The long way home

A love letter to the open road

I put food on the table and a roof overhead, but I'd trade it all tomorrow for the highway instead.
- Tom Waits

There is nothing like a stretch of highway.

I carry with me my own individual universe separated by a thin sheet of metal, plastics, and rubber; and a mere few feet away hundreds of other universes barrel across the smooth (or not so smooth) pavement at 65 mph. Or 70. Or 80. The radio reaches out and snatches bits and pieces of towns and regions; placing them, like cosmic furniture, around the universe of my automobile. The highway allows me to be present while traveling forward in time. Part meditation. Part time machine.

Mechanically indisposed, my mind roams free and at a time where work can reach me pretty much wherever I am in the world, this is a supreme luxury. That Calvin and Hobbes cartoon comes to mind. The one that elucidates the wisdom of inefficiency. In an era of utilitarianism, highway driving is a cathedral of inefficient travel. Forcing the driver into awareness of the present and freeing them of distraction.

The highway is a gateway.

It speaks of road trips; of family vacations; of little cans of Sacramento tomato juice and hastily packaged chicken-salad sandwiches on the way to national parks, or amusement parks, or any other kind of park that was built in order to draw a tourist and a tourist's wallet. The road carries with it memory as well as fantasy. A way to touch the past while opening the gate to the future.

Incidentally, I'm writing this very piece while driving – don't worry, I'm dictating, no one's in danger. Right now, if I wanted to, I could get off at any exit and just keep going. I can be in California, or New Mexico, or Denver tomorrow. I just need fuel and road signs. While familial, relational, and occupational obligations prevent me from doing this, sometimes it's enough to simply have the invitation. I may stay home, but it's nice to know the road is calling.

The highway ain't for everyone.

Some may accuse me of recklessly flaunting my privilege given that I neither commute nor am compelled to drive against my will. I concede the point. Then again, I've never begrudged my feet for having to walk to the store. To view the open road as merely a means to an end plays tricks on the mind. Stretching out the toiling part of a trip; detracting from the time actually spent at any one destination. On the other hand, if the road is allowed to be perceived as a manifestation of every destination then this present-mindedness allows the driver to constantly be in a state of accomplishment and contentment.

This isn't an article to convince you to drive more – to be honest the ozone would probably appreciate it if you didn't. I'm not trying to persuade you or sell you on anything. This is a letter. A love letter. To the road that has taken me to canyons and beaches, from cities to wide open fields, even to train stations and airports. I'm grateful for its existence and for the workers who keep it open.

But this is my exit so...


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