The road trip is a standard literary conceit. Tales from the road are forward moving, full of details, imagery, odd characters, surprises, both good and bad, wonderment and disappointment. You barely need to have any real skill other than being a weariless chronicler, who hopefully has a taste for the unusual. The ability to write a full sentence probably also comes in handy, though in our world of tweeting, texting and emailing may not be as imperative as it once was.
The question remains whether there is anything of interest left to chronicle, now that the world is so known to us, our maps devoid of mysterious and vast continents where dragons were once assumed to reside. With the ever-increasing number of people who believe their adventures to be singular and of interest to an audience of admirers, and with the obsessive/compulsive photographing, recording and posting of updates of their every move, the meaningfulness, the uniqueness of any experience has been drained.
When I was younger, I felt a large disconnect between being and feeling. I would go to a concert or a party, or to some wonderful place like the Grand Canyon or Echo Rock in New Mexico, and I couldn’t say for sure whether I’d enjoyed myself. It wasn’t until I put my thoughts on paper, until the words were found to properly describe and contain the experience that I could answer the question “did you have a good time?” By remaining the observer, I was using the experience as a means to an end–something that would give me material to share with others in order to get their approval, their admiration, their envy– thus depriving myself of the joy of being there, of seeing, of feeling all at once. My life was passing me by, and the attention for my writing didn’t make up for it.
I have managed to cure myself of this disconnect, but I see it reaching epic proportions all around me. I have seen concertgoers wave their iPhones instead of lighters, trying to capture an image, some distorted sound, rather than allowing themselves to be swept away, to be enveloped and invaded by the music. At plays, I have seen people tweeting quips, making plans for their next engagement rather than allowing themselves to be fully drawn into the depths of the story and characters. At a reading I recently gave, I was told that a few audience members were texting, hiding their phones in their purses, while I spoke. If I were prone to flattering myself, I might say that they were letting all their friends know how fabulous my novel is and that they should all run out and get a copy right away. But I believe that they were suffering from the disease of absence, of distraction, of recording for others rather than being present in the moment for their own enjoyment.
It is seductive to believe that everything we observe, think, pronounce has merit, originality, import. It reminds me of teenagers on the bus having over-loud conversations in order to let the world know they exist, who believe that everything is important because it is coming from them. So it is in our world of constant self-promotion, self-aggrandizing and exposure, which creates so much noise it is hard to know what to pay attention to, and in the end cheapens everything.
What does this have to do with road trips? I spent the last week in the Adirondacks. I was about to say that I’ve resisted taking notes, but the truth is that I haven’t felt like it at all, despite acknowledging that my memory is not what it used to be. Instead I’ve been swimming in lakes, hiking up mountains, exchanging bon mots with colorful, small-town characters, and eating gargantuan servings of fried food. In fact, I have been so perfectly content staring at mountains and water that putting anything at all down in writing seems like an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction from the glory of just being here. I’ve remembered to take a few photos, but not always of the right things at the right time. I haven’t recorded anything either, though in retrospect I somewhat regret not having footage of the immense crows gliding past me at eye level on the summit of Whiteface Mountain. I certainly haven’t tweeted anything or updated my Facebook status. Because at the moment, this experience is finally, totally for me.
Perhaps later on when it has all sunk in, I will be able to turn some of its parts into a greater whole–a story perhaps, or an essay–something more meaningful than just a grocery list of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. Those things already exist out there: google Adirondacks, Ticonderoga, Lake Placid, Whiteface Mountain, Bolton Landing, Hague and you’ll get all the information and images you could ever hope for. Until I have something more than that to offer, I will keep it all to myself.
Interesting questions. Maybe the road is there to be described for those who have not travelled it yet? And the people for those that have not met them yet?
Good point, Jonathan. And maybe it’s just me, but I believe that it takes time to digest new sights, sounds, etc., and with the rush to record, we only get superficial information. There is also the mutual exclusivity of observing and experiencing, which is, perhaps, the larger issue.
I can’t help recalling Jack Kerouac’s “The Road” in relation to your post too… where everybody takes something different from the story… or at least, that’s the impression I’ve taken from those I’ve talked with about it.
On the Road is a special case, not easily repeated, and written at a certain time, with literary gusto, by someone with the gift of language, though Truman Capote famously said ‘that’s not writing, it’s typing’!