Boswell to Johnson: Sir, you observed one day at General Oglethorpe’s, that a man is never happy for the present, but when he is drunk. Will you not add,—or when driving rapidly in a post-chaise?
If I were asked to decide whether the private automobile has done, on balance, more good or harm for the human race, I would find it difficult to reach a conclusion. I could easily argue it either way. Like all technologies, it has solved some problems and created others; it has brought us closer together and driven us farther apart; it has given us access to many places and weakened our connection to any place in particular; it has given us a sense of freedom and bound us tightly to itself.
On one count, though, my view is entirely unambivalent: I love to drive. I have a sixty-mile round-trip to work every day, and I don’t begrudge it at all, even though the time spent on the road is most often wasted. A day-long drive in a comfortable car with plenty of music on hand is a day’s vacation for me. One of my daydreams of retirement involves taking a fast quiet car on a month-long tour of the American West; specifically, I see myself in a Mitsubishi Eclipse, cream or silver-colored, zipping across a long stretch of empty desert highway into an enormous brilliant sunset. My wife, who is frugal and practical and does not care for long rides, finds this prospect unattractive, and suggests that a pickup truck with a camper top would be the right vehicle for such a trek—a suggestion I receive with the enthusiasm of a hare being told that what he really needs is a nice thick heavy shell, like the one the tortoise has. Sure, camping for a month would be nice, too, but it’s not the stuff of my daydreams.
Some months ago I bought a 2001 Honda Civic, which is a pretty humdrum car by most standards but the nicest I’ve ever owned. It’s a little bigger, significantly quicker, and much quieter and more comfortable than its predecessor, a 1990 Civic which had 260,000 miles on it when I finally decided that its increasingly frequent need for repair had reached the point of diminishing returns. I love this car, and this is a new experience for me. Of the many cars I’ve owned over the years, I’ve liked some more than others, but have never before felt the enthusiasm which, apparently, quite a few people do for their cars and which I do for this one. I actively look forward to getting into it twice a day for my drive to and from work. My family makes fun of my devotion.
On the walk from my office to the car, which takes more time than you might think because I park it in a distant area where I hope to minimize the possibility of someone opening a door into its side, I think happily about what CD I’m going to listen to on the way home. This decision involves many factors: the weather, the season, my own mood; frequently the choice is ambient music which provides an atmospheric background against which my mind wanders and is even, at times, productive. I sometimes do a little mental writing during this drive.
My commute is a forty-minute interlude on a magic carpet. Twenty of the thirty miles are on I65 and I10 and generally very smooth sailing. I fly along, a little traveling air-conditioned capsule of solitude and music, temporarily unencumbered by gravity and the crushing heat of our sub-tropical summer. The highway I travel is an inhuman environment for a person on foot, and a disaster for animals, but it makes me feel free.
And there is nothing quite like the sudden shock of having that magic carpet suddenly drift to the ground and become a plain and immobile rug. The experience of car trouble is also one with which I am very familiar. My last car went through a period of destroying distributors—I think this was due to improper installation—and whenever a distributor gave out the car simply switched off, and if I was lucky had enough momentum for me to steer it out of traffic. To suddenly find your feet on the ground and yourself with a potential maximum speed of three or four miles an hour, in unpleasant weather, in a hostile and dangerous environment is startling and illuminating, as reality often is.
One day last week I had a flat tire. I was involved enough in the Jimi Hendrix album I was listening to that I did not at first notice the sort of rhythmic roar made by a tire going flat, and by the time it sank in on me that I had a problem and found a place to pull over, I had driven so far on it that it was almost too hot to touch when I changed it.
In the space of a minute I had gone from climate-controlled speed and comfort to blistering heat and hard labor, dirt and sweat. I had been brought back to the reality in which all of the human race lived for thousands of years and in which most still live. I was not pleased, but I can’t deny that it was a healthy shock. And I can’t help wondering if one day our technological civilization may run out of tricks and leave us all once again taking seriously a phrase like hot dusty road.