All last week I got to drive around Minnesota late at night, drifting through the little towns, just me and the truckers out on the road and Merle and George and Emmylou on the radio.
I was doing a little dog-and-pony show around my home state, and I like driving at night. Less traffic, more romance.
You look ahead down the open road and you’re no longer an old retired guy in a suit and tie, you’re a Woody Guthrie song, you’re a man on the run, you’re the perpetrator of the biggest art heist in years, with Hopper’s “Nighthawks” under a blanket in the backseat along with “American Gothic” and six Jackson Pollocks. It’s a big backseat.
The yard lights of farms sweep by, some well-kept farms, some ragged ones, and fields waiting for planting, and scraggly woods and old mobile homes half hidden in woods.
You feel the contours of the hills and valleys, the creeks and rivers, you watch the ditches for suicidal deer.
There used to be late-night DJs who would send out dedications from listeners — “This is for you, Wayne, and she says she still cares about you” and he’d play “I Fall to Pieces” — but the stations all seem automated now, waiting to be sold at a loss for tax purposes.
Meanwhile, you stop at the gas station/mall for coffee and are stunned by the sheer number of potato chip varieties: bacon, barbecue, blue cheese, green onion, balsamic, jalapeno, mesquite, garlic, guacamole, dill pickle, rockin’ picante, spicy Cajun, plus “natural” and “old-fashioned” and “40% less fat” chips.
A potato chip is a potato chip. Do we really need all this?
There is news on the radio: a new tax plan, a government shutdown (no? yes?), the chance of a “major major” conflict with North Korea, a big harangue against the press, but it’s meaningless.
The fabulist in the Oval Office has mesmerized us, like the boy in my fourth-grade class who kept letting poots, as we called them. He pooted frequently and in various musical tones, and we sat waiting for the next one, and as a result we did poorly in math and now we can’t figure out our laptops.
But out here on the ribbon of highway, the land goes on and on and on, and there is a new life waiting out ahead.
At home I am an old liberal but out here at 2 a.m., I am all about freedom. All I need from the government is a good road. I don’t need the government to put up signs warning me to fasten my seatbelt and drive carefully and dim my headlights for oncoming traffic.
On some straightaways, headlights on high beam, I hit 80 and 90. Let Bambi’s mother look out for me.
At home I try to be kind, but out here, to the disgruntled voter who feels ignored by Washington, I say, “Put away the 12-pack and the three-cheese chips, lose the gut, stop smoking, turn off the TV. Papa is not responsible for your sad life. Go back to school, arise at dawn, take brisk walks, think big, show your kids how it’s done.”
That’s me talking at 70 mph.
Out west of Detroit Lakes, tuned to classic country, Emmylou’s fragile voice drifts in with “I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham, I would hold my life in his saving grace,” from an album I listened to over and over back in the ’70s, sitting in a basement working on a novel that even then I knew was going nowhere.
I admire that guy. He was young and naive, uncowed, indomitable. Now I’m old and cautious and on Social Security, a burden on the rest of you, but it ain’t over yet. I could still make my mark in the world. It’s a great country.
Nuts to the guy writing the executive orders. He is a lightning bug in the marsh. I could shuck him and head west and get me a job bartending in Bismarck and listen to the scuttlebutt of the drifters and barflies.
I was kidding about the paintings in the backseat. That was fake news. At 2 a.m. going 75 mph just east of Fargo, I think I am on the verge of doing something really good. You watch and see if I don’t.
Garrison Keillor is an author, radio personality and columnist for Washington Post News Service.