I remember it like being in a tunnel.
My mother was always a cautious driver who avoided situations that she thought might be stressful at all costs. She would not drive with the radio on; it was a possible distraction. If the road was windy and narrow she drove slowly, aware and anxious about the long line of cars and trucks that built up behind her but unwilling to risk a higher speed. When she pulled to the side to let the cars pass it was like valve being opened: the traffic flared past tooting happily or doing the fingers and my mother’s tension released itself into the atmosphere. For a time. Until we pulled back out on to the road and began our journey again and again the cars and trucks began to accumulate behind us.
I didn’t notice this much until I began to drive when I was 15 and 16. Until then our long trips south from Picton, after we came off the ferry, were slightly boring, silent, tableaux observed out the passenger seat window with interjections to visit relatives I couldn’t often place in the constellation of my family relationships. Before I was 16 I sat and learned the landscape of the east coast of the South Island. I learned how Picton was behind a pocket of hills, how there was a long run of road and rail in the narrow space between the ranges and the sea down to Kaikoura. How the land widened and flattened in Canterbury before we turned inland to the Alps.
After I was 15 and 16 I felt the tension of those cars banking up behind us and would surreptitiously glance at the speedometer needle which doggedly hovered at or just below 80 kilometres per hour. I willed her to go faster, like the drivers behind us, but she never did. Her will outmatched the peer pressure of the road. There never is any need to do what everyone else does.
There were many reasons my mother was so cautious. Reasons I didn’t really think about then. They were to do with her nature I suppose, but also my father and her being a mother. The driver in the car behind us saw only an obstacle, made only sexist generalisations about women and cars, and did not see a web of invisible impulses and fears, a layering of character and history, that held the little brown Mitsubishi Mirage at 80 kph on the road ahead come hell or high water.
Which is why that late afternoon coming into Tekapo thirty-five years ago must have been a sort of hell for my mother. She could plan her routes, and her times, and pull aside to let traffic past, but she could not plan for the weather. The weather would not play according to her rules of safety and caution, and so we found ourselves, that day, on the road through the MacKenzie Basin in the thick of a snow storm. The snow piled high on either side, the road whited out and the air a fog creating a tunnel we seemed to inch through, our lights and windscreen wipers feebly beating down the almost invisible path ahead in the silent, deadened air.
There were, this time, no cars behind, and no cars ahead, just us. Just us in the nowhere.
2/63 (the full story)