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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Column: One final drive on the straight line of life

I used to think the drive would never change, but now I feel like I’m going to miss a part of it.

Nate Atkins

April 1, 2014

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

I told myself I wouldn’t do this again, but here I am, writing about the long road back to college, or the one thing that has been by my side forever.

It’s done now. This was the last time I’d drive from Columbus to Columbia for college classes. There’s no way to spin the finality of it. It’s all in the rear-view mirror now, like so much else of college.

I’ve made the drive 19 times now, and every time, the path has been the same: nine hours along I-70 West from Columbus to Indianapolis to St. Louis to Columbia with sprawling corn fields connecting the cities.

I used to think the drive would never change and that I would simply have to survive it. I now feel like I’m going to miss a part of it, or at least the self-reflection it forced upon me.

The first time I drove it, I was with my friend, Phil. We got to within a half hour of Columbia before it felt like my car had became possessed. The cruise control apparently wasn’t installed properly, and we couldn’t stop the car. We sputtered into and around a hotel parking lot until we stripped the gears and crash-landed it on a dead-end road.

The next time, I made the drive by myself. It was one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done. I was calling everyone I knew to keep me from falling asleep on the road. I remember talking to my uncle as I crossed a field connecting two sets of woods near Terre Haute, Ind., and wondering if I’d make it the remaining four hours.

I notice that field every time I drive now and how I don’t feel tired at all. The route has become mine. So has the Taco Bell hidden behind a hotel in Eastern Indiana and the curve around Indianapolis that I will never not take a little too fast.

Life is really linear if you think about it. There’s a start and an end to everything, even if we can’t see it. I grew up on a road between two destinations. The path feels never-changing only if the traveler stays the same.

I’m glad it hasn’t, because some of the memories are worth looking back on forever. There was the time my car died just outside Columbia and I waited for a tow truck until 6 a.m. There was the time a cop found me lost in a parking lot in Illinois and accused me of having bazookas in my car.

And, now, there was the time I drove it in exactly nine hours, making just two quick stops and never feeling tired. I listened to the men’s NCAA tournament as I crossed that field near Terre Haute, Ind. Michigan State lost to UConn, ending senior forward Adreian Payne’s four-year career for the Spartans. Four years ago, I covered his final high school game in Columbus. The paths end for all of us at some point.

And then they turn into something new. Mine is a calendar with seven blocks of seven days marking each one I have left as a student, as a college kid, as something not of the real world. By the time this column publishes, I’ll already be down a Monday and a Tuesday.

I’m trying to be realistic about how it will end because only in our minds will it be quite so epic. These final seven weeks will be filled with more mundane tasks I’ve done a million times. I just hope that as they pass, I’ll take the time to look up and look back. I want to see the line they’ve formed.

I want to remember that forever.

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