"Some of my most illuminating experiences of the West have occurred behind the wheel of a car," writes writer, teacher, and director of the Montana Book Festival, Rachel Mindell. "This is not especially romantic. Having lived in Arizona, Colorado and Montana and as a woman who loves to hike, to sit on rocks and to feel insignificant, I have continually averted the expression of a direct commune with nature. As a writer, I need expansive solitude to produce, a metal cage with windows and relative silence. To produce, I need to drive.
I've made the trek between Tucson and Missoula several times. Alone in a car, I've sped through every season and style of terrain, the road wide open. But even traffic, provides a suspension, one that pokes the creative dirt to push in seeds. Every stop bears a sign, sometimes literally a sign.
Though I need driving to write, I rarely write about driving. Or even nature. Driving is the incubation before words, a time for wild expanses to speak in their own tongues. And in the rapid flood of scribbling that occurs at rest-stops, the couches hosts or in motel rooms, I write about urban landscapes of the inner mind. There is rarely a wild flower and certainly never a car. And yet, the art couldn't be there without them."
Mindell pairs her reflection with an excerpt from a poem from Gregory Pardlo's collection, Digest, a volume which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In one section of his book, Pardlo sets off a series of poetic improvisations, much like jazz improvisations, only with language and ideas. In this one, titled "Occam," he riffs on the way that driving through towns and distinct geographies provokes unexpected thoughts that can unravel in even less expected directions. Ultimately Pardlo suggests that the act of driving is akin to riding around in a poem.
You often size up the random demographic holiday
traffic makes hoping to see yourself inside a picture bigger
than the neighborhood you know. But the knots of cars
strung in rows like Incan quipu ordain your destination for
they script your possibilities in the Nielsen lingo, abstracted
from ad copy instead of the tangible planet. So who is really
driving the soapbox you find transporting your thoughts while
you inch the highway like the Pope’s bubble-mobile? Lines at
the toll plaza are a poem where you idle in this way, mindless
as Sonny Corleone. Every procession ends in a funeral. Think
of the chain gang of reindeer and the tiny hands making toys
in Santa’s maquilas. Will you spend the whole poem reading
bumpers and vanity plates, concerned how they distance you?
At the end of this poem full of furtive glances will you count
yourself among the seers or the seen? No one sees you sleeping
but your wife, and for her you thought of nothing. Look how little
you give of yourself. How little of yourself you have been given.
(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 5/11/16 and 11/16/16. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)