Zen and the Art of the Road Trip

     It was that time of early morning when it is neither day or night, the sun is yet to rise, and a strange navy blue glow in the sky casts an almost imperceptible dim light over everything.  Late March, just a few days before the official start of spring, and the air still had that cold bite of winter, the specter of your breath hanging in it.  I threw a couple backpacks into the Mazdaspeed 6’s trunk, a small cooler with water bottles and some snacks in the back seat, a short road trip was ahead.  The 6 had received a slew of preparations in the week leading to the trip, literally up until the day before the trip; renewed the transmission fluid with Motorcraft, refreshed both the rear differential and transfer case with Mobil 1 gear lube, swapped in fresh Mazda OE spark plugs, and of course some fresh Rotella T6 in the engine.  The day before the trip was a flurry of activity, as I scrambled to get a driver front wheel bearing replaced in time.  All of this necessary for the aging road warrior that is my 6 to be road ready and inspire confidence it would be able to travel over 2,000 miles on the road over the next few days.  The destination was Colorado’s front range, home to Denver, Fort Collins, Boulder and Colorado Springs, the objective was to make that 14 hour plus drive in one day.  The occasion was a momentous milestone, preparing to send a daughter to college, touring potential schools she might attend in a couple of years.  So with the car loaded and ready, and most of Chicago still deep in Sunday slumber, we headed west.

     As the morning hours stretched on, the sun rose behind us, casting a shadow of the car directly in front of us, the silhouette of our own heads visible ten yards ahead on the road.  The sun bathes the mostly brown, yellow and gray landscape around us, with a warm glow that cuts the drab vista with a tinge of spring, making the surroundings feel somehow more alive despite the dreary facade.  Driving long stretches of open road, becomes a sort of meditation for me.  With many hours of driving yet ahead, my mind naturally wanders and I begin to reflect on countless things as mundane as where we should stop for lunch, to more philosophical pondering on the speed of life and how I found myself suddenly the parent of a nearly college age person.  I also started to think about the car, now over 12 years old and eclipsing the 120,000 mile mark, would it hold together mechanically for this first day? I  started to think about how much of this whirlwind of life the car has been through with me over the years.  It even came up in conversation with my daughter, I calculated the car had been in the family since she was in second grade, and it sparked a bit of conversation that was a small trip down memory lane, remembering trips when she was a little girl and more.  If you are a parent of a teen, you might know well how scarce actual conversation can be, if not, trust me it’s a big deal.  Life swirls all around you, but when you keep cars for as long as I tend to, the car becomes a constant throughout it, a member of the family even.  I began to think about the journey of the last ten years, the changes, the different homes, the different jobs, the different schools my kids are in, and the many new additions to our family.  Ten years feels like a long time when you tally the changes and life events, but it passes in a blink.  The Mazdaspeed6 cruises dutifully down the long open road ahead, with still many hours ahead of nothing to do but drive and think.

     As we crossed through Iowa, the scene on I-80 took an even more wintery tone, with the wide rolling hills of Iowa’s farmland now coated in a layer of snow.  It was a beautiful scene, pristine white hills, and the road lined with shrubbery of a purplish hue, coated in a layer of ice, the sunlight shimmering on it, gave the effect of the road lined with an unending wall of purple chandeliers.  It wasn’t all beauty, the bite of winter can be ferocious in the plains states, even well into this time of year.  The evidence was seen in the many cars mired on the sides of the highway, each tagged with a tassel of caution tape for later retrieval.  A Toyota Prius in the center median, facing opposite the flow of traffic and a deep gouge along its flank.  An upended Nissan Rogue, resting on it’s roof, with it’s windows punched out for it’s occupants to escape through.  A jackknifed semi wedged against the center median divider, it’s headlights staring at me helplessly, the trailer behind it ending just short of the highway behind.  A Ford Fusion that went off on the right side of the road, a ditch with about a ten foot drop, its nose partially buried in the earth from the force of the impact.  A semi with car carrier trailer, and a full load of Range Rovers, toppled and resting on it’s right side, an expensive wreck I thought.  This repeated over and over, I lost count of the number of cars, it was an ominous scene, and I felt fortunate to have missed the carnage that storm brought.  The rhythm and monotony of passing mile markers again prompted the mind into philosophical thoughts.  My thoughts turn a bit dark, toward death.  I hoped all the occupants of these cars made it out OK, hope they made it out alive.  I think of loved ones lost over the last decade, when will I find the end of my journey, will I be ready, will my family be alright without me?  Sometimes it gets heavy on the road, sometimes it gets deep.  We soldier on into the afternoon, crossing into Nebraska, our only stops determined by the capacity of the gas tank and our bladders.

     By the end of the thirteenth hour on the road, and with nothing more than a couple fuel stops and a lunchtime jaunt through a drive through window on the way, the peaceful serenity of reflection turned to a fatigued and anxious mood.  Finally through Nebraska and into Colorado, we started quickly losing daylight.  Maneuvering unknown roads and routes to our room for the night brought on a measure of stress, and it also started raining, not helpful.  We made it to the motel as planned and I checked in to the room.  At this point I am feeling groggy from the drive; my joints stiff and sore, my eyes fatigued, my head feels a bit like a water balloon balanced on the end of a baseball bat and I really just kind of want a glass of whiskey.  The fourteen hours on the road had me pondering life, death, and the prospect of mixing gas station coffee and beef jerky, but now my mind was perfectly clear; sleep and rest were the only objective.

     Thankfully the next couple of days spent touring schools in the area involved much less marathon driving, but a rather brisk schedule meant we did not have much time for sightseeing.  I did manage to make a brief, leisurely stop at the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, more of a relaxing low speed driving tour and a beautiful place to behold. The drives between cities were a winter wonderland in the morning, that would melt and give way to a spring like atmosphere in the afternoon, also a nice scenic touch.  Eventually I found a few canyon roads along the way, to do some more spirited driving.  Let me tell you about those canyons, oh those canyons, what a delightful treat to have in one’s backyard.  Most of them were no more than a thirty minute drive from the cities we stayed in, and: They. Were. Glorious!  The backdrop to the west of cities like Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver and Fort Collins is the start of the mighty Rocky Mountains, including the famous Pikes Peak among others.  Sadly with the time constraints, recreating my own Pikes Peak hill climb was not in the cards for this trip.  However, I did find the so called front range to be a web of incredible little winding roads that trickled between every mountain and occasionally climbed over them.  Within this web of roads, another type of meditative state washed over me, one of focused, calm, empty-mindedness.  All thoughts washed away as I flowed with each corner, slow to enter, heel-toe down shift, feel the suspension load up, accelerate out of the apex, feel the back end rotate out of the corner, repeat.  My mind and body were fully engaged in the task of negotiating the endless stream of corners.  If cars are my religion, the canyon road is my temple, and all the burdens of my mind were eased, my fatigue from the day’s drive before is replaced with rejuvenation.  Traveling alongside a stony creek, at the foot of these earthen giants, the scenery is breathtaking and it enriches your soul.  I love my sweet home Chicago, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that having this, these kind of roads, is a huge void in my life back home.  I sought out one after the other during my time in Colorado, and drove as many as the schedule and a motion sick passenger would allow.

     There’s an enormity to this trip, preparing to send your first child to college; concerns about her success, her well being, her safety, her younger sibling taking the same path not far behind, anxieties over the monumental costs, and all the logistics surrounding the milestone.  Each day became punctuated with an afternoon canyon road meditation, helping to ease the worries, digest the thoughts, and retain a calm while reviewing tuition expenses that would equate to buying a new Ferrari 488 over four years.  I was able to make the return drive home with a smile on my face, knowing that I was father to a brilliant young woman soon headed to college and destined to do great things.

 – photos and writing: Robert Sixto

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