I've put nearly forty thousand miles on my car in the last three years. I hadn't quite realized I'd spent that much time on the road until I got to thinking about all those miles. As I've mentioned in a previous post, I don't mind spending time driving. It gives me time to think and the opportunity to see things that are unusual or just odd or even just curiosities. I've seen things that have led to story idea, and things that have indelibly stuck in my head. Two of those were tragedies, or at least under tragic circumstances. The third was just an odd confluence of events that had me in the right place at the right time, and created an almost eerie feeling.
The first was the van on fire. This was many, many years ago, on a trip home from Pittsburgh. Off by the side of the road was a mini-van. It was engulfed in flames. We'd seen the glow on the side of the road from a ways off, and by the time we got there we were in the far lane. I wasn't driving at the time, and I remember being able to feel the heat coming through the passenger's side door, even though the van was off in the shoulder. It didn't look as if anyone was in it, and the emergency crews weren't in any great hurry. The flames were bright orange, Crayola orange, and the blackest, thickest smoke I've ever seen just poured off it. Whatever color the car had been, the frame inside those flames was even blacker than the smoke.
The second was the car that flipped side over side down by New Haven. I was driving back to Boston and so barely saw it out of the corner of my eye, but a car in the southbound lane apparently hit the embankment coming out of a rest stop and just flipped, side over side, along the edge of the road. I never did find any more details about that, and contrary to Hollywood expectations there was no giant explosion after it rolled.
The third was where this blog gets its title from. It happened again on the way from New Haven to Boston, on the interchange near Hartford. I came off the ramp, onto the stretch of highway... and there was no one. No other cars in sight. It both was and wasn't a momentary thing. On the one hand, there didn't immediately appear another car, so I had the entire highway to myself for a good minute or so. Which really isn't all that long. I came around the next curve and found myself in traffic again.
Yet, for a moment, on that one stretch, I was it. It wasn't the first time I've been on a road where I was the only car. I live out in the countryside and have been numerous places where there wasn't another vehicle anywhere. But that's out in the country, and you expect that sort of thing. It's one of the reasons I'm out here in the first place. On the interstate it's a different story. There are supposed to be other cars there, especially in New England. Not having any, on a three lane highway, during a Sunday evening when it was a high travel time.... It was a little spooky for a moment. Like something was out of place, and I was a part of whatever it was that didn't fit.
There was no cliched "last person on earth" moment. I was driving, after all, and I don't think the apocalypse is going to conveniently speed along at 70 mph. It just had this feel to it, because it was something out of place from what you expect.
Now I'm not going to end this by saying each of these incidents has prompted some sort of story idea. Rather, it's just a reminder that there are fantastic things that, though we most often see them in books or movies, they can and do happen in real life. And that when they do, no matter how often we may have seen them in fiction (heck, in any given Bruce Willis movie you can just about guarantee a flipping car - except for the one with the dead people) they still have the ability to make an impression in real life.
And that's a concept I can take to my characters.