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The Stars at Night: Roadtrip Lessons

The Stars at Night: Roadtrip Lessons
Missy Lambert

Last time we made this trip, it was under slightly more strenuous conditions. We drove 28 hours straight, stopping only for gas.

When we arrived at our destination, we stayed there for approximately 23 hours, then turned around and drove the 28 hours back. We only had a long weekend, after all, to make the trip, and northern Utah to south-central Texas is not something you can make into quick business.

This time we are making the trip with a little more time: Thanksgiving. This time we will have two days, packed full of American-Mexican hybrid Thanksgiving foods, pick-up football and Spanglish between the going and the coming. My husband’s father lives in Laredo, Texas, which is nestled right on the border of Mexico. Normally when we go to visit, we traverse the Rio Grande at the checkpoint, eat some corn with mayo and pepper, buy a few souvenirs, and head back to “the land of the free.” I have never ceased to be impressed at how easy it is for me and all my blond hairs to cross the border. But that is another topic. This story is not about politics; this story is about roadtrips.


They say all the world’s a stage, or a school—I say it’s a road. A continual moving forward. Sunrises, sunsets, tumbleweed, cacti. There is something lovely there. Close your eyes, then open them, then look for it.

The Lessons

Remember: You can’t always trust an atlas. Just because a road appears to be major and reliable (or, alternatively, the only possible route from where you are to where you’re going) doesn’t mean that road will be the best choice. When we passed our exit before even leaving Utah, and entered Colorado 200 miles north of where we’d planned to enter, we decided to forge a new path, meet a new road. So we followed the thin lines of the Colorado roads through Grand Junction and down to Durango. As we passed through a series of tiny towns, we started talking about the subtleties and nuances of patriotism and nationalism, and hardly even realized that we had been driving uphill, past switchbacks and turns with ominous 10 mile per hour speed limits. I think we all noticed at about the same time: this didn’t look like a highway.

We decided to keep going and see where it took us. We didn’t want to turn around and drive back down. After nearly an hour, I was begging the road to give me a sign. Are we even going the right way? Are we going to end up on top of some heaven-reaching mountain and just have to turn around the come back again? It was about this time that we saw a blue sign with information about a weather radio station. We considered the value of a weather station versus a “where the hell are we” station, which could tell us what highway we were on, or at least make encouraging statements like, “You are definitely not in the same place as we are, but if you drive for long enough you’ll probably figure it out.” We thought the latter would be far more relevant. You can look out the window and see what the weather’s like! No such luck with location.

Next, don’t drive at night. Perhaps some avid roadtrippers will disagree with me on this point. Perhaps they will insist that nighttime driving is the best way of avoiding traffic and holdups, or that they love the pale glow of a lonely gas station in the middle of nowhere at 2 a.m. I can appreciate both points, especially the gas station, but there are two reasons I don’t like to drive at night.

One is because I feel like I’m hurtling toward my death. Let’s be honest. I hate only being able to see a hundred feet ahead of me. Asher asked me if I hallucinate while I drive because sometimes I slow down or slam on my brakes with little or no provocation. The truth is, driving at night brings me back in touch with my own mortality. Somewhere between the border of Colorado and New Mexico, sometime before midnight, on a stretch of road with virtually no lights, Joe slammed on his breaks and I saw the pale eyes of a huge deer reflected in our headlights: he was just walking calmly across the road, apparently totally unaware of his close brush with nonexistence. I, however, was far from unaware. I spent the next half an hour thinking about how anything could happen on these roads, cut out of mountains and deserts, and if something happened and I had to call for help, I don’t even know where the hell I am. And if something happened and I couldn’t call for help, how long might we have to wait before someone found us? I usually have at least two of those epiphanies per road trip. I would prefer not to have them at all.

The other reason to avoid driving at night is, what is the point of being on the road if not looking at things on all sides of it? When we found ourselves on that thin-lined road in central Colorado, weaving back and forth at 15 miles per hour, I kept thinking how this national forest must be breath-taking in the light. In that impenetrable darkness, it was terrifying: cliffs dropping to all sides, ice coating the concrete curves, bears waiting to rush into the road and jump on the hood of our car. I would love to go back and drive the Red Mountain Pass again, when I can see where I’m driving, preferably with the windows down and fresh cool Red Mountain air in my lungs. But drive that piece again at night? No thank you. Give me the road for the sake of its beauty; give me spare deserts and proud mountains. Give me something breathtaking or subdued or spare or rolling. From time to time, let me stop the car and place my foot on this corner of earth where I have never stepped before. Let me visit points of interests and scenic viewpoints. Give me a sky to get lost in.

And maybe this is the most important thing: Pay attention. On every roadtrip there is one perfect moment, one that sticks in your memory for (I hope) the rest of your life. Last time we made the trip, the perfect moment came when I woke up, gradually, as sunlight began to enter the car, slowly. I had been napping in the passenger’s seat, and as I faded back into awakeness, Enya was playing mystically on the CD player and the sun was rising pink, all stretched out across the horizon. We were passing through a small Texas town called Sanderson, with old buildings that looked luminous and sugar-spun in the soft early morning light. I remember I was scrunched down in the seat, my knees up by my chest, and I looked over toward Joe, that person whom I would be marrying in about a month. He hadn’t shaved in several days and his brown eyes were narrowed as he stared at the road. I remember feeling, with incredible clarity, that things would always be good as long as I remembered the way he looked that morning, his white shirt, the rising sun casting a rosy glow on his face. And so far, that has been true.

This time the moment was a little bit different. We were somewhere north of a town called, serendipitously, Truth or Consequence, New Mexico. It was the middle of the night. I was feeling a little disappointed that we missed the full glory of New Mexico in the light as God intended it, but as I looked out the window I noticed that the stars were brilliant and dense, thrown out across the sky like so many handfuls of salt. On the CD player, Gregorian monks were offering up a textured rendition of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” and then I noticed the moon. It was a perfect half-circle, as though it had been cut evenly down the middle by some judicious mother trying to divide a cookie perfectly for two squabbling children. I thought about the other half of the moon, then about the sun—and I didn’t miss them. All I could think was: I wouldn’t choose any other place, or any other life. And at that moment, inexplicably, Joe reached up from the backseat and began rubbing my neck with his warm fingers. And I thought: I swear on all the love in the world, life is something good.


I should tell you that I wrote all that in the car, my laptop balanced precariously on my knees, before we reached Laredo. It was prophetic, in a way. The few days in Texas were lovely, hot, and filled with rice and beans, turkey and cranberry sauce, empanadas and mashed potatoes. The drive back was going smoothly, until our car got totaled in an accident in northern New Mexico. We were the lucky ones on that stretch of road; within a half-mile of our own smashed vehicle were eight other accidents, presumably because of sudden icy conditions. Three of the wrecks had ambulances on the scene; at least one man’s name was released in the paper the next day as a fatality. Like I said, we were lucky. We were remarkably unhurt, just cold and shaky.

This is the especially prophetic part: It was dark when we were rear-ended with incredible force by a tank-like SUV. I knew I should have heeded my own advice: Don’t drive at night. Roadtrips should make you think about life, not death. Pay attention to the view. It is a sin to drive through New Mexico in the dark. And so on.

We rented a car to drive to Albuquerque, and flew back to Utah on a small, nerve-wrackingly turbulent airplane. Our orange car stayed in a rural New Mexico junkyard. Forgive me for waxing sentimental, but the sad truth is I will never again balance my laptop on my knees and look out of those perfectly-curved windows.

And a greater regret?  I looked up Red Mountain Pass on the Internet upon arriving home, and discovered that the stretch of road is, according to Road Trip America's website, part of Colorado's "Million Dollar Highway," known for its breathtaking views, pure mountain air, lookout points, and plentitude of wildlife.  In 1891 the city of Red Mountain was destroyed by a fire, leaving behind a collapsed volcano cone where gold was discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century.  What all this means is: We got lost, found ourselves on one of the most beautiful mountains in the West, and didn't see a thing. Hindsight, I suppose, and premonition: Roadtrips are best undertaken by the full light of day.

© Missy Lambert Jan 2006

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