By Samir Shukla
Among my personal joys of summer? Long drives. Ones where you cross a few states on your way to a destination. It could be a sun-blasted drive, while odd knots of clouds paint the sky above. Sometimes clouds blot out the sun, and then there maybe rain, a gentle sprinkle or torrential downpour. You pass quaint farms and sad small towns clinging to country roads, exits for connecting roads, towns and cities, humanity going with you in one direction while others are going where you just left, passing by in flashes of cars, trucks, vans, motorcycles. Certain vehicles become a part of your journey, like that blue truck hauling some kind of pipes you passed a while back and catches up with you again down the road because you took a pee break at a rest area. You spot it again somewhere down the road, it is as if it came along to give you company.
All this becomes a soundtrack of the drive. All the sights and sounds of American highways and byways, yes, the whole journey is enhanced by this music of the road. You insert favorite songs into this soundtrack of the drive and make it your own. Conversations make the long miles seem shorter, while music adds a different element. On solo drives, music is indispensable. Tapping into songs with lyrics specific to the geography you are currently passing lends a sense of place. Songs about towns, states or specific locations add markers along the drive, bringing the places to life even if you are just passing through.
You can't drive through Alabama and not listen to “Sweet Home Alabama." Right? Or not hum a few lines of one of myriad songs about the city that never sleeps while driving or strolling around New York City Streets. “I'm in a New York state of mind…" croons Billy Joel somewhere in those streets at any given moment.
So, the summer drive at hand. We headed out of Charlotte while James Taylor mellowed the early part of the journey with “Carolina in My Mind." We were now on the road with about 700 miles beckoning. The hell with the GPS telling me exactly the miles and the anticipated drive time. I like my mind's maps, especially on a summer drive where you have allotted some extra time for counting the trees along the way, if you will.
It's also unplanned stops along the way at the oft missed and forgotten places that add stories to summertime drives. That waterfront scenic spot, mountaintop lookout, a curio shop on a rural road, a historic marker, boiled peanuts, well, you know what I mean.
The Rolling Stones' “Sweet Virginia" kept us company for a few minutes along the sliver of Virginia we drove through on this trek to our destination on a jaunt headed northwest. It was the 4th of July, adding a patriotic flair especially driving through Virginia while listening to Springsteen's philosophical lyrics about this wonderful country.
The car rolled along and popped out of a mountain tunnel and West Virginia appeared on a welcome sign. Ok, so you know one of the songs played while driving through the state. “Country roads, take me home, to the place…"
The mountains now conquered and the entire breadth of Ohio remained, where along the way Neil Young told a bit of the story of Kent State in his song “Ohio."
No long drive is complete without Kishore Kumar's “Musafir Hun Yaaron (I'm a traveler my friends)."
There's no reason that Kishore Kumar can't mingle with Coldplay or Arijit Singh handing over the mic to Bruce Springsteen on this drive's soundtrack or any other for that matter. The added advantage of streaming services now means any song that pops in your head can be commissioned to play via the cell phone.
On this drive, through the states and American byways, the wildly varied clouds, the blazing July sun, the sameness of the highway, oft broken by sections like an old bridge over a lonely river, at the end of this long drive, we pulled into the outskirts of Motor City. Detroit. We were just outside the city, in the burbs to absorb talks of the philosopher Guru Morari Bapu for a couple of days. Our intention was also to explore a bit of Detroit.
One drizzly afternoon we entered the city limits of this once industrial powerhouse while rockers Kiss blasted out “Detroit Rock City" on the speakers.
The next moment The Temptations began to sing “I got sunshine on a cloudy day..." We were in Motown. If New York City has inspired a hundred songs, Motown has shaped generations of American music. Born and bred in Detroit, the “Motown sound" (born as Tamla Records in 1959 and soon renamed Motown Records) redirected American music. It was black music, loved by one and all. Sixty years have passed and the classics of Motown never fade.
We stopped off to feel the aura of the place and the sounds in the air at the Motown Museum, which is really the small house where Motown began, with its offices and a recording studio. Hitsville USA as it became known. This little corner of Detroit serves as a spiritual gathering and reminder of the power of music to bind generations, in this case the “Motown sound." Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross are among the icons of this timeless sound.
This drive is now rounded out with a return trip to Charlotte, which of course had its own musical accompaniments. Summer is not over yet. The next road trip awaits its own soundtrack.
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By Samir Shukla
I have always preferred the influencing power of words over the preciseness of numbers. Two plus two will always equal four, but have two people sit on a park bench, look straight ahead and quickly write down what they observe and you will get two variations. Numbers and their wizardry came easy to me in school years. Today words inform my life, give me comfort, and light the much worn as well as newer paths.
In my thoughts, in June, I stroll on such a path, awaiting the sizzle of July, scouting the spot where I will jump to the other half of my fifth decade on this globe. Every year the month begins with the bombast of fireworks and ends with the soft blinking of fireflies.
I'm sitting on the upper wooden deck behind my house on a breezy June night. A thin moon dimly lights the clouds, nocturnal insects break the quiet with occasional chirping. The night is deepening while smooth bourbon mingles with the ice in a thick glass sitting atop a small table to the right of me. The sips help navigate the jumble of thoughts disturbing the night, or does it jumble the thoughts navigating the night? The bourbon will have the last word.
I left work earlier in the day and drove home and landed in my driveway but couldn't remember any landmarks or turns I made. Don't remember accelerating or braking. I simply made it back home as if I had transported from one location to the next. It's a drive I've done countless times. The only thing I remember is shifting from the NPR radio station to a classic rock station somewhere along the route. Damn if I could remember the drive, but I recount flipping from a chatty segment on immigration and nodding my head to an Aerosmith power ballad. This is among the thoughts this night as I take another sip.
A brick wall about the height of an average basketball player separates my backyard from the street. I sit facing the wall, looking down at it and the dark backyard while the night mellows. A car passes by, its usual noise softened by the bank of trees on the either side of the wall and the wall itself.
The engine noise sounds like a heavy cardboard box dragged across sand, approaching, amplifying and then fading. The single headlight does double duty for the other broken headlight while evoking a low flying UFO hovering just above the street. The bourbon enhances its spectrum.
I tap the nearly empty glass and sniff out the last drop which whispers to me to call it a day. The numbers 11:58pm light up the phone that's been set aside. Two plus two sure equals four, and now two more minutes and the thin moon will cough up another day that the sun will embellish in its own manner in a few hours and backslap it on its way.
The words and thoughts swirling around my brain now fade while the numbers win the night once again, ticktocking along while I quietly open the back door and tip toe through the kitchen and up the stairs into the awaiting midnight slumber.