Who knows what possesses us in those hours between departure and destination. We give ourselves over to it, the road trip, with a reverence we offer few other things, and perhaps because the road trip is so supremely demanding, supremely absorbing, supremely seductive, we cannot help but acquiesce.
Not all journeys are like this. They all have their thrills, their frustrations, but few bring us so casually close to epiphany the way the long drive does. In trains, the multitudes within oneself jostle with the multitudes outside it; the carriage is choked with impatient energies, even the lucky one by the window is pinned in by bars. Planes terrify in their absence of landscape, the disconcerting inability to sense a trajectory of movement. On motorcycles you may not speak to the person whose thumbs rest at your shoulder blades, or whose waist your arms encircle; it is too dangerous. We may walk, but neither for long nor fast enough. The reality of these methods disenchants their romance.
But the drive, for some or many reasons, continues to occupy a particular glamour not only in the imagination, but in the experiences that validate that ideal. In a time in which distant travel has become almost as nonchalant as commuting, the long drive retains some mysterious aspect. Stretched over an expanse of highway and hours, it carries the intensity of the epic.
There is a suspension of time, a transfiguration, unlike any other kind experienced in travel. The silences we fall into on a drive hold a certain tension. The songs we listen to take on the pathos of hosannas.
The road trip is dramatic: every landscape we enter is a looming one, suffused with evidence of a creative force, architectural or mystical (for at its core every road trip is a pilgrimage) that manifested what meets the eye. Therein lies its seductiveness. We cannot look away. We cannot choose to disengage. Even if we sleep our bodies continue to carry the hum of the road. It lulls and wakes us. It paces our dreams.
The road trip in its essence is romantic, and by this I mean not just what happens between people, though I know all too well what a road trip lends itself to – the ways it can free and frighten and surprise. It’s also romantic in the way in which all great things lend themselves to metaphors and the metaphysical. To be faced with the open road is like being faced with the sea.
In my body I carry not only the hum of many roads, but the knowledge that something about the mysterious allure of the road trip lies in its transformative, even cathartic, power. We leave behind. We put distance between. Every journey, even between the same points of departure and destination, is different, and so there can never really be a going back.
Some take trips to nowhere, but I don’t believe in nowheres, only elsewheres. And I know this as I have known every sob that has overcome me, every madness that has risen in me, every hand that has held mine in the transfigured time between origin and denouement: that elsewhere, that epiphany, can sometimes be the journey itself. What it did to us, and what it made us do.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.