I have never ridden in the back seat of my car. It is not high on my list of things to do before I die.
Yet here I am, somewhere outside Kearney, Nebraska, wedged tight behind the driver’s seat, duffle bags and backpacks piled high on the seat to my right, a garbage bag full of oily food wrappers, spent water bottles, and rotting orange peels on the floor between my feet awaiting discard at the next pit stop.
That should be in about 300 miles. Maybe Iowa City.
If the air conditioner was working properly, I would feel like I was stuffed in a refrigerator. Instead it feels more like I am stuffed in a toaster oven. It is august hot outside and the vents are open wide to force some fresh air into my rear seat cocoon and to dissipate the strange industrial smell that emerges whenever the struggling AC is turned on.
The AC is a new problem. But not the newest. The newest is the battery that I just replaced when the car wouldn’t start after a refueling stop. AAA wanted to know where I was. Exit 272, I told them. To be more specific, the last rest stop for 65 miles. I wasn’t sure if we were in Colorado or Nebraska so we had to wait a long time, during which I took the opportunity to become reacquainted with Speedy Mart beef jerky.
It could be worse. I could be in the back seat somewhere between Stagecoach and Salt Wells.
That is where I was two days ago. But on the desolate stretches in Nevada I was driving the car and my son was in the back and his sister was riding shotgun.
At one point, we stopped the car in the middle of Route 50 and took selfies forward and backward on a sun-drenched ribbon of two-lane road that started west on one horizon and finished east on another. There was not a single car in sight. There was also not a single bar on my cell phone.
I am grateful the car started when we got back in. We would probably be bleached bones and a smile on a vulture’s face right about now.
In truth, it has only been my car for a short while. I inherited it in California and, with the help of two of my college-age kids, I am driving it across the country filled with a payload of stuff I also inherited and don’t quite know what to do with. There is enough room for two in the front and a legless, anorexic passenger in the back.
I haven’t been in the back seat of a car on a long road trip since I was a kid, when I fought with my sister and my parents turned up the radio to drown out our complaints.
Out of a sense of duty I ask my daughter, who is now driving, when we are going to get there. In three days, she tells me. Fifteen minutes later I ask her again. My son, in the passenger seat, turns up the radio to drown me out.
But they are not listening to the radio. They are listening to endless playlists and podcasts they have downloaded on their phones.
I listen for a few hours until my ears start to bleed and I ask politely if we can please listen to something I am familiar with. They don’t have that kind of music so instead they start up a fifteen-episode podcast series on the Zodiac murders. It’s something that happened in the 70s they inform me.
This is not really appropriate listening for children I tell them. I know what happens to innocent people in cars outside of Vallejo. We passed by Vallejo three days ago. I will probably have nightmares.
The podcast should be over sometime near Chicago. And mercifully, it will be my turn to be an adult and drive again.
As payback, I think I will turn on AM radio and seek talk radio stations. In the expanse that becomes Ohio and Pennsylvania the reception is not great, and the static can be prickly despite the soft, soothing scenery.
But that is the soundtrack of long road trips I am familiar with.
My kids encourage me to play the alphabet game, spotting letters on road signs and billboards and license plates. I get stuck at Q and find myself daydreaming as deep fields of grazing cows and model train barns fan by like a kaleidoscope.
I have lost all track of time and place and I can’t remember what important things I am supposed to do.
Just yesterday we were weaving through the long shadows of mountain passes and bobbing streams. And the day before that, rust mesas and moonscape. And before that pale salt flats and loosely rooted desert brush. And before that pine trees and breath-taking walls of granite and the majestic Pacific, beating its chest against the rising rocks of this enormous slab of land we are driving across.
And still miles to go.
This is a big country. I don’t think you can appreciate how big it is until you travel uncomfortably in a car for 3,000 miles.
I hope it never ends.