Once again, I join the mechanical worm as it weaves and heaves its way across the county. After merging, I rev my car into an easy cruising speed of about seventy-two miles per hour, round the first curve in one smooth motion, pull down my goggles, and plunge into the fray.
“Good morning,” I say to an imaginary passenger, “and welcome to the routine of a town student. There will be no music on today’s trip. Just try to sit back and relax.”
My ire is up in the first few minutes of my drive. From the passenger’s seat it feels like we’re devouring ground at sonic speed, but all I can see is the reflection of LED headlights glaring into my mirror. I’m no speeder, but it takes a quick eye and a responsive gas pedal to keep ahead of the flood. Rainy days only confuse the situation, with headlights, brake lights, and emergency lights glittering on the road, on my mirrors, and shattering into bewildering beams through my wet windshield.
Even in good weather, with the blinding bronze sunrise behind us, I must resolutely hold my own. Everything happens so fast that I hardly know when I must react to sudden red brake lights, or to the swish of a pickup truck passing within inches, or jump from one lane to another to let someone else squeeze in just in time. I am often tense and wide-eyed, let alone panicked on the days that I’m running late and must really forget everything and stomp on the gas. It’s a risky business. I could easily get caught in the joints of this mechanical worm and get spat to the side. It hasn’t happened to me yet. Really, I know it is the protection of God.
Out of the corner of my eye I sense a van bearing down on me—blood pressure up. The van swoops to one side and disappears in the distance—blood pressure down. Now I’m following a car with its lights off, and in righteous indignation I flash my lights to no avail. It’s still dark outside—don’t they know?! When they slow to a dangerous sixty-one miles per hour I zoom past and forget them. The highway is a self-contained universe. I experience an entire spectrum of emotions in the twenty minutes it takes to get to the campus parking garage, and yet I put them away as easily as dropping my keys into my bag.
With the morning commute comes a sense of white-knuckled determination. But on the way home, it seems we are all fleeing for our lives, as we all float along in one motion at an unreal pace.
A sound like thunder on my left, and my heart is in my throat as a Mustang hurtles down the fast lane at twice my speed. At the same time his twin roars away on my other side. I struggle to keep my steering wheel steady and can only watch in horror as they chase each other from one lane to another, losing themselves in the traffic ahead. I thought danger was over, but in slow motion I watch the third one cut into my lane, barely miss my front fender, then disappear with a scream of engine. Too late I punch the horn that grunts like a dying cow so I can get the last word in; nobody will hear it, so what difference does it make? It’s only the cry of a dying cow from somewhere in the cacophony of a stampede.
The only reason I fight my way through the stampede, hunched under the shell of my car, is because I know what is waiting at the end of the ride. I finally round the last curve, nearing freedom as “Exit 29” flashes by. I’m trying to exit, but another stream of cars is trying to enter; I’m suddenly side-by-side with a utility truck. I tap the brakes, slide in behind him, then one lane over—no! I slam the brakes, and my backpack goes flying as I come to a stop within a foot or two of the next car. My leg shakes. My heart thumps. I wait my turn to inch forward, listening to the whoosh . . . whoosh of everyone else flying by.
The next few minutes pass by in a dream. The road is dark and empty as I turn into my neighborhood and rumble up the hill. The lights are on at home. I swing to the side and back down the steep driveway in one clean motion. Gear in park. Keys out with a click. I step out and shut the door behind me. I stand for one moment. The house, the deck, all is bathed in moonlight. The poplars, whose tops soar a hundred feet in the air, stand guard. Between them, blackness plunges down to the brush, where night creatures are moving. Far away, behind the trees, there are a few lights and a hushed sound of the highway. But it is harmless where I stand. The drive is always worth this respite. I take a breath, then walk up the hill.
Tomorrow I will do it all again.