Gambling on the Open Road

Ten days ago we left home on a grand adventure, a wild drive across the northern Midwest states. A mad dash with a nebulous, shifting uncertain goal. We knew exactly where we were going and more or less what was waiting when we got there. But, we didn’t know how long it was going to take, not really. Or, how much work it was going to be when we got there, we had no clue.

There is something exhausting about traveling. The constant noise and the perpetual visual stimulation jars you, distracts you, fills you with glaring colors, flashes of things that don’t make sense together.

A smattering of cows milling and grazing next to a billboard advertising the best steaks in Indiana, the rusting carcass of an abandoned truck standing on a hill, watching the traffic, envying the sleek, aerodynamic vehicles whizzing past. How things have changed, technology-driven driving. We climb into the shells and zoom away to somewhere, someplace far away.

Driving is absolute chaos. It is the absolute worst kind of chaos. The kind that offers the illusion of control.

Seatbelts fastened, doors locked, gas pedal engaged, and you are cruising. Speed is the measure of distance traveled in units of time. At least that is the simplest scientific definition and it makes sense. But, it doesn’t really explain the phenomenon of internal combustion moving 3,500 pounds of metal, plastic and composites across the landscape.

When you think about it, really stop and consider the magic behind the movement it is amazing. You sit in a climate-controlled, self-contained box hurtling through time and space. I don’t understand the mechanics of it at all. I don’t think most people really know how a car works. But, we accept it, we embrace it, a billion of us. The interstate highways are thick with cars. And they are zooming along.

You have to wonder where everybody is going in such a hurry. From Ohio to Montana there was no place that driving the speed limit was fast enough. If you are only going a couple of miles over you practically qualified for inclusion in the AARP hall of fame. It is every man for himself, survival of the quickest. Don’t slow down or you’ll lose your spot.

Speed defines modern living. Nothing slows us down. Until something slows us down, a traffic jam on the freeway, and we crawl forward inch by tortured inch. Some cars can’t take it, they have to switch back and forth from lane to lane trying to shave off a few precious seconds.

You can almost sense it before you see the first signs. A solemn, frightened wave of sudden tragic self-awareness ripples back, along the line of stalled traffic. A moment of silence as you drive past the tangled, twisted wreckage of what used to be a car or truck. Scattered through the median, so many pieces ripped into a mechanical slaw.

And you think, for a short second, “That could have been me.” “I hope nobody was hurt.” But, from the awful carnage, you know.

It never lasts, though. Soon you either forget, chalk it up to bad luck, or poor decision making. “Wrong place, wrong time.” “Should have been paying attention.” “Gotta keep your eyes on the road.” Inside, though, we all know, there is no such thing as bad luck, not at 80 miles an hour. It is only a matter of time, if you push the limit too long it will push back.

When I was young, a long time ago, I worked with several bikers. I thought they were cool. I wanted to buy a Harley, get a leather jacket and ride. They all told me the same thing. “Sooner or later you are going to wreck. The only hope you have is that it isn’t too bad.” That was all I needed to hear.

In what had to be the worst-case empirical evidence provided by life one of the bikers, a man who had been riding for years, spilled his motorcycle on the interstate coming back from somewhere, hit a mile marker post requiring stitches in a diagonal slash from his waist to his shoulder. Broken bones, internal bleeding, he was in bad shape. If that wasn’t enough while he lay there clinging to his last breath, bleeding and broken, some kind soul stopped and stole his wallet. I decided to stay inside while on the road.

Inside is safer, indeed. But, it isn’t foolproof. Life is out there waiting for us.

It can offer scenes so beautiful it will change the way you look at nature. On the other hand, you are never too far away from the final curtain call. I guess you have to decide on how often you are willing to roll the dice. We, my wife and I, are willing to take the chance, we love to see new things, go to new places. I understand the risks, she chooses not to think about it. Which is probably smart, since she does the driving.

This year we went all the way to the wilds of Montana. I would love to tell you about it. But, I am going for a free breakfast now.

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