by DCH Park
The sun shone brightly as Henry drove down the highway alone. Four lanes of busy traffic stretched to the distance before and behind him and four more lanes were on the other side. The median strip was wide and grassy. It dipped in the middle and guard rails ran on either side. Looking up, he saw that the whole “big sky” was a light blue dome that stretched from one horizon to the other.
The wind rushed past Henry’s car as it raced with others on the road. He watched as the patterns made by the speeding cars changed and danced. They were never static. They always changed, like a living thing. The whole time, some cars would enter and others would leave, no doubt to go to their various destinations, but the patterns on the highway remained. Henry pictured an ameboid blob flowing through different shapes, pulsing rhythmically as it traveled down the road.
Nearby cars zoomed along while faraway things seemed much slower. The distant mountains seemed to barely move at all. The car before him was a late model Audi – a low-slung sports sedan – that had been with him for the last several exits. He absently noted that the Audi’s tail lights were shining at him but it was bright out and they were on the highway with traffic moving well. There was no reason the Audi should have its tail lights on.
The driver looked like a young person, so it seemed unlikely that forgetfulness was a factor. He looked around at the other cars. None of them had their lights on. He double-checked his own display panel to be safe. His lights were off, too.
Then he remembered the sun. He mentally conked himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. No doubt, the sun was shining into the Audi’s tail lights and that’s what he was seeing, he thought. He pictured the sun hovering somewhere behind the Audi and causing its tail lights to glow.
He filed that little mystery in the “solved” column and proceeded to re-submerge himself into the flow of traffic, feeling warmed by the glow of his own cleverness. Just as he was about to forget the Audi, it went under an overpass. Something about it stuck out. It didn’t seem right somehow but he couldn’t put his finger on what was bothering him.
Luckily, they were passing through one of the many small towns along the way so he didn’t have long to wait for the next overpass. This time, he was watching the Audi’s behavior closely.
He watched as its shadow disappeared into the much larger shadow of the overpass. Then, as the tail-end of the Audi went into the shadow, too, he saw it! The tail lights of the Audi continued to shine even after the car had gone into shadow. The rest of the car was dark so the glow couldn’t be from the sun shining on it!
The tail lights continued to glow for a few car lengths and didn’t go out until the Audi was almost halfway through the shadow. This behavior, as small and quiet as it seemed to be, had incredible significance. This thing had not behaved as he had expected it to. Something totally new or unexpected (or both) was going on!
He felt like a great scientist discovering a fundamental property of existence. He had studied how those scientists had noticed and developed their creative insights. He had emulated their habits, hoping to perceive a breakthrough himself, someday. He had practiced being open to what was there and observing things so that he would be ready to catch a clue from the Universe, whatever that clue might be. Even something small and easily overlooked could lead to an important insight.
He reminded himself that he could never know ahead of time when something might come up or what it might be. He continued to follow the Audi and watched as it passed into the shadow of another overpass. He confirmed that the tail lights continued to glow even after the rest of the car was shrouded in shadow. He spent a moment appreciating how pretty the bright glow of the tail lights were in the dimness of the overpass.
What was going on, he wondered. He went over everything he remembered in his mind. He knew there were certain things that were outside of his conscious awareness. Nevertheless, some things stood out. He noticed some things more readily than others. They seemed more significant. He’d noticed in the past that such hunches generally paid off so he had trained himself to pay attention to them. He had trained himself to notice patterns. It wasn’t a matter of cataloging huge numbers of separate facts. Things fit together into patterns. Those patterns defined the movements of things and how they related to one another. They could be used to predict what would happen next. It wasn’t about noticing individual facts. It was about noticing the patterns. After a while, noticing them became second nature, like walking across a room.
The patterns also made it easier to notice when something didn’t fit. When something behaved in a way that was surprising or unexpected, when it didn’t fit the pattern, it was certain that something was up. The exciting thing was that this observation about the glowing tail lights was real and consistent. The Audi’s tail lights continued to shine in the shadow so it couldn’t be from the sun shining on the car. That meant that either the theory that led to the expectation was wrong or something was misunderstood, or both. Something didn’t follow the pattern or the pattern was misunderstood somehow. Either way, something interesting was going on.
For a moment, anything was possible. Henry imagined that everything he thought he knew about shadows and sunlight was trashed in favor of a whole new pattern of thought. The highway and car disappeared and Henry found himself traveling through a stream of possibility, a river of inchoate potential, not yet formed by choice or observation.
Then the vision was gone. The two cars were just about to come out of the shadow of an overpass. Henry noted that the Audi passed out of the shadow and back into the sunlight but its tail lights didn’t shine. That lasted for a beat or two then suddenly they did shine.
This puzzled him as they continued down the road and then the Audi went under another overpass. He watched the tail lights continue to glow and then go out and then noticed that he had entered the shadow, too. A strange possibility percolated in his mind as he watched the Audi emerge from the shadow, its tail lights dark, only to glow again as he emerged back into the sunlight.
He puzzled over this for a moment then hit upon a geometry that was different from what he was expecting and easily twice as complicated but the new geometry did explain the shining tail lights and the behavior of the shadows.
He followed the examples of the great scientists whom he had studied and made a prediction to test his new understanding. He predicted from the new geometry, which angle the sun would be at. Sure enough, it was where he predicted it would be.
The sun was in front of the car. There was no way that it could have shined into the tail lights of the Audi. The sun must have shined into his own headlights, bounced forward into the Audi’s tail lights, and then back to him.
He basked for a while in his changed intuition, felt humbled by the grandness and complexity of everyday experience, and marveled that as small as he was, he was complex enough to understand and wonder at the wide Universe, all while he continued on to his destination. The Audi stayed with him until he exited the highway to get his son.
© 2015, David Park. All Rights Reserved.
”Driving” by DCH Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.