Because south Louisiana traffic ties me in knots these days, I now think of driving as something to be endured, not enjoyed.
But in her new memoir, “The Lost Landscape,” Joyce Carol Oates recalls a time when Americans routinely got behind the wheel not just because they had to, but because they wanted to. Oates, who grew up in western New York in the 1940s, devotes a chapter to the now-vanished ritual of the Sunday drive, a trip taken merely for pleasure, with no destination in mind.
Before I opened Oates’ book, I hadn’t seen the words “Sunday drive” in years, but the expression seemed as charming as ever. Henry James once said that “summer afternoon” seemed to him the two most beautiful words in the English language, and maybe he’s right. But if James was drawn to “summer afternoon” because it so powerfully suggests time suspended — a small stretch of life left to you to as a private treasure — then “Sunday drive” must surely be a close second.
Or so I thought after reading Oates’ tribute to a tradition that now seems as dated as full-service filling stations and five-and-dimes.
“Our car was our principal means of adventure, exploration, and entertainment; our lengthy, looping seemingly uncalculated Sunday drives with sometimes my father, sometimes my mother, at the wheel were our primary means of experiencing ourselves as a family,” Oates tells readers.
“Where weekday drives were always purposeful, Sunday drives were spontaneous and improvised,” she adds. “Our car was like a small boat, or maybe a small plane, blown like the perpetual cumulus clouds of the sky above the Great Lakes, in any of these directions, by chance and not choice; the drives were familial daydreams, dreams somehow made conscious and translated into landscape. Unknowing, we were enchanted by the mystery of the … landscape and our place in it.”
Oates perfectly describes a driving custom that, to my own children, would seem as strangely remote as a trip on a stage coach or steam engine. It would not occur to them that just driving — the experience of being in a car and out on the road — could be worthwhile by itself.
The idea was already antique when I came along in the 1960s, kept alive in our household only by the presence of a grandmother, born in 1901, who still regarded cars as a novelty. She’d ask if anyone cared to take a ride, and off we’d go, aimlessly meandering through streets in the kind of desultory manner that, if practiced today, would surely raise the suspicions of Neighborhood Watch.
“You’d think they would continue forever but nothing continues forever,” Oates writes of Sunday drives. “Like gas selling for twenty-eight cents a gallon, that’s gone forever.”
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.