“Self-hypnosis behind the wheel is an insidious summer peril that is accentuated, particularly during August, on superhighways and turnpikes where there are no billboards, stop lights or intersections. In addition to the monotony of the landscape, the glare of the sunshine and the heat combine to create a dangerous situation that can turn a pleasant vacation into tragedy…The quiet purr of the engine, a minimum of grades and curves and, at night, the rhythmic pattern of lights are also factors that add to the hypnotic effect…”
— Bert Pierce, “Automobiles: Drowsing,” The New York Times, August 19, 1954
Hobbits know particularly well that going out your door is a dangerous business, and one of those dangers is losing yourself along the way. Of course, usually such loss is far less dramatic, and far more temporary, than getting caught in the grand sweep of events. But for several days, I felt — and acted — like I was someone else. My sole purpose was to maximize efficiency and minimize the chances of car trouble. As a result, I only allowed myself to think about the trip, and I kept myself busy by logging my miles traveled and projecting my time to destination and calculating my gas mileage. I was an automaton, not a person, and only with difficulty could I resurrect the personality that I’d buried beneath the utilitarian demands of interstate driving.
But then, it’s easy to retreat into one’s self when, for most of your day, you’re trapped inside a car cabin with little connection to the outside world. The drab scenery and the endless, unfurling asphalt are bad enough; the sense of isolation and monotony are redoubled when you’re in the middle of Montana with no passengers and no phone service.
It’s day five of my trip, around 1 p.m. Mountain Time, and after four hours of steady driving it’s time for a break. I pull into Butte, Montana for lunch, in search of something a little more nourishing than a hamburger or a granola bar, some combination of which has made up my last four meals. After noting the prices at the two downtown gas stations ($2.90, probably more expensive than I can find at the next town over), I pass a Taco Bell and a McDonald’s before finding a local bakery and a parking spot. I pull in, mentally gauging my progress so far (230 miles in four hours, which means that at this rate I should hit Spokane in another six) and what garbage I need to throw away before I leave (there’s a granola bar and an empty coffee cup in the passenger-side seat). I record my odometer reading in my trip log (135,507 miles) and get out of the car, resolving to take twenty minutes or less for lunch so I can stay on schedule for the rest of the day. I scan the menu board and settle on a sandwich with more vegetables than I’ve probably eaten over the last two days. I hear the cashier say something, and assume she wants my order, so I give it to her.
She gives me an odd look, and about five seconds too late, I realize that she was asking about my Seahawks cap, not my lunch order. It takes me a moment to stutter out an excuse, because I haven’t spoken to a human being for almost eighteen hours, and it takes my mind a second to get into a conversational gear. Clearly, I was still getting over the effects of my own particular brand of highway hypnosis.
My car has no working CD player, and, Luddite that I am, I don’t own an mp3 player. Instead of carefully selecting playlists to reflect my mood or location, I was completely at the mercy of broadcast radio, which only once obliged me: as I pulled out of Billings, Montana, and saw a range of mountains from the ground for the first time in almost five years, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” came blasting over the radio. But the rest of the time, the music selections ranged from inappropriate (Michael Bublé is not road-trip music) to downright insulting — there’s nothing worse than hearing “Meet Me Halfway” when you’re only about two hours or so into a ten-hour drive.
The year before, I’d driven from Indiana to New Jersey, and during the long, lonely drive across middle Pennsylvania I got used to hearing nothing but alt-country (song of the trip: “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus) and conservative talk radio. Montana and North Dakota — which are about as reliably red-state as “Pennsyltucky” — were much less stereotypical, radio-wise: fewer alt-country, a surprising amount of NPR, and even a Top-40 station based out of Bozeman (96.7 KISN FM) that my car continued to pick up even when the rest of the FM band was static. Not that it provided much human contact; instead of a full-time DJ, the radio station is controlled by something called “Jelli,” where people can go online to vote for their favorite songs, which are then announced on-air by a synthesized voice.
It felt a lot like being in the desert, with nothing except nature and the occasional machine to accompany me down the long stretches of I-94. Which meant that it was easy to become abstracted, to let reflex and reaction take over and not think too much about anything in particular for hours on end.
In the throes of reverie, Moses saw a burning bush, and St. Anthony the Great fought demons; me, I just got a lead foot. In fact, as I screamed down the Rocky Mountains, I felt like I was in the middle of a Mario Kart level — specifically, DK Mountain from Double Dash. In retrospect, that should have been the point at which I realized I was becoming dangerously unhinged. The 4,000-foot-high roadways that veered off seemingly at right angles, the 6% downward grade (which means that every 100 horizontal feet of road drops 6 vertical feet), the runaway truck ramps: it all seemed so cartoonish that I didn’t take it terribly seriously. I raced down I-94 at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour — which, I looked up later, was right around the takeoff speed of an SF-260, an airplane that weighed as much as my car. If only my little Focus had wings, I could have been flying.
In the end, it’s much easier for me to explain my trip in terms of numbers and figures than it is in terms of memories. To wit: 43 hours in the car, 2,254 miles, 75.46 gallons of gas, and — luckiest of all — 74 pictures, from which I can piece together the scattered fragments of submerged memory into something that resembles, however vaguely, a story.