I live next to a hospital. The one I work for, fortunately enough, meaning I can roll out of bed late and still get to work on time, the commute in being a lot less than some of my previous jobs that often took an hour or more each way.
Unfortunately my apartment sits on the main access route for the ambulances, who roar in and out of the place, any time, day or night. Thankfully this is a UK city and not the South Bronx. Imagine living next to St. Barts? Yeesh, earplugs would have to be included in the rental agreement, it would be the only way landlords would get tenants.
Here things are relatively calm, things don’t heat up too often, and after 11pm the streets are usually clear so the red and white vans can zip up the hill to the main roads with impunity. I grew up watching Battlestar Galactica reruns in the eighties and early nineties and along with Star Wars I was always fascinated with how the spaceships could launch and dock with apparent ease from the much larger, more impressive looking and unquestionably more complex motherships. On Battlestar you would get a close up of Dirk Benedict’s face, a rushing air sound effect and the next thing Starbuck was zipping around inside his little spaceship.
Where I live is similar. The speed limit is 20mph (recent city edict) but I reckon the ambulances only obey the rules for half the street linking the hospital to the main roads. Then, as long as the coast is clear and there are virtually no cars in front they hit the sirens, stamp the gas pedal and away they go. I’ve seen this first hand, the red and white boxes flying up the road, cars diving every which way to get clear of their path. It’s rather inspiring, I feel like the Marines in Iraq yelling “Get some!” when they see Apache helicopters nuke something important with high ordnance, only in a more subdued, British, healthcare-orientated way.
Coming out of college back in the early part of the decade I used to live in Wales but occasionally commute home to England to see the family. I’d just graduated and had spent a large portion of my senior year following the traditional senior cycle of ‘Sleep, Play, Work’.
Anyone studying an English-based degree will be familiar with this pattern. Because the hours of classroom work are so few (I had 6 hours a week of classes in my senior year!) students tended to sleep a lot during the daytime, only waking to participate in sports, social events or to gather and consume food. Then during the evenings came the social hours or drinking, more sports or socialising in the bars and then, when everyone else was crashing to bed they’d start to work on whatever they were working at the time, pushing through to around four or five in the morning. It sounds twisted to many people, but now with a lot of the western world being a 24 hour society it’s not that uncommon any more. I must’ve done this for my entire final semester that year, and when my post-graduate work began that year, together with a job in the campus restaurant I just tweaked my circadian rhythm and kept going.
But I learned to take advantage simply by driving home at ten o’clock at night.
Again this is not uncommon. I remember a friend in college whose home was North London and in order to beat the traffic from his parents to college he just left the city at 2am. No traffic or stress, clear roads and silky tongued DJ’s all the way to the freeways.
But that was the city. Driving in the rural mountains is a whole different kettle of fish. The black is exactly that. Pitch. Even when the moon was swollen full the forests around the town where I was studying swallowed most of the moonlight like vertical monoliths of ink streaked obsidian. After working all day and cleaning down the restaurant it was a quick stop to refuel at the gas station followed by the house where I was lodging before I turned the car around and eased into the four hour drive.
Whenever I watch ‘Return of the Jedi’ I’m reminded of the journey. Admiral Ackbar and Lando Calrissian prepping the fleet for lightspeed, the final declaration of “All right, stand by” before the heart-stopping whoooooshhh….
Because once you’re away from the towns and the street lighting you might as well be in space.
The only light in the car comes from the dashboard and the headlights plotting the course less than twenty feet ahead. Nothing else on the road, hedgerows twitching with rabbits as they bolt from the retort of my engines, or stand stupefied by the light, hoping they don’t catch a face-full of bumper travelling at 60mph.
You don’t drive slow. The empty roads are intoxicating. It’s like one huge rollercoaster, the rural twists and turns of the track unending and fixed, your concentration constantly locked on the next bend, the next hill, the event horizon and proverbial vanishing point forever out of reach. Fisherman report a similar hypnotic fascination when they’re wave-watching on nightshift during their time at sea. To the untrained or uninterested the sea can seem routine and disinteresting but many sailors have to train themselves to blink and distract themselves at set intervals. Otherwise they can be so enraptured with the ocean they won’t respond when trouble hits, even if it’s barrelling straight towards their conscious faces.
The same can happen on the roads. You don’t have the risk of falling asleep because rural mountain roads wind enough to keep the brain focused. Where rural driving falls down is you don’t expect to meet people on the road besides yourself. I certainly didn’t the time I was driving home at 2am and met three teenagers walking down the middle of the road just outside of a three house town in the middle of nowhere. The night muffles sound because you often can’t tell which direction something is coming from until it’s virtually on top of you. Hitting the brakes and jerking the wheel hard and sending me across the road into the other lane, thankfully empty at the time, I continued on without incident, heart in my mouth, sweating profusely.
Am I at fault? I was under the national speed limit at the time, even though the car I had then could cruise at 70mph with little effort. The kids were in the road. I can’t believe tragedies haven’t happened in similar circumstances the world over. The sun being down is no excuse to picnic in the middle of the road.
I’d split the trip into thirds, stopping at rest-stations throughout the night. The main one was a nexus of rural travel, both commercial and freight. A 24 hour toilet block stocked with nothing flammable except loo roll that resembled baking paper, several trucks parked haphazardly (who was gonna fine them?), curtains drawn around their cabs and a burger van prepped and ready when the local club kicked out at two.
I’d usually make it there before last call, chewing the fat with the woman behind the grill, probably the only sober interaction she was gonna get aside from what was on the late night TV she was watching via a portable telly. Cup of coffee and a cheeseburger, always tastes great at midnight before rocketing back into the night beyond the town limits.
This was a time before iPods, so you were at the mercy of the CD player. The mountains knock out the radio early so the only option is to play the same CD over and over because there was no way you could change the thing with a road that went from valley to hill to valley in under a minute.
Speeding in the towns was frowned on, though nowhere near as bad as it is now, and if you obeyed the rules it was often comical to see the traffic at midnight flogging their engines like afterburners on the roads, before stamping on the brakes to dawdle like a row of kindergarten children slowly through a deserted town at midnight, all sticking like glue to the 30mph limit before once more flooring it and speeding away like demented bumblebees.
The longest road on the route was the A44. A “black road” according to the AA it still holds the distinction of the second most dangerous road in the country (second to a road up near Glasgow, apparently). Pitch steep hillsides going down fifty feet, hard unyielding switchbacks that threaten to break steering columns as drivers hold fast, refusing to slow down. Never drive the road inebriated or under the weather; if you don’t crash and burn outright the motion and rocking will make you vomit long before you reach anything resembling normal straight tarmac. The university sport teams used to proclaim the road as an advantage, and it was not uncommon to see visiting teams arriving in coaches, players hurrying out before the engines were even silent to eject stomach contents into nearby hedges.
All this was personal and private though. It was something special that only the driver could enjoy. The feeling that you’re alone in the world, that everyone on earth is asleep, save you. No wildlife, no people, no cars, you might as well be on the moon. But at some point you would have to get onto the main freeway of the south of England. It would be here things get interesting.
Freight travels twenty four hours in the UK. And the M4 is the main artery for the south of it. To this day I think freeway driving is more dangerous at night than during the day; primarily because haulage drivers think they can get away with more, on account that there’s no one around to see them do it.
Once you’re on the freeway the fun begins (which is a nod to Han Solo btw). Trucks merging with the freeway do so regardless if you’re driving in their lane or not. I will picture until my dying day the slab-white face of the Tesco driver, double-trailered articulated truck barrelling towards my car, not a shred of emotion evident. He just expected for me to get out the way, because he was not slowing down for anybody, especially not a 1.8 litre Vauxhall doing 75.
I can’t write what I yelled at him (like he could hear).
They race each other, overtake, undercut each other. They blare their horns at slights, obvious or otherwise and low-gear to frustrate their rivals. It’s like the group of kids that break into their school at midnight. With authority reposed they run riot just because. Only these guys do it with several thousand tons of barrelling steel.
The repetitive wash of yellow streetlight on the bridge crossing, giant crossed arches of the suspensions dwarfing even the most arrogant of lorries, telling me I was nearly home, my eyes beginning to burn with fatigue but happy to keep rolling for a few hours more.
It’s here that you want to kick down the pedal and hit 90. The bed is beginning to feel more inviting than you want to admit. Once I tried to sleep in a layby in the middle of nowhere. Put the seat back and curled up under a throw rug and managed to doze for an hour or two. But I couldn’t get comfortable in the driving seat. At a smidge less than 5’11’ curling up in cars is something forever denied to me, and I got out, stretched, looked up at the moon and continued on.
The trucks peel off to the city docks and the last few miles of freeway are dark and uneventful. Finally pulling into the driveway of my home the dashboard light reads 3am, I leave everything in the trunk and pad softly inside the house, hoping I don’t wake anyone already happily comatose for five hours or more.
I did that trip at best only half a dozen times. It helped the segue from college to home life seem more seamless. I could snatch a few hours of sleep in my childhood bed and wake up the following morning more refreshed than if I’d taken the journey that day and arrived exhausted.
This was an example of growing more mature. The recognition of the situation is still just as important, only now you also have to focus on the transition from one situation to the next. It’s another ball to keep in the air. Welcome to adult life, we do hope you’ll enjoy your stay, try not to break too many things before you leave.
I could never sleep on buses at night. Not greyhounds, not coach trips with high school, not on family holidays. At times I’d feel like I was the only passenger awake on the bus. Just myself and the driver and the scenery running by the windows, everything bathed in the orange glow of technology. The world was quiet then, and it allowed my head to be quiet too. An alert, conscious acceptance of something else. Not to get unnecessarily highbrow here but I think, of all his ramblings, this was one thing Nietzsche had right.
His thoughts on the Abyss.
The question is balanced perfectly, between the man and the Abyss, each looking into the other, wondering what they’ll find there. Are we scared at what we’ll see, or what might be seen inside ourselves?
I’ve learnt to be happy in the black, and thus happy with the contents of my own head (for all its thoughts, and there are many). Not saying I’m tight with the Abyss in this life, but if it ever needs me to drive it cross country at midnight then I’m more than happy to.