We chose the short way back from Los Angeles, a line ruler-straight along I-40 east across the desert to Santa Fe.
Now we are in the company of the trucks, marching along head-to-tail like elephants in an old-time circus parade. Like airplane pilots, the men inside are mostly invisible to us, except for a hint of chin now and then in a long side mirror; the squawk of a horn proves someone is up there in the cab, responding to children signaling, with bent elbows, that they want a blast—a signal apparently all truckers respect. I’m reminded of the long ago time when stewardesses (as they were called then) handed out gilt pilot’s insignia to children riding the planes—and there was even a time when children were invited to visit the cockpit before take-off. Now we have the truckers for entertainment.
Nearly all the eighteen-wheelers carry some kind of message, corporate or personal. One is advertising for “compliant” drivers, which may be a good description of airplane pilots, too, since these men must first of all abide by the rules of the road and the air. But compliant in its other meaning seems weird attached to these great lumbering vehicles.
Other messages are personal. “It’s not a choice, it’s a child,” one proclaims. I’m reminded that this trip has split the cocoon of my privileged liberalism; the road riders, whether truckers or car drivers, are not of the elite. Price alone may govern this. Subtracting a fancy meal and a concert in Los Angeles, we have spent slightly less on this road trip than the $320 a person a coach ticket would have cost.
But there’s something other than price in the equation.
Maybe it’s the actual feel of the road through the tires of the car, the vibration that changes in tone and pitch according to the nature of the surface. It measures the distance as no air miles can. The pervasive hum of jets seems akin to nothing terrestrial, an indication, merely, of speed. Cars and trucks register distance differently, and not just in the amount of gas bought and used (we’ve made it across and back on six tanks).
The land itself, our country, tis of thee, although buried deep under concrete and tarmac, registers through the tires. I am not able to ignore the miles we are crossing, miles of desert, unmarked except for scrub, then pinion and juniper, then the sunset-colored mesas of New Mexico. Clouds pass for landscape, viewed from a plane window, but leave no impression of the distance covered.
As we emerge, slowly and painfully, from the decades of our excess, as a nation and as individuals, the grind of tires on tarmac may be a useful symbol: we have driven a long distance, almost twenty-two hundred miles. Is it a distance that you, the driver or the passenger, the hauled or the hauler, need to cover?
All plans shrink in importance when set in the context of these miles. In the air, we are inflated; our megalomania is matched by the hubris of the plane itself, its weightless soaring, its abandoning of the invisible earth. Traveling on the ground, we are on the ground, and of it. The thought is sobering.
Will I be up for the next road trip, twice as far as this one, from New Mexico to Florida?
Will the Roommate oblige? Will Jack the puppy be too old to ride shotgun.
How will the miles look, in March—too long, too hard, too boring? Or will I think of what I will learn, grinding through the Midwest and the south, that I could never learn in the air?
to be continued...
Sallie Bingham is a short story writer, novelist and playwright whose most recent book, a collection of short stories called "Red Car", was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books. Founder of the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women's Papers and History at Duke University, she is an avid skier, horseback rider and ballroom dancer; she lives in Santa Fe with the Roommate, her eldest son, his wife and their two daughters and travels only when absolutely necessary.