I have often proclaimed, with only a bit of sarcasm, that I can drive to Macon in my sleep or, in the alternative, that my car can get there without any assistance on my part. I’ve been driving that westward trek on a regular basis since I was 17 years old, since before I-16 was completed, since the route included downtown Soperton.
I, like anyone who has ever driven it more than once, have complained about the boredom, the soporific monotony of 100 miles of straight flatness, made worse by the recent barbarous removal of pine trees from the median. However, that sameness has often been a blessing on days when my overloaded brain and/or my exhausted heart was incapable of the advanced thinking required by curves and turns, crests and hills.
On those days, the rhythmic thumping of tires on concrete, the motionlessness of my wrist dangling over the top of the steering wheel, the stillness inside the steel cage into which I have buckled myself have been not an irritant, but a balm.
Over the last few months a monumental construction project at the confluence of I-16 and I-75 has demanded a great deal more attention than that intersection has required in the previous 44 years during which I have navigated its knot. Signs and flashing lights and orange and white barrels have been clustered together into a rat’s nest of caution and warning. As a result, when I drove to Macon last week for a meeting, I made my way over the Ocmulgee River not with one hand dangling like a duchess awaiting a courtier’s kiss, but with both fists gripping the steering wheel like an action hero holding on to the ledge of a skyscraper with nothing but 20 stories of air between her and the pavement.
That night, after the meeting, I had dinner with a friend in a quiet restaurant with small tables, dim lights and servers who move with admirable stealth to remove and replace china and silverware. Words come easy in such a place. Boundaries that might otherwise be walls morph into permeable membranes so that stories can flow back and forth. And, though there is nothing linear about them, the stories all make sense.
At some point, one of us must have brought up the drive each had made to get there and the drive each would have to make to get back home. Mention was made of the hazards of night driving — detours, car trouble and kamikaze deer — and my friend’s dislike of driving after dark. She would, she told me, stay the night in Macon. I would, I told her, go on home.
We talked about a lot of things at that table in that restaurant. Big things. Important things. But in the days that followed the one thing that kept coming back to me was the idea of detours.
It’s bad enough, I thought, when the detour is a literal one — a blockade across the road with a big red arrow pointing in a direction you had no intention of going — but it is far worse when it is the other kind. The loss of a job, a relationship or a purpose. In those cases there is no GPS or Waze to quell the disorientation or offer the security of someone else’s prior experience. When that which gives you your sense of identity walks out the door or sends you walking, there is nothing that will make you feel anything other than lost.
I’ve been lost. More than once. I have come up on detours so suddenly that I had no time to hit the brakes, but, instead, crashed head-on into the barrier where I had to sit, alone and scared, until my wits returned and I remembered that there is a gear called reverse.
From those experiences and the nagging replay of that restaurant conversation, this is what I’ve figured out: The purpose of the detour is to protect you from something you can’t see, from the danger from which you would not have been able to protect yourself. And, though it may delay the journey, if you follow the signs, you will always make it to your original destination.
Preferably with unclenched fists.