There was this white, worn ford ranger pick up truck. It drove cautiously. Steadily. Intentionally. It’s driver peering over the steering wheel. I found myself driving behind it for what was easily forty miles, probably more. It was going the speed limit. This truck was going the speed limit, and yet I fell in line, not once looking behind to see if I might pass. Go around. Get by. No, I had no intention of passing this truck.
There was a solace in driving in this manner. In allowing one’s mind to be free in the space of not worrying what will happen next. Will this driver speed up, slow down? Not likely. This driver is maintaining. Going. Plodding.
I was in the middle of a long drive. A drive I was in no rush to finish. I really enjoy driving. I enjoy the long stretches of road when the songs on the radio become a blur of all things country or all things talk, and the best solution to the static mayhem that inevitably happens every twenty minutes or so is to just turn the thing off.
Driving without music.
I never used to understand driving without music.
Growing up we would take road trips, long ones. Florida to Arizona. Florida to North Carolina. Florida to Canada. I would sit shot gun in the family van, my dad driving. That’s where I learned to pop my gum. You know, that ricochet of pop pop pop pop pop pop. That was definitely a learned annoying habit, and I think I finally figured it out somewhere in the middle of Texas, my dad equally laughing and crying that I had, indeed, finally figured it out. I used to tear through packets of Big League Chew. I’d spend hours trying to blow bubbles that would break the Guinness book of world records, because the only goals back then that were worthwhile, were ones that could break whatever record was in that book.
So we would take these road trips. I’d have my gum and my mad libs, the occasional irritated round of I Spy with my brothers, and conversations with my dad. The conversations with my dad would go something like this:
Me: Dad, can we listen to the radio?
Me: Can we listen to the radio now?
Me: What if I just turned it on really low?
Dad: That’s even more aggravating than if it was on all the way. No.
And yet, on shorter road trips we would listen without question, and we’d listen to the oldies station. I know every well-played 50s and 60s song by heart. Occasionally we’d even listen to this cassette with some old guy on front with an enormous bushy grey beard and a twinkle in his eye. No, it wasn’t Santa Claus’ greatest hits, it was some guy who I’d later learn was Kenny Rogers. Those were the days. For those trips we’d take his Corolla, and I’d sit in the backseat, near the window if I was lucky, and when we’d get to the part of the drive where the pavement gave way to gravel then dirt, my brothers and I would take off our seatbelts and we’d giggle and scream as that Corolla hit every bump as my dad drove into them like he was in the Dukes of Hazzard, our heads just shy of hitting the top of the car, and for this one time only we’d fall onto each other without worrying about who was touching who. But that was a short road trip.
So I guess I didn’t really understand why there were times when driving with music made sense and other times, when it just wasn’t even an option.
Until I had kids.
That make sounds and noises, loudly.
And that talk. And have opinions.
So many words.
When driving in silence there is somehow an ability to turn the back of the car noise into road noise and, if you’re lucky, it just disappears. Focused on the road, sure. But lost in thought, pure thought.
That’s why I love a good road trip. A long road trip.
And that’s where I was, when I had been traveling for days, alone but with my children, and I found myself behind this white ford ranger pick-up, complete with rust and camper shell, and I was overwhelmed by a sense of safety and a remembrance of someone I had once loved, still love.
The last time I saw a truck like that old ranger I was not driving behind, but sitting behind the wheel. I was probably twelve. I could barely reach the gas, if I had to break I would probably have had to stand straight up. But there I was. Actually driving. Scared out of my mind. My grandpa said, “why not?” He said he was driving by the time he was eight. And he said when he got stopped, he would just say he was ten and he’d be back on his way. I asked him what I should say if we got stopped, and he said, no hesitation, that he’d just tell the officer that my 12 year old eyes were better than his 72 year old eyes and it was clearly a better risk to just let me go ahead and finish the drive and also we’re mostly there anyways. Oh, and twinkle toes (his name for me), don’t forget to smile.
A few years earlier this man, my grandpa, had driven that white ranger from Florida to Alaska. Alone. When I asked him which hotel was his favorite, he just laughed and laughed. When he finally caught his breath, he told me the finest hotel in the world couldn’t beat listening to the crickets and a sleeping bag laid out in the back of his truck.
When he finally made it to Alaska, there was a story about him getting cut off the road and his truck going down the side of a mountain. He was somehow able to climb out the back of the truck and back up the mountain with not much more than some bumps and bruises, on him and the truck.
To me, this man was a super hero.
There have been times when I’ve been scared to drive to a different part of town. There have been times when I have refused to drive because I didn’t know the way, I didn’t have a map, and I didn’t want to try.
There have been times when driving alone, in all that silence, just would not have been ok.
But the thing about my grandpa, when my grandpa wanted to go somewhere, he got in the car and just went.
Anywhere, everywhere. Gone.
The first long road trip I remember taking on my own (and with one small child) was from Florida to Maine. I plotted and charted. I packed blankets and snacks. Overnight bags and car chargers. I made plans with friends, family, all those who I hadn’t seen in years but would take me in, in a heartbeat.
I planned, then I went. I drove. I stopped on my terms. I stopped on the toddler’s terms. But I went.
I was aware, constantly, of being alone.
After two days, however, I found my “I’ve got this” face, and just had fun. I sang, we sang, I ate entire bags of gummy worms, blew through gobs of double bubble, threw disgusting amounts of chicken nuggets to my back seat driver, I missed exits and phone calls, and just drove.
And what a range of feelings this brought.
It reminded me first of the feeling when I was behind the wheel, at 12 years old, the feeling of being overwhelmed with a power of which I wasn’t yet ready, but was offered. Something that someone else recognized I could achieve, accomplish, or at the very least, TRY, even when it hadn’t even occurred to me that it was something I might want to do, love to do.
I had a feeling I could drive forever. Why stop at Maine, why stop at all?
I had a feeling that I wished I had tried this earlier. I wondered if these new acquaintances, these feelings of confidence and self-reliance, might stay for the long haul, and why had it taken so long for us all to meet?
So I drove. First cautiously. Then steadily. And ever so intentionally. And there was a solace in it, in that space of not worrying what might happen down the road or if I missed the next exit. I got lost a couple times, sure, but I was finally right where I needed to be- behind the wheel, listening for the crunch of gravel and the occasional cricket- and finally on the road towards my Alaska.