Those Times When We Are Truly Alive

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I’ve never been a huge thrill seeker. I’m too aware of gravity’s power to take my chances with heights and think drowning in the ocean would be a stupid way to die for someone who had no business being in that nasty salt water to begin with. I mean, I understand, there are risks worth taking in construction or in travel, but there is no need to play games with a terrifying trip to my final destination. Besides, I’m in awe of enough things of substance (science, history, architecture, etc) to have no need to chase after cheap excitement at the cliff’s edge.

Although that is not entirely true, there is one vast exception to my normal cautious streak, that being when I’m behind the wheel of any machine and know it well enough to be confident. From my youth until this very day, there is no better feeling than that dance, on the edge of control, where senses heighten, time slows and instincts take over. For those who have seen my more inspired moments, I’m legendary, or Biblical as in 2 Kings 9:20, “The driving is like that of Jehu son of Nimshi—he drives like a maniac.” And, whether talented or just plain lucky, I’ve pushed vehicles to their outer limits and came out of the teeth of death alive.

One of those glorious moments was a cannonball run out of the mountains. My church youth leader, now a conservative Mennonite deacon, was an equally furious driver, had a slightly more capable car, and was right behind me. My own car, a Ford Tempo, was made for a pedestrian existence (brakes that would fade after a couple hard stops, lots of body roll, and underpowered) was vastly outmatched by the Pontiac Sunbird GT Turbo in my rearview mirror, and overloaded with the weekend’s gear and at least one slightly terrified passenger.

The game? Keep the bowtie derivative behind me through the twists and turns of these narrow poorly maintained roads. A sane person would tread very carefully on these unfamiliar cow paths, some with loose gravel, and especially driving a vehicle built with no purpose in mind besides being cheap basic transportation, certainly not made for excitement nor even to be especially reliable. Fortunately, I had two things going for me: 1) It was all downhill, some portions quite steep and 2) my teenage adrenaline.

The strategy was simple. Conserve brakes, slide the turns, stay in the lane when visibility was poor and take the inside track when available. Oh, and no trips over the edge into the ravines, trees, and rocks below, that would probably be a big ouch and possibly paralysis and permanent disability or death I was young and stupid, but still understood that one bad move could lead to permanent consequences. However, pride, a competitive spirit, and that dopamine reward awaiting me at the end meant embracing the challenge.

So, off we went, testosterone overriding our developing frontal lobes, my senses sharpened, awareness heightened and was as completely alive as one could possibly be.

I wound up that 2.3 liter, the poorly conceived four banger it was, with two valves per cylinder, breathing out the same side as the fresh air came in, probably designed by the bean counters in Dearborn, and more suitable for a boat anchor than any vehicle of the era performance or otherwise. The suspension and braking matched, it had drums in the back that were probably near useless and nearly the body roll of an Oldsmobile station wagon from the 1970s. Still, it would have to do, it was my cherished first car and all I could afford at the time.

The first turns were soon behind me in a cloud of dust. The speedometer, as I recall, only went up to 85 or 95 mph, and I had it pegged. As I tested the outer limits of this habitually understeering, bathtub on wheels, of a sedan, my companion, Alex, the son of Russian speaking immigrants, sat wide-eyed and held on to whatever he could grab—perhaps the only security that he could find at the moment or maybe a desperate bid to keep the car from coming apart? I’m pretty sure he was praying, repenting of his sins and asking for God’s mercy to be upon him.

My brakes were basically mush after the first couple hard stops, so balancing current and future needs became a priority, but the fact that the pesky Sunfire was still behind me ensured that my grin remained wide. I was maintaining just enough momentum to keep him from chancing a pass on the few straights. That and my dedication level, as someone young, single, the clear underdog and oftentimes frustrated, might have given me the slight edge.

The unannounced race ended as we swung onto the interstate onramp. My car, clearly outmatched, would easily outrun on the highway and, besides that, the State Troopers were sure to be out there lurking. I had my fill of exhilaration, man and machine had passed the test, the sun shone more brightly in the sky and it was, indeed, a great day to be alive!

Postscript: Say what you will, I can’t say this was not foolish, but all human progress depends on this love of novelty and risk-taking spirit. Had some idiot not experimented with keys, a kite, and a lightning storm, you would not be reading this blog on an electronic device. Certainly, we should try to temper these urges and try to direct them to more useful outlets, but we should never stifle the youthful in their pushing the boundaries of experience. Yes, to make civilization possible, we may also need to subdue our most aggressive impulses, still, all creativity, advancement, and pleasure depend on engaging in a bit of risky behavior. It is those glorious moments, riding that line between control and chaos when we are most truly alive.

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