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The passenger seat

July 19, 2023

I love road trips… although the reason I enjoy them so much may have a lot to do with the fact that, having been without a car for the bigger part of my adult life, I am now so terribly out of practice with driving that nobody with an ounce of common sense would trust trust me with their life on the highway. Thus, I always get to ride in the passenger seat.

Not being forced to devote my full attention to the task of keeping the vehicle on the road (as opposed to letting it follow its natural instincts to become a burning pile of twisted metal outside the boundaries of the aforementioned road), allows me the pleasure of letting my eyes and mind wander and explore the varied scenery and its always interesting details.

Curiously enough, in spite of all the joy this simple activity brings me, I seem to be part of the very small minority actively pursuing it. Most of my fellow travelers seem to prefer idle chat, books, magazines, or even restless naps as a means to endure the boredom of what, to them at least, is nothing more than the time imposed upon them to get from point A to point B.

Perhaps the fact that this has turned me into a kind of lone witness to the journey is what has allowed me to notice a curious phenomenon I’ve come to fondly describe as the road’s winks.

Sometimes while riding down a well-known and very familiar route, I will suddenly catch the view of perfectly clear but totally unfamiliar details. These may manifest in many forms. Sometimes they’ll appear as an unusual piece of architecture, other times as a rock formation or interestingly shaped tree – something perfectly normal in appearance except for being totally out of context with its surroundings.

Whatever the form they choose, these apparitions always share some very specific characteristics. They will always pop out suddenly –just around a closed curve, immediately over a steep hill, barely outside a tunnel– and last long enough to come clearly into view but disappear exactly before you can take a second look.

Up to this point they might simply appear to be nothing more than chance anomalies, completely normal things that simply happen to be placed in an unusual location. What makes them unique is their third and most intriguing shared quality. No matter how many times you travel the same road or how perfectly well you remember every single detail of their placement, you will never be able to find them again.

That old church tower now fused with a modern house? The one on the side of that green hill facing the very first small town right after the third toll booth coming out of the interstate overpass? The one so beautifully unusual you really wanted to photograph on your next trip? It’s never been there.

The overpass, the toll booth, the small town, the hill… even the old lady selling quesadillas on her front porch you saw the first time around… they will all be there, exactly where you remember them. The only thing clearly missing will be the tower. In its place there won’t even be a conspicuous tower-shaped hole, only more of the same old luscious trees that have always covered the hill since everyone in the town remembers.

Though at first they puzzled me, I eventually began to see these flashing oddities as a kind of tiny wink, a small and intimate gesture of shared familiarity.

There’s a place in the back of my mind where roads are just the form chosen by some old race of inter-dimensional beings to leisurely pass their free time between cosmic ages. In this imaginary place, whenever these beings get bored, they amuse themselves by discretely winking at passing travelers and high-fiving each other when, every once in a while, one of them winks back.

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