Rendered Fat Content


J. M. W. Turner: Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, before 1844
"Distancing seems to open up spaces rarely glimpsed since the transcontinental railroad appeared."

One of my great grandmothers crossed on the Oregon Trail on horseback. The trip took months. Twenty years later, she made the same crossing in a few days by train. If anything most typifies this modern society, ever increasing mobility must be that thing. I remember our neighbors flying to attend a convention when I was small, when jet travel was still a rare and novel occurrence, at least in my neighborhood. Their mom, a slim and elegant woman, wore gloves for the trip and brought back these little packages of three cigarettes they'd handed out for free on the flight. I could see the future from there! Up until last month, planes crammed full of people wearing their pajamas as if they were lounging around on a couch at home, were departing every other minute with fares well under the price of a modest dinner out somewhere. People flew on less than a whim.

We've temporarily traded in our mobility, Distancing in solidarity and/or fear.
One airline has been advertising flights for a penny, with few takers. We're experiencing a disruption in our most prominent obsession. Nobody's going anywhere, and I cannot say that this change, like most backward steps, does not represent an improvement. We pushed and shoved forward so persistently, so continuously, that we as a society hardly bothered to stop for a minute or two to more deeply consider just what we thought we were doing. We firmly believed in the unimpeachable fact that mobility was, indeed, our destiny manifest. I, myself, during the heydays, hopped flights to New York or San Francisco for a single weekend, leaving Friday night then back Sunday evening so as to not deeply disrupt my schedule for the week. I could get in and back out again, catch Bobby Short at the Carlyle, see a hot Broadway show, or experience Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Jupiter Symphony without hardly getting any of the place on me. Mobility enabled me to be an In and Outer, almost just as if I'd never even been there.

I thought nothing of driving five hundred miles on a whim, there and back again with almost no creamy filling between the cookies. In my great grandmother's day, five hundred miles represented a serious commitment. Now, mobility's reduced it to hardly a second thought. Sheltering In Place, I notice the radically different Pace (as I recently noted), and also deeply feel the space between us like I'd not noticed it before. I'd grown increasingly uncomfortable humiliating space and time, balking every time I'd schedule a flight, secretly hoping that it might be cancelled due to weather so that I might simply stay at home instead. When the horizons were still wide open for plundering, I wondered just what we thought we were doing, each morning sky already criss-crossed with vapor trails and that persistent rumbling. Where did we all think we were going?

If absence truly does make a heart grow fonder, would it not make some sense to prolong those absences? My great grandmother was born into a world just introducing itself to steam. She relied upon her dreams to visit back home and she roamed far and plenty wide enough, from her Upstate New York birthplace, to Florida before it was a state, to the Texas Hill Country before the war between the states, to Decatur, Illinois when Lincoln was still in Congress, to Oregon on horseback and back, then into Nebraska Territory in a wagon, then on to Oregon by train. She could have covered her whole lifetime of travel in a long weekend today, though she'd never alight anywhere long enough to say that she'd actually lived there.

Our mobility has allowed us to swoop in without ever having to trouble ourselves to live where we land. We wear perinnlal Just Visiting signs around our necks like a Federal's cred-pack on a string. The Covid-19 virus first appeared here in Colorado up in the high country where tourism is king and people bring the oddest things with them on their ski vacations. Though some had never actually lived there, some almost died there. There always was a cost to our endless flitting around, though we seemed to believe that we could outrun that cost if we just kept moving fast and continuously enough. Now we're home, dreaming of wide open spaces, places that might just be best represented in dreams. A longing revisits, one which cannot be requited by redeeming frequent flier miles. Distancing seems to open up spaces rarely glimpsed since the transcontinental railroad appeared.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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