Winding country lanes threaded through emerald corn stalks taller than my car; major thoroughfares connected country towns alternately prosperous and depressed. Half a mile might separate neat garden-front homes from exhausted-looking structures with sagging porches and flaking paint, depending on the township.
I was driving along a stretch of highway I hadn’t traveled in years. A family health emergency had led to an unplanned trip to my hometown, and I navigated long-unvisited, yet intimately familiar, roads – the routes where I had first learned to drive.
It was a weekend afternoon, a blistering hot day with not much activity. People were no doubt taking it easy: We passed another car every mile or so. The iPod shuffled through my albums over the car stereo, and suddenly Michael Stipe’s voice flooded the car.
Half a World Away, from REM’s Out of Time. It was one of my definitive high school albums, and a CD I had on as a constant companion in the car, back in the mid-nineties, during those early days where my learner’s permit gave me my first terrifying glimpse of freedom, and the license (scored after three agonizing attempts) authorized it.
Some pieces of music seem tailor-made for certain landscapes. That afternoon, the vintage song, coupled with the instantly familiar hometown surroundings, called up long-dormant memories. I could immediately see and smell my first car: its compact seats, the lingering perfume upholstery-imprinted from its first owner, the steering wheel rubbery under my fingertips.
Researchers have found that music and memory are intricately connected in the deepest recesses of the brain, and I could practically feel my own synapses firing as I continued down the road. The opening strains of the song felt as poignant as running into an old friend. At that moment, the car and its stereo became a de facto time machine, effortlessly transporting me to an earlier era. I was suddenly seventeen years old again, worrying that I wouldn’t get into college, or worse – that I would get in, and wouldn’t be able to afford it. My sisters were driving me crazy; my parents even more so. In my mind’s eye, I could almost see us—of that era—getting ready for dinner, just the five of us, as though none of us had moved away, introduced new spouses to the family, or aged at all.
REM continued to play; the music soothed and consoled, just as it did back then.
That day, it felt as though I traveled with a shadow self. She seemed to spread out inside me, across me, stretching her limbs as though rousing from a long sleep. This younger version of me peered out with curiosity, almost incredulity. You’re married, she seemed to say. You’re already finished with college, and paying off loans. You don’t live around here anymore. The familiar suddenly seemed strange, the aural and visual triggers creating a discomfiting shuffling of time and space.
This is true, I thought in reply to the seventeen-year-old. But I’m still me. I haven’t fundamentally changed. Then—
This is ridiculous, the modern, present-day me thought. I’ve heard this album plenty of times over the years, and didn’t have this time-transport, flashback experience. Granted, it hadn’t been in the car, in this particular place.
But the eyes in my rearview mirror could have been mine or hers. The view through my windshield could haven been 1996, 2005, 2012.
The song came to a close, and the spell broke. The nostalgia lingered for just a moment, perhaps a mile down the road, disrupted completely as a more up-tempo pop song from the past year filled the speakers. I switched off the stereo and drove the remaining stretch home in silence, trying to will my shadow self to stick around just a little longer.
Photo courtesy Gerry Dincher via Flickr Creative Commons