U.S. Route 40 – originally, The National Road — was the first highway over the Appalachians. Construction began in Cumberland, Maryland in 1811, building westward on top of the Washington and Braddock military road, which itself was built on top of an Indian trail going back a thousand years.
Human history layered into our local landscape: A path becomes a trail. A trail becomes a road. A road becomes a highway. A highway becomes a super-highway. We call that progress. Until we choke on it.
My daughter and I start out this morning going 60 mph on I-68, which usurped old Route 40 four decades ago. Even though we’re running late, H and I agree take it easy. (She recently hit a deer in her own car; that’s why I’m driving her to work.) Twenty minutes later I glance at the speedometer and it says 70. I slow it back down, but now 60 feels really pokey, so I ease it back to 65. Twenty minutes later we’re going 75.
“Accelerationism,” that’s called. Going ever faster without realizing it. I glance over at my daughter to see if she’s irritated. But she’s in her own thought world, so I quickly slide back into mine. What would it take, I ask myself, in this hustle-bustle world to stop accelerating? A serious illness? A debilitating stroke?
That’s what it took for Baba Ram Dass, America’s celebrated spiritual guru of the 60’s/70’s and author of Be Here Now. Self-admittedly he got trapped in living up to his high flying reputation until a stroke in 1997 slowed him way down. He wrote about it in Still Here, in which he described his massive stroke as a great blessing.
Dear, God, what’s waiting for us in the way of “blessings”? I’ve had two mini-strokes already — “warning shots,” the doctor called them — but they didn’t slow me down one bit.
They did, however, increase my awareness of how addictive speed can be. In my first mini-stroke, where I was seeing double for a couple weeks, that little piece of clarity opened up to me as if a voice from above. Not that I was ready to change my ways. That took a second mini-stroke a year later when, upon waking up one morning, I found myself staggering around the house, bumping into things, like I was drunk. In the hospital, the little voice spoke to me again. Lectured me actually. Told me I would never slow down until I willed my analytic mind into a lower place in my psyche, beneath my appreciative mind.
“… until I willed my analytic mind into a lower place in my psyche?!” Where did that language come from. I don’t talk like that. I’m not going to say that that voice came from God, because I don’t talk like that either. Nevertheless, I did find myself starting to appreciate things more. Trying to, at least. Little everyday things like driving through the gap in Sideling Hill this morning into this stunning vista that opens up for as far as eyes can see, nothing but sunrise, blue sky and the endless tops of trees. From up here above, one could imagine oneself in paradise, or at least Vermont or Nova Scotia.
Both H and I – neither one of us big talkers – comment upon it: what a beautiful part of the world that we live in. For her, appreciation seems to come naturally. But I have to work at being appreciative.
Once we’re through the gap on top of Sideling Hill, and down to the bottom of the other side, where I-68 east merges into I-70 east and everything levels off. The morning rush hour traffic is now bumper to bumper, pushing 80 miles an hour, and I slide back into my habitual evaluative mind where I’m more at ease with myself. I right away focus on the bullshit of this high tech miracle world we’re living in – more like mired in — as symbolized by this congested traffic going ever faster. How unbecoming. I observe myself as seeing clearly the hopelessness of the situation. Cars, trucks, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter…. Hopeless. All of it.
Then — I don’t know why — I think of Ram Dass again. A detail that comes back to me from Still Here, how during his stroke he was aware of having a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, if he could maintain a quiet, observing presence while every cell in his body wanted to panic. He couldn’t do it, he confesses. But he did have that thought.
H shouts a quick WATCH OUT! and a millisecond later, KA-BOOM. Both airbags go off. I don’t know what has happened; the car is instantly a bucket of bolts, barely steerable. H has the quick sense to open a window to release the airbag fumes, and I’m able see well enough to muscle the car off to the side of the expressway.
“What t’ hell happened?”
“We hit a deer.”
“I never saw it.”
“It was just suddenly there. A big buck.”
“Running head long into all this traffic?”
“Get out of the car, Dad. We’re barely off the road.”
I seem to be in shock. The world looks strange. Traffic keeps buzzing along, as if nothing has happened. Nobody slows down, let alone stops to see if we’re alright.
No sign at all of the deer. Just a little tuft of brown fur lodged into the busted up front end of my Jeep Patriot, the radiator now rapidly pouring out antifreeze. I get back in the car to retrieve a couple of napkins, because suddenly I have to “go to the bathroom” really badly. I stiff-leg it over to a little clump of trees, find one big enough to lean against, out of view of the passing traffic and H, who is already on her smart phone calling AAA. Having been through this so recently herself, she’s quick to manage necessary details: the garage we’ll tow it to (Bucky’s), a rent-a-car place that will later pick us up (Enterprise). While we’re waiting for the tow truck, she worries that the deer may be somewhere suffering. I assure H — an extreme animal lover since she was a baby — that it was an instant DOA, and that the impact had obviously thrown it into the gully between the east and west lanes.
Either I tell her that or send her that thought. I honestly don’t know which. Meanwhile I’m regretting that now I won’t be able to get my haircut this morning, which was the first thing on my “to-do list” to do after I had let H off at her workplace. Jesus! Come within a whisker of death, and I’m worried about a haircut. A state police car rolls up and the trouper gets out to ask us if we’re alright. H and he talk about how many deer accidents there are right now, the males rutting and all. As he’s saying good-bye, wishing us well, I reach out to embrace him, another clue that I’m not quite myself right now. He steps back and gives me a firm handshake. I say something like “thank you for your service,” embarrassing H, I’m sure
After a short forever of waiting, we’re in the tow-truck cab, on our way to Martinsburg, to the same garage where H’s car is being worked on. The talk flows freely between the driver and me. I can’t remember what it was about, but when he drops us and our disabled car off at Bucky’s, he says it was nice to meet us, but sorry that it had to be under these circumstances. Once more I have to stop myself in the motion of hugging him good-bye.
Inside, standing in a long line in front of us waiting to be processed, it seems like I’m not properly distinguishing between me and other people — I mean where I leave off and they begin, like I’m on LSD or something. We finally make it over to Enterprise rent-a-car, which is also backed up. Arriving to the front of the long line, we’re told it’ll be another hour before they can get us into a car.
By now, who cares. I’ve given up on this day in terms of being elsewhere, getting things done. But I’ve “given up” something else too. My frustrations seem to be suddenly evaporating. Being in a rent-a-car lobby is seems as good as anyplace — a great feeling, actually, but too unfamiliar to not be also a little scary.
It’s a warm day for November. I go outside and sit in sun, in the parking lot among the rental cars, and more or less give up on this lost day, like it’s no big deal, though part of me knows that it very well could be. The “giving up” part. I could be having something on the order of a sacred experience…. On on the down side, I could be having another one of those mini-strokes. Or worse. I look at my reflection in a rental car window to be sure my face isn’t drooping on one side.
It’s not, but nonetheless, what a relief, an hour or so later, when my more habitual way of thinking begins to reappear in little fits and starts. Thoughts I’m more familiar with. About how fucked up the world is. Or just “getting things done” thoughts, like if we get a rental car soon, there’ll still be time to get that haircut.
How reassuring is the return of the old familiar mind, when for a while I was someone I barely recognized. I think if it hadn’t been for my fear of having a stroke, I would have been somebody I really liked.
NOTE: I’ll be taking a break from the blog to work on other things for a while. Hope to be back within a year.