Monday, September 15, 2003


After 4000 miles in 14 days, I find myself headed home, half lost on the freeways around Pittsburgh at 11:30 at night.

Construction has thrown up fifty orange detour signs and I'm blinking and seeing about a third of them. Finally, I'm on the PA Turnpike, headed east out of Pittsburgh. The city skyline is beautiful, and I'm still sort of seeing the lights in my head as I drive.

About five miles outside of Pittsburgh, I start climbing. Endless switchbacks. There's a three-quarter moon, yellow to orange, right ahead of me, and the traffic is light.

It's been a long trip, driving every day, bad motels at night, working on the laptop till all hours, trying to make sense of all the things I've heard in these great interviews. I can't make it home tonight. It's already late, but I'm just trying to push a few more miles so my last day will be easy.

Ten miles out of Pittsburgh, the switchbacks continue, and the climb is steady.

A Harley, its distinctive rat-a-tat-tat sound coming first, passes me. The guy is big, with a black helmet with "Tommy" stenciled on the back. His red tail light starts disappearing. But because the traffic is light, I increase my speed a bit and follow along behind him. We're doing 70, maybe, for the first couple of miles. When he gets too far ahead and I can no longer hear him, I pick up the pace. We occasionally come behind two or three semis struggling up the hills. I keep thinking that we'll level off, hit a valley, something, but the incline is steady.

Twenty miles out I notice I'm up to 75, 77, something like that. The pavement is glassy smooth, and the moon gives a little light. But it's still a highway near midnight so it's dark everywhere else. We bend left and right, up the switchbacks. I keep thinking, what the hell is the elevation here? How high are we going?

Thirty miles out, two semis have to weave from the slow lane in front of me. Tommy, the bike guy, is still ahead. I lose sight of him. The slow lane has narrowed because of construction barriers. The semis are in front of me; I ease off the gas and watch my speedometer start to fall.

Off to the right, up another climb, I see Tommy's tail light. It's getting dimmer, and I can't hear him anymore.

I tap my steering wheel a while, think that it's odd I'm driving without some CD blasting, and I take a drink of water out of a bottle that is in my passenger seat. It takes about five miles for me to pass the semis, but now my Pathfinder is rolling. I hit 80 miles an hour and the road is empty.

I have the windows all open, and the wind is rushing through here like I'm on a roller coaster. I'm at 85 when I see Tommy's light ahead of me. In a few minutes I'm behind him and we settle in together. We bank the corners, he a second ahead of me or so, and we use both lanes, the left lane for bends that way, and the right lane when we cut back.

He's aware of me - he couldn't not be - but he senses I'm not passing. We climb higher and impossibly higher. As we pass about the 50 mile mark out of Pittsburgh, we haven't seen another car in five minutes. My speedometer says 90, and the sound of his engine is nearly deafening, even to me, the echoes slapping back from the rocks that crowd both sides of the turnpike.

Higher still. Impossible, I think. The moon hangs ahead of us still, the only light save our own, and we're headed up another switchback when I hear Tommy's engine misfire a time or two. Altitude. The gas mixture on the big bike is off a hair, not noticeable anywhere else but here.

He drops to 80 and I stay behind him. When two semis appear ahead of us on the right, Tommy pulls into the slow lane and gives me one finger point, motioning me to go on ahead. He eases his throttle back as he nears what appears to be a level spot of highway.

I go past, not waving, not looking, just pushing on. I eat up the two semis and am now on a flat. The speedometer says 95 and the hum of the engine and the roar of the window is exhilarating. It's the best I've felt about anything in a year, maybe five years. That's a horrible and sad thing to say, and my life is full of incredible blessings. But tonight is extraordinary. It's one of the best nights of my life. I love cars, I guess. Highways. I love the feeling of going somewhere. I never gave a shit about home. That's what it means to me.

And suddenly, there's Tommy again. I can see his single headlight coming up. We're on a flat when he pulls even with me. We don't look, don't wave. And what's important is that this isn't a competition. It's not some testosterone event. It's just driving. Driving a perfect and smooth highway. There are few things that are as effortless and as beautiful as when the whine of the highway and the noise of your own soul match each other.

We fly on like that for another ten miles, sometimes side by side, sometimes one a bit ahead.

When we're 80 miles into the trip, I see the lights of a coming town, an exit. I'm tired, sleepy, refreshed inside somehow, but physically ready for rest. I want to keep going. I want to keep pushing this red truck along at these speeds, under this moon. I think about Tommy. He looks to be my age, or a bit older. On a Sunday night like this, I think everyone is going somewhere to see someone who is up waiting.

It's past midnight.

Just before the exit, I point out the window to the left lane and Tommy goes by. I start to slow, but he keeps going, the Harley pouring through Pennsylvania like sand, escaping, leaving me here at the exit sign, the light of a Best Western shining in on me through the open moon roof.

I stop at Dunkin' Donuts, of course, before checking in. Two jelly filled. I smile big, like a goofball at the two workers. I say, "You guys open all night, huh?" motioning around at the empty store.

And at the hotel I sleep, I sleep like a baby, with dreams about climbing.