Does anyone else feel a kind of intangible attachment, even nostalgia, for the road?
One day and long into the evening I remember driving from El Reno, Oklahoma, to Holbrook, Arizona; just hoping to cross out of New Mexico, there were fewer hotels than I expected, so during that last hour of trying to find one I was half-awake but given the gift of a thunderstorm far into the Highway 40 desert distance.
And there was arriving in Savannah, Georgia, in the early morning of Holy Saturday, and lounging in the sand on Tybee Island until the sun rose, giving it all to the beginning of To the House of the Sun.
And there was another drive, through Kentucky and Tennessee, that I put into a novel this way:
I don’t know if you’ve ever driven after midnight, the only car for miles, mountains on one side and a sloping, slowly flattening hill on the other, leveling off where a few houses appear. And you imagine it was these people—hardened folk, illiterate but eloquent beyond measure, or people just born from the ground—who cut the highway into this height. And surrounded for hours by the dark, a rising blue light barely comes from the east; and still driving at sunrise, the long road is lit with a lighter blue at first, the mountains still shadow until the sun climbs above them to brighten everything with that morning light I love in the Midwest, the dark greens and the damp browns at the start of spring, the ground still soaked with snowmelt.
Already my first poems during high school were about travel, driving alone at night and listening to talk radio, stopping at a diner. And since then nearly everything I write either begins or ends with someone setting out, whether through America during the Civil War, Germany and France between the World Wars, or all the migrations of the ancients: out of Africa, out of the Near East, or just all over Europe.
This all began before I’d read any Kerouac, let alone Homer, and when I wonder where this tendency came from, there’s the easy childhood answer: when I was eleven my father got a new job and we had to move. I took this pretty hard, and the real trauma of it at least resulted in the discovery of writing, and books. But at some point that trauma turned into revelation: between moving and getting my license, The Road had become something archetypal, as had the truckstop diner, and other liminal places. (Much of this showing up in the favorite of my poems, “Fire Houses.”)
Mythology and religion are of course full of nothing but travel and displacement like this, if only because of the very real cliché of the hero’s journey. And it’s a chicken-and-egg question: did I come to these two subjects because of my longing for the road, or was my boyhood Catholicism a trigger for the road: the wandering of the Jews, all the isolated prophets, Jesus and the disciples going off everywhere, or the road to Emmaus and Damascus? Did the difficult reality of actual religion and myth—all the inner and outer journeys that them, or just the borderland cantina from Star Wars—seep in as a young boy?
There really isn’t an answer. Because I also know that long before I moved or had any inkling of this, one of my favorite scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was one of the simplest: Dick Hallorann, driving in the winter. I don’t know of another movie that illustrates the feeling of late night driving as well as these forty seconds of snow, remoteness, and voices on the radio: