Ruminations on the Road

Wheels on the road, car full of gas and revving beneath me, wide open highway, the West calling my name. I love road trips. My youthful memories brim with recollections of driving with my family all over the Rockies and the American West and the Southwest. In college, I drove back and forth many times from New Mexico to California, wheels spinning out over endless desert and then fields and hills before getting to the Bay. I remember some of my most provocative conversations (and also some major life moments) unfolding against that backdrop of open sky and highway.

Now, I’m doing it solo, driving from Atlanta back to Albuquerque for the rest of the summer, with some stops in between (primarily in the Great State of Texas). I also do enjoy driving alone. Like taking a walk alone, driving gives me space and time to be by myself and think. With nothing else except the hills and trees unspooling around me, as the car sails by on cruise control, I tumble into my own breathing and reflection.

Yet, there is the question: when I am driving all day alone, taking pit stops along the way (and enjoying signs for America’s astonishing variety of roadside attractions), how am I to amuse myself for hours? Most of my hearing friends talk to me about listening to a music playlist on a long drive: diving deep into that new favorite soundtrack and committing it to memory, say, or singing along. Or they tell me about listening to a riveting new book on tape, or a podcast – or even two or three! Or they’ll explain how they skipped around on radio stations and found an interesting new show to listen to, and learned something, just to keep themselves engaged and while away the time.

You’ll notice that all of these activities involve – bingo! – listening. Driving, it seems, can become prime audio entertainment time for hearing people. I’ve sometimes been curious to ask my hearing friends how many of them ever drive alone, to an entirely silent car – or how long this silence lasts. Do they listen to music, to audiobooks, the entire time? Is this road trip a gap of silence waiting to be filled up with some kind of noise, some kind of pleasing or informative auditory novelty? Or are these auditory preoccupations, like mine, only peripheral? I’ve had enough conversations with friends about “how we keep ourselves occupied in the car” to wonder about this.

I, of course, have fewer options if I’m going to “entertain myself” while driving. I can’t listen to audiobooks or radio shows at all. I really can only have conversations with certain people, mostly people who sign, when I drive – if I am driving with someone else, that is. Since getting my cochlear implant several years ago, I can listen to music. I had vague plans of pulling together my (first-ever!) playlist for this road trip. I imagined myself selecting a list of songs I truly enjoyed, rather than the random assortments of music I find on the radio, and I imagined spending my entire drive westward getting well acquainted with them. It’d be part of my ongoing music self-education project, and would be far nicer than skipping through radio stations! Imagine how well I’d know those songs after 20 total hours of driving! Alas, before I left: 1) I got sucked into packing and reading and writing instead of thinking about music, and 2) I confess, I was a bit too intimidated by the task of assembling a playlist to even start one. What would I put on it?! (Friends and family, I will need to rely on you for this one next time.) So, no playlist. Maybe another time.

I am starting to realize that even a playlist might not be my M.O., though – since, as I recognized today about two or three hours into my drive, I really cannot listen to music for more than a few hours straight. I don’t know if this is a common experience. After about two and a half hours, I have a headache. The beat and the melody, which were once so catchy and pleasing, which once had me drumming my hands along on the steering wheel, just become annoying and nauseating. My brain feels foggy, full, suffused with too much music, too much stimulation. I need quiet time, alone, in my mind. This is an extension of a rather common experience I tend to have with all kinds of sound, from ambient background noise to speech to music: it’s all fine for a certain amount of time, but then I need it to stop. I crave silence. What is more, I crave the feeling of myself that I get from silence.

Fortunately, driving provides a prime opportunity to have this quiet time to myself. I shut the radio off and the road draws me into a reverie. I think, recollect, ponder, and pray. I sometimes simply let my mind go blank. I marvel at space, distance, speed, time. In these hours, I know no one will talk to me, I know my phone will not distract me, I know I will not be tempted to go off and do something else. The driving, the road: for these hours, this is all.

How often, in our scattered modern world, do we have moments to sit with ourselves, with no other distractions, and think? I become my own way of passing the time. Being deaf has, if you will, put me in a place where I can sit with myself, with no other outside words or auditory input, and think. I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful to sink, for a few hours, into my own depths, spaces, and silences. No music or audiobook needed to pass the time. Now, we’ll see which surprising roadside amusements arise on the highway tomorrow...