself taking an exit, changing direction, heading into a wilderness. Following the siren song of the open road.

I once had a love affair with the byways and old “blue highways.” It hit me in 1996, when I drove down US 29, following in the footsteps of the Union army as it chased the Confederates from Gettysburg. Then I turned around and headed home, following the doomed Confederate march on the north. Exploring the war in reverse order.

Twice I’ve driven to Niagara Falls. Up US 40, then hooking up with US 219. Covered bridge country, spotted with lonely Pennsylvania towns once you leave the hardscrabble of western Maryland behind. A sidetrip to Johnstown each time was in order, a town still healing from the long ago flood. I can’t get enough of their competing museums. In the town, a diorama lights up as dramatic screams and frantic telegraph messages are piped in, the course of the flood breathlessly detailed by a narration made decades ago. A film fit for the Cultural Revolution depicts the homicidal carelessness of the elite capitalists who shoddily dammed up the river to create a lakeside hunting retreat.

Up at that retreat, the competing museum accuses the town of not supporting their God-given right to be rich and free, for not taking shared responsibility for the dam’s upkeep.

Johnstown has a deep sadness running through it. Now a rust-belt town, crowded with too-tall buildings and a busy bypass, it feels like a town that doesn’t know how to breathe. A rape victim forever skittish, forever on the edge of tears.

The mood isn’t helped post 9/11. Not far outside of Johnstown, on a lonely stretch of 219, the Flight 93 Memorial stands hauntingly in a farmer’s field.

A bypass, just about an hour out of Johnstown, takes you through Punxsutawney. This is my halfway mark on the way to the Falls and, several times, a destination itself whenever I had a free weekend. Every once in a while, I crave a visit to Punxsutawney. I drive up and stay the night at the antique Pantall Hotel, watch Phil the Groundhog and his family frolicking behind bullet proof glass, and tour the king of the little rust belt towns. This one is weirdly buoyed by Groundhog Day, which gives them a massive annual injection of tourist dollars. The rest of the year, the town quietly decays, main street quietly vanishes, and the impoverished silence of forgotten Americana slowly creeps down from the hills.

In 2002, I put 3300 miles on a rental car. The plan was to follow Route 66 from the Texas border to Needles, CA. Instead I crisscrossed Arizona and New Mexico, leaving 66 but always returning to the same point to carry on, following the oldest roadbed I was allowed to drive on. I dug deep into those two southwestern states, falling in love with the big sky and the living desert. Outside Williams, AZ, Route 66 turned into a dirt road, weaving ominously through tall pines. Alone for miles, off the beaten track, breathing clean air, I came across Williams and holed up at a hotel for several days. Williams is the old “Gateway for the Grand Canyon.” From Williams, pre-Interstate tourists would make the hour’s journey north to gaze in awe at that impossible hole in the ground. The only life that remains in Williams today, though, is the memory of those bygone days. It’s taken the form of an enfeebled attempt to create a tourist trap that possesses an endearing, earnest honesty. Polar opposites of the sad and bypassed Appalachian towns that try to cling to their lost Americana. Punxsutawney Phil would be much happier in Williams, where he would be able to emerge each morning and stare out at the desert sky, and see the locals try to make due and lend a helping hand to strangers.

For five years in the 90’s, during a self-exile to college in Elkins, WV, I’d take the long way around driving back and forth from home to school. Zipping up Interstate 70 to join the always lonely I-68, passing through the remarkable Sideling Gap and screaming over top the gritty, coal-stained, weather-beaten towns of western Maryland. Sometimes I would get on old US 40 early on, forced to decode signs and navigate blind if I wanted to follow the old roadbed, occasionally veering deep into the hills on dirt tracks, or taking a long, somewhat terrifying climb up and over Sideling Hill, high above the gap and the wide ribbon of I-68.

At US 219, I would turn south, away from Pennsylvania and the Falls and supernatural groundhogs, and drop down, eventually, into West Virginia. past the smallest church in the lower 48 states, and Whitehouse Tavern where the devil comes up through the floor once a year, and through the heart of small towns and state forest.

I’ve always enjoyed the Zen of driving. I hate the highways and the crowded city streets. I hate having to be ready for the worst, keeping an eye on all points, warily watching those around you. But, alone, on an empty byway, at peace with the car and the wilderness around you, there’s a centering force. Something primal. There’s a touch of nationalistic fervor, as well. This is America. This is the open road. At the border once, leaving Canada, the guard asked me, “Where are you headed?” A hot summer sun was setting on my left, the air conditioning from the guard’s booth rushing out and around me. I looked ahead and I said, “I’m just going to drive. Stop when I get tired.”

The guard nodded, handed me my passport, then I became invisible. Another man on another highway, an anonymous black car, driving through New York State until my blood filled with weariness and I pulled off at the first motel that caught my eye.