Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Scanning the different sounds of silence

I once was driving through rural Kentucky, pressed the scan button on the car radio and for the first time felt the totality of nothingness. The few seconds of dead air as the digital numbers cycled the dial without locating a radio station created a vortex of silence, distinct and quieter than the overall absence of noise on a country road.

I’ve made several weekend road trips this fall, and while I recognize FM radio as the most arduous way to entertain oneself across long distances, I enjoy sampling an area’s unique-ish ingredients for an essentially universal recipe. The radio stations that pop up along rural stretches broadcast a soundbite of modern American tensions, and make my ears yearn for the emptiness of western Kentucky.

The radio scan bounces from one ominous scripture to another, usually delivered with spectacular rage. The other most reliable frequencies are NPR and one or two Spanish-language stations, and it’s hard to guess which of these sound more foreign to many lifetime residents of rural Georgia or Alabama.

The presence of the latter stations — more precisely, the audience they serve — stokes much of the angry paranoia on the Christian stations and right-wing talk shows, as folks wonder whether Carnesville will stay Carnesville, and America will remain the country it was during their childhood. But their America is nothing more than that: theirs, as separate from my America as the different types of silence.

Folks often feel a tinge of enthusiasm when meeting a stranger from their hometown, but I’ve learned to resist any excitement when someone tells me they’re from Chicago, knowing that one follow-up question – “What part?” – reveals that 90 percent of them are not. Even the few from the city proper are usually north siders, meaning we are from unrecognizable worlds despite calling the same place home, a phenomenon also illustrated in this month’s Atlanta mayoral runoff election results.

This weekend I was driving through either North or South Carolina (do we still need two, honestly?) when I heard a radio commercial directing folks to a business “right off I-85 and Butler.” It was startling to remember the I-85 paired in my consciousness with Druid Hills or Turner Field is also a daily point of reference, a physical and cultural presence, for so many others, in so many contexts.

It feels a bit hopeless for streets, cities and a nation to mean all of these things, and that all of the meanings are as true as they are incomplete, because it is never enough for one to be right unless all others are wrong. My road trip listening habits leave me more confused about how our country resolves its multiple personality disorder, but there’s another part of the drive that keeps me from surrendering to the inevitably of a second civil war.

Some trips I’ll encounter a stranger who becomes a traveling companion, without any conversation or consideration of politics, in the tradition of American exploration. Like the earliest pioneers, we are good-intentioned folks who occasionally are on the wrong side of the law: patriots who drive 10-15 miles over the speed limit, but can be baited into going 100 mph by successive “Minimum Speed” and “Slower Traffic Keep Right” signs.

It’s a bummer when either driver exits for gas or the next leg of the trip, but moving in sync for hundreds of miles with someone I’ve never met reminds me of how essentially similar our journeys are, and the pleasure of sharing the road.