Night Driving in the Heart of America

words by Mark Huddle | photo by Nick Cowie
| Monday, September 21st, 2009

nightShots are filled and boredom killed
The last chance purple of dawn
Pagan roads and catacombs
Lost on the way to the heart. -Son Volt, “Exiles”

It was around 3 a.m. when the rain started. At first it was just a fine mist beading up on the cracked windshield. But by the time we hit I-77 in deepest, darkest part of West Virginia it was coming down in steady black sheets. There was an ill-wind blowing and our little car, weighed down with life’s possessions, swayed ominously with each gust. Maybe, just maybe, in a different set of circumstances — you’re well-rested, relaxed, maybe it’s daytime — you could fool yourself into saying, “This ain’t so bad.”

But then those coal-trucks high-ball it past you in the passing lane and each one of the behemoths sends a swell up that feels like it just might wash you off the road into some terrible abyss. There isn’t much of a shoulder on those mountain highways. You can’t just pull it over and wait it out. No. The die is cast. You hang on tight. You try to steer straight. You hope you’re doing the right thing. You hope for the best.

So we’re white-knuckling it down the interstate, and my car stereo was scanning the AM radio dial. It pulled up one of those jackleg preachers and he was chanting down Babylon: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” he railed, “but against the RULERS, against the AUTHORITIES, against the POWERS OF THIS DARK WORLD and against the SPIRITUAL FORCES OF EVIL IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS!” Amen. As I navigated that singularly dark night of the soul, I was most definitely feelin’ the brother! There is darkness all about us. A hard rain is most definitely falling.

I am a night driver. I have been for years. My reasons are paradoxical and probably irrelevant. Suffice it to say, I’ve just found it easier to cover long distances late at night when it’s quiet, when the highways and byways are relatively clear. You see and hear things at night you’d never encounter otherwise. Ghosts talk. But not as loudly as the voices in my head. I think. I “write.” I remember — and dream. I exorcise the demons and commune with the angels. When you have the right pile of music or when the radio scan lands on that perfect AM station, you can be transported to places unimaginable — altered landscapes that exist, and then don’t exist, and then exist again. As I’ve gotten older it has become more physically difficult to eschew sleep and just drive. But I can’t help it. I’m drawn to it. I find comfort in facing the random chaos of the dark hours.

We endured that piss-fest for hours. No respite, no quarter. In that lost time, I arm-wrestled with the duality of human experience and wondered if the Great Deluge would ever come to an end? I was redeemed. I was damned. Then just outside of Bluefield we came up over the crest of a beautiful ridge. There were mountains on both sides of us. The sun was just emerging from its cosmic slumber, the rain abruptly stopped, and there was this purple and gold light across the breadth of the horizon. It was the light you see just before the dawn but on this day Da LAWD had his crayons out. It was jaw-dropping. From the darkness comes the light. I was suddenly awash in faulty dualisms and false dichotomies.

Over an eight-week period beginning in May, our baby Iris was born after a very difficult pregnancy. Violet turned two. I went to Georgia for a job interview, and was offered and accepted a new teaching position. We managed to pack up six years of living and force marched a thousand miles to the South — redeploying just in time for me to step back into the classroom. The martial wordplay aside, a friend of mine recently sent me an email that listed the “ten most stressful things” and we’d hit four of the top five. After awhile you don’t even realize the toll that the stress is taking. You get used to dragging around that two-ton weight. It defines your experience. The world seems so black and white.

Of course this isn’t just an exercise in solipsism. We’re all struggling. These dog days of summer have been unkind to the old US of A and as usual we’ve managed to put the ugliness on display so that the entire world can bear witness. Hordes of angry white people have taken to the political stump to protest something the government calls “health care reform.” Of course what has ensued is anything but healthy debate. “You’re a socialist!” “You’re a Nazi!” They rant and rave and posture and wave their guns and then curse the make-believe liberal elite for mocking them. Right vs. wrong. Good vs. evil. False dichotomies.

Despite the fact that our health care system has completely broken down and is bankrupting the country, their only rebuttal to the proposal on the table — when they’re not making up fantasies about “death panels” — is, “Let’s find a market-based solution.” Hmm…would that be the same market-based solution that brought us sub-prime mortgages and the collapse of the housing industry? Or maybe it’s the one that crippled the financial markets and touched off the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? Yeah, I’m sure the insurance and pharmaceutical companies will be glad to “reform” themselves — as long as they can maintain their profit margins and don’t have to insure the 37 million poor people who aren’t covered by the current system.

And let’s not pretend that the other side has it all figured out. I’m fascinated by this so-called “public option,” this government health concern that will compete with private insurance. Would this be the same government that took five days to get water to the Superdome after Katrina? Let’s not think that a change of political parties means the dawning of a new era of competence! Worse yet, this administration defines reform as the creation of ever-larger systems that will somehow allegedly provide for individual needs. Big…bigger…BIGGEST! They’ve learned nothing from our recent corporate debacles — they insist on replacing one failed paradigm with another. Newsflash: Gigantic bureaucracies respond only to their own internal logic — not to individual needs.

Me vs. You. Us vs. Them. Government vs. the Individual. Republican vs. Democrat. Corporations vs. the “Little Guy.” Patriot vs. Socialist. What passes for debate — and more often is just irrational fury — in this country begins and ends with simple distortions that are alleged to describe current “realities.” They’re gross over-simplifications dredged up by a population that’s been warped by the 24-hour news cycle and the speed of the internet and egged on by a media that is more interested in ratings and their own perverse ideologies than in fomenting reasoned discourse. Too much information and not enough ideas. Complexity is our enemy — especially when we’re frightened and trying to make sense of the world’s chaos. And now, as our economic situation lurches from one crisis to the next, as unemployment rates close in on 10 percent, people are even less interested in facing tough problems that require thoughtful, reasoned engagement and solutions. Deeper shades of black — lighter shades of white.

Now I don’t mean to get all political on ya, but, frankly, the Deluge takes many forms. It is dark and raining and we’re barreling down the interstate to nowhere. There are no Rest Areas to give us sanctuary. The die is cast. You hang on tight. You try to steer straight. You hope you’re doing the right thing. You hope for the best. The night drivers bear a special burden. They see and hear things in the dark. Ghosts talk and there is absolutely nothing simple about what they have to say. It is all about shades of gray and that’s why we always watch from the pageant from the outside. Or as Jay Farrar and Son Volt put it recently:

History repeats while the sick machine roars
Hustlers and wolves walk freely through the door
But when you go leave a smile on your face
We’re exiles now pulling out of this place.

We’re exiles now. Pulling out into the night. Damn straight.

Mark Huddle teaches African American History and Popular Culture at Georgia College and State University. He writes from a bunker at an undisclosed location somewhere in central Georgia. He can be contacted at

  • novielli

    “But then those coal-trucks high-ball it past you in the passing lane and each one of the behemoths sends a swell up that feels like it just might wash you off the road into some terrible abyss.”

    I really dig that image.

  • Leonel Vranich

    Great writing.