I recently returned from a Florida vacation. Nice time, even though Tropical Storm Debby threatened the Gulf Coast for the first few day we were there. We drove down and drove back, a total of over 24 hours driving–including a few wrong turns and detours.
Driving in summer is an interesting activity. I like to have windows down and wind blowing through the vehicle. My wife despises windows down and wind blowing through the vehicle. I’ll admit it can be tiring after a while, but it still makes me feel, even at my age, like a kid setting off on some kind of adventure. Every bridge I cross feels like crossing into something, I don’t know what. I put on my sunglasses, face into the sun, and head south, or west.
I had a conversation (online) the other day with another blogger (Invisible Horse) about how one can experience nature, or the seasons, when one is surrounded by very little that is natural. Our lives are lived in air-conditioned homes, climate-controlled workplaces, heated and cooled theaters and stores and malls. We step outside only to hurry to something else inside. Sure, we can go on occasional vacations to the beach or to the mountains, but what we need is an awareness of nature in our day to day existence.
So I was thinking about driving, and how one of our most unnatural occupations can help us be in nature. This is not as outlandish as it sounds. Back in February, 1947, nature write Edwin Way Teale set out on a roadtrip from the Florida everglades, ending up some 17,000 miles later in Maine at the summer solstice. He wrote a book about this trip, North with the Spring, which was so well received that he went on to write a quartet of books, including Autumn Across America, Wandering through Winter, and Journey into Summer, each based on similar driving tours.
There are two interesting things to note about this: one is the fact that not so long ago a man writing about his experiences in nature could be a hugely popular bestselling author. The other is that Teale set out to experience nature while he drove, but his book was more about the places he stopped and explored along the way than about driving in and of itself. Today we’re always rushing somewhere: it’s not likely we will stop and climb out of the car because we see daffodils in bloom by the roadway. Most of us watch the signs that say Scenic Overlook zoom by unheeded. We blast through miles and miles of forest and prairie until a highway sign alerts us to the next upcoming convenience–more often than not a McDonald’s ‘restaurant.’
Of course driving in the different seasons offers us differing experiences: driving in winter can be treacherous, even though often it is associated with going someplace special for a holiday (over the river and through the woods); driving in summer typically calls for air-conditioning and special equipment, like windshield visors and steering wheel covers to keep down the heat, but it too is frequently necessitated by the need to get to special places–baseball games, swimming pools, picnics and barbecues. But these holidays and summer activities are all human conventions, so if driving to them is seasonally related, it is not strictly nature related.
One of the very few nature-related driving activities I know of is the autumn color tour, where we pile into our cars on a mid- to late-autumn weekend afternoon and head out to tree-lined backroads, just looking at the trees. This is nice, though with our urban environment and sprawling suburbs, we have to drive farther and farther to find the trees. It would be nice if there were other times of year that we got into the car just to go and see what nature was doing. But in the end, this is not what I’m talking about.
In driving, we do and we do not experience the world. A few years my family went to British Columbia to visit relatives. When people hear about this trip they are surprised that we didn’t fly. But I tell them driving is the only way. We traversed and climbed 5,000 miles through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and into the Canadian Rockies. We saw a lifetime’s worth of breathtaking vistas at the height of green summertime. But I have to admit we were in a hurry. We didn’t stop often. We didn’t feel the mountain air, smell the forest breezes: and this was a vacation.
It’s even worse on our day to day commutes. We find ourselves stuck in traffic, impatient, stressed, clutching at the phone to try and reach someone who cares that we might be late. We may be out in the world, this may be the only time today we will experience something aside from the inside of our home or the inside of our workplace, but are we experiencing anything but the inside of our car?
I must admit, I’m stuck on this one. I don’t know what to recommend. It’s facile to say, ‘stop once in a while and look at things along the way,’ or ‘roll down the windows and feel the wind in your hair.’ The first is dangerous, the second is unpleasant for a few reasons–one of them being that we don’t want wind to mess up our hair. Maybe it’s time to solicit suggestions: how can we make driving, which most of us do too much of, more of an activity for being in the seasons?