23 December 2012

Wanderlust: A Short Journey

“On a walking tour you are absolutely detached. You stop where you like and go on when you like. As long as it lasts you need consider no one and consult no one but yourself” – C. S. Lewis’ Dr. Ransom

      Optimistically, I make something like six dollars per hour of actual work as an adjunct English professor. I’m sure people close to me are sick of hearing about this by now, but I keep hoping that someone somewhere will someday do something about this. As a result of my low wages, my fiancé and I share a car that she pays for entirely because she is incredibly generous and makes a little bit (read: about five times) more than I do. Once in a while, our schedules become so convoluted that there is no possible way for us to share the car and both get to our destinations. On one particular day, I was going to have a formal informal meeting with one of my bosses. With the vague idea that my fiancé had an appointment of some kind, I ended up suggesting a lunch meeting at a location close to the place we work. This location also happens to be fairly close to where I live. By fairly close, I mean a little over two miles. 
       Thinking myself fairly fit and capable, I decided that I would simply leave early and walk to lunch. Keep in mind that it is November in Michigan; according to the LED billboard I passed on the way to the restaurant, it was a balmy 34 degrees out. I mean, I survived a five hour, middle of the night layover at a foggy-indoors, basically abandoned, constructed completely of stone, cold-war, unheated train station in Bulgaria when it was, according to the pleasant British travelers I met a bit later, about minus five Celsius outside, so this forty minute walk outside in the middle of a cloudy day in November did not seem the least bit intimidating, particularly since I walk my tiny dog almost every morning, afternoon, and evening regardless of the weather. To be completely honest, though, the weather was really quite pleasant overall, but when I started out, I certainly didn’t think it was going to be enjoyable in any way.
       You see, I had walked the dog a few minutes earlier in just a jacket and discovered that the weather was breezy and rather chilly, so I bundled up in my olive drab, "comrade VandeWaa" coat, put on a navy blue skull cap hat, and tied a black and gray scarf around my face so that only my glasses were showing. I’ll be honest and say that I looked like a stereotypical terrorist, especially since I had my black backpack on; if I had encountered myself, I would have avoided eye contact and walked a little faster.
       After checking my e-mail one last time (I had casually asked the person I was meeting if they might be able to pick me up since it was only a couple miles out of their way but did not receive a response, probably because the e-mail systems at universities are notoriously unreliable), I stepped outside. For the first block, I was incredibly comfortable in my gear. I only ran in to one person, and she averted her gaze and walked faster even though I tried to smile with my eyes. It was also very peaceful; the only real sound was the sweep of easy wind because the road nearby was not busy at all.
       A block later, I came to and stopped at a busy intersection and waited for the light to change. Unfortunately, this loud, busy street was going to be my main avenue of travel. After almost being hit by a car who didn’t realize that pedestrians have the right of way, two older gentlemen passed me at the crosswalk when the light changed. They stared at me uneasily as they walked in my direction, so I smiled and said hello. They smiled and said “hi” back, which was refreshing.
       I checked my phone for the time and realized that I was almost certainly going to be late because I had already been walking for ten minutes and had only progressed a couple of blocks. I squinted and looked off into the foggy distance and realized that a major landmark near where I needed to be was just a barely visible speck, and it was only visible through the fog because of the blinking light on top. Seeing that, I pretty much assumed I would never get there. In fact, every time I checked the time, about two or three times as much time had passed as I expected. Walking, much like drinking, makes the time pass remarkably quickly.
       During my travels on the next block, I ended up passing an extremely large person who I would have assumed was not in any mood to talk. In fact, he was. As I came close to passing him, I thought it would be polite to say something to alert him to my presence, so I said “how are you?” in the sort of casual way that people do.
       “Fine, fine,” the man said. “It’s pretty chilly out today, huh?”
       “It certainly is,” I half laughed.
       The man laughed too.
       “Well, have a nice day,” I said. I was walking at a very brisk pace, so I was a few steps ahead of him after these few words.
       “You too,” the man said with a smile. He was in no hurry.
       I soon came to another intersection but did not have to wait for the light. As I was crossing the street, the driver in the closest car to me rolled down her window.
       “Do you want some gloves?” she asked as she held a pair of black leather gloves out of the still receding car window.
       “Oh, no thank you,” I said through a grin.
       “All right,” she said, smiling as she rolled the window back up. perhaps the scarf was not as concealing as I had imagined.
       As I continued walking, I could feel myself getting uncomfortably warm, so I unzipped my jacket. After another block or so, I took of my hat and scarf and put them in my backpack. I looked at my phone again, and it was almost time for me to meet my boss; I was definitely going to be late. When I looked up, though, I realized that the tiny, blinking speck I thought I would never reach was an enormous cell phone tower that I was only about twenty feet away from. It took me about forty minutes, but I had come far enough to reach my mini-destination. This was incredible to me at the moment because it had seemed so far away initially. On top of this, I felt like I had only really been walking for a few minutes, but it had almost been an hour. In the car, the exact same journey takes less than five minutes, and that is with a Michigan turnaround.
       A lot of thoughts started to condense in my mind the moment I thought about the difference in travel times, and I began to consider some of the things I had recently been discussing with my students in class. We had read a humorous essay by Chuck Klosterman called “Robots” where he suggests that our constant preoccupation with a war against robots is reflective of a deep-seated insecurity about our relationship with technology. In class, I asked my students if we had lost the war against the machines already. At first, they say no. After all, we are perfectly in control of technology, and there aren’t any killer robots trying to murder anyone. Then, I ask them to raise their hands if they own a cell phone – every hand goes up. I ask them how many people drove or rode in a car to get to school – every hand goes up. I ask them who has used the internet for anything in the last twelve hours – every hand goes up. After a brief moment of silence, I ask them what would happen if we turned off the electricity forever starting tomorrow morning – no phones, no computers, no microwaves, no refrigerators, no technology at all; what would we do?
       It might have been the cold or the exercise touching my brain a bit, but I felt like my walk put all of history back into perspective for me: the miscommunications between the British and the colonists in America before any transatlantic wires; the reality of distance before space shuttles, planes, cars, and railroads; and the ties people had to their small plots of land because generations of their family had never moved and probably never really could have moved without making enormous sacrifices and taking incredible risks.
       This walk turned out to be one of those unique moments where a lot of things started making sense. I had walked long distances so many times before. I had known, intellectually, the same things I had come to understand from this short walk, but I knew them differently by the time I finished my tiny journey; I understood them in the core of my being, and when I became aware of my surroundings again, my destination was right in front of me: a restaurant called New Beginnings.

Lewis, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet. New York: Scribner, 2003. Page 18.

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