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Road Sage

Recapturing the aimless August drives of my youth Add to ...

June brings with it the promise of a season of leisure and sunshine. August is its bittersweet cousin. The sun and warmth are there but beneath the bright mornings and pleasant afternoons one can feel autumn slowly taking hold. It’s a time when those of us in northern climates try to wring out that last bit of summer. For me, August has always been a month of long, aimless drives.

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The habit began as a teenager growing up in Ottawa. By mid-August, my summer job would be winding down and thoughts were focused toward the impending academic year. In a few weeks, I’d be on campus in Toronto. I was in limbo. It was too late to start anything substantial (whatever relationship I was in, for instance, would be heading for a pragmatic end) yet there was still time to kill.

By the late 1980s, the notion of the designated driver was just being floated and, when I drew the short straw, I often found myself driving the 1979 Toyota Celica Supra I’d inherited down empty roads at five in the morning, having dropped off a couple of designated drinkers.

It was too late to go home and too early to head to whatever crummy job I was doing (street pretzel vendor, Pizza Hut chef, College Pro “painter”). Instead, I would cruise the city as the sun came up. I had nowhere to go. I was just going. Empty streets, ideal conditions, windows rolled down, a bracing late summer breeze blowing into the car, I felt like an automotive pioneer discovering a hidden world of liberated driving. If I had the time, I’d shoot across the bridge and tour around the Gatineau Parkway.

The location of the journey, of course, was irrelevant. You could have experienced this drive anywhere there were empty city streets and August weather. In fact, I bet it would be as satisfying whether on the coast of British Columbia, the prairies or Newfoundland. That’s because this kind of motoring does not involve the one thing guaranteed to ruin any drive – a destination. You have nowhere to go and nothing holding you back.

Think about it. The moment you have somewhere to be, in other words, somewhere you’re not, the drive is compromised. Instead of enjoying your car you’re wondering when you’re going to get “there.” Will you be too early? Too late? What will it be like when you get there? You’re measuring your existence according to an external outcome, on conditions outside it, rather than allowing it to be defined by the choices you make. Existentially, you’re lost.

For most of us, this kind of aimless drive fades away as we become responsible citizens. We always have somewhere to be. What is morning rush hour, if not a gigantic ritualized retreat from existential dread?

It’s when we have kids, ironically, that the destination-less drive often makes a comeback. Some infants will fall asleep when you rest their car seat on top of a dryer but most require a cruise in the family automobile. Once again, you are on the road, with nowhere to be, driving city streets, highways and country roads, until your little enemy of sleep drifts off. The drives can seem endless.

The mood in the car is different from those teenaged drives. Mom and dad tend to resemble characters from Requiem for a Dream but instead of craving drugs, they talk about scoring a “hit” of slumber and wonder why they ever had children in the first place. If dad is driving solo, a coffee the size of a CFL football is at his side.

All of the driving runs counter to what is intuitive. He does not fear traffic jams, he lets everyone in, he drives through old neighbourhoods, he gets on a first name basis with drive-thru attendants. When the little one does finally fall asleep he is carried into the house with such care that a casual onlooker might think the child was constructed from a combination of fine crystal and nitroglycerin.

If a driver does not make a conscious effort to keep his or her inner aimlessness alive the memory of that mind-clearing freedom disappears. Your car becomes a vehicle. Instead of the freedom of the road you are cloistered in responsibility. Youthful impulse vanishes. The season changes unnoticed until the leaves have turned and the branches are bare.

That’s why, when August arrives, I make an effort to revisit the directionless, wandering drives of my youth. I set my alarm early and set off to watch the sun rise over the highway. By mid-September, the days will be too short and the sun will rise too late. I’ll be mired in commuters. No, it must be late August. Time to hit the road and go nowhere.

Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter. He's very funny there too: @aclarkcomedy

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