The shimmering US-70 in Arizona curves and dips suddenly to reveal a huge, ancient saguaro cactus flanking the road like an alien monster hitch-hiker. I glance over at Dan. Behind his sunglasses, his eyelids are heavy, but no, he’s not asleep. Neither is he dozing. Like me, he’s merely “zoning” on the road and the infinite perspective.
I was edgy and fussy as a baby. But I could be instantly calmed down by a trip in my parents’ car. Growing up, I loved everything about car rides: The hum of the engine, the gentle swaying and vibration, the entertainment of the slowly changing view from behind the safety of the window. Then, as now, I would prefer it if there were no talking, no radio: Only the purring engine should provide the sound track for a car trip.
Above all else, I loved the mystery of the unknown just around the next corner. Getting Lost, I’d call it. “Let’s Get Lost,” I’d ask Dad. And he’d take me on the little streets around where we lived. He’d come to a junction and say to me “Which Way? Which Way do we go now?” And I’d say, “Left”. And he’d say “Are you sure?” and I’d say, “No, I mean right. Let’s go right.” And we’d go right.
Back home in England, there are no infinite perspectives to zone on. The motorways are crowded and people drive fast. The country roads are narrow, and twist and turn like garden mazes, flanked by wildflowers and high lush hedgerows, which afford little view of the cosy green and gold countryside. Cruise control is unusable, except at night on the motorways. I drive a lot in England, to and from music gigs. Often the venues for these gigs are in the most beautiful spots in the country: fine stately homes set in gorgeous landscaped gardens, which have been leased out for nouveau riche weddings by their impecunious squires.
Driving home after a long and tiring gig in Somerset a year or so ago I found myself disorientated and lost. Mile after mile of tiny twisting lanes took me even further from the main road I was trying to get to. I was sleepy and my neck hurt. Finding myself returning to the same spot after an hour, I stopped the car, got out and screamed oaths at the top of my voice, cursing my life, my job, but above all, the jolly little country lane which as far as I could tell had not one side-turning, running in a continuous, endless, inescapable loop.
The next day I caved and bought a satnav, something each of the other band members had done long ago. I deliberately chose one that had U.S. maps as well as British and European ones, because I had long been planning a big Road Trip across the United States. It comes with a number of voices, the default being Kate, a nice, soothing kind of voice, calm but ever so slightly reprimanding when I miss a turn-off. Well-spoken.
And now here we are, me and Dan, four thousand miles into that long-planned Road Trip, somewhere in the inhuman heat of Arizona. Not Lost, though, because we have Kate with us. Like Dan, Kate is basically taciturn, speaking only when she has something important to say.
Oh, you Americans all know about the Road Trip. It’s in your blood, it’s in your childhoods: Forget Kerouac: It’s there in Tom Sawyer, in The Wizard of Oz, The Phantom Tollbooth. The outer journey mirroring the inner one: The pilgrim progresses, back where he started, back to the Home not the same as the one he left, because the returning traveller is not the same as departing one.
When Dan and I return to London in three weeks, my home will be different, because when we left my wife was there, and when we return my wife will be gone.
“After two miles, take the exit left, towards Phoenix.” Kate stirs me out of a reverie. Good thing one of us knows where we’re going.