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Still Here

Against Travel

by DAVID Ker THOMSON

It’s cloud illusions I recall.

?Joni Mitchell

I’ve been hanging out a lot with a friend my age these days.  Like me, she was a transcontinental hitch-hiker in the seventies. 

For you young’uns who might not know, big-distance hitching was the last surviving branch of medieval alchemy.  Someone’d come by in a big ’ole eight-chalice’d burning mechanism called, say, Buick or Chevy or somesuch.  Each chalice would be throbbing with lead and the set of them would throb together in synchrony, and riding shotgun on the mechanism you’d get from Boston to amber waves of grain with virtually no additional lead output even with full pedal to the metal from the operator.  Golden age. 

The through hiker would barnacle her- or himself to these perpetual motion machines like a Dune Fremen to a sandworm.  For my part, I carved so many psychic grooves in the American landscape this way you’d have thought I was running from something.  My personal best was laying down a seven-thousand-mile S curve from New England replete with loops and embellishments, deep into the South, then swinging north up to Saskatoon (arriving uplatitude there on the solstice in late June) and on to Vancouver in eight days.  Nearly a thousand miles a day back-to-back for eight days.  Try that in your Smart Car, you little ecosmarties. 

As far as full disclosure goes, I probably used about a gallon of gas to do that S, as I have to admit that just getting one of those old chariots to stop and pick you up would throw a statistically significant amount of exhaust in general and lead in particular into the environment, where it could hook up with the lead in paint chips and the DDT in bird shells and sing Eagles songs.  Still, eight thousand mpg (highway estimate; actual mileage may vary) isn’t too shabby.  The great thing about lead is it’s more eternal than Jehovah (who probably took his leave of me in the seventies, now that I think of it) so the seven million tons of lead burned in America in the twentieth century are still here, like a present for our children, to say nothing of all the stuff I scraped off as a painting contractor back in the day.  Sorry for the nostalgia here?my crazy brother Clive, the Poorest Man in America and compadre in many a half-assed caper in big caves, on rotten ice, and with small guns, called to tell me that IHOP has bestowed early senior citizen status on him, making a good deal even better, and also that he’s had a baby (on or about the solstice) he’s naming after the baby’s vulgar heathen unemployed woman-troubled no-hoper uncle?not his precise words?me.  Hey kid, sorry about the lead. 

When we thumbfolk weren’t in a chariot?back to the seventies here?we lived our life in the spaghetti-shaped verge land called Shoulder, a quarter of a million miles long and between one and ten feet wide.  In Shoulder, you tend to look aslant, like italics or Emily Dickinson, as you’re always watching for the next ride.  When you’re marginal, you get good at the lateral view.

As my longterm readers?not to mention longsuffering editor?know, we get a little funky-in-the-rabbit-hole in this space, considering by contrast the sober, thoughtful articles with which our titles rub shoulders in the left-hand margin bar, so I like to have clearly marked means of egress for those who have been kind enough to keep the vigil with us but who at certain times would like to get out safely.  This would be one of those times.  Note Exit sign.  Jump now. 

For the rest of us, I’m not going to talk about, say, the night that good-looking buck from Philadelphia got his .38 in Clive’s mouth and was looking to me for direction about what happens next.  I’m going to talk about paintings I think I’ve seen in the National Portrait Gallery and wanderings I’ve wandered in Essex, the most marginal of the Home Counties abutting London.  But it’s that sort of thing. 

Consider then the following semi-aphoristic statements about travel.  As always, we’re experimenting with political form in this space as much as we’re trying to move information content along.  The “we” here is the writer and a certain sort of reader in a semi-illicit union.  Yippy ki yay.

Side

If I recall correctly without consulting the googley function, there is a portrait of Edward VI in London’s National Portrait Gallery (possibly by William Scrots?) that has a sort of glory hole in the side.  The view from the front is awkward (possibly meaningless?), but if you look through the hole in the side, full mimetic realism is restored.  If this painting doesn’t exist, imagine it.  A painting that only works if you stare at it through a hole in the side.

Such a side view might be called anamorphic.  The eccentric perspective restores the image through a lateral hole.  Social structures?and travel is one?are best viewed anamorphically.  Viewing the world this way suggests that the viewer has a sort of shoulder mentality.

The standing space of the classic American hitch-hiker was “against” travel in the sense of abutment.  Shoulder’s the blank strip edging the pages of the great American travel narrative, that of the automobile.  The world of Shoulder is juxtaposed with the known world, and acts as marginal commentary upon it.

World

There’s the natural world, and there’s the built environment.

What isn’t the built environment?  In Essex everything the sea hasn’t picked up and moved around, humans have, repeatedly.

The world is corporate, its cities follow the party line in stone and concrete.  But the unpredictable flaneur rewrites his own version of the city.

I’m interested in connecting to earlier versions of my vagrant self.  The hitch-hiker doesn’t go to see Jacksonville or Little Rock to take in the aura but rather rocks a little as he goes: the process of going is central.
 
I’m against travel in the age of Starbuckily reproduced cities.  There’s nowhere to “go.”

On “capturing” the local idiom and getting local dialogue “pitch perfect”:  Cultural assertions, of the order “The Aymara believe?,” are radically suspect.  They tend to be largely assertions about the self in particular contexts.  Spurious.  Instead of capturing the locals, we should be setting them free.

Cake

Eva-Lynn, whose twenty-three-year relationship with me has long been subject to travel and drift of all sorts, has made a cake without icing, using whipped cream instead.

“The cake sucks,” says Liam (age ten at the time of assertion).

“You didn’t even try yours,” says Sebastian.

“See?” says Liam.
 
Liam speaking honestly and accurately of the discomfort he experiences as a direct result of cake reminds me of a Woody Allen joke which has women reminiscing about Jewish working-class summer camp food, that it was at once terrible, and the portions too small. 

But travel really is like that.  It’s both foolish, and it doesn’t exist.  Delays, cost overruns, tawdriness, tardiness, pollution, all this on the one hand, and the possibility on the other that nothing is happening, which can be summarized by reciting, with one skeptical eyebrow raised, the mantra of the supposedly Zen traveler: “wherever you go, there you are.”

As if that isn’t precisely the problem, that wherever you go, you’re still there.  Help!  Someone get me out.  And with budget travel, there are more places than ever for you to be unable to get away from yourself.  

David Ker Thomson grew up swimming in Walden Pond in the place called America.  This article is the tenth in the “Against” series, of which “Against Canada” remains the most popular.  dave dot thomson at utoronto dot ca