This fascination with motion is the central thing. Travel and transit, the celebration is not of destination but of journey. Whether on foot or on scooter, on bicycle, airplane or maglev, the undeniable appeal of going somewhere bonded with the desire to leave this place creates a sense of excitement rarely rivaled. The main holidays, worldwide, involve some huge amount of travel, as most of the world goes to see people they are too far from the instant they are able.
Not strange then that we romanticize the means of transit, is it? From America’s car stories to the long trail rides of cowboys, there is a love affair among us not only with the motion but with the vehicle or steed. The spaceship, the rocket, the car, the train.
“I dream of touring like Duke Ellington
in my own railroad car,”
says Ani, and I know what she means. Even on crowded Chinese trains, crammed in between cars and forced into standing with a half dozen smokers and a set of doors I’m not allowed to open there’s a beauty to train travel. It is hard to write with all the rocking, though it’s possible to type, and the bathrooms overflow onto the floor. Still, if there’s somewhere I have to go domestically I’m in the queue at the station, looking for a ticket on those rails.
In Japan, I slept through my stop on the Saikyo dozens of times, one night walking home from Kawagoe, the end of the line, at almost two am. I slipped in the door at four, glad to beat the rain, and willing to do it again the next day. I loved living on the Saikyo line, despite its deserved notoriety for chikan and the evening salary-man-drunk-crushes. I was happiest, in some ways, sipping canned whisky and water on the platform at Akabane, waiting for the nine twenty eight train home after a long Tuesday at work. Five years later when I think of Tokyo I think of the trains and the views they afforded me, twenty two and curious.
The fascination with my electric scooter endured through hundreds of repairs, cracked casings, broke brakes, and pieces of it falling away month by month, exposing the bare metal beneath. Despite being stranded one night after a dodgeball game, a mile or two from home in a strange part of town, stuck waiting on a curb in the heat of August for a man I’d woken from sleep to put in a new converter, I loved that scooter.
People asked me often, what’s it like, don’t you hate the battery, how long does it take to charge? The answer always disappointed them: a long time, first six hours, then eight, by the end too hard to find a power outlet for that long without taking the battery out, all seventy five pounds of it, and carrying it up to my apartment, or office. I loved it despite these things. Despite losing both rear view mirrors, cracking the headlight, destroying the sides. Despite its horrible unwieldyness in rain, spilling me out onto the street on the white stripes of zebra crossings again and again. Against all those things stood my freedom, the sense of wonder and invincibility, youth and daring, flying through Shanghai’s streets, staring up at buildings and pedestrians, dodging taxis and bicyclists, early in the morning for breakfast or a few beers in on the way home. I love it, I’d answer, I can’t imagine living here without it. And I couldn’t, the days before it a strange mishmash of other forms, all those hours crushed on the busses, or running for them. Through all of my life in Shanghai two wheeled vehicles remain a high point. The various bicycles, Sanch’s oft-broken gas-powered scooter, and the two plastic electric ones together, granted me an entirely different city to explore.
There are similar stories, this one is not unique. Friends who named their first cars, friends who have named their fourth, who care for them and relate tales of their personalities. Of ships, named for as long as we can remember, with captains who would die with them, or at least consider it. While we may be, as a culture, a people of intractability and motion, of discontent and the continual attempt at perfection, we are also a culture of worship, of object desire and anthropomorphism. At thirteen, fresh returned from a trip to Telluride I spent all of the money in my savings, some hundreds of dollars intended for college or another grand idea, on a snowboard, fetishized and loved, given a bag hand-made for it, and stored reverently each time. Covered in stickers and soon in scrapes and dings, the first purchase of any weight was, as it is for many of us, a means of transportation, even if a frivoulous one.
As many before I have noted, it’s not the destination but the journey that remains, years later. I agree, even on a shrunken scale, to late night rides and complete disasters, to asking policemen for directions and pushing cars towards gas stations.
Quoted lyrics from Ani DiFranco’s ‘Self Evident’ off of her 2002 live compilation, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, used with appreciation.