I commute to work these days—40 minutes one way, five days a week. When I first contemplated this drive, it sounded awful, but now it feels normal. If it sounds awful to you, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones: the average American commute comes to 25.5 minutes, one way (according to USA Today).
Truly, my drive to work is not bad at all. The highway is busy and 70-miles-an-hour jolts me at 7 am, but dawn comes through the bare trees on the ridges with pink, purplish, apricot, or lemon veils of light, every day a slightly different spectrum glowing and shifting as I round the side of the big city I never see. Then I take my exit and turn off on a country road that winds down through the university’s agricultural extension, past an old mill with its lake and millwheel and geese, past the cows on the hillside with the blasted stump and the old split rail fence, past the church and the cemetery, past old farm houses and ’50s ranch homes and a mobile home park and a couple of posh new subdivisions, past the little family cemetery and the strawberry farm. It’s dreamy and misty and I hear myself say “oh!” whenever I see something I didn’t notice before—“oh!” to the first burst of daffodils, or, if the cows are close by the fence, “hello cows!” Would I rather be asleep? Of course. But I have to make a living. And I’ve learned to like my little dawn pilgrimage.
It’s the way back from work that gets me. I can’t separate from my job in time to enjoy the country road—and then I’m sucked into and stuck on the highway, which is simultaneously hectic and boring. Trying to keep myself to 70 and stay awake, to anticipate semis, entering traffic, and assorted assholes, I’m miserable.
Then I am dependent on the radio for relief. Like everyone else in my neighborhood/voting bloc/yoga class, I listen to National Public Radio. Now, while I like NPR, approve of it in general, and am immensely grateful that the service exists, etc, that does not accurately describe my actual feeling as I am driving that 25-minute highway stretch. No, my actual feeling is more capricious and mad—more Stockholm syndrome, with a little road rage thrown in. My inane crush on Kai Ryssdal (whom I never saw before I googled him a moment ago)—“Kai, you stud!” I coo or catcall him when he comes on—is matched by nothing but my riotous and unreasonable hatred of some other hosts I won’t mention. When the reporters cover something I’m interested in, I’m delighted with them and think they are good people; when they cover something that bores me, I hiss at them and make fun of their voices.
Here’s the only story I really want to hear at the moment: the mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. Why? Not because I’m morbid; I barely remember the Air France crash of 2009, and while the story of flight MH370 is probably a tragedy, we don’t know that for sure yet. For now it’s a mystery—and an exceptionally puzzling one, with clues cropping up here and there, experts and amateurs spouting opinions. Even Courtney Love is weighing in. Besides, the story of MH370 brings up Big Issues: it pits man against machine, country against country, and modern technology against the great beyond. Scads of volunteers scroll through satellite photos of the sea’s winking surface while we wonder: can anything be really lost these days? We’re incredulous—and a little excited, because for most Americans this story is without personal consequence, happening on the opposite side of the globe to a small crew of unlucky people.
For me, the story of flight MH370 echoes something long sunk in the mud of my mind: Flight 714, a Tintin comic in which a supersonic jet is hijacked and landed on a tiny Indonesian island. Amid ancient artifacts, devious millionaires, truth serums, telepathy, flying saucers, and a volcano, everything turns out fine, as usual in Tintin books. Perhaps that also affects my interest in MH370: the hope of a happy ending against the odds, a story that doesn’t end the way you know it probably will.
All this is awful, I know, this daydream induced by someone’s actual trouble. But that’s the state of the commuter, zooming over the blank land between one place and another, unattached, whistling idly and waiting for reality to begin again. As Yeats says,
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!
Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC.