Highways, Stoplights, and Me

I wonder if anyone has studied the complex and powerful place that cars hold in our consciousness. Automobiles have always been status symbols, sure, but early in their history they also embodied our ideals of progress and industry as we entered a brave new world. Classic gangster cinema–a genre obsessed with social status, progress, and life in industrialized society–co-opted cars’ symbolism and added rebellion and individual liberty to the host of connotations. Ironically, cars also became symbols of domesticity and family life around this time; think station wagons and Sunday drives.

The Beat Generation amplified the alluring power of the automobile, and rejected the growing domesticity of society and its reflection in our Fords and Chevys. Jack Kerouac’s generational tome, On the Road, treats cars as sacred objects of freedom and “madness.” The book’s title is hipper than just Driving, but that’s really the gist of it all. Driving is liberty and rebellion and the final fulfillment of the individual.

Since then, our complex love affair with cars has far from dissipated. Buggatis will always turn heads and car commercials continue to exhaust the thesaurus for synonyms of “innovation.” Soccer Moms race their kids to seven different activities at once and college students drive their beaters across the country looking for adventure, and in turn, meaning.

As I am neither now nor ever been a Soccer Mom, I still fall in the latter camp. Some of my happiest moments are spent hurtling down long stretches of highway, looking for something a little down the road and just around the freeway-bend. There’s a particular magic in beginning a journey at sunset and arriving somewhere a thousand miles and 20 degrees Fahrenheit away as the sun begins to rise.

My life is constantly invaded by thousands of tiny moments that remind me of road trips and the accompanying feeling that I could go anywhere in the world at a whim. I’ll be sitting at a stoplight at 3am and flash back to a deserted exit in the middle-of-nowhere. I’ll feel the quiet of a small western town and, for a second, think I’m going somewhere new.

Far from Kerouac’s ideal, almost all my driving is nothing more than daily commute. Cars always exist in this tension for me: A vehicle for escape and for the monotonous chores that fill my everyday life. So often I find myself at an intersection, leaving a brutal day of work, school, or life; trying my damnedest to fight off a creeping depression. Waiting for the light to change, between a crummy job and a numbing routine, I can’t help but wonder if everything would be better somewhere else. If I’d be better off with a fresh start. I pass a highway sign. West, it says.

And I face a decision, every time. I could turn the wheel just a little bit and leave everything. Start over. Find adventure. Or I could keep moving forward, and try to make tomorrow a little better.

So far I’ve always kept the wheel straight, and thank God for that.




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