There’s something surreal about traveling at night on the freeway. A bubble of greenish dashlight around you, outside the white lights come toward you and red lights convoy alongside. The multicolor lights of cities and towns pass quickly with the hot yellow roadlights of exits and overpasses standing like sentries.
Away from the city it is only more intense. The desert night can be very black and the small hours of morning can bring fog so dense you’re tempted to drive by Braille, hitting the raised-dot lane markers you can’t see anymore with a satisfying tunk-tunk-tunk.
Turn off the radio, you need to concentrate. Dial down the inside lights to cut the glare. Peer into the darkness. Somewhere, you see a white glow in the blanket of fog, a big rig approaching on the otherside of the median strip?
Pea soup fog in the Bay Area, tule fog in the Central Valley — peanut butter fog in the Mojave, thick as a Dagwood sandwich; why are you driving in it? If you pull over and turn off your lights, you’ll be alone in a darkness so complete you’ll feel like a cave fish. Pull over and leave the lights on and you take the risk of someone rear-ending you, thinking you’re moving. Even leaving your emergency blinkers on won’t be safe; you’ve passed two cars doing that already and you didn’t see them till the very last moment.
So you keep driving, slowing down, trying not to overdrive your lights. Then someone blows by you in a quad-cab dualie, doing at least sixty, seventy, maybe one hundred ten, you can’t tell. How fast are you going? You can’t tell that, either, you’ve got the dashlights turned off. Speed up a bit. If you hit the right speed, you won’t see anyone at all because you’ll all be going the same speed.
The fog is so thick, you don’t even see the cotton candy lights of traffic on the other half of the road. You roll down the windows. The fog is cold, blowing in the window like frigid steam but it keeps you awake and you can hear the traffic on the other side of the road, when there is any. You can hear the dots on the pavement better, too.
You turn the dashlights back on to check your speed. At forty-five miles an hour, it will take you three hours to reach the towns along the Colorado. Three hours of cold desert wind coming in the window, wet with fog. Three hours of peering into the darkness, wondering if there’s a car stopped in the road with its lights off, or a deer crossing the highway or someone trying to wave you down ’cause they have car trouble.
Going slower would be intolerable, going faster would be insane. You memorize the sound of your current speed, the rhythm of the dots, and turn the dashlights back off. You drive.
That was an exit. What did it say? Eagle Mountain? You’ve never heard of Eagle Mountain. You’ve driven this road in daylight and don’t remember that name. Are you still on the right freeway? There are no mountains here, just flat desert. Is Eagle Mountain a town? Would they have coffee? Too late now, you’ve passed the exit. You make a mental list of who you would kill for a cup of coffee. The list gets longer.
Tumbleweeds appear out of the fog, like golden chandelier-spiders in your headlights, scuttling across the road. Alien-looking, it’s a Steven Spielberg sort of thought.
Tunk-tunk. Tunk. One of the dots must have been missing.
Lights up ahead. Is the fog lifting? You can’t be coming to a town yet, there are no towns on this freeway for another fifty miles. Someone with road flares? An accident or just a breakdown. You slow down and steer off the dots, not wanting anyone to see you doing that.
The fog lifts suddenly, the immense desert opens up around you under hard bright diamonds in a jeweler’s showcase black velvet sky. The tension flows out of your neck and wrists and the open window is suddenly much too cold. You roll it back up.
A road sign says, Blythe 70 miles. Less than an hour away and you won’t have to kill anyone for coffee, there’s a Denny’s there. Talk about surreal.
But the lights in the road ahead of you — maybe you shouldn’t have been thinking of Steven Spielberg?