Everything else

Cruise Control

Driving alone on an open road at night is like being the captain of your own universe.

Illustration by Beth

Backroads are the most beautiful thing the suburbs have to offer: paths that twist around giant trees and hidden houses, concrete evidence of years of city progress that create a maze through which only a true citizen can navigate her way home. A novice could easily get lost and panic. A veteran gets lost on purpose. As soon as I got my license, I started learning how to get lost.

My first car wasn’t my car at all—it belonged to my parents, who let me borrow it whenever I wanted, because it was 1999 and gas was less than a dollar per gallon, and I was the kind of kid who was too afraid to get into any serious trouble. My parents would later tell me about the times they’d sneak into nightclubs through bathroom windows and cross state lines from Massachusetts to New York so they could buy beer at 18 as opposed to 21. I wondered, when they were young and dancing, if they ever had this conversation: “What if we get married and have a daughter who rebels by being a total square?”

The car was a 1997 Nissan Altima, a blue beauty with cream interiors and a six-CD changer in the trunk, which, believe it or not, was pretty amazing. This was an era when streaming music was the kind of thing you’d hear about from your stoned friend while you drove him home from the party and asked him to stop dropping Burger King onion rings on the carpet. I was madly in love with it, even though I was a terrible driver. (I almost killed my friends the first time I drove them by going the wrong way on a one-way street, and I hit more than one concrete barrier in a parking lot, leaving the front license plate permanently dented.) It represented the one thing I wanted more than anything else at the time: a place to be alone.

My heart was broken in those days, and I spent many of them trying to string it back together through half-hearted kisses and other signs of shared loneliness with my best friend-with-benefits: ceiling stares and deep sighs and if onlys and maybes and but not in that ways. Home was a hard place to be. My grandmother, whom I loved more than anything, was dying of cancer in the room across from mine, and I could hear her cry at night. I was pulling away from my friends, who were already becoming new versions of themselves, all of us aware of the inevitable separation that would happen when we left for college the following year. Soon enough I’d be leaving my parents for a city I’d only visited twice. All I wanted was to disappear, to become one of the pieces of gravel flicking at windshields, giving drivers a little scare, breaking their illusions a bit, waking them up. I wanted to feel powerful while also being virtually invisible. The car was a means to that end.

I’d never had my own space growing up—I shared a room with my sister—so the car became a de facto bedroom, a place where I could play whatever music I wanted (the Cure, the Smiths, and the recently released OK Computer) over and over again, as loud as I wanted, and where I could cry and scream and think and move in circles until I felt calm enough to go back home, where I’d have to interact with everyone else. Cruising around darkened schools and passing under blinking streetlights while the rest of the city slept created a feeling of control—I was out on my own, and the world was just a set that I was passing through. I didn’t have to pretend to be happy; I didn’t have to play any roles. I just had to pay attention to the road in front of me. Driving at night was always better—it was as if I had the entire city to myself.

On the nights when my grandmother was particularly ill, or when I was filled with anxiety about college applications or boys or the stress of just existing, I’d tell my parents I was going “out” and usually drive to my best friend’s house, where I’d hang out for a few hours, always leaving plenty of curfew wiggle room for the long way home. I’d get close to my house and then take a sharp turn in the opposite direction, moving toward unfamiliar residential areas or the screaming highways and an old turnpike filled with glowing diners, shady motel signs, and giant miniature golf sculptures that looked like plastic ghosts as I whizzed by.

Sometimes I’d pretend that I was driving back in time, that I was erasing the things that were waiting at home, or reversing mistakes I’d made, or taking back things I’d said to people I loved. Other times I had conversations with myself about the future or love or death, rehearsing for a play that would only take place in my mind, where I’d always say the right thing and there’d always be a happy ending. I wondered if anyone else was doing the same thing. Every set of headlights was a series of questions: Who are these people? Where are they going? Do they know how to fix unfixable things?

It occurred to me on several occasions, usually the bleaker nights when things were just too sad at home, that if I wanted to, I could just drive away entirely. I could go to the other side of the country, or to the airport where I could try to find a way to get to the other side of the world. But these things were all impractical, and I knew that even if I did manage to pull them off, they’d only bring more sadness and confusion, and the things I was running from would follow me wherever I went. It took me a few years (and a few therapy sessions) to come right out and say this in a concrete way, but the sick feeling in my stomach—a mix of panic and instinct—led me to believe it was true. I knew my limits, and I knew that if I allowed myself to get truly lost, I’d never find my way back. Really, I only wanted to disappear for a little while, to escape for an hour or two, to have my hands on the wheel and to be in complete control of where my life—and, in my mind, the lives of others—were headed. I could create the future from behind the safety of a seatbelt and an airbag, imagine where everyone would end up, which huge steps we’d all take, without ever having to leave the confines of the car.

The feeling I took from those long, solitary drives was one I never found in a boy’s bedroom, or at a party with my friends, or within the walls of my house. It was a calm sort of sadness, a regimented exercise in release. The ritual of putting the key in the ignition and hearing the engine roar under my command, coupled with the notion that I alone had the power to stop and go, just with the touch of my feet, made me feel powerful during an otherwise powerless time. I learned that I could be in control and present in one world even as my heart and my mind were racing toward another. Yes, I’m crying all over myself, but I’ve got this gasoline-filled beast by the reins, and I get to tell it where to go.

Driving alone on an open road at night is like being the captain of your own universe. Your song plays on the radio, your preferred temperature blasts from the air ducts, your breath fogs up the windows. Occasionally, an invading set of headlights from another wanderer will break your spell, remind you that you’re not alone, and you’ll either thank them or curse them, depending on your mood. All you want to do is move forward, to get out, to be in a place where your thoughts can spill out and be replaced, over and over, until the right combination of thoughts finally kicks in and you’ve had enough for the evening. Exhaustion usually brought me back: when I’d let everything out, I could crawl out of the driver’s seat, into my bed, and fall asleep. It’s therapy, I guess. Sometimes you just need to get away, even if you don’t have a set destination.

Every so often, I drive home to visit my family. It’s an eight-hour drive, round trip, and most people give me sympathy when I tell them I’m taking it. But it’s never a hassle. It is what it has always been: a chance to escape from everything, to once again pilot my way through my own life. The road is there to guide but not to judge. I still think through my worries, or imagine solutions, or just tune out and sing as loud as I can, and no one can tell me not to. I sit there and stare straight ahead, letting all things pass, good and bad and in-between, like the trees outside my windows. ♦

36 Comments

  • Claire July 4th, 2012 11:07 PM

    This is so beautiful and perfectly expressed. I’ve been driving for a few years now, but the sheer invincibility/power/freedom that comes from cruising at night with the windows down and the music turned up has yet to grow old. (My most recent favorite song to set the mood is Hole’s “Heaven Tonight.”)

  • katrinaexplainsitall July 4th, 2012 11:08 PM

    YES! this is one of the reasons I need to learn how to drive soon. /sigh. the best (and worst) feelings come out late at night.

    http://www.katrinaspice.blogspot.com

  • July 4th, 2012 11:28 PM

    this is beautiful! One of the reasons I want my license

  • Moxx July 4th, 2012 11:36 PM

    I love the feeling described here. Although I don’t drive, I can still walk out at night. It’s almost like a good sort of anxiety, no?

    Someone who writes things I have loved and think are true once wrote

    “Love is driving really fast at night with the dark highway below and the dark cosmos above you.”

  • Sarah M July 4th, 2012 11:46 PM

    This totally just summed up my driving experiences thus far. Driving at night is such an escape, it’s like my own personal therapy. This was great, Pixie!

  • azultardis July 4th, 2012 11:51 PM

    I love doing driving alone,with my favorite songs,my school it’s like 30min away from the city so every day I get to drive alone and I love it! and I love my car so much, it’s a bug and i love it.

  • Alexism July 5th, 2012 12:19 AM

    Ugh, driving at night feels like driving into infinity. When I go for those drives I go home when the sun starts to rise, alone, powerful, at peace.

    “All you want to do is move forward, to get out, to be in a place where your thoughts can spill out and be replaced, over and over, until the right combination of thoughts finally kicks in and you’ve had enough for the evening”

    Beautiful!

  • Isabellla July 5th, 2012 1:24 AM

    This is so beautiful. I particularly loved the part about driving back in time. This brought a wee tear to my eye, thank you <3

    http://bell–shire.blogspot.com.au/

  • Erykaneisha July 5th, 2012 1:29 AM

    I have a feeling that this is what driving is going to be like for me. My perfect escape.
    Thank you for writing this <3

  • Naomi July 5th, 2012 8:00 AM

    this is beautiful. this is the reason i want to drive.

  • Kathryn July 5th, 2012 8:03 AM

    beautiful

  • Alexx July 5th, 2012 10:11 AM

    I really hope that driving is like this for me, because that’s how I’ve always imagined it should be, like some sort of escape.

    None of my friends really get why I want to get my permit so bad and always say that there’s no point to driving if you’re only 15..but I can’t help but make some kind of ideal fantasy out of the idea of being able to drive and just being able to go anywhere. Now I just hope I stay motivated enough to get my permit this summer!

  • Indi July 5th, 2012 10:39 AM

    Not only is this a beautiful article, but it is an astoundingly brilliant piece of writing. Thank you!

  • erin July 5th, 2012 1:46 PM

    My junior year was the worst year of my life so far. I was miserable all of the time, because of school and even my best friends. The only bright spot was my car. Honestly, it was my only comfort. I’d jump in it after my classes were over and just get out of there. Like you said, I played whatever music I wanted (we even listen to the same!) as loud as I wanted. I could laugh or cry or swear if I’d had a bad day. Hide in it if I was upset with my friends or whatever. There were days I’d drive out of town and climb up these big rocky hills and call my parents on top of them, asking them to excuse me from the rest of the school day if something was really sucking. My car is the best. Thanks Pixie, this was a great post.

  • RockHatesMiriam July 5th, 2012 1:53 PM

    Unfortunately the legal driving age in england is 18, but i can’t wait to start driving for precisely this reason! Beautiful piece!

    http://www.pompandceremony.blogspot.com

  • julalondon July 5th, 2012 3:59 PM

    Wonderful and so true!

  • starsinyourheart July 5th, 2012 4:57 PM

    i love night driving with all my heart. i’ve only been driving for 4 months but god i love it so so so much. i finally feel freedom

  • cami8 July 5th, 2012 5:13 PM

    This describes exactly what i do when i go for a walk (unfortunaletely, i cant drive yet). Being able to think about how things would be like if they were perfect, tying to escape from problems. I loved this article!

  • meels July 5th, 2012 7:02 PM

    this is one of the many reasons i want to be able to drive, it seems alot goes on in your own little pod and you can just blast your music without your neighbours complaining or anything, you’re always on the hoof. however i don’t think i’ll ever experience this, i can legally drive next year but my mum thinks its a waste of time and money cos ‘cars will be extinct’ it’s very silly

  • Mona V July 5th, 2012 8:36 PM

    This is a beautiful article!
    I can’t drive but I can totally relate to a lot of things you’re saying because they’re just a great metaphor for going through life I guess.

    xoxo, Mona

    http://anoceaninthecity.tumblr.com/

  • Jen L. July 6th, 2012 2:16 AM

    This article totally reminds me of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower!”

    But fo’ real, getting your license = blissful control and freedom, and late night drives and feeling infinite. Just don’t forget to check your oil now and then!

  • rhymeswithorange July 7th, 2012 2:44 AM

    What I love most about my car is that I can sing all I want in it freely, as loud as I want. I’m a terrible singer, but I love to sing. It’s freedom.
    Also, anyone ever read Never Let Me Go? This piece really reminds me of Kathy driving around the roads of England. Really great!

  • missmadness July 7th, 2012 9:17 AM

    So perfect. So, so perfect.

  • tove July 7th, 2012 9:20 AM

    this is wonderfully written and it also makes me think of the final scene of “drive” (just a little).

  • Hedwig July 7th, 2012 11:19 AM

    BEAUTIFUL

  • smashedtiara July 7th, 2012 2:58 PM

    i completely agree… driving makes me feel so independent and nighttime only gives you the feeling that you can do anything

  • pendulous-threads July 8th, 2012 1:45 AM

    Thank you so much for this. I love driving by myself so very much, and I need to start leaving room between hangouts and curfew to just go on a car ride. It sounds wonderful thinking about it.
    Also, every time I read one of your articles, the things you mention about your hometown are always weirdly similar to mine. WHAT IF WE LIVED IN THE SAME PLACE
    that would be cool

  • clairee July 8th, 2012 4:48 PM

    Yes! This is the best part about driving.

  • Tyknos93 July 9th, 2012 4:23 PM

    Damn! I was totally making a playlist called “Songs to Drive Aimlessly To” before I saw this article. I get this article so much it’s crazy.

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

  • Adrienne July 9th, 2012 11:57 PM

    Great article! I got my license last month, but I have yet to drive alone late at night.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • Candy Moon July 10th, 2012 10:48 AM

    I recently looked back over some photos from my first year of University (which was spent in a very rural location) I spent so many evenings driving. It was such a release to have my own space and always felt so freeing. Especially listening to music knowing it wouldn’t bother anyone else and singing my heart out. I no longer have my car but do miss it and found my finial year at uni so difficult without it .

    Thanks so much for writing this piece really heart-warming to know I’m not the only one who has been driving around as a way of working out their thoughts and troubles. Or being seduced by whispers of adventure from the open road. x

  • sinclair July 10th, 2012 11:58 AM

    This is so so perfect. I do the exact same thing. You get very good at getting lost.

  • puny weakling July 10th, 2012 4:55 PM

    here in my car i feel safest of all, i can lock all my doors, it’s the only way to live, in cars

  • Jenn July 11th, 2012 2:13 AM

    All I can say is Y E S

  • taste test July 31st, 2012 1:22 AM

    I’m commenting way late just to say: I’m struggling to get my license before going to college right now. at this point, I’ll be cutting it close, and even though I’ve been practicing for almost a year, I’m still a nervous, not-so-great driver. I almost got into an accident today and I was really wondering why I’m putting myself through all this stress just to be able to use the family car for like a week before I leave (I don’t intend to have a car in college). then I thought of this article. thank you for reminding me why I want to do this. here’s hoping I’ll pass the test and get to have at least one meandering night drive alone before I move.

  • Sophii June 16th, 2013 7:08 PM

    This is officially one of my all time favourite rookie posts. I am too young to drive at the moment and cars have never interested me so I have never been too desperate about learning how to drive. Also, everything is so expensive now. However, I love sitting in the passenger seat with someone else driving and just listening to music or discussing things that are separate to our everyday lives.
    Last Friday I spent two hours driving through the countryside with my grandad. We talked about some things but mostly I just felt really free and like nothing else mattered. This was all in the middle of my exams but I felt an overwhelming sense of calm that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
    I do find walking alone very therapeutic too.
    You have fantastic music taste. I cannot wait to get a car and blast The Smiths all the time tbh.

    http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blogspot.co.uk

    http://sophiewilsonsbooks.blogspot.co.uk