Unfolding the Map
Happy New Year! January 1, 2012 finds us with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) in the middle of Montana with a bad case of highway hypnosis. What do you do on lonely roads? If you can, you try to achieve enlightenment and transcendence. But, most of us won't so we do what we can to make the lonely roads interesting.
Just a warning - I'm making a complete, utter guess (here's where I'm guessing on the map) about where LHM might have stopped on the Hi-Line. He mentions stopping somewhere after highway mile marker 465, but I couldn't find where that was, including trying to track it down through Google Earth. I don't think that I'm off by more than 50 miles, but it's more about keeping in the spirit of LHM's words. And, to be honest, I will guess again in the next post, when he stops again along the Milk River.
"Pock-pock went the tarred road cracks. Pock-pock. The day remained dark, showers fell and stopped and came again, the uneven roadway collected water, the van hydroplaned every few minutes. The clamor of wind numbed my ears; the fever made me woozy. Pock-pock. First the highway held me then it entered me, then I was the highway. Pock-pock, pock-pock. Prairie hypnosis. I drove miles I coudn't remember, and the land became a succession of wet highway stripes, and I wished for a roadfellow. I sat blindly, dumbly like a veiled stone sphinx. Finally, to dispel the miles, I stopped, got out, and held my face to the rain. I shook myself. But, once more on the road, I again became part of the machine: generator, accelerator, humanator. I knew nothing. A stupefied nub on the great prairie."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6
LHM is in the middle of a long stretch of driving a lonely highway. There is a kind of a pleasure in driving at such times. The miles stretch on endlessly and time seems to lose itself.
If you're an extravert, and you need companionship and stimulation, such drives shouldn't be undertaken alone or perhaps at all. You will go a little stir-crazy in the car. I'm not suggesting that you can't do it, but I'm just suggesting that unless you really need to drive over long stretches of lonely road alone you might consider doing something else.
If you're an introvert, like me, the alone time in the car is a time to recharge, to think and reflect, to simply enjoy the stillness in an increasingly loud and busy world. There is a Zen quality to driving. The highway sounds, particularly the sections of the roadway that create the "pock-pock" that LHM writes about, are white noise. When you're in such places, even if you want to find a radio station to fill the empty air, you might be out of luck. A radio scan might just scan through the entire FM spectrum and find nothing. The AM spectrum is better, especially at night, but it might have a tendency to fade in and out. In the times I drove in empty spaces, AM radio became just another part of the white noise, combining with the rush of air over the car frame, the sounds of the tires on the road, the occasional "whoosh" of a passing car, and other sounds from the car itself (the annoying rattle on the dashboard, for instance) in a barely recognizable symphony of the road.
My latest experience of drives over vast amounts of nothing when I was alone in the car was on my frequent trips back and forth between Albuquerque and Lubbock when I was teaching as a visiting professor. Each weekend, I would make a five hour drive on Friday to see my wife, and return to Lubbock on Sunday evening in another five hour drive. About two hours of the drive, roughly from Santa Rosa, New Mexico to Clovis, New Mexico, was through very sparsely populated areas. The drive between Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner, New Mexico was miles and miles of on unpopulated expanse. I must say that even though at first it was a weekly chore to get in the car and drive so much, I began to look forward to those times. I like driving in the first place because for me, the car is a place to relax, and I looked forward to the subtle changes that would occur along the road week after week. Perhaps a business might open in what was a vacant storefront in Clovis. Maybe I might notice, in the winter light, a geographical feature that I had missed in the late summer light. On one particularly windy drive, I dodged tumbleweeds all along the road. On another, I took a new route through even more remote territory than I usually drove and stopped, like LHM, along a grassy, treeless stretch of road to listen to a silence so complete that the small breeze brushing past my ear sounded like a freight train. Speaking of freight trains, one night I saw what appeared to be shimmering water pouring out of the side of a freight train on tracks parallel to the road far ahead of me. As I caught up, I realized that it was an immense shower of sparks from the wheels of the freight as it braked hard for some reason or another.
In those driving moments, when I did listen to music, I usually brought my IPod and I played songs on random shuffle, and I would often note an eerie convergence between the music and drive. Perhaps it was my overactive imagination, but at times I felt that the universe aligned.
A number of years ago, I made a few long car trips and was drawn to taking rural routes rather than the interstate. Driving through rural West Virginia, I allowed myself to listen to the radio and made the amazing discovery that I could handle country and bluegrass music, a genre that I had never really been drawn toward before. As I drove through small Appalachian towns, it seemed to fit and it reinforced that the musics that we create and listen to really are products of our place. To listen to rap and hip-hop in rural West Virginia, to me, would seem as disjointed as driving through an inner-city neighborhood and blasting out the latest Nashville hits.
The road, especially the lonely places, can bring such insights grounded in reality, and also flashes of inspiration and brilliance, such as the poem that came to me at a stop along the New River Gorge in West Virginia. It can also be dangerous. One's mind can be lulled into a Zen state of concentration and inner awareness, but it also can be lulled to sleepiness. There have been many times when I drove alone that toward the end of a long day behind the wheel I was biting my hand to keep myself awake until I came upon a motel I was willing to use. Especially in the lonely places, that might be a long time coming, yet I was never comfortable pulling off the road and sleeping. I learned to give myself breaks, break up the "highway hypnosis," and end my trips more fresh. I also made the discovery that the amazing amounts of junk food one can get along the road can make one sleepy while driving. By eating better, less sugared stuff, I could keep myself more fresh longer.
In that sense, LHM's description of a "stupefied nub on the prairie" is only part of the story to me. Yes, I've been a stupefied, sugar-filled, tired nub behind the wheel, but at other times the road has led me to awareness and even occasional transcendence. I don't have as much opportunity now to go out on the road alone, but sometimes, especially on the loudest, busiest, noisiest days, I miss it.
I'm not a real big fan of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but occasionally a song catches me. Running Down a Dream is one that I like, and it's lyrics are pretty compatible with the post. Turn it up and rock along!
If you want to know more about Highway 2 along the Hi-Line
Next up: Somewhere along Milk Creek, Montana