Note: Before becoming distracted by personal issues I was going to enter a writing competition on travel and how slowing down the mode of transport enables the adventurer a chance to learn about foreign peoples and their culture. Missing the deadline of January 15, meant that the essay was languishing unread on my laptop. This is, of course, entirely unacceptable. Here then is the written piece titled:
Walking and Riding in Place.
After a lifetime of traveling as quickly as possible over great distances through various countries across the globe, it seems fitting that this latest journey should take place in the middle of nowhere. Leaving behind all transportation of the motorized variety and relying upon “shank’s mare” or the old reliable bicycle to move from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in one tiny place means a re-think. Although perhaps reprogramming is the better word, but regardless of the action or intent, the idea is the same; downsizing while rediscovering.
In the middle of the Arizona desert lays a smallish burg populated by the few year-round residents and a good number of “snowbirds” and transients. The former all seem to be retirees who are going through some sort of second childhood. The latter all seem to be split into small factions of drug addled vagrants, alcoholics, crazies, new age hippies and some unidentifiable others.
The snowbirds have all manner of motorized, electronic conveyances. They have toys that can take the place of the automobile in all its different forms. The wanderers, aka transients, all walk or ride bicycles, some with hand crafted trailers, and by necessity this group move more slowly across the great arid American landscape.
Moving to this tiny community and slowing down has had the same effect as literally stopping in one spot. Travel has changed from a fast, impatient journey to a specific, or conversely, unknown destination to one so slow that the feeling is akin to walking or running in place.
Travel is now akin to moving on a treadmill or fixed-in-place exercise bicycle. With time shuddering to a stop, the trapped traveller becomes enmeshed in the local population’s life. Faces and lives that would, by necessity, be foreign and fleeting now are familiar.
After living in England for 32 years, the American side of my nature has been diminished. For all intents and purposes I identified, and still do to a massive extent, with the “Brits” in attitude and lifestyle. Getting used to civilization where even the furthest villages from city centres were accessible via bus, or train, or a combination of the above meant the the very space of America was disconcerting.
While a car was used for most of my time there, it was not a necessity. When first arriving, back in the early 80s, I rode my thumb, bussed or took the train or tube to get around. Later, I got my first car and while it was a necessity for a family. after the heart attack and subsequent surgery, the latest model was sold, to pay bills, and once more it was public transport or walking.
Fast forward to Las Vegas and an unscrupulous boss who provides a deathtrap of a vehicle to drive about in and little pay. This same individual who beat up his wife and ignored bills due seemed well on track to stitching up this ex-ex-pat so a quick escape was in order and this former denizen of “real” civilization; where one can get shopping delivered at home, take a “double-decker” to the corner shop or the train to London for some serious spending, fled to the Arizona desert. Once there, I became trapped in Quartzsite, Arizona (the final resting place of Hi Jolly) sans motorized wheels.
This slowing down, of not just traveling mode but also life style, enabled me to become involved to a huge degree in the lives of the locals. The feeling of belonging to a community steadily increased as each day, which consisted of a minimum of 12 miles round trip, allowed a leisurely look at the folk who populate this quaint yet odd little town.
On top of being away from the country of my birth for so long, ending up in this seasonal town, where snowbirds flock to attend a short but intense rock show full of overpriced BBQ and wood-fiered pizza stalls, amongst other costly snack vendors, living here is really like being in a foreign country. Just the scenery of the desert with its myriad of plants and cacti that flower throughout the year easily distract when traveling at a snail’s pace.
Animals that live along the road, and deeper in the desert, are so used to being inundated by scores of the active elderly that most caution toward the two-legged creatures has dissipated. Ground squirrels may still act a bit mad, but after a mad dash to what must feel like a safe distance, the creatures stop and watch as people walk by.
Lizards also move rather quickly, but like their furry compatriots stop and watch placidly. Coyotes come very close although once movement is detected from their human neighbors, they move away. Mountain lions, rabbits deer, bob cats, wild cats and any number of different species of fowl all come within mere feet of their greatest enemy.
Riding to town and back everyday on a red Schwinn allows the traveled adequate time to see any number of beautiful things. During the day, animals, plants, oddly shaped clouds and the odd mirage, not to mention the occasional dust devil.
At night flaming meteors, falling stars, unidentified lights in the dark sky and the random fallen Chinese lantern, laying like some exotic corpse by the roadside. These once majestic fiery sights are damned creepy looking after dark, looking like some weird animal huddled and waiting.
Coyotes are seemingly everywhere after dark. Calling to one another, in packs, it is a bit disconcerting to be walking or riding the Schwinn at night with what sounds like hundreds of coyotes all moving closer and signally their presence with the yipping and howling one associates with western films.
The wildlife is not the only thing one gets closer to. The people who live in Quartzsite year round, and the odd snowbird, all become very familiar. After a year of moving slowly through the local’s lives, one becomes accepted as a part of the norm. Little bits of the denizen’s lives become known and shared willingly.
Moving to Quartzsite a year ago meant a slowing down…of everything. This is a world of “yesterday” where the local folks still stop to watch, or rush outside to experience the sensation of, a monsoon-like rain. The Internet provided by TDS is substandard, a step up from early dial-up (it is also overly expensive for what they provide.) and the only alternative is equally expensive satellite or 4G.
While this enforced slow down can be frustrating and not a little infuriating it does have advantages. The illusion of walking and or riding in one place is a mixed blessing of sorts. Having the time to feast one’s eyes on all the glory of nature makes up for a lot of irritation at the “crappy” Internet.
On the other hand, having the luxury to closely observe the desert also allows one to see just how filthy a lot of these seasonal two legged visitors are. As the population of people increases, so too does the manmade rubbish strewn across the hardpan floor. Plastic bags flutter from cactus tines, like a poor relative to the huge plastic Chinese later carcasses that dot the landscape.
Empty water bottles, plastic vodka bottles, fag ends (dog ends, aka cigarette butts) and empty cigarette packets litter the roadside as do odd bits and bobs of RV life. Bolts, screws, nails, unidentifiable plastic parts and ripped rubber strips from prospector’s tires.
Walking the desert roads, or riding via a bicycle, daily for a 12 to 14 mile round trip may not be the most exciting type of travel, but it is a mode that allows for close scrutiny, intense reflection and a chance for engaging in zen transportation.
This slow mode of transport also allows the traveller to reacquaint himself with this foreign country where the traditions seem odd and the culture has changed from the land he knew in his youth.