The miles never disappear beneath the wheels fast enough.
You can drive the highways instead of the Interstates, leave behind the eighteen wheelers only interested in the fastest time to the end, wind through the hills and fields forgotten by all but those who work them. It’s prettier country, soaked with the texture that’s left behind after the rough glitz of fast food joints and motel chains is ripped away and restapled on to wherever the Interstates were slashed across the terrain. The Interstates are the way to go for speed, they’re industrial sculptures of concrete and steel, blasted on the wings of dynamite through all but the most monolithic obstacles tossed up by the land.
The highways though, those routes of faded asphalt laid down again and again over the old roads that were birthed by foot and hoof, they trace the terrain like a lover’s hand. They are infuriating though, they will always take longer than the giant roads. They take a crooked path, and make you brake down for the small town speed traps just when you seem to be getting up to speed. If you need to be a thousand miles away by tomorrow afternoon, come hell or highwater, then the last place you want to be is on those little highways. Every one stop light town that slows you to twenty-five, every turn in the wrong direction as the road follows the river instead of leaping it at first contact, every damned baby boomer puttering along at forty-five in their big-as-a-house RV through an interminable no-passing zone, every little lost second will slowly drive you mad, until you start looking for the blue and red shields that will catapult you back up to seventy-five with a half dozen lanes to pick from.
But even if you don’t have a place to be all that fast, the highways will drive you as mad as the Interstates. For all the poetry and prose spilled about the scenic byways and the American passion for the road, it all turns to ash as your mind runs through well worn ruts for the hundredth time, you can’t force yourself to sing along to another song no matter how much you love it, and the coffee jitters wage a losing war with dipping eyelids. You’ll feel the sneers lift your lip at every sign for a podunk town and the scenery will be just one more thing between you and watching HBO in the next hotel room before you drag yourself up to do this for another day.
There’s a mentality, a groove to find, in which your mind stops choking itself and starts listening and watching. I’ve always found it in audio books.
The first I ever remember listening to was a radio drama reproduction of Star Wars. Twelve years old, thirty hours of road left to the mountain top, and that’s what made me put my book down, a first for me as a passenger in those days. I watched the world go by, in a trance, a meditation. There was a magic to these words, such that I could read while still seeing the world. It was like a blind man finding he could see. I listened to it again on the way back after our week camping. And then made copies of the cassettes before taking it back to the library.
The next was a twelve cassette history of World War II, and that’s the last I remember in particular until I was old enough to be the one driving instead of riding. The first summer I lived alone, commuting ninety minutes each way to my first real job, I found by happenstance an audio book rental place on the first day driving into the office. I read a dozen books that summer by proxy, hardly noticing the hours disappearing into the void of Los Angeles traffic. Audible.com became a lifesaver around 2005 for me, a book a month as part of the package. My iPod is hardly used for music, it’s two-thirds full of books instead.
And that’s when the line between reading and listening to books began to fade. I don’t recall in particular whether I’ve read or listened to certain books that I own both sorts of copies of. Not everyone likes them; Mrs. SLW hates listening to them. Her point is fair: she want to read them in her own voice, in her own head. She doesn’t want the interpretations of the narrator overlaid on her reading.
For me though, I find that I consume the books better aloud. I have a tendency to read too fast, so that as a book gets more and more interesting, I read faster and faster and risk sliding into skimming, picking up the raw narrative but losing the dance of the words. Audio books keep me from doing that, moving along at their own rhythm and speed, squeezing a delicious tension as the story mounts without allowing the release of reading faster.
There are two audiobooks that have been embedded in my mind though, the great ones that I return to over and over again on roadtrips over the years. The unabridged Gulag Archipelago, is one of the most powerful books I have ever read, and its meditation on the human cost of totalitarianism told over the hours and hours as the miles slip by is an experience of sheer dark poetry, leaving me soaked in deep thoughts by the end of the day.
The first four volumes of Stephen King’s Dark Tower are similarly moving, though in a different way. Great books in their own right, narrator Frank Muller truly makes the characters his own, unbelievably giving distinct voices to Susannah, Roland, and Eddie. His slow growl is how I hear Roland in my head, his Brooklyn jabber is how I hear Eddie Dean in my own head. It’s a magnificent performance, and one tragically cut short by a motorcycle accident so that he couldn’t keep working as a narrator on the final three books of the series.
The miles will drive you mad before you make it an hour away from your home. I’ve found that listening to voices helps.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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