I spent so much of the last year in a car.
At the end of May I started working as a reporter for two rural community newspapers in central Minnesota. I work out of two offices in two towns, and I cover news from five towns, as well as the townships and unincorporated communities that surround them. The work takes me up and down 20 mile stretches of three different highways. I’ve put thousands of miles on my car without ever going much of anywhere, but I’m not salty about it. I’ve spent all that time mostly doing two things: listening to CDs (my car doesn’t have an aux input), and watching the slow progress of the seasons across the countryside.
The seasons are a big deal here in the North. They are endless fodder for small talk. Winter can freeze your fingers off, or it can give you a free pass to stay home from work when the roads are temporarily impassable. Summer can burn you or soak you in sweat. None of that really touches you in a car, though. You might need to pull down the visor to keep the sun from your eyes, but otherwise you can simply watch.
There are days when my favorite part of doing community journalism isn’t writing or interviewing, but instead just driving from place to place, looking at the homespun signs for out-of-the-way bars, or watching shafts of sunlight flicker between roadside tree trunks to dance on my windshield.
The roads I drive are in no way remarkable, but daily intimacy with them can make them seem dynamic and alive when paying attention.
I’ve made a few animal sightings: I had to stop one morning for wild turkeys to cross the highway; on another I saw a bald eagle crouched just off the shoulder. Yet, mostly it’s the landscape that fascinates me.
Sunrise and sunset are known as magic hours in the movie business because of the holy glow they give everything, but there’s a kind of harsh morning light in the Minnesota winter, on the really cold days, that’s almost as striking. It’s rarely captured on film, except maybe in Fargo. The temperature bleeds the color from everything, and the scenery is washed out and inhospitable. But there’s something to be said for it, a mood all its own. I would compare it to the razor-thin production of a Hüsker Dü song, or the chilly, hollowed-out production of Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” where it feels like the register normally occupied by the bassline has been filled with visible winter breath instead.
Even the smallest details can feel poetic: the long, thin patches over cracks in the highway blacktop like thick strokes of oil paint, and the small rhythmic thump of the tires passing over them. The yellow ditch grass that pokes through patches of snow reminds me of Van Gogh’s preoccupation with the yellow landscapes of peasant life.
In spring and summer there are pools of stagnant water in the ditches along highway 95 that remain so still they look like the dull glass of old liquor bottles. Green algae colors their edges.
I thought a lot about stopping along the road this summer to take pictures of those pools. I’d never noticed them before I finished college in May, came home, and started work. I needed (and still need) practice with my work camera, and I figured I could frame the shots, or crop them in such a way that they wouldn’t look like the pools sat at the edges of a quiet Minnesota highway. Instead the photos would look, at first glance, like the inner reaches of a Florida swamp, or some other distant, exotic place. I never actually stopped to take those pictures, though. I kept driving, and winter came and froze the pools and covered them in snow.
You don’t really need photos anyway, if you’re looking at things the right way. Sometimes driving past can be a great way to get to know a space: Every second traveled gives you a different point of view as the position of the vehicle changes. A nondescript intersection can feel like a reminder of possibilities that remain open, even if untouched—picture one: a dirt road stretches away from you between two rows of pines, planted in almost perfect lines. The road seems to curve, eventually hidden by the trees. The tallest ones are almost a canopy. Everything converges perfectly, like a painting made in your eyes. Where the road leads is a mystery. You could veer off the highway and drive down it, just to see what’s there, but the next assignment beckons, and it is just as uncertain, just as likely to reveal new vistas to explore, or pass by. Choose the highway.