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Essay: Car

Learning the healing power of horsepower

February 11, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST


Photo by Jonathan Stephanoff

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This time last year, my psyche was locked up in the solitary confinement that is winter. I was mourning the loss of the sun, of afternoons spent lying under trees, of hikes in Rock Bridge State Park. Aside from my time at school, I barely left my apartment. I came home every day to the same tan carpet, off-white walls and pile of dishes in the sink and stumbled to bed without changing into pajamas or washing my face. It’s not that I slept. I just lay there.

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When spring started to show its face and the rainstorms blew in, I got restless and paced around my bedroom while talking to myself. One afternoon, I felt especially stir crazy. I peeled myself off of bed; my mind desperate for some distraction and my body unwilling to function for another minute locked inside my apartment. “I need to get out of here,” I thought. I started packing a bag: a change of clothes, my toothbrush. I wasn’t really sure where I was going. I got in my car and headed east. The second I was on the interstate, I felt calm. I felt happy. It was then I realized the healing abilities of horsepower — my car’s rumbling inhaler for my constriction. I turned the music up, gripped the steering wheel and felt the cool leather in my hands and the vibration from the engine lulling my anxiety into a full and satisfied feeling. It was like the feeling you get while you’re eating a piece of pumpkin pie, swigging a shot of tequila, or taking the first drag from a cigarette. I sang along with the radio.

I ended up in front of my parents’ house in St. Louis, which is a manageable distance for a Wednesday evening. I spent the night with two friends and a bottle of wine and rolled off the couch in time to drive back for my class in the morning. I was out of town for about 12 hours. But it wasn’t about that.

My eventual arrival in another city wasn’t what made my despair melt away. It was my Chevy Cobalt roaring to life when I turned the key in the ignition. It was driving at 75 miles per hour on the open road. It was the way my trusty machine responded to the softest push of my toes on the gas pedal, like a lover responding to the well-placed touch of my fingers. It was the quiet isolation in a bubble of steel, rubber and glass. It was the landscapes rushing by my windows, the endless fields and truck stops, the Jesus billboards and American flags flapping wildly in the wind that I could figuratively feel in my hair. It was escaping.

Although I skipped town on a whim that day, it wasn’t the first time I found solace on the interstate. The incredible sights only visible out of a car window remind me of the possibility of having a life somewhere else. When I’m stuck in one place for too long, I forget that things are moving everywhere, that life continues outside of myself and the things I know. The wind farm on the side of the Avenue of the Saints, an expansive field of creatures with strong, rotating arms, is allowing someone to turn on the television. The steam clouds billowing up into the sky from factory smokestacks in the middle of Iowa prove that something is being made. Hundreds of hands built the tunnels through the Appalachian Mountains that allow me to get to Scranton, Pa. A train chugs its way through the Arizona desert and delivers some vital resource to somewhere. I become a tiny blood vessel traveling inside an artery, one small part of a whole body. In this, I know I’m not alone.

The time I spend by myself in my car is as close as I come to meditation. The mundane cycle of everyday life vanishes in an instant when I’m safely fastened inside my rolling refuge. My mind focuses on what is right in front of me, and my troubles blur into the background. Most people seek transcendence by sitting still. My serenity comes when I’m paying strict attention to the next stretch of highway.

I don’t always travel alone. Just as one can’t make the journey to transcendence alone, I sometimes need spiritual and geographical guides to share the protected confinement of the interior of my car. I have grown deeper bonds with travel companions, as we share some special understanding, like soldiers home after a tour abroad. We can look at each other and say we were there, and we made it through together. We made it through the dust storm in Utah. We congratulated each other for surviving that storm along I-70, where the lightning hit the ground so close to the car we saw sparks. Making new connections with fellow travelers is the intangible gift of road trips. No one likes being trapped next to a chatty passenger on a plane, but when you meet people on the road, you’ve got a new friend for life. There was the man in New Mexico who let me photograph him standing next to his fire engine red classic Chevy truck. I met a band of anarchists in Fort Benning, Ga., and celebrated “Buy Nothing Day” instead of Black Friday. I have made friends. I have made memories. I have been part of something larger than myself.

On that desperate afternoon when I packed a bag and made a brief and quiet exit, I wasn’t trying to re-create those incredible memories or see my favorite scenery all over again. I got in my car and started driving because it was the only thing I could think to do. I’ve always been told that the so-called “geographical cure” doesn’t work and that I can’t just run away from my problems and expect them to fix themselves. But with the subtle whir of the engine and two steady hands on the wheel, my cares seem to melt away.

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