Because Mrs. Mercurious is out of town traveling with her girlfriends, I am driving down to check on her aging parents at their rural home. But on the way I am also planning to stop in for a long coffee session with my oldest friend, whose wife, as it happens, is also one of the girlfriends traveling with my wife.The four of us are old, old friends. I'm expected at my in-laws at 10:30 or so, and calculating the recreational drive time plus an hour or two talking politics and philosophy with Steve has produced my early starting time.
The dawn is just breaking as I approach the south edge of Dakota County near the boundary of Goodhue county. It's fully clear far to the east where the sun breaks, but the overhead sky is mostly cloudy. The sunrise has turned the sky salmon pink, casting a warm light on the fields of corn and soybeans, which are finally beginning to dry due to the first hard frost that hit the countryside last week.
It's early enough that in the dairy farms on either side of the highway, the cattle are all hovering around the barns, intuitively gathering there for the first milking of the day. So the only livestock out in the pastures in the early morning are the beef stock and occasionally some sheep. The livestock graze contentedly with heads down; because of the low, oblique sunlight, elongated shadows extend out like stretched silouettes on the ground westward from all the grazing animals.
This topography is on the very eastern edge of the great upper midwestern prairie, and the farmlands in this area are rolling flatness. Far off to the south and east, I can see the edges of the big hills that mark the beginning of the bluff country lining the Mississippi river valley.
A bit later, I'm a few miles away from Cannon Falls and the highway is relatively deserted, but far behind me in my rear-view mirror, I see the headlights of a car approaching at what is clearly high speed. The car's low profile is no sheriff or highway patrolman, though, so out of curiosity I increase my speed thinking that it will be interesting to see how fast this fellow is going.
I'm going 80 or so when the driver approaching fast from behind smoothly shifts lanes to pass me, after appropriately signaling. The driver nods his head briefly as he passes, seemingly in acknowledgment of another driver who rather likes the sensation of speed on an early morning on a good highway. He's a young man, maybe in his early 20s, driving a Camaro that might be older than he is. The car has clearly been well cared for but has none of the ostentatious souped-up trappings with which some kids dress up their cars.
Almost immediately upon merging back into the right lane, he signals his intent to exit onto Highway 19, which coincidentally happens to also be my destination: it's part of the meandering path I intend to take this morning. For a brief moment I have that middle-aged fatherly impulse to frown and shake my head at the excessive speed and potentially dangerous behavior of this young man, but instead find myself smiling a little. It's rather pleasing to see the joy of a young man with excellent driving skills and great reflexes fully at ease with the operation of a well-functioning machine that he understands so well.
The young man is a very good driver, and although fast, he's not particularly reckless. As we pass through the small town of Cannon Falls, he obeys the speed limits precisely—considerably more so than I would at this time of the morning. He makes no effort to scream away from stop signs with smoking rubber; he accelerates firmly but without excessive ego. It's not until we safely reach the outskirts of town that he hits the power again, and I follow him at a safe distance, not because I'm concerned for his safety or outraged by his behavior, but because it's enjoyable to watch.
As Highway 10 moves east out of Cannon Falls into the start of the hilly bluff country with winding turns, he uses his lane precisely but without violating their boundaries, cutting to the inside of sharp turns, smoothly accelerating coming out of the turns to keep his vectors changing. He clearly knows the road well; as we approach the turns, he seems to know which of them he can approach with fair speed, and those for which he'll need to brake going into the curve.
About 10 miles into the drive, the young man smoothly cuts off the highway onto a dirt gravel road, barely breaking stride at all. As I pass the point where the intersecting road meets the highway, I see him moving away in a cloud of mustard-colored dust, still doing perhaps 50 or 55 mph, fish-tailing slightly, but skillfully countering with small compensations of the steering wheel.
That explains a lot. Rural kids learning to drive on these gravel roads know a lot about how to control the inevitable sliding on corners, how to drift correctly through turns, precisely how much to accelerate and how to brake correctly without losing contact with the road. Later this morning, in fact, I'll be revisiting similar roads, where as a youth I squeezed past roaring milk trucks barreling through turns going in the opposite directly. Kids who grow up learning how to drive gravel roads at 60 miles an hour find driving on paved highways and freeways almost boring in their simplicity.
On this early morning, the young fellow is simply enjoying his proficient skill with his machine on an entertaining road with interesting turns at a time of day when there is little hazard. It is a little dangerous, yes, but what is youth for if not to enjoy that feeling being healthy and fully competent and a bit immortal? Soon enough it will be replaced by more sensible caution and boring self preservation.
I now have Highway 19 all to myself as it now enters the real bluff country nearing the Mississippi valley, and the road gets increasingly interesting, with nice vertical movement and good turns, engineered with just the right banking pitches. It is a well designed highway, very well built, and it is a joy to drive on in an early autumn morning.
The song playing on the car's radio through my I-phone makes me smile. It is in no way apropos of the moment—there's no real poetic synronicity here— but Jose Feliciano's famous acoustic rendition of an iconic Door's song elevates my general well-being to a level that's nearly painful in its expansive pleasantness:
"You know I would be a liar
If I was to say to say to you
Girl we couldn't get much higher"