On the road you are alone. It does not matter if there are other people in the car, other cars on the road, other roads with other cars nearby. You are alone.
You are not, of course, on the road when you run errands or drive across town. You are not on the road when you visit your grandparents, far away though they may be.
You are not truly on the road unless you left, days ago, before sunlight and were still driving when the sun set. Unless you haven’t slept in a bed in recent memory and your world is a grid of yellow lines and black asphalt. Until your car is strewn with smelly clothes, bits of food and roadside grit and you measure time by entire tanks of gas, you are not on the road.
I was on the road a short while ago. For approximately two weeks I drove, with a companion, through some of the most devastatingly uninteresting countryside in the world. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the car, ensuring that the upholstery carried permanent reminders of each meal. We brushed our teeth in the car and put our smelly clothes in the back seat until a significant amount of time had passed and they could once again be declared clean. We slept in the car until we could not remember what it felt like to extend all our appendages at the same time.
We hibernated for long stretches of road in silence, listening to the one radio station available throughout Indiana, Iowa and Kansas which, full of mid-western values, claimed to play only songs we knew. Other than the occasional honk of salutation from a trucker too nearsighted to see our disheveled state, we were alone.
Or so we thought. It was not until we met the hapless Austrian woman that we realized we were not alone at all.
Having abandoned the car and the road for a day, we found ourselves in a canyon on a trail which was unnamed, but should have been called “The 280-mile Trail of Snow and Sudden Death.” Several key parts of it were covered by snow and thus formed a shortcut to the bottom of the canyon. Uninterested in adding serious bodily harm to our list of experiences, we turned around, to find ourselves facing a young, hapless Austrian woman. She smiled brightly at us.
“You take me to the other side of the canyon, yes?” she said.
We explained that she was on the 280-mile Trail of Snow and Sudden Death, but she would not listen.
“Other side, yes?” she repeated. She was not wearing a backpack. She was not carrying water. She was wearing Reeboks and a wool hat with a brim. She was alone.
We pantomimed “snow,” “death” and “280 miles,” but to no avail. She needed, it came out, to get to the other side to meet a friend.
Though I am uncertain as to the amount of time she was allowing herself for this hike (which, granted, was a little under 280 miles), I believe she would have had to hike around 45 miles an hour to make it to the other side before dark. Not to belittle Austrian strength. The American-made Reeboks would probably have worn out first.
In the end, we saved her shoe rubber by driving her to the other side of the canyon. We left her by the side of the road to wait an unspecified amount of time for this mysterious friend.
There were minor incidences the rest of the trip: the small brush fire we started, a blizzard, and some truly shocking macaroni. But in comparison to our Austrian friend, who for all we knew was still patiently waiting by the side of the road with no food or water, our situation was a night at the Ritz.
You’re not so alone on the road after all. There are other cars, other roads, food, dirty clothes, and friends who will not abandon you in the middle of the canyon. Truck drivers wave at you and you never need to look for a motel. It was too late for our Austrian friend, but if she had asked my advice before embarking on her American odyssey, despite the large amounts of water some call the Atlantic, I would have told her to drive.