In late fall, it gets dark early. The cold gray settles in, seeping into your joints. The howling wind blows the depressing loneliness of November through every microscopic seam of the car.
I finished my visit in late afternoon. Ignoring the growl of my stomach, I wanted to get on the road without delay. Driving at night, on a curvy, mostly two-lane highway, filled me with some trepidation.
On a sunny, summer afternoon, this winding country road is a small adventure, a way to clear the mind and lower the heart rate. In dark November, the mind is focused and the pulse shifts to a higher gear. This is no walk in the park or Sunday drive in the country.
Driving through town to get to the highway, the sidewalks have already been rolled up. Barely any traffic, as the lights of houses burn brightly. These people are snug and warm.
If I took this trip in my youth, I would be stuck with only the ghostly sound of the AM radio. The choices would be country music or network news and the sound weak and crackling, from some faraway transmitter.
Now, I have satellite radio or a thumb drive of familiar songs to keep me company as I glide through the darkness quickly engulfing me.
As a kid, I traveled roads like this often. Back then, night travelers were like ghost ships, eerily alone with only the occasional light from a farm, or a car passing in the opposite direction and disappearing into the night.
From my memory bank, the dark and desolate highway brings back stark images of terror in the night. The Fugitive running through the woods after his train to prison derails, freeing him only to run from every shadow. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Jim, is alone in his father’s car as the drunken Bob Ewell approaches the car to terrorize the boy. Black & white images of my youth, showing that bad things happen in the darkness. I used to fear that the family car would breakdown along the empty road, miles from help.
Tonight, I have my cellphone handy and an emergency roadside service button in my car. I’m not without help, but I cannot shake the feeling. Locked away in your psyche are not memories as much as vignettes created by the imagination. Stored, untouched for decades, but immediately available, called forward without warning.
The wind pushes not so gently on the car, reminding me it is still there. I am tempted to turn up the volume to overpower the wind, but I will lose connection with the road and my mind will drift. The sound of the car on the asphalt keeps me plugged in, and I need that.
As much as I want to disappear in the Beatles or Supertramp, I must stay sharp because the road will attempt to fool me. I think I know these curves lead, but maybe I don’t. I might get too comfortable and the road will teach me a lesson. I’m visitor: a stranger on a strange road. I keep the temperature cool enough to keep me on my toes.
The miles pass, as the white skip lines become hypnotic and meld into one continuous strand guiding me home. As the night goes deep, your mind releases other wariness, where are these thoughts coming from? The night is a long continuum of imagination and memory. You may guide the steering wheel, but the journey is in other hands.
The night seems endless. Stopping in a small town at a Quik Go, I encounter other zombies of the darkness. Is that all?, the cashier with the hollow eyes asks. As I look around to a few other night wanderers, I realize Walmart must be closed. Why else would these fashion-challenged, calorie addicted souls prowl the convenience stores. I quickly pay for my coffee and chocolate donuts and retreat to my car. I do not even realize what town I have stopped.
More small towns fly by, the stops are endless. At every downtown intersection, a red light. No wonder highways now bypass towns. Silent and lonely, every Main Street looks the same.
Even in the darkness, the character of the landscape is obvious. Over the miles, the vegetation changes from scrub to lush, flat to hilly, desolate to inhabited. I’m almost home.
My mind clears a bit as the steering now feels more responsive. The hum of the road even sounds comforting. The hours ticked slowly like Stonehenge was the timepiece. Could I have been dreaming while awake? I barely remember my departure. The miles spun my consciousness like tumblers in a slot machine. Round and round they go, matching the odometer on my car.
My town is ahead, blinking in lights like Clark Griswald’s house at Christmas. My energy level has dropped, like I’m approaching the finish line of a long race. Most intersections provide me green, so I rarely need to stop. If I do, can I get going again? Although no pedaling is needed, the car seems to need coaxing forward. My mind is going strong despite being so tired. Funny thoughts are turned loose in my head, but I’m not laughing.
There is a good reason for avoiding night driving. Aside from poor vision, my thought control seems vulnerable.
The car seemed like my spacecraft, not journeying through space, rather traveling back in time. I’m looking around for Rod Serling, or even Michael J. Fox, so someone can explain the ending.
Pulling up in my driveway, it feels like eons since I was there. The car radio is on but I’ve turned down the volume. For some unexplained reason, I increase the volume. The farm report is ending as the announcer segues into music. The honey voice of Patsy Cline oozes sex appeal as she sings “Crazy”, one of her hits in 1961. Maybe this song was bouncing off the November clouds into my car. I turned down the volume then quickly turned it back up. This time, Lady Gaga belts out “Stupid Love.”
The morning brought more gray and a threat of rain. I thought about last night and it is difficult to shake the gloom now settling in my mood. I am home and that feels good. Last night felt like a dream, although not a very good one. It was a long drive, at least it seemed that way. I will not likely go there again, that chapter is closed. Buried in my brain are fragments and disjointed images wrapped in strands of memories. Those, are on permanent loan from the world.