The gas light came on around Somerset.
Pennsylvania is a deceptively large state. Driving from New York to Ohio takes at least 6 and a half hours, if you drive straight through, without stopping for food or rest breaks.
But you have to stop for gas.
The hours spent driving pass by so much more quickly when you drive alone. You don’t have to worry about conversation, or the relative comfort of your passenger. You don’t have to expend mental energy thinking about whether they’re happy, or hungry, or tired, or bored, or regretting the entire experience.
Driving alone, you can play your favorite album on repeat, 20 times, and there’s no one there to beg you to, for the love of God, play anything else. So 5 straight hours of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” later, you remember that you forgot to eat dinner, and possibly lunch, too. But the empty gas tank makes you realize how empty your stomach has been for the last 5 hours.
Stopping at gas stations is alright. They’re comforting, in their general sameness. There’s always a cash register by the door. Always a bathroom (of varying cleanliness). Always drinks in the coolers and snacks on the shelves. Trinkets on display. Lottery tickets and cigarettes behind the counter. Visits follow the same routine, with clearly defined rules and roles. People leave me alone to look at things in peace. I can spend as much time as I want comparing items, going back and forth between the aisles, trying to decide if I want something salty or something sweet or both. They always have the big name, popular brands. No matter where you go, you can find your old standby, your favorite candy bar or box.
Boxed, fruity candies are usually the safer choice. Chocolate that’s been sitting around too long gets that weird white graininess to it. Ruins the whole thing. It’s just unacceptable.
After a quick bathroom break, I dry my hands off on my jeans and head back out into the aisles. The bathroom was equipped with one of those ungodly loud hand dryers. Pass.
I get a bag of my favorite chips. Some beef jerky. Some salted almonds. A box of Mike and Ike’s. A diet soda. A loaf of white bread. Peanut butter and jelly. I really should be buying all this from a grocery store, but I can’t be bothered to stop again somewhere else. Not anytime soon.
I told myself I was going west, but I hadn’t quite worked out all the details. I had set a pin on my map app on a small town in South Dakota, and that’s where I was headed.
And I hated every minute of it. I hated not having a plan. It went against my nature. I hated not knowing exactly where I was going and what I was doing. I hated not knowing where I was going to sleep or shower or rest. I would inevitably have to rest. Even if I limited my social interaction to gas station cashiers and toll road attendants, I’d still hit a point of social exhaustion, eventually.
But I would have to figure all that out later.
The whole point of this trip was to do something new, something completely outside my comfort zone.
She said I was stuck. That I was neither learning from my past or thinking about my future. I was just existing. Doing my best to stand firmly rooted in place while the rest of the world just sailed over my head like air on an airplane wing.
I’m not sure how good I am at metaphors, but hopefully you get what I mean.
I’m not dancing in the breeze or rolling with the punches. I’m a bump on a log, a hermit crab settling into its shell, an oyster pearl refusing to acknowledge the outside world.
But I tried to tell her that I have to be these things. That if I’m not anchored to the shore, I’ll just float away with the tide.
I’m not digging in my heels to be a stubborn jerk. I’m trying to survive, in a world full of loud air dryers, bright fluorescent lights, and other drivers who think I’m weird for wearing high-fidelity earplugs and blue-tinted glasses.
I’m trying to survive in a world that wasn’t designed with people like me in mind.
She hasn’t had the chance to be out that much. She doesn’t know what it’s like out here, not really.
If I want to be able to act like them and blend in with them for at least some of the day, then I need this. This quiet. This routine. This monotonous sameness.
It calms me down when I get overwhelmed, and right now, I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed.
I pay for my stuff, head back into my car, and queue up “Rumors” for the 7th time. I take one last look at my rearview mirror, hit play, and drive.