Winnie Jiang

Lesson one of Wyoming came as a shock: Get your driver’s license at 16. Unlike Jackson, Wyoming, lesson one of being a city girl is to never touch the steering wheel. Stuck between these disparate worlds, I decided to cash in on what was always comfortable — trusting my parents at the car’s helm — and passed the road test by pretty slim margins; my inspector nearly failed me for my narrow left turns.

Driving makes me anxious. Well, everything makes me anxious. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I think I might croak while merging onto a highway. Leaving for Wyoming during our country’s looming constitutional crisis did anything but calm my nerves. But Dad insisted we leave on Election Day so he could make it back to the City before next week’s snowstorm. And who am I to refuse mediocre company? After all, 2,500 miles is quite the undertaking for a solo, newly minted driver. With my flimsy license tucked into my wallet, I’m ready to run for the hills. As talk of the presidential election swirls through the City’s streets, I shove my ski boots into the car.

I voted moments before leaving home. Bleary-eyed from standing in the voting line and sleeping through my 5:30 a.m. alarm, I waltz into the middle school poll site. I sit down at my district’s booth and wait for the woman across from me to fill our awkward silence with mundane instructions. Noticing my restlessness, her face softens. 

“It’s my first day doing this,” she says. My shoulders unclench and I sink into the plastic chair.

Change gears. Sit back for Christ’s sake — you shouldn’t be this nervous. You passed (maybe you shouldn’t have). Keep your foot on the brake and reverse. Don’t rely on the backup camera: Put in the work and turn around. Dad was lecturing me again.

I flick the radio onto CNN at 7:13 a.m. — as soon as we’ve cleared the Lincoln Tunnel. Entertaining the anchors’ speculations, Dad and I make our own predictions: He thinks Biden will win handily and on election night while I maintain that the road ahead will be bumpier than anticipated.

As I barrel down Interstate-70 on cruise control, Dad doesn’t have much faith in my driving. And I don’t blame him — I still don’t know how to set the windshield wipers. Latching onto those permit test trick questions, those what-do-I-do-whens, I floor it with trepidation, and we skid along.

Quivering in the left lane, I realize I’ve never hit the gas west of Jersey City. The world as I know it drops off at the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and I clench the wheel as if it were all I had left.

While I drive through Cincinnati, flirting with death at 75 mph, Dad proclaims he knows best. He always thinks he does. It’s all about Ohio.

Ohio. I don’t know much about Ohio. I know that it’s the birthplace of aviation. Oh, and that seven presidents are from the Buckeye State. This is my second time driving through Ohio: Well, last time, I was fast asleep as Dad darted westward 15 mph above the speed limit. Some early exit polls show Biden leading in Cincinnati, but John King is waiting for more votes to pour in; after all, Hillary Clinton lost Ohio by 8 percent in 2016.

At a gas station in South Vienna, we change drivers and refresh our dwindling power bar stockpile. Dad teaches me how to pump gas; apparently the car takes regular. Then, he plops into the driver’s seat and pushes it back until it brushes my suitcase.

Fix the mirrors, I tell him. He looks at me and cracks a wry smile. Twenty-two miles later, he quips that I’m an irritating back-seat driver.

I’m on radio duty now. Spinning the dial, I shimmy between every news network reachable with 3G. Soon, I’m half-asleep, half-listening to Wolf Blitzer.

Somewhere amid the rolling hills, Dad tells me to change lanes. Indiana looks like Ohio; Ohio looks like Kansas. Flat as Hell. We pass cornfields and drive into the sunset.

“Look back when you merge,” Dad mumbles into near incoherence. He’s asleep again.

How you’re supposed to turn around while coasting onto the multilane interstate… I still can’t tell you. I’ve resigned myself — driving will never come naturally. City driving school doesn’t teach you how to navigate the heartland’s whirring freeways.

Indiana was called first. They announced it as Dad (it was his turn again) passed through New Castle, Indiana. Biden lost by 16 points; no surprise there. While perched in our Indianapolis hotel room, Trump pulls away in Ohio. Dad’s face sinks.

Static, then, connection. The next morning, I rev the engine and merge back onto I-70 as Dad raises the volume.

“Stop with the nonsense,” Dad tells CNN. “Just talk about Nevada.” He texts his friends via Apple CarPlay, asking why Nevada’s taking a sick day in the thick of the vote count.

I slam the brakes, and the car comes to a grinding halt. The driver in front of us clearly fell victim to his road rage, and I’m trying to remember how to breathe.

Dad jolts awake and asks if our near-collision is my fault, and I swear it’s too close to call.

Ohio’s a goner. Pennsylvania’s a toss-up at best. Just based on the Trump billboards I saw out my rearview mirror the afternoon prior, I could’ve told Wolf it was over in Ohio hours ago.

As we make our way through Missouri, Kansas and Colorado, we become jaded by the rolling plains. “This is like watching paint dry,” Dad asserts, raising his voice at the news seeping through the stereo. At some point, Dad switches back to the ’80s rock station and recalls that he “listened to this one in college” during every other song.

After our three-day pilgrimage, Dad and I took a few days off; we were tired of packing around the center console for hours on end. I — still groggy from a second-rate slumber, doomscrolling through Twitter — find out Biden has 270 votes. Dad is out on a hike.

Now we’re on the road again, completing our last leg of the drive. Scanning the heartland’s highways through my glasses, one thing’s for sure: Unity feels far off the horizon.

Julia Hornstein | julia.hornstein@yale.edu