Friday, June 17, 2011

Ode to the Auto

To cross into Wyoming on a summer’s day with Mustang Sally pumped up on the car radio is to enter an American mythological landscape larger than life. “Ride Sally Ride!” you sing along at top volume, your skin tingling, your blood pumping, the wind in your hair (or what’s left of it), swept along into the heartbreaking beauty of the green meadows, snow-capped mountains and big blue sky. As my friend Chris Cunningham likes to remark: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

It was also Chris who once remarked in a Joseph Campbell Study Group: “My first sensation of what it might mean to ‘follow my bliss’ was driving my car.” I remember being mildly shocked by this somewhat politically incorrect confession. Here we were talking about the great themes of mythology and he’s talking about a gas-guzzling, environmental-wrecking, factory-produced machine?

But Chris had it right. Political, practical and ecological concerns aside (as they must be in the mythological landscape), to “head out on the highway,” to “plan to motor West,” to “ride along in your automobile, with no particular place to go” is to have “fun, fun, fun”—that is, until “your daddy takes the T-bird away.” Remember these songs singing out the bliss of the American version of the open road? Getting into your G.T.O. or Little Deuce Coupe, passing The Little Old Lady from Pasadena out on Route 66 on the way to Surf City? They were the soundtrack to the great American Keruoackian mythology and promised to deliver everything that mythology cares about—adventure, search, flight, freedom, taking the hero’s journey snug in your Volkswagen bug or sitting up high in the van seat.

Mythology touches on the timeless and placeless universals, but often enters through particular manifestations of such. The excitement of moving and the double-excitement of moving faster than your own legs can carry is as old as the horse, the chariot, the stagecoach, the train, each of which constellated its own mythos. (I’m still enamored with the European train mythology, captured in countless movies and brought to life in my actual European train travel.)

But the car brought something new into the picture—a quality of autonomy and independence, the balance between giving yourself up to what the world offers and maintaining some sense of autonomy, independence and control. After all, trains demand that you follow their schedule, go only where the tracks are laid, get off and on at predetermined places, accept the décor of the car you sit in and deal with the people sitting next to you. But the automobile is indeed your mobile home. You choose your style of car, you choose who sits in the front seat with you, you set your radio dial where you want it and the volume you want it at. You also choose (schedule-permitting) what route to take, what side roads to visit, what pace your prefer. No wonder the auto trumped the train—choice is a red-blooded American virtue. And perhaps a universal one as well.

The automobile is a supreme paradox. The prefix “auto” means “self, one's own, by oneself” while “mobile” means “movement.” At the same time that you’re out there moving in the world, you’re also inside seated on your moving meditation cushion, your comfortable easy chair, your rocking chair on the proverbial front porch. Robert Bly called it “this solitude covered with iron.” It takes you to new and exciting places, but when the excitement gets too much, you can lock the door and drive away. You can eat meals in the car, you can sleep in the car and when you’re young and have no place to go, you can dive into the back seat of the car and hope that some of life’s supreme mysteries may be revealed in a tangle of disheveled clothes and heavy breathing.

I’m carrying with me Garrison Keillor’s new collection, Good Poems: American Places,  the perfect choice for this road trip. The poems are about places in the American landscape— one’s own back yard, the subway or a grand adventure into wild places—where something happened to capture the poet’s attention and poet took the trouble to tell about it and include the place in the telling. The first of fifteen sections is subtitled “On the Road” and as the titles reveal— Driving through the Poconos, Driving at Night, Driving West in 1970, Top Down, Mambo Cadillac—the car was one of those significant places where something special occurred, some sense of blessing was bestowed, something holy happened. Stephen Dunn’s poem, The Sacred, is alone enough to capture what I’m trying to get at here.

And here’s another paradox. This vehicle of flight, freedom, music playing, love in the back seat, the world trailing behind in the rear-view mirror while the road beckons ahead, has perhaps also been the most destructive force of the 20th century. It helped create our addiction to fossil fuel, which in turn excused our ravenous appetite for war. It killed off the small towns and grew up the strip malls, it birthed the assembly lines and factory models that leaked into our schools, it invited trucked-in food from corporate farms to out-compete the local and home-grown—well, it’s a long list.

And yet, how we loved it. And love it still. A little like smoking—we know it’s terrible for us, but wasn’t that a pleasure to take time out and do nothing but inhale and exhale, a few smoke rings here and there, a style that we cultivated, a chance to chat with fellow smokers, the haze of the jazz club mixed indelibly with the slow curls of the saxophone’s notes.

But just as I’m more grateful than not that I can go to any restaurant or jazz club or train car without smoke, so will I graciously accept the demise of the automobile (or the rise of the electric car?). It had its time and behind the scenes, it was a horror, but up there in the driver’s seat (or back there during the drive-in movie), wasn’t it grand?

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