Dark roads

I wished it were light enough outside that I could have seen my surroundings. It was 10:30 on Friday night; I was driving on a rural road that was well paved and moderately traveled, but offered little in the way of signage; and I didn’t know exactly where I was going. There were black hills outlined against an orange haze of suburban lights just a few miles away. They suggested a nice pastoral landscape in this part of the Willamette Valley where I’d never been before. I had turned off the highway a few minutes earlier, after passing through a series of strip malls in smallish towns, onto this dark road whose name I didn’t know. At least I knew that I was heading eastward, and I assumed that would require an eventual confluence with the interstate. I wasn’t sure how many miles I’d driven. When I crossed the third county line I’d seen that evening, I felt both a burst of panic along—Where the heck am I?—and a silly sense of accomplishment. There’s something about boundaries that fascinates me.

It was one of those aimless, solitary road trips that I like to take when I feel discontent. Usually I just barely push the outer limits of Portland, but my restlessness on Friday night demanded to be taken farther. After I had left the city, I drove through a few neon-lit towns and wondered what, besides gas stations and fast food, those not-so-far-flung areas had to offer. There were a couple of wineries set back from the highway, advertising tastings despite the late hour. I could also see that I wasn’t far from a state park, which probably featured some of those gentle river-cut landscapes I was missing out on. If there were other features of interest nearby, they were impossible to notice while my view was dominated by fluorescent lights.

Of course if I were really interested in exploring, I would have taken this trip in daylight and gotten out of the car once or twice. Instead, I took only a passing interest in the surroundings while playing my favorite Modest Mouse album loudly enough to muffle any attempts at deliberate thinking. I fully intended to get lost, in both physical and metaphysical ways. The driving and the music gave me something familiar, rhythmic, to concentrate on.

During some past vehicular wanderings I’ve been disappointed, having had expectations of revelatory thoughts brought to life by the quiet, solitary act of driving, or of some adventurous opportunity begging me to pull the car over. It has been a letdown to realize that with no destination or stopovers in mind, I’m not very good at simply conjuring excitement and adventure. Also, thinking while behind the wheel isn’t necessarily more productive than thinking elsewhere: It is just as easy to get trapped inside your own mind.

The thing is, I’m still learning how to recognize what I need when I’m feeling downhearted or otherwise out-of-sorts. Taking a long drive—definitely a form of escape—is not always a good remedy. My emotional health tends to be better served when I stay home and set my mind to some task or diversion. When I choose escape, the length of the road and breadth of the world can seem as overwhelmingly stark as a blank canvas. On the other hand, when I’m at home—really at home with myself—I have an opportunity to see that the life within me is vibrant enough to paint a thousand canvases.

For the past two weeks I have been intensely focused on sitting with myself, being present with both the good and the bad, and actively trying to sort through my feelings. That can be an exhausting process. So, on this lonesome Friday evening, I rented a car to escape to unfamiliar places. It actually felt quite good. The solidity of pavement beneath me, the expansiveness of Oregon outside Portland, and my own senses of mobility and possibility were kind of soothing. And my directional instincts were right: I stayed with that dark, uncertain road for several miles but finally found the path to home.

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