It recently occurred to me that my memories as conveyed on this blog often involve driving through and around the different landscapes I’ve inhabited. “The verdant hills of Vermont.” “The expansive plains of the Midwest.” And so on. I guess this is partly because I’m from a driving family. Gotta get to college in Ohio? Drive there. Headed to Vermont from Illinois? Drive there. Want to take in the Rocky Mountains or Cape Cod? You guessed it: we’d drive there.
I’ve always loved car travel, because it allows you to take in the changing face of your environment little by little. When you fly, it’s more of a shock to the system. For example, when you fly from Central Illinois to New York, you depart a sleepy, economically stagnant Midwestern town, notable for its flatness, and arrive in a densely populated urban landscape, defined by thick trees (where they still stand) and skyscrapers and bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. Driving lets you see how things evolve. It’s gentler on your system. You progress from flat plains to the subtle hills of Ohio. In northeastern Ohio, you start to see even more trees. And evidence of more money. There are fewer Fords and Chevys on the road and more Volkswagens and Subarus. You get a hint of the different lives being lived by the people who inhabit the patches of land at the side of the road. Bob Evans gives way to IHOP. Cornfields give way to strip malls.
And it’s what you imagine that’s key. Speeding along a quiet highway somewhere in the Midwest at dusk, you might see an old clapboard farmhouse surrounded by farmland and one of those majestic oak trees whose bare branches make an exquisite pattern of capillaries against a deep blue sky. Maybe there’s a light on inside that house, warm and golden, beckoning. Welcoming. When you drive by this house, you can imagine a happy, warm homestead. Populated by people like you. Ideal versions of yourself. Tending the hearth of the American heartland. Speeding by, you can maintain that vision. You dare not stop and look closely, for who knows what you’d really find. Trash strewn about the front porch. The car in the driveway touched with rust, empty cans of beer on the ground around the wheels. Maybe the people inside have neglected the hearth. Maybe they’re cruel or ignorant.
Keep driving and you’ll never know. Their homestead will remain the Norman Rockwell ideal you’ve conjured in your head. It’s so much easier to keep on driving.