Friday, June 22, 2007

That Certain Feeling: Fear

You're cruising at standard speed, safe from the car ahead of you and nothing but converging lines behind you in the mirror.

You glance up again and in your rearview are eyes and teeth. The eagle glare of the new Dodge Charger headlamps is distinctly predatory. Or maybe it's the gleaming grille of a Denali flexing itself against your personal automotive space. It's a Spielbergian moment: turning to see the T. rex in your face.

Whoa. Stress hormones flood the bloodstream, eyes widen, your heartbeat jumps. Can you easily move left or right and get out of its way? Is it weaving and charging, looking for a way to slice around your left or right bumper? Which will it be? Grip and hold steady until it backs off or roars into another lane.

Calm down and go on. You still gotta drive.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My Left Lane

The far left lane on the interstate is not for such as me, slowpoke at 65 mph. The fast lane is for the frank speeders, the fwaumm flyby of Harleys or the tornado roar of a semi.

It is also, of course, where speeders go and are spotted by the law. To slot yourself into the far-left passing lane and stay there invites the radar gun.

Like most urban interstates, our local five-lane (ours are the Inner and Outer Loops) has exits every two miles or so and connects with four other major interstates in its clock-face circle. Three lanes become two, become Exit Only; your on-ramp is now an off-ramp. Riding the right lane as a demure Slow Driver means constantly adjusting to accommodate people zeroing and zooming in on the exits. Exits are where mistakes are made, where accidents happen. Signage over a hill or curve can confuse on first glance by tricks of perspective and angle. I prefer to stay out of crowds trying to figure out, at highway speed, Where am I s'posed to be?

This leaves the far-left lane unoccupied, a clean tube, for miles at a time, even in heavy traffic. So I shift over, keep an eye on the rearview for fast-approaching Speederados, and move out of the way when I need to. Sometimes I can stay in the left lane, doing 65/60 (my speed/speed limit), for many miles without blocking any other driver. Just move out of the way and let the SUV doing its comfortable 80 mph go by.

I like the left lane. It's a notch quieter. I'm away from the lane-shifting taillight-flashing exit dance. Speeders pass me one right lane over. Grassy medians are more attractive, although the close dance with metal barriers can be unnerving if you ever think about it.

I'll get out of your way too.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Of course I can drive

Like Raymond, I consider myself "an excellent driver." I have a 5-speed compact car with cruise control. I use my seat belt reflexively. I curb my speed; I don't like to drive fast. I'm conscientious about turn signals and mirrors. I'm cheap about gas, trying to find a way to coast in neutral and keep the rpms as low as possible. I don't tailgate, slam the gas on green lights, or lane hop.

I eat, drink, look at maps while I drive. In the past, I have smoked and even read behind the wheel on long stretches of interstate. I read Kitty Kelley's biography of Frank Sinatra while sunny Kansas rolled beneath my wheels. I have been GGG behind the wheel, but only as passenger. I have misbehaved behind the wheel.

I have blown bubbles. I have cried and screamed and pounded the wheel. I have sung loud with the radio, or without. I have talked back to the radio. I have felt my foot pressing the gas harder as a particularly thrilling passage plays on the CD.

I have driven under the influence. More than once. Extremely grateful to have arrived home safely each time.

I am neither a bad driver nor a perfect one. Always room for improvement.

Driving is a state of mind

I have been slightly amazed by something many millions of us do without thinking: pilot a 2-ton+ machine of metal and rubber down asphalt highways at extremely high speed. Actions and behaviors and conditions behind the wheel describe aspects of our lives: behind the wheel, pedal to the metal, out of gas, dead-end street.

I love to drive. I hate automobile exhaust and traffic jams and car repairs and car trouble. I hate the way roads and suburban development are cutting up meadows and farmland. I hate the price of gas, the smell of gas, the oil spots on the ground, oil spills killing wildlife. I hate the way the oil in Iraq is a prize to kill people over. I hate everything that is hateable about oil, and cars, and the car culture of America. Truly, I wish 9/10ths of the personally owned automobiles, ATVs, mobile homes, and other such beasts would be gone.

But I love to drive. I love to grip the wheel and engage my hands and feet and brace my body against the seat. I like the way roads slip up and under the wheels, and the way sounds surround and roar by. I love how scenery and CD can make the trip a narrative. I am darkly bemused that my car takes me past accidents, dead things, and bad scenes at speeds that allow little more than a quick sideglance impression of the events on the ground. I have no choice--I'm already 1,000 feet down the road.

I'm trying in this blog to capture that state of mind that exists only behind the wheel. There is nothing like it on earth, there is no activity a human being can do that is as much like flying free, that is a meditation, an escape. And in the era of Peak Oil and global warming, driving may become something only a few thousands, instead of millions, do. What will we lose, then?