Driving is not the pleasure it used to be. Once you could pour down long stretches of highway at ninety miles an hour, with the occasional semi roaring past at maybe a hundred and ten. Then on the next hill the truck would be huffing and puffing in the far right lane, and you'd soar ahead, rounding some curve or peeling out on a straightaway past houses farms and fields.
I was a younger person then, and although I dare say I had an aching back and stiff knees after those cross-country trips my girlfriends and I took, I recovered quickly. Maybe after walking a few feet, like into the gas station bathroom. Now the fingers stiffen, the hands start to go numb, the knees begin to radiate sharp little pains into my shins after only a couple of hours, and the next morning I feel as if I've hoed the back forty by hand.
Of course, it could be that out there in the West, where much of my hard-driving youth was spent, there are still long stretches of highway in the valleys between mountains, between the fields of corn and the ranges of the bovines, curving along the side of a river brilliant with white foam and stones.
But the loss of speed is not my lament here. What bothers me is what you find at the end of the drive, which is nothing. Even if you've been tearing at top speed down the road, too fast for anything in your path to escape, there are no yellow smears on the glass. Nothing dead smashed into the grille. Nary a butterfly wing trapped under the windshield wiper. No sign of life, or former life, at all.
It was a rite of passage in my childhood, when I was old enough – make that big enough – to get out of the car when we stopped for gas and clean the windshield. Out of the car into the smell of gasoline, my frail skin and bones vulnerable among the steel and rubber and the filth on the hot asphalt. The brush sticking out of the well of dark water, and on the other end, submerged, the squeegee. The brown paper towels for the requisite wiping of the rubber blade between swipes. The brush end, for scraping away at exoskeletons glued by body fluids to the glass. Lunging over the hood to reach the middle of the windshield. Bending down to scrub clean the headlights. Gingerly wiping at the grille, afraid of getting water into the engine, where it would certainly stop the car from running.
Was it wonderful then? or is this a view through a deep rose tint of the spectacles? Diesel fumes, a tank of water dipped into again and again with a brush coated with dead bugs?
It turns out that I'm not the only person who has noticed the paucity of insects on the windshield. Their absence is so well-recognized that Entomologists call it the Windshield Phenomenon. Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, says that the Windshield Phenomenon causes "a visceral reaction when you realize you don't see that mess any more."
There have been many studies documenting the disappearance of the charismatic insects – honeybees, fireflies, monarch butterflies. But of the tinies that get mashed against the windshield – and are also the main food items for millions of birds and other creatures – fewer formal studies have been funded. Their disappearance has been noted mostly in anecdote. Not as many chiggers in the grass. Not many June bugs ramming into window screens on July nights.
Nostalgia for what was not so terrific is a strange exercise. Whoever thought that one day I'd wax wistful about cleaning the mess of mashed insects off a car's windshield?
One more thing you don't know you've got till it's gone.