Does any of the following apply to you?
I work where I live. I live where I work. I hang out near where I sleep, and sometimes, I sleep while I’m hanging out.
Since March of 2020, my living room couch has served as a work desk, entertainment destination, dining room table, music studio and occasionally, master bedroom. In the small, Lancaster city one-bedroom where my fiancé and I both live and work, it can get tight, and occasionally stressful.
Full of stress. If it wasn’t the global pandemic, it would be the blistering, unending social and political strife in this country. If it wasn’t that strife, it would be some old chestnut like climate change or mass starvation. Beyond that, there are life’s small droplets of stress that start small and add up to a much worse feeling, such as when you step in a dog’s droppings or receive a love letter from a secret admirer at the Lancaster Parking Authority on your windshield.
The first six months of pandemic life felt like a fun challenge to bat away potentially bad feelings. Sorry, Anxiety About the Country’s Growing Ambivalence to a Global Pandemic, I’m going on a nature hike! Oh, what’s that, Fear That Our Country’s Deep Political Divide Will Hamper the Recovery Effort? I’m simply playing my guitar too loudly to hear you.
Eventually, the sameness of it all felt to be too much, so I had a novel idea - I’m taking a drive.
In the dozen years I’ve held a driver’s license, I was never a huge fan of the concept of “just” cruising around. Sure, I’ll occasionally take back roads and interesting routes to get from Point A to Point B, but that was more out of a sense of curiosity. I grew up in Berks County, which, much like Lancaster County, features a prominent city surrounded by miles of cornfields and farmland. I believe that you don’t really know a place until you’ve driven most of its roads.
So, on an October day when I felt most stressed by my surroundings, I hit the road. I drove down Prince Street until it turned into Conestoga, and from there, I spent about an hour taking a series of random lefts and rights, seeing sights I hadn’t seen and pockets of the county I hadn’t taken the time to experience before. I’ve since repeated this process in just about every patch of Lancaster County.
I want to be clear that this is not me gunning the engine up to triple digits, tearing through our county’s mostly peaceful roads, nor is that something I’d advocate for. Driving in an exploratory way, using the time to think or not think whatsoever, can be incredibly helpful when it feels like there is nowhere you can go.
Sure, it’s been true since the Ford Model T that a car owner can go take a drive whenever they want, big whoop. But when a large portion of places to go are simply not able to be visited, suddenly the journey becomes the destination. Those yellow lines keep going, regardless of how they may split, checker and re-solidify along the way.
If you’re looking for the part of this article where it dovetails into a “10 Best Scenic Drives Around Lancaster County” listicle or a “49 Out of the Way Cul-de-Sacs of Lancaster County” photo gallery, well, that’s not necessarily the point. Often, what’s happening inside your car is just as important for clearing your head of stress as your surroundings outside. As the proud owner of a teen-aged iPod Classic with an impossibly still-beating heart, I am never without driving music. This can and will change on a dime. One minute I am at a stop sign carefully trying out each individual harmony part on Marty Robbins’ cowboy classic “Cool Water” and the next I am attempting to rap Freddie Gibbs lines out the window to a pen of bemused roosters.
And yes, there are podcasts. On one drive, lost somewhere in the wilds near Quarryville, I realized a half-hour into a podcast that I had completely lost the thread of the conversation. It was a faint thrill to relive a classic pre-pandemic pastime - zoning out to friendly conversation.
If at first you don’t know where to drive, put a location you’re familiar with into your GPS and take off from there. Lancaster city is a perfect liftoff location because you’re right in the middle of the county. I generally start going north or south, and then follow interesting signs, roads and the occasional low-hovering bird to lead the way. The birds always seem to know the best way to go.
Open road opens the mind
On days when the relationship between my phone and me more resembles one between a hapless child and a frozen pole, it helps immensely to force myself away by driving. Whatever is happening outside my four doors will still be happening when I’m done, but the difference is that I won’t be hunched over a screen waiting for its arrival.
Much is rightfully made about Lancaster County’s status as a tourist-friendly hub with dozens of places to visit and things to enjoy. That multimillion-dollar industry is certainly taking a hit at the moment, but a long drive around the county’s crevices can and will provide at least some version of that same enjoyment.
Want to see a spirited art show? The pageantry of lawn signs is on full display, ranging anywhere from “Reopen PA” to “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” to one that rhymes with “NO MORE WOOLSPIT.” How about a car show? If you’re lucky, sometimes the wind will blow up the cover on a classic auto just as you’re passing it, revealing some antique vehicle desperate for sunshine.
How can folks with spoiled flight travel plans complain when far-off (sounding) locales such as Little Britain and New Texas are but a few miles away? It’s like an easygoing spin on the oft-retread “Stefan” bits from “Saturday Night Live.” People, this pod on wheels has access to all the hottest sights in a pandemic – dresses on a clothes line blowing in a slow breeze, horses of all sizes galloping through fields, roads that regress from asphalt to dirt and back again. There’s deep, cavernous wooded areas you haven’t yet hiked and seemingly infinite fields filled with all the plants you haven’t yet tried cultivating.
Above all, in most cases, a car on the open road doesn’t contain the specific stresses of day-to-day life, unless of course you are me, writing an article about it.
'Breathe. Breathe Deep.'
Of course, I am just Some Guy with a hunch. To help flesh these thoughts out a little more, I called Dr. John Shand, medical director of psychiatric services at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital. In the last year, Shand has written several articles for LNP | LancasterOnline about dealing with anxiety and stress during the time of COVID-19. Central to Shand’s advice is the idea of coping skills or mechanisms to help guide you through stressful times.
“Driving is a fantastic [coping mechanism],” Shand says. “Especially if you're coolheaded. You don't want to let out anger behind the wheel, but you can let out the mundane, right? You can kind of watch it fade into the rearview mirror as you pull away from wherever that place is that you experience all this stress. And there's nowhere more peaceful to do it than the backroads of Lancaster County. They're winding, up and down, left and right, and it's nothing but picturesque scenes.”
In conversation, Shand describes the necessity in balancing out life’s obligatory stresses. It may be a cliché, but it’s for a reason - you don’t want the porridge to be too hot (too much stress) or too cold (too little stress), you want it to be just right (just enough stress that you can get out of bed but not enough where it paralyzes you). One of the broader indicators of anxiety is the thing you’re statistically the most likely to be reading this story on - your phone.
"We are constantly being pulled out of our daily lives to tend to this artificial environment created by our phones, which is, 'Oh, you have to read this, breaking news, urgent update!” Shand says, noting the irony of explaining the concept to a writer. “Bing, ding, zing as it buzzes on your table, beckoning for your attention. That alone brings up so much stress. And if you say, 'well, I'm just going to ignore it,' oftentimes you find yourself stressing out even more off the bat because you're thinking and imagining all the things you're missing at that time."
Driving is not for everybody, and my specific way does reek of a certain privilege - I own a car that I can drive, and my job, for better or worse, can be done from anywhere. There’s a de-stresser that is obvious and that Shand confidently recommends to everyone. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
“Breathe. Breathe deep. Probably the easiest and sometimes most effective way to de-stress is a breathing technique,” Shand says. “Deep breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Think and breathe … or don't think and then breathe, whatever it is, just stop and focus on your breath.”
The day will come when these drives are once more filled with a definitive purpose, probably resembling a curved line instead of a Dadaist mess. To paraphrase a certain billion-dollar automobile-centric film franchise, I cherish this time behind the wheel because even without being able to actually go to many places, I can keep on living a quarter-mile at a time.
True to form, I’m typing these last few sentences near the entrance to the Susquehannock State Park after a long, windy drive. It’s not very sunny, but it’s quiet, and that’s enough for me.