Reflections from the road: On fellow drivers

6.08.2013

During my first month on the road, I've experienced and learned a lot. And while I've been doing my best to document everything I've seen, thought, and felt, my attention to the what, where, and when has often overshadowed the how, which is just as important. So this week, I'm aiming to publish seven reflections, each on a different aspect of travel, free from time and space. Here's the fourth.

RIding across the scenic byways of the American West, the roads forgotten and discarded by those looking for a quick route from point A to B, straight lines and concrete medians doing just fine, I was often left alone for hours on end. Down those picturesque two-lane streets I'd drive, views undisturbed by any sign of human life spare the road before me, another vehicle so foreign a sight that waving seemed the only reasonable and well-mannered thing to do in passing. I liked those roads, I loved them, for beyond their beauty and shapely curves, they were safe, predictable, the only dangers unmoving potholes and trenches announcing their presence as far off as the horizon.

Alas, not all of my journey was serene, and often I'd have other drivers to contend with, fellow actors on that linear stage. Here they are.

If the roads be filled, let them be with trucks, for truckers are the most gentle of giants to contend with. Though their sheer size and force may disturb the air around, blowing me to and fro, left and right, as though caught up in a hurricane, their stability, their routine, these were valued highly enough to offset their unavoidable assaults on air pressure. A trucker hauling sixty-five miles per hour in the right lane will, nine times out of ten, stay hauling sixty-five miles per hour in the right lane, and would a trucker need to switch lanes, he would do so politely, blinker on and eyes in the sideview and patience to let the passing motorists fully pass, and oh, the one after him as well, just for good measure, before gently shifting the truck's mass to the next lane and, there, picking up an equally predictable and constant speed. Truckers understand their size, and thus their power, and thus their responsibility, and they take it seriously, like a noble honor, the chivalrous knights of the tarspan.

And then there are cars, drivers, jittery and jumpy and always in a rush, hurry, hurry, hurry, always with somewhere to be and some urgent need to get there and little respect or concern for those in their way. Car drivers brake unnecessarily, they switch lanes inordinately often, they go from sixty to eight to seventy and back again, all in a matter of minutes, cell phones and stereo and children all dangerous distractions within those four doors. More than once I have been nearly knocked to the ground by a careless driver, and so I tread cautiously in their presence, preferring to either be far ahead of the pack, free from their tyranny, or otherwise well behind.

On the highway, I make a point of keeping some distance from the car in front of me, eight or ten feet per ten miles of velocity, so that were I driving sixty miles per hour, I'd save roughly fifty to sixty feet of space in my sights, in all likelihood a bit less, but enough that were the driver in front of me to clumsily slam on his brakes, as drivers are known to do, I'd have the room to slam on my own, but a tad more slowly, so as not to send Rousseau into a fishtailing fit, back wheel sliding to the left and the right and the left again, threatening to topple me in a very real way. For I do not like to fishtail, I prefer a gentler stop, and thus, I leave that space.

Drivers have no appreciation for my bubble of mortality. Where a see a needed buffer, a driver sees open space, room to wedge themselves into my life, ignoring the clear reality that said space is not widening, that I am not driving slowly, but that I am simply leaving some room. And so our hypothetical driver will switch lanes, and come to my side with engine roaring, and then past me, sliding right into my zone of comfort, and then I am left with nothing to do but hang back, slow down for a second, to reopen some more space between myself and this new tail. And at that turn, seeing my speed drop for a moment, the driver now behind me will gesture angrily, and hang dramatically to the right, and plow his way to my front, and trespass himself as well into my newly rebuilt safety buffer, and the process will continue, for a full procession of cars, until so perturbed by it all, I will switch lanes myself and rocket to the front of the line and rid myself of the whole mess, the hazardous cacophony behind me, just me and the road once again.

While on the road, I saw a staggering number of bikers, tearing up the terrain on their Harleys or Suzukis or Hondas, their bikes and their trikes and, on rare occasions, their scooters like me, and I learned much of the splendid community we, the road warriors, the people of the open air, share with each other.

The universal sign of bikely brotherhood is a simple one, not particularly elegant, a hand outstretched in passing. When two bikers on the same stretch of road breeze by each other, they will, almost simultaneously, at the very right moment, stretch out their left hand, at a forty-five degree downward angle from their shoulder, and hold it there, their hand, for between four and five seconds, a simple "hey friend" solidified in either palm or peace sign, I am of the camp, evenly split, for the latter, and then hands return to handlebars and mufflers scream at each other and they, the bikes and the bikers, pass, bond formed just like that.

It's a camaraderie that extends beyond a wave on the road, of course; in gas stations and rest stops, those beloved places, bikers require more time than drivers, for they must stretch and walk and relax after a lengthy block of keeping oneself alive, and so conversation inevitably sparks, always a question of where one is coming from and where they are going, and what roads they have taken and how the conditions were and what the driving was like. During bouts of wind and rain, the morale here flags, but a collective morale, not a personal mood, a feeling that we're all in it together, soldiers going into battle, each of us wishing the others safe driving and happy roads and a speedy exit from the dreaded weather system.

Aboard Rousseau, I commanded an interesting sort of respect from the community. I had not a bike nor bandana nor beard nor babe, no leather chaps nor shiny chrome, no grey hair and no forty, five, sixty years of life under my belt. No, the bikers I met always experienced me with a kind of incredulity, not sure what to make of Rousseau, never having seen a scooter of her size but still not sure she was up to snuff, and then hearing that I was hailing from DC, that I had taken months off from work to tour the country, they scratched their beards and furrowed their brows and said "well look at that" and called over their fellows or female and said "would you believe this" and all, the whole lot of them, treated me like a son of sorts, a fond memory of their own youth, and they welcomed me into their brotherhood, and for that I was grateful.

The truckers, the drivers, the bikers: this is the cast, the characters of the road. But there is an oft forgotten player that I would be remiss if not to mention: the cyclist, more admirable and determined than us all.

Pulling myself along difficult stretches of country, I grew a nearly mystical fascination and respect for cyclists, who so easily put my situation and my petty grievances in stark relief to their own. Whenever I'd groan about cold or wind or rain, or a heavy backpack or slugging scooter, I'd fly by a spandexed wonder on a narrow two-wheeler, panniers hauling unimaginable pounds, and there the cyclist would be, calves flexed, working his or her way up a hill, or better yet, a mountain, or maybe the massive Rocky Mountains, pushing onward for days and days without complaint. Along my journey, I saw and spoke with cyclists of all types, those traveling the California coast and those trekking cross-country, those handling a stretch of several hundred miles and those conquering a particular patch of earth, and for each of them, I have the utmost respect, the firm belief that each and every one of their tales is more interesting than my own. Cyclists, the true bikers, the true environmentalists, the true adventurers.

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