Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | March 4, 2010

THE WHEELS OF PROGRESS SPIN ROUND AND ROUND

After five days of driving, we were back where we started. We had driven all day, we had driven all night, and then we had driven some more, pretending to sleep on a cot in the back of the van in between shifts at the wheel, until driving was all we were good for. We became robots, born to drive, and any interaction with the world beyond our windshield left us babbling like village idiots, infantile and mystified. The monotony of pointing the van down that endless strip of asphalt was our exclusive forte.

A TV production company had hired my friend Joe and me to drive from Toronto to Calgary, pick up an ultralight aircraft, and tow it back to Toronto.
 
We drove the company van – a V8 Turbo-charged overdrive equipped diesel burning cargo van, the megafauna of vans, the kind destined to go the way of the dinosaurs sooner or later. Until then, however, we could indulge our latent male trucking fantasies. As we tore down the highway, my smog-conscious cyclist persona was quickly corrupted by the under-the-hood power of this beast, the soundtrack to Star Wars echoing Wagneresque through our rapidly devolving minds.

“Westbound, Manitoba…” I wrote in my journal, “I wonder if I could do this forever? Here, in our rocket ship, we blast through a landscape we always knew was there. It holds all the familiarity of an assumption, one based on a steady diet of TV, films, books, maps, classes and hearsay, all geared towards providing us with a picture of this part of the planet. This secondhand picture is so complete, so assuring, who needs to see it firsthand? We could stop this, break this forward momentum, get out and explore, but it holds little appeal compared to the certainty of miles. At 100 km/h, we’ll be in Kenora at 7:30, in Winnipeg at 9:30, in Brandon at 11:30 – road progress, unlike life progress, is so easy to chart, so predictable, and accomplished with such little effort. That is, unless we stop. We mustn’t stop.”
 
But our turbo-charged armor proved useless against one thing: all that land. The automobile, for all its seeming speed and power, is dwarfed by the overwhelming expanse of the land. Time blurs and stretches, like the land you hurry through. To drive in Canada, one must return to the patience of an earlier age. The longer you drive, the more you regress. If you go long enough, far enough, you stand the chance of entering the sacred world of the pilgrim.
 
I notice the sunset when I drive. I observe the sky transmuting through colours I never dreamed could wash the firmament – hues of translucent purples and greens – and realize the sky never stays still, not for a moment. The moon rises fat and orange like the headlights of an avenging trucker from the highway directly ahead. The landscape spins by like the panoramas of old, looping over and over.
 
I offer music chosen with the tenderness of a lover into the cassette player and let the soundtrack begin to the movie beyond the glass. Music and movement, time and space: twin aspects of the same birth. We have always instinctively united them, through dance, songs of the road and work, and lately through the music video, cinema, and – perhaps the greatest of all – car audio.
 
Out of the boredom of long driving springs creative impulses long forgotten to modern humans. Having nothing left to entertain you, you become the entertainment. The art of conversation is revived. Games involving cows or hydro poles are invented. You attend to the neglected pleasures of reading and writing, singing and sketching, or simply reflecting. Out of the motion around you is born a tranquility; you sit in the eye of the storm, calm and detached. (Are we moving forward, you think, or are our wheels pushing the land by, the globe a giant hamster wheel?)
 
In Canada, the supremacy of the automobile pales against the vastness of space; lost on deserted highways, the interminable crackling of the radio between stations, the engine sputtering on a dry gas tank.

Back in Toronto, the illusion of progress was revealed; five days of driving and we were back where we started. The drone of our machine had lulled us into a false sense that we were getting somewhere, when really we had just come full circle.

Copyright Sean Butler 2003

Published in The Ottawa Citizen,  Oct. 5, 2003

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