The thing about driving is that you're always leaving something behind.
The art of driving comes back to you. The body movements, the concentration, the sense of altered time. Everything comes back, it turns out. In the months after my divorce, I am learning how to bring back the parts of me that I let fall away over the years.
I was a pretty great driver in my teens and early twenties. I drove for hours each day, for both practical and impractical reasons. I drove across the country more than once. But it’s like anything else—use it or lose it. In my marriage, I wasn’t the driver. My rare trips behind the wheel in the past decade were short and rural. So, when I got in the car recently, I faced the traffic of California’s Bay Area with fear. I was afraid to pull out onto the highway. I drove skittishly. I drove poorly.
It was a struggle not to be upset with myself. A decade without practice will do that to you. I just needed to learn again the hard way. I resolved to get in the car and drive the next day. Then, the day after that, I would drive again.
Practice works. Slowly, but it works. It’s been over a month now, and I’m discovering that I still have it in me to pull hundreds of miles in a day. I can focus on the highway and lose hours in the sensation of flying forward. I arrived at this parking lot a little while ago, at a State Beach a few miles north of Los Angeles, about six hours into another day in my continuing lessons. And I think that I have re-learned how to drive.
It’s a special kind of work. The road requires a continual, slightly unfocused attention. I check the right mirror and then the left mirror before changing lanes. I glance back in the rearview. The first few days in my lessons, maybe a week or more, these were slow and deliberate actions. Now I can comprehend everything in a half-moment before looking back to the road. I can adjust the wheel thoughtlessly again in organic, nearly imperceptible movements to keep between the fog line and the demarcation of oncoming traffic. It’s a kind of non-athletic work that I feel in my thighs and my shoulders at the end of the day. I feel it in my ass, most of all. When I step out of the driver’s seat in the evening, I am often in pain. Good pain, though. I had forgotten how much I once loved driving. Now it’s all coming back to me.
I stopped at a highway rest stop recently, on my widest arc into the lower tier of the country. A woman in a summer dress and floppy hat was sitting at a concrete table next to a tree. She and the tree were both limp in the heat. She stared at my front license plate as I got out and, as I walked by, asked, “Did you drive all the way here from THERE?” I laughed and said something offhand like, “It’s been a long couple of days.”
This woman, who leaned sideways against the table and nodded at what I’d said, was the first stranger I had spoken to since the morning’s coffee. I took note of her as I passed. She had been waving her hand by her face as I pulled into the parking spot, just tolerating the meager shade from the tree. She looked tired and already sick of whatever short trip she was taking. Sick of waiting at the concrete table. Walking down the sidewalk toward the bathrooms, I imagined the husband who would come out of the men’s room and collect her for the next slog down the road. I didn’t know anything about it, of course. But just taking in her exaggerated slump against the table, I felt grateful for my own life. When I came back to my car a few minutes later, the woman was still sitting and waiting. She waved and I smiled, and we wished each other safe travels. I got into my car and merged again onto the highway.
That’s the thing about driving. You are always leaving something behind. Some place where you barely stopped. Some person you barely spoke to. Re-learning to drive is also remembering the value of small interactions. Lately, I see grocery clerks and gas station clerks and sometimes motel clerks in a day. Baristas and drive-thru cashiers. I see them for a few minutes and then I leave them. They stay in one place while I move along to someplace new, another exit, another hundred miles down the road. The new place will bring a few streets and commercial buildings into my world; a duo of gas station clerks chit-chatting through a long shift. Maybe a friendly face from inside the window of a taco truck. Then another turn back onto the highway.
It’s a fleeting perspective on the country and, on some days, the speed of the road makes every place generic. Towns and people are the beads along the strand of a five hundred mile day. Entire neighborhoods of cul-de-sacs. Everything flashes by in a terracotta blur. After a few too many miles, I can start to feel like an actor in a driving scene from an old movie. One of those studio scenes with the moving landscape playing on a screen outside the car windows. I start to feel that the scenery is slightly unreal, and that I’m not a part of it. Maybe I should take that feeling as a sign to slow down a bit.
I can measure the sensation in a ratio of minutes to miles. At 1:1 or faster, I blow through the countryside like a bag of potato chips, and usually for the same reason. Those blur-speed ratios fill a deep need for movement. They shake loose the tangle of thoughts in my head. I seem to need the highway speeds, at least for a while. But then sometimes I want to feel like I am in a world where other people exist. That’s when I turn off at an exit and take a two or even 3:1 ratio for a while. I’ll stop at every light through town.
At slower speeds, each little stuccoed box becomes peculiar. I see the pool noodles drifting in the backyard pools. The dead heads of roses dropping petals from the rose bushes and the bleached patio furniture and flamingo lawn ornaments. I know that if I chose to stop and knock around one of these towns for a while, each fraction of an acre would bloom into a whole world. But I haven’t wanted to stop.
I will pick a house along the highway and think about the people who live in it. It’s an old habit, something I’ve done my whole life. Isolating one dining room window, I’ll focus on the kid doing his homework at the table. Or a couple talking in the kitchen. I’ll flesh out a story for these people, who are happy or else unhappy to be living in their home. Some homes look happier than others, though it’s hard to pinpoint why that is when you’re just passing by. I like to imagine the people inside cooking dinner. I imagine their heated conversations. At night, I often catch the bluish light of the television screen flickering out from a picture window. Maybe a dark head or two silhouetted over the wide hump of a couch. Every house looks lonely late at night. Still, it’s a home. I wonder how it would feel to live there.
It’s easy to get romantic about the idea of a home when you’re driving. There’s nothing to do with all that time but think. Lately, I can lose 100 miles to one memory. I’ve lost entire days to a single question. What is it that I’m looking for out here? Maybe it’s just a feeling. Something impossible to name. Something that would feel like sitting by the big window of my college apartment in South Dakota, watching the water bead on the glass in a late spring rainstorm. Or throwing together spaghetti dinners with my friend Sara in our second-floor apartment in Connecticut a couple years later. Maybe those places weren’t home, which is the word I keep repeating to myself. Maybe I felt lighter and happier in those early apartments because I only lived there a little while. When I was younger I didn’t ever ask myself if I was at home, and so it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t. Now that I’m older, I can’t seem to stop asking myself the big buzzkill questions. What am I going to do with my life? What sort of person am I? Where do I fit? When I get too deep into the philosophy, it usually means I need to stop and eat.
Back on the highway, I always start to think again. I’ve lived in a few places in my life. I don’t want to move back to any of them. The last of my homes was in a small Kansas town. I only left it last December, but it feels very far away. I thought about Kansas earlier today, driving past a wheat field in the Central Valley. Those long skinny rows of wheat flitted past the car window like dominoes. I fell in love with little things about Kansas while I was there. But even after a decade it never felt like it was mine. I borrowed a little piece of Kansas for a while. Now I’ve returned it to the shelf.
And I have been asking myself about South Dakota, where I spent the first twenty years of my life. The words “South Dakota” never felt like anything to me, but the Black Hills do still hit a note somewhere in my chest. That childhood home is always a kind of inner touchstone. It taught me the language I’m speaking when I say “home”. But I can’t ever get back to that place. That home in the Hills is long gone and the child who lived there is long gone too—which is so self-evident it feels idiotic to say it out loud. I might like to go back there again. I know I would like to drive some of the highways through the Black Hills. But I don’t feel like stopping.
These days, every town I drive into, I think about the people who belong there. I drive down another Main Street and check out the old movie theaters, the coffee shops and grocery stores. Each town is a whole world to someone who calls it home. And every corner of the country has the potential to mean everything. You just have to be the right person in the right place.
I can picture it more easily in some towns than others. A few places have been appealing enough to consider. I like the way some of the downtowns are full of trees and the look of the coffee houses, or the people sitting with their books in the city parks. I can enjoy looking at some of those towns and imagine living there. But I enjoy looking at the ocean too, until I start to think about being caught in it.
I have been parked at this State Beach north of Los Angeles for a couple hours now. Long enough that I’ve seen a few other cars come and go around me. Long enough that I’ve grown accustomed to the sight of the three boys who are selling firewood out of an old Winnebago over by the campground. Every hour or so, they all grab a few armfuls of wood and jump into an open jeep and drive up and down the beach, calling out to see whether anyone wants to buy some. It’s a warm evening. Most people aren’t building fires. And that seems to be fine with the boys, who have returned again to their campsite. One is lying on the sand outside the camper while the other two throw a volleyball around.
I have watched them long enough to see that they’re having a good time. And who wouldn’t? It seems like a pleasant way to spend a summer. I have been sitting here trying to picture the three boys twenty or thirty years from now, when they are pale adult men with responsibilities. They may not know each other by then. They may not even own a single pair of board shorts among them by then. At moments when they feel disappointed or overmatched by life, they might think about this summer on the beach and how easy life was at the campsite. Their magic summer with the Winnebago.
I am just like everyone else. I would rather be the kid selling firewood than the pasty mid-management adult that the kid grows into. I have been driving around for weeks now, telling myself that I am looking for a home. And I know I’m telling myself a lie. I don’t want to belong anywhere right now. All the towns are sticky and it feels good to pull away from them. I don’t want to settle in behind any of the windows with the blue flickering TV screens again. I don’t want to sit at the dining room tables under the pale yellow light and the tepid breeze of the ceiling fans. Some part of me is still running away from the last place I called home. I’m not ready to stop moving yet.
And it feels like it’s time to leave this beach. My car has been sitting in this parking spot long enough. Despite the nice view of the water and despite the charm of the firewood kids and their camper, I can feel my wheels getting grumpy from lack of use. I am restless to pick up the speed.
It’s a nice evening to drive south along the highway, past all the neighborhoods that hug the water. The towns will be quiet. The flurry of office workers has died down. They have already returned to their nests for the night. The stores are closing and the restaurant windows and gas stations will soon start to glow. Dusk slides across the sky in a pinkish golden blur when you drive along the ocean highway. Everything is beautiful as long as you’re in motion.
Tonya Audyn Morton is the publisher of Juke.
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A truly beautiful & evocative piece, Tonya. I relate to the driving gap - mine came from leaving Queens & living in Manhattan for decades, where I all but phased it out. Resuming again while driving my late mom to doctor's appointments felt awkward, but I was relieved at the muscle memory that kicked in rather quickly.