What is it about the open road at night — nothing but moon and starlight, the hum of tires on lonely asphalt, and the occasional snippet of summer insect song through an open window as I drive along — that soothes my restless soul?
What is it about the humid, warm wind rushing through my hair and over my face as the soft, silky voice of a British siren whispers in my ear through the windy din, that brings peace to my restless heart?
Even with no particular place to go, and the knowledge that I’ll have to turn around and point myself towards “home” eventually, well before the dawn comes — what is it about this suspended, sublime moment of sound and motion that brings solace?
Is motion, even with no destination, a balm for restlessness? Does it hearken back to the comfort of floating in the dark, warm comfort of the womb? Or is there some primordial memory imprinted in my deoxyribonucleic acids that recalls what it was like to constantly be on the move, a nomad whose very life depended on movement? Or does it hearken to something even farther back, some distant recollection etched in the molecules and atoms of my being: that of constantly cruising through dim, newly-formed seas from birth until death, the wind of the highway standing in for the flow of salt water over my bony, smooth flesh?
What is in me, that the only times I seem to feel truly at peace, the only time that I feel truly at home — at peace with myself and the world — is when I’m headed away from it? It hasn’t mattered where home has been, or who might be waiting there — doesn’t matter which side of the continent, rural or urban – it’s always been this way. What is in me that always seems compelled to see what’s over the next hill, or the next horizon — that is sometimes compelled to just leave at a moment’s notice? That only feels content on a bicycle, car, or plane that’s pointed away from where I’ve been?
These are thoughts that flit through my mind as Beth Orton croons to me of love, death, and loss at 3:30 a.m. on a random highway headed west. Central Reservation has to be one of the best road albums ever, but then it’s very name speaks of the road. I eventually stop at a Waffle House in the middle of Nowhere, Indiana, to get something to eat, and there were two gentlemen in there having breakfast before beginning their respective work days. One was a public school janitor; I couldn’t suss out what the other guy did.
I couldn’t help but think that here were to guys, probably with houses and the corresponding mortgages, families, and responsibilities. They couldn’t decide to take off and hit the road on the wrong side of midnight on a weekday, just because they felt like it; just because it felt good to be moving. And here I was, a guy more or less the same age as these two, only marginally employed thanks to the current economy, with no healthcare — but no bills or other responsibilities, who could just take off at a whim.
And I think how I wouldn’t trade places with either of these two guys, how I feel sorry for them, although they don’t seem like they were sorry for themselves (but then who knows what lurks behind their eyes).
Now, the magic spell of the road is broken as I point the Subaru back toward home (there’s that strange word again). Now my mind races ahead of the car, the voodoo charm of motion having warn off — scattered, smothered, and covered by a chance encounter at a highway restaurant. Now I think of my father, and how sometimes, when I was a kid, seemingly at random (but almost always on a weekend), he would ask if I wanted to go for a car ride — no destination, no particular reason; he just felt like driving. This most often took place when I was a child, but sometimes it would happen even after I had grown into an adult, on up to the months before he died.
Did he feel that restlessness? Did I inherit it from him? Did he ever find himself hurtling down some isolated highway in the small hours before sunrise, the warm, somewhat sultry voice of a woman he’s never met his only companion, and find a brief enlightenment? Did he regret choices that kept him from being unfettered, from being able to take to the road whenever he wished? Did he miss the freedom of his postwar, post-collegiate self, the gleaming red Studebaker taking him whither he will? I recall his stories of those seemingly idyllic days, and I wonder.
Or does it come from my mother? She of the Northern Irish and Scottish blood, the blood of poets, blood that waxes and wanes across centuries, sometimes in thrall, sometimes free — bending but never breaking, sometimes turning the other cheek, sometimes gladly turning to fight (blood that now flows in my veins)? A depression-era child that watched cancer claim her father only a few short years after she was born, did she ever find that the familial ties that brought comfort then only brought chafing and constraints later in life? Mother that kept a copy of Rand’s The Fountainhead buried on her bookshelf amidst family photos, myriad self help books, bibles and dusty old encyclopedias — a copy that she quietly replaced after I took it home to the Great White North to finish reading, having discovered it on my first Christmas home after college.
There was more to her than I ever knew.
Am I more like them than I ever realized? Is my instinctive fear of life’s metaphorical anchors and chains inherited? Did they feel restless in the small hours of the night? What recourse did they have if they did? They were always there when I awoke as a child — was I a tie that binded them?
Sometimes I rue having been an accident, a gynecologist’s miscalculation, having been born so late in their lives. It seems like I barely got to an age — and if there is any blame to bear for this, it lies with me — where I could appreciate my parents as fellow adults, as distinct human beings — and as friends — before age, infirmity, and death claimed them. On one hand, I’m almost ashamed to say that in one sense I feel free now that my father is gone; there is nothing keeping me here now and I’m truly free to wander whither I will (if I only I had that sweet Studebaker). On the other, I’d pay anything — oh, I’d pay dearly and gladly — for more time with both of them, even just a precious hour or two.
Of course there is no one to ask, now, about these existential 3 a.m. questions — no one to ask when I wander in the dark, why I wander in the dark. Why I only feel at peace when I do. Why it is only motion that ever drives away the vague angst that settled in my gut in my teenage years — as it seemingly does for everyone — and never left me.
But then, does it even matter? Should it matter? Perhaps, sometimes, it is best not to wonder why we wander, why we travel through the woods on a snowy evening, or whether we will be seen by the land owner. Rather, we should simply revel in woods that “are lovely, dark, and deep,” living in that moment, not worrying about the promises to keep and the miles to go before we sleep — there is time enough for that in the still, sterile light of day.
Ole Bobby Frost, he knew a thing or two about angst, restlessness and 3 a.m. There must have been some Irish or Scotts in the woodpile somewhere in his family history, I’ll wager.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.