Roadside observations

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(Host) Commentator Caleb Daniloff reflects on the pleasures of observing the passing scene – from a car window.

(Daniloff) My father-in-law suffered a stroke this summer and now spends his time in a nursing home just over the border in rural northwest Massachusetts. He sometimes confuses my wife with her sister, slurs his words, and has lost his passion for card games, even his beloved Red Sox. A door-to-door salesman until six months ago, he now requires a walker.

But put Richard in the car, and he is an orchestra conductor, directing drivers over the hills and backroads of his youth. “Take a left here, down that hill, now, up the Mohawk trial.” He’ll point out the sights, or rather absences: “That’s the old Williams’ farm where we’d buy cider.” Or “Used to drive my mother along that road Sundays.”

Since taking a job 40 miles from home, I’ve been thinking a lot about Richard and how our repeated routes of travel become characters, keeping time with our lives. Commuters especially are part of an unfolding narrative: buildings coming down, gas stations and self-storage facilities going up. For Sale signs planted and uprooted. Hillside cemeteries revealed through shedding trees. Cycles of life and death.

But because we spend so much time in our cars, technology has kept pace, too, from computerized navigational systems to on-board DVD players. Such advances are inevitable, of course, and I can see where a movie might come in handy – not to mention roadside assistance. But in the glow of a DVD, fewer questions are likely to be blurted from the back seat, and fewer answers given from the front. The emphasis is placed on the destination rather than the journey. Less getting lost, less surprise.

The roadscape engages the imagination. A pair of dress shoes dangling from a telephone wire like so many summer sneakers suggests a businessman quitting his job to pursue a childhood dream. You notice how a field of November corn stalks resembles a doll’s scalp, how sunken barn roofs appear to have been leaned on by the elbows of time.

Driving home from work the other night, I came across five separate cars pulled over by police. Blinding blue starlight marring the evening sky. Speeders mostly, I figured. But maybe a fugitive
among them. A tale involving an out-of-state prison break, greasy bills, an abusive childhood.

An SUV appeared in my rear view the next evening, headlights flooding my mirrors, hazards blinking hard. I pulled over and watched the orange rectangles throb toward the next car. A pregnant woman whose water had broken, I wondered, or the
uncle of a child fallen down a well.

Last weekend, my eleven-year-old stepdaughter asked me to take her to Burlington. Since I drive there every day, I half-heartedly tried to dissuade her. In the end, I gave in. Partway up, we passed
a large raccoon lying lifeless across the double yellow lines. We both stopped talking. Shea touched her forehead and chest, offering up a silent prayer for the dead animal. We smiled briefly at each other, and then turned back toward the road.

This is Caleb Daniloff in Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a writer and book reviewer.

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