Driving Alone

One of the most underrated pleasures of life is the experience of driving alone. When life and work feel overwhelming, I crave the escapism and solitude offered by driving my car all by myself for a few hours. When driving alone, I feel like I am the captain of the ship, the pilot of the aircraft, the commander of the spaceship - an intrepid lone ranger making a distant voyage to uncharted lands. Unlike the brave explorers of the last century, it is unlikely I will get lost for I have a constellation of satellites precisely tracking my position through my phone, and should that fail, a compass and an old road map of the US stashed away in my glovebox.

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My navigation equipment would be the envy of lost explorers from centuries ago

Despite its battered appearance, the vehicle I'm piloting is in remarkably good condition. I have a hunch that this trip will go on without a hitch like the dozens I've had in this car in the past. I have little to worry about here - the oil is new, the tyres feel grippy, and the tank is filled with a reassuring amount of petrol should I find myself hours away from a gas station. I feel prepared for any situation which may come my way with an assortment of life support gear scattered throughout the car's interior, including but not limited to hand warmers, a knife, a flashlight, an emergency can of Red Bull, energy bars, and gallons of water in the trunk.

My journey goes through phases, starting with making a precisely choreographed series of lane changes to get on the highway which takes me in the direction of where I want to go. Once my car is heading in the right direction, I relax. I put the windows down, play the greatest hits of my music library, and occasionally change lanes to avoid highway exits. After I'm well out of the Bay Area, the traffic thins, I set the cruise control and roll the windows back up. The car now feels sealed to the outside and I turn my attention inwards. My car's reliable engine purrs lazily while dutifully propelling me along. Mere inches afforded by the tyres separate me from the asphalt passing below me at 100km/hr. The road ahead is mostly smooth, but any imperfections are foreshadowed by a creak of the coil springs followed by the bump deadened by the tyres and the suspension working in tandem. I become aware of distinct sounds such as the drone of the occasional motorbike and the rattling of the hard-worn semi truck passing me by.

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Battered by bugs but soldiering on, my car has a lot of miles left on it

After an hour or so, I turn the music down to a whisper and truly feel in tune with the machine in my hands. I start to enjoy the natural beauty which inevitably comes up on the horizon when driving hundreds of miles in any direction in California. I end up reminiscing the past and I can relive moments from when I was 20, or even 15 years old just as I had experienced them the first time. In that sense, driving alone takes me to the same mental states I've experienced with longer meditation sessions. At some points I feel small and insignificant on the thousands of miles of tarmac, much like a boat on a moonless night in the middle of the Caspian sea, heavily reliant on my instruments to guide me where I need to go. I feel vulnerable too, knowing full well that a problem with my car could leave me stranded in the middle of nowhere. But above all, the destination merely feels incidental as making the journey is really what the trip is all about for me. Driving is one of those few activities which is engagingly passive - for there is nothing like zoning out when there is nothing but the mountains for company. It gives me a chance to find that inner peace which can only come from reflecting in the time spent alone.

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Could there be a better place to lose yourself than this? (Death Valley National Park, California)

Like any spiritual experience, driving alone requires certain conditions to be enjoyable. It is unlikely that the bumper to bumper commute in a commuter corridor would be an absorbing experience for anyone. Over time, I've also learned what constitutes the ideal solo road trip experience for me. In my opinion:

  • I should be looking forward to the destination
  • The trip must be longer than at least two hours (or 100+ miles) but less than five hours which is when the fatigue of driving starts setting in for me
  • I should be able to maintain an average speed between 90km/hr and 110km/hr. Any slower feels frustrating and when going faster the wind noise becomes unbearable in my car
  • There should be no agenda to reach the destination at a particular time
  • The drive should have varied scenery such as the cliff views on the way to Lake Tahoe or the brilliant coastline on CA HWY1. In some parts, even the flat farmlands have their own charms with the change in smells along the way.
  • There should be options for making detours to interesting places along the route.
  • The drive does not need to start at sunset, but it should definitely be during sunset, preferably around the time the music stops and introspection starts
  • Windy roads are not much fun in my car and they tend to tire me out quickly, so I much prefer long stretches of interstate with low-medium levels of traffic