As long as I can remember, I've loved being in cars at night. Riding, driving, it doesn't matter. Something about the sense of motion without the clear perception of distance, and the rolling countryside replaced by colored lights slowly pulsing on and off in the distance.
My parents split up when I was about seven, and settled in separate houses: my mother in St. Louis Park, Minnesota; my father in Waconia, Minnesota. Separated by a county line, about 50 minutes by car, and a court order mandating that my brother and I make the round trip near twice a week. Out to Waconia on Monday nights, back on Tuesday mornings; back out every other Friday, and then back again the following Monday morning. Rhythmic, 150 minutes a week staring out the passenger windows of cars. My brother did it for close to ten years; I did it for about eight.
My dad made a game of it for us eventually. He drove a GMC Suburban, powder blue and navy blue with a tailgate and a trailer hitch, and every time we made that drive we would count the other Suburbans we saw on the road for ten cents apiece. We got to learn where they were parked, which drivers shared a commute with my dad, et cetera. For ten cents apiece times four trips a week times week after week for years on end, it added up; an extra $20/month each in allowance, more or less.
Thousands of hours total in the car before I ever put my hands on a steering wheel, and most of that in daylight across endlessly familiar scenery. Nighttime driving was a treat by comparison; I could almost sleep, the radio was more typically relaxed music instead of tireless news radio with traffic and weather every half hour. My favorite memories were the radio towers along the side of the highway, particularly the cluster along the westbound side of Highway 212 into Eden Prairie. Those towers fed a lot of radio stations as repeaters, and clustered around a small brick building which has some historical note as the birthplace of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Each one over a hundred feet tall and decorated with large red lights that would slowly fade in and out, a silent beacon to planes in the airspace of nearby Flying Cloud Airport simultaneously saying: "Here, the earth and the sky meet; fly high," and "You're almost home." I eventually came to take an immense feeling of safety from those beacons, a trust that those lights meant that the things above would remain above, that the things below would remain below, and above all that I was almost home.
I especially like the feel of a car in light nighttime rain. The slow, rhythmic pulse of the wipers, brushing away droplets of water from the windshield; but as the droplets accumulated again, they would paint the reds and yellows and greens of the traffic lights in diffuse, wide patches; as a child they reminded me of Christmas. As I grew older the reasons behind the association became more obvious, but I would stare into those patches of color and light and feel the same sense of hope and optimism that those lights and colors used to bring out in me. Now, aware of the old associations and the new contexts, I like to lean back in the driver's seat and imagine myself dictating a letter to someone, the same letter I've wanted to write to each woman I have loved, and the same letter I imagine I might someday write to any woman I hope to love.
"Scintillating is your word," I imagine the letters starting, in media res against a description of traffic lights seen through rain-dropped windows at night. "Scintillating is your word. You scintillate." Poetry eludes me, but alone in the car on these rainy spring nights playing with the radio dial, I constantly find myself playing with romantic metaphors about rain and colored light splashed across windshields and how they make me see the world differently. What those things mean to me, and what the letter's faceless intended recipient means to me by extension. Hope, and warmth. Peace, safety, and a gentle reminder that I'm almost home.
Lately when I find my thoughts drifting in this direction I try to remember to shake my head, pulse my wipers, and remind myself that this isn't the time to daydream. Wet roads are unsafe, especially in the dark--and someday all the warm associations I entertain through these memories are going to get me killed.