Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Dying on the Highway

I just got back from burying my sister's husband in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It's okay, he was already dead.

The deceased was a more complicated person than most. That being the case I will not try to sum him up to a world that mostly did not know him. He did classified work for the government as a Russian and Arabic linguist, so he might have affected all our lives without having an obvious connection individually, but he was one of the numerous functionaries well below the newspaper headlines. He had been retired from the Navy and from private work for several years when he suffered his fatal heart attack on the eve of receiving bypass surgery at age 57 this February, leaving my sister in their home, in his boyhood home town, hundreds of miles from her nearest blood relative.

For the memorial service, we -- her kin -- arranged to gather from New Hampshire, Connecticut, Oregon, and Virginia.

I had assumed I would shepherd our parents through airports or train stations on a journey tightly focused on the memorial service itself. Instead I learned that they wanted to go by car. Oh joy. My favorite. They had their reasons, based on Chattanooga's surprising isolation from airline and rail connections. You can't take the choo-choo to Chattanooga.

I quit enjoying road trips by car 30 years ago. I do what I have to do, but the craziness of pouring ourselves through pipelines under high pressure had become obvious to me. Every year, thousands of new drivers take to the streets and highways, all intent on making their best time from place to place.

My father will be 89 this year. My mother will be 87. They don't walk very fast. They don't bend and unbend very well. They are tough and determined, but the body forces issues that add another layer of stress to the already high level of alert required to rip down the average Interstate at the average speed dictated by the cumulative haste of thousands of people. And none of us felt like we could withstand the kind of 14- and 18-hour days behind the wheel that we used to pull in our peak years. So that meant breaking the trip over at least one night each way.

Stopping for a night adds a day to the trip. The days are still long, incarcerated in the car, dealing with whatever your fellow motorists dish out. After we arrived in Chattanooga, we drove some more. We helped the widow with whatever we could, even if it was just presence. We ate a lot, because it's what people do when they don't have time to settle in and have an actual life. We sat, because the gathering included a number of people who were not mobile. We've come to be together. What can everyone do? We can sit.

There was a little walking, but mostly as an offshoot of a motor tour of the area. Chattanooga has a strong cycling culture, apparently, but mostly I saw only road signs, and one solitary racing cyclist reaching the summit of Lookout Mountain while a party of us was there in the car. I wasn't about to go splintering off on a personal errand of athletic tokenism when our mission was to be together.

After a couple of days, the northeast Yankees squeezed back into the capsule to launch back onto the Interstate. I had not had a good night's sleep in seven days. I did have a hilarious night of laughter and cheap Scotch with my brothers and my nephew. Just as well to spend the time that way, if I wasn't going to be able to melt into the mattress of a hotel bed anyway. There's apparently a natural reason for this, according to a recently publicized study. On the road, every night in a hotel is the first night.

Now thoroughly a creature of caffeine and endurance, I noticed for the first time that the people I saw along the way, at rest areas, gas stations, convenient restaurants, and in the highway hotels almost all looked sick and lame. Overweight, with skins of various unhealthy tones, we all limped or wobbled to some degree from the high-speed armchairs we ride down the road to the restroom or the service counter or the hotel lobby or, eventually, to our own front doors. This is the world we have designed for ourselves. Even using faster modes of transportation can blow most of a day getting to and aboard the bigger, faster conveyance at its base of operations. And while aboard, you sit. You sit and sit and sit. The gory smash-ups get the headlines, but anyone who spends the majority of their time piloting motor vehicles in multi-hour stretches is dying of it in slow, inexorable motion.

Our bodies were not designed to sit for hours. Our bodies evolved through walking for hours. I grant you the convenience of modern transportation, but it insidiously leads us to sit and sit and sit while we make our way to the places where we sit some more.

The time pressure of a long road trip magnifies some of the unhealthy effects, because we want to process ourselves through things like food and fuel stops with the shortest interruption of progress toward our destination. That influences food choice, favoring things that are served quickly, in easily ingestible lumps, that will stave off the pangs of hunger for another few hours of sitting.

Dehydration staves off urination. You hope to combine things at stops, so you can "make good time" when you get back on the highway. You don't get where you're going by stopping every couple of miles. Synchronize your bladders, people. When the youngest bladder in the car is almost 60, you know you won't reel off the miles the way you did when you were 25 or 30, but you do your best.

Getting there is most definitely not half the fun, even if you are not going "there" to bury a family member.

I'm pretty sure I was working up a kidney stone by the time I got back to my shack in the woods. Of nine days away, six were spent on the highway. I poured out the last of my trip coffee and started guzzling water as soon as I walked into the house.

People I know who live in urbanized areas where driving is the norm and a lot of it is high-speed, aggressive driving show the symptoms of road fatigue all the time. They get used to it, but few of them seem to get to like it. The on-the-go syndrome leads them to the same rushed food choices and marginalization of exercise that the long-distance highway haulers manifest. Destination fever dominates their lives. Get to the next place, do the next thing that needs to be done. Try to get to a specific venue for a specific type of exercise if the schedule permits, but that's only if you want to do that in the first place. I guarantee it is just as easy to decide to find a comfortable place to sit and ingest something, after a few hours of thrashing around among your fellow motorists.

When I left New Hampshire, we were enjoying daytime highs in the 50s. Trees were flowering, ground plants were sprouting. The weather seemed to have committed itself to springtime. In Tennessee, of course, everything was in full leaf. We drove through the transition north to south and south to north. But the weather will have its little jokes. I came home to 34 degree temperatures and full snow cover. It looked like I was arriving home before I had left. Drove off in mid April and came home in March.

Now I get to see what has brewed at work in my absence.


Steve A said...

Soon, fawns will start showing their little heads...

greatpumpkin said...

I found some hilarious online reviews of the cheap Scotch.