The Wandering Scientist

What a lovely world it is

Tag Archives: driving

A shadow upon oblivion

Written on: March 2, 2018
About: Philadelphia, February 19-20, 2018

     Monday night I drove to Philadelphia. I set out from my home in Adams Morgan in late afternoon, making my way through successive convulsions of traffic. As I drove North, the night advanced, bringing darkness, fog, and rain.
     Fog’s first appearance often goes unnoticed, I feel. At some point, I’m already surrounded by it, unsure as to when or how the fantastical transformation has occurred.  I find myself a bit like a character in some old folk tale – I have wandered down the usual path, lost in thought. When I looked up, all was changed, and I was in a realm far removed from anything I have ever known. When I turned around, but the path was gone, and even the country behind me was unrecognizable.
     And so it went. At some point, having passed Baltimore, I had noticed the wisps of fog already grown thick. I could not say when it befell the land. This was mist country and that simply was it.
     In Philadelphia, I had dinner with my friends, brief and served in plastic to-go containers on account of my much delayed arrival. Absence makes the shared meals grow more toothsome, and as I have not seen this pair in quite some time, it was a delight.
     Our plan for the evening was to go to a blues dance, where I was slated to play the closing DJ set. Going last I find much preferable. I myself function better as the hour grows late, able to tap into a sort of wakefulness only available in the unlit hours. The dancers, too, tend to have found their groove, gotten a bit more tired and a bit less self-conscious.
     The venue was a small art space in a stark and unglamorous neighborhood. A sliding garage door took up almost an entire wall, so the chilly night outside had a noted presence inside. A wood-burning stove near the dance did offset the frost a bit, but while my friend and I hung back as things got underway, jackets and scarves were still out.
     I feel a surge of nervous, erratic energy when getting ready to play in a new space and for a new crowd, still. Maybe, hopefully, always will. So I itched for a draw of whiskey to help even my keel. On the one hand, I regretted not bringing my flask. On the other, I would have been the only knocking back, and that feels like bad form. Anyway, I felt better a couple songs in. Nina Simone and Howlin’ Wolf will always set you straight.
     In the end, we filed out into the cold feeling light and perspiring – a room full of dancers will do as well as a furnace. The fog hung along the upper floors on the narrow streets, grim and orange from the sparse street lights. “Murder fog,” I joked, and we got into the car.
     Then, dreams.
     We all woke up early, ready for our respective working days. I found Philadelphia looking rather like the Great American Novel – gray and gritty, wet from a meaningful rain, all iron and brick, tragedy and triumph monumental in their anonymity. The low sky hung on to the slick rusted roofs. After breakfast, I got on the way and drove South.
     The fog was thin in the city, but grew thicker as the highway swung low toward the Chesapeake, ever more substantial as I dipped into the Susquehanna river valley. By the time I got out on the tall bridge, the mist blotted out everything.
     I could see the pavement and the railings, and the busy traffic tunneled a path of relative clarity, so I could see forward well enough. There was, simply, nothing else – no river beneath, no river shores, no sky, no horizon. Looking away from the cars directly in front of me, all was a perfectly even, featureless, colorless, woolen absence.
     A most delicate breeze must have been coming from the sea, up along the river. Motion of the fog, of course, could not be noticed, but that tunnel bored by the cars, the narrow absence of fog, was getting pulled and stretched away from the bridge. A line of sight launched in this direction found nothing by shapeless grayness.
     This ragged, tattered shadow extended up and away. Like some ancient ghost, its ash-colored corpus drifted against the flat white oblivion of the mist.

PS I now have a Facebook author page, to whatever end you all may use it.

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I love you, highways

Written: May 20, 2013

About: driving around the United States

American highways, I love you.

I do not mean this in a cheap, tired, greeting-card way. Not in the way of lust. This is not a childishly romantic story. I want to sit with you and watch the world age. I want your dust, your gravel, your grass, your revolving skies, your sunsets and sunrises, your deep silky nights and the blazing afternoons.

I do not know the moment I fell in love with you. It may be that I have always loved you, even before I met you. I do know the moment I knew. I looked into your eyes – the eyes of a diner waitress at a truckstop somewhere in the California desert, perhaps outside that bastard Barstow – and could not look away. You served me home fries, greasy eggs, and a side of five hundred miles of hot gravel. You were perfect in that moment. You have always been and always will be.

I know you are not some mindlessly naïve teenager. This is not an adventuresome memory vending machine, press a button – get a pretty postcard. There have been rough times. There was that one time a tire exploded on a big rig on I-75 in Florida. The shrapnel sheared the side mirror clean off the car right in front of me, and showered my windshield with hard burning rubber.

Once, on I-84, in the mountains between Portland and Salt Lake City, I got caught in a vicious, slushing snowstorm. The snow stuck to the road in thick layers, whipped up by the eighteen-wheelers into a foam that coated my windshield, leaving me blind as I was approaching a turn. I could not see, but I had to star turning. If I turned too early, I would be mangled under the truck. If I turned too late, I would plunge into the frozen crevasse. But I was graced with a safe journey, and here I am, saying to you, I love you.

For every dark moment – blinding fog on the bridges East of New Orleans – there is a myriad wonderful ones. I know not to take you for granted, I know you cannot be reduced to any one thing, and I know to take the sparks with the storms.

There is the sun rising over downtown Baltimore, and then setting over the Georgia swamps. The Texas prairie, the cliffs of California, the red soil and the brilliant blue lakes of Shasta mountains. The first time I drove West, I saw the sun setting in Texas, somewhere between El Paso and San Antonio, a particularly empty part of nothingness. That was the first time in my life that I had even approached the desert. The view was so stunning, I simply had to, had to stop. I got out, leaned on my car, and watched you slip into darkness. You were flawless.

I love you, highways.

Rocketing along a busy interstate in California, pulling over on the shoulder of a deserted Arizona highway, I feel unconstrained, I feel my own. With the point of origin many miles behind and the destination whole tanks of gas ahead, I feel detached from the minutiae, solidly in the immediate right now. In your vastness I have found the realization that I am both infinitesimally insignificant and brilliantly my own. Out on the road, the sense of self comes into the sharpest relief.

The air is rushing by, I’m chasing clouds, and my lips settle into the slightest upcurl. Lane markings skipping by like blips on an old record. Truck stop coffee and gas station hotdogs, a sense of carefree lightness. Thoughts take on the long shapes. There is a sublime rhythm to this experience, a heartbeat of the tires bumping on the pavement, the long continuous breath of the wind humming on the edges of the car. This is the place. This is the place I want to be, and I always miss.

I love you, highways, and I will never stop.