Writing

Why the Open Road Is the Perfect Setting for a Thriller

Country road at night © Krivosheev Vitaly/Shutterstock.

Editor's Note:

James Anderson grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He is a graduate of Reed College, and received his MFA in creative writing from Pine Manor College. His short fiction, poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in many magazines, and he previously served as the publisher and editor-in-chief of Breitenbush Books. The Never-Open Desert Diner is his first novel.

Ahead of you is the distant horizon and around you the steady, reliable hum of an engine. Where you were, who you were, disappears down the highway behind you. You are between, in-transit — nowhere. Whatever awaits you at your destination is in the future. Whatever or whoever is behind you is in the past. The present is the unknown, the certain freedom paid for by countless miles and an increasing, intangible yet incessant awareness of your own mortality.

Anything can happen at any time: You are vulnerable

The list of possible events, often quite probable, is as long and varied as your imagination can allow — everything from a flat tire on a dark and isolated highway to an alien abduction sponsored by the overly pleasant, or unpleasant, locals at a gas station or roadside diner. However consumed you might be by your ordinary thoughts or current problems, somewhere just beyond your peripheral vision, or around the next turn, the next stop, despite all your precautions and planning, there is the grim promise of trouble.

You are in unfamiliar country

No matter how many times you’ve taken this journey — seen the same truck stops, restaurants, landscape, at night and during daylight — there is the nagging thought that there is something different this time. The familiar morphs into the unfamiliar, and perhaps because of that very familiarity — the familiar becomes like saying a common word a hundred times until it suddenly becomes foreign, or worse, divorced from meaning. Not only are you vulnerable, but you are also fragile, and listening to music or singing to yourself only accentuates your sense that the smallest thing can harm you. Your own voice becomes hollow, shaky, and unrecognizable.

Your usual habits are disrupted: You experience a heightened state of awareness

It is late afternoon and you usually pick up the kids from school about this time. Perhaps you always shower first thing in the morning, though not today because you wanted to get an early start, or because you’ve been driving all night. The comfort of daily habits is interrupted. You never thought much about those habits, except now you miss them, long for them and for the distracted structure they provided. You crave that structure, that meaning, those repetitive faces, duties, tasks. Without them you are lost, aimless, with nothing to do that might ground you, connect you to a life that is already becoming more difficult to remember.

The passage of time is constantly alternating between expanding and contracting: Your existence is inextricable from your journey

Time passes so slowly, and at times so quickly. The exit you were so eagerly awaiting to appear, the one for which you had been counting the miles, slipped by unnoticed. How could that happen? You are both alert and inattentive, subject to the monotony of constant travel. You exist only as long as you are moving and your continued survival seems to depend upon the precarious stability of your vehicle. And now you have missed yet another exit.

You are the stranger

No matter where you go, you are the other, the stranger. You can see your strangeness in the eyes of the fast food server, the gas station attendant and the night clerk at the motel. You do not belong. You are nearly invisible to those you meet, insignificant and forgotten even during a brief conversation. You are just a credit card or a handful of currency, defined only by the transaction. All heads turn toward you when you walk in and then turn away just as quickly. And when the heads turn away, you disappear, a ghost even to yourself.

The very nature of the open road invites the reader into a changing world, internally and externally, filled with jeopardy, imagined and real. It is the assumed, shared history with the reader, either through literature and films (“Psycho” was, after all, a very bad road trip), or previous personal experience, that sets the heart pounding the moment the trip begins. The conceit, the bargain, of course, is that you know in advance something is always about to happen, and it will not be good. In fact, the shit will always hit the fan after a brief, pleasant breeze and a false sense that everything is going to be just fine. Bad luck will become married to bad decisions and like the traveler, the reader must continue the journey to survive — or not. Forward movement is the only rule. The open road (or any form of travel) is a ready-made environment for page-turning.