Response Crafting

Notes from a 13-hour drive

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Hours 0 – 4: The Logistics.

I-88 / I-294

Driving from Chicago to Denver. I’ve got a solid block of good drive ahead of me; hours upon hours to log against nothing but the road. And me.

Start it up.

Mental check: bags, laptop, laptop charger, phone, phone charger, keys, locked door.. dog, dog food, Something Borrowed (something borrowed from the sister; needing to return.)

Okay.

Plug my destination into Maps. Use the parents’ actual address. I know that I could have just used “Denver” for now, but whatever – it’s a more accurate arrival estimate.

For me to beat. (Pretty sure this thing can be done in 13. Even though Maps says 15.)

Get on Lake Shore. Get to I-290. Then get to I-80. Don’t miss I-80. Just get onto 290. And don’t miss I-80.

Looking at this route, though… it’s not just 290 to I-80. Why would I have that in my head if that’s not how it goes? Alright, whatever. So I take… what, 294? 88? What is this? Both? They’re the same exit? Then what? Whatever. I’ll figure it out. (I almost always figure it out.)

Approaching that 294 / 88 business and I’ve suddenly got the Maps “talking lady.” I hate the talking lady. I feel like my mom whenever I hear the talking lady. (Moms love the talking lady.) I ignore the talking lady, never turn down the radio to hear what she’s saying, and simply exit when I see that ramp for 294 / 88. (Because I’ve got this thing handled.)

After that, though, I think there was probably another fork in there. I think I simply guessed a way and, looking back, I know that I guessed wrong. Because shortly thereafter, I’m driving down a highway and something just doesn’t feel right, and I’m getting all shifty and wondering to myself: did I… miss I-80?

Map it again.

No, I missed That Interim Highway. It was never gonna be 290 to 80 by a long shot, and now I see that. I was destined to be on one of those – 294 or 88 (I see now that it was “the other one” than the one I’m on) for a while – much longer than I’d initially realized.

Should’ve listened to the talking lady.

Re-map it; grumble a little about this detour (it was probably no more than ten minutes, really, but it’s the principle, damnit) and, after a few minutes and one stop light, get myself back into proper place. Feel grateful I’ve got the phone. Move on and let it go.

But still: “don’t miss I-80. You still need to hit I-80. You’ve got a while, but don’t miss it.”

And all this time, I had you texting for a call that I didn’t want to take.

I’m sorry, but no, I didn’t want to take that call. You know I didn’t want to take that call. It was nothing personal – that call could’ve been absolutely anybody, on anything, and I would’ve felt the exact same way. I was avoiding that call and all other calls because, frankly, I was in the zone and wanted my own space, and here, right as I was escaping everyone, someone – anyone – was chasing me down the highway, running after me, all smiles and arms waving like I’d forgotten something they were just sure I’d want to have.

I didn’t. Whatever it was, I knew I could’ve gotten by without it – at least for a few hours. But you wanted that call, so I took it when you put it through to me. Even though a real good song had just come on the radio and, God, was I sinking into that good zone. I answered. And we talked. And I resented it, at least at first. I made this a little too apparent and then felt bad, because you offered to end the call and talk later and then I knew you knew. So coaxed you back in.

No, I didn’t really give a damn about talking – I’m sorry. But I do give a damn about you, and I think that that distinction matters (maybe even matters more?) I may not have wanted to talk to anybody, but you were one of the few for whom I would’ve made an exception, and I did. And I’m glad. Sometimes life is give and take like that, and I really didn’t give so much as I let on upfront. I’m glad I took that call.

We talked for nearly the entire duration of I-88. We hung up just a few miles ahead of I-80. (I didn’t miss it after all.)

(“You can’t!” You had said, just before we signed off. “You pretty much run into it!” You were wrong there. Partially, anyway. You do not just run into it. It’s not like that highway that turns into a “T” on the route from Denver to Vegas or all the numerous other ones that simply become – “transformer” themselves into – another one without you even realizing. This is a real exit that must be navigated and deliberately chosen. I could’ve missed it if I’d wanted. But you were right in that I wouldn’t. I didn’t, after all.)

Cruised I-80 until I just about ran out of fuel. I kept my gas pedal pressed low and my finger hovered over the radio scan button. I listened to fragments of perhaps 10,000 songs.

I’m exaggerating. I do that. You and I both know this.

Stop for gas; $44. Bottle of water, two cheese sticks, granola bar.

Hours 4 – 7.5: The Chase.

I-80

Start it up again; merge; signal; lane change… pause; signal; lane change. Accelerate.

Lay it out. Let’s see what this Cruze can do and make some headway here.

Drive.

Chase pavement. Chase time. Chase the next best song around the radio.

New song. New song. New song. Pass. Speed up. Press forward. New song.

Cruise.

Approach each next car in the left lane; slow down only ever-so-slightly “too late,” hoping they’ll get over instead of forcing me to. Sometimes they do. But sometimes they don’t. Pause. Look right; signal; shift right; pause. Glance left; signal; shift left again; lay in; press forward.

On one of those times, passing on the right as nobody is supposed to do but many drivers do anyway, I passed you. You, the white “Chevy something” with a dirty grill – a “Chevy something” in the same way that I was a “Chevy something” (aren’t all Chevys just “Chevy somethings,” anyway? Aren’t all cars just “make / model somethings?” My Dad would die to read that. Either part.)

In all those hours – hours – we spent together following that moment I first passed you on the right, I never did bother to decipher what your “Chevy something” actually was. Never mattered. Still doesn’t. You had a dirty grill, and that’s how I spotted you when you were lost behind me those few times, when I watched for your fast, tidy approach, covering lost ground. The white something with the dirty grill. That was you. (I never lost you from behind; never needed a better way to spot you when you were leading.)

Anyway. I passed you on the right, just like I had passed countless cars before you. I slipped in just ahead of you, tucking myself in behind the car in front of you and you, timing it just before I got too hot and heavy up on the car in front of me in the center lane. That maneuver was not half bad, if I can say so myself – perhaps a little too close for some people, but not too close for either me or you. I didn’t think much of it – or you, to be honest – until I lane changed to the right again when I got a good window shortly thereafter. And you followed.

Frankly, I had initially – immediately – discounted your driving ability and aggression on account of that window in front you being there for me – and for you sitting there behind that left lane car long enough for me to join you. I rejected that initial assumption, however, by the second or third time I saw you shadow me in a lane change.

It occurred to me, early on, that you might just be drafting. I didn’t really care. I was going to drive like this, at this speed, regardless of what you wanted to do, and if you wanted to play it safe and tuck yourself in behind me, I really didn’t mind at all.

You weren’t drafting, though. You were legit and you were in this with me. In one long open stretch of road, when I shifted over to the right lane and cruised at something well into three digits, you came smoothly up around and in front of me and held the left lane. I complied, swept in behind you, and we rode that way for a while, you doing all the heavy lifting and dirty work in the left lane for a while, while I reaped the benefits behind you, before we switched again.

That’s the way it went, back and forth like that, both of us trading leading position. We took care of each other; left windows in front or behind where we could; watched our braking as the lead; let the other back in after a right lane move failed (I’ll admit I made more plays there and these “right lane fails” were far more often mine. The “letting back in” was mostly you.) We made good partners.

We never raced one another – not that I was aware, anyway. And we never did the thing where we hold side to side speeds in neighboring lanes to make eyes at each other across the dashed white line (again, not that I was aware.) I knew you were male. I knew you liked to ride with your left elbow propped up against the edge where the bottom of the window met the door. And that’s all that I cared to know. We were comrades but we were quiet; focused on the road and the task at hand, which was, to be clear: devouring the asphalt mile by mile.

You had the tail and I the lead in the left lane when we passed our only cop. Both of us floated to the center lane and eased off, but you dropped back. I slowed too and laid low with you for a while; consoling you through the rear-view and trying to coax you forward with real and actual words you’d never hear. But you were spooked and you hung back, and I left you there for a bit as I moved on. I understood your apprehension; I don’t know why I didn’t share it. I know I left you but you should know if you don’t: I was pleased when you finally recovered and regained ground, re-emerging in my rear-view.

We entered Des Moines together. The highway widened; accommodated more lanes and with them, more traffic. I lost you at some point early on, as the road became saturated, and we rode through much of Des Moines apart. I periodically scanned my rear-view but more or less drove on. This, I think you can agree, was our unspoken agreement. The rear always had a way of finding the lead. Was expected to.

And you did. It had taken so long I thought I’d lost you. But there you were, coming up quick behind me, moving through traffic. I could tell it was you even before I saw the dirt on the grill – a white car moving through lanes like that was all too familiar to me by now. You found me in the right lane and you were gaining ground, nearing me, closing in… and right before you were pressed up behind me, some faceless lady, utterly oblivious to the universe of everything unfolding around her, drifted her colorless something over right in front of you, closing you off from me.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I like to think it was funny to you too.

Man, we had a good run, didn’t we? Three-fourths of a tank, we rode together. Which is an awfully long time, really, when you think about it. I wish I could say for sure what those minutes were – how our time together measured in hours (as I am sure they were in the multiples) – but I never really cared to glance. That drive was better unmeasured in minutes. All I ever gauged over time was fuel, and I know we shared an “almost but not quite entirely” full tank.

I watched as it dropped over time. I knew when I had a half tank. Quarter tank. Eighth of a tank. I knew that I’d need gas soon. And I knew that that meant that you would need gas soon, too. I had no way of knowing where you were with this, but you couldn’t have been much better than me.

It occurred to me, around this point, that I didn’t know how to end things. You could exit at any point – for fuel; for your destination. Would you try to coordinate a stop? I had decided early on that I didn’t want to. And I wasn’t sure how I was going to communicate my decline to you if you tried; how we would say goodbye. I never knew when I would lose you, but I knew that I ultimately would, and I made peace with that going in. I hope you did the same.

In the end, my decision either way didn’t matter. Had I known that our separation by that faceless lady in her colorless something was the closest we’d ever get again, maybe I would’ve waved goodbye or something. As it was, I continued taking windows as I saw them, with you hung up behind me, and miles later, when I was well out of Des Moines, I knew I’d left you somewhere.

It’s better this way. Maybe you already know this. But if you don’t, you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you: it’s better that we exist only as we do in each others minds. Meeting each other IRL would’ve shattered the special. What would you have said to me, or I to you? There’s no exchange of information, no objective to pulling off at the same stop and sharing words. All we would’ve done is sabotage the simplicity of the three-fourths tank and that road beneath us that we shared.

Stop for gas; $47. Bottle of water; two cheese sticks.

Hours 7.5 – 11: The Introspection.

Nebraska

Start it up again. Accelerate. Merge. Shift lanes. Cruise.

It’s different now. Breaking up a flow usually does that. We can choose to disregard or recognize it; embrace it or reject it.

I want this. This is the phase I crave as a passenger – the richness of sinking into silence and solitude.
Shapes and brake lights and following distances fade, lose the sharpness of their edges. Color emerges – in particular, the softness of the amber afternoon light.

Summer gets me every time.

I turn off the radio, hold my speed but cruise more quietly; hang back a little in approaches and extend more patience in navigation. I settle into the drive and into myself. And I think.

I start with the easy, obvious stuff: the costs of the drive, for starters. With gas the way it’s going, it’ll cost me about $400 one way. I could tame the speed a little, but it probably wouldn’t save me a ton in fuel costs. And it’d kill this competition that I’m having with my Maps. And I want that. More than the savings, whatever they are.

$400, though. That’s… that’s a lot. $800 round trip. That’s a flight – a substantial one, even. Iceland was like $500. Central America even less than that.

I try not to think about it. I made my choice. Let it go and move on.

So I start asking myself some deliberate questions… the big ones; the ones I most enjoy. I ask myself about happiness – both everyday and in the big picture. This… this is perhaps my favorite thing to think about. I recover and unpack my “long-term things” from where they live, tucked back a bit, and do the things I like to do with them, one by one and then all together. I line them up and then spread them all out; hold them in my hand, small but surprisingly heavy in the center of my palms, and then put them into my mouth and roll them around for a while, as I did with pebbles as a child.

How do they taste right now? How does this feel?

It’s not half bad, actually. Maybe even better – though marginally – than the last time I made this drive, and definitely better than the time I made the drive before that.

I’m happy. I’m happy enough – enough for now, enough for this to be working, and enough that I feel this is headed in a good direction. But what else? I contemplate this; bring it out and let it breathe a little as I drive.

……

You know, I could be a truck driver. I could drive trucks for a living. Happily.

It is not my first choice. But I could do it and be happy.

……

I could also probably live here – out there – in the middle of nothingness. Maybe not now. But at some point. And I could be happy doing that. Maybe less happy than the truck thing, at least right now, but yeah I could do it. And if I could live there – right there, in the trees, or roll myself up into that tall, tall grass just off the shoulder of the highway – I think I could be happy.

I think of you and only you when I think of this (and I often do.) I think of that drive in Oklahoma, when I was zoning out into the trees just off the highway and mused out loud: “I want to live in there.”

“In where?” You asked, looking.

And  I said, “in there. In the trees.”

And you laughed, a real laugh but in an endeared way, and then you said, in a way that made me smile: “you’re so weird.” I laughed too then, and let you see me that way – you and only you, though I doubt you ever knew that. And every time I look out from the highway and get the urge to wrap myself up in the “over there” grass and trees again, I think of you and the way that you knew this, and the fact that that was okay.

You were supposed to be happy too, you know. I can’t think of you much anymore, so I don’t. But when I do, I still feel as strongly: you were supposed to be happy, too. That was the whole point, and that’s all I ever wanted for you. That’s all I ever still do.

I go back to the things; the introspection. Take out your whole life in cardboard cutout form – it’s big; unwieldy; yields in some wrong places and has to be braced, using odd muscles and an awkward form, as you set it down in front of you, arms stretched almost too wide, to accommodate it’s stature. This is you. This is your existence. Carve it up and cut out pieces at free will; this is what it’s all about.

I do this, for hours on end. I take pieces out and stand back, size it up without them and evaluate the way things look. Put things back; move them around; experiment with tentative additions. All of this is nothing but papier-mâché – layers upon layers of chewed paper, bound together with an adhesive such as glue, starch, or wallpaper paste. Get some saliva in there.

Some of us are up to our elbows in paste. Some of us live with the perpetual taste of pulp.

Stop for gas; $45. Got my damn popcorn.

Hours 11 – 13: The Arrival.

IMG_9352
Start it up again. Merge back on; accelerate.

I find I-76 shortly after rejoining the highway and, hitting it, the road transforms into a stretch of endless “quiet,” sprawled out before me for my private consumption. This road, almost empty, has no agenda of its own, nor is it subjected to the agenda of anyone else. It’s only me, passing the occasional other, and none of us impose any permanent inscription on this surface. I lay it out, hold my speed, and stretch my fingertips out into the gray-green grasses to gather up the colors as they pass me.

It’s twilight now. This is lavender… more lavender than lilac and the difference between the two is, I feel, important. Those are very different colors, and this sky and the air around me? It is lavender. It’s purple that is blue and not pink. And soon the sky will shift to brilliant cobalt; a vein of gold pulsing from some faraway place.

I can breathe this light; I can lick the cool spots as the highway sinks and, if I’m gentle enough, I can taste the subdued texture of this landscape.

14879101_img_1824

I’ll arrive soon – sooner than I would have designed; certainly sooner than I would have demanded. This drive never feels long enough, let alone too long. But all drives feel that way to me. I could live a life of infinite driving.

My phone died a long time ago. That hour-long call at the outset. (It’s okay; I still don’t regret it.) I know that I’ll feel my way home – finding my path once I hit Denver will be muscle memory. It always is.

The footing of these roads – I-25, to Santa Fe, to Mineral – is something I could navigate blindly. I have made these lane changes, held these curves, timed these lights so many countless times in my life that they are ingrained; they exist somewhere in my wiring. I ride them without thinking.

There are few things that offer the specific pleasure of riding a familiar drive – it strikes a place that most other things don’t touch. And in this final half hour of my drive, approaching home, I reside in that place, and it in me. I’m tied to these roads each time that I take them, and tonight is no exception. This is some special sort of simple bliss.

I have to prepare myself mentally for this arrival; recondition myself for normalcy and return myself right-side from my inside-out introspection. I do this, tucking things back into place, making myself decent.

This is what it means to have a real existence. You cannot live forever floating across a freeway. And I know this.

As I pass things from my past, I reevaluate what they mean to me; weigh them with special consideration for a sense of loss; gauge them for nostalgia and make sure that they are all still okay. They are. I am. I can come here and leave it again without paining or mourning for it. I know I’m fortunate to have these parts of me – things to come back to, routes to find my way back to them, and ease in leaving them again.

I used to think of you each time I came back home. I used to take everything out of that old shoebox that I keep all the way in the back; sift through the photos and it all felt a lot heavier for a long time. Now, I weigh these items and recall their moments with a lightness and a warmth, and nothing more. That’s now. That wasn’t always the case. You know this.

There’s a place for you inside me. There’s a place you hold – will always hold – that nobody else will ever have. And it doesn’t matter that we haven’t spoken in as long as this has been. That place away back there will always belong to nobody but you.

I pull into the neighborhood – “their” neighborhood? “my” neighborhood? The article doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not sure if it ever did. It is just this place. I belong here when I am here; I can come here when I please. We all belong to so many places at once, and right now, this place is where I am.

13 hours, 15 minutes. I am at this destination.

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