Drive or Die

Pepper Tree

I squirm on cracked vinyl. The car window is cranked down and the air pressure hammers staccato in my ears. Voices brag through AM static about numbers and teams. We roll under signs and overpasses, trees and boring white square buildings, more signs and overpasses, clusters of spritely elms, long dividing walls, and exit after exit - none of them ours.

I'm on the lookout for the Pepper Tree sign. That sign will mean we're close to Grandma's, but I haven't seen it yet. I wait for it some more. If I look down for too long, I get sick, so I gaze hopelessly out past the glass. I am too young. I am outmatched. The sign should be here now, but it isn't. Where is it? Why is it taking so long?

Denny's. Eppie's. Super 8 Motels. Waiting for the sign to come up makes the trip last longer, but I can't help it. I want to see it so I can celebrate that I don't have to sit in the back of the Monte Carlo for much longer. I want to relax and watch cable and eat sugar cereal. I can only do that at Grandma's.

At last, I see the Pepper Tree way off in the distance. It's a simple, spindly illustration on a tall sign towering over the freeway. I imagine you can shake the tree and fine grains of pepper drift down into the grass. I can't sit still. I try to climb up onto the front of the car and I spill onto an empty bucket seat. The car goes past the exit and won't slow down. It's getting dark, and I feel strange.

The Bridge Accident

I guess I feel strange because it feels like my childhood just officially ended. It's our second time together. It was rushed, embarrassing and undignified. The top of the mountain was the only place we could be alone, so far up in the dark, off to the side of the road. The shadows of the trees swamped us in secrecy. Now, as we barrel down the mountain, all I can see are the orange reflectors whizzing by. If I don't get her back in time, she'll miss her curfew.I keep riding the brake. I need to stop riding the brake. I can't say how I feel, it's just... I can't believe it. This is what being with someone is like. What is in our future? What does this mean? She sits in the passenger seat and fidgets. She's like an old time movie star. Her smell is all over me.

At the bottom of the hill, a thin bridge spans a small gorge. It sits between two blind turns, so if two cars come at the same time, they can't see each other. I round the bend and hit the bridge, but a truck coming from the other direction hogs both lanes. It sees me, but it refuses to move. It forces me to veer right until my tire catches the side of the bridge and blows out. The thumpty thump of the exploded wheel makes me sick to my stomach and my face feels hot.

We pull over to the side of the dangerous bridge and I haul out the jack.  A cop happens by and lectures me about stopping on such a dangerous road. What could I do? The road past the bridge is even more narrow, and my tire is shredded rubber. He shines a flashlight on me as I unscrew the lug nuts and wedge the jack under the chassis.

It takes longer for me to change the tire than it did to finish my date up on the mountain. Shameful. This is youth. I want to be older. I want to be better. It's too late for anything good to come of this. She's going to be in trouble.

I get her home, where she tries to explain to her parents, but they ground her indefinitely. I never see her again. I am so tired when I get home, but I can't sleep now. The night envelopes me.

Magic Moss

I stay up all night, in fact, watching movies on cable because all the things I haven't done keep my mind spinning. What is it about my need to drive? I feel like I was just in the car, but already I feel the urge to drive and never stop. I need that forward momentum or everything around me will come crashing down. I'll be vulnerable. I'll implode in a jail cell if I don't get moving.

All the ambition I have about creating a life for myself is worth nothing if I don't get moving. If I don't catch the slipstream and get far away, I will never grow. I'll never be the man I want to be. I know that I'm still young, and there is so much I can do to become famous and make lots of friends. I want to feel special to someone. I want it so bad that I want to force myself into another life. I hate the life I have. I hate who I am. I want to change everything.

The sun hasn't risen, but I am restless. My car is my only home. It is cold and musty and smells like incense and mildew, but it's mine. The roads are dark blue and they're all mine too. Where should I go? The tape player spins out Siouxsie and Depeche Mode and Joy Division. I hit the hills aimlessly, driven by music, and the light turns from blue to dark gray. It's so cold and frosty. The green moss on the rocks is something from fantasy. I wander out like an adventurer, and sit on it and watch the water down below. The sun comes up, and with it, warmth, and hope. I feel like I'm in another dimension. Inspiration takes hold. I gaze back up at my car at the top of the hill, that cute, squat, rusted wreck, and it looks to me like a loyal steed.

When I climb back into the vehicle and hear the engine sputter to life, a haunted feeling comes over me and I panic.


I am not okay. I might die unless I remember three things.

The first thing to do is stay awake. This car keeps me alive. The momentum keeps me alive. What I felt  earlier about driving to stay alive is literally true now. If I stop, I sleep, and if I sleep, I die. The second thing to remember is not to panic. The third thing is to call home. After hours of driving south on desolate stretches of freeway, I stand in the back of the coffee shop and plunk a quarter in the machine. "I'm okay," I tell my parents quickly. I am out of breath, and can't feel my heartbeat. All I remember are wet water rings on massive amps and how they vibrated against me, and pathetic desperation and a rusted bathroom stall and a terrible thing inside.

The ninety year old waitress gives me some water and I sit among bemused truckers, my heart about to explode. I can't sit still. I need to leave. I need to push out against my fate again. It's time to get back in the car. I connect from freeway to freeway until I'm in the middle of nowhere. Not smart to exile myself when I need a hospital, but no hospitals. No. The radio is so loud. I make it louder and roll down the window. It's static now. The music is over. White noise. Slap yourself again. Don't drift off or you'll die.

The cows on the side of the road don't move. Excess jitters assail me, and now everything vibrates. Sharp blasts from outside jab me awake. Everything that moves by is frosty and light green. Strange comfort in the wilderness. I wonder if anyone ever misses me, if anyone who I never thought noticed me, ever held a thought about me. I drive and drive with one aim in mind: stay alive. Every significant emotion I've ever felt in my life spins in my gut, again and again. The wheels turn, forcing out desperation and tears.

Hours later, the danger fades and safe weariness drifts over me. I might be okay. No more drugs. Never again. I am recovered, but something feels off. I am so lucky, I think. Maybe I'll turn the radio on again. Stopped at a light, feeling thankful, but I can already see him in my rear view mirror. He hits me going forty five. The force of the crash wrenches my car across three lanes. It is destroyed.

My eyes are still dilated. I'm surrounded by cops but they are so focused on the accident that they don't even notice. I just know I'm going to be yelled at by someone, eventually. Even worse, my only means of escape has been stolen from me. I am trapped. My freedom is lost.


We're driving in your car
I never ever want to go home
Because I haven't got one
Any more

It took forever, but I got another car. It's just like the old one. The moment I got it, I sped away. I am gone for days at a time. It's like the song says - I don't ever want to go home. I'm in another world, and I'm not alone.

This day lasted forever. Once the sunset dipped into the ocean, we headed west into the mountains. The sides of the road there are dark purple and the headlights peer into a beautiful mystery. We both gasp at the flash of a deer's eyes. It's late, but I don't care. I have the rest of my life to wander the mountains at night, taking what I please. Getting away. I don't yet know how quickly it all disappears. So I drive, and think, and obsess over things that aren't there, and ignore the person next to me. My coy little smirk. It's all a game to me.

The vastness is behind us, and the thickets are in front, pushing small deer and rattlesnakes out onto the road. No conversation. Too much fear. The darkness will lift soon. The light of day will disintegrate the illusion. It's magic, and it's going to be over soon, and I have no idea. I'm not old enough to understand.

Speed and Silence

How did the sun come up so quickly? I downshift as we hit the turn past devil's slide. I have no idea what she's thinking until we hit up the restroom.

"Is it okay if I do a line?" she asks.

I still haven't learned my lesson. I've since quit, but I'm not about to lose this. If I stop driving, she'll lose interest. She's so goddamned pretty. "Sure, go ahead." I say. I pull to the side of the road, open the side door, and she hunkers down in back, a mane of bright red hair spilling over her corset. I hear an undignified sniff, and moments later she closes her purse and rubs a forefinger back and forth across her nose. I remember that feeling. Never again.

We stop at every flower and fruit and vegetable stand along the coast. Each one is a miracle for her. She rubs her hands all over the merchandise and gushes over the fresh pineapple. I buy her one. We get back at seven am, and sit by the pool for an hour and smoke clove cigarettes. By the time I drop her off at her car, she has already forgotten the pineapple. Her eyes are hollow and gaunt. A few years later, she will be dead.


She might as well be dead to me. She has been gone for so long, but here she is again. We barrel down 101 toward the old Mission. Here I am, driving her because it's the only way for me to hang onto her. If we stop for too long, she will forget who I was.

"I'm bad." she laments. She tosses her head into her lap and shakes it back and forth. "I'm so bad I'm so bad I'm so bad."

We broke it off months ago. I haven't seen her once during that time and I don't know anything about her life now. I don't even like who she is, but I've gotten lonely and desperate. She looks different, like she's been pumped full of alien supermodel DNA. Everything with her is a secret. Everything is bad. I feel like part of a private conspiracy. I am her chauffeur to Hell.

"I've sinned." she sulks. "I need to go and see, and talk with God."

We once had real conversations, but she's drifted into outer space. She's in a place covered in lies, or she has lost her mind. I don't know which possibility scares me more. If I stop the car, she will jump out.

"Take me, I need to go. Drive faster." she urges. "Drive fast, I don't care. Get a ticket, I don't care. I'm a bad girl."

My car struggles past the artichoke fields and flower stands. We get to the old Mission and she leads me around, holding her head in her hands and muttering to herself. I'm bad for trying to seduce a crazy person. It's not right. We drive north again, and I focus on the sound of the wind slamming the side doors and threatening to blow me off the freeway.

After we make it back to her car, I make one last attempt to hang onto her as she snaps into her seat belt.

"What was this?" I ask. "Can I see you again?"

She places her finger on my lips to shush me.

"Naughty boy." she says, and drives away in her own car.


"You think so?" I ask.

"Yeah!" she exclaims. "This one. Let's pick this one."

Skin is boiling. Low, green grass rushes by. This time, I'm not driving. I've given up my need for control. Out the passenger window I spot long stretches of red clay, and past them, low houses with ramshackle roofs. I love this car, I love the landscape and the humidity. The other-worldliness of it. I love how she sweeps her hair back and how she looks at me. This is what it is to be adored. The crest of each hill reveals another group of homes, nestled together.

"That house!" she says, pointing at a small, white shed. Ha! Yeah, sure. I'd live there with you. I'd live anywhere with you. Just tell me, and I'll be there. This is really happening. You are really here. It's everything I want. Just say when, my lithe, neurotic angel.

"That house is nice," I say reservedly, pointing it out. She holds my hand over the shifter. I won't stop smiling. She's taken me so far from home that there is nothing here for me to control. She can drive. I'm happy to let go. We're continue our game, living in the moment. She stares at me staring out the side window, and neither of us look ahead. Neither of us care to. Because of this, we don't notice the vast, glacial chasm spreading out before us until it's all around the car.

Turnpike Blues

Ice and snow surround the car. Well, that happened fast. I'm alone again, and back in the driver's seat. Where did she go? I'm lost in a blizzard and I can't find my way home.

On the turnpike out of New Hampshire, a blizzard sweeps cars to the edge of the road and puts all the other drivers to sleep. I'm all that's left. I stay awake. I need to get home. I've been off training for a job and am half convinced I'll be lost if I don't push through the storm. Am I going northwest or northeast? Maybe I'm going south. This snow crusted line heads back into my State but which direction? I don't remember and I've lost all sense of where to go.

Up ahead, through the white, I see the long toll booth structure crouched over the six lane turnpike like a sphinx. I have no coins for the toll, and there are no people there. I have a few pennies, and a fiver, and a handful of dollars in the armrest. Not enough. I pull my car up to the booth and I roll down my window, staring nervously at the toll station. A snow flurry spirals into the car and lands all over the front seat. I can't feel my fingers.

In a stupid panic, I fling all the pennies into the coin slot, then in a brazen act of stupidity, I try to shove a few dollar bills into the slot. Obviously, Nobody's around. I pull past the toll booth, mindful of the security camera snapping a picture of my stunned, stupid face and my license plate.

Then, I see it: a light inside the toll operator building. I take the exit, knock on the door and hand the lady some bills and beg her to erase the photo of my car so I don't get fined. She obliges and I am so thankful that I talk and talk until it's clear she wants me to go away.

The Red Dress

The cold has melted back into deep red clay. I'm nervous and excited in the back seat of the cab, squirming around like I used to. The driver has no idea of his role in this whole drama, of how many years have led to this moment.

He finds the turnoff, and I brace myself. The town homes crawl by the cab. I can't sit still. The house on the end comes into view, and a beauty in a red dress waits for me on the porch. She might as well have a lemonade in her hand. She stands up, nervous and grinning. My legs almost slide out from under me as I exit the car. Solid ground. I feel like I've been on a plane flight.

The for first time in a while, the thought of jumping back into a car and driving away is the very last thing on my mind. Feet on solid ground.

Peach Booty

It really does look like a giant booty. It moons the entire I-85 stretch in Gaffney. The side of the huge, round peach is a long, downward crack, and under the crack, a suspiciously scatological spout. Every time she and I pass it, we point it out.

"Peach booty!" she exclaims.

"Peach booty!" I yell, making sure not to take my eyes off the road for too long. I glance back at the Gaffney booty. I imagine it belongs to a big orange person. If I was a Giant with a big orange butt and forced to continually crouch and show my ass to truckers and gun show enthusiasts on the I-85 all day, I'd be doing my best to shower them with affection, if you know what I mean. But this booty is different. It's a benign booty. It's a friendly booty. And it sort of belongs to us.

Pretty soon the big orange peach is far behind us and we're treated to the usual roundup of billboards bearing Bible verses. I continue to hold her hand across the shifter like I used to. Driving is different now. I love the motion but don't need it to live.


It's night-time, and it's pitch black. She's still next to me, but she's asleep. I have been driving for so long. When was the last time I stopped? I am afraid to stop, or we'll never reach California. If we stop, the unpredictable storm will overwhelm us and we'll be washed away.

Rainwater and darkness have overtaken the desert. The natural formations remind me of Monument Valley. Rain peppers the windshield, followed by a cascading torrent of water from up above. The sky darkens and we're cast out into the desert, alone. The sky lights up too, every few seconds, followed by God's jangling of her pendulous keys. Barely visible cacti spread their maws to the rain. I want to be still. I've been driving for so long but we have to get there. Things have to change.

We're underwater now, and the tires can't hold onto the road. Each tire makes an awful sound, an explosion, one after the other. I think about the bridge accident again, how long ago that seems. Have all four tires gone flat this time? I have absolutely no control over the vehicle. My passenger wakes and braces her knees against the glove compartment. While I careen all over the two lane road, peering wild eyed through my windshield, I exclaim 'sorry! I think all the tires are out!"

"What?" she asks. "Are you serious?"

After what must be twenty miles of bumping along on sharp hubcaps and sliding laterally over the lanes, I find an exit. I get the car underneath a hotel's overhang, heart pounding. I jump out and expect to see more shredded rubber, but all four tires are... immaculate. Untouched. Unharmed. They're fine. It was all in my head. And it's a good thing, too, since the hotel is all booked for the night, and we have to keep driving.

Cow and Castle

We emerge out onto a kind of locus amoenus for coastal drivers, a world famous ribbon wrapped halfway up sheer cliffs and camera friendly abutments. Every car behind us wants to go 80 mph in the 30 zone. It's arguably the most beautiful spot in the world, and people want to race it instead of take it in. The BMW honks again and tries to pass us before a turn. A maintenance truck going the other way almost hits it, and the beamer swerves behind us again. The driver looks like an out of control marionette. I ignore him.

Maybe the asshole in the beamer does me a favor by keeping us moving. If I stop, will she leave me? She is quiet, taking it all in from the passenger's seat. She has that weary look in her eyes again. I would hold her hand across the shifter like I normally do, but we could tumble over the cliff at any time. If I stop, I lose her. If I touch her hand, we might both die. We could lose control where the cliff wall ends, and find ourselves seized with breathlessness and panic as the ground lurches mercilessly at our windshield. I refuse death to its face, and drive slow, and mutter a hundred curses at the drivers who would have our lives, we who have struggled and fought to stay together.

The long incline past the cliffs takes us past a fence hemming in a field filled with cows, past which is a tall, man-made looking mountain topped with a castle. Is it real? We stop, get out where the stones' moss feels like something from fantasy, and take pictures. Out past it all, the sea wall holds strong. The cows lord over the castle here, and all is green.

All the speeding beamers whiz by, oblivious. This is a place where the world absolves us, stops for us, for the first time in so long. As I head for the driver's side door, I glance over at her. She's not ready to leave. I shouldn't be so anxious to drive away again. I've been driving all my life. She stays near the fence, absorbed behind the camera. The rest of the world will have to wait.

The Final Stretch

I climb back into the driver's seat and take the rest of the way south. I love that we will live near here one day. Our friends are here with us. We always want them here with us. We've been sliding downward, despite our best efforts, but when we come here to this place, we find the life again and we remember how to grasp it the right way.

Here, on the I-5 just south of Seattle, I don't drive to escape. I don't drive to get away, or to keep someone near. I'm not lost. I'm not desperate. I drive now because I'm with the people I love. Off in the distance, Mt. Ranier looms and it is a good omen. Everyone is asleep except me, but it is good. I am a protector. I am safe. I can be trusted. There is no longer a frantic searching in my eyes, though the road moves ever more under us.


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