Just Keep Driving
Photograph by Krisztina Tordai
From The American Scholar:
The road was two-laned, the landscape dour, as gray as the skies. Belgrade was sophisticated, dense with promenaders, and large enough to confuse a driver. We had no idea where we were, and it was difficult to ask directions because of our defective Serbo-Croatian. (A second language in Yugoslavia was German, in which we were equally helpless.) Desperate, I parked the Morris and spoke English words and French at random among the walkers. Finally I found a Yugoslav who spoke French as badly as I did—Kirby’s was better, but she stayed in the car—and we talked in sign language, with an occasional tout droit or à gauche. We eventually got to Intourist and our hotel, which was comfortable enough, with huge bolsters on the bed. In the morning we checked out of our hotel with a clerk who had English. We told him we were driving onward to Niš, pronounced Neesh, and his face collapsed. “From Belgrade to Kragujevac there are second-class roads,” he told us. “From Kragujevac on”—he paused a foreboding pause—“there are third-class roads!”
We filled up with gas—gas was benzine (ben-zeen-uh)—then drove to Kragujevac over a hilly landscape, icy patches on the road but no snow. We bought more benzine, and headed toward Niš. Our route became a grassy track winding among obstacles. We struggled forward through shallow streams. Sometimes we saw nothing like a road ahead, but glimpsed two ruts that emerged from a lumpy valley. Each of us employed our worry beads: Kirby bit her fingernails; I exercised my habit of circling my left thumb with my little finger. We remained excited by our adventure—and by being wholly alone for the first time. Once, as we chugged through a field of mud, our Morris sank to its hubcaps and would not move. Five men working with shovels came to our aid, lifted the car—we slogged beside them—and carried it to firm ground.
We climbed hills, shifting down, then braked as we descended. As we passed through one challenge after another, we caught glimpses across the way of an unfinished sturdy superhighway running parallel to our rutted path. Concrete pylons stood elevated on each side of a river, no bridges yet constructed. We saw in the distance mountains green with fir. One cliff resembled a profile, a chinless Old Man of the Mountain. Mostly we ignored the landscape because our passage consumed us. All day, as we bounced and teetered in the direction of Niš, we drove without encountering a vehicle, not a car, truck, or bus. When we passed through a village, dense with small houses, we were greeted like an army relieving a siege, everyone cheering as we steered carefully through. Kirby and I waved at boys with bicycles who accompanied us until we left town for the wilderness ahead.
Cover image by Genial23