At age 18, during my first driving lesson, my dad told me, “remember, cars are killing machines.” With my knuckles turning white gripping the steering wheel of my family’s little black car, he hammered in the principles of defensive driving and listed off a few colleagues who had lost their kids in car accidents. My heart pounded as I shakily made left turns and wobbled over the yellow line running down the center of the road. By the time we finished the lesson, my knuckles were even whiter than before.
I had always been scared of driving. I don’t know exactly why; I suspect it was the combination of being in a few minor car accidents, an early childhood memory of escaping from a burning car, and witnessing unconscious bodies in the aftermath of highway collisions. Throughout high school, I got rides from my friends with drivers licenses or chose to ride my bike. I avoided driving whenever I could, never feeling the thrill nor the calm that so many of my friends did. To me, the road wasn’t romantic, it was gritty and dangerous and scared me more than almost anything else.
In my early twenties, I became a much more confident driver, but it was never something I particularly enjoyed. I found myself holding my breath while navigating around massive trucks on the East Coast highways or slamming the brakes to avoid crashing into jaywalkers or cyclists in New York City. Living in the city, I rode the subway or my bike wherever I needed to go. Life always felt easier when I didn’t have to be behind the wheel. I much prefer a stopped subway car over traffic, a rusty chain over a blinking engine oil light.
What I didn’t realize was that driving could be paradise; you just have to find the right place. For me, that place was Colorado and the Rocky Mountains.
I arrived in Denver in the summertime, planning to stay for a few weeks, visiting friends and cousins who live in various towns and cities around the state. With them, I spent early mornings on hikes and evenings eating dinner with a view of the sun setting over the mountains. I got out of my New Yorker comfort zone, mountain biking down a curving trail and getting a giant plum colored bruise on my knee to show for it when I fell. At night, I gazed up at the sky, neck cramping, unable to take my eyes away from the pinpricks of light that shone like diamonds in the brisk, unpolluted air. I always loved Colorado with its endless vistas and clear skies and people who often cared more about snow and rocks than money. Even so, when I had to make a long drive on my own, I suddenly got nervous. In the haziness of my fear, the peace and calm of the open space around me faded away.
I set out in my friend’s forest green Subaru, wound through some local streets, and merged onto the interstate. The friend whose car I was borrowing had said many years ago that he loved long drives. I remember replying, I could never. But as I spent five minutes, then half an hour, then two hours behind the wheel, I started to agree with him. I rolled the windows down and that fresh alpine scent flew through the windows. My playlist, filled with upbeat songs and oldies, reverberated from the speakers, and I started to feel the tension in my shoulders release. I only encountered a few trucks, nothing like the maze of 18 wheelers that forms on New Jersey highways.
Peaks seemed to rise out of the horizon and vast stretches of land echoed into the distance. Winding roads carried me up a mountainside, and as if it were a mirage, a glittering emerald lake ringed by evergreen trees appeared to my left. Just a few minutes later, I felt as if I was in the bottom of a canyon, surrounded by shelves of red and orange rock blasted away to carve this path through the mountains for us humans. I felt small, insignificant, enveloped by the cathedrals of stone that had stood there for hundreds of millions of years, silent witnesses to the passage of time.
As nighttime approached, I found myself driving away from a stunning sunset. My rearview mirror gleamed as if it had been glued over with amber and rubies and amethysts. Everytime I glanced at it, I caught my breath. As I sped forward, one of the few cars on the road, I thought of John Denver singing in “Rocky Mountain High”: “Rocky Mountain high, I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.” I thought of the meteor I had seen flying through the sky only a few days earlier and wondered if I might see another one through the windshield.
Soon, the psychedelic sunset was dampened by heavy gray rain clouds. It started pouring. Raindrops bounced off the tar in front of me and the windshield wipers raced as fast as they could to sweep away the deluge of water. In the midst of the storm, I pulled into a gas station off the highway. Filling gas outside of my home state New Jersey, where gas station employees fill up your tank as you relax in your car, is always a minor thrill for me despite being a mundane chore for most Americans. As I wrestled the nozzle into the side of the car, my mind raced with a bout of worry: What do I do if I hydroplane? What if my phone runs out of power and I don’t know the directions? Maybe I should wait out this rain, find somewhere to stay inside.
But alone under the fluorescent lights of the gas station with rain pelting the concrete, getting weaker and stronger every few minutes, another thought came to me. I don’t want this drive to end.
Inevitably, the drive did end. I arrived safely at my destination under a clear sky full of glittering stars. But one thing had changed: I was captivated by driving. The Rockies had mesmerized me.
In the following weeks, I kept driving through Colorado every chance I got, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, over passes, through old mining towns, during sunrise, and late at night. Once, a towering moose emerged from the shrubs to my left as I drove past. Once I stopped at a Palisades Peach stand on the roadside and sunk my teeth into a sweet, perfectly ripe peach. Juice dripped down my forearms and smelled sticky and saccharine for the rest of the drive.
Another time, around midnight, the car started making a strange metallic noise, and my friend and I pulled off the road to investigate. As he peered at the tire with a flashlight, I glanced at the road. It stretched behind me and in front of me into infinity, and I imagined everybody who had stopped in similar circumstances through the ages and pondered the romanticism of the road, a strand of human existence resting on the stretching skin of the earth, and whispered a Kerouac quote to myself: “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
Trisha Mukherjee is a writer and audio journalist based in NYC. Her work focuses on human rights, women, immigration, the environment, travel, and adventure around the world. She is a producer at iHeartMedia and an AIR New Voices Fellow. Find more of her work at trishawrites.com.