Last spring I decided I had to see the Great Plains again, so I took a road trip and drove the 1,500 miles out there from New Jersey. Actually, it was more like 3,000 miles, as I ricocheted along an indirect route, from the famous Natural Bridge in Virginia, a beautiful, high stone arch, created by erosion, that Thomas Jefferson once owned, to the Tina Turner Museum, in Tennessee, which is in the one-room schoolhouse she attended as a girl, to a museum in New Madrid, Missouri, devoted to the earthquake that caused the Mississippi River to run backward in 1812. I took a break to visit friends in Little Rock, Arkansas. Then I cut across into Oklahoma and continued on to Kansas; I pictured myself as a tiny icon moving on a map.
In Colorado, I decided to follow a two-lane road stretching to the western horizon beyond a sign that warned No Services Next 70 Miles. The weather ahead looked sketchy, but stopping just for the sake of good judgment is rarely an option I pay attention to. The sun went down. Towering blue and black and grayish-yellow clouds piled up, and a cannonade of lightning flashes filled the sky, except in the southeast. At a tiny junction called Punkin Center, I had a chance to turn away from the storm, but instead, I drove straight on.
Rain began to fall, obscuring the windshield even with the wipers on the fastest speed. Then the hail came down in buckets, making a deafening racket, bouncing off the hood, and I thought it might break the windshield. A truck had preceded me down the narrow, cracked two-lane road. I followed its tracks through the hailstones, now several inches deep.
On the plains, you sometimes feel a power that can squash you flat. Now it was right overhead, surrounding me with electric-blue and yellow and orange lightning that illuminated huge clouds in strobe-light pulses. The windshield fogged, and I kept rubbing it. Each mile I made was an achievement. Hours of this put me within sight of the lights of Colorado Springs; my Jersey car had never been in such a tussle. Slowly, the lights came closer. I reached the city limits sign. I had seen the Great Plains elephant, and suddenly I was ready to go home.
In a way, going home is the most uncomplicated, mentally comfortable part of any journey.
The next day I turned around and drove back, doing as many miles as I could at a stretch before I had to rest. In a way, going home is the most uncomplicated, mentally comfortable part of any journey. A mindless homing urge takes over, and I keep my eyes straight ahead with no destination but my own driveway. Home becomes a magnetized place that’s drawing me, and getting to it preempts every other intention. I will reach it no matter what; if the car broke down, I would jump out and flag a ride or walk. I go and go, and when I finally arrive, I hit my bed with a thwap, quivering like an arrow shot into a block of wood.
As a boy, I used to fall asleep to the sounds of turnpike traffic. A long upgrade from the Cuyahoga River valley ran near our house, and the trucks downshifted in a regular sequence as they climbed it—a soothing progression of motor sounds. Now I live on a busy street, and I’m so used to the noise of traffic that I’m awakened when there isn’t any.
But here, as in many places, the objects in motion and the objects at rest are at odds. The endless passage of cars and trucks and motorcycles eats away at the neighborhood’s front yards. Every so often, a car jumps a curb and crashes into a telephone pole or a front porch. In the end, the street’s motion breeds chaos. If my neighbors and I did not constantly pick up the detritus thrown from the traffic—the Newport packs, the Amazon delivery forms, the plastic drink lids with plastic straws stuck though them—our yards would soon be buried.
The object in motion and the object at rest are deeply connected; they are each other’s mirror double. Now that I’m older, and more often an object at rest, I see other people off at airports more often than I’m seen off myself. The object in motion—sometimes it’s my son, my mirror double, on his way to Russia, where I used to call from when he was a boy—hugs me and let’s go and waves and disappears around the corner into the airport security lines. The rush of love and longing I feel at that moment almost floors me. Every departure partakes of eternity. The mysterious, ephemeral zone between motionlessness and motion holds all the yearning in the world.