The Journey Reconsidered

“How many more miles, daddy?” 

The 1954 Pontiac was well-equipped for a car of its day. Which is to say four wheels (and a full sized spare, usually inflated), bench seats (unheated, and one small step away from ironing board rigidity), ash trays (my father still smoked cigarettes, purchased by the carton, ‘over the river’ and spirited home in the generous sleeves of my mother’s Persian lamb coat, all times of the year), and a reliable, six cylinder engine that burned fossil fuels at a modest rate. 

Our family’s first ‘automatic’ had posed a bit of a steep learning curve, prompting a call to the dealership shortly after delivery with a complaint from my father that ‘it won’t start’ — reference the car’s mute response to a turn of the key on its second day. A driver, well-schooled in the wisdom of ‘leaving a car in gear’ to minimize the risk of its rolling down the nearest hill when left to its own devices, my father had dutifully and reflexively placed the transmission in ‘D’ (just to be safe) for its first overnight in our driveway. 

Guidance was still managed via a collection of paper maps, prepared at source by experts in origami (and never able to be quite replicated)  and stored in the glove compartment — the maps, not the expert — (although I don’t recall ever seeing so much as a mitten therein — the glove compartment, not the map nor the expert). Windows ascended and descended with turns of a crank. Devices to amuse the back seat occupant (aka, me) were comic ‘books’ (with the clear instruction not to risk motion sickness by reading with the car moving). And, for longer trips, a small stash of my mother’s (amazing) chocolate chip cookies, carefully loaded into a repurposed Christmas cake tin and typically sufficiently tightly sealed that the back seat occupant could not prise it open without alerting the front seat passenger. Audio entertainment was limited to an AM radio, connected to the outside world via an antenna, generally telescoped into its fender cavity — to prevent it being savaged in parking lots — and, hence able to ‘tune in’ nothing. This seemed to well suit my father, grateful for the solitude and respite from the hurly burly.

And so travel became about the journey. 

A toss-in paragraph in a novel I’ve just finished reading, set in immediate, post-WWI England, made brief mention of a minor character’s celebration of train travel. Nothing about the urgency and barely concealed irritation or intrusive behaviours of fellow passengers. No toe-tapping or watch-checking to ensure ‘things are running on time’. Instead, the trip became a kind of time-suspended interlude that would take as long as it took. The ‘world’ one entered was equipped (bearing in mind this was mid-1920’s) to meet one’s immediate needs (good seating or even a closed compartment, ‘dining car’ amenities perhaps). It became an occasion to introspect with points of departure and destination removed from consciousness — at least for a time — leaving the opportunity to essentially ‘just be’. 

From the mid-50’s rolling along in that cream coloured pod of my parents — with little else to do but gaze at the passing landscape — to any number of modern echos. Trains in particular have been host to that state, wherein the pressures and demands of our normally purposeful and directed activity are simply moth-balled; and we’re held completely captive to the surrounds of this moment, in most cases, these hours — with naught to do but engage it (or them). 

High speed ‘bullets’ are a favourite. Traversing the breadth of France from Aix to Paris was a first experience. Travelling in this quiet ‘seam’ between the early morning launch from the country’s southeast corner — but before being dropped back into it, Gare de Lyon, then navigating the Métro at rush hour — gifted 3 hours of suspended bliss. 600 or so kilometres, moving in the upper 200’s, rekindled early memories. The odd paradox of moving through space, but removed from it, free to look and appreciate, but absent any of the compulsive, purposeful participation that occupies so much of our  time. 

Giving oneself up to the space and time, to reflective moments, is a rarity it seems. Distractions, intrusions, the imperative pull ‘to do’, and to schedule our days is typically consuming — leaving precious few ‘remnants’ to spare. Leisure itself is often fully ‘booked’, slotted in along with all the other diarized entries. Discovering venues where this is not the case, finding those surreal gaps, wormholes connecting one obligation to the next with ‘nothing to do’ serve as reminders to distance from not only multi-tasking, but from tasking itself. A 30’ sit, an ‘aimless’ jaunt on the bike. . . or a train ride are the quiet presents we can give ourselves. Restorative, grounding, ‘pointless’ — but increasingly necessary.

My father’s gentle response to my backseat query: ‘Not sure. . . but we’ll get there when we get there’.