January 8, 2013

Driving Mindlessly, Mindfully.

The thing I miss most about living in the country is the very thing I eventually came to hate about it.

The long snake of black tar between one place and another, the empty distances, the endless driving. Oh, my God, how I miss the driving.

I miss going for days and days without leaving the house in winter, little babies, creaky floors, nowhere to go, no one to see. Four walls, big window, bare branches, frozen lake.

I miss stuffing those babies into snowsuits and then stuffing those snowsuits into car seats, clicking them in, and going, going nowhere, for hours. Sleeping children, warm car, barren county roads. I can’t remember anymore the times it didn’t work. The times the baby boy screamed instead of slept, the times the spirited girl, that untamed horse, pulled his hair or bit him. The one time we skidded on black ice right into the ditch as a storm kicked up on the last afternoon of December. I don’t care about those times anymore now that we’ve survived and nobody kept screaming forever, or biting forever. They stopped those things, and it all turned out okay, and now I miss the driving the way I remember it.

The car I hated the most is the one I now recall so fondly.

Big Blue, we named it, because it was a boat, and it was blue. It was handed down from the in-laws for the 18 hundred dollars it took to replace the transmission. We paid over time for this beast, large and unstylish with that dirty patch of duct tape on the taillight (smashed as it sat innocently in the small-town church parking lot—smashed, it would seem, by a fellow parishioner who drove away from the damage without so much as an apology note).

But I can’t remember the duct tape anymore, or the way driving that car made me feel like a cross between a grandpa and an unwed teenage mother. That’s not the way I remember Big Blue. It’s the heft of it that I recall, the solid slam of the door, the quiet way it hummed at high speeds—no shaking or whining the way these small tin boxes do. Big Blue had a way of rocking gently as it coasted that made me understand and appreciate the likening of large cars to watercrafts. It’s a compliment, really, to call a car a boat.

I loved Big Blue, even though I was very, very happy when it died.

What I miss most about those country afternoons in Big Blue is the way it came to feel so normal to drive a long, long way to nowhere. Sometimes I took the children to the thrift store at the intersection that still poses as a town called Almelund. I’d carry my son on my hip while chasing my daughter around the store.

But the chase was made easier by the woman who owned the shop—her strange appearance entranced my curious little girl. The shopkeeper always wore floor-length skirts with aprons, and frilly blouses with high collars, small buttons, and puffed sleeves. She looked like Ma Ingalls on Sunday. I don’t know why she dressed this way, because I never asked her. But she fit in pretty well with her surroundings.

The air in the shop was dense with must, and the place was crammed floor to ceiling with broken antiques and unusual junk. Out of politeness, I always bought some tiny thing—usually a ten-cent plastic toy to keep my hyper mare occupied for the long drive home.

But just as often as we stopped, we kept going.

Farther east into Wisconsin, or north toward Pine City, children sleeping, motor whirring, road unrolling behind us like the world’s longest runner—steel gray and utterly inhospitable, except for its openness. The only choices to be made were trivial ones: turn left or right? Exit now or later? Turn around or keep on driving?

I miss the driving because I’ll never have it again. The country is behind me, the country with its right-wing politics and greasy-spoon food and frigid lake full of milfoil and disappointment. The country with its endless county roads crisscrossing each other and looping back on themselves, as senseless and difficult to decipher as the lines of an open palm. So many roads, so few destinations.

My children don’t wear snowsuits anymore, or ride in car seats, or remember much about Big Blue. They have places to go with specific routes to appointed stops that leave little room for rumination. The city is full of destinations, but short on empty stretches of tar, of time, of space, where a person can travel hundreds of miles without ever leaving. I don’t ever want to drive that way again, so desperately and without purpose, but still I miss it more than I can say.


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Ed: Brianna Bemel
Assist Ed: Caroline Scherer

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