Transcendence on Interstate 8

Peter Alexander Bresnan

Credit: Fré Sonneveld

In general, imaginative people perform worse in crisis situations compared to their more earthbound counterparts. The reason is because, for these kinds of people, even the smallest snag or difficulty can, under the right circumstances, the right confluence of factors (hot air rising to meet a cool air system, touching ground at a spot in the dreamer’s soul that for whatever reason has been worn down to the nub) — in such circumstances, the smallest snag can quickly develop into a real shitstorm.

Cruising east along Interstate 8 at five over the limit, through wide and uniform plains scattered with saltbush and repetitive cacti and bordered for miles by pencil-line iron fencing, one becomes prone to just such a moment of crisis. If you’re coming by way of San Diego, then you’ve been on the road for about three hours now, which is around the time in any road trip when all of your appendages begin to feel like dead weight, your arms slumped over steering wheel, your head lolling stubbornly back and forth against the headrest. Additionally, three hours of just-you-and-the-radio solitude has caused your mind to turn inward, and now all the bodily dramas that are so easily drowned out in normal waking life have taken center-stage. Your stomach complains that a bagel and coffee, scarfed down in haste so that you might reach northern Arizona by dinnertime, was hardly sufficient nourishment for the trip, and it churns its acid bitterly. Your ears emit an almost supersonic whine as a consequence of the rapid depressurization you experienced as you dropped out of the hills of San Diego County and into the flat lunar expanses of desert that lie past the city of Yuma. Blinking actually has a sound, you realize: it’s kind of like squeezing out a wet sponge. And the filtered coolness of the air-conditioning has begun to feel sinister in contrast with world as seen through the windshield, where the highway glimmers in the distance and where (according to the dashboard thermometer) the temperature is slowly rising into the upper 90s as you move further and further east.

I personally have never let the needle on my fuel gauge fall below half a tank. This is a habit my mother instilled in me when I was still learning to drive, and which I’ve adhered to as a tenet of responsible driving ever since. Before this day, I’d never even considered what kind of world might be implied by the existence of the bottom half of the gauge, just as I’d never really considered what the world is like during the hours when I’m normally asleep. Of course I knew that cars could technically run out of gas, but the idea only existed as a distant and abstract dread.

While I was still winding through the hills of southeastern California, as the luscious geometrical rows of lemon and orange trees were replaced by fields of tall wind turbines standing against a backdrop of boulder-like quaternary deposits, I realized that the gauge’s needle had dropped below the ½-tank mark. Which didn’t present any immediate danger as far as I could see, although it did pique whatever part of my brain enforces my tedious laundrylist of neuroses — rules about cleanliness, order, risk aversion, etc.. I considered stopping in El Centro for a fill up, but when the exits advertising Citgo and Chevron stations appeared, I drove past them without slowing down. I also considered stopping in Yuma but didn’t.

True, gas is cheaper the further inland you go. But what really kept me from stopping as the needle dropped lower and lower and my neuroses began to juggle my insides with increasing vigor was simple inertia: driving across the blacktop of I-8’s unwavering roads, as smooth as the day they were laid, is an experience that borders on erotic. Maybe that sounds like a bunch of machismo man-loves-car B.S., but let me first say that my car is nothing special (a 2010 Camry, far from a real roadster, no tailfin, no hydraulics, painted inoffensively in silver) and that I’ve never refilled my own coolant. I don’t even enjoy driving all that much — in fact, I’ve often been terrified of it. As a child sitting in the back seat of my father’s car, I would often spend much of the drive gripping the handle on the door with my eyes closed and my teeth clenched, apparently the only one in my family who could understand that we were travelling in a 2-ton hunk of steel at seventy miles per hour mere feet away from other 2-ton hunks of steel traveling at seventy miles per hour, and the sheer insanity of anyone actually wanting to get into a car.

But the I-8 is different. Possibly it’s the de facto 80 MPH speed limit, which for someone who spends most of his time driving through residential areas, can sometimes make me feel like an ex-con shedding his standard-issue jumpsuit and taking his first steps beyond the electrified fence which for years has been the edge of the universe. Or possibly it’s the pleasant wooooosh of the rubber tires gliding across the pavement at such high speeds. Or possibly it’s the landscape, which for all its dry desolateness still manages to exhilarate the viewer with panoramas that feel prehistoric, teeming with the energy of accumulated millennia. Regardless, driving across the 120-mile stretch of highway between Yuma and Gila Bend is one of the few experiences I begrudgingly label as transcendent.

But even the transcendent has its limits, and when the gauge fell below ¼ tank, I decided that I would need to stop. I was about 35 miles outside of Gila Bend, and those 35 miles are as barren as any on the I-8. On the right the Barry M. Goldwater air force range, an air-to-ground bombing practice site, rolls out until it meets a line of bluish mountains in the distance. On the left it’s more or less the same (except not an air force range, obviously). Although exits appear at regular intervals along this stretch of highway, they only lead onto unpaved access roads, and these roads lead in turn to various unmarked complexes which are normally surrounded with barbed wire fencing and which I assume are military in nature and therefore closed to the public. Not until you reach Gila Bend do you find anything resembling civilization.

Around the time the gauge dipped below the ¼ mark, I found an exit that listed gas as its only amenity. I finally slowed down and turned off the road, although the rapid reduction in speed made my head and arms tingle. The exit led onto a dirt road that dove under the highway and came out at the foot of a gas station, which was the only structure for ten miles in either direction.

A number of things happened all at once. First, I saw the station and noted certain features — the old-timey chromium pumps, the towering sign that did not say Citgo or Chevron but merely GAS, the shanty of a station building, with dirty windows and a corrugated tin roof — and I knew immediately and with absolute certainty that I would not get what I had come there for. Second, I noted that I wasn’t alone. There were two other figures, mustachioed men in working clothes, leaning against a Chevy pickup with rusted hubcaps. They looked up as I pulled in to the station, without shock or malevolence, and I knew immediately and with absolute certainty that they were a danger, that I was in personal, physical danger. Third, without hesitating, I turned the steering wheel sharply to the left. I began a sudden turn and kicked up a cloud of fine dust that, as I sped away, blotted out the faces of the two motionless men in my rearview mirror.

It’s true that imaginative people perform poorly in crisis situations, but worse than this is the fact that they often create the very crisis situation that they eventually escalate into a T5 cataclysm of doom. They transform banal situations into a scene from a horror movie they once saw on TV late at night when they couldn’t sleep. Two workers sitting outside an old gas station in the middle of the desert become a living nightmare. The world at large becomes imbued with a just-beneath-the-surface terror, the strangeness and the unheimlich uncanniness of a foreign planet.

And it was with this sense of foreignness that I reentered I-8 and began to drive east with less than ¼ tank of gas into a swathe of desert so wide open that it sometimes seemed like I could see the subtle curvature of the earth. My heart was beating quickly and loudly in my ears. I made fun of myself and laughed at the absurdity of my sudden escape, while simultaneously acknowledging that, if I ever encountered a similar situation in the future, my response would be exactly the same. I decided I would wait until I reached Gila Bend to fill the tank.

As I drove, however, I realized that the needle was falling more quickly than it usually did, and before I was even 25 miles outside of Gila Bend, the needle had hit zero. To a more sensible person, this might have imparted the simple need to stop for gas ASAP. But to me, it seemed a terrible omen, a foreboding roll of thunder. I began talking to my car, actually talking to it, begging it in a tender lover’s tone to survive the next 25 miles. I turned off the radio so I could focus more reverently on my increasing panic.

Remember that the imaginative person measures the world, not according to what it is, but according to what it might be. Try to envision, then, what I saw. I saw a wide and uniform expanse of desert plain, scattered with saltbush and repetitive cacti. I saw prehistoric-looking landscape that I’ve always said is a serial killer’s Xanadu, since it seems that someone could bury a corpse in this desert (a dozen corpses, probably) and never be found out. I saw a narrow strip of blacktop that tapered to a single point on the horizon. I saw fenced military facilities that were most likely staffed with personnel who wouldn’t give two shits about a twenty year-old kid who’d run out of gas because he’d evaded, for almost no reason at all, or at least no reason he could explain, the one gas station in a 30-mile radius. I saw only the occasional passing car, cars filled with men and women as strange and horrifying as the mustachioed men had been. I saw myself stranded on the side of the I-8, my car having chugged to a stop in the pebbly shoulder of the highway, and my thumb stuck out in the manner of the archetypal hitchhiker, and a car with darkened windows slowing down, pulling off the road, and coming to a stop.

It didn’t matter that federal law mandates that cellular signal be available on all interstate highways, or that a spot 25 miles outside of a major intersection can hardly be called “the middle of nowhere.” I saw myself, and I saw the desert, and for the first time in my life I felt despair — a blackness that bubbled up through the surface of the world like tar and licked at the bottoms of my feet.

Of course I eventually made it to Gila Bend, where I stopped at the first gas station I found, a Love’s positioned a mile past the train tracks. I filled the tank and bought a package of Pop-Tarts from the station’s convenience store that I proceeded to shove down my throat with my trembling hands while I sat in the parking lot. Again I tried to laugh at my own behavior, but it was more difficult this time. Before I had felt merely silly. Now I felt weak, fundamentally and biologically weak. Because the truth is that there is something transcendent about driving down the I-8, but this transcendence can only be felt from the privileged, air-conditioned position of a driver in his car going 80 MPH. Ultimately, the driver knows he’ll be in Arizona by dinnertime; the desert is a fleeting image, a film projected on his windows. But this sense of transcendence lasts only as long as the feeling of being protected does, and it’s only when the desert and the highway become real to him — truly wide and arid and otherworldly, larger and more powerful than he is — that he understands the real reason he never drives with less than half a tank.

(Thanks to Morton Goldberg for his proofreading edits)