Twice a week, I drive to New Brunswick from Princeton, a 16-mile jaunt that usually takes over half an hour to complete because of the nature of driving in New Jersey. I head up there in the 8:00 hour to arrive at 9:00 for meetings of the Rutgers debate team, usually returning around midnight as they’ve wrapped up.
There are two ways I can make this trip that are almost identical in mileage:
One is to take US Route 1, a literal straight line road that hearkens back to legends of the tsar drawing plans for a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow. While straight as an arrow, the route runs south of both my origin and my destination, adding a bit of time. More importantly, Route 1 (in Jersey, at least) is perhaps the worst four-lane road in America, a bizarre combination of highway lane structures and traffic with endless stoplights. Despite the lights, left turns are strictly forbidden, requiring “jug-handles” where one exits to the right to then turn onto a crossover lane. There are no conventional exits, just jug-handles. And the thing is filled with trucks and Jersey drivers, who remain the only people worse than drunk New Mexicans, murderous Manhattanites, and raging Massachusetts drivers, somehow blending the worst aspects of all three.
The alternative is NJ Route 27, a pastoral winding road whose frequent elevation shifts are outnumbered only by the number of times the speed limit changes between Princeton and New Brunswick. If Route 1 is the express (or tries to be), Route 27 is the local, plowing through the center of random townships and dropping the limit from 50 to 25 with almost no warning. This is a two-laner (one in each direction) and is frequented by these aging gray buses that seem to run local routes in this thickly settled part of the state. There are no trucks, however, and very little traffic at all late at night, when all the lights are green. There are lights, but probably fewer than on the “highway” counterpart.
After doing round-trips on each, I’ve settled into a vague pattern of taking Route 1 up to New Brunswick in the evening and returning on Route 27 in the middle of the night. Route 1 seems to have a stagnant amount of traffic 24/7, which is more palatable in comparison to the fairly heavy traffic on 27 at around 8:30, but less palatable compared to the emptiness of same past midnight. But more than anything, there’s just something peaceful and rewarding about taking 27 home, soaring through empty silent communities like a high-schooler the night after graduation.
Tonight, however, the road was deader than ever. It was ghostly, the kind of night that inspired Ray Bradbury’s story “Night Meeting”, where a Martian and an Earthling colonist cross paths through the midst of time on desolate night roads. The first leaves were covering the road in some places, sent sailing as I would race through in an effort to stay ever 5 miles an hour above the mercurial legal maximum. I think I passed all of two cars going my direction the whole time, both fairly close to New Brunswick, and maybe 5-7 in the other direction the whole way. In 25 minutes.
There is much time to ponder in such settings, though they have a way of dominating the mental space with their own unique offering. We spend so much time surrounded by people, their structures, the possibility of interaction. To be moving swiftly through a voided landscape is at once solipsistic and comforting, calling attention to one’s place in the universe and focus to the significance of each passing minute. The more I noticed my aloneness, the more I felt both isolated and somehow unified with a larger presence and could feel the awareness of the moment pile upon itself.
I had a CD to keep me company, but its significance was only to underscore the larger reality around, not to take center stage. Like Kitaro on a road to Jewell that suddenly became endless and transcendent, with my Dad so many years ago. The songs were like leaves, like the occasional droplet collected on the windshield, to be considered and passed like most days on the wind.
And then, as Princeton approached faster than normal, and cars six and seven northbound, Dave Matthews Band’s “Christmas Song” came on the disc. And the world of silence, of sleepy village churches and big box brand name signs illuminated for overnight advertising of empty stores, shifted. It transformed to a seventeen-year-old kid who made the decision to buy his first-ever CD (after years of accumulating cassette tapes) because it was the only way he could acquire this song he’d heard just once on the radio that had captivated his feelings about Christmas in a way he could handle as a no-longer-Christian. Who had looked everywhere for a tape, knowing that he already had one DMB tape, finally settling ironically for the older album on CD only and wondering how to deal with the technological shift. Who came home and skipped right to the last track, wondered at the trail of lightning sounds that followed the track, played it on repeat most of the night. It was a cold night, beckoning to Christmas still a couple months out, a night not unlike this one. Then there was a play to direct, a year to get through, somehow, colleges and a future to seek (up). Tonight, not so different perhaps, a novel in place of a play, colleges behind but not forgotten, a year to be savored instead of endured. Perhaps life really does get easier over time, after all.
I listened to the last three recitations of the closing chorus in the stopped car in front of my current residence, smiling at the yellow porch light and the barely visible Christmas lights within, decking the top corner of the living room walls. “And the blood of our children all around.” The last fade of notes, the car switched off, and a gathering of paper for the trek inside. Crossing the threshold, I felt the wind swirl behind me and wondered what message it carried from what past or future self. I am never (and always) alone. But tonight, oh tonight, it all seems to make sense.
I went inside to find Pandora staring at me as though she’d been waiting this whole time.