Smithology: To not sleep, perchance to Nerds Rope

Sam Smith

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.

Ducktales title screen tv show
I am now the first person in the history of this website to publish a screencap from this particular television show. Please call the Guinness world-record people. DM for collab, but only if you run a company that makes top hats. Disney

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.

Garmin nav system
Traded off with a friend to make this happen safely. Still—cue the voice of my father—we made good time. Sam Smith

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.

Or not.

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.)

A google map of Kansas the state
Big state. Lots of dark at night. ‘Tis a silly place. Google Maps

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.

Noted Sour Patch Kids fiend. Wikipedia John Donne / Public Domain

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.”

William Caswell, 2009-ish, in his mom’s driveway, after not sleeping. (For the record, his face also did that when well-rested.) Sam Smith

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.

Proving Grounds TV show NBC Sports Sam Smith Parker Kligerman Leh Keen
The production team let me keep the outfit. They wouldn’t let me keep Parker and Leh. (Probably for the best. They’re pro drivers, and pro drivers are like pet rabbits—fun for the first two weeks, then your kids lose interest and the litterbox stays full.) NBC Sports / Tangent Vector

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:

When did these things get so cheap?




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    I really enjoyed this column, probably because I used to thrive on little-to-no-sleep adventures. Not so much now in my elder years, but the memories (or lack of them) still entertain me. I used to attend – with a group of friends – the IndyCar (CART, Champ, whatever) races in Portland each spring (usually over Father’s Day weekend and called the Portland 200). One of our many challenges was to stay awake for the entire four days we were at the track. Few ever made it. Some even missed the main event on Sunday after partying for three days. Copious amounts of food and adult beverages will drive you to sleep nearly anywhere and under any circumstance. But if you made it, you were awarded the coveted I Survived 200 Club” t-shirt. I have two of them.
    Fact I probably should not share: I once pulled out of Boomtown Truckstop (look it up) and the next thing I knew, I was taking the Antelope Weigh Station Exit on I-80. This meant I drove a fully loaded 18-wheeler OVER DONNER PASS while sleeping with my eyes open. 😵

    I’ve never driven on such little sleep, but I remember being so hell-bent on (poorly) wet-sanding a C3 Corvette I had painted the week before that I stayed up until 3 doing the job…manually…because it had to be done for the morning’s Cars and Coffee…before a Covid Shot… that was a weird 36 hours.

    I’ve done my share of sleep deprived shenanigans. I’ve recently retired from a software engineering job, in which one frequently stays up all night working on stuff and during which a single wrong keystroke could be… expensive. Also I used to do randonneur bicycle riding.

    Which is my way of showing my chops. Now, please do not ever again romanticize driving on public roads in such a condition.

    In the summer of 1963, five of us met up in Memphis and drove together to Walla Walla, Washington, to work in a Libby’s pea cannery. We slept the first night in Boulder, CO, at a fraternity house. We slept the second night at a sheep ranch in central Wyoming, after drinking some “illegal back home” Coors that we iced down with well water in a tin tub. That was our last stop before Walla Walla. We ate supper in Lolo Hot Springs, Idaho, just over the border from Missouri, and drove across Idaho in the dark. I was the driver, whilst the others slept. We were following a river for most of the way, on a two-way highway that had only been open to traffic for a few months. I was smoking unfiltered Camels. The whole way across, I saw NO vehicles or people or lights of any sorts. The sound of the river (Lochsia?) canceled the snores of my posse. The highlight was pulling over to micturate, after which I stood by the river and appreciated the stars. The forest was so thick that I could imagine walking into them and getting inescapably lost after 30 feet. The amazing thing was that I did not get sleepy. I spent the day looking for a place to live (and sleep, after all). Anecdotes: “We don’t rent to pea boys.” “You’re from Mississippi? I’m not going to have anything to do with you.” (I sympathized with the second one. I had left Mississippi swearing never to come back. Yet here I am, and happily so. Things change.)

    Sam, now so much is clear. I’m going back and read the 24 hours of Le Mans article once again. My only question: Having eaten so much and drunk so much coffee, how did you do anything outside the john?

    Missoula? What the heck were you doing in Montana and going across Northern Idaho to get to Walla Walla from Colorado, dude? Check any maps, did you? From CO, you go to UT, then across Southern Idaho (would have been Highway 30 in ’63, as I-15 and I-84 didn’t exist yet) into OR, then a few miles north at Pendelton. I’ll agree that from Lolo west on old Highway 12 was fantastic scenery (not as much in the dark, though), but man, you drove at least 700 miles out of your way. No wonder no one would rent to you pea boys… 🤣

    But now that I re-read portions of your story, you had had Coors for the first time in your young lives, so it’s probably miraculous that you didn’t go through Saskatchewan! Good story, though. 😋

    We thought about Saskatchewan, but the peas were being harvested around Walla Walla and the pea boys were needed there. 🙂

    We ended up on the Missoula/Hwy 12 route because 1) one of the lads had promised to stop by the Wyoming sheep ranch, and 2) because two of the lads had girl friends who were working at Yellowstone. And really, what adolescent American boy who had been raised with Roy Rogers, Sky King and Shane could resist rambling around the Great West? (I had also seen “La Dolce Vita,” but I had to wait to make it to Italy).

    Speaking of 30, the next summer I returned to the cannery, and afterwards hitchhiked down to Pendleton and then east to Iowa to visit my Grandmother in Leon.

    Take care, Dub6. I enjoy all of your comments.

    Aha – the girlfriend part of the story now explains it completely! And thanks for the last pat, there – I return it in spades!

    I am unable to relate on two things a) I am a sleep champion and b) I have a VHS recorder/player.

    You can certainly borrow the VHS!

    Excellent stories.
    Even in my youth, I knew that driving while sleep-deprived was dangerous.
    In the mid-70s I attended a college party on a Friday night, went to work Saturday morning at 3 a.m. (took inventory at grocery stores before they were open) then drove to my date’s house for a wedding and reception. After dropping her off, my drive back to campus featured a momentary lapse of consciousness, a brief sojourn off the road and onto the gravel shoulder. Toward a bridge abutment.
    With my short but adventure-filled life passing before my eyes, the rest of the drive was with the windows down and the music up. From that day forward, I never drove while sleepy again.

    When doing a long trip and getting tired the music is going to go uptempo and heavier. Seems to work in place of caffeine for me.

    Oh yeah, the racecar-thrash that goes on for 30 hours before you load it and then drive another 4 hours…about 25 hours into the battle, the car owner’s walking around irritatedly looking for something and finally yells “where’s the goddamn Whitney Punch!!”…which he’d been carrying around in his hand while looking for it. We sent him to the sofa for a nap, but the story has entered middle age and “Whitney Punch” has become shorthand between a couple of us…

    Drove 500 miles through the night because my car would overheat on a summer day . Popped No-Doz® caffeine pills like candy. Was awakened by the rumble strip and lived to rue my foolhardiness. Driving sleep-deprived is just like driving drunk, except that you get to die without seeing why.

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