Driving is liberty and danger. It has to be. I have a friend, Mark Feeney, Bostonian all his life, and yet he only feels American when driving in the West. Or call it alive—if you recognize the risk in the freedom.
The highways here are the best attempt America has made to tell itself that the wildness of the frontier can be purposeful and beautiful. Roads are snakes that promise to become ladders for an unmapped territory. At dawn, dropping into Nevada from off the Sierra, you see the steel ribbon of further highways measuring out the grades and curves of our future. Automotive advancement is a metaphor for our liveliness, as pressing as sex, or story. Didn’t Jack Kerouac type On the Road on a single paper roll to mimic an endless freeway?
Joan Didion thought driving was “the only secular communion Los Angeles has…a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.” But that trance is tricky; it can glide into crash, and getting stuck in traffic may bring on nervous breakdowns.
In Play It as It Lays, Didion’s Maria Wyeth is in such depressed disbelief that she drives the L.A. freeways to calm herself. She does a circuit: the San Diego to the Harbor, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, and so on. And that was 1970—highway history now. But if Maria could negotiate one edgy lane-changing transfer, from the Hollywood onto the Harbor, without dropping speed or having a panic attack, then she’d sleep dreamlessly that night.
There are larger psychic freeways. I used to leave the Bay Area in the dark on 80. Then take the 505 to the 5, heading north. Slip over to Susanville and into that northwest corner of Nevada. Turning south, using Denny’s and Mobil as stations of the cross, I’d reach Fallon, with the F-16s zipping up the sky, past the brothel, and then it was just 50—“the loneliest road in America,” it said (like calling a valley Death or a hideaway Paradise). I’d nudge into Utah, dipping a hand in its font, and swing back by Vegas before coming home. All in two days, nearly 1,500 miles.
“Where were you?” Lucy asked.
“I was driving, sweetheart,” I used to say and she would smile, aware of how wind can take a dope by the sails.
She came too, sharing the driving, 100 miles a shot (and she was faster), playing jazz or a book on tape. We argued along with caressing—thighs sitting side by side, looking at the gearshift, as comic chastity. During such séances I’d recall Nabokov and his wife, Vera, driving in the mountains of Colorado, searching for shy butterflies. Then I thought of Humbert and Lolita bickering on the road, heading for the Enchanted Hunters motel. Going and coming: there was a time in America when cars were for doing it. Three reliable books to drive by: Lolita, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
Hope those books run on forever. It’s easy to think that traffic on the highway has a destination and a deadline, but it’s sweeter just to drive for acceleration and eternal white lines. You are consuming miles and hours, not quite getting anywhere, absorbing the terse poetics of road signs while disdaining their instruction. Great driving verged on being automatic long before the notion of self-driving cars. But these self-possessed vehicles could kill the passion and the legend, and our ability to find peace and spirit doing 90 in the dark, with passing headlights like angels and demons. Self-driving cars will be the terminus for America.
There was an ecstasy once, listening to the all-night drawl and wonder of Art Bell on the radio (95.1 out of Pahrump). He would tell stories about space aliens as if they were drivers’ logical pals, as prosaic and emblematic as a stop sign in Gerlach once you left the Black Rock Desert’s lunar playa. Why should you stop there? Contemplate a filling station at 1 a.m., its pumps coiled and idle, the forecourt streaked with the sheen of rubber and the aphrodisia of gasoline. An empty filling station at night can be as beautiful as the Canyon de Chelly, or Margaret Sullavan. (And if you don’t know those two, get out a coupla old maps. We don’t do GPS on real roads.)
It’s natural to remember highway movies: the flow of miles and state lines is akin to the stream of stills animated by what used to be movie. Think of some flicks in your rearview mirror going down 395, from Reno to Mojave: that’s where Out of the Past happened. You can throw in Detour, with its warning not to pick up strangers in a desert. Two-Lane Blacktop has an inane race as a pretext for driving. Vanishing Point is the classic iteration of driving to stay alive—as constant as a shark’s motion. You may be a sucker for Badlands, two lost kids heading off into open ground, looking for fairy tale or fame, and Sissy Spacek dancing barefoot in the roadside dust. I could go on, with lost highways and Mulholland dreaming, but I’ll let you make your own list confined to a West where the picture business and the nature of the road provided those weird churches—drive-ins—that are now wasteland on the tattered edge of town.
Sorting through road movies, I recognize the magical technology of driving in a back projection. An actor sits in the shell of a car, playing with the wheel, while the journey unwinds behind him as a projected image. That’s how Janet Leigh gets from Phoenix to Fairvale in Psycho, enduring night and rain, fatigue, and the guilt trip of interrogating voices in her head. Isn’t that close to the way, driving at night, we feel settled and secure while the story and the distance hurtle past? Unless it’s a moment in the dark on 132 near Modesto when a guy in a passing car signals to a woman to pull over, tells her a wheel on her car is wobbling, attends to it—and waits for it to fall off! That’s when the passing driver is revealed as the Zodiac killer.
“Oh my God!” you cry. That’s the line waiting on some outrage or when you nod off and your car veers into that major narrative surprise—crash!
It will happen: we are going to crash, albeit gently in our sleep. Still, like Maria Wyeth, I drive for bliss, and even elation. So I love that David Hockney picture Pearblossom Hwy., 11–18th April 1986, #2, a collage set at a Stop Ahead sign on the edge of serene, parched desert, with cactus pilgrims in attendance. “That picture,” said Hockney, “is about driving without the car being in it.” The picture is the vehicle.
There are not many spiritual conditions left, highs for our way, but driving is one of them, and I am earnest about believing that America was discovered so that roads could stand for ideas and ideals.
I treasure those head-on portraits of disappearing highways, by Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, and so many others. I am writing beneath a painting by the late James Stagg, On the Way to Fresno, of a car on an uphill curve, urged toward the skyline, like a bullet writhing over a hill, yearning for heaven yet pursued by hell.
David Thomson, born and raised in England, is a longtime resident of San Francisco. He is the author of over 20 books. His latest book is Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire.