Smithology: To not sleep, perchance to Nerds Rope
On paper, it sounds like a drug. I have raced cars on it. Completed thousand-mile road trips under its influence. Once, while zonked on the stuff at three in the morning, I fired up an eBay window and engaged in a furious and only lightly meandering search. When this search ended, some time later, it was in my happy exchange of 25 American dollars, plus expedited shipping fees, for a box of four VHS tapes of the 1980s Disney cartoon DuckTales.
I have not come to bury Duck Caesar, as Shakespeare did not say. Only to note that:
1. I do not own a VHS player
2. I do not plan on owning a VHS player, or find one necessary for life
3. I do not enjoy owning VHS tapes as collectibles
4. The moment I clicked Buy it Now, I did not remember any of the above and was thus thrilled with my purchase and the reasons behind it.
Not that I remember those reasons.
Every man wakes up, as Braveheart did not say. Not every man really sleeps.
Physical and mental exhaustion make strange eBay histories of us all. As a doctor once told me, sleep deprivation literally changes the body. Extreme fatigue, he said, puts the human brain into “a different space.”
Personal experience paints that space as cartoonish mental funhouse. You carom through the world in wild swings, alternately amused or irritated and having just a grand old time either way, making absurd choices and occasionally spending whole minutes trying to remember your own name.
If all that sounds authoritative, it is only because sleep deprivation has woven through my life since high school.
Were I to allow as how that weaving has often overlapped with cars and driving, you would say, Well, of course it has, because you are on this website. And presumably not here for the untrousered birds.
Studies have shown that significant lack of sleep can bring dangerous impairment. Moderate deprivation, however, is essentially harmless. A ride on the lightning, all the fun but none of the danger. You suffer a bout of light insomnia, you catch a red-eye flight home, or you stay up too long while finishing some garage project. The next day, you drink an industrially terrifying amount of coffee and while force-marching your wrung-out body and mind through the world like a stolen Gundam.
Perception grows gauzy. Conversations become reason to squint. You start loud arguments with inanimate kitchen objects (“WHY HAVE YOU BURNED MY TOAST?!?”), you nurse absurd grudges and yell their elevator pitches in traffic (“RED LIGHTS ARE THE BURNT TOAST OF URBAN LIFE!”), you do things like idly wonder why that obnoxious Karen at the grocery has six identical loaves of bread in her cart, before chalking it up—with no evidence whatsoever—to masochism. (“Madam, forgive me, but did you burn all of your toast on purpose?”)
Personally, in these mental conditions, your narrator is a fan of the road trip.
The great paved conveyor belt! The Charm of the Highway Strip, The Magnetic Fields called it.
Once, while riding passenger across Georgia on two hours of sleep, I used that album title as inspiration for a rapid-fire string of extremely stupid puns. Desperate to share my obvious genius, I recited this wordplay for my well-rested wife, who was, in the interest of safety, driving.
Being a kind woman, she listened. Then she took a deep breath and calmly announced that I could either stop talking immediately or be thrown, ever so charmingly, out onto that strip.
I don’t remember what happened next. Probably quiet.
Perhaps you are wondering if this process is more entertaining when alone. No idea! When you’re this tired, everything is entertaining! Picture yourself cackling nonstop for 50 miles of I-70, as I once did, while traveling across predawn Kansas, as I once did, because you have, over the course of the last ten minutes, assembled a complex and vulgar rhyming poem based around local town names. (Leawood and Holyrood, I’m sorry.)
Imagine how bent a worldview it would take to make you so pleased with that poem, you take the next exit to stop and immortalize your genius with pen and paper. As I once did. Was there eventually sleep? Of course. Can’t recall where. Nor, years later, can I locate that piece of paper. What I do remember is strolling outside some motel the next morning and gathering, from under the driver’s seat, the previous night’s flak-cloud of food receipts.
Fact I probably should not share: After a bit of squinting at those receipts and some light math, I deduced that a grown man had believed it wholly reasonable to buy and eat, in just one hour, six jumbo Nerds Ropes and a full-size gas-station Cinnabon. With an extra icing packet.
We turn now to the English poet John Donne. More specifically, to his most famous work, Sonnet X. Which is about death or corn syrup or something:
Junk Food, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so
For that rest thou thinks thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Junk Food, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Are there tricks, tips, hacks for staying awake? Of course. Caffeine works, but that’s boring. More than ten years ago, when I was in my late twenties, my friend Bill Caswell taught me that a human body can remain functional without food or sleep but not both.
Bill was the best kind of man-child. Lovely guy, a club racer and one-time banker, remarkably productive but also thoroughly insane in a Hunter Thompson-with-a-plasma-cutter sort of way. We had been friends for a few years and he seemed to know much. I was in my early twenties and knew even less than I do now.
Calories and protein, Bill noted, are key: “You slam enough food into your body, it gets distracted from all the other problems.”
Eating like that is unsustainable, but I quickly discovered Bill wasn’t wrong. And so we would plan three-day, all-night wrenching and fab benders, building rally cars in his mom’s garage, where I would eat four full meals in daylight but also two whole racks of carry-out ribs from 2:00 to 4:00 AM. Or we’d do things like weld a roll cage into a BMW 750iL 24 Hours of Lemons car only 24 hours before that car’s first race, powered by relative eyeblinks unconscious but a pint of ice cream every hour.
Did it hurt? How could it not? But we finished. Mostly. (Bill crashed the 750 in a race at Nelson Ledges that weekend, in the middle of the night. He was rumored to have been on a hands-free phone call at the time, but that’s not the point. It is, however, Bill in a nutshell.)
So many long nights. There was that nonstop sidecar trip, Seattle to L.A. for Cycle World, trading riding-napping duties with a friend for safety, hallucinating in the Mendocino forest. Or the three seasons of that NBC Sports show I co-hosted in California, where jet-lag-triggered insomnia led to some surreal intersections, like drifting a Hellcat one minute, dissecting Cadillac styling the next, and drinking the day’s eighth cup of coffee in between, all before noon. (The crew eventually hid the carafe. I “got annoying,” they said. Fair.)
Certain experiences leave you swearing to never do anything like that again. Then, of course, you do just that, either by choice or because the universe has given no option. Either way, you end up with great affection for the surreal bits of human existence, not least because they make the normal ones seem so . . . easy.
We have reached the end of this space. If you have gotten this far without closing the window in disgust, you are owed a confession. In just a few more column-inches, your narrator will have landed a long-held personal goal.
He will have written and published a column on just three hours of sleep.
At least, I don’t remember . . . doing that . . . before?
Would a person even remember if they had?
No idea, really. I was in the garage last night, working on a car, got distracted. Went to bed later than usual. Because the gears of the body clock are so often cruel, I woke up three hours later, at four in the morning, wide awake.
That was half a day ago. No sleep since.
Exhaustion can kill short-term memory. I was aiming this column at a point but cannot remember what that point was.
Let us now turn our hymnals to the gospel:
Life is like a hurricane / here in / Duckburg
Race cars, lasers, aeroplanes / it’s a / duck-blur
Might solve a mystery
Or rewrite history
Thanks for reading, everyone! You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here! Smash those like and subscribe buttons! Tip your waiter! Get insurance quotes! Journalism forever!
Been a long day. Need to lie down. Last question, I swear:
Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark us.