I just returned from a long road trip.
When I close my eyes, I see two, three, four lanes of colors ranging from bleached beige to sunburned pink. I feel the car swaying in the wind. I hear the thump of tires on uneven surfaces. I dodge and weave among trucks moving like walls, or flat beds loaded with parts of things, such as the long tubes and curving blades of the giant white windmills that sprout from high ridges and cultivated plains.
I expected spectacular scenery in South Dakota, and found it as the grassy plains erupted in steep, pine shrouded peaks. While there a herd of buffalo came so close that I could almost touch them. Why was it, then, that seeing these great beasts in a version of the wilderness (they were protected residents of a state park) created an appetite for the bison burgers so conspicuous on South Dakota restaurant menus?
I was surprised at how beautiful Iowa’s rolling cornfields revealed themselves through my car’s bug-splattered windshield. A brief stop in Oberlin, where I got my BA (majors in English and Religion, minors in History and Classics) and learned how to cook, revealed a town and setting that remains peaceful and inviting. A piper played on Tappan Square. The small town had more restaurants, all of them serving liquor (Oberlin was a “dry” town when I attended–only the campus Rathskeller served alcohol–the notorious 3.2 beer of Prohibition). A few new buildings demonstrated tastefully flashy architecture. Gibson’s Bakery’s famous whole wheat donuts were just as sweet as I remembered.
Nearly everyone we met on the trip was open, friendly and helpful, though we encountered difficult places with dark, tense, angry feelings so incongruous in hot, dry sunlight.
I hit “the wall” a few times, usually around 4 p.m. after a long day of driving. My attention waned. My steering became uneven. The skin on my arms grew numb from the air conditioned chill. I stopped wanting to listen to music, and I thought that I could just keep going. Fortunately my wife and I shared the driving often enough. And we made several stops.
When you hit the wall you can’t believe you thought a road trip would be worth doing. Major achievements in your life become questionable. Cute billboards are no longer amusing. You come up with scenarios of car crashes, engine failure, strange people lurking in icky places waiting to prey on your misfortune.
On top of that, you have many miles to go before that hotel room–which you’ve already booked in order to get the cheapest rate. At this point in your journey, groady roadside shacks become inviting.
It is surprising how fast you return to your better self after a pause, some rehydration and a light meal of protein consumed where you feel safe and little requires your immediate concern. You can let your thoughts go.
Later you wonder about explanations. Why do we get these low, darkly paranoid moments? Is it dehydration? A lack of protein? Low blood sugar? Hungry ghosts wandering the Interstates?
I’m sure there are dependable explanations, medications and strategies for going around the wall when you sense it coming.
But, when you’re on the road, the only sensible thing to do is move on.