Vertical Time 

by Laura Marris

A man stands at the edge of the highway, pulled over between L.A. and Phoenix to watch flocks of birds lift from the hills. As he swings his gaze across lanes of traffic, his binoculars catch blips of white in a dusty landscape: cigarette butts at the edge of the road. Though he’s trying to fit in among convenience stores and gas pumps, his accent gives him away. He’s been here nine years, but he’s still a “resident alien”—a British man road-tripping all the way from California to Connecticut, on the highways of 1984. At each leg of his trip, he writes a postcard for two married friends in London who can only answer to his final destination: Rural Route Box 129, West Cornwall, CT. If he wants their replies, he’ll have to drive some 3,400 miles. 

Before he leaves, he sends a first message in blue ink on blue airmail paper. He encloses a photograph, prefiguring the postcard theme. It’s not a great shot—L.A. from above, looking down toward La Brea, where tar pits were once quarried to build city roads. Perhaps it’s impossible to capture the image of leave-taking unless the photo is flawed. The sky is white, overexposed, the towers hazy. The kind of photo a sightseer would take, without reference to the nearby house where he’s spent the last six years, the lemons planted, the ivy slope of the backyard. He’s separating from his wife, setting out after a night of conversations that hurt. On the eve of his departure, it’s by no means a given that this man will become my father. Though he’ll visit a few people when he stops to rest, he’ll mostly have the accelerator to lean on, making the drive alone.


Before there was a road, there was its soft shoulder—the original cut that holds the asphalt’s span. These earthworks open the landscape and help highways last through thousands of wheels and rainstorms. Shoulders collect the traces of what’s discarded in the course of passage. Particulates, tires blown out, dark tracks where a car hit the brakes and swerved. In most places, you can’t touch the shoulder without the juddering exclamation of the rumble strip, enough to shake most drivers from their drift. 

When passages collide, the shoulder collects the aftermath. The sudden movement of a deer who decides, at the wrong moment, to ford the river of wheels. The shattered reflectors. The black wings of crows or the vultures whose feathers sometimes crook like fingers, lifting from roadkill at the edge of the highway. The rank smell of skunk.

Other creatures make paths through landscape that are more defined and repeatable. I’m thinking of tunnels made by wild pigs in undergrowth, or of deer trails crossing a hiking path. But it’s dangerous to borrow such a road. Once, out for a run, I realized too late that I’d been lost for an hour in the transportation logic of another species, weaving through thin winter bracken. Eventually the deer trail I’d been following reached 146, a route I knew, though I didn’t immediately recognize it, having never before stood at this intersection where a wild thoroughfare crossed the human. I found myself panting at the edge where a deer would stand, surveying the cars for an opening.


When someone or something feels absent, any overlap comes as a shock. For years, I’ve been carrying around that stack of my father’s postcards from apartment to apartment, packed in an unmarked envelope. But last winter, on a bright day after a storm, I decided to look at them again. I stood over my desk, blinking in the glare from the window. Then I turned over the first card and swore, the quiet air caught in my throat— 

It was February 3rd at my desk in Buffalo. And February 3rd in his first message. And I realized that I would retrace the days of his drive nearly forty years later, our Februarys touching, an invitation to reach across the decades between us. By this accident, I could walk a little on the paths he traveled before I knew him, when the life my parents made had come unsettled, when it wasn’t clear if he and my mother would make a family or if this country would always be his home. 

During that dystopian year of 1984, John Berger published a book of vignettes called And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. Here, he attempts a human definition of home as the crux between horizontal and vertical time. For him “the horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places,” and the vertical represented the ancestral time of the graveyard and the layers of accumulated generations going deep into the earth. With an awareness of this intersection, Berger wrote, people could be at home even while in motion. But to lose access to the vertical was to feel the world fragment and become unmoored, lonely, absurd. “My view of time,” he continues, “is being remorselessly cross-examined by death.”

There is still so much I don’t know. Why did my father choose to drive and was the road an escape? His first postcard shows a triad of glossy saguaros, retreating into the distance. “L.A. to Phoenix,” he writes. “400 miles of desert. Suddenly in the middle of nowhere, a huge gathering of caravans and campers, like a flock of migrant birds.” Did he see, in this simile, the cyclical movements of seasons, the glimmer of a future return? It’s a stretch, I know, to read into the past like that. He was always the one to swim to the island, wander a little further, hike out alone—a watcher, someone who turned himself outward. A man who had no fear of travel except in the passport control lines at airports, when I would feel his hand sweat as it held mine. What, in 1984, would home have meant to him? 


A pronghorn’s home is the route it walks, a traveling residence interrupted by the infrastructure of human habitats. Thanks to GPS collars, you can watch as these animals unravel the paths where they live, navigating old routes north and south that cross some of the nation’s busiest highways. A feature in the Washington Post detailed the journey of pronghorn 700031A as she grazed her way south across Wyoming, moving down to her winter habitat. She begins as a small purple dot on the map, successfully crossing several roads on her way south, before stopping, trapped by Route 80. Against the vast landscape of sagebrush, the long fences of barbed wire might look minimal to drivers. But pronghorn don’t like to jump fences and often get fatally tangled before they even reach the traffic. Many choose not to risk crossing at all. Just north of the highway, the map becomes hazy with purple dots—the overlapping paths of all the collared pronghorn stuck above this barrier.

Some still try to brave these intersections, to follow the growth of their food as their ancestors did. Pronghorn are ruminants, and the wildlife corridors they travel are thousands of years old, existing for far longer than the highways. In their travels, these ungulates catch what biologists call the “green wave,” riding the swell of vegetation to their summer pastures. They don’t move just to get somewhere—instead, the paths themselves are their means of survival. 


I’m picking up my mother from a friend’s house, driving her home through marshland. This winter—dark already—she no longer wants to drive at night. It’s cataracts, she tells me; they exacerbate the glare of oncoming cars. There is no public transit where she lives, and when I’m not around, I worry that this new development is isolating her. As we cross from ghost forest into living woods, I spot something—four legs, fur—darting across up ahead. I slow down, and there, in a neighbor’s driveway, the eyeshine of a coyote flashes back. Did you see that? I ask my mother, and she shakes her head. She needs eye surgery. She tells me the doctor thinks she’s ready for it, and I wonder again about these roadside places, about how much more is happening here than we perceive.

It’s scary (for both humans and animals) to think about collisions that are invisible—especially at highway speeds. But in the hit-and-run world of wildlife loss, other species usually wind up dead, while sometimes people don’t even register the impact. Human roads, and especially highways, insist on this kind of exceptional right to pass through the landscape unimpeded. It’s a deer problem, not a highway problem. In this sense, a road shoulder isn’t just a receptacle or a safety feature. It’s a wedge that pushes through a crowd, shoving everyone else out of the way.


To drive west to east is to feel the horizon narrow, to anticipate the cluttered skyscape of the Northeast Corridor, the slow cocooning of New England’s tree-lined roads. Driving eastward moves against the grain of genocidal American mythmaking, retracing, backward, the violence of Manifest Destiny. 

Phoenix, Santa Fe, Forth Smith—it’s clear from his postcards that my father’s journey followed Route 66 through the Southwest, the so-called “Mother Road” that had just recently become I-40. 

Did my father know what he was driving? Stopping in Santa Fe, he notes the “uncomfortable” tourist attractions—cowboy stereotypes of the Old West. Apart from that one moment, there aren’t many clues to his mind’s interior. By February 9th, I can feel him picking up speed—he was in Shamrock, Texas, where everything he saw skewed toward temporary. “The Texas panhandle is flat, treeless,” he writes on the back of a windmill pumping water for cattle. “Small, featureless, scraggly towns, all motel and gas station, as if they existed only for those passing through.” I can imagine my father’s friends in London receiving this missive with some concern, wondering if these postcards were working as a hedge against the sure loneliness of the road. Mostly, my father turns his dispatches toward others—by profession he’s a sociologist, specializing in loss and uncertainty. These outposts are the kind of places he liked to write about, interviewing the very real people whose livelihoods had been made or unmade by new infrastructure, the decisions of faraway planners, the workings of eminent domain. 

Later, at my parents’ house, I find the slides from his trip and lift each one up to the skylight, almost like I’m peering through a shutter. A vista of snow, desert, and wire. A lake of mud. Willows and graffiti, trailing over a picnic table. It’s not much, but I’m grateful for the evidence of his crossing, for the idiosyncrasy of what stood out to him when he flipped through these precarious highway verges like pages in a half-read book. The postcards from 1984 reach out across the intervening years with their airmail stamps—first, fast and reliable—a sign that the line between us isn’t dead. 


It’s easy to forget that roads have vertical time, too—that the frantic horizontal movements they enable hide both historical and archaeological records. In truth, many highways and roads in the US still follow trails that were built by Indigenous Americans. The highway my father drove is no exception. Though the origins of I-40 are often attributed to Edward Beale, who surveyed the route in the late 1850s with a team of camels imported from Tunisia, that story erases the older paths crossing the Southwest and linking traditional homelands. 

Then there is the makeup of the asphalt itself, a reminder that both the surface under the wheels and the gas in the tank were baked in the geological strata. Asphalt is a naturally occurring substance, a form of crude oil, the same ooze that occasionally seeped to the surface at La Brea and trapped predators like the saber-toothed cat, Smilodon. Crude oil deposits are largely congealed from humbler life forms—buried plankton, remnants of ancient aquatic environments. Roads are fashioned from the depths of vertical time—and they represent the extraction and dispersal of what’s left of a previous ecosystem, a tamed slurry girdled by the double yellow line.

What survives from the depths; what surfaces? To drive on the highway is to inhabit the discontinuity between distracted daily experience and ancient agglomeration of decay—the diatoms that made up the layers of asphalt, what’s left of a prehistoric ocean unearthed and cooked in a factory. I felt that the last time I drove from Buffalo to Connecticut in late February, to help my mother with her cataract surgeries—first one eye and then, two weeks later, the other. 

Just outside Rochester, the snow began—squalling the windshield at odd intervals from fast-passing clouds. A crow caught a downdraft and perched on the guardrail like a comma, a breath of black ruffling in the swirl. Before long, I passed a tangled wreck that had caught fire on the shoulder, and I saw where the heat had melted the asphalt underneath. 

People are sometimes closer to the terrain of the world than they would like to believe. Robert Macfarlane points out in his book Underland that human bodies have their own internal landscapes. “We are part mineral beings, too—our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones—and there is a geology of the body as well as the land.” It’s easy to associate oil and stone with the primordial, but less easy to think, in our own intimacy with roads, about the long timescales of the earth—a verticality that travel can’t outrun. 


After February 13, there’s a break in my father’s communication—four days with no postcards. He had just left New York City, mailing an image of the Statue of Liberty. From there, he crossed the state line into Cornwall, a journey of only a hundred miles. I can’t tell which rural route he chose—like so many turns in another’s lifetime, this one can’t be retraced. But I know he stopped at a tiny house with a fieldstone stoop and a grassy drive that leads to the door. 

If he arrived at night, when the trees are loud with eyes, did he feel a sense of isolation, the darkness of the night pressing on the roof? I never saw fear in him, only a drive to get out of the house, to find what the morning had translated: a fresh snow and the puzzle of prints, a bobcat who crossed the meadow while he was sleeping, placing her hind paw in the impression of the fore. And once you’ve seen a bobcat, it’s impossible not to imagine the world as a map of tracks crossing—her silent trail through the woods, the underwing of the owl muffling his flight, and for that matter all the creatures making their ways: what might have just missed you or what might, in the course of some unknown trajectory, be headed toward your own.

These days, there’s been a hopeful push for including information about wildlife corridors in decisions about where to build new roads. But that shouldn’t mean roads can be built anywhere, as long as they include crossings for animals. Humans aren’t the only creatures who need escape routes when conditions change or worsen. “A wildlife crossing is like a band aid,” National Wildlife Service researcher Trisha White told the New York Times. “The road is like a wound.” 


When someone’s vertical time has fragmented, one substitution Berger offers is the shelter of romantic love. If you leave your home and find someone to share a life with, he argues, you might be able to rebuild a kind of continuity with memory. For my parents, it wasn’t proximity that saved them but a brief return to distance—the miles the highway enabled, stitching them both together and apart. My mother likes to say that she knew it was meant to be when they tried  reuniting for a holiday visit and realized they had bought each other the same present. I can see them on the couch, wrapping paper between them, peeling away sheets of tissue. And then laughing, because who else besides them would think antique Shaker clothes hangers were romantic, a gift of utopia, the biggest piece of earthly paradise they could afford—

When I sit with my mother days after her surgery, she tells me this story again. Her first cataract has been removed and a replacement lens safely implanted. Already, she says, if she covers the right eye she can see farther—out to the neighbors’ flagpole, to a cardinal across the marsh. And I realize that her kitchen windows have turned outward again, a bit like what Berger wrote about his own experience of surgery: “With cataracts, wherever you are, you are, in a certain sense, indoors.” I ask my mother if the color of the sky is bluer. She says it’s too early to tell. 

I wish I’d remembered all the blues that came back to Berger: those that blend with greens and magentas, those that define fish scales and cloudscapes, the horizon blues of a certain hour, “the color of depth and distance.” The dimensional blue of water, when it appears at the end of the road. 


The last postcard in the stack has a photo of the winter river. A covered bridge stretches across. On the back, my father writes that Cornwall is mild and foggy, but “for the rest the sun shone almost constantly. I remember best,” he continues, “the vast empty spaces.” Maybe this is all the road offers: the illusion of emptiness, enough to frighten us so that when the car stops, we desire a way out of our loneliness. None of us knows, or would want to know, the terror of a truly empty landscape. It’s enough to contemplate the terror of the irretraceable, of not being able to picture the movements of those we love. 

Berger writes that when you lose a beloved, “[i]t is as if your person becomes a place, your contours horizons.” He continues, “I live in you then like living in a country. You are everywhere. Yet in that country I can never meet your face.” Walking among his late wife’s raspberry canes, Berger knew something about the precarity of trying to document, about absence as a remorseless cross-examiner, a void that wants to swallow what we’ve kept about someone. Even these short postcard messages are like markings from another passage, a protection against the silence of the trash heap, saved from the unreadable correspondence of the dead.

And how did I get these postcards? They were handed to me at the end of a long London afternoon, in a back garden that belonged to my father’s friend Phyllis. By the door of her house, the same mail slot where the postman delivered them decades earlier. From where I sat, 1984 looked like a blip against everything that had happened in the years since, as my parents had become closer than ever, as they’d made a home together, as I’d been born, as my father had died, as Phyllis had been widowed, too. The sun was sinking toward the ivy, and my mother and I got up to go. As we were leaving, Phyllis pressed a tidy bundle into my hand. Thought you might want these. When I turned the first postcard over, the rest swung open like a fan.

Phyllis, too, was a sociologist—perhaps she understood she was giving me unusual traces, the rare gift beyond the vertical grief of the graveyard. In these remnants of my father’s journey, I began to read not just the span of the highway but also its memory, to note the crossings, human and animal, that call out our attendance—the I’m here, I’m here, I’m here that shares the road as we drive forward, always forward, into the vanishing point.

Marris holding a slide of herself as a  toddler in a baby carrier on her father's back as he looks through binoculars
Laura Marris is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Believer, the Point, and elsewhere. Her recent translations include Albert Camus’s The Plague, Geraldine Schwarz’s Those Who Forget, and To Live Is to Resist, a biography of Antonio Gramsci. She is a MacDowell fellow and the recipient of a Work in Progress Grant from the Robert B. Silvers Foundation. Her first solo-authored book, The Age of Loneliness, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2024.