All The Things You Learn About Yourself While Driving Overnight
It was 8:18 p.m. on a Sunday night, and the situation was seeming grim. I had just returned a press car to the Parking Spot at the Philadelphia airport, and not a single rental car agency in Philly was willing to rent me a car.
A combination of poor communication and piss-poor planning on my part made it necessary for me to drive home nine hours through the darkness of Appalachia just so I could turn around and leave again in the morning. I had been awake since 6:00 a.m., and it seemed likely that the clock would make three full rotations before I’d shut my eyes again.
Through deceit and sheer willpower, I saw the bluegrass of central Kentucky at 5:07 a.m., but not before I discovered a few things about myself, not all of which I wanted to discover.
You see, I was supposed to have flown from Chicago to Philadelphia for a weekend race with American Endurance Racing on Friday night (which I did), and then I was to have taken a flight back to Chicago on Sunday night (which I didn’t). Turned out my Monday morning meeting in the Windy City was canceled, and my employer, having already paid for one flight “home” for me, wasn’t too keen to pay for another. So it was up to me to figure out a way back.
A last-minute flight would have been exorbitantly expensive, so I decided that I’d rent a car at PHL and drive it all the way home. I forgot to make a reservation until I was actually piloting the (REDACTED) press car back to the airport Sunday night — but it was Philly, so I figured that one of the nation’s largest airports would have no shortage of rental car inventory. Well, I was right about that part. I was wrong, however, about their willingness to let me drive one of their cars one-way.
If you don’t rent cars often, you might not know that it costs significantly more to drop off a car at another location than the one from which you picked it up. A daily Philly round-trip rental would have cost me about $50. I was prepared for the one-way to cost in the neighborhood of $150. I wasn’t ready for every rental car agency to refuse to let me pay them for the privilege of a nine-hour jaunt.
I did the only thing I could: I lied. I used my app to make a round-trip, one-day reservation, and I headed to the lot. Normally when I select a rental car, I’m doing it on the company nickel. In this case, the rental was coming out of my pocket, so I wanted something that would be comfortable enough for the drive, but economical enough that I wouldn’t be getting 16 miles per gallon. Enter the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu LT.
I plugged my phone into the USB port, told Siri that I wanted to get home, and immediately began to despair. The quickest route was nine hours and twenty minutes, which meant I wouldn’t get home until 6:00 a.m., and I had to be at the office at 8:30. Just enough time to shower, change, and head back out. Sigh. No rest for the wicked.
As I entered the highway, I began to ponder several questions about my life.
You see, I had flown all that way to race at New Jersey Motorsports Park, but I hadn’t turned a single lap of the course due to some mechanical issues with the race car. I admit I’m not entirely sad about that. As I’ve said on these pages before, racing always turns the fear knob to 11 for me, and the trepidation I felt about getting behind the wheel of I car I’d never driven before wasn’t quite being balanced out by my excitement to thunder down the front straight of NJMP’s Lightning raceway. I hate to admit I was relieved to not drive in the event, even though I was disappointed to miss the chance to compete. Which direction was pulling me harder?
I had nine hours to figure that out. But first, I had to call the rental car company and tell them a blatant lie.
“Yes, I have an emergency at home, and I need to drop off the car at LEX,” I explained to the overseas after-hours customer service desk.
“Sir, there is no option to do this. You must return the car to Philadelphia,” said the representative, reading from a script in a thick accent.
“Well, that’s what I’m going to do, so how can you help me?”
“Sir, there is no option to do this. You must return the car to—”
“Listen,” I interrupted. “I’m taking the car to Lexington. How can you help me? I’m not concerned about what it costs.” I was terribly concerned about what it would cost.
“Sir, there is no—”
“I’m taking the car to Lexington.”
“One moment, sir.”
“Sir, I have arranged for you to return the car to Lexington. There will be no additional charge.”
“Thank you, I greatly appreciate all of your help.”
I’d like to think it was my vast skills at negotiating that led him to make the executive decision to create an option where there was none. In reality, he probably noticed that I had already rented 25 cars in 2016 and that I had rented at least 25 cars a year since 2010. I felt slightly guilty about my deception, but everybody was served well by it in the end. I got to drive home. They got to keep my business for the future.
After that there was nothing to worry about for the next six hours. I felt no need to travel at Bolian-cross country record speeds. I even stopped once to use the restroom in Maryland, as the rental agency had failed to put even a single bed pan in my Malibu.
Ah, yes, the Malibu. I begrudgingly admit that it’s a fine car. No, that’s not exactly right. I don’t even begrudgingly admit it. It’s just a fine car. For the first half of my journey, I averaged 33 mpg. Apple CarPlay worked flawlessly. The 1.5-liter turbo motor was just fine. The suspension handled on-ramps and mountainous highways with relative competence. In fact, I think it’s just as good as any other car in the class — and that’s saying something for a GM mid-sizer, isn’t it? But we’ve reached a point where it almost doesn’t matter. The Equinox needs to be better for GM to be relevant. And realizing that GM has finally made a very competent car for the midsize segment, only in time for this segment to become relatively irrelevant, says all you need to know about General Motors.
Miles rolled by without incident. Darkness had settled in over the mountain ranges of Maryland and West Virginia, and my fatigued mind started to wander again. Only this time, it was starting to be dangerous. I noticed a distinct lack of focus. I was driving on pure autopilot, my hands were guiding the Malibu around the turns with little to no conscious input. As the fog settled into the valleys, clouding my visibility, fog was also settling into my mind.
I was faced with a perilous choice. Did I need to find a hotel and sleep just a couple of hours? If I did that, I most certainly wouldn’t be making it to the office on time. But what’s “on time” in the professional world, anyway? I don’t punch a clock. The donuts will be made whether I’m there or not. And I was getting so, so very sleepy.
And therein lies the real question that every middle-to-upper level manager must face about his own existence. It’s a what would you say you do here sort of moment. If I didn’t go to work today, what would really happen? Would conference calls be missed? Would reports not be generated? Would emails go unanswered? In other words, does anything I do genuinely make a difference in the world?
If an assembly line worker at the Flat Rock plant doesn’t show up, then that process can’t be completed that day. Products don’t get produced. Money is lost. Jobs are put at risk.
You know what’s a real motherfucker? When your child asks you what you do for a living, and you give him a bullshit answer like, “I manage the development process for 28 markets.” And then he just looks at you. And you both realize that doesn’t mean a single thing.
So I started to panic slightly. I pushed through my fatigue. My cruise control, which had been set at five miles an hour over the limit, got bumped to 15 over the limit. If I could slice an hour off of my arrival time, then maybe I could actually grab 60-90 minutes of sleep before heading into the office where I so badly needed to justify my existence.
The fog was getting worse, in both the physical and metaphorical senses. I realized that increasing my speed at a time when my reflexes were virtually nil was a potentially catastrophic decision, but I made it anyway. I set the volume of my Spotify to nearly maximum levels, and I sang along to Duran Duran and Tears For Fears at the top of my lungs, struggling to engage my senses and my mind.
I began to pray for sunlight that would never come as the sunrise was scheduled for over an hour past my destination time. Nothing but darkness. Void. Turns and twists throughout the foothills continued to come, and the Malibu and I continued to mindlessly navigate them. I had stopped just one time to use the restroom and get gas, and I was weighing the decision of stopping again for some sort of caffeine, but I feared that if I stopped I wouldn’t have the will to keep going. So on into the early morning I continued.
Again, the Malibu proved to be the perfect companion for my trip. Despite the increase in speed and intensity, the ‘Bu still averaged over 28 mpg through the elevation changes, from Pennsylvania through Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, and finally, the relief I felt when I entered Kentucky. The roads turned flatter and straighter, and my mind rejoiced at the sign of familiar highway exits. With less than two hours to go, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. And it was good.
Some say it’s good to be alone with one’s thoughts every now and again. In this ever-connected world of apps, messages, emails, and texts, to shut off and focus on the single task of driving through the dark, and dozens of minutes passing without another car entering your field of vision … it’s a rare opportunity. But when I pulled back into my driveway at 5:07 a.m., nearly a full hour earlier than Apple Maps had predicted, I was immensely relieved to be back in a place where my solitary state could be interrupted yet again with the distractions of modern life. The only problem was that there was nobody to text at that early hour. No new email to answer.
Only a bed to crawl into for less time than it would take to watch a Disney movie, and then back into the world once more. A world still filled with self-doubt, fear, lies, and increased feelings of solitude among many electronic acquaintances. Nine hours in the dark had done nothing to change any of that. But it did give me some time to practice all of it.
Perhaps I just need another drive to come up with the answers.
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Glad to hear you made it home ok man. I think we've all been there where we think it worth it to just keep trucking despite the danger. My dad gave me a piece of advice that I try to stick to when it comes to speeding / driving tired that I try to stick to as best I can especially now that I've got two young kids. "Its better to show up a little late than to not show up at all" Good story.
You'll keep doing this until you really fall asleep at the wheel. Hopefully you won't have cruise control engaged at the time, no innocent parties will be harmed, and you'll get off lightly. Nothing like awaking from a pleasant dream to find oneself at the controls of a 2-ton vehicle headed for oblivion. We all know this, but we keep doing it anyway - until the inevitable crash. So the only solution is to bet on a car that has driver assistance systems.