Navarro River, reaching the Pacific, March 2014

Thinking at three miles an hour: A Canadian on the road

Navarro River, reaching the Pacific, March 2014

by Andrew Cardinal.

Intimations of endless space in the desert - southeastern California - March 4, 2014

Intimations of endless space in the desert – southeastern California – March 4, 2014

I am amazed by the immensity of the world, and by how quickly we can traverse it. It has taken me two months to drive from southern Ontario to the foothills of southern Alberta, and it still feels like the continent has flown by. I could have covered the land between in two days in the same car, or in a few hours by plane—but distance is too complicated to be explained by metres and miles. In the last two months of my travels, the direct road and the path that seemed best were rarely the same. The cartography of this trip is a human geography, and its route is very specifically shaped by its traveller’s social experience. John Steinbeck wrote in a deeply sympathetic vein that when the virus of restlessness takes hold of a wayward man, the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet. I have covered some of the same ground that Steinbeck drove on his travels with Charley; but he travelled as an anonymous observer in his own country. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s youthful pilgrimage—on foot, through unfamiliar lands, to Constantinople—shaped largely by whim, gained intermediate destinations as acquaintances invited and referred him to hosts along his way. This trip of mine is a voyage of reunion, from haven to haven across a broad continent; and the road that seems straight and sweet leads not along the thick line of a highway, but from one old friend to the next.

Following this road in the last hours of a thousand-mile drive from Norman, Oklahoma to Tempe, Arizona, I left the interstate highway at sunset and made my winding way into the Phoenix valley through deepening dusk. As signs and side roads appeared from the darkness and swiftly vanished with the passage of my headlights, I began to think what a strange creature of circumstance a trip is. What if Leigh Fermor had walked across Europe in 1934 keeping company only with peasants and tramps, as he had first planned, and not had his route reshaped by invitations to a string of aristocratic houses? What if I were not driving from the University of Oklahoma to Arizona State—from one academic reunion to others? Without deviating from the course I had taken, I could have easily been on an entirely different trip.

Each of these small Arizona roads led to places as real as the one I sought; and between them were other places, destinations to feet if not to cars; and any of them could be where I was headed. Crossing landscapes very quickly doesn’t make the world smaller—it only collapses the time between destinations. When I accelerate past the walking speed at which my thoughts move, the places between where I am and where I’m going become indistinct. I miss most, because I’m not really moving through them. The hugeness of the world engulfed me, musing on my solitary drive, and I thought of it with a lasting thrill as I hastened ever downward, sharing the night with all that multitude of places.

Red Oklahoma soil, waiting for spring - February 27, 2014

Red Oklahoma soil, waiting for spring – February 27, 2014

Red mesa and rain clouds - western New Mexico - February 27, 2014

Red mesa and rain clouds – western New Mexico – February 27, 2014

Taking up Rory Stewart’s phrase, my mind groups these destinations of other trips as the places in between. Fleeting impressions of them, passed on the road from one place of pause to another, stick in my memory. The grasses and ploughland of central Illinois stretched on and on under pools of February melt and dwindling snow, washed rather than warmed by rich, low-slanting, late afternoon sun. The light shone on exposed ridges in fields to the east while snow sheltered in furrows I could see to the west: a brown world on my left, and a white on my right. I remember a Midwestern sky coming to life at sunset, reticulated by wavering lines of birds in uncounted thousands, their formations extending until distant flocks looked like swiftly deforming wisps of cloud. The daylong drive from Norman to Tempe left scattered, representative images of landscapes: red earth; evangelical billboards; a crowded Oklahoma feedlot; gully country with heavy erosion beneath what looked like sedimentary capstone; extreme and jarring flatness in northern Texas; New Mexico mesas, like those that marched with me across hundreds of miles. In the flatlands of the Southwest, as Leigh Fermor had been among the snowy polders near Rotterdam, I was filled with intimations of limitless space. Later, on the slow road

Roadside view in the Redwood Parks, in northern California, with the Beagle included for scale

Roadside view in the Redwood Parks, in northern California, with the Beagle included for scale

up the coast, glimpses of surf-washed beaches far below stranded in my mind. And among California redwoods that seemed unearthly giants to my foreign senses, I felt reassurance and comfort. The destinations where I paused for days or weeks became familiar by degrees, known as webs of place, densely populated with impressions. But most of the world I have passed, overwhelming in its immensity, is filled with the traveller’s fleeting realities—the places in between.

For more of Andrew’s travel writing visit his blog: Andrew in the World

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Andrew Cardinal travels and studies travel narratives. He recently completed a Master's in History at the University of Western Ontario.

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