“When I told people that we used to go driving at night, they didn’t understand it,” my former roommate told me.
Back in high school, I didn’t party or indulge until late in the game. When I hung out with friends, we’d play basketball, watch movies, or just hang out and talk. Some nights, that was all we needed, but some nights we’d get in the car and just drive. We didn’t have any destination in mind, but rather, I think we were drawn to the idea that the world we knew during the day had changed once the sun set and the streetlights came on. Familiar places look significantly different when the windows are dark and no one is around, and that always appealed to me. There was a calmness that was never there during the day.
These night drives were more than just a way to kill time. They were an opportunity to talk about what life would be like after graduation, about the dynamics of our group of friends, about sports, or about nothing in particular. Sometimes we’d turn the music up and just ride, lost in thought, cruising around to areas we knew. These drives became a way to unwind, and sometimes we’d stop for a soda at the gas station down the street. It was our bar before we could drink, and somehow the caffeine wouldn’t keep me up all night.
This habit stayed with me into the college years. The summer after freshman year, I worked for the post office delivering mail, and even though my job entailed driving around for eight hours a day or more, and it came with a fair amount of stress, there was something about driving my own car at night that brought me peace and tranquility. I could go at my own pace, without having to worry about making any stops, and it didn’t matter when I came back.
My dad once told me that you couldn’t just come home and go to bed, but that you have to unwind first. The thing that brought him down was TV, but I opted for something different.
During the most stressful moments of my life, I’d get in my car and go for a cruise. I was operating a car, but at night it didn’t require much thought, and I could just relax while I selected music that fit my mood. With fewer people on the road, I didn’t have to contend with traffic or pedestrians. Maybe it’s weird to be out driving at night, when the world seems lonely and less inviting, but I’ve never seen it that way. Sometimes, my stepbrother chooses to stay home and spend the holidays in New York City, not because he has anything against holidays or his family, but because he enjoys the absence of people. We both seem to be after the same feeling, that feeling of going to a place we know well when it’s much less populated, when we can actually breath and have fewer conversations. There’s much less chaos.
With less chaos, there is time for reflection. My mind takes that meditative turn at night when everything else dies down, and it’s in these moments that I can process the events of the day, or choose to think about nothing at all because not to think is so freeing and amazing, and as we get older there is less time for that kind of mindlessness. When I’m driving at night the anxiety fades. These drives are therapeutic, and I know that sleep will be easier because I’ve taken some time to heal.
Somewhere along the way, I decided that driving at night wasn’t the safest way to come down or to relax. I became aware of the danger that drunk drivers posed, and opted instead to stay at home. It’s one of those unfortunate side effects of getting older, that everything starts to scare you, that you get pangs of anxiety when you recognize something or have an unwelcome revelation. One of the best parts of being a kid is that you don’t realize just how scary the world really is.
I got scared of drunk drivers, but I still go for the occasional night cruise. A few weeks back, I found myself en route to my sister’s house as the early evening darkness of autumn crept in. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” by Car Seat Headrest came on my stereo system, and suddenly I was belting out the song into my steering wheel, looking ridiculous to anyone who passed me going the opposite way. It was one of those moments when a song comes on and it’s exactly what you wanted to hear, but you didn’t know it. The opening of the song played, and I sang for the rest of the drive as I made my way through Wayland and into Sudbury. Earlier that night I’d made a wrong turn and gone to the airport. It had been a frustrating experience, but now it was past me. Now, I could listen to this song and forget my stress, forget myself. In that moment, I became a teenager once again, full of angst and ready to take on the world.
Night driving is something I’ve mostly left behind, but that doesn’t mean I won’t come back to it. I know that there was a time in life when I’d drive around for an hour every single night. I needed to do it, to drive my familiar loop, before I was able to call it a night. I don’t know how I drove the same roads every night without changing it up, but I also knew I’d never get lost. I could get lost in a trance or self-reflection. I could think about the day that had been, or I could zone out. Everyone has their activities that allow them to recharge after a long day. Do what you need to do, to get yourself right, and then come home. Thanks for reading.