I return to my car, parked curbside at a convenient store hastily selected for relieving an inconvenient bloated bladder. But for the half-gallon of coffee consumed since the pre-dawn morning, I would’ve made it to Florida without this needless break in otherwise seamless interstate travel. Back in my seat, warmed by a gentle, late-November sun, I’m eager to resume frictionless motion upon concrete conduit a hundred yards to the east. But when I press the button standing in for a keyed ignition, I’m greeted with a quick succession of impotent clicks. After a few rounds of earnest attempts at willing my engine to turn over (press harder, double press, pretend-I’m-not-going-to-press-again-but-then press), reality awaits.
It seems less than paranoid to surmise that the freeway and the modern automobile regularly conspire to obscure our sense of reality. While ostensibly intended to connect virtually everywhere with everywhere else, highway driving inevitably renders the panoply of places between origin and destination in relative terms. Never mind where I am. How far am I past Richmond? How long until Tampa? Every place along the way is naturally perceived to be no place at all, scarcely distinguishable from that larger conglomerate of matter remarkable only to geographers. And from within the car, violent forces acting on the vehicle are seldom felt, compounding my sense of separation from the world beyond the glass. I reach peak estrangement with audiobook and cruise control synced in a perpetual, automatic fury—achieving escape velocity beyond a blur of nowheres in my periphery.
But this only happens when the engine will start. I reluctantly scan the parking lot for a capable benefactor, and after briefly considering the congregation of state patrols behind me, I spot a thin, older man whom I presume to be a local. His name is William, he tells me, and he’d be happy to help. I pop my hood, cables in hand, and we wait for the neighboring SUV (occupied and running) to pull out. After enough small talk and several conspicuous glances towards an oblivious driver, William kindly asks if we can borrow electricity while they idle. They kindly oblige.
Engine now running, I contemplate deferring maintenance in the name of expedience and gambling that I don’t get stranded somewhere even less populated. But in a rarer moment of attentive caution, I surrender my anticipated arrival time. A Google Maps search for AutoZone yields a nearby Napa, en route to which I encounter an even nearer, down-home mechanic shop. It occupies an idyllic, mid-century filling station that, in a place more intent on becoming a somewhere, would no doubt be repurposed for creative class consumption. But there is little apparent interest in achieving relevance beyond the county line. I’m soon told that my battery is shot but they have a replacement in stock, and I’m oddly relieved this isn’t a microbrewery I’ve stumbled upon.
It’s strange to give thanks for interrupted plans, more natural still to deride them as meaningless bumps in the road. Maybe it’s the autumn sun filtering through a canopy of moss-strewn live oaks, or the unusually friendly technician tending to my vehicle, but by now the predicament has lost its weight, and I find myself attuned to particulars I had not meant to be bothered by. I know that a few miles away waits a veritable vortex howling with holiday travelers. But it’s a few more minutes until the car’s ready, and what’s there to do but bask in the sublimity of being stuck in a real place.
Story by Kelsey Cox
Photos by Ashley Cox