By Jeffrey Tompkins
On a brilliant Wednesday afternoon in mid-September, at the lower end of the New Jersey Turnpike, a few miles above the Delaware River, she hits it. She’s just exited the Clara Barton Service Area and has no sooner merged with the main traffic—still, for Casey, a nerve-racking endeavor in its own right—when looking ahead she realizes that the bus a couple of hundred yards in front of her has apparently stalled and she’s going to have to perform an evasive maneuver. In less time than it takes to work out in her head, Casey accomplishes three steps: she glances in both mirrors, she bears down on the accelerator, and then swings into the middle lane so smoothly that to someone watching it might look as though she’d intentionally piloted the Civic in a single gliding motion all the way from the service area’s exit road right to that very spot. And no one honks. That’s the main thing: not one yahoo in any of the three lanes behind her is so full of impacted rage that he has to vent his disapproval by blaring his horn at the woman in the blue Honda Civic, and for a moment, just a moment, it seems possible Casey has the makings of an adequate driver in her.
Okay, okay, she tells herself a few minutes later, so maybe it wasn’t that impressive. But when you’re a recent graduate of Brown University who’s hungry for experience (and not just on the road), who’s been driving less than a month, and whose ability to navigate through mechanical reality, the vast world of things, barely extends past coin-operated washing machines and laptop computers, any little indication of competence comes as not only a boon to the ego but also as an encouraging suggestion that the course you’ve embarked upon isn’t, in fact, one of suicidal recklessness. You can even be forgiven, you think, for presuming that there’s actually a place for you out here in this great race.
(Driving for real, that is. Sure, she’d earned the license back in high school, practically claiming it as a birthright like any normal teenager but until this past month she was lucky if she got behind the wheel three times in a year, helping Mom out with the errands during summer vacation or ferrying a friend to the Providence train station at the end of the semester. And the bus had always been there to shuttle her back and forth between school and her hometown in eastern Connecticut. So for four years, all her real excursions were mental.) But not anymore. Each one of these strikes down the highway etches a line of force between Casey and the larger world, and announces that this particular bookworm will no longer be content with a library carrel and a laptop. Here I am! Somewhere she had seen the word momentum defined as the dynamic by which the force a body exerts increases with its velocity and although Casey has trouble with nearly any kind of scientific concept she can’t help feeling now that her own momentum increases exponentially every time she leaves another state line behind in the rear-view mirror. That first foray? Rhode Island. Days later, Connecticut. Within a week came the degraded Mordor-like wastes of northern New Jersey, followed by the Turnpike’s sinister narcotic monotony, and her thinking all the while, in her giddiness, This can be mine,too. I can encompass everything.
Her fingers have a tendency to get stiff on the wheel—she has to remember to flex them from time to time. In front of her now a maroon Corolla flashes its brake lights, and on a barely conscious level Casey tells herself, Corolla—that’s a Toyota. As someone who knows nothing about cars she still finds it remarkable how she can connect a maker to a model every time she sees a name on the back of the vehicle in front of her. Explorer? Ford. Caprice? Chevy. The years of saturation advertising must have done their work well, because other pieces of data that would presumably be more valuable to Casey, like the first-person conjugations of Spanish irregular verbs, or the entire plots of certain Victorian novels, haven’t lodged in her brain with nearly the same tenacity. Sentra? Nissan.
In northern Maryland, still headed south, the Susquehanna River strikes her as more gorgeous every time she crosses it, a kind of reward for having endured the Turnpike’s doldrums on the way down. And coming back over the same river, she is greeted with an almost ridiculously picturesque sight on the north bank, over to her left—two silos and a barn, like something one of the Wyeths would have painted, standing watch in a cleared patch of land above the river and the bridge. Every time she sees those buildings and that field Casey is half-incredulous, wondering how such a perfect slice of pastoral is still allowed to remain within hailing distance of this busy ruthless corridor. But those unlikely grace notes have a way of turning up down here. Another time—also northbound, somewhere on either side of the Delaware River—she looks over to her right and spots a Canadian goose and her flock of goslings waddling along on the grassy strip that borders the road, so close it’s almost as if she could reach out and feel the young ones’ fuzz caress her palm as she drives by.
The cranes in the port of Baltimore all look as though they’re giving the Nazi salute. But elsewhere in Maryland come highway signs for bodies of water called runs, a term she’s never encountered before and immediately takes to, while still other signs have the names of counties on them and even though she knows it’s corny the rustic note appeals to something in Casey as well. That ends once she begins to approach DC: there’s a surprisingly dull stretch before you reach the city proper, as though the infamous Beltway (which, she understands now with some embarrassment, really is an actual road) acts as a centripetal force that sucks any life out of the periphery. Somewhat disappointingly, all the iconic monuments appear to be off somewhere there to the right; since her only real-life experience with them came during a ghastly eight-grade trip when she was still too bratty to appreciate anything to do with American history, Casey thinks it would be cool now to be able to situate Honest Abe or the needle in relation to the highway or the river, but she’s already across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge before she fully comprehends where she is on the map.
The further south she drives, the more yellow ribbon bumper stickers there are on all the cars around her. Below DC the HOV lane starts to seem like an implicit rebuke to a driver like her, flying solo and without even a destination in mind. But maybe it’s because she’s so far from home, removed from native climes, that she begins to feel tentative; at any rate she hasn’t gone very far south of the Potomac before deciding it’s time to turn around and declare herself satisfied with this latest reconnaissance mission. She can’t do it all, at least not this trip. There is an inconceivable amount of highway still to go, the rest of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and what looks on the map like an endless stretch of Florida before I-95 runs out of continent altogether, and however much the horizon line always beckons it’s the ad hoc, improvisational nature of these forays in her new (old) Honda that makes them fun for her. She isn’t ready to have to make plans, isn’t ready to be responsible and call people just to tell them where she’ll be at a particular point in time. (But think of it: all she has to do is keep the car pointed in one direction and she can end up in Miami, a day, a day and a half from now. Practically another hemisphere. Although Casey’s excitement at the prospect wanes when she admits to herself she wouldn’t know how to talk to any of those people down there, not the retirees, fashion models, Europeans, Cubans, any of the exotic Miami tribes she has half-formed notions of from movies and TV. And on top of that she wouldn’t have the faintest idea of how to dress for the place anyway.)
Back in Delaware the highway becomes a free-for-all again, people changing lanes as though they spend the entire rest of their lives waiting to live out their racetrack fantasies in just this fashion, so many tail and brake lights blinking that Casey regularly fears she may become disoriented and ram straight into the guardrail. Here and elsewhere she surprises herself with the vehemence of the epithets she directs at thoughtless drivers: someone cuts in front of her without warning and the word asshole leaps into her mind with startling clarity. Cowboy doing ninety? Cocksucker. And again. Dickweed. Perhaps there is just a little of her, after all, in the bumper sticker she’d seen on one of these forays:
A WOMAN WITH A GUN
HAS MORE FUN
Momentum. Dynamic by which. There are almost nineteen hundred miles of this stretching from Maine to Florida and somewhere, Casey has no idea if it’s spurious or not but somewhere she read that I-95 and the Great Wall of China are the only two man-made structures visible from space: which makes it fascinating to speculate that one day the highway will become what the Great Wall is today, a ruin, majestic in its way but also crumbling and fragmentary, an enigma to be pored over not only by scavengers but also by archaeologists desperate for clues to the nature of the people whose truest monument this is.