Every time I merge onto the highway (or am in the passenger seat while someone else merges onto the highway), I envision hundreds of possible deaths. "OK. We're merging. We're merging. There's a truck four lanes over! It looks like it's changing lanes. Oh shit. It's gonna change ALL FOUR LANES AND BE IN OUR LANE. Wait... there's a car a thousand feet ahead. Is it slowing? It's slowing. WE SHOULD BE SLOWING. If we don't slow at the same speed as that car is slowing we will collide and the engines will combust and everyone will be charred to death. Good luck finding our body parts! They're EXPLODED AND CHARRED. And that car probably has A FAMILY IN IT. A family AND A FAMILY PET, SUCH AS A FERRET. WE ARE ABOUT TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE VIOLENT BURNING DEATHS OF A WHOLE FAMILY AND THEIR BELOVED PET FERRET. WAIT. WAIT. HOLY SHIT. WHAT IF THE TRUCK CHANGES LANES AND THE FAMILY WITH THE FERRET SLOWS DOWN AT THE SAME TIME AND THERE IS A THREE WAY COLLISION UNLIKE ANY ANYONE HAS EVER SEEN BEFORE AND ALL THE OTHER CARS ON THE HIGHWAY ARE LIKEWISE AFFECTED. OH MY GOD WE ARE HITLER."
I wish I could say that this only happens during rush hour, or at night in the rain, or on certain notoriously dangerous onramps, but the truth is that it happens every time I get on a highway. It also happens whenever I'm in a car that changes lanes, or whenever I'm in a car that's near a car that changes lanes, or whenever I'm in a car.
Last Tuesday, my friend Ned and I started driving from Connecticut to New Orleans in his Ford wagon. I knew that this day would come eventually (I'd gone to Connecticut for the sole purpose of giving Ned some company while he brought his car back to Louisiana -- it's a long drive, after all), but I had been dreading it. I didn't tell him -- I didn't tell anyone -- that I was waking up in the middle of the night with nightmares about the trip. It wasn't that I thought it was possible we were going to die on the road -- it's that I knew for a fact we were going to die on the road. But at least it was a noble death. There were worse deaths. I was ready.
For as long as I can remember, I have been a wimp around cars. Planes don't bother me much (turbulence makes me feel sick, but I have never believed I was going to crash in a plane), and buses have always felt too big to be really dangerous (I am good at logic!). But cars are DEATH TRAPS. I mean, think about it: you put a person in charge of this thing that weighs 3500 pounds and then you just TRUST that person to put the thing on a road in any kind of weather (Pounding rain? SURE. Snow? Go crazy! Sleet? Cars might as well have been MADE for sleet!) and you give them permission to make it go 80 miles per hour. And you don't let them do it in a vacuum -- you let them do it with millions of other people, all at the same time. Teenagers are allowed to drive cars. Octogenarians are allowed to drive cars. Guys who watch "Duck Dynasty" religiously are not only allowed to drive cars, they make up the majority of people who are allowed to drive SEMI TRUCKS. Cars are the apocalypse incarnate. This much is obvious.
My sister and I decided to drive cross-country seven years ago to move from Portland to New Orleans, too, which marked the first road trip I was sure I would die in. We crashed in Nebraska. It wasn't a tame little fender-bender, either: we were run off the road by a semi truck going 80 mph. We went off an incline, flipped upside down, and landed in a body of water. While upside down and underwater in a Volvo, I remember not panicking at all but but thinking, "Oh. Yeah. I guess I knew this was coming. Shoot. There were so many things I still wanted to do with my life." Kidding aside, it's actually miraculous that we lived through that. But I also remember Alexis saying, "Well, we were driving across the country; this was bound to happen." Apparently car paranoia runs in the family.
We both have some significant Post Traumatic Stress from that crash. The death fantasies that blossom for me on highway onramps have redoubled and intensified outstandingly since it happened. I dream about car accidents at least once a week, with "2 Fast 2 Furious" vividness. (The second movie in the franchise was the crashiest one, I think.) In New Orleans, I ride a bike to get basically everywhere. My friends say, "Oh, you are such a good green citizen! You take care of the planet first and yourself second! Riding your bike in the RAIN. Man. What sacrifice." I graciously accept their compliments and do not tell them that I don't drive my car because I am not ready to die yet.
The idea of a road trip from Connecticut to New Orleans plagued me for the month I knew it was coming. We left and I looked at Ned somberly and thoughtfully. "Hey, are you OK? What are you thinking about?" He said. "Oh nothing," I said wistfully. He probably thought I was brooding over an ex-boyfriend or a long-ago memory. Really I was just thinking about our oncoming doom.
We drove through New York and New Jersey; Pennsylvania and Maryland. We didn't crash. The next day, we drove through Virginia and Tennessee. We didn't crash. And then we made it all the way home. We didn't crash. We didn't even come close to crashing. I fantasized about a lot of ways we could've crashed, but none of them came true. At one point, while I was driving, I ran over a tire. I felt terrible about it. But we didn't crash, even then. We didn't get a flat. We didn't run out of gas. We didn't have an exploding engine. (I am also unusually nervous that engines are going to explode out of nowhere. I've never seen this happen in actual life, but they look like bombs to me.)
We did read through an entire "Harry Potter" book out loud (the third one), and we listened to Fiona Apple's most recent record all the way through. We saw birds and huge bodies of water and we watched the trees change from oak oak oak to pine and oak to pine pine pine and back. At some point, about halfway through the trip, I actually really started to enjoy it.
Fear is interesting in this way: the more intense it is, the more equally and opposite you enjoy letting it go. The trip went from being ominous to perfect; the sky became a work of art in and of itself; conversation began to flow in that long-form free sort of way that only happens on camping trips when you are drunk and have all the time in the world. At about 3 p.m. yesterday it dawned on me that this might be the best trip I'd ever been on.
That is not to say that cars aren't THE MOST DANGEROUS THINGS THAT ARE ON THE PLANET, because THEY ARE. Not only are there the obvious explosive and fiery deaths that they produce on a daily basis, but their ubiquity is melting the polar ice caps, and soon we will all drown.