Day 145: On Traveling, Memories, and Constructing Towns

by Tom Noonan

San Francisco is a long way away from Philadelphia.  Even by plane you can feel the mileage, the air, the history you’re skipping over, the plains down in Kansas, stretching on like a quilt blindly stitched together, that you’ll never set foot on.  We sat up front on our first flight, not in first class.  We flew Southwest, so just up front.  We got there first, my parents and I, so we chose the seats with the most legroom.  The flight attendants liked how light our shoulders looked, us on vacation, and went out of their way to refill our drinks more than once.  Apple juice and ice; I had to cut them off.

We got to the airport in Philadelphian earlier this morning around 5:55 AM but had obviously missed a news alert because it was already packed with dozens of people lugging around suitcases and duffels, giving off the illusion of plans, of control.  I had mine too, and let it hang slack and needy from my shoulder.

Approaching security, an NSA worker smirked in our direction, “Happy Friday,” she laughed at us, knowing full well our minds had jumped from baggage check directly to cloud-piercing escape.  We were suddenly a punch line, and I slowly realized that was kind of the point.  All this traveling we planned out, switching flights in Denver, aiming clear-eyed towards San Francisco, was taking a little part of us, something we would never fully realize we’d lost.  That’s what traveling on world-shriveling machinery does to us; it snatches up the psychological landmarks we’d normally affix to a physical map.  When we skip completely over states and time zones, we don’t just lose hours; we lose stories.

Sitting in the Denver airport, a building that looks exactly like the one I left behind in Philly, and close to the one I’d seen a few times before in Newark, I begin to wonder which version of the world is better, ours or the one that existed before these convenience machines.  My thoughts definitely weren’t alarmist.  I love being able to ship myself off to San Francisco or England or somewhere those wagon dwellers never could’ve imagined.  I guess it’s just difficult to come to terms with your own willful avoidance of humanizing experiences.  We’ve been promised the ability to know the whole world but end up fast-forwarding through most of it in the process.

And how do we choose which parts to skip over, to merely glance at?  We use tour books, reviews, advice from strangers.  In the end, it feels like we’re all just seeing the same world, the best vacation spots, those faces in a mountain, a handful of castles.  Shouldn’t all of our worlds be different?  Mean different things?  Maybe this is what the punch line means, that we’re not shrinking the world; we’re simplifying it, making jarring immensity into a cheat sheet.  But what test are we trying to pass?

Don Dilillo wrote about this trend brilliantly in White Noise, lamenting the death of a red barn’s identity after it had been deemed a tourist attraction.  Without the book in front of me, and lacking the virtue of a Wi-Fi connection, I am paraphrasing from memory here, but Dilillo has one of his typically analytical characters prescribe the problem, the reason the barn isn’t alive anymore, as its visitors’ inability to actually see the barn. The character makes note that those who visit the barn are only seeing what everyone who came before had said about it, had seen in it, and had written about it.  The barn was incapable of accepting a new story because there was only one narrative to its flawless red paint job.  When we go to places like this, we’re looking into someone else’s memory instead of expanding our own.

Think about your hometown.  Think about its infrastructure, its roads, its buildings, its rocks.  Think about that map you’re using, the one in your head.  Think about how it was drawn, how you built it up from scratch.  Think about the separation between the physical and the psychological on it, how that separation is gulfing.

When we’re given these places without context, we’re left free to tear them down and rebuild them as our own.  We give them new coordinates, new directions, new sizes.  Your grade school may seem infinitely larger than where you went to high school even if they were roughly the same size.  Your house shrinks as you get older.  Everything, over time, starts to feel like it belongs to you.  You give these places an original definition, the park where you broke your wrist, the 7-11 where you found an Allen Iverson card hiding quietly among a slumbering stack of Topps packages, that shower where you lost your virginity.  After a while, the town starts to look more like a story than a collection of buildings, and you could never hope to explain that story to anyone.  It’s just there, not exactly hidden, more blending in, painted onto the houses, reposing on park benches.

I’m not saying we need to have a connection like this with all the places we travel, I’m fairly convinced that’s not possible, but I am starting to look for a rewind button.  It just seems like a waste of time to visit other people’s memories, but it also feels downright lazy.  There’s a reason the phrase, “That journey changed them”, sat comfortably next to the notion of Manifest Destiny, and it’s the same reason I find myself looking around this airport for a wagon and a dirt trail.  I’m ready to build a few new towns.