The Vehicle of the Metaphor

Isaac James Richards

          This essay is about time and cars. I need you to know that up front, because while those two concepts are connected on a physical level, I will strive to connect them on a spiritual level. Through physical and spiritual duality, eventually this essay will no longer be about time and cars but instead about eternity and bodies. It is up to you when that shift takes place. If you can keep those four relationships in mind (time/cars, eternity/bodies) then we will stay on the right track and not crash. I’ll try not to backseat drive while you read. Long before Google Maps existed, Joseph Smith taught: “If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong we may go wrong, and it will be a hard matter to get right.” I’ve exposed all my metaphors up front because I’m trying to start right. After all, life isn’t a highway: it’s the car. That’s what is driving this essay.
          As a child, I loved road trips. Road trips meant curling up in the backseat with an iPod—hours of nostalgia and music— watching the Wasatch Mountains go by. My dad always drove, and I felt safe knowing that his eyes were on the road even when mine weren’t. I could read books, watch movies, play video games, or simply go to sleep when it was late and dark. Never mind that our bodies were hurtling eighty miles an hour across the rock of earth in a fragile metal shell. And often, after a long nighttime drive home, the shift from highway cruising to stoplights and stop signs would rouse me to a subtle conscious- ness. But I’d keep my eyes tightly shut so my father would gen- tly lift me from the car seat and carry me into bed. Of course, there was the occasional scare. Dad would hit the rumble strip. Mom would gasp. Our bodies would be flung forward against our seatbelts.
               My heart bleeds for the innocent victims who ride along safely and are run 
into by . . . speed demons. (Richards)
Accident #1: 2007 Dodge Caravan, Gray
We didn’t have one: a stop sign. The other driver, in a UPS truck, missed theirs. I don’t remember seeing anything, just hearing my mom scream—just my forehead to the glass like a whipcrack. The truck tore off our entire back bumper, ripping past us. I wonder what would have happened if my mom had hit the brakes instead of the gas.
               No, life is not a self-driving car. (Uchtdorf)
Accident #2: 2003 Honda Accord, Teal
The high school parking lot had many exits, but they all came to one intersection down the road, just as spokes of a wheel converge at the hub. I got a ride to and from school with two seniors from my ward when I was a sophomore. After school, the cars would impatiently inch forward one by one. It was customary to let your friends pull in ahead of you as a gesture of solidarity. I always sat in the back. Chris was driving (or trying to). Drew was in the passenger seat, punching Chris in the arm repeatedly, shouting: “Slug bug, what color? What color? What color?” Chris searched frantically to find the hue that would save his shoulder—crunch. We rear-ended the car in front of us.
I could see the shame. Drew’s and Chris’s. Chris’s shame had a tinge of anger too. He was both victim and perpetrator. His frustration was his mother’s headache and his father’s insurance bill. Drew got off “scotch” free as we teens incorrectly phonetized it. Of course, the real phrase is “scot-free,” referring to a medieval tax that, if evaded successfully, meant you were tax free. I’m wondering if a more contemporary idiom might be “ticket free,” referring to speeding, driving without a seat- belt, texting and driving, and a host of other traffic related violations (running red lights, illegal parking, illegal U-turns, not using turn signals, etc.). Today, the road is the easiest place to break the law and get away scot-free.
Accident #3: 2006 Toyota Corolla, Green
During my senior year, I was carpooling to school with two other friends in a snowstorm. We were late, of course. From the backseat, I watched as we slid around a bend, skipped on ice, and bumped into a snowbank.
               The van began sliding on the surface of the road. (Wixom)
          I have mixed feelings about lateness. I’m told that lateness is impolite, that it suggests your time is more important than everyone else’s, and that it marks you as forgetful and unorganized. At the same time, my theology asserts that there is no such thing as time. An eternal perspective would seem to say that punctuality is not a virtue because time doesn’t exist; “all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men” (Alma 40.8). Yet, for all the scriptures about a thousand years as a single day (see Psalm 90.4), there are plenty more that urge haste and hurrying. I suppose that the reality of eternity is no excuse for disobedience to the construct of time here on earth, but I admit that I tend to be late. Car accidents and speeding are certainly symptoms of this false sense of rush. When I think theologically, I’m inclined to be deliberately late in protest, to be incredibly patient, and to await all things (including rush hour traffic) in the “due time of the Lord” (1 Ne. 10.3). Mostly, I just look forward to the day when “there should be time no longer” (Rev. 10.6).
Accident #4: 2015 Peterbilt Potato Truck, White and Red
In southeast Idaho, there is a two-week break in October called spud harvest. School’s out, and many high school students work in the fields. Some kids drive tractors and trucks on the farms well before they have their licenses. There were al- ways loads of moving equipment and machinery. Arms got stuck in conveyer belts and broken. People lost fingers.
It was the last day of the season and only a few more truck- loads of potatoes remained in the soft-churned dirt. Fortuitously, the season had been uneventful for the farmer—I’ll call him Hank. The weather had been nonstop mellow. I was one of the last trucks pulling in to unload when Hank stopped me. From my sideview mirror I saw him say something to the Anderson boy who nodded and then jumped into my cab.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“I’ll show you,” was his reply.
The stubborn punk was apparently relishing the fact that he knew something I didn’t. He directed me to a crammed part of the farmyard between three old storage silos that were now filled with clutter, scraps, and rusted equipment. The Anderson boy wanted me to pull into one of them, and he refused to respond to my questions.
I knew the truck wouldn’t fit inside the cellar. I warned him. Angrily, I followed his instructions, pulling front-first through the side door. He then demanded that I perform a three- (read: thirty-) point turn. After painstakingly easing the truck back and forth, I realized the objective: we were trying to get the rear end of the truck, full of uncovered potatoes, out of the sun. By the time I read the mind of the tight-mouthed Anderson boy, it was too late—a different kind of late. I would’ve just backed halfway into the cellar to cover up the potatoes in the shade if I had known the goal. I would’ve left the cab of the truck poking out. Now I was stuck, and my chances of getting out were about as wide as a potato chip. Eyes fixed on the Anderson boy in my sideview mirrors, I followed his beckoning hands right into— bang—a bent chute and a damaged doorframe.
I had never seen Hank so red in the face, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard the former bishop swear.
Earlier that same season, my friend Jason was showing off to the first girl we’d seen in a week on the farm. He let her ride in the cab and apparently hit a mud puddle at breakneck speed, splattering muck clear over the top of the windshield, fifteen feet in the air.
“How fast was he going?” Hank asked incredulously. He pre- tended to be angry, but I saw him take a picture of the mud- splattered truck when Jason wasn’t looking. He thought it was cool.
The next Sunday, Jason was the youth speaker in church. He spoke of mud and stain, sin and pain, repentance, baptism, and the earth right after rain. He’d learned a good lesson from the farmer’s mercy. He’d been forgiven.
               Guilt is like a battery in a gasoline-powered car. It can light up the car, start
the engine, and power the headlights, but it will not pro- vide the fuel for
the long journey ahead. (Andersen)
          “Utahns ranked among the worst drivers in the Nation,” the headline says (Chow). According to the 2022 study, based on analysis of six million car insurance quotes in America’s seventy largest cities, Utah ranks as the sixth worst state to drive in, and Salt Lake as the eighth worst city (Chow), with 62,272 crashes, 17,589 injuries, 298 fatalities. That’s in Utah in a single year—the most recent one (Utah Department of Public Safety). We call them fatalities to make certain they are perceived as accidents.
               Imagine you are involved in a very serious car accident. (Wakolo)
          The word “vehicle” has a few definitions, but my favorite is: “a thing used to express, embody, or fulfill something” (Oxford Languages), as in essays are vehicles of emotion. It comes from the Latin vehereor “to carry.” The word “vehicle” is also one of the two key terms in the metaphor theory developed by I. A. Richards, the tenor referring to what is meant and the vehicle being “the image that carries the weight of the comparison” (Britannica). So if vehicle is my metaphor for the mortal body, then the vehicle of my metaphor is a vehicle, and the vehicle is carrying the vehicle—the weight of the comparison—or our own bodies across the asphalt.
Body as vehicle is not a new metaphor (or, vehicle). As just mentioned, a definition of the word vehicleis “to embody.” King Benjamin taught that Jesus would “dwell in a tabernacle of clay” (Mosiah 3.5). The word tabernacle means “a fixed or movable habitation” from the Latin taberna, meaning “hut or tavern.” Jesus himself says: “I was in the world and made flesh my tabernacle” (D&C 93.4). The thing in which we dwell is as temporary as travel. This I that I am, this heart and mind that can imagine itself stepping out of my skin, as a translucent ghost, looking back at the body sitting at the desk, this self does not belong in its temporary habitation. I am not my tabernacle. But the spirit and body when separated “cannot receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93.34), just as both tenor and vehicle are required for a metaphor. Half a metaphor is no metaphor at all. So eventually, I will be one with the vehicle of my body. For now, it carries me. My mortal body is only a vehicle, carrying something more, meaning something more than what it is, like how the image of a human body is only a vehicle in a metaphor whose tenor no one can write.
               But the car’s purpose is not to stand out as an attractive machine; it is to 
move the people in the car. (Causse)
Accident #5: 1998 Subaru Hatchback, White
It was the summer after my junior year of high school. The Subaru was no longer white, but rather a cream tinged with yellow and spots of orange rust. The Subaru was formerly used to transport gas cans for the boat from the cabin to the beach on a three-mile stretch of gravel. The cans leaked frequently, and the car reeked of gasoline. When my grandparents eventually wanted to get rid of it, they gave it to my dad, who tried for weeks to eliminate the acrid smell. After significant online re- search, he finally found the answer from a stranger on Quora: “If it smells like gas, there is still gas somewhere.” Dad ripped up the carpet and found it, a layer of gasoline congealed with the adhesive beneath the carpet, almost ready to be fracked again. Once it had all been painstakingly removed, the stench of gasoline was gone.
Many surgeries were performed on that Subaru. Orange foam burst from gashes in the blue faux leather seats. Due to ignition problems, the key chamber was replaced with a starter button.
               [We] are not whistling in the dark, trying to shore up a building that will 
ultimately col- lapse, or to fix a car which is actually bound for the scrap-
heap (Christofferson)
          The car was so old that it still had a cigarette lighter that would heat up, a red-hot metal coil. As a child, I remember it being a symbol of some bygone time, a time when smoking was so common that you could light one up right from the driver’s seat of your car. I could almost see myself tapping off the ashes out the window and into the breeze.
The car didn’t have automatic windows—you had to turn a crank to roll them down. There was no air conditioning. It was a stick shift with four gears. The highest it went was about fifty-five miles an hour downhill. It was pedal-to-the-metal, literally, climbing Ashton Hill. Perhaps I’m one of few who have really experienced that sensation, the full weight of your foot on the floor, your leg muscles starting to ache and quake and quiver, as the vehicle putts up the hill like a slowly rolling white golf ball on a steep green.
Here’s the scene of the accident: I was living in West Yellowstone, Montana, working at Arrowleaf Ice Cream Parlor in the evenings. I slept at my grandparents’ cabin. During the day I rode four-wheelers, went water-skiing on the lake, and played sand volleyball. On the weekends I drove back to Rex- burg for church and a weekly temple trip. This time around it was a late-night movie, early morning temple trip, big lunch, and late afternoon drive—a recipe for a nap.
I had just rounded the top of Ashton Hill to a strip of high- way that stretched as far as I could see between the leveled lodgepole pines. I remember being sleepy. I remember yawning. I had cranked the windows down to let the wind buffet the interior of the car to make up for the lack of air conditioning. It was like deafening white noise. I was sweaty and tired. My Subway sandwich settled into my stomach.
I don’t remember closing my eyes, but I remember opening them. I woke up when the right wheel dropped off the shoulder, my eyes snapping open just in time to watch the hood of the car level a reflector with a smack. My eyes locked like a camera lens, blurred around the edges, and stared straight for- ward through the windshield as I went careening and crashing in jarring jolts over bushes and tree stumps through the narrow strip of meadow along the highway.
               I frantically attempted to stop. (Zwick)
          What I remember most are the tennis balls. The whole basket of them came loose in the back. Two dozen green furry orbs were suspended in the air—floating—then bouncing, jumping—on the dash, off the glass, throughout the car, on me. The Subaru slowly ground to a halt, the dust settling, tennis balls nestled in every nook and cranny of the console. I sat in silence. I turned the car off. I creaked opened the door and stepped out, surprised by how close the ground was to my knees.
The trip across the forest floor had ripped up the entire underside of the car—all four tires deflated, both axles broken, the underside of the car resting flat on the ground, leaving not even an inch of space between vehicle and grass. I looked around. A few cars had pulled over. A cop arrived. I called my dad.
Looking back, I remember being surprised that he wasn’t mad. Not only was he not mad, but he seemed genuinely happy—just grateful that I was alive. He took pictures of the car and gave me a hug and told me it was okay while I apologized multiple times, meaning it.
I was going to be late for work, so we got right into his car and continued down the highway. I slept crumpled in the passenger’s seat the entire way from the wreckage to West Yellowstone.
The cop said it looked like I didn’t even hit the brakes, as if the friction of the car on the terrain was the only thing that stopped me. He couldn’t believe I didn’t roll. My dad said that if I had veered off earlier or later, in a location where the shoulder was a steep drop-off rather than a gradual decline, the car would’ve plummeted headfirst and folded into the mountain. The airbags didn’t go off . . . it didn’t have any.
The word “miracle” comes to mind. I still reflect on that accident. It was one of those moments that makes death feel near, makes the afterlife feel real, and makes life feel precious.
               Life is too precious. It is the greatest gift that the Lord has given to us. We 
cannot waste it, and if I, by bringing this to your attention, can save one
carload of teenagers from careening into a station . . . as they did the other
night, I shall be grateful, and therefore I take the liberty of bringing this to
the attention of my brethren of the Priesthood to see if we cannot develop a
respect for the law which will enable us to avoid many of these tragic accidents.
          I was twenty-one years old when I read those words, written by my great-great-grandfather. It was the summer after my mis- sion, the month of May, and I’d already been pulled over twice—driving that same highway back and forth to work in West Yellowstone. Every weekend I passed the place where I’d fallen asleep four years earlier. When I read great-great-grandpa’s General Conference talk, his words from sixty-three years be- fore sounded like they were written for me. I started to slow down. I started to come to a full stop.
Accident #6: Public Bus (APSRTC) in Visakhapatnam, India, Orange and Red
          Traffic laws in India are optional. My companion and I were on a bus, standing up, holding onto plastic loops dangling from the ceiling. We were going about fifty miles an hour around a bend, hugging the black and yellow painted median, when the driver slammed on the brakes. Our bodies were flung completely forward, moving faster inside the bus than the bus itself was moving. The reaction was delayed: our toes dangling far behind us, our hands seizing around the straps, our heads swinging down to face the aisle floor, as though suspended horizontally in the air. We could feel the bus decelerating and slowly straightened up, only to be rammed from behind, this time flung from our handholds, barreling backwards into the bodies behind us as the bus lurched forward from the impact.
          Everyone quickly but rather calmly exited the bus, then hopped on the next one to continue down the road.
          Missionaries are no strangers to car metaphors. We frequently told less-active members that church was not a car show, it was a mechanic’s shop, and that we all need to go in for tune-ups. Perhaps, whether we know it or not, cars are functioning at a subconscious level as a metaphor for our mortal bodies, our journey through life. The plan of salvation doc- trine and the eternal perspective worldview mean that we are constantly en route, and that can be exhausting. So much so that a recent prophetic invitation was to come and find rest— an interesting October message to follow up the April exhorta- tion about gaining spiritual momentum.
          A glance at the General Conference archives reveals the ubiquity of road metaphors and car accident narratives in Latter-day Saint sermons.
               After surviving cancer, a faithful brother is hit by a car. (Gong)
               Jonathan had been fatally injured when the car in which he was riding was 
struck by a passing train. (Renlund)
          Car accidents afford a variety of archetypes: the victim, the perpetrator, the affected family members. Car accidents have become a theological metonymy for justice, mercy, the unfair- ness of mortal life, circumstances beyond our control, adversity in general, and even divine interventions that call a mortal traveler home in an instant.
               These powerful truths were life-changing for my friend Jen, who as a teenager 
caused a serious car accident. (Taylor)
          The versatility of these vehicular metaphors is astounding. Other references draw more indirect or abstract parallels.
               Even though the car had great potential, with- out keys, it could not perform its intended function. (Stevenson)
          Other references seem to be intentionally dramatic and gruesome.
               A 20-year-old drunk driver, speeding at more than 85 miles (135 km) 
per hour . . . crashed violently into the car driven by my youngest brother,
Tommy, instantly killing him and his wife, Joan. They were returning home to
a young daughter after a Christmas party. (Echo- hawk)
               Cooper had been hit by a car   [He] was lying on the grass, struggling to breathe.
          What about our theology isn’t transforming into applied Christianity? Latter-day Saints believe there is “no need to break the laws of the land” (D&C 58.21). Drive safely. It should be the eleventh commandment. But not really—per- haps it’s because we aren’t all that worried about crashing: we all know what will happen to us and our bodies once we die. Sure, driving slowly could be an embodiment of faith in eternity, but so too could be an abnormal tolerance for death of any kind, road-related or not. I’m expressing confusion, not condemnation. Stephen L Richards gave two conference addresses in the 1950s that explicitly warned about the dangers of reckless driving. And I don’t even have space to include my quotes from Thomas S. Monson (October, 2012), Anthony D. Perkins (October, 2012), Koichi Ayoagi (October, 2015), Bonnie H. Cordon (October, 2017), Sharon Eubank (October, 2017), Henry B. Eyring (April, 2017), Rebecca L. Craven (April, 2019) and many others, just from the last two decades alone.
Even if one safely travels the roads of life, cars get old. We depreciate. Things stop working. We can’t go quite as fast. We blow a gasket. We get the oil changed and an IV. Rotate the tires and crutches. Top off the fluids and prescriptions. Refuel. Count steps and reset the odometer. Turn on the windshield wipers. Clean our glasses, smeared with bugs and tears.
          Not all driving is accident. Not all of life is rush. One of the most pleasurable drives I ever took was on the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway with my younger brother. I was recently married. He was working in West Yellowstone now instead of me. He wanted to take the quick route from Idaho to Montana, up Ashton Hill. I told him we were in no hurry, and that we should enjoy the drive. We saw a skunk and stopped at the waterfall. The sun was glinting off the backs of cows. We talked about his upcoming mission. My brother asked me what the biggest regret of my life was so far. I told him it was crashing the Subaru, since all my younger brothers could’ve driven it. He shook his head and said: “That’s my greatest regret of your life too.” We laughed. The drive took two hours longer than usual, but I remember that trip more than all the other times I sped between Rexburg and West Yellowstone.
               Look down the road. (Meredith III)
          I did fall asleep one other time while driving. I was alone. It was late afternoon. I was southbound: the sun falling to my right, the mountains rising to my left. This time, I don’t re- member being tired. I don’t remember yawning, or closing my eyes, or slapping my cheeks to try and stay awake. I didn’t feel the need to crank music or call someone. I only remember opening my eyes to the sudden realization that I was hundreds of yards down the road from where I was before. The landscape had skipped a beat. The road was empty. The car had stayed its course, even with the wheel in my limp, unconscious hands. It was as though I had jumped forward in time—an eternal blip. I wonder if that is how it will feel, when all this mortality is said and done, when we finally open our eyes and realize that we had fallen asleep during the tiniest sliver of our journey, and that the stretch of road we thought we had known was merely a car’s length of an inter-estate highway.

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