By MARY HOOD HART
Like most mothers of school-age children, I spend a lot of time on the road. My van is less than two years old, and its odometer reads over 50,000 miles. Most of those miles were accumulated traveling back and forth on a long stretch of Highway 17. Most of those miles were amassed in a daily routine which consumes almost every weekday. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” I could paraphrase that to “I have measured out my life with highway lines.”
Once, when 7-year-old Anna was identifying each family member’s most significant talent, she announced that mine was driving. Taken aback at first, (I was expecting her to pick something impressive), I have to admit, I’m good at driving. I’ve had lots of practice.
Yesterday, I took my van to be serviced at a shop a couple miles from my home. When my van was ready, I decided to walk there to claim it. It was necessary to walk along a busy highway, a road I travel countless times a day. How odd to be on this familiar road without the comfort and protection of my van. I felt vulnerable, displaced. Early in the journey, a man standing roadside asked me the time. He was slathered in mud to his knees, a bag of dirty golfballs, which I first thought were oysters, lay on the pavement beside him. Evidently, he’d spent the morning retrieving balls to sell, and he was waiting for a ride. Without a watch, I guessed at the time. Feeling a strange connection with the man, a kinship I would never have felt from inside my van, I kept walking.
Cars whizzed past. A truck came unnervingly close. Drivers stared at me curiously. Pedestrians aren’t usually on this road. My purse banged clumsily at my side. I began looking into passing vehicles, hoping to encounter someone I know who’d stop to offer me a lift. Passing someone’s yard, I was startled when a huge dog, a Rottweiler, bounded over, banging against the chainlink fence, snarling at me. I quickened my pace. When I finally arrived at the repair shop, I was sweaty and short of breath. The attendant said, “You walked here?”
I did. And I learned something by doing so. I learned about walking. And I learned about driving. Both activities I have done without thinking for years. I learned that the vulnerability I felt on the highway without a car is actually a good, although unsettling, experience. That vulnerability made me more aware of those among us who travel highways on foot every day, especially this time of year.
I see them along Highway 17, heading South for the winter. We call them “transients,” a name implying movement, change. But I realized in my highway walk that their movement is laborious, their change, slow. How interesting that those of us who speed past them in our cars consider them “unsettled.” In many ways, they are more solidly grounded than we are. They are in the thick of things. They experience the world in ways we never sense from inside our cars. The dogs, the litter, the dead raccoons, the wildflowers, the weeds — all a blur to us at 60 miles an hour — become tangible when encountered on foot.
As I drive the same stretch of highway, over and over again, a transient I notice in the morning has traveled only a few miles when I pass him again that afternoon. His progress is slow, deliberate. Yet progress it is. Indeed, the transient is aptly named. Each footstep brings change. My frenzied motion, my driving, leads to the same destination each night. No matter how slowly he travels, the transient wakes up to a different landscape. I wake up in the same spot, resume the same routine. Fifty thousand miles of driving in place.
I sense that this crazy motion, this driving routine, which leads my car back to the garage each night is uniquely middle class, uniquely American. Except in big cities, driving has become indispensable to the average citizen, and we do it without thinking. Normally, I speed by transients, odd men walking, and I feel sorry for them, wondering what circumstances prompted them to choose such an isolated, bizarre way of life. Yesterday it dawned on me, if only for a short stretch of highway and time, they could wonder the same about me.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.