I asked my friend Nick to drive from Denver to Seattle with me a couple weekends ago, since we hadn’t spent several hours alone in a car together since 2008. After 21 hours in the van, I think we got sufficiently caught up. Basically four years later, neither of us have much of anything figured out, especially women, although he must be a little closer because a really great girl is living with him. And it makes me happy that we can spend 21 hours staring out the windshield of an automobile trying to figure things out. Punctuated, of course, every 17 minutes or so by me saying, “Oh man, this song is fucking amazing” and then turning the stereo up loud enough to rattle unsecured objects off the dashboard.
In a society where you can have almost anything, it’s nice to know what you need sometimes. Like really need. The piece that fits in the space that’s empty. And a lot of times for me lately, that has been some time rolling down the road at 60 mph or so, watching open country roll by outside the windows. Most of us have a hard time finding places without distraction anywhere anymore. We have TV and computer screens everywhere, smartphones that we whip out of our pockets every time we’re unoccupied for more than 25 seconds, and more media to consume than ever. There is hardly anything that holds our attention and focus so much that we will ignore a cell phone vibration or the 200-times-a-day thought, “I wonder if anyone’s interacted with me on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/Instagram in the last 6 minutes?”
Except, hopefully, driving. If you’re obeying the law in most states, you’re not on your cell phone when you’re driving, and when you’re not in a city and not stopping every five blocks at a stop sign or traffic light, you can just hum along in your car at 60 mph. You have to focus enough on keeping your speed reasonable, keeping your car between the lines, and not hitting anything, but on an open road, most of us don’t use that much brain power doing those things. And that leaves your mind to do something our increasingly technology-distracted lives don’t allow: Wander.
It hasn’t changed in the 50-some years since John Steinbeck wrote about it in Travels With Charley:
“If one has driven a car over many years, as I have, all reactions have become automatic. One does not think about what to do. Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconscious. This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking. And what do people think of when they drive? On short trips perhaps of arrival at a destination or memory of events at the place of departure. But there is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for daydreaming or even, God help us, for thought. … Driving, I have created turtle traps in my mind, have written long, detailed letters never to be put to paper, much less sent. When the radio was on, music has stimulated memory of times and places, complete with characters and stage sets, memories so exact that every word of dialogue is recreated.”
And if you can get some company on a road trip, you might be in one of the last best places to have a conversation with a friend. Men can get together to do things like climb, play pool, hunt, fish, watch sports, drink beer, eat wings — but we have a hard time inviting each other to just go sit somewhere and talk. But in a car, that’s what you do. You sit next to each other and find stuff to talk about. Looking out the windshield, there’s no football game on, no movie, and no real legitimate excuse not to have an actual conversation.
So you talk about the real shit, life, love, getting older, what you’re doing with your lives, what does it mean, what’s the point, the things you have space to talk about when you’re done catching up with the normal stuff like How’s Work, How’s Your Lady, What Did You Do Last Weekend, and maybe Who Won The Game or Did You Hear What X Politician Said The Other Day. And I don’t know many places where you can make that happen anymore.
If you’re not by yourself on a road trip, multiples of two are ideal. Two means catching up with a good friend, four means two people can have a separate conversation in the back seat and you can switch out at gas stops. Three means someone is constantly leaning up to the front seat to try to hear what you’re saying, and every time you turn the stereo up, they can’t hear anything. And that’s a bad deal for everyone, because music is as important to a road trip as gas is. You can spend thousands of dollars on a stereo for your home, theater/surround sound/all that stuff, but the best stereo you will ever own is the one in your car, and its performance peaks when your car is on a road going somewhere other than to your office. It provides a soundtrack to a short movie of part of your life called Let’s Go Somewhere And Make Some Memories. And when you’re going Somewhere, life tends to be a little more memorable.