Topic #3 – Time and Space
When I was a little kid, I used to play a game where I’d plan elaborate voyages from my home in New Jersey to some distant spot on the map, taking with me only what could be ordered from the Sears catalogue. If you don’t remember that famous bible of mail order, it was pretty amazing. About the size of the Boston phone book, with tissue thin pages, it put a price on almost everything. There was a time you could even by a house from Sears – they’d deliver the materials and instructions to your little plot of land in Wherever, USA and the rest was up to you.
So the game went like this: I’d map out the route using a big atlas, then make elaborate, detailed lists of the stuff I’d need to bring. Camping equipment, fishing gear, clothes, first aid kits, guns (lots of guns), ammo, tarps, rope, tools, transistor radios, etc. It was actually a lot of work. And I wouldn’t stop until every single last contingency had been addressed. At least to the satisfaction of my fourth grade mind. Here, probably, was the genesis of my packing problem. And the first, unmistakable signs of what would become a magnificent and life defining OCD. Undiagnosed, I should add but…I report, you decide.
Anyway, almost everything. But not quite. There were some gaps in the Sears bible that complicated my game to the point where it sometimes got nearly impossible. I remember, for example, not being able to find a boat big enough to transport me and all my imaginary purchases to an island in Lake Huron. So I ended up selecting two aluminum skiffs, “lashing” them together with my imaginary rope, then agonizing over how I was going to sync the necessary second outboard motor to a uniform throttle. The strangest boy in the world. Until Bill was born.
These mostly harmless diversions were informed by what I then had available to me: an Atlas of North America, the world’s most eclectic mail order catalogue and brain damage. My choice of destinations were usually of the close-your-eyes-and-point variety. And because I grew up in New Jersey, the most densely populated state we have – then and now – traveling almost anywhere else presented very good odds of encountering many fewer people per square mile. I counted on that. And also, always, on traveling alone. A one man moon shot.
So…on the day we barreled West through Minnesota and South Dakota and put behind us all the places I’d ever been before, I suddenly started thinking about that super weird little kid and his trips to the moon and it began to dawn on me that he’d actually done it. That goofy little misfit had actually packed a function of the whole Sears catalogue and left. And, as it turns out, all the planning and worrying I did for this trip left me as unprepared as if I’d put that fourth grader in charge.
Because I had no idea. About this place. At all. The United States is enormous. And it is almost otherworldly to someone like me who has spent his whole life on cheek-by-jowl, quarter acre lots on the East coast. The scale of everything changes as you head West. On our first day we drove from Collinsville, Connecticut to Cleveland, Ohio. That was roughly 575 miles. If we had aimed North instead that day we would have ended up so far into Quebec that there would have been a good chance we’d never have been seen again. Much less had an expensive steak dinner the first night. And the farther from home we got, the less the total mileage seemed to matter. We were covering some pretty crazy distances some days without seeing much in the way of civilization as we knew it. Or sometimes even changes in the topography. The liberal Interstate speed limits (which Bill liberally ignored) contributed to my disassociation from an old reality as did the time of day, which was consistently on our side as we crossed from Eastern to Central to Mountain, etc. I finally stopped thinking about my watch. And the utter vastness of the landscape started to seep in and alter my perception of my place in it.
And that got me to thinking about how the landscape shapes the way we think. My trip didn’t change my views on the urgent necessity of revolutionary gun control or the folly of an unsustainable profit-only economy based on poisonous, non-renewable extraction. But it did help me understand how other people could easily have developed a completely different perspective on those issues. If you live in rural Wyoming, where you can literally drive for an hour without seeing another car, it might be hard to understand why anyone would care if the government leases your back yard on the cheap to Exxon-Mobil so they can drill for gas under it. Because your back yard might go all the way to Utah. And the oil companies are the only employers within a hundred miles anyway. Or where the fuss about guns comes from. In that part of the country, people go hunting on their way to work. There could very well be an average of two firearms inside every pickup truck West of the Missouri. And these are nice people. Lovely people, most of them. Simply living the life in front of them. They’re just over-represented in congress.
And a word about my own inexcusable ignorance here. How is it that I was so amazed by this place? How did I get this old without knowing…anything? I watch the History channel and Discovery. I read a lot. None of that spoiled the surprise, apparently. It was embarrassing, actually. Embarrassing that everybody was so nice. Embarrassing that everything was so beautiful. Embarrassing that I had to find things to complain about so my posts would be more interesting. I had a lot to learn, as it turns out. And now, a lot more to think about.
One random tangent – because I’ve been thinking about this too.
Now that we’re home, it is clear to me that it was Bill who actually made this thing happen the right way. The guy who packed in five minutes and planned ahead each day thereafter with about the same accidental deliberation. But who needed and appreciated and enjoyed this trip every bit as much as I did. Who kicked us over the Missouri river. Who drove our rental car like a pony express rider – hard, but not too hard. Who broke rules so gently that they were re-formed behind him. Who instituted and enforced the daily exercise requirement. Who drove and hiked like his life depended on it. Who coordinated all the music. Who was thoughtful and patient and hilarious company. Who called me on my OCD exactly on schedule – twice daily. The gentleman on this trip. If he’s the best man at your wedding, you’re in good shape.