On the Periphery

Mile marker 145.7. Telephone pole. Telephone pole. Mile marker 145.6. Telephone pole. Telephone pole. Mile marker 145.5...

The rhythm of the reflective green slats was perforated by that of the telephone poles illuminated every few dozen yards by the car's 3AM headlights, like snare drum hits accompanying the kick drum mile markers. Meanwhile, the dotted line dividing west-bound I-80 added the frenetic beat of a rapid hi-hat. The silent percussion of the interstate melded with the hum of the engine and low rumble of tread on tarmac, contributing an underlying bass line and padded synth tone.

My 1995 Nissan Altima had crossed three state lines and cycled numerous on- and off-ramps, but this rhythmic soundtrack had remained constant over the past 10 hours — or was it 11? Time no longer measured as seconds, minutes, and hours but, instead, as cadenced puffs, relights, and pipe bowls packed. I hadn't been keeping track, but having chain-smoked my way from Massachusetts' North Shore, I was somewhere in the ballpark of an eight bowl, two relight, and 37 puff road trip, thus far at least. By my rough estimation, the rest of Pennsylvania and all of Ohio necessitated still another six bowls.

That frequent, yet still random, sequence of pipe packing, tobacco lighting, and tempered breathing culminated in a harmony of sorts overtop the road's percussion and the car's chord progression to which the lyrical flavors of tangy and sweet Virginia tobacco added the song's melody — a welcome song since the car's busted speakers had uttered their last reverberation years ago.

This tune was the theme song to that 16-hour drive I made over a dozen times between home and college and back again, and like the well-known single from a favorite artist, it sat nestled in the background, facilitating my thoughts and never distracting from the random musings that hours alone in a car will conjure.

I wonder what my future career will be...

What's Matt up to nowadays; I should probably call him...

Did I pack underwear?

Why do I seem to sweat more after I put on deodorant? Must be a marketing ploy...

Things become wet after being submerged in water, but is water itself wet?

Sour Patch Kids sound really good right about now...

What about the Sour Patch Kids' parents? There really needs to be a Sour Patch family tree...

No, but seriously, did I pack underwear?


And what's with the Sour Patch Watermelons? Are the Sour Patch Kids growing the watermelons themselves as some sort of Sour Patch commune, free of parents and adult supervision? Or are they sourcing the melons from an outside provider? What's the business model for such an enterprise?

I should stop and get some Sour Patch Kids.

Driving induces contemplation on its own, and smoking a pipe encourages the same. When paired, that combination can devolve into a black hole of inane, spiraling bunny trails — one right after another in stream-of-consciousness succession, much like the monotonous sequence of mile markers and telephone poles passing rhythmically along the side of the interstate.

At the risk of being overly meta, the random thoughts incurred from smoking a pipe while driving can even revolve around smoking a pipe while driving.

I could really benefit from a third arm. Then I could keep a hand on my pipe while I'm relighting.

Could I invent a device that packs my pipe for me? That would be convenient right now.

Uh oh. If the airbag goes off while I'm smoking this straight Billiard...

I should probably switch to a bent pipe after this bowl...

In fact, the process of smoking shares much in common with the act of driving, even beyond the ponderings encouraged by both. They both require attention, but in a balance — too much or too little causing detriment.

To keep a vehicle's frame on course and within the guiding lane, it doesn't help to fixate on the car's hood and the flanking lines on the pavement directly ahead. Such an approach results only in a frantic zigzagging that promotes panic and motion sickness, not to mention resembling the chaotic trajectory of an impaired driver that's sure to catch the attention of law enforcement. Instead, focusing further up the road and imagining the desired path smooths out the ride and makes the process more natural and almost peripheral. While driving certainly requires concentration, too much concentration is actually unhelpful and adds difficulty.

In the same vein, concentrating too much on one's smoking cadence never seems to benefit the process. The obsessive focus either results in too slow a rhythm, and the ember wanes, or — as is often the case for me — the fear of puffing too slow causes overcompensation and a dangerously hot bowl. However, when the pipe is placed in a conscious periphery, like the position of the car on the road, the balance between breathing cadence, smoking draw, and flavor enjoyment meld into a natural symphony.

The thoughts induced by those peripheral acts of smoking and driving, despite how random and innocent the thoughts were, enacted a stage performance in my mind, with the pit orchestra of highway lines, engine hum, mile markers, and telephone poles setting the mood for the scene. Any other 16-hour musical would be torture, but this one ended too soon, the final dottle tamped out and the mile markers counted down to zero.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Driving Editorial Humor Pipe Culture


    • Paul Schmolke on May 24, 2020
    • Just a really excellent piece of writing here. We share some things about driving and pipe smoking. I wonder how many others there are that can tie these things together. Road Poetry or Poesy or insights that linger for many years, regardless, fine writing.

    • Jack+ on May 24, 2020
    • I agree with Paul; excellent writing. I really enjoyed this and felt like a passenger caught up in the peaceful rhythm. Thank you for the ride, Mr. Smith.

    • Jerry Burns on May 25, 2020
    • Spot On. Been there done that.Thanks

    • indoeuropa on May 26, 2020
    • Terrific essay. These blog pieces, by you and the other fine writers at SP, are one of the highlights of my reading week.

    • indoeuropa on May 26, 2020
    • "Uh oh. If the airbag goes off while I'm smoking this straight Billiard..."

      Nailed it.

    • Jason on May 26, 2020
    • Excellent read, many thanks.

    • Jon DeCles on May 27, 2020
    • OK, Truett, next on your reading list has to be James Joyce or Raymond Chandler. --But Chandler was a pipe smoker, as he wandered the gun metal blue streets of Los Angeles in the rain, his words spilling out of his tobacco pouch like the leavings of a slumming angel on the way to the next transgression.

    • Stanley Self, Sr. on June 7, 2020
    • Similar thoughts here and there. comforting while smoking, just wish I could find a nice straight billiard I could get my thumb into to the bottom of the bowl. P.S., wish the John Cotton Smyrna was the same blend and mixture as the original, somethings missing.

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