The car’s gas gauge swings from full to empty. In a city, you can at least get a sense you’re accomplishing numerous tangible things on a tank of gas: shopping, commuting, running errands, going to the gym. On this flat interstate thruway, however, hours pass and little changes. I know from signposts I’m advancing towards a destination, but only exhaust-tinted snow and skeletons of trees line this grey march.
My hometown of Victoria, BC is a plane ride behind me, yet what’s happening seems so consummately local. Indeed, every reader everywhere, I imagine, has experienced it. Travelling this way for business or pleasure is a deeply integrated part of the fabric of our communities. It’s one of those routines that’s rarely newsworthy in itself, yet influences our political policies on trade, transit, taxes, the Olympics budget and Middle East wars.
My eyes bob tiredly back into my skull. Every exit demands more tolls, so I roll into another generic thruway “service center”, where several franchise outlets offer donuts, pizza, subs, coffee or burgers. I undo the cardboard and paper that have just served their 30 seconds of purpose, and drink from the plastic bottle which will have several minutes more of use. My eyes relax and re-awaken in the relative stillness, but I know from experience now the mental jolt of these refined carbohydrate, high sugar, salty meals will leave me crashing and needing more within the hour.
I should have brought food, but travelling far and quickly in this way, pitstopping at friends’ and motels, drives one almost inexorably into a particular lifestyle. There’s rarely place, time, ingredients or equipment to properly prepare, cook or eat decent food. It’s usually a daunting task to even find restaurants with truly healthy options. So, emptied drink and food containers pile up wherever you stay, as you cut a trail through over-laundered sheets, over-bleached washrooms, under-used soap bars, and hydro-gobbling clothes dryers. Even the feeblest attempts at holistic living and environmental responsibility become roadkill. Sleep and activity schedules slip outside your control, adapting to rapidly changing circumstances. The brain becomes increasingly uncreative and sluggish through the constant disruption and exertion, and one is by then definitively gripped within the thoroughfare of mainstream corporatized culture. At that point, whatever is easiest to hand, serves.
Through the service center window I’m transfixed by a giant, parked transport truck. Its side hollers “PEANUT CHEWS”. I’ve never heard of the pictured candies. But I’m fascinated by this imposing example of how whimsical desires for trivial, needless products can become billion-dollar industries driving our economy; driving trucks at high speeds in all directions.
I fill the tank, get back into the car, crank the radio, adjust the heat and merge back into traffic, pondering the hundreds of thousands of years it took to create the oil through which this car is burning in a matter of hours.
I hesitate to fly, and rarely rent cars; I usually feel like I need more than just a whimsical craving to justify such a huge expenditure of resources, regardless of the personal economic costs. So this trip is as packed as I could get it with old friends, work contacts, research tasks and meeting online acquaintances.
Nevertheless, as I participate in it, high speed travel seems a perfect metaphor for our culture’s destructive side. We’re frequently obsessively trying to get “somewhere”, either in physical or psychological senses, and trying to satiate these desires quickly. Simultaneously, the astonishing levels of efficiency and abundance within which we live in North America give us illusions of being able to succeed at such efforts, and sustain them renewably. You can always get another slice of pizza, another tank of gas, another peanut chew. The meter will temporarily read “full” again. And if even racing across plains and mountains, which a century ago required months to traverse, at a life-changing 110 km/hr isn’t enough for you, there’s another passing lane ahead. After all, going more slowly merely prolongs the struggle for gratification, right?
Unfortunately, our focus on getting to these immediate satisfactions is numbing us to the longer, more important arc of what’s happening to our environment, our society and ourselves as we keep going and going. We’re draining a tank that cannot be refilled. And it seems we can scarcely imagine turning this ship, let alone stopping it, so we hope human ingenuity will instead come up with another quick fix, like a hybrid car to buy.
Underneath that, many do understand the real problem. It’s a cliché, but it’s true that when we live like this there’s no time to explore or discover or smell the roses. No time to stop and be profoundly outraged about those filthy brown rivers I keep passing. Nor to enjoy the sound of the wind crossing snowy, open fields. Nor even time or energy to stay in any one place long enough to truly meditate, perhaps transformationally, with each successive friend who comments that, in summer, the smoggy air in these warming, humid eastern cities can be so difficult to breathe… though as long as we stay indoors, they say, as long as we don’t try to do anything, as long as we have bedroom air conditioners, the worst days pass without undue pain…
Where in god’s name are we driving ourselves?
I pull onto the shoulder and just lie down. It feels good.
written while travelling through southern Ontario and the eastern United States. from Focus, June, 2008.