Thursday, January 21, 2010

Driving In The Fog

A few nights ago, I was driving from Ohio down to Louisville, Kentucky.  It was one of those dark, misty kinds of nights--not raining, so windshield wipers were of no use and yet still wet enough to pixellate the windshield with water.  It's been a long time since I've driven that far by myself at night.  On top of that, I was in my new car (did I mention my new PT Cruiser yet? No? Well, some other time) and wasn't that familiar with it yet. So, I was driving tentatively--both hands on the wheel, moderating my speed so I did just the speed limit and not an MPH more (something that would never have happened ten years ago) and being very careful around other cars. 

One of the bad things about that particular stretch of road (71 to Cincinnati, 75 to Louisville, 65 to the exit closest to my daughter's house) is how difficult it is to find a good radio station. And, being too stupid to live, I neglected to take any CDs with me.  So, I had two choices: I could either listen to static, or I could use the long, quiet trip for contemplation.

Contemplation wins out over silence every single time.

Then, only about an hour into the drive, fog settled in.  It wasn't even that late; it was just after sunset on a very gray day, but the fog that gathers in the river bottoms around the Ohio River extends all across the southern quadrant of the state.  It was thick fog--yellow tinged in places from the streetlamps--the kind of fog that clings to everything and makes it clammy and almost morbid. The fog suited my mood perfectly.

I think I've been driving in a fog for a long time.

There's a miasma hovering over my life, concealing my way down the road my life's journey is set to travel.  Whereas once I thought I was going to be driving through a flat, open expanse where all the pitfalls could be detected far in advance and where the horizon was far away and level with the stretch of road I was traveling, I know now that I'm not.  My life's journey has never reached that plain--you know the plain I'm talking about: the one where you can set the cruise control to ten miles above the speed limit and open the sunroof (did I mention my PT cruiser has a sunroof? No? More on that later) and just drive, thrilling in the prospects before you. The road is level and well-paved, offering the traveler a smooth ride and comfort. The end of the road is nowhere in sight, but it will be soon. That last exit, the one you're going to get off on, is the one with a sign that reads "Your Ambition Begins Here; 80 mph" and that sign is so big and so prominent that you can't miss it on this vast plateau. It's the only guidepost there; it's the only guidepost needed.

But that's not my life road.

My life road began in a small valley, one with hills just tall enough on either side that I couldn't see over them. All my life, as a child and a young adult, my only goal was to get over those hills and see what was on the other side.  But when I did, I found more hills. And after those, even more.  And as I drove on, desperately seeking some avenue with purpose, some road that led to the plain I'd always dreamed about, the road grew more treacherous.  The curves were difficult to negotiate, the traffic was bad but moving fast and recklessly and the road itself was pockmarked with pits and cracks, the hills became heavily forested mountains and bulging, baked asphalt that sent my car flying over them.  Big trucks would suddenly change lanes and veer into mine, never knowing that I was there, and I had to manuever my car onto the bern and execute a video game driving trick to keep from wiping out. (This really did happen to me the other night, by the way. Damn truck. Did I mention how fabulous my new PT Cruiser handles the road? No? More on that later) And now on that road I'm trapped upon, it's night.  It's a moonless night, with nothing to light my way, and then the fog rolls in over the mountain tops. So I drive quicker, all the while keeping one anxious eye on the road (looking for more big trucks) and the other on the fog that is creeping down the faces of the mountains on either side of me.  It seeps through the trees, clinging to the fungus-spotted trunks, continuing its inevitable crawl toward the road with thickening fingers of mist.

All I can do is slow down.  All I can do is to take the steering wheel in a firmer grip and try to keep my vehicle on the road. As the night strengthens, the fog grows whiter against the pitched color of the skies and woods and mountains.  My headlights only illuminate the road a few feet in front of me.  I'm driving slowly, so slowly that if a car is one curve behind me and speeding, it will plow into the back of my car and knock it off the road into the steep ravines now on either side of the road. I'm terrified now and I don't know what to do.  I can't stop; there's nowhere to pull over.  I can't go back; there's nowhere to turn around.  All I can do is drive on, ever forward, always praying I make it around the next bend, over the next mountain, through the next stretch of road. The windshield wiper blades rocking back and forth sound like the toscins in Paris the night the Bastille was stormed, pounding out my death sentence in rhythmic squeals against the mist-draped glass.  And then, I glance at the fuel gauge and a new worry materializes. I have less than half a tank left.  What if that's not enough gas? What if there's no service station before I run out? If I do run out, what will I do? My cell phone doesn't work in the mountains (or, apparently, anywhere near my daughter's house.  I had it plugged up to the charger in the car--did I mention that my new PT Cruiser has two power sources? The standard cigarette lighter style one and a regular plug in kind of outlet? No? More on that later) and there's no one I can call for help.

So my only option is to keep on driving. In a little while, I'll gain the courage to take these curves and mountains at regular speed, trusting to my abilities and my vehicle to keep me on the right road.  Eventually, I'll find a gas station. I'll stop there, fill up with gas, call someone on my cell phone and get directions to the closest hotel. I'll get to that hotel, get a room and finally pull up in front of it.  Then I'll turn my car off, wait for the lights to turn themselves off (did I mention that my new PT Cruiser has those really cool halogen headlights? No? More on that later), go into my hotel room and get some rest.

Then the next morning after a good night's sleep (despite the recurring nightmarish dreams of fog and homicidal 18-wheelers), I'll get back into my car. I'll turn it on, open the sunroof, crank up the stereo system (did I mention that my new PT Cruiser has a kick-ass sound system? No? More on that later) and jam to some really good music--Pearl Jam, maybe, or old REM. I'll put on my sunglasses and light a cigarette and drive out of the hotel parking lot with one hand on the wheel and a smile on my face.  I'll be able to face those mountains better in the daylight, for all the fog will be gone. I'll appreciate the beauty of the scenery and congratulate myself on not taking that boring old road across the boring old plain. And as I drive, all the fear and uncertainty of the night before will fade in the glare of a new day's sunlight.

Driving in the fog makes you more alert. Driving in the sunlight makes you complacent. Or, as Robert Frost put it:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Oh, by the way, I got a new car.