Those of us who drive to work by car to work tend to develop a running dialogue with the experience, a form of one-way conversation to and fro, processing what it means to transport yourself from one place to another. In order to make a living.
We grow to know the roads we take to work, yet rarely converse with them in much depth unless they are highways under construction. Then we yell and scream and cuss at the orange and white barriers as if they were living things that can hear our vexations.
The real conversation between driver and road comes about when construction forces lane changes, or an accident creates backups leading to gaper’s blocks and “rubbernecking” as they call it out East. It is astounding how the human imagination, arrested by tragedy, can block up traffic for miles. The minute the travesty is passed, traffic picks up and we are all on our way. Until then, prurient obsession holds everyone back.
If early morning sunlight spills across a road under construction it can turn tarsnakes into road stripes and vice versa. Drivers are faced with a confusing morasse of indistinguishable bright strips that make no sense in common traffic parlance. Cars begin to swerve and trucks trundle straight through. You emerge on the other side as if you have passed through an alternate universe with no physical laws.Then do the same thing tomorrow, and tomorrow, guessing a little better each time as to which lines really matter in the new traffic pattern. Like so many things in life, we make it up as we go along.
The Voyeur's Dream
The open highway filled with traffic is actually a voyeur’s dream, for it is the original Facebook. Everyone abides by certain laws of etiquette, not to stare too long at the person next to you in traffic. Yet everyone is surreptitiously gaping around at other people, hungry for glimpses of reality and day to day existence. These fantasies or judgments are what get us by on the drive to work.
My personal favorite is to watch a women working on her hair during the drive to work. When traffic slows or comes to a stop, the woman sweeps into action, grasping a scrunchie or band in her teeth as she swings her hair up in a bunch and gathers it into a ponytail or a bun with a comb stuck through it. It always amazes how hair on their head seems to have a role, however dramatic or compliant it may choose to be, or not.
Outside the windows, so much beauty goes unnoticed. The coneflowers in early August. A red-tailed hawk diving into the ditch after a mouse. A deer standing stock still in a misty meadow come September, wondering perhaps if it will ever be safe to cross the road. The answer is no. It is not safe for anyone to be on the road, if you must know. It's a relative question for animal and human being alike. Thousands of people die each year on the roads of America. And millions of wild animals die on the roads each year. The road is a dangerous place, born of assumptions and law and construction. And yet we take it so lightly.
Road kill. Animals have had only 50 years or so in evolution to adapt to this radical change in environment, yet some do pretty well. We are witnessing evolution at full speed, enhanced, and in 3D. The generations of animals that do survive near the road are descendants of critters that have had either the good sense, good luck or good enough reactions to avoid getting crushed, maimed or squashed. So the young born to them are perhaps better equipped with instincts that lead to survival in the new, road-infested world.
We humans like to pretend we’re immune to these forces of evolution. Yet there is a whole generation of smart and stupid people conducting a grand evolutionary experiment on roads around the world. We invented our own evolutionary test.
Because rather than conducting a dialogue between themselves and their surroundings, or noticing the conversation, as the rock group Dawes song says, “Between the rivers and the freeways,” the human race has actually taken to abstracting the abstraction of driving. We are talking on cellphones and even texting as we drive because the reality of what we are doing, flying through space and time in a hunk of metal on inflated rubber tires, is simply not sufficient to hold our attention, much less encourage a conversation between ourselves and our surroundings. The drive to work is particularly dangerous because of our preoccupations with our occupations.
It's like this: Driving down the road at 80 miles per hour is no longer a thrill. So we distract ourselves with abstract conversations that feed our egos and quell boredom. All this despite the fact that a momentary distraction while speeding down the road can wind up killing you.
That’s not all that surprising in the context of evolution. It’s clear there is only so much life to go around anyway. Science tells us that 99% of all living things that have ever existed on the earth are now extinct. All those creatures that died off could not see their own demise coming, either. It may have taken millions of years, but the oceans holding trilobites dried up and left them fixed and fossilized in granular soil that turned to stone. But we’re the new trilobites. We just don't know it.
Here in Illinois, we drive on beds of limestone hundreds of feet thick. Down there are billions of reminders that life is precious. But we're shielded from that fact by pavement that is a foot thick between our tires and the mute layers of history lying there with no voice other than their presence, so we do not listen. But we should.
We will join them sooner or later and nature doesn’t care. God doesn’t care. The funeral home director who takes in the body of a young or old or middle-aged person who died while texting on the highway doesn’t care. We're all trilobites like the rest of them.
None of us matters to anyone but those who cry upon our departure, and that’s never all that many. The most popular of souls still gets a hundred cars at a funeral.
And inside those cars headed to the graveyard are people wiping way their tears so they can better see the screens on their cell phones. Death is an abstraction just like life. It apparently doesn’t mean much until you tell someone else, and they text you back and say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” And you text back something inane like, “Yeah, Death Sucks.”
We originated as societies of storytellers and we still are, in this abstract sense. It's the only way we know how to survive certain events, and our own boredom. So this is our contradictory existence, engaging our minds with everything else except the task at hand. This is how we live our lives on the drive to work.