Travelogue: Lamenting The Lonely Highway

Downtown Des Moines at Dusk
Des Moines on a Saturday night. Photo by Randy Stern

Sometimes, the romance of the open highway may not be as romantic as I once envisioned.

When I was younger, I found myself driving between Southern and Northern California on several occasions. Most likely, I found myself on Interstate 5 running along the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley. This is not your lonely piece of highway as you are joined by many of your fellow motorists at all hours of the day and night at high rates of speed. Forget the 70MPH speed limit as you go with the flow of traffic. In this case, the flow normally averages 80MPH.

Sometimes, I found myself alone. For miles, I would become the only car on the road going in my direction. It would be 3:00AM, somewhere west of Fresno or Tulare…on a lonely highway. The radio or tape player would be blasting to keep me awake. The cruise control would be on and I would find a comfortable spot to rest my feet as I kept my fingers on the wheel. On summer nights, the windows would be open to let the valley air in. Some manure would seep through the wind, but it did keep me going.

This past weekend, I took the plunge into a quick weekend getaway into Iowa. Say what you will about the state, but I have some friends there that I was able to visit during my time in Des Moines and Iowa City. When I driving along Interstates 35, 80 and US Highway 218, there were plenty of moments that evoked the memory of the overnight drives back home in California.

Several years ago, I found myself on a lonely highway somewhere between Des Moines and Iowa City on I-80 on a foggy Sunday morning. This was not the case on my drive down from Minneapolis on I-35, but it took an eerie feeling. The fog was on in central Iowa and visibility was a half mile in some places. I was in a sea of white: Walls of white fog with snow-covered farm fields on either side of the Interstate. I could barely see the trucks as I glide by in a rented 2007 Honda Accord with Texas tags with the cruise plugged in at 75MPH. The speed limit was 70.

Once they came into view, a winter wind hindered movement alongside the semis. Once I slipped through, I was gliding down the highway. It wasn’t flat all the way east of the state capital, but entertaining through the gentle prairie slopes and curves.

Somewhere between Waterloo and Mason City, I found myself lonely again on US 218. This part of Iowa is flat, which made things even bleaker. It was just around 1:30PM. The trucks were absent on this stretch of highway. This was an unfamiliar piece of tarmac as I never ventured this way before.

This stretch was different. It was 65 on the sign, 70 on the cruise. Still…it was simply bleak. Newness sometimes concerns me as I may never know what to expect on an unfamiliar stretch of road. Yet, I question whether my sense of adventure is seeping from my soul as I turn another year older?

Maybe it is my tolerance and stamina that I am losing? As a guy who loves cars and driving them, perhaps I should question whether I am losing my exploration quotient and the energy to explore? Maybe, it is the vehicles I have been driving? Have some of them become unentertaining all of the sudden? Maybe I should get one with Sirius or XM or find an auxiliary jack for a future iPod on the next car I drive? Rather, maybe I should quality check the CDs I burn from my iTunes better?

One thing I did not do was roll down the windows – not with temperatures in the 23-29 degree Fahrenheit range and a wind whipping up outside!

The stamina issue could be blamed on my East Coast living in the late 1990’s. I was spoiled by drives to cities up to two-and-a-half hours away. Granted, while living in Madison, Chicago was just a few hours away. I was able to accomplish this without major fatigue. The Minneapolis-Madison run was indeed a killer. It still is.

The biggest thing that I will admit that most of my long distance driving over the past three decades has been undertaken alone behind the wheel. There is certainly a difference between driving solo and with friends who you get along with on the way. Though there will be fights over music files on the smartphone, the radio preset button and the seating arrangement in a vehicle, at least having another warm and familiar body nearby helps ease the pain of the lonely highway. You can even take turns behind the wheel.

Many of you who love long distance driving may have your secrets to staying alert tens to hundreds of miles at a time. Most of them have been argued by the medical profession as being bad for you, but how can it be bad if you keeps you from plowing into a semi or flipped upside-down a ditch? Then again, I cannot officially advocate anything that everyone wants to argue its long-term health affects.

My best thought about this is to get some rest and stop when you can. Hydrate yourself in a way that keeps you refreshed and to monitor your body closely as you drive. Keep your entertainment options available in case you are a solo driver that gets bored and lonely easily.

Maybe someday I will again engage others to join me along the way. Perhaps I will be able to lessen the fatigue and emptiness of the lonely highway.

Automobile Lifestyle, Travel WritingPermalink

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