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On 3 a.m. drives

staff note

Contrary to popular opinion, traveling is not that great. Airports are slow and crowded; hotels are stiff and plastic; museums, even for a history nerd, tend to be boring; souvenirs are overpriced and easily lost; and the pictures never turn out quite how you expect.

Exploring, however, is exhilarating. Unexpectedly finding new places and uncovering their hidden stories is an experience incomparable to the monotony of vacation itineraries. Even if the place is in a familiar area, its discovery is always an adventure. It could be a community garden tucked behind a local neighborhood, an abandoned car in the woods or any place that makes you question where you want to go and why you really want to escape. 

I visited Germany for two weeks in summer 2019: two weeks of catching the right train and getting off at the right stop, rushing through museums, deciphering a foreign language, forgetting about baggage liquid restrictions, losing said airport-rummaged luggage for a week and discovering that I fit into my little brother’s clothes. At least at the time.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the trip. I ate with friendly and funny locals, spontaneously explored semi-hidden antique shops and admired the heartbreaking beauty of the Berlin Wall. I mentally noted little cultural differences between German and American crosswalks, cars, recycling habits and the contentious question of whether or not to put ice in beverages. I danced with people young and old from Germany, Tanzania, the United States and Cambodia. But each of these moments were borne without intention; they were purely serendipitous explorations of culture and humanity. Exploration within travel.  

When I came back from Germany, the first thing I did was cruise along the wide open highways surrounding Charlotte, and honestly, I’m scared of driving. I make risky left turns and brake too quickly and still depend on a stranger’s “go ahead” wave at four-way stops. But the freedom of roaming the roads alone with no determined destination, no concerns over missing an exit or barely making the yellow light taught me the difference between solitude and independence, traveling and exploring — a freedom from worry. 

There’s something therapeutic about driving alone with nowhere to go. It provides an opportunity to explore areas of my mind, gardens, buildings, rustic neighborhoods and gas stations that I just never noticed before. There are no hotels, no itineraries or museums or disappointing pictures — just exploring. And especially when it’s virtually impossible to travel in the traditional sense, a brief mental vacation, an aimless cruise around our hometowns may be all the escape we need. 

I’ve always loved late-night drives through the city. I ride alone with the windows rolled down and nostalgia roaring from the speakers. I break free from my typically cautious self and get to speed a little, as there are hardly any other cars on the road. The cars that are there, however, always draw my attention: who are you? Why are you out here? It’s 3 a.m. on a Tuesday night — are you leaving your almost-boyfriend’s house? A mid-week rager? Are you on a road trip? Or is it something less obvious: maybe you’ve been working all night and needed to run to the gas station for a Red Bull; maybe your friends got hungry and now you’re in charge of picking up McDonald’s; maybe your baby has a fever and won’t stop crying so you rush him to the hospital. Or maybe you’re just doing what I’m doing: Just driving, just exploring. There are very few times when I get to ride alone with the windows rolled down, nostalgia blaring. The city is a flat landscape filled with round characters all daring to speed just a little. 

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