Imagine not just the scariness, but the magic of it, in the context of human history: that in the twentieth century a person can be deposited on a pinprick of dirt in the middle of a wilderness, and within three minutes – in the time it takes a kid to pee and zip up – lose all contact with the transport and company that brought him there, alone, afoot, as if sprung out of the ground.
We’d stopped for gas at the little wooden house with the red maple leaf somewhere in the deep green of central Ontario, eight children and two adults spilling out of the blue VW bus, stretching, kicking up dust, lining up for the one filthy bathroom. I got sidetracked, possibly by a roadside weed or something promising in the gravel – gold, jewels, Indian artifacts. The important fact is that I went last. And these were the final images of my four-year-old mind on an earth that made sense, that was grounded in reasonable rules and expectations, an earth of contiguous, organic unfolding of which I was a happy, oblivious constituent element: a brown stained toilet in a hot box choked with the stench of human waste; a small, dusty window with a view of the garbage in back; and most fascinating of all – and perhaps what detained me – a long coil of flypaper coated with the dead and dying, wriggling, abuzz, singing of their betrayal and slow despair.
I stepped outside into nothingness. There was the weatherworn gray building. There were the red pumps. There was the gravel and garbage cans. There was not my family nor the blue bus. I remember the wind. I walked to the road and was confronted by the tall wooded mountain across the way, around which the empty highway bent in either direction. There were no people – no gas station attendants, no passing cars. Only the haunting wind rushing up the road like the wake of invisible traffic, bending and brushing the evergreens together in a fizzy sound like broken waves leaving a beach, teasing me with the intimate immediacy of unwanted conch shells pressed to the ears.
This then, was the world. The sea the conch shells sang was vast, impassive, implacable, fixed and massive as a green mountain; yet fluid and seething as panicked emotions. The same place, but utterly transformed. The mountain, the gas station, the road were still there; the family was gone. I was lost. Forsaken. Doomed. Shock and disbelief gave way to terror. The ground spun and I was knocked to my butt, sobbing. The earth turned upside down and I fell into the infinite maw of the universe.
It couldn’t have taken more than a couple of minutes (I’d like to think) before someone realized I was missing, that the car seats had a gap in the row of towheads, that the general din, the croaking chorus of children was one peeper light, before they charged around to gather me back into the bosom of the bus. And then there they were, Mom and Dad bobbing up and down in the front seats as they always had, grinning, the Volkswagen calling with its goosey honk, skinny arms waving out of the window; then the sympathetic hands and hugs, the ahs and ohs, the nervous laughter and jokes, explanations, assurances. Then back on the road to Grandpa’s and the business of travel.
And it only took minutes. My frightening adventure with being lost probably lasted only about as long as my stay in the bathroom. That’s what’s so extraordinary about the accelerated world of car travel. To me, there’s something more believable about airplanes, even, than automobiles. With a plane, there’s a sense of being transported over a great distance. First you’re in one place, then you’re in another, terminal to terminal. Now New York; now Los Angeles. Hippity hop. Same with a ship: pull out of Yokosuka in winter, spend a few days at sea, and pull into the heat of Manila. I can somehow deal with the radical, abrupt shift in places and environments. It’s almost abstract – the world as a globe, sea and sky mere media you’re passing through toward a destination. But a car is on the ground, always in place – someone’s destination – always engaged with where it is, ever leaving and arriving somewhere, and at a truly incredible rate of speed.
Automobiles rapidly transform life and communal development in a way that no other transportation can: a road fingering through every town to every house. You’re lost, you’re found. You move, ever chasing the ideal spot, the novel experience, the promised exit ramp. Forget history. Forget the organic self, integrated in place. You are your car; hop in and go, round and round town, from McDonald’s to the schoolyard and sure to cruise Main Street each time; or ping-ponging to the coast and back, earning tales of sleepless marathon driving and endless franchise food as the nation unspools outside your wind.
The road itself, and not so much its destinations, has become the object of our romances. It’s the act of individual propulsion, the heroics of speed, the promise of farewells and how-dos, the possibility, if only an illusion, of independence. We can bounce about like dizzy electrons. Aside from the virtue-less reality of video images and cyberspace, it is certainly the car more than the train or plane that in real space has abridged our continent and cinched it together with ubiquitous thread into what I fear, at times, is an increasingly homogeneous grab bag. And it’s as egalitarian as an assembly line. Even if we can’t own a car, we all live near roads and most of us have thumbs.
Still, despite my predictable resentments at the automobile, its presence and the changes wrought are irreversible fact, and the best can be made of this new world, too. The road, for me, has also been an extraordinary meeting place, an object lesson in human nature, a test of endurance, a danger and care: a life-and-death classroom more vivid than any other long-distance learning gizmo yet to come down the (proverbial) pike.
As teenagers, my friends and I used to hitch all over the place: to school, to work, to hangouts and one another’s homes. Eventually, probably under the influence of Jack Kerouac, I set out for cross-country adventure. Later still, out of sheer drab necessity, I commuted to and from my job via thumb. Everyone should do it at least once: stand on the curb with your face to the wind of oncoming faces, stick up your chin, thrust out your hand and say, “C’mon, please?” (Once, stuck out west on the TransCanada Highway and robbed of our money, my friend Cliff and I held up a sign that read “Please.” Then we changed it to “Help.” Eventually, if we saw that a car was not slowing down, we simply stood with raised middle fingers as they drove by.
Then there’s the thrill of reeling in a catch and jumping into a stranger’s car or climbing up his rig. You learn to read people quickly. Are they dangerous? Are they quiet or do they want company to help keep them from drowsing? Is there a mission, such as preaching, or finding out, “what’s wrong with you kids today?” and, if so, how far are they going? It’s amazing how many family men are out there cruising for sex with boys in the anonymity of car and road. You learn to be cagey, but there are times to give in to some things, like if a cowboy trucker out of Denver with a half-dunk bottle of Jack Daniels offers you some, you take it, and if he waves a loaded pistol and insists you shoot up road signs with him, well…
You learn that there remain places in the world, behind the interstates and billboards and strip malls and tourist spots, where people still live their lives their own way in those fleshy patches between the arteries, according to their customs, according to their own beauty; and your car, moving through their place, brings unwelcome aliens. At sixteen I did an entire coast-to-coast trip with two older friends in two weeks, with Max doing all the driving – it was his car. It was mostly a blur of impressions, but sometimes, for fun, we went off the map. On one such occasion, in the oppressive heat of August Oklahoma Saturday night, we found ourselves in a little cow town looking for a cold beer. The bar was right out of Gunsmoke, only instead of horses there were pickup trucks hitched to the post. Inside, cowboys – sunburnt faces under white straw hats, tight-fitted flowered shirts, shit-kicker boots, beery moods sliding into the sentiments whining from the jukebox about life gone wrong, and then souring at the sight of us: the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers meet Hud.
I guzzled an icy Coors and then beat it back to the car amid murmurs about whether I was or was not a girl with my long blond locks, and if I qualified as fuckable either way. My Jewish afroed friends stayed to play pool, but a minute later came bolting out of the joint and jumped in the car, yelling something about a knife and a guy named Len, and then there he was coming at us. No sooner had we pulled out and away up the street than, yup, police lights and sirens bore down on us. Yes, it was the sheriff. And yes, he had the hat, the boots, the aviators, the gut, called us “you boys”, nearly spat the words “New York,” and strongly suggested that we return there, escorting us out of the county. At the time, of course, these people were all stereotypes to me, cartoons; but then, what was I to them? I sometimes find myself wishing for another chance with those people, the stories behind those trucks and that bar, the heart of their Saturday night.
You learn that you need never be lost, as you are among people, and someone will recognize you as family, for all the weird strangers. There we kids in Montreal who put me in a tent in their backyard and woke me the next morning with egg sandwiches and coffee. The woman who bought me lunch, then took me to her home in Toronto (I’d hoped she’d seduce me, too) and then bought me a bus ticket to New York City.
The first time I left home for good, hitching to Oregon, my friend Ira and I got a ride in western Pennsylvania with a sailor headed for the coast, who said he’d take us all the way, a quiet fellow who grew more and more surly as we grew more hungry. Each time we suggested stopping for food he’d pop a No-Doze, bear down on his distant star, and search the radio for “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which was everywhere on the airwaves. When he couldn’t stand us any longer, I guess, he pulled into a rest stop in Nebraska in a driving, cold March rain. I remember there were night crawlers everywhere – you couldn’t walk without squishing them – and nowhere to set down but in the small bathroom itself. He told us we’d have to camp out there and he’d sleep in the car. Then he patched-out and continued west.
We shouldered our packs and marched a mile through the rain to the nearest roadside hamlet. Everything was closed, so we legged it back to our bathroom, soaked, hungry, cold, miserable, and in the middle of nowhere on I-84. All that frigid night I was awakened to the sight of men’s legs and their pee arcing into urinals. In the morning we copped a ride with a Navy recruiter into Omaha (what’s with all these sailors on midwestern roads?), wondering the whole way, how much farther, lord, how far?
The next day we got sunburnt on the plains near Fort Collins, Colorado, then froze that night in the back of a pickup along the hills near Laramie, Wyoming. A state trooper chased us off the road and we had to blow money on a bus to Salt Lake City, where we got a ride from a meaty country boy just out of the Air Force driving his pickup truck to the coast in search of work and a new life. We talked and smoked and flicked our butts until some ways west of Boise I notice flames shooting out of the bed of his truck – my backpack, engulfed. All my clothes and money gone. That boy bought me a cheeseburger special in a little spot in eastern Oregon – the best cheeseburger I ever will have – then followed the Columbia River to my sister’s door step in Portland. I don’t know where he wound up after that. My sister wasn’t home, wasn’t expecting us, so Ira curled up into his sleeping bag, and I covered myself with his clothes, his underwear, pants, and t shirts. Our friend took off, a little sadly, it seemed, toward the south. Eventually, my sister found us sleeping like that.
I’ve never really felt wholly lost since that day by the road in Ontario. I’ve learned that usually somebody comes to claim you, and, fate willing, you’re given the chance to claim others. At its worst the road reduces us and offers the chance to be our meanest selves, to act with impunity and be our antisocial caricatures, to do unto others. It’s the haunt of sociopaths, the anonymous bathroom wall where creeps express their excremental contempt. At best, and I insist on believing in the best, we’re thrown into the flow of humanity and challenged to be a brother or father, sister or mother. Someone slows down and a human face emerges. Civil life is engaged, connection made. There is an affirmation at every stop.
There’s always someone around the bend to rescue the story and nudge it along to its next terminus. There always will be.