Distance, Time, and the Eye Of The Beholder

In Travels With Myself on August 4, 2013 at 11:05 pm

I am becoming somewhat obsessive about orientation and location. I keep checking my maps to see where I am, to guess how far it might be to some arbitrary next checkpoint or landmark, to try to figure out just how long it might take me to get there. I already know that I will stay on US 20 all the way back to Sturbridge, MA, except to perhaps take a short section of the Mass Pike around Springfield. I also know that I will be on the road at least two more days before I see Putnam. I am thinking that there are two reasons for this.
The first, and probably least important, reason is that the countryside is becoming more populated and busy as I have gotten out of the rural areas of the Midwest. Small towns run more closely together and their town centers are larger and more crowded. I am not so often alone on the road, but share it with more small vehicles rather than large trucks. There is more signage, both on the highway itself and along the roadside giving information about business, attractions, and local features. The result is that I have more to capture my attention, so I can’t just get into the groove of driving, feeling a part of the country I’m traveling through, letting my mind wander or think about much of anything other than whether I am still on course or how much progress I’m making. This is made harder by a confusing array of local, state, national and interstate routes all intersecting and crossing each other, so that there are times when a single post might have as many as eight or more route signs and two or three arrows pointing in several directions.
Also, the experience of time passing is different now than before. On those long stretches of road through the plains, I often found myself amazed at how far I had traveled because I hadn’t seen anything to mark my passage. Now, there are so many things to mark the way that I am amazed that I haven’t gone much farther than I have. Since not all maps have distances marked along the major and secondary routes, I am sometimes left to guess at how far I’ve gone; and I usually guess that the distances between points on the map are smaller than they actually are; so I think that someplace must be just ahead when I am still 20 miles or more away.
The second reason is that I am getting closer to home. This part of the country feels more familiar. I know the end point of this road and have driven a major section of it often; so I keep projecting my trip forward to that point and trying to sense the erosion of distance as I drive towards it. I don’t think that this is the same as wishing time away. I’m not so much trying to make my trip shorter than it will be, I’m just trying to get a sense of placement relative to the things I know.
This wasn’t a problem for the first two-thirds of the trip, because I was moving away or moving parallel, so the actual distance or my specific relationship to it was less important. I was so disconnected from home by the physical separation and by the sense of movement away, at first; and by the sense that I had gone as far away as possible, when I had reached the Pacific; that the exact measurements didn’t matter. I was out there on my own, and no matter what happened home had nothing to do with it.
In my first entry I used the metaphor of reaching escape velocity, of breaking free of the gravity exerted by home. I can see home now, in my mind’s eye, and I am beginning to anticipate getting back into a familiar orbit and planning my reentry into my native atmosphere. I will write more about this as I complete the journey, but I believe this is a natural response for people who have not traveled extensively or very far. I have traveled so often in New England that it almost doesn’t feel like travelling at all to go up to Burlington, VT, or the coast of Maine. Central Massachusetts is a short trip for a summer afternoon. Rhode Island and Eastern Massachusetts are in the neighborhood. I drive them without even thinking about the distances or the time unless I have some other agenda that demands it. Only map-makers and literalists think of time and distance as fixed. For the rest of us, they are as arbitrary and mutable as the perceptions of our hearts.

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