Driving is not my jam — my blues song of the widening of Rte. 25

Driving has never been my thing. I like to think that, after 30 years of driving, I’m a competent driver, maybe even at the peak of my driving performance. Thirty years is a long time since I drove around Ohio County, Indiana, in the dual-braked driver’s ed car with 3 other girls while we listened to Mr. John Roeder’s favorite, John Cougar Mellencamp. He was John “Cougar” in those days. That’s how long I’ve been driving.

After thirty years, I don’t think my friends and acquaintances talk about my driving behind my back. I’m just a cautious driver.

But I’ve never liked it. The long lost tradition of a Sunday afternoon drive has always been lost on me. I was a  carsick toddler. I have memories of puking alongside every Alberta highway and forestry road. When people ask what I remember about being a preschooler in Northern Canada, they’re disappointed to learn that the answers are (a) being potty-trained; (b) drawing on my friend Ricky with a pen and getting in trouble; (c) falling down on the ice rink, and (d) lots and lots of puking next to a car.

Undoubtedly, my Grandpa Carnahan’s habit of piling me and my grandma along with his friends Kingie and Frances into the car of a summer evening and driving around to look at fields didn’t add to my love of cars. Kingie smoked unfiltered cigarettes the whole time while Grandma, Frances, and I suffocated in the back seat where the AC didn’t reach. Thank god for flat southwestern Indiana roads, or I would have revived my preschool habit of puking.

Being a person of great imagination and also the best friend of creativity, high anxiety, I didn’t love driving any more after I made the move to the driver’s seat. Do  kids today still watch terrible videos about car crashes in health class? I know that the state of Indiana only required me to take a two semesters of Health Class, but in my memories, every day of high school brought a fresh or repeated movie about the dangers of driving. I was the ideal audience for these movies. Nobody needed to scare me straight. Just scare me, and I was ready for a lifetime of law-abiding driving, not to mention imagined terrors every time I got behind the wheel between the ages of 16 and 18.

So I don’t like driving although I’m now the primary driver in our family. Chris walks to work, so I’m the caretender of the car and its needs. I have a few rules that make me a successful, if disgruntled, driver.  They are:

  1. Never be more than 1000 miles late for an oil change.
  2. Never pass on a two lane country road unless you can see for a good half-mile
  3. Pay attention to what people are doing in front of you.
  4. Five mph above the speed limit is fine, but no more.
  5. You are, under no circumstances, more important than anyone on the road. In other words, be careful.

This summer, the main road between our house and the county seat is being dug up for road work. It’s not repaving. It’s not a slight widening. No, about ½ a mile from our home, there are wide man-tall ditches where the workers are replacing underground pipes before they do the road work itself. What used to be a straight road now veers all over the place through these giant holes in the ground. New ditches appear weekly and lanes move around as if the road were a living serpent in a decaying landscape. I’m sure to the workers who have to dig these pits, asphalt new lanes, and then paint new lines on what seems like a daily basis, well, I’m sure this process doesn’t seem as fast and otherworldly.

Last week, I was driving home from a trip to the grocery store in Richmond. From a ways off, I could see that the traffic pattern coming into town had changed again. Not only that, it looked like the state road workers — God bless them and give them a raise — were setting up the new pattern right then. I knew that this was not good news for me. I knew I was going to have a hard time figuring out where I was supposed to drive.

But I was happy to see there was another car in front of me. I would not need to figure out where the new lanes were and where the old road disappeared. I would just play follow the leader.

Except… the driver of the vehicle in front of me couldn’t figure the road out any better than I could. First, they stopped to ask the worker where they were supposed to go. Smart move, I thought. Then they pulled forward for about 10 feet before stopping again. A worker ran up to the car and pointed out the next bit of lane.

If I were a person who liked to drive, I imagine that I might have been impatient or dismissive with this driver ahead of me. Instead, I was happy to know that there was someone else to whom these meandering maze of ditches was also a impermeable experience. The driver finally slowly led me forward, with many more stops to figure out which part of the road to drive on. She — I’m calling the driver a “she” — probably thought she about to get honked at, but I couldn’t have been happier to follow her until we made it to the next light and a familiar traffic pattern.

I suppose there might be a metaphor here. Cynically, someone else might invoke the cliche of the “blind leading the blind.”  Not me. If there’s any parable here, it’s that the ground is ever slipping beneath our feet. Maybe each birthday takes us further into a world that seems less familiar than than the one of our childhood. Maybe it’s that the unprecedented chaos in our politics and our governance makes it seem as though man-high ditches are springing  up around us. Aa Yeats tell us, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Everything feels novel and awful, every day, and yet somehow I made it home to put away the ice cream before it melted, thanks to the driver in front of me.

Me, I’m just glad that someone else is just as baffled as I am by the summer road work in Berea, and I find comfort in the truth that if we drive slow enough and ask for enough help, we’re maybe going to make it through the widening of US-25.

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