The classic golden Californian hills and fields whiz past in a wheat-colored blur and the world itself spins by like a toy.
Embarking on a road trip feels like true freedom, a blitz through the universe. As the road rumbles beneath the tires, it feels as if the highways are being pulled underneath the car, and I’m gliding through the air. There goes a black hatchback with water stains spotting the sides, a silver sedan as shiny as a new dime, and a white minivan with chips on the edges of the door. The clouds in the sky, distant and unmoving, look as if they’ve been pressed down by a rolling pin. Flat, dirty grey, and slightly rough around the edges, they resemble the inside of my fleece sweatshirt.
My ten-year-old body fits into the natural contours of the seat and I try to adjust my head against the peculiar angle of the headrest. Whatever fancy gears and levers might be attached, the average car seat is a device designed to be one-size-fits-all, and it is the headrest, more than any other part, that first presents this fatally uncomfortable flaw to the passenger. The air conditioning turns on as the engine purrs to life, and the air wafts lightly over me, warm and dry like skin, as if the car itself were breathing over me. Later the breeze cools down slightly, and I adjust the dials periodically—now a stronger current, now a lighter one. Now I am too warm, now I am too cold. Dial clockwise, then counterclockwise. The same pattern for the radio, as it stutters on and off at intervals when we pass through the stuffy, dank stillness of a tunnel.
There is something about being in a car that allows one to become almost perfectly detached from the rest of the world. We pass by an accident, several police cars flanking a pick-up truck and a smaller sedan. The police cars look cartoonish, the red and blue flashing lights making them seem like toys. Our car whizzes past the accident, leaving it behind in a blur of gray asphalt. The lane dividers on the highway look like stitches, and I mentally trace a finger over them.
And yet, despite, or perhaps because of, the constant movement, I am restless. There is no song on the radio that satisfies me. There is no temperature on the dial that either soothes or warms my skin with the consistency I desire, no matter how many times the car, blowing through the vents, sighs over me.
“Are we there yet?” I ask.
“Are we there yet.”
“Are we there yet.”
It’s a small mental trick, that if you repeat anything long enough in an enclosed space it eventually becomes absolutely unbearable.
My big sister gives me a silencing, cold stare and says, “No.”
“Do you wanna play a game,” I continue to pester.
“How about a movie.”
Eventually she snaps at me and says something vicious. I don’t say anything then, for a long time. I begin counting the cars we pass (or which pass us) on the highway. One rattling pick-up loaded with a ladder and construction tools. A grand brigade of six motorcycles revving past like a roll of continuous thunder (and spewing dark fumes that indicate the same). They rear up on their back wheels as if they were riding horses, and from the passenger’s seat I can see that the motorcycle closest to our car, only about five feet ahead of the hood, wobbles ever so slightly before coming back down safely.
“That’s pretty cool, isn’t it,” I say to no one in particular.
“Huh,” my dad, who is driving, grunts noncommittally.
After some thought, he adds, “It should be the vehicle wrapped around the person to protect them, not the other way around.” It’s as strong a condemnation as his mild disposition allows. With rounded glasses on his round face, he is the Peter Griffin of the family, frequently amiable and sometimes clueless.
Trying to take my mind off this conundrum, I pick up a well-worn pack of Trident chewing gum. The thin cardboard is damp with old perspiration and the T in Trident is coming off from a week of hard use. I inspect its contents the way a smoker would survey the number of cigarettes he had left, and finally slide one small clay-like green slab with neatly sliced edges out of its not so crisp paper slip and into my mouth. Despite the slight griminess of its packaging, the gum is a cool burst of watermelon on my tongue, taking on a ridged texture from the impressions of my teeth for a few chews before settling into a mellower, taffy-like feel. I slip the pack into my deep jean pocket, letting it await another boring moment.
The car is a symbol of freedom, with its mobility and power. But I keep thinking about that. Doesn’t being truly free mean that I wouldn’t want more freedom? So, the people who have freedom are the ones who don’t think they need it? Yet, I feel a primal urge, calling me outside to run in the ocean of grape fields with wind flowing through my midnight black hair.
Is that what freedom feels like? I wonder.
The clouds are slow and silent, and do not reply. Eventually the landscape transforms, slowly, then all at once, like dawn breaking. The golden hills become cool, fog-laden forests, and then give way to enormous dunes of ice-plants and sand. Beyond, the ocean beats against the shoreline in protest of the low tide, gray and relentless. For a time, I can forget my questions about freedom. As the window slides a crack open, the smell of salt and seaweed slips in, a cool scent that makes all my senses come alive.