Aerial Light: The Lost American Highway Soul

I’ve done my share of driving. It used to be along a North/South axis between my home state of Washington and points in California, Nevada and Arizona. Finally in 2007 I broke through to the East/West axis in a significant way when I moved for a time to New York. I’d first started this driving thing a decade earlier, after living for most of a year in the west of England, where my colleague and friend Karolyn told me – my being an American – about her plan to someday come to America, to rent a car and drive it across the country. This was  how I finally came to understand something about the vast spaces that the US represents to someone in the relatively compact UK, the opportunities for emptiness and landscape unavailable in a country that can be traversed in a single day. Of course I’d read On The Road and Blue Highways. The concept of a long drive was not foreign to me; I’d even taken a few road trips myself. But it was clear that I’d never quite thought of it in the right way before, much less appreciated what was freely available to me in my own home country – a place which I’d up until then thought of as more of an international embarrassment than anything else. In America, there was space, an entire continent’s width of it, a baffling sense of scale which, if you let it, could reduce the single human ego to more or less exactly what it was: one tiny point of reference, a moving dot, a thing so easily lost sight of once the perspective is opened and the scenery, even if only partially, immersed into. The prospect of this can be absolutely terrifying, and not out of weakness or undo ego-attachment, but simply from being a vulnerable human animal. One becomes so entirely lost in it. One’s life and safety depend on the functioning of the machinery, on having enough gas in the tank.

At first I made a point of taking the small, forking roads, keeping as free from the interstate as possible. This was usually far more interesting, more varied and lively. But as these personal transits became over time more functional, and as gas prices crept higher, the journey came to be about less about the journey than the straightest line as shortest distance between points A and B. I’d come to appreciate the efficiency of the toll highways of the Midwest, with their arrangements of full-service rest stops at regular intervals designed to prevent unnecessary deviations or subjections to contingencies of velocity. A singular focus upon steady movement was, under these conditions, gained, and this was something that my soul had its hunger for, though no doubt much also had been traded out along the way.

It was along one of these toll highways, running, I believe, through Indiana – it seems to be in the nature of the thing that specifics of which state or which year or even which direction are lost – and I was either returning to Washington from New York, or I was going to New York from Colorado a year earlier. This would have put it in either July of 2009, or October of 2008, respectively. It was sometime after nightfall, though it wouldn’t have been terribly late – I tend not to drive late when  traveling over a course of several days like that. What I saw was just the briefest glimpse, but it was clear enough: there was a light – I couldn’t say how big or small, just a white ball of light – and it was less than a hundred feet off the ground, above the road, a short distance ahead. I only noticed it at all, as opposed to thinking it a streetlamp, because of the sudden movement as the thing shot off, running in parallel to the freeway, heading in the same direction as me – that is, away from me – and going very fast. There wasn’t any sound from it apart from the noise of the road, which I couldn’t hear for the stereo. A helicopter that close would’ve made a lot of noise, I’m sure. It didn’t accelerate, but was just in an instant going about as fast as a jet airplane might, and vanished in the distance as quickly as it had appeared.

Like so much else of this sort that I’ve seen, or think that I have seen, there was only the briefest, tiny glimpse, as if to tantalize – a desire frustrated – the suggestion of something that anyone could explain away without much effort. This convinces no one, not even me, but I have the sense that it isn’t supposed to; in fact, that it’s supposed exactly not to. Suggestion, impression, the reading into of an active and conscious projection is the level of engagement that seems to be asked of me, and certainty or conclusion are what I will (perhaps thankfully) never be given.

But because I’m a writer and I tell stories, and more specifically because as a writer who is shaping these fragments of my life into stories, and thereby changing the very structure of my life as I’m living it, the need for an ending requires, if not the certainty of conclusions, then at least a point at which to wrap things up, a bell to ring that signifies the end, which is this: that was my soul; I lost my soul, it got away from me; look: I lost my soul while driving; I lost my soul while driving so far up and down the interstates of America, and in such a hurry, and because I was so small, and now I have to get it back; I have to chase it down; I have to chase my soul down; I have to chase my soul back down in my imagination, because where else am I going to find it? And I have to find it there because there is where it is. Okay?