It used to hit me particularly in rental cars. “Ameripanic,” I called it: an overwhelming (for a Brit) apprehension of scale, a kind of horizontal vertigo at the vastness and possibility of this great country. I learned to drive on a smaller scale, noodling along the winding country roads of southern England. I was held in by the high hedges, nursed around corners by the dreaming verges, soothed by an occasional vision of a plowed field. But in the roaring U.S., I was out there. At large. Alone. Slewing between lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike, in vague command of (I think) a large Pontiac—pure Ameripanic. Called to be Neal Cassady, feeling like J. Alfred Prufrock.
I get it less and less these days. Now, driving in America, I feel sort of—how shall I put it?—American. Cup of Dunkin’ coffee, radio tuned to the local classic-rock station. You know where you are—wherever you are—with a classic-rock station: “Cinnamon Girl,” “Sweet Emotion,” “War Pigs,” always the same playlist. It’s a liturgy. And a liturgy gets you there. Somewhere outside New York, on a bright winter morning, the DJ played a Led Zeppelin song. Then—no talk, no commercials—he played another. “Wait a second,” I said to my passenger. “Hang on a bloody minute here … I know what this is. This is a Rock Block!” I was ecstatic. It wasn’t just that I’d recognized the radio format. It was the Led Zep–ness of driving in America, the wail of its power, the mighty, bluesy momentum of it. Reality cracked open, with Robert Plant squealing like a tiny white-hot Buddha at its core.
There are, of course, other people driving in America. You must try to love them. A friend of mine, a big dude with a shaved head, drives a scary-looking tank of a black truck. But he floats through traffic on a cloud of magnanimity. His foot on the gas pedal is soft and musical. He lets people in, he lets people out, hazily waving them through. And this is Boston traffic—Boston, home of the pinched face and the middle finger. My friend stays gentle.
Driving in L.A. recently with my son, I made a slightly overexcited right on red and got a blare of indignation up my posterior. I let the protesting vehicle pass and then pulled up next to it, lowering my window. You cut me off, mouthed the woman at the wheel, her face distorted with rage. I’M SORRY, I half-shouted back. I made penitent gestures and signals of contrition. I may have beat my breast. “I’m not sure she accepted your apology, Dad,” observed my son. Ah, but it felt good. The road forgave me.
So now it stretches before me, as it stretches before you, my fellow drivers in America. It has taken me as I am, as have (to a remarkable extent) you. My vertigo has calmed. I’ve grown up, you might say, driving in America. Dunkin’. “War Pigs.” The pull of the white line, the pull of futurity. I will never not be grateful.