Posted: September 25, 2011 in Observations and Commentary
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Remember when the car embodied total freedom, when its main purpose was not utilitarian, rather something far more exciting? Remember when hitting the road filled you with the absolute conviction that literally anything was possible? Anything! Man, I’d be twitching with anxiety, ready to hop in and just drive. Whether a few hours of local cruising or several days of long distance journeying, the very act of driving offered deliverance on promises barely explainable, yet brimming with profound meaning. Sometimes I’d seek out new places, exotic in their unfamiliarity. Other times I’d contently watch the buildings and trees rush by. The purpose of the drive didn’t matter. What mattered was doing it and the feelings it engendered. The car emboldened generations of young Americans to pull away from the familiar and explode into the unknown. I was no exception.

For me it started in Jersey. I’d hit the gas and, with the rabid attention of an insatiable lover, explore the depths of this amazingly diverse state. I trekked through the rolling beauty of the northern Highlands and the sandy desolation of the southern Pine Barrens, past the eerie refineries of Elizabeth and down the gutted streets of Newark. I headed to the edges of the state, places like the Delaware Water Gap and the Ben Franklin Bridge, for the most clichéd reason of all – because they were there. I’m telling you, man. I’d go.

Once I reached college age the whole country opened up like the arms of a weeping mother welcoming home her soldier son. The borders of Jersey melted way. Since then I’ve driven to the brisk Canadian border and the humid shores of Cape Canaveral. I’ve traveled the winding roads of the Berkshires and the narrow streets of Boston, explored the fertile farmlands of Iowa and the dry counties of Tennessee. I’ve crossed the Appalachian Trail and the Great Divide. I’ve driven New York’s Thruway, Pennsylvania’s Turnpike, and the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. I’ve conquered Oklahoma’s dusty fields and Wyoming’s high plains. With a steady grip I’ve seen the majestic beauty of Oregon and the gritty desolation of West Virginia. I’ve cruised down Chicago’s Miracle Mile and through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza. I’ve touched the sands of the Atlantic, Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. There’s no denying it. Driving has given me the chance to experience things I may never have otherwise. I’m not saying I’m Johnny Cash. I haven’t been everywhere, man. But I’ve been to my fair share. And much of this travel, thousands and thousands of miles on everything from cobblestone to asphalt, occurred when I had no contingency plan, save common sense, patience and the belief in good fortune.

During all those trips, routinely snaking through places far more godforsaken and desolate than I ever do now, I never worried about breaking down or getting stranded. It didn’t concern me. My feeling was if something happened I would figure it out. Like the time Billy Go-Go and I spent the night stranded in the parking lot of an abandoned Arkansas diner during a wicked January ice storm. I still don’t worry about those things, but it’s not the same. Some may blame an increased awareness to the dangers of the world. I point to cell phones.

Nowadays if I get in the car without my phone, without a link to the outside world, I feel naked. Whether traveling 5 or 500 miles, I most likely wouldn’t go without my phone close by. This realization seized me earlier today as I prepared to head out. I didn’t – wouldn’t – leave until my phone was in hand. I know it’s silly, but it’s the cold truth.

For all their mobility, cell phones actually retard our sense of freedom. They compromise our willingness to face adventure without a net. Sure, driving the rural back roads of Texas at 2:00 a.m. is still pretty radical. But driving the rural back roads of Texas with no way to get in touch with anyone is quite another. Somewhere, something has been lost.

There’s a certain irony that a cell phone, physically attached to nothing, tethers us in a way phones with cords never did. Yes, we can now talk to anyone from anywhere. That is precisely the issue. Cell phones shackle us to a more restrictive mindset by always providing a ready crutch. They may be “cordless” in the physical sense, but they certainly don’t come without cords. Unlimited mobility has suffocated the thrill of heading into the unknown armed with nothing more than your wits.

  1. I so enjoyed this post! Your last two paragraphs summed up my feelings exactly (and far better than I could). I like the convenience of my phone, but miss the sense of adventure that traveling without that safety net brings.

    One of my favorite car memories was my senior year of high school in 1975. Don would borrow his dad’s Cadillac convertible. We would ride around with the top down with Radar Love blasting on the radio. Another was in 1996, driving along the coast from Cairns to the Daintree Village in Australia – that was an adventure without a cellphone! I also have fond memories of drive-in movies.

    Yet another excellent post!


    • John says:

      Ahhh, drive-in movies! For years I’ve suspected with the proper planning and location, a drive-in theater could still make boatloads of cash. Even if they just showed old movies. Hmmmm….now I’m thinking if they only showed old movies, that might be the way to go. It’s funny what experiences people will pay to have.


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