My Lifelong Addiction to Road Trips
As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, travel for many is still a faraway dream. But Ian Frazier reminds us that there’s no more promising feeling than hitting the road, windows down, hair blowing, full speed ahead.
The longer I sit still, the more I yearn to move. The pull of motion isn’t a calm desire; it’s a nagging that builds up until I imagine that it enters the couch or the bed I’m on. I can’t stand lying there another second. Then I wonder if the bed, itself infected with yearning, has begun to move. It creaks as if it’s about to start. The key moment, the passing between the two states—from motionlessness to motion—will be almost undetectable. I keep watching for it. Is the headboard just slightly farther from the wall than it was a minute ago? We know that all beds secretly want to fly.
I grew up in Ohio, the centrifugal state. For no reason I can explain, Ohio takes people who were born there and spins them around and flings them in every direction. It’s no accident that the first man to fly, the first American to orbit the earth, and the first man to stand on the moon all came from Ohio. I come by my radical, excessive footloose-ness honestly, from my constantly spinning Ohio childhood. As kids, my friends and I roamed the local woods; by the time we were in junior high, we had started to hitchhike. In my late teens, I walked to the Ohio Turnpike, climbed the fence, stuck out my thumb, and ended up in Wyoming or Boston, almost on a whim, depending on whether I chose the westbound or eastbound lanes. Today, as an ex-Ohioan—a flung Ohioan—I am just as restless. My basic idea of how to get somewhere is to jump in the car and drive there, whether it’s to the store or to the edge of the tree line in Canada. I would rather drive for 20 hours than fly in a plane for three. But in the end, I’ll settle for any transport that will carry me.
Sometimes in everyday life I ride a commuter train. The New Jersey Transit, which serves our suburban town, has a lot of double-deckers, and when one of these is in the station in New York, the view from the lower level presents you with the boarding platform at shoe-top height. On the other side of the window, inches away, is the yellow zone at the edge of the platform, with its grid of little round bumps to keep people’s feet from slipping. Black, stenciled letters next to it say Stay Behind Yellow Line. The train doors make their ding noise and slide shut.
For no reason I can explain, Ohio takes people who were born there and spins them around and flings them in every direction.
Then, with almost imperceptible slowness, the no-skid bump on the other side of the window, the particular one I’m concentrating on, starts to move backward. I switch my gaze to another bump; it’s also moving backward, but slightly faster. I try to hold my focus on individual bumps as they come into view, but then they all accelerate into a yellow blur and lose their physicality like fish in a blender. For a moment the transition is painful. Only after the train has entered the blackness of the tunnel do I relax and enjoy the speed.
I think about another train, one that I rode in Siberia. Some years ago, I was driving across Russia with two Russian guys. Back then the road did not go all the way across but ran out at a remote Siberian railroad-junction village called Chernyshevsk. To this day it is the worst place I have ever been. At Chernyshevsk, travelers had no choice but to put their cars on the train if they wanted to continue across a 560-mile swamp between the village and where the road resumed. Hundreds of cars had been waiting for days for a place on the train. In and near the station there were swarms of sinister, crew-cut Russian guys and begging, heartbreaking, rapacious children, and no working bathrooms. There were no public trash barrels. Garbage covered the ground, and large flies as shiny blue as oil slicks buzzed all over. The month was August. We waited our turn to get on the train inside the piping-hot vehicle with the windows closed to keep out the crew cuts and the kids and the flies. After two days we finally got on, in a dark, closed freight wagon. More hours passed.
I will never forget when that train started to move. It began haltingly, after a few lurches and the clatter of the couplings, one after the next—a sound that diminished down the length of the train. Then it started to roll so slowly that it seemed always on the verge of stopping, but never quite did. I had thought we might remain in Chernyshevsk in remote eastern Siberia forever. I never expected such bliss as that first delicious feeling of motion. The train took a day and a half to cross the swamp, sometimes at what seemed about 15 miles an hour. I didn’t care how slowly it went as long as it kept going.
“So long, suckers!” That is what the object in motion sometimes shouts to the objects at rest. The objects at rest shout something back, but the object in motion can’t hear it above the wind in its ears.